The Problem of Christian Ethics

Are we doing something wrong with our approach to morality? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

To start off, I am going to be assuming my reader believes in moral absolutes. If you don’t, well that’s a whole other post and this post isn’t about that. We are going to be taking for granted that there are moral truths out there and these truths can be known.

At the start, some moral claims are patently obvious so much so that if you met someone who did not believe them, you would want to steer clear of them. Murder is wrong. Rape is wrong. Love your neighbor is good. You should not torture babies for fun.

Of course, there are areas of morality that are gray areas that even Christians can disagree on. In the 1st century, it would have involved the celebration of certain days or it would have involved whether one could eat meat offered to idols. Today, there are other questions that we have.

Should a Christian gamble? Yes or no. Can a Christian go to R-rated movies? Yes or no? Can a Christian ever use profanity? Yes or no. Can a Christian dance? Yes or no. How should a Christian behave on a date? When a Christian is married, are there certain activities in the bedroom that should not be done? These are just samples of questions and many more can be thought of.

The problem for us comes when we start talking about Christian ethics. All Christian believe that the Bible contains moral truths. When we’re discussing with a Christian, we can say “You should do X” or “You should not do X” and we can put with it a verse of Scripture to make our case and that becomes an authoritative argument.

Question fellow Christians. How many of you when wanting to make a moral decision consult Muslim sources such as the Koran or the Hadith?

I suspect the answer is “None.”

Why? Because you don’t take it as an authority. If you’re a Muslim, you will take those sources quite seriously. If you’re not, you won’t. Some of you may think it’s not wise to drink caffeinated beverages for health reasons for instance, but you certainly won’t think so because Joseph Smith gave a Word of Wisdom. He’s not an authority. Even if you think he was right, you don’t follow that rule because Joseph Smith said so.

Our problem with morality comes when we have a whole system set up and call it a Christian morality. When we discuss with unbelievers then, we can get something like “I know you don’t think you should have sex before marriage, but that’s part of your moral system. It’s not part of mine.”

To be fair, it might not be part of the unbeliever’s system, but now comes the question. How do you convince the unbeliever? If all you have is the Bible, you’re not going to make a case. Why? The same reason the Muslim won’t make a case to you by quoting the Koran or the Hadith. The unbeliever will say the Bible can be an authoritative guide for Christians, but it isn’t for him.

It is my stance that if anything is a moral truth, it can be known apart from Scripture. If sex outside of marriage is wrong, we don’t need the Bible to know that. We can use other sources. The reason these truths are in the Bible is that God is in essence pointing matters out to us that we might have a hard time discovering on our own. All moral truths can be known apart from Scripture, but frankly, few of us will seriously seek out those truths and it could be in the case of some of us that the intellectual capacity to do so is not there.

Still, if we wish to present our viewpoint in the public arena, we need to use any authority we can to back our case and that means the authorities that our opponents will accept. For instance, if we want to argue that sex outside of marriage is wrong, we can seriously do a study of what sexuality is, what its purpose is in marriage, and look at statistical data on people who have had sex outside of marriage and seen how it affects their personal happiness.

Does that require work? Yep. Sure does.

If we don’t do this, we do end up with a kind of relativism. It is almost as if saying “Jesus rose from the dead is your truth,” or “That Jesus is the only way is your truth.” We end up with saying “That may be your morality, but it’s not mine.” If our moral truth claims are correct, we should be able to establish them using the reason that God gave man as morality is part of the general revelation. Man cannot be punished for doing something that he had no way of knowing was wrong.

Perhaps what we need to do is stop using terms like “Christian ethics” and “Christian morality.” Instead, there is simply morality and Christians do tend to live by some moral principles, but Christians should claim that this is a moral truth available for all people who think on the issue. If we want to be taken seriously in the public square, we can no longer just say “The Bible says so.” We need to say why something is right and why something is wrong and back it with a real argument.

In Christ,
Nick Peters