CHRISTIAN ETHICS 1

The Basics of Christian Ethics

Simply put, ethics is the study of good and evil, right and wrong. The study of ethics is not the same thing as the study of psychology; psychology deals with behavior while ethics with conduct. Psychology looks into how and why a person behaves the way they do; ethics studies the moral quality of that conduct. Ethics may be either descriptive or practical:

  • Descriptive: examining human conduct in light of standard of right and wrong.
  • Practical: stresses the motives for living up to such a standard.

The study of Christian ethics is different from “philosophical” ethics. A philosophic or purely secular study of ethics makes no allowance for sin; it is studied entirely on a naturalistic basis. Christian ethics examines one’s conduct in light of sin, salvation, redemption, regeneration, and the enabling of the Holy Spirit in living up to a certain standard of conduct.

The study of Christian ethics is not limited to a consideration of man’s duties to his fellow man, but it also includes man’s duties to God, so it is a much more comprehensive study than its secular counterpart. Furthermore, Christian ethics acknowledges that its motivation is not hedonism, perfectionism, or utilitarianism, but rather love, affection, and submission to God.

So at the outset, we realize that the study of Christian ethics is different than a study of ethics in general. The Christian ethicist has a Biblical world-view; he is constantly measuring the totality of his conduct against a Biblical standard rooted in the nature and character of God. This explains the uniqueness of Christian ethics. Since God’s nature and character cannot change, then Christian ethics cannot change; situational ethics is a completely foreign concept to the Christian.

1. The Bible: The Standard, Psalm 19:7—14; Micah 6:8; Romans 7:7, 12; 2 Timothy 3:16—17

(a) The source of all guidance

How do you view the Bible? Believe it or not, within the Church there are many ideas as to the Bible’s place. While every Christian claims the supremacy of Scriptures, it appears to be only lip-service to most of them. And your view of the Bible reveals your world-view. Do you view the Bible as:

  • a collection of very good ideas, wise sayings, and good advice on a variety of subjects, or as
  • a book for crisis intervention; to be used only in emergencies?

Neither view is acceptable for the true believer, yet most believers hold to one or both of these ideas. The fact is, the Bible is to be the rule of life—the standard of living—for Christians. It’s teachings or admonitions are not supposed to be regarded as optional. Regardless of the situation a believer may find himself in, the Bible’s way is to be followed.

Consider what the psalmist said:

The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. (Psalm 19:7)

The Word of God is trustworthy because, unlike the teachings of man, it does not contain ideas based on the latest fads or findings of science. God’s Word is based on His unchangeable and unchanging character; it literally rises above all circumstances and situations and addresses them with complete objectivity. Man is incapable of doing that, therefore his ideas are untrustworthy. That is not to say man can never come up with a good idea. It is to say that in matters life and living, only what the Bible says about a certain subject can be trusted. Verse 12a bears out this notion that man cannot live see his world objectively because he cannot see himself objectively:

But who can discern their own errors?

This foundational truth was recognized by the prophet Jeremiah, as well:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

Furthermore, God’s Word is said to “refresh the soul,” giving “joy to the heart.” And no wonder! Man’s teachings are more often than not burdensome, bringing only guilt and condemnation. But God’s Word, according to the psalmist, “gives light,” meaning it will actually lead you some place and give you something useful, and “in keeping [its teachings] there is a great reward.” What is that great reward? When you are lost and looking for direction, surely the reward is exactly that!

Micah 6:8 may seem like a kind of summary when it comes to how the Bible relates to man’s ethical behavior:

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Now, that is a good standard to live by! God has shown His people what is good in His Word; know His Word and you will always know how to live. There may be some who question the value of Old Testament teachings in the life of the Church. Romans 7:7 and 12 remind us of just how valuable all of the Old Testament is:

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

(b) Means of existence, 2 Timothy 3:16—17

Some people, Christians included, may wonder about the wisdom of a book thousands of years old. There are those who refute what the Bible says about itself by claiming that all “holy books” from different religions more or less say the same things. Is this true? Is the Bible just like all other “holy books?” Or is it the “holy book?” Only the Bible makes the following claim:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17)

The very source of Scripture is the reason for its authority. When you are reading the words of your Bible, you are reading Words from God! Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, men were “carried along,” conveying His thoughts in their own words for others to read.

For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

What are the odds of producing a coherent work with a common theme, employing over 40 authors from all walks of life, writing over a span some 1500 years on different continents and in different languages? What are the odds of this coherent work, made up of 66 smaller works, surviving over the centuries in the face of tyrants who tried to destroy it and skeptics who tried to discredit it? The miracle of the Bible is the fact that exists, makes sense, and continues to change lives.

2. Traditions and practices of the Church, Acts 15:19—21; 28—31; 2 Thessalonians 2:15—17

The foundation of Christian ethics is the Word of God. Built upon the Word of God are the various traditions and practices of the Church. While some evangelicals may bristle at the very mention of “church traditions,” it must be said that church traditions, while not on par with Scripture, are very important in the life of a believer, as long as those traditions are based on Scripture. Consider the advice of the Jerusalem church (kind of like the “mother church” of the New Testament) in regards to Gentile Christians. For a long period of time, the very early church was made up of Jewish converts who carried over many points of Judaism into their new Christian faith. When waves upon waves of Gentiles found Christ and joined the church, some Jewish Christians thought they needed to observe certain Jewish rituals in order to be a part of the Church. Here is the advice given by church leaders, which became the very first “church traditions”:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. (Acts 15:28, 29)

Maintaining a Biblical world-view, essential for the Christian-ethicist, can be helped by regularly fellowshipping at a Bible-believing church that observes solid Biblical traditions. The key, though, is that sound theology is more important than experience. Notice what Acts 15:28 says: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” The church leaders did not base their decision on their own opinions and experiences, but rather on the teachings of Scripture and only after being led by the Holy Spirit.

The importance of church traditions is further bolstered by what Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 2:15—17:

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (verse 15)

The word “teachings” can also be translated “traditions,” and is in many translations. Sadly, many modern Christians regard church traditions as “old fashioned” or “legalistic.” However, they don’t have to be! Church traditions—solid, Biblical traditions—are our heritage, proven principles passed down from generation to generation. In the context of 2 Thessalonians 2, the traditions Paul wrote of were ones based on the teachings of the apostles, which in turn were based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Those kind of traditions are the kind that encourage and build up one’s faith.

3. Personal convictions, Romans 14:1—12; 1 Corinthians 8:1; 9—13

The Christian-ethicist begins with the Word of God. To that solid foundation, he adds Biblical traditions and practices of his Church. Finally, he must live by his own personal convictions. Here is where things can complicated. Is this situational ethics? When one lives by his convictions, is it a case of “doing what is right in his own eyes?” at the expense of doing what is right, period? The short answer is, No, it doesn’t have to be. We can still live objectively while respecting our personal convictions. The case-in-point is an incident in Romans 14.

It seems there were some Christians living in Rome who had carried over into their new-found Christian faith some practices from their past religions beliefs. These practices centered on certain food and drink restrictions and holding certain days of the week as special observances. None of these practices were part of the Gospel or part of the Old Testament.

These so-called “weaker brothers and sisters,” Paul taught, were not to be frowned upon by other Christians, but accepted by them. They were not to be criticized or judged because they held to these peculiar practices.

Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. (verse 1)

Practices which have nothing to do with salvation are “disputable,” and as far as Paul was concerned, were of no consequence.

Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike. Everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind. (verse 5)

Verse 5 is a great principle for the Christian-ethicist to keep in mind. Whatever belief or practice he follows must have been be the result of his own free will, and not a belief or practice foisted upon him by others. As long as the dictates of Scripture are followed and not usurped by a certain practice, then there is room for diversity within the Church.

One thing Paul emphasized in his teaching was the importance of individuality and responsibility. Everybody is different and nobody should be squeezed into any particular mold that somebody else thinks is appropriate for them.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister (verse 13)

In matters not related to salvation, we have no right to pass judgement on a believer who may do things differently than we do or who holds slightly different views from ours. Remember, when it comes to “unimportant” matters, or matters not spelled out in Scripture, if we indulge in them, then we are to do so because we think it is right for us and not because somebody told us we had to. Verse 5 is the principle; if we hold to a certain belief, then it must be because we arrived at that belief on own, of our own free will. As always, though, such a belief or practice must be measured against the Word of God.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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