Making Moral Choices: An Introduction to Christian Ethics


Putting It All Together:
Ethical Decision-Making for the Christian

As stated in the preface of this book, there is a higher purpose for our study than simply the academic analysis of our belief system of Christian morality. Our examination of Christian ethics has as its primary purpose the strengthening of our knowledge of the basis for ethical decision-making, which it is hoped will enable the Christian to make moral decisions consistent with the revealed Word of God. Without practical application, our beliefs remain sterile and impotent, regardless how true they may be. It is the purpose of this book as a whole, and this section in particular, to help guide the reader into the proper framework from which to work in making moral choices in everyday life.

In this section we shall be addressing ourselves to a kind of summary of the truths we have previously discussed and will then consider how to put these truths into practice. The author will attempt to describe the procedure he uses in applying these truths to the decision-making process and will discuss the reasons why he draws the given conclusions. Following this, he will then offer a brief look at several of the frequently asked questions Christians generally propose in discussions on ethics, along with the author’s treatment of these questions and a description of the ways in which his answers have been reached. The questions and answers, however, are designed merely to provide examples of one Christian’s use of the decision-making process and should not be construed as dogmatic responses. The reader is asked to bear that thought in mind as he reads through this section.

Foundation and Motives

When the Christian finds himself faced with the necessity of making an ethical decision in any particular matter, regardless how difficult that decision may be, he enjoys a distinct advantage over the person who operates under a different system of ethics. This is because the Christian knows his ethical system does not consist simply of a list of arbitrary do’s and don’t’s, nor is it founded upon a number of relative and therefore meaningless values that provide no real help in guiding our decisions. Rather, the Christian’s ethical system rests securely on absolute and transcendent values that grow out of the person and character of God Himself.

Since the Christian believes in an infinite and personal God who is a lover of righteousness, he stands aware of the fact that there are ethical and behavioral values that go beyond man and beyond the moment — there are values that are true for all men and for all time, values that prove certain behaviors to be good and beautiful in and of themselves, irrespective of the culture or situation in which they may be met. These values and truths are founded upon the character of God and have been communicated to man through the Law and the Prophets and, finally, through His own Son, the Law made flesh.

But although God has spoken to man and given him truth, the Christian realizes that God has not spoken exhaustively — He has not given man conrete rules to govern every aspect of his life and work. Rather, He has more often taught us principles by which we are to be guided in making our free-will choices in matters about which He has otherwise remained silent. Instead of creating us as mechanical automata, He created us in His image, which includes bestowing upon man the ability to think and reason. God intends for man to use this gift, bestowed on no other creature on earth, to respond to Him in loving appreciation for His atoning work through His Son on the Cross. He expects us therefore to reach most of our ethical decisions on our own out of loving concern for His divine will.

We see then that God has not left man directionless. He has given man truth concerning righteousness through His revealed Word and has given man the perfect example of righteousness in Christ Jesus. He has further given man a religion that is rational and that rests on revealed truth — truth that has been revealed both through the natural world and also through the supernatural via the prophets, His Son, and the Holy Saints and Apostles. And He has also given man a pure motive for following after righteousness: love.

Love is indeed the Christian’s perfect motive. But what some fail to realize is that our motive does not rest so much on our love for Christ as it does on Christ’s love for us. It is His greater love that constrains us and urges us on to strive for righteousness in our ethical lives. His love is the starting place, for it was His love that led Him to the Cross on our behalf even while we were in rebellion against Him. So great a love elicits a response from its recipients. That response is essential, but it is not primary; God’s love for us is primary. We are called simply to respond to that love and offer our lives as a thank offering for what He has done for us on Calvary.

In addition to love, however, the Christian also enjoys the motivation of reward. But this too is closely linked with love, both God’s love for us and ours for Him. The reward motive is often viewed by non-Christians in purely eschatological terms, as though the righteous shall receive special gifts or blessings in some far-off time and place. There is, of course, the eschatological side of reward that awaits the Christian beyond the Judgment, but there also is a present and continuing reward that is immediate. And that is our reestablishment into a right relationship with God the Father through Christ His Son. In this we seek to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

To some Christians, especially those who are very sensitive to the importance of the love motive, the idea of reward as a motive for righteous behavior seems repulsive and denigrating. But this attitude comes from an improper understanding of Christian reward. If we were speaking of reward in terms of a mercenary contract, that would be a repugnant motive for following the beautiful and holy directives of God. But if we allow ourselves to forget all concepts of reward, we let go of our value of life itself.

C.S. Lewis deals with the concept of reward in his essay, “The Weight of Glory.”(1) He points out that there is a difference between a reward that is a mere bribe and one that is intrinsic. A bribe is a reward that bears no intrinsic relationship to the thing done in order to obtain it. For instance, a man may promise someone $1,000 if he will climb to the top of the Empire State Building without using the elevators. In this case there is no direct relationship between climbing to the top of the building and receiving $1,000. A person could climb to the top and not receive any monetary reward whatever — he shouldn’t expect to unless someone had made him that offer. But the reward the Christian seeks is an intrinsic reward; it is that which results naturally from his having walked in righteousness before God. An example that illustrates an intrinsic reward in corporeal terms might be that of a man who wishes to improve his physical condition. Toward that end he engages in a series of exercises. The reward he seeks — improved physical conditioning — cannot be separated from the action he performs; it is intrinsic to the activity. They are inseparable because one naturally results from the other. Such is the Christian’s hope of reward.

It is worth noting that Christ never used the concept of rewards to win people over. Rather, He would remind those who came to Him that He had no place to lay His head and that they should count the cost before becoming His disciples. In spite of this, huge crowds still followed Him. The reward they sought was an intrinsic reward — not a bribe — and it is the same reward Christians today must seek: not the crowning of goodness with some sort of heavenly “prize,” but the privilege of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.

The Logical Process

When the Christian realizes that his religious beliefs are rational, and when he realizes that God expects our service to be in the whole person (which includes the mind), then he may properly understand that we are to approach our ethical decision-making in a rational manner. But while we use a rational approach, we do not attempt to rationalize our behavior — at least not in the common understanding of that word.

To most people, rationalization implies inventing plausible explanations for acts that, in truth, are improper or misguided. In this sense the Christian never rationalizes his behavior. Instead he uses reason (rationality) as a means of understanding God’s will so that he may apply it to his life and behavior. He does not act on reason alone, of course, but he does use reason to read, interpret, understand, and apply divinely given directives. Had God expected less, He would not have communictated to man in rational terms.

Neither do we mean to imply that once the directives are received man is left entirely on his own to interpret and apply them. We are promised help through the Holy Spirit, through the Spirit-indwelt Church, and through prayer. Though we may not expect the kind of help many people anticipate — a kind of mystical endowment of supernatural wisdom or intuition, or a direct and miraculous communication from God Himself — we nevertheless understand that God will help guide us in our decisions. So when a Christian approaches a given question, he approaches it in his whole person — not with the heart alone, nor with the intellect alone, but with both — intelligently and prayerfully.

Once the Christian understands these basic principles, how is he to operate the decision-making process? To answer in a single word, we might say logically. By this we mean that he follows a logical and systematic approach to his decision, beginning with the truths he knows. But perhaps we might better illustrate this by explaining the four essential steps necessary in most ethical decisions.

1. We must first ask whether God has spoken specifically to the question. For some of our decisions this is the only step necessary in arriving at our answer. If Scripture or Canon Law offers us a specific rule that deals directly with the topic in question, then the Christian accepts that as an absolute that is unaffected by culture, time, or situation.

Generally God has provided concrete ethical rules when we are dealing with what might be called essential or fundamental ethical questions, such as murder, adultery, or stealing. On these points Scripture speaks specifically and dogmatically, and we as Christians must accept these pronouncements unequivocally. We see them as rules that cannot be broken under any circumstances without transgressing the law and incurring the guilt of sin.

But having stated that biblical rules are not altered by culture, time, or situation, we must nevertheless recognize that there are certain biblical rules that were given in reference to a specific time or condition. The Levirite law that commanded a Jewish man to become a father by his brother’s widow, for example, would be an example of these types of culturally conditioned rules. In this case the Israelite law has been superceded by New Testament directives — it is no longer applicable to mankind today. In cases such as this we must realize that certain rules were culturally conditioned. Proper study of Scripture and of the Church Fathers should inform us when these cases apply.

When we turn to Scripture to find answers we also must bear in mind that even when it speaks very specifically about a question, it may address the question both in terms of absolutes and relatives. It is important that we understand these two terms and apply them correctly, both in formulating our own decisions and in analyzing others’. As an example, we might consider the question of Christian dress. On this question Scripture speaks quite specifically and directly, for we read in I Timothy 2:9 that “women should adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing.” Here the question of how a woman should dress is answered with the absolute affirmation that she is to adorn herself with modesty. But the application of that rule is relative.

What we mean is this: All Christian women (and men too, for that matter) are obliged to dress modestly. But modesty is a relative quality, for what may be modest in one culture at one time may be immodest in another culture or another time. A woman wearing a typical business suit popular in America in 2012 could very well epitomize the height of modesty in her culture at the present time. Transporting that woman to Elizabethan England would find her being labeled as licentious, for at that time even prostitutes did not casually expose their calves in public. So while the Christian is directed to dress modestly, we are left to determine what constitutes modest dress for our given situation.

Modesty, then, is relative. But behind that relative there rests a very certain absolute that the relative is designed to uphold: chastity. Modesty’s purpose is to preserve chastity. Now chastity is not something that varies with different cultures or times. Whenever or wherever one exists, one is either chaste or unchaste. Modest apparel therefore is that which would promote chastity, whenever or wherever one is found. In St. Paul’s time a woman who braided her hair or adorned herself with gold, pearls, or other costly accoutrements would give the appearance of worldliness and moral laxity, so these things obviously were to be avoided by a woman who wished to appear chaste. In our culture today such adornments do not necessarily carry the same implications (except when taken to noticeable extremes) and therefore are not of themselves improper apparel.

A similar example may be seen in I Corinthians 11:1-6 where St. Paul instructs the Corinthian women to keep their heads covered in public. In Corinth at that time it was the mark of a harolt for a woman to go about with her head uncovered. In light of that, Christian decency demanded that Christian women should cover their heads. But, as Henry points out, to use this passage of Scripture to “make long hair mandatory for all women of all times is to miss the point. To insist on decorum and modesty at all times is to rightly apply the passage.”(2)

It is therefore essential that we distinguish between absolutes and relatives, even when Scripture speaks very specifically about a given question. Failure to do so could well lead to our making rules where God has given none or, at the opposite extreme, accepting as relative what God plainly intended to be absolute.

2. If God has not spoken specifically to the question, what principles has He provided that relate to the question? On many points about which we have questions, God has not addressed the issues specifically. As already mentioned, if we wish an answer to questions about abortion, genetic manipulation, or the use of mind-altering drugs, we cannot simply go to a Bible concordance and find passages that talk about these things. We must instead consult the Church Fathers and Canon Law. But sometimes even these may not address our question directly. In such cases we must then look for underlying principles that will help us determine whether these things are right or wrong in light of God’s directives.

This requires, first of all, identifying the issues involved. For example, Rudnick points out that “beneath the question ‘Should I or should I not have an abortion?’ are additional, highly significant questions of a more general nature: Does a fetus have a right to life? Is a fetus a human being? Does a woman have a right to control her own reproductive processes? Should an unwanted child be born?”(3) Rudnick goes on to say that such a process requires an intellectual exercise that presupposes some aptitude and training. That is why such questions are difficult for a person not accustomed to employing the intellect in such matters.

Perhaps it would have been much easier for us if God had simply given us endless rule books to govern every conceivable circumstance the Christian might face. But had He done so there would be no place for love or the redeeming work of Christ, for justification would be possible through a strict adherence to the letter of law. Such a system of ethics could be followed without reason and could be obeyed without love. No motive except the fear of punishment would be of any relevance.

Nothing could be further from what God desires of us. We should never complain that God has left us with unanswered questions, for “With freedom did Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1, ERV). God desires of us a heart that seeks after righteousness out of love and in resposne to His love for us (cf. Zephaniah 2:3 and Amos 5:14,15). He therefore gives us directives, but not always rules. He wants us to use our freedom, but not as an excuse for sin; we are to use it in the pursuit of righteousness.

When we approach the truly difficult questions in life, we may find guidelines but not always concrete rules that will help us form our decisions. But in searching for these directives we must exercise great care and not simply assume that the first biblical passage we read will, of itself, provide us with all we need to know. Canon Law forbids abortion, but did the Fathers simply turn to a passage of Scripture to find it forbidden? They could not, because the word “abortion” is not found in the Bible. Rather, they had first to determine God’s view of nascent life, and even this is not clearly stated in any single passage. For example, turning to Exodus 21:22-25 alone could imply either a high or low view of nascent life. (This is especially true if one reads from a translation.) Even Hebrew scholars have debated whether this passage is dealing with a situation in which a woman was caused to miscarry so that she loses the fetal life yet no additional harm follows, or whether it is a situation in which she is caused to give birth prematurely and yet no harm follows to either mother or child. Because the implications of this passage are subject to question, one could not base a decision on this example alone.

But we are fortunate in that, as Sir Frederic Kenyon has pointed out, “No doctrine of Christianity rests solely upon disputed text.”(4) In every case where a vital passage of Scripture is subject to question, we can find additional passages that are not open to dispute and which will help in determining the proper meaning of the problem text. In the case just cited, we are able to find several passages besides Exodus 21 which address themselves to the status of the unborn fetus.(5) In all these other passages we find a high view of nascent life, and therefore the Fathers were able to know that the fetus possesses value from the moment of conception and that it is to be regarded as significantly more than a mere mass of tissue.

All the steps in our decision-making process are crucial, but this one in particular is perhaps the most important in that it places so much responsibility upon man himself to properly research, understand, and comprehend scriptural directives and to apply them to our lives. There are no shortcuts available. We cannot expect some sort of miraculous revelation beyond what God has already revealed. Neither can we simply refuse to meet the issue, because even in refusing to address ourselves to a given question we are taking a stand — and a non-biblical one at that. No, because we want to please God because He has first loved us, we endeavor to learn His will so that we may better conform to His likeness. Our obedience involves much more than the acceptance of a simple faith-assumption, and it requires far more of us than a mere verbal confession of our belief in Him. If we are in Him it is because of His wonderful grace, and that grace deserves a proper response: that of conforming our lives — all of our lives — to His will.

3. Once we learn the principles relating to the question, we make a decision that is consistent both with our basic doctrine and with those principles. Our basic doctrine is that everything we do is to be done to glorify God. If our decision is in harmony with this basic precept, and if it is in harmony with the principles we have learned which relate to the question, then we may conclude that our decision reflects the will of God in the matter.

This is not to say that our decision is therefore infallible or that it represents the whole will of God on the subject, but it is consistent with His teachings and reflects His will — perhaps not perfectly, but nonetheless realistically. We must, however, always recognize that we as humans are subject to errors of judgment, sometimes because we allow our subjective feelings to influence our decision and sometimes because we fail to exegete Scripture as carefully or as fully as we should. It is therefore important that we make our ethical decision-making an ongoing process, constantly weighing our decisions and comparing them with what we know of the will of God as we mature in Him. Henry has pointed out that “The Christian who is maturing in his relationship with God finds that he constantly sees the world with new eyes.”(6) Similarly, J.B. Lightfoot observed that “the new birth was a reconciliation in God’s image; the subsequent life must be a deepening of that image thus stamped on man.”(7)

Often the young Christian in particular is prone to make his decisions prematurely and without having thought through his choices adequately. He is to be commended for endeavoring to reach his own conclusions, but he needs also to be directed into ascertaining whether his decisions are, as he perceives them to be, in harmony with God’s revealed directives. As we mature we frequently learn that decisions we made when we were young were wrong or were not as concise as they should be, or perhaps that they were more legalistic than God intended. This is where God’s mercy plays an integral role in our spiritual lives, for He realizes that as we mature we grow into a fuller understanding of His true will for man, and that implies the constant updating and rearranging of our priorities and ethical decisions. This is also why we may say that, at least in some areas, God is less concerned with the decision we make than He is with our motivation for making them. This is not to imply that He will be pleased with gross errors of judgment, but that He will be more pleased with our making a choice that, though immature, is made out of loving concern for His will and with a genuine desire to please Him. About this Henry has written:

the Christian life is a growth, not an automatic machine; it is a spiritual walk, in which one advances in insight into the claims of revealed ethics, a walk in which conscience, still fallible even in the lives of the regenerate, is progressively conformed to what is good and right. It is one of the featurs of Christian growth that the devout spirit recognizes some thoughts and deeds to be wrong today that passed as acceptable but yesterday — an experience repeated often through the tomorrows of life. It is not that the standard has changed, but that the true and the good are more fully perceived, and devotion to them is enlarged. In the Christian life, grace and conduct are everywhere correlated. When the believer is aware of his failure before the moral standard, he is not doomed by the Law, since he knows salvation by grace. In the midst of his shortcomings he looks to the shed blood of Calvary and is thankful. He knows how to make the Law minister to the Gospel. The regenerate heart does not gain acceptance with God by good works, but rather expresses gratitude to God for the forgiveness of sins by doing them.(8)

We again should reiterate that this step in our decision-making process is to be made both intellectually and prayerfully. We ought not to trust exclusively in our own resources (for that will lead to pride), but ought to call upon God for guidance that He may know we are seeking to please Him and that He may help us decide to the best of our abilities. We may then trust that His grace will be sufficient to cover any shortcomings our decision may entail, provided that we continue to endeavor to search out the riches of His wisdom and grow therein.

4. We act upon the decision formulated. Having reached our decision, we then are to act upon it. This means ordering our lives in such a manner that our behavior becomes consistent with our decision, which in turn must be consistent with our basic doctrine and the Christian world-view. It is not enough for the Christian simply to know the truth, but he must endeavor to live the truth. It is only when one’s moral principles are put into action that they properly become ethical.

One thing is very important to remember at this point, however, and that is that we may often note that others who share our same set of beliefs will sometimes act in ways very different from how we have decided to act. When we see such disparity of behavior, we should bear in mind that there are three possible explanations for this:

a) Either we or our brother is wrong in the decision we have made. One or the other (or perhaps both) has reached an erroneous conclusion concerning the point in question. In such a case we both ought to reexamine the evidence, preferably together, that we may better discern the correct answer. This requires openness, understanding, love, and the willingness to admit mistakes.

b) Our brother may be living inconsistently with his principles. Sometimes it is the case that a person knows how he ought to act but chooses of his own free will to behave differently from what he knows to be right. All Christians do this at one time or another, being a part of fallen humanity. We should be understanding and forgiving toward our brother when we observe this trait — commonly called hypocrisy when practiced habitually — realizing that we too need forgiveness for the same weakness on occasion. Beyond that, we also also have an obligation to exhort our brother to live more consistently with his beliefs and encourage him in his Christian walk. In cases of persistent rebellion, however, the Church sometimes must resort to discipline to help the wayward brother.

c) Both we and our brother may be right. In many areas we find that there can be more than one way of doing things and more than one answer to a given ethical question. These are evident when we are dealing in the area of relatives. As in the example given earlier regarding modest apparel, one Christian’s concept of modesty may be somewhat more or less stringent than another’s, perhaps dues to his ethnic or geographical background. This does not mean that the person with a more strict code of dress should violate his conscience in order to conform to a less restrictive code, nor does it mean that he should impose his more rigid code upon others. We all should recognize that there is some flexibility here, as there is in many other areas, and we ought to give liberty where liberty is due. As St. Paul said in Romans 14:2-4, “For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.” The important thing when dealing with relatives is that we each seek to do that which will please our Master. We do not try to see how far from the standard we may deviate before we cross the line into what we know to be wrong, but instead we exercise common sense and loving concern for the standards God expects His children to uphold. If we do that, St. Paul says, God will make us stand and will not cause us to fall on that account.

Many difficulties have been caused among Christians because of the failure to understand the concept of relatives in a number of areas of moral behavior. Perhaps this lack of understanding is an overreaction to the teachings of such men as Joseph Fletcher who taught that everything is relative. In an effort to combat situationism’s influence, some have attempted to set up absolutes in all areas of life, even to the point of decreeing what constitutes modest apparel. This writer well remembers a time during the 1960s when Christians all over America were debating just how long a boy may wear his hear or how high a girl’s hemline was permitted to be, endeavoring to establish a concrete Christian rule in terms of inches!

Christians ought rather to recognize the difference between absolutes and relatives and give liberty where relatives are concerned. A Christian should not judge his brother in such areas unless the brother’s actions are clearly and unequivocally contrary to scriptural directives. We might question him or wish to discuss the matter with him, but we ought not to judge him censoriously, for Jesus said “with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:2). We are not speaking here of the moral discernment of right and wrong where rules are concerned or of the exercise of our critical faculties by which we are to make value-judgments, but about what many people simply call “nit-picking” — fault-finding in which one person goes about deliberately looking for things to criticize in others or which result in our applying our own arbitrary moral standards on another. This type of behavior, as McGarvey puts it, is “judging from surmise, or from insufficient premises, or from ill-will.”(9)

In many areas of life the Christian is free to set his own standards, provided they remain in harmony with underlying absolutes and provided that he sets them with the correct attitude toward his relationship with God and his fellow man. His decision may be more liberal (using that term in the sense of possessing freedom) than another’s, but he nevertheless may be correct in his decision — as may also the more conservative brother. We ought not therefore judge one another or impose on others our own standards which we were free to adopt according to conscience.

But the Christian must also guard against the other extreme in this as well. While it is true that we are to give liberty in matters of relatives, we are to remain unmovable in areas where absolutes are clearly given. We are to be free, says St. Paul, but are not to use our freedom as an occasion to sin (Galatians 5:13, I Corinthiasn 6:12b). On matters where God-given rules have been spoken (such as stealing or committing adultery), we can give no liberty. Any brother who transgresses an absolute must either reform his life or be delivered again to the world which does not recognize norms.

Questions with Answers

We previously have stated that if we begin with the proposition that God does not exist then we are left with no absolutes to govern our decisions and are therefore left only with questions without answers. In Christian ethics we still have questions, but we have a significant advantage over the secularist because in our system answers are possible. They are possible because we acknowldge the God who is there and who has a divine will that He has communicated to man. Through this communication we may find divinely given directives that will guide us in finding our answers. [Test test test]

In the last few pages of this book we would like to address ourselves to a few commonly asked questions that often come up among Christians engaged in ethical discussion. Our purpose in presenting these questions is simply to illustrate the process that the serious Christian might employ in working out his answers to these questions. They are not presented for the purpose of simply promoting the author’s view on select points, but are merely illustrative. They are not to be taken with dogmatic intent. Indeed, it is acknowldged that dedicated Christians may disagree on some of these points, and this is all the more reason why we ought each to strive to understand the will of God more perfectly and to the best of our abilities. Where we disagree, our duty to God and to one another is to approach the issues intellectually, prayerfully, and with loving concern for one another, discussing our views openly yet compassionately. The author realizes that he, being human, is subject to errors of judgment just as we all are and, if shown to be wrong, is willing to conform his beliefs to a fuller understanding of God’s will. Every other Christian has the same obligation to recognize that he is not beyond correction and should weigh all sides of a question carefully before rendering his individual conclusions to the glory of God.

It oft has been stated that there is no shame in admitting that one is wrong; there is shame in refusing to change once we’ve been shown to be wrong. It is the earnest hope of this author that each Christian may hold strongly to the beliefs and conclusions he has reached, but that he will with that resolve retain also the integrity to examine his positions continually in light of his understanding of God’s will as he matures in his walk. If the proper attitude toward God, one’s ethics, and one’s fellow man is maintained, growth is ensured through the fellowship of Jesus Christ our Lord, both for the individual Christian and for the overall community of believers as a whole.

1. Who am I?
2. What is my purpose in life?
3. What is Christian ethics?

These three questions are posed together because they represent essential questions that every Christian must answer. No other ethical question can be addressed before these are met, for our understanding of who we are, what our purpose is, and what our ethics is all about will determine our response to all other questions pertaining to life and morals. If the Christian is unsure of his answers to these three questions, it is time for him to sit down and reexamine his beliefs.

Although there may be different ways of stating our answers to these questions, every Christian should share the same essential understanding. The Christian sees himself as a being that has been created in the image of the infinite, personal God and who has been endowed with certain divine characteristics. He, like God, is a personal being, and like God he is rational, thinking, intelligent, and capable of verbal communication. He is a being that has a moral consciousness and a will that is free to act upon that consciousness. He is different from God in his finiteness (which means that though he has the ability to know he cannot be all-knowing), but he sees himself as a being who has been “crowned with glory and honor” and is but “a little less than God.”

But he also recognizes that he was not created to be, nor is he capable of being, his own master. He, so highly formed, is a fallen creature and remains in rebellion against God to this day. Having lost his rightful standing before God through the fall, he has become a sinful creature yet with heavenly potential. He understands that God gave His only Son to die in order that he may again stand in proper relationship with the Father of light. Therefore the Christian sees himself in three ways: (1) as a being nobly created and crowned with glory and honor; (2) as a being that has fallen from these heroic proportions to the level of sinful rebellion spawned by false human pride; and (3) as a being that has been restored to his rightful relationship with God, not through his own works, but through the grace of God in the antoning work of Christ Jesus.

In viewing himself thusly, he sees himself as a responsible being who, out of a debt of love, seeks to express his gratitude for being restored to fellowship with God. He understands that he was created with a divine purpose and is not here by accident or chance, and he perceives his purpose as glorifying God all his days. That, says the Preacher, is the whole duty of man (Ecclesiastes 12:13). He further understands that he glorifies God when he lives according to His precepts and directives, thereby reflecting the beauty of God in his life by reflecting God’s own character. His demonstration of God is imprefect but is nontheless real.

In possessing this view, the Christian also sees what his relationship to his fellow man ought to be. In having a high view of man (as opposed to the modernist’s view of man as nothing more than an accidental collection of molecules) he treats man and interacts with him respectfully. Most of his moral choices are determined when he chooses his view of man, and the Christian sees man as valuable.

In both these areas all Christians should agree. If we view who man is and what his purpose in life is otherwise, then our entire ethical system will be altered. Christian ethics, in summary, is the carrying into life the whole world-view and life-view of God; Christian ethics is behavior that is theocentric and governed by the will of God.

Once we agree on these points then our discussion of various other questions relating to ethics may be intelligently and prayerfully pursued. Without this common ground, our discussion cannot proceed logically because the presuppositions are disparate. In order to answer any other question we must first go back to the beginning and establish some common ground from which to proceed.

4. At what point does faith-based ethics leave off and freedom of human choice begin?

As we approach this question we might first pose another: Is it possible for there to be a situation in which a person cannot rely on biblical directives to formulate a response?

As we have noted, it is true that God has not always provided us with rules to govern every aspect of our lives; but He has provided us with principles. On the basis of these principles we are to determine what our correct response should be in any given circumstance. Whatever our question, we approach it with a biblical framework.

Regarding human choice, we should of course understand that in one sense human choice is present in every situation: man may choose his own course as a matter of free will, whether that course be right or wrong. But in the sense in which the question is posed, there is no point at which we are given over to rely solely on ourselves for answers. We have not been left directionless in any area of life. We often may have to choose our own answer to various questions, but we do so in light of God-given directives. Human choice for the Christian means a choice based upon the norms of scripture and which conforms to the will of God. Life lived under God is free.

5. Does ethics differ in the Old and New Testaments?

A common misunderstanding of many people is that God has given different systems of ethics through the ages and that His ethical directives under the Old Law were different from those of the New. If one examines scriptural evidence carefully, however, he will find that this is not the case.

We have spoken elsewhere of God’s immutability and constancy, so we will not reiterate that point here beyond calling to mind the fact that God is without change or variation (James 1:17). Yet it is evident that we can see differences in His dealings with man in ancient times and in the present day. Our question must be whether this is a result of God’s having changed, or whether it is a consequence of man’s changing relationship to Him.

Scriptural evidence points to the latter. Man, both individually and collectively, undergoes change, and his relationship with God likewise changes though God Himself remains the same. John Haley draws an illustration to demonstrate how this is so. He asks us to imagine a rock situated in the ground and around which there is a large circle. A man comes along and walks round the rock, following the circle. As he goes around the rock his relationship to that rock changes, but the rock itself remains unchanged. It is, Haley concludes, much like what Whately has written: “A change effected in one of two objects having a certain relation to each other, may have the same practical result as if it had taken place in the other.”(10) So what appear to be changes in God’s ethical standard are in fact only changes in man himself in relation to it.

It might help us to think of the relationship of God to man as that between a father and his children. A parent lives by certain moral, ethical, and behavioral standards, and he expects his children to exhibit those same standards in their lives. But as we watch children advance from infancy through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we see that different patterns of behavior are tolerated by the parent at different levels of maturity. What was allowable in the behavior of a four-year-old child would be intolerable in a seventeen-year-old. The parent’s behavioral standards have not changed, but the child&#s relationship to those standards have.

It has been much the same with God’s relationship to mankind. When man fell it was a monumental fall. Man fell from a beautiful relationship into the depravity of sin, rebelliousness, and false pride. The early history of man given in Genesis shows the degree to which man degenerated into a moral infancy. God gradually led man back to adulthood, first through the childhood of the Patriarchal age, then through the formative years of the Law which served as his schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24), and finally to his adulthood in the freedom that Christ brought. Thus, though the ethical and moral standards have remained unchanged since before the foundation of the world, God’s tolerance of man’s adherence to those standards has changed as man himself has changed.

This is no hypothetical analogy. Scripture often speaks of God’s relationship to man in such terms. In one of the most beautiful passages of the Old Testament God speaks of the nation Israel as a child He has taught to walk and has fed and cared for. Paraphrasing from Hosea 11:1-4 we hear God say, “When Israel was a child I loved him and called him out of Egypt. But as I called him he went from me and sacrificed to Baal and burned incense to images. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim how to walk. It was I who took him in my arms — but he did not know it was I who healed him. I drew him with cords of a man and with bands of love. I took away his yoke and laid meat before him.” What more touching picture could be painted of a parent lamenting over a beloved child who has rebelled against him?

God has called us in this age to a higher demonstration of His most perfect will. We ought therefore to learn from the past and see how God has brought mankind thus far. The laws of rituals and ceremonies have been done away, but the ethical law of God has only been more clearly revealed. We have been granted to see it more perfectly than those who lived under the Old Law.

6. Is sex outside of marriage wrong under any and all circumstances, even if it is done in order to help someone?

This question begins to get at the root of what our ethics is all about: life. The first five points we have discussed, though they determine our ultimate choices, are in a sense academic. With this question we begin to look at specific actions and attempt to learn what our course of action ought to be in various areas and circumstances.

As we approach this question we should begin with the first step in our decision-making process. Thus we ask, Has God spoken specifically to this question? In this case we learn from Scripture that He has indeed spoken to the question of sexual relations outside of marriage.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the biblical absolute instituted in the Seventh Commandment that expresses God’s will for sexual constancy. This command is reiterated with force throughout the Word of God and is of serious enough consequence that under the Old Law its violation carried the death penalty. Under the New Law of Christ the command for sexual fidelity within marriage remains unchanged, though it is magnified. In Matthew 5:28 Jesus taught that not only is the act of adultery contrary to God’s will, but the intent to commit adultery is also forbidden.

There are a number of passages in the New Testament alone that provide us with the absolute rule that sexual infidelity is prohibited. I Corinthians 5:1-13; 10:8; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5,6; Hebrews 13:4 are but a few of these. The standard is clear: One must either engage in sex with one’s spouse or with no one at all.

Some have been confused on this point by Christ’s dealing with the woman caught in adultery as recorded in John 8, and they have been led to believe (or simply have chosen to believe) that Christ approved of the woman’s actions. This is certainly not the case. For one thing, had Christ approved of the woman’s adulterty He would have been contradicting His own teachings on the matter. The real point of His message was this: The woman was guilty of adultery and was condemned to death under the Law. Jesus never once said she was not deserving death. In fact, He passed sentence on her by telling the others to stone her. The only problem was that none of her accusers met the criteria to be her executioner because, as they realized when Jesus said that the one without sin should cast the first stone, they were all guilty under the law. And that was Jesus’ purpose, to show these self-righteous legalists who were blind to their own faults that they were sinners as well and would all have to die through Christ’s death before they could be justified. Christ forgave the woman because she would suffer death for her sin in the vicarious death of Christ. Her act was not approved, but forgiven.

As for the latter part of the question, whether sex is wrong “even if it is done to help someone,” we must realize that, according to Scripture, sex outside of marriage is universally condemned, regardless of circumstance. To imagine a situation in which illicit sex could be performed for someone’s benefit is contrary to the nature of God’s creation. The only way we might encounter such a situation would be to conclude that sex would be beneficial in a given instance based on a subjective value-judgment of the situation in question. We have no way of knowing how an illicit sexual encounter may work to one’s ultimate good. It may give one pleasure and momentary gratification of the sex urge; it may perhaps casue one to feel somehow “fulfilled” in some secularistic sense. But these are all value-judgments and are subjective in nature. The true consequences of the act could hardly be perceived as transcendently good. Either physical, emotional, and/or spiritual harm would be done because such an act would be a violation of an absolute standard and a violation of man’s created nature.

In saying this, we should not be understood to imply that because such an act would be wrong it would be unforgivable. Whenever the Christian sins he has recourse to forgiveness when he confesses his sin and turns away from it. Whatever one’s sins might be, when his heart has been turned within him and he seeks God’s will, those sins can be forgiven. But, because they are forgivable does not mean they are something less than sin.

Occasionally someone may try to counter this argument by brining up some kind of bizarre situation in which a woman is given the choice of having sex with someone or seeing her children killed if she refuses. The argument here is that sex would be justified in this case because it would be done for someone else’s good (the good of the children). But there are two things inherently wrong with this line of argument.

In the first place we are discussing the kind of situation that, in all probability, will never confront any of us during the entire course of our lives. It is true that circumstances like this do occur on rare occasions (one such occurred in the author’s city of residence at the time of writing this book), but should we base our ethics on such remote possibilities, as Joseph Fletcher did in Situation Ethics? Rather than assuming that because in such a bizarre set of circumstance having sex might be deemed a better choice than allowing one’s children to be murdered, and then concluding from that line of reasoning that sex outside of marriage is not always wrong, should we not instead begin with the abolute standard that we will not seek sex outside of marriage and allow that rule — rather than the incongruous circumstance — to govern our daily lives? Would it not be more prudent (and more true of reality) to approach an unusual circumstance with a set of prearranged standards than to approach everyday situations with a standard based on the abnormal circumstance?

The second point to be made about this kind of situation is that in such a case the woman is properly being raped and is not performing an act of her own choice. If a person sees a woman having sex with a man who has a gun pointed at her head, the observer would be anything but rational to conclude that she was not being raped. In the situation described the gun is simply being pointed at her children’s heads. The act still constitutes rape. The woman’s participation would not be by choice in the sense of free will, but would be limited to a choice between two evils proposed by a criminal mind. In whichever course she chooses a sin will be committed (if the criminal makes good his threat), but the sin would not be hers. If she gives in and allows him to rape her she has only sacrificed herself in order to save her children. Her act is not “good” in the sense of being of transcendent value (as Fletcher would say of it) but is a beau geste. Christ allowed Himself to be killed for others, but in doing so he was not commiting a sin, though sin was committed. He certainly was not committing suicide, and neither would a woman in such a highly unusual set of circumstance be committing adultery. Therefore, we cannot use such a situation as an example of choosing of our own free will to engage in sex outside the institution of Holy Matrimony.

7. Is it wrong for the Christian to drink alcoholic beverages?

With a question such as this we may begin to observe the full use of our decision-making process because, as we shall see, God does not give us an absolute rule regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Nowhere does Scripture say, as it does with adultery, “thou shalt not” consume alcohol.

What we must do, then, is to look for underlying principles or underlying absolutes that relate to this question. In our search we find that there is an absolute closely associated with the subject at hand, and that is the absolute prohibition against drunkenness. Throughout Scripture the people of God were repeatedly warned of the dangers of wine’s excess. Deuteronomy 21:20,21 says that one of the characteristic of a rebellious and unruly son is drunkenness, and its punishment was death. St. Paul delivered a specific command in Ephesian 5:18 where he said, “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.” Drunkenness is clearly condemned in Scripture and is an absolute, just as the command against adultery is absolute.

However, this does not answer the question of whether drinking alcohol in moderation is also wrong. It is wrong to consume it to excess, but we may still ask whether it is wrong in moderation.

As we approach this question we have to examine ourselves carefully to determine whether we are approaching it with a preconceive conclusion that has been influenced by our background. Some Christians who have been brought up in homes where alcohol is freely consumed in moderation see no problem with drinking. Others have come from backgrounds that lead them to believe that alcoholic consumption is inherently evil and believe that they should abstain unequivocally. They view it just as sinful to take a spoonful of alcohol as it would be to drink oneself into a drunken stupor.

But what we must do if we wish to find an honest and intelligent answer is to discover the directives we’ve been given. To do otherwise would be to set up our own standards as absolutes without the authority for so doing. We also must be careful to use exegesis in our study (finding out from Scripture what we ought to do) rather than employing eisegesis (deciding what we ought to do and then looking for scriptural passages to support our preconceived belief).

If we look carefully at Scripture’s handling of wine (the word most often used to refer to alcoholic beverages in the Bible) we find that it is generally viewed as a companion to gluttony (cf. Deuteronomy 21:20, Proverbs 23:21, Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). But we recognize that both gluttony and drunkenness are sins of degree — quite unlike adultery or murder. A person may eat and not be a glutton; a person may drink and not be a drunkard. The argument used by some legalists at this point is that regardless how much or little one drinks, he becomes drunk proportional to the amount consumed. The author has in his possession an article from a popular Protestant magazine that actually states, “The truth is, after one drink a man is one drink drunk.”(11) The writer of this article may just have well have argued that after one bite of food a man is one bite a glutton! Such an argument is ludicrous and without any scriptural validity.

Still others make a moral case out of alcohol using as a basis the great number of tragedies that have resulted from its abuse — personal heartaches, disease, highway deaths, the breakup of many homes. While such points should be well taken, the fact remains that such instances are examples of the abuse of alcohol and need not imply that its moderate use is inherently wrong. One who categorically forbids alcoholic consumption in any degree on the basis of society’s misuse of it may as well forbid all sexual activity, since it too has been sorely abused by society and has led to much heartache, disease, death, and the destruction of many homes. Sex is not inherently evil; neither is drinking. They both may become evil when taken out of their proper contexts: sex in marriage, wine in moderation.

Drunkenness, like gluttony, is a sin of degree, a sin of excess. If one chooses not to drink at all based on the kind of reasons we have described above, he may have chosen a better course but he has done so for the wrong reasons. If a person feels he cannot drink because he believes that after one drink he’s one drink drunk, then by the same reasoning he would have to conlude that he cannot eat.

Often a legalistic-minded Christian will point to Proverbs 20:1 as the basis for his absolute prohibition against drinking. But a close reading of that passage will reveal that it simply warns against the abuse of acohol; it does not provide a strict prohibition against its consumption. The latter part of the verse states that “whoever is led astray by it [wine] is not wise.” That reflects the absolute against drunkenness, but does not create an absolute against all degrees of consumption.

Christians who use these examples to prohibit drinking altogether often are dedicated people endeavoring to please their Lord, and they should not be condemned for their abstinence. Their problems lie with the method of reaching their decision and their tendency to impose their own standard upon other dedicated Christians who do not agree with them in the matter. Had we a clear God-given directive against all degrees of drinking, the abstainers would be right in their insistence that all faithful Christians should emulate their behavior. But the truth is there are no such standards — just as there are no specific standards that tell us what type of clothing we are to wear. These choices are dependent on the individual and the society and time in which he lives. One is to dress in a manner that will uphold chastity. One is to eat and drink in a manner that will uphold sobriety. Neither eating nor drinking are in themselves evil; they are what is called in ethical terms adiaphorous (ethically neutral).

Too often in matters such as these our backgrounds and subjective impressions of such things bring too much of an influence to our decision-making. Many of our attitudes about alcohol — particularly in America — are carryovers from the so-called Puritan ethic which largely held that anything that gives pleasure is wrong (though, ironically, the Puritans were not teetotalers!). Those were the days when such things as going to the theater, laughing on Sunday, and touching between the sexes (even holding hands in public) were strictly taboo. These prohibitions were not derived from God-given directives but were set up by religious men who were obsessed with an almost Pharisaical attitude toward the outward display of “righteous” behavior.

But because many Americans do have hang-ups about the consumption of alcoholic beverages, we ought to bring to mind another directive Scripture gives us — that of our influence on others. Turning now to I Corinthians 8, St. Paul here discusses the problem some Corinthians were having regarding eating meat, a controversy that bears a close similarity to our problems with alcohol today. At that time in Corinth many of the Christians were purchasing and eating the meat of animals that had been sacrificed to pagan gods, realizing there was no religious significance attached to those meats as far as they were concerned. But to some of the newer converts who formerly had participated in pagan religious observances with those same meats, they could not divorce the religious significance from the eating of the meats. This was causing a problem. These newer converts could not understand how a Christian, who recognizes only the one true God, could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, since in their minds this constituted worshiping those idols.

St. Paul told the Christians at Corinth that those who were eating meat were right in their conduct. They were at liberty to eat those meats, because they recognized there was no religious significance attached to them. But, St. Paul says, because eating those meats was causing some of the weaker brethren to lose their faith, the meats should be abstained from. St. Paul was saying in effect that if eating meat would offend and weaken the faith of another, even if the meat was a matter of indifference to himself and to God, he would nevertheless refrain from them rather than risk causing his brother to stumble. The conscience of the brother was of far more importance to St. Paul than his own liberty to eat the sacrificial meat.

This directive should guide us also in our lives today in relation to taking care not to cause a weaker brother to stumble by drinking alcohol in his presence. If we are living among Christians who have been strongly influenced by the Puritan ethic and have great difficulty separating drinking from drunkenness, then for their sakes we ought not to drink in their presence. We might even choose not to drink in public at all rather than risk a brother’s seeing us and becoming weak thereby. We might even choose to abstain from alcohol altogether within such a community. In such a choice we would recognize that drinking in itself is a matter of indifference, but whichever course we take ought to be made to the glory of God.

This is not to say that we must give in to the whims of every fellow Christian because, as Henry says, “the Christian will need to distinguish between the weaker brother who is genuinely offended and the cavilling brother who uses an appeal to conscience as a tool to serve his own ends. Jesus sharply rebuked the religious hypocrite (Mt. 15:14), and none can be more hypocritical than one who pleads ‘conscience’ to further his own cause.”(12) The stronger brother is not to be judged by the weaker, and the weaker is to recognize the stronger’s Christian liberty (cf. I Corinthians 10:30). But neither is the stronger to critize the weaker, nor is he to abuse his own liberty at the weaker brother’s expense. We ought rather to help the weaker brother grow into a more mature understanding of Christian morality than his legalistic perception allows. This does not mean we should encourage him to drink, for until he matures in his understanding that would violate his conscience. But we should encourage him to be tolerant and understanding and to realize that because one of his fellow Christians may take a glass of wine with his meal it does not mean that he is a drunkard or a hypocrite.

As a cautionary measure it might behoove us to add one final note regarding the Christian and alcohol. In showing that it is permissable for a Christian to drink in moderation, we must be cautious that we do not leave the floodgates open, because “the believer’s liberty is not to license.”(13) Humans tend to react in extremes. On the one hand we see the consequences of acohol abuse and pronounce its consumption in any amount to be wrong. On the other we find that it is not evil in itself and give ourselves free license. Neither position is in harmony with God’s will. We are called to freedom, but we are to exercise that freedom judiciously. We are free to drink in moderation, but we may discover it expedient not to drink. Whichever course we decide upon under our given circumstances, we are to decide in the hope that it will better glorify God in our lives.

8. Is a lie ever justified?

Before we can answer this question adequately we must first take care that we define our terms correctly and decided what we mean by “a lie.” If we mean by a lie a practical joke, irony, or a fiction story then we mean something different from the standard definition of a lie. Ethically defined, a lie involves the telling of an untruth with the deliberate intention to deceive.

Often when a person asks whether it is ever permissible to tell a lie he has in mind the “lies” people normally tell when answering common greerings. Usually people greet one another with the question “How are you?” and the typical response is “Fine, thank you” — even if we feel terrible. This is not a lie because there is no deliberate intention to deceive. Indeed, a person may run the risk of being denied this common greeting if he bears his soul and all his problems to everyone who greets him in such a manner. People do not expect an absolutely “truthful” response in the exchange of greetings but merely a courteous exchange of pleasantries. If the person inquiring is truly desirous to know of one’s physical or emotional condition he generally will reword his question in such a way as to make his intent clear.

Another form of courtesy often mistaken for lying is the answer given to such questions as “How do I look?” or “What did you think of so and so?” Again, most people ask these questions expecting a complimentary response (and generally will be offended by anything less), and it is only a formality to reply favorably whether we agree with what we are saying or not. If the questioner expects an honest and critical appraisal instead of the customary reply, he will phrase his question differently, usually by adding the word really. This indicates that he wants the actual truth and not simply the courteous platitudes dictated by good manners.

To see an example of this type of exchange we might turn to Genesis 23 where Abraham’s discourse with Ephron the Hittite is recorded. Abraham proposed buying a field with a cave from Ephron to use for Sarah’s burial. In verse 9, he offers to pay the full price for it. Ephron replies in verse 11 (paraphrased), “No, sir, listen: I give it to you. Bury your dead.” In response Abraham bows to Ephron, then stands up and says, “Tell me the price of the field, for I will buy it and bury my dead.” Ephron answers in verse 15, “What is a piece of land worth 400 shekels of silver between you and me? Take it, bury your dead.” In the next verse Abraham measures out 400 shekels of silver for the purchase of the field.

Now all this verbiage had a purpose in the ancient world. In it was expressed common courtesy between two men in a transaction. At no point did Ephron intend to give the field to Abraham gratis, though his words sound that way to us today. Abraham understood this. Middle Eastern courtesy required Ephron to offer it to Abraham as a gift, just as it also required Abraham to insist on paying. Though our society does things differently today, we show a similar courtesy sometimes among friends when, for example, we stop on the way to a friend’s house and purchase some foodstuffs he has requested. If we want him to pay us back but don’t want to appear so crass as to simply hand him the receipt, we generally say something to the effect of, “Don’t worry about it. What’s $20 between friends?” In stating the cost we imply that we expect him to reimburse us, but we do it in a less offensive manner than by blatantly asking for the money. No lies have been exchanged in such transactions because no intent to deceive has been present. We must not confuse common courtesies with lies.

Neither do we find the use of irony to constitute lying. Irony is saying one thing but in such a way that we mean something else, usually indicated by the tone of voice employed. The prophet Micah used irony in answering King Ahab when he was asked whether Ahab should go to war against Ramoth Gilead (I Kings 22:15). St. Paul used irony when writing to the Corinthians (II Corinthians 11:16-12:13). Many other such instances are recorded throughout Scripture. The way in which a statement is worded or the inflection used in one’s voice gives evidence that the statement is not to be interpreted as truth but as irony. This is not lying.

But if our original question refers to a lie in the real sense — telling an untruth with the deliberate intention to deceive — then we may find strict biblical injunctions against it. Numerous passages reflect this absolute law, which is perhaps the most fundamental law of the God of truth. Exodus 23:1, Leviticus 19:11, Psalm 34:13, Proverbs 6:16,17, Proverbs 13:5, John 8:44, Colossians 3:9, and Revelation 21:8 are but a few of the passages that speak to the beauty of truth and the wickedness of a lying tongue. Adherence to the truth is a law, and a law cannot be broken without consequence. Nowhere is this law presented in the sense of “Thou shalt not lie, unless it is difficult not to.” When telling the truth becomes difficult, we have recourse to call upon God for help so that His grace may help us through the temptation and find a way of escape.

Inevitably, however, someone will bring up one of Joseph Flatcher’s hypothetical situations to try and justify lying on occasion. Usually the story is about a crazed killer who is seeking someone’s friend and comes to his house asking if he knows where the intended victim is. If he knows, is he to tell the truth and allow the killer to murder his friend, or is he to lie and thus save his friend’s life? Most of us stop with this question, but we really ought to take the process a step further and ask whether a lie in such a case would be justified — i.e., would it constitute good and right behavior, as Fletcher claimed?

In answering this kind of question we should again preface our discussion by ackowledging that such a situation is likely never to confront us. But if it were to arise, there seem to be three possible ways a Christian might try looking at it.

a) We might say that in such a circumstance the killer has forfeited the right to know the truth because of his intent. This parallels somewhat the concept that a criminal forfeits his life when he commits murder. The right to life is inalienable according to Scripture. Yet if someone does take another’s life, then his own life is forfeit. A third party may execute him because of his crime. The executioner is not committing murder in his act, because the criminal forfeited his right to life when he committed murder. In a similar manner, when a person is bent on mischief he may have forfeited his right to know the truth in a given circumstance. Looking at the situation from this viewpoint, the person answering the killer’s question would be in a position somewhat analogous to that of the executioner: lying (and killing) is normally wrong but is permissible in these abnormal circumstances because the individual with malicious intent has forfeited his right to know the truth, just as a murderer forfeits his right to life.

The problem with this approach seems to be that it may not always be easy to determine at what point someone gives up his right to the truth. Granted, in a case like the one presented the intent would be clearly malicious. But what of a case in which a neighbor and his wife are angry with each other and the wife seeks asylum in her friend’s house? If the husband comes asking for his wife’s whereabouts, how is the friend to know what his real intentions are? Has he come to try and harm his wife, or does he intend to apologize to her? Would the husband have forfeited his right to the truth?

b) We might say that, according to the letter of the law, a person who would tell a lie for any reason (even to save someone’s life) still sins, but in such case he sees the lie as preferable to seeing his friend murdered. He therefore chooses to sin by lying, but then casts himself upon the mercy of a just and understanding God. He claims the Cross as his justification and does not view his act as inherently good.

Though a more reasonable approach than a, this analysis appears to contradict St. Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 10:13 where he says that God will not allow a man to be tempted beyond what he is able to endure but will always provide an avenue of escape from sin.

c) We might instead parallel this example with the one given earlier concerning the woman who is confronted with the choice of allowing herself to be raped or seeing her children killed. By placing a person in the position of either betraying his friend or betraying his conscience against his will, the sin would rest with the aggrieving party. The killer is forcing the person to make a choice between having his conscience “raped,” so to speak, or seeing his friend murdered if he refuses. In such a case a wrong will have been done, but it would be laid to the charge of the killer, for the one confronted with this choice would not in such a case be choosing to lie as a matter of free will but is forced into a situation with only two evil consequences. A lie in this analysis is still a lie and is in no way “good” or “right” behavior, but it may be the only rational choice.

But whichever view one takes in such an incongruous situation, he should note that in each view a lie remains a lie, an anomaly, an example of abnormal behavior. In such abnormal circumstances one may have to resort to an abnormal response, but that does not make that response intrinsically right. A wrong is still committed under views b and c, or is permitted under a. At its best it constitutes a loathsome act much like the executioner’s in view a. The wrong committed must rest either upon the person telling the lie or upon the one who forced its telling. We are not at liberty to deduce from such an abnormal situation that lying is sometimes justifiable and good behavior in and of itself.

To accept that a lie would ever represent righteous behavior, we are merely adopting the same kind of situation ethics as that espoused by Fletcher. If we begin with the assumption that it is acceptable to lie for another person’s good, how is one to know whether we are ever telling the truth? What basis of trust can be obtained with this position? Rather, we must begin with the basic premise that lying is wrong and is to be avoided, and then approach any truly incongruous situation with that working foundation of truth. We cannot operate the system in reverse without opening the doors to chaos.

9. Do people have a right to die? Is allowing a person to die — letting nature take its course — wrong?

Without attempting to sound facetious, we must ackowledge that not only does everyone have a right to die but also that everyone has a duty to do so. Death is inevitable, as both Scripture and human observation reveal: “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Recognizing the certainty of death and the immpossibility of avoiding it, the Christian views man’s attempts at immortality in the physical realm as futile. He knows that death is the consequence of life.

But the Christian also knows that death is not the end of man and that his existence continues beyond the grave. Therefore the Christian does not seek, as many secularists do, survival as the ultimate objective. The Christian does not take death lightly, of course, but neither does he view it as the terminate evil. Instead he keeps it in proper perspective with his entire world- and life-view.

These considerations might at first appear somewhat academic when we realize, as is obvious, that the question has to do with whether to allow euthanasia to be performed on a terminally ill patient or whether we are permitted at some point in his treatment to withdraw further treatment and allow the natural consequences to follow. But our view of death — and of life as a whole — has a profound effect on the way we approach this question. Since the Christian does not see death as the worst that can befall us, he does not see the same need to resort to extraordinary measures to preserve life artificially as does one who holds no belief in an afterlife. At the same time, the Christian does not have such a low view of life that he would allow its wanton destruction for social or economic reasons. His view of death, as his view of life, is kept in proper perspective and in harmony with the revealed will of God.

When we look for absolutes in Scripture regarding the degree to which we may allow ourselves to sustain life by medical means, we find none. The absolutes we do discover which deal with life and death show us that it is never permitted for one person to take the life of another (Exodux 20:13, Matthew 5:21,22, ad inf.), the only exceptions being killing in self-defense, killing an enemy soldier in combat, and executing a condemned criminal. All of life is to be viewed as belonging to God (Genesis 9:4-6, Leviticus 17:10,11,14, Deuteronomy 12:23, Acts 15:20,29, Acts 17:25-28, I Timothy 6:13). In light of the imperative command not to take human life, Christians should recognize easily that willfully taking another’s life, even one suffering a terminal illness, is forbidden. God does not allow murder under the contingencies of relieving human suffering or ending a subjectively deemed non-quality life. The overt killing of any individual, regardless his physical or mental condition, would in Christian terms constitute murder, not mercy.

But here arises the real question: What constitutes the overt killing of a person suffering from a terminal illness? At what point does one refuse to allow further treatment of someone in an apparently hopeless condition, and does the refusal of further treatment constitute an overt act of murder? These are the real questions most Christians are asking when they ask whether it is ever permissible to just allow nature to take its course.

It is vitally important at this point to define what we mean when we say “let nature take its course.” There are three meanings often covered by this phrase, and the Christian needs to be aware of them. When some people (mostly physicians who hold to a non-Christian ethic) say “let nature take its course,” they really mean “do nothing whatever to help sustain life.” One of the saddest examples of this is the setting aside of certain newborns with various genetic deficiences for the express purpose of allowing them to die (a kind of “post-partem abortion”). This is done in many hospitals around the world, often without the knowledge of the mothers who have merely requested that they would rather “let nature take its course” than go to extreme heroic measures to save the life of an infant who in all likelihood would never survive anyway. Whether the mothers’ attitude is correct is another question, but most certainly they do not mean that they want their newborn to be totally ignored so that they never have the slightest chance for survival, nor do they mean that they want their babies to have a sign placed on them saying “Do not feed” until they starve to death. Yet to some people that is what the phrase “let nature take its course” means.

On the other hand there are some who mean by this phrase that we are to “do nothing to interfere with nature or natural processes.” This view is held by a small number of religious groups — some nominally Christian — who believe that man is not to interfere with whatever happens, even to the point of refusing any form of medicine or medical treatment. To these people any interference in an attempt to alter the course of nature is construed as an attempt to change the will of God. While these people may be admired for their courage and dedication, they are to be pitied for their poor understanding of God’s purpose in allowing man to have dominion over nature to subdue it. As Helmut Thielecke points out, “[man’s] life is one constant intervention in nature, no matter whether he is cultivating the wilderness and turning it into a garden or allowing a doctor to intervene in the natural course of a disease and swallows some medicine. Intervening in nature and thus the employment of artificial means is not in itself questionable, but paradoxically is a part of ‘nature,’ that is to say, the nature of man.”(14)

What the Christian must mean, then, when he asks whether it is ever permissible to “let nature take its course” is whether it is permissible to “let the natural and inevitable consequences proceed without further intervention.” Essentially the Christian is asking, as Thielecke asks, whether our right to intervene in nature is unlimited.

As we have observed previously, the Christian views human life as sacred and therefore valuable. He sees it as valuable enough to intervene in nature at times when nature attempts to threaten life. But the Christian also recognizes that death is ultimately inevitable and that man’s capacity to intervene in nature, however much he may wish it otherwise, is not unlimited. He may be able to postpone death, but he cannot escape it. Nor should he attempt to.

At what point, then, does the Christian decide to stop trying to intervene in nature and allow death to take place? This brings us down essentially to a subjective decision. But subjective though it is, it is a decision that still must be made based on certain objective factors and should be made only after much careful intellectual deliberation and much prayer.

In weighing the objective evidence we must first consider the patient in question and the viable alternatives available. That is, we take into account whether the patient has expressed his own wishes in this matter and what realistic medical alternatives are possible. When we come to the latter we are not asked to consider the remotely possible alternatives but the real, viable alternatives currently available to us. In one sense this involves a denial of future possibilities in that we need not bring into the discussion treatments that might be available at some future date, but must content ourselves with considering the options open to us at the present time. Sometimes people who have allowed a loved one’s respirator to be turned off feel guilty when a new techniqe or treatment is later developed. They begin to feel that if only they had allowed their loved one to remain on the respirator a few more months or years, perhaps their life could have been saved. But this is an unreasonable guilt because on that basis patients may be left alive for countless years by artificial means and, after all that, no cure or treatment may ever be found.

In comparison we might look back a few years ago to a time when a person was considered dead when no pulse could be detected. In our own time we realize that simply because a person’s heart stops beating in no wise indicates that he is dead, and countless people are walking our streets today whose hearts have stopped several times already in the course of their lives. Our modern technology has learned ways of resuscitating a nonbeating heart. Had these people lived in earlier centuries they never would have received that second lease on life. Are we to conclude from this that all the people who lived during that era and allowed countless millions of people to die before they should have (by today’s standards) are guilty? Certainly not. They operated on the basis of the medical knowledge they possessed at that time. We can be expected to do no better in that respect.

Even though we know exponentially more now about prolonging life than did our medical sages of ages past, there is still a point beyond which nothing more can be done. Death is still, and always will be, the ultimate victor. Whether a life is prolonged a day or a month or a year by artificial means in some cases makes no difference, because on the basis of what we know there is no further hope of restoring health. At such a point an individual could hardly be held guilty for allowing nature to takes its ultimate course, no more than could the men of old who allowed death to result when no hope was evident due to the absence of a pulse.

It is understood that no one can establish at exactly what point hope gives way to hopelessness, and there is therefore no way to establish absolute criteria for determining when it may be permissible to cease medical treatment. When the Christian is faced with such a decision he must weigh his objective considerations carefully and prayerfully. He should be careful not to make his decision on economic or utilitarian grounds but upon the basis of God’s will. He therefore should consider the following:

  • the best medical information currently available to him
  • the sacredness of human life in general and of the individual in particulat
  • the recognition that life is to be preserved and honored whenever possible, but that death is not the ultimate evil
  • the realization that, as a Christian, whatever decision he makes should be made to the glory of God
  • In all this, of course, prayer will be an essential element. The Christian has not been left directionless, in this or in any other question. He has the help of the Holy Spirit whom God has given him. He is not left to make decisions on the basis of some irrational leap of faith, nor is he left entirely to his own resources. He has been given an intellect with which to reason and a heart with which to pray. The two are not divorced from each other but are integral parts of his unity as a being created by God. With this being he is to serve God and to seek Him, and with it he is to strive to emulate that perfect will in order that he may present his body a living sacrifice in loving response to God’s matchless grace through His Son, Jesus Christ.

    In conclusion, the author reiterates that his purpose in presenting these questions and answers has not been to attempt a dogmatic or catechetical response to these issues, nor has it been his attempt to propose answers to all questions of ethical importance in contemporary society. These few questions simply serve as examples for demonstrating the decision-making process for which the foundation was laid in the earlier portions of this book. It is possible that all Christians will not agree with the answers here presented, but what is important is that we each work from the same base and seek to please God as best we know how. We must realize that the Christian life is a life of growth, and that this is the important quality to maintain in our Christian ethics as well as in all other aspects of our lives. Where we differ with one another we should discuss the matters lovingly and prayerfully and should continue striving to grow in our understanding of God’s will and in our application of it.

    If this book has helped in any small way to enable the Christian to better perfect his ability to make ethical decisions in the light of God’s directives, then it will have served its purpose.


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    Copyright © 1983-2012 by Oswin Craton. All rights reserved.