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An Introduction to Christian Ethics

Julian Spriggs M.A.

This article looks at the process of how we make ethical decisions. It describes the principles and different methods that are used to reach a solution to an ethical problem, and evaluates these in order to determine a balanced approach to Christian ethics.

Every generation throughout history has faced difficult ethical questions. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, ethical issues are becoming increasingly complex and technical. This is particularly due to the dramatic advances in science and technology over the last few decades, especially in the areas of genetics and bio-technology. Also, with increasing globalization, ethical questions in one nation have a wider impact on a larger number of people, and have greater effect in different areas of life very quickly throughout the world. Ethical questions are faced by everyone, but are a particular concern to Christians, because we attempt to obey God's commandments, and apply his principles to our lives and to the world around us, where they are often in opposition to the world's belief systems.

When facing ethical questions it is essential that we know all the facts of the issue before we jump to simplistic conclusions. It is all too easy to react against something emotionally, unknowingly basing our reaction on our cultural pre-conceptions. Before making an ethical judgement, it is necessary to gather as much information about the issue as possible, noting the different arguments for and against, and investigating the possible implications and results of the decision. For example, it is not sufficient to oppose joining the European single currency (Euro) merely because of an emotional desire to keep the Pound Sterling. To make an adequate decision, it is necessary to make careful consideration of many issues, including the effect on national sovereignty, and potential loss of political decision-making to Europe, as well as economic advantages and disadvantages.

As Christians, we believe that we have God's revealed truth in the Bible, from which we should be able to discern ultimate right and wrong, and find answers to our ethical dilemmas. The Bible gives us a definition of what is good, based on God's character; and what is right, based on God's will and commands; and he calls us to be imitators of him. However, the majority of modern ethical controversies are not specifically addressed in the Bible. Also, many modern ethical issues are very complex, so the average Christian often feels that they are too ignorant to enter into the arguments, and would rather leave decisions on these issues to the so-called experts.

One persistant weakness in the Evangelical Church has often been an over-simplistic use of the Scriptures, quoting one verse or proof-text to end the discussion on the particular ethical issue. They say, "The Bible says ...", and close the subject. This can give a sense of safety and security for the Christian, but is not a satisfactory method of solving ethical questions, as it can lead to a conclusion which is not really in line with the full Biblical revelation. It also confirms the impressions of the unbeliever that Christians are intolerant and unthinking. It is really a misuse of the Bible. To avoid an incorrect application of the Bible, it is essential that we take account of both the context of the verse in the passage, as well as its literary, cultural and historical context. The conclusion we come to has to be true to the overall revelation of God's character given through the whole Bible, and there needs to be a consistent teaching on the issue in a number of different places in the Scriptures. When considering issues not immediately addressed in the Bible we need to look for wider principles of God's revelation which are relevant to the issue. For example, because neither abortion nor euthanasia are specifically mentioned in the Bible, we need to apply the creation principle that man is made in God's image, and therefore human life has a special quality, which is different from the animals.

For all people, whether Christian or non-Christian, there are three main approaches that are used in making ethical decisions, examples of all of which are found in the Bible, but they each have their strengths and weaknesses.

1. Ethics based on rules

The first approach to ethics is based on rules. These rules can be derived from different sources, including the law of the land, or particularly from a religious book. The advantage of a rules-based approach to ethical issues is that it seems simple, merely needing obedience to a written rule. However it is totally impossible to have a book which contains relevant rules for every conceivable ethical situation, even though the modern legal system increasingly attempts to do this. There is support for this approach, in that the Bible does contain many rules for living. However, it does not attempt to cover every possible situation, but instead gives principles to apply when specific rules are not given. One of the jobs of the priests in the Old Testament was to listen to peoples' grievances and then interpret and apply the law to these specific cases. We need to develop the bible-study skills to be able to so the same.

The use of the rules-based approach on its own is insufficient, as it does not take account of the motives or results of the actions. It is all too possible to obey rules, but with the wrong motives, and even achieve results opposite to those intended. The exclusive use of the rules-based approach can quickly lead to legalism, when keeping the rules becomes a source of pride, and care for the individual becomes secondary to obedience to the rules. Sometimes the original intended purpose of the rule becomes lost in scrupulous adherence to the details of the rules. A clear example is in Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees, particularly when he came into conflict with their Sabbath regulations. In their dedication to be obedient to every detail of the law, they missed the main point of the law, that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mk 2:27). It was intended to be a blessing, not a heavy burden! They opposed Jesus healing people on the Sabbath, saying that healing was work, missing the fact that God loved people and that his primary motive was to do good to them. His desire was to bless his people with a special day of rest and fellowship with God and one another each week.

2. Ethics based on motives

The second approach looks at motives, taking into consideration the purpose for the action, and recognising that it is possible to perform the right action with the wrong motives (like the Pharisees above), and that it is also possible have good motives to do a wrong action. An example of this would be whether it would be right to break the speed limit in order to rush an injured person to hospital. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus showed great interest in people's motives, saying that prayers and religious activity motivated by pride and a desire to impress others would not be heard by God (Mt 6:7-8). The disadvantage with the motives approach is that it becomes possible to make up some excuse for any action, however evil, with the result that all decisions become relative, with no absolute standards. This is the problem with much of modern secular ethics, and it is not an adequate approach on its own.

3. Ethics based on results

The third approach is more concerned with results. A choice is made by looking at the consequences of each possible choice. If the result is generally good for the majority of the people, then the choice is thought to be the right one. The legal system of most nations is based on this approach, emphasising the negative consequences of a particular action: "If you do this, you will be punished". Jesus certainly used this approach when he taught about the eternal consequences of people's lifestyle, promising eternal bliss for those who love and obey him, and eternal judgement for those who remain in a life of sin.

There are some significant benefits of considering results, as it compels people to consider seriously the consequences of their actions. Most young people today will probably not be impressed with rules quoted from the Bible saying that having sex with their boy or girl friend is wrong, saying, "We love each other, it cannot be wrong". In the past the threat of eternal judgement would have had some effect, when there was a far higher level of the fear of the Lord in society generally. Today they will probably be more influenced by stories and testimonies showing the negative effects of promiscuity on health and future relationships, and statistics showing that people who abstained from pre-marital sex have better marriages. This argument is effective because there are good reasons for the rules. God's commandments are right because he made us and therefore knows the best way for us to live.

The great danger with focussing exclusively on results is the mentality easily develops into the "end justifies the means". Rules and principles can be laid aside to get an apparently beneficial result and any negative consequences for the minority are ignored, to benefit the majority.

It is necessary to use a balance of all three approaches, as there are dangers in the exclusive use of any one of them. Jesus used all three in his teaching. He gave rules, was deeply concerned with people's motives, and frequently spoke about eternal results.

Natural law

Another, more intangible and controversial basis of decision making is from what is called natural law. This is something that most people use without realising it. People often say, "This is wrong", or "This is right", but they could not necessarily say why, apart from saying "It is obvious!". People are making ethical decisions from their own sense of right and wrong, based on reason and intuition, rather than on divine revelation.

Paul alluded to natural law in Romans chapter two, when he declared that Gentiles who do not have the Old Testament law actually unknowingly keep the law because, "what the law requires is written on their hearts" (Rom 2:15). Because humans are made in the image of God, they have moral standards stamped on their nature because God has put them there, whether the individuals believe in God or not. Natural law says that God's law will match the knowledge of right and wrong that people already have within them. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about this, and through him, the theory of natural law became the foundation of much of Catholic theology. He taught that God's government of the world is revealed through three sets of laws which should work together without contradiction These are: natural law - the universal moral principles of the universe, human law in the law codes of nations, and divine law given by revelation in the Scriptures.

There are several criticisms of the use of natural law as a basis of Christian ethics. One is that it does not sufficiently acknowledge the effect of the Fall on human nature. All humans now have a sinful nature, which distorts and blurs the image of God within them, but without totally obscuring it. Because of this, people have very different opinions of what is right and wrong, and do not naturally follow God's standards of behaviour. Therefore, it is dangerous to rely exclusively on natural law, without also submitting to divine revelation. Another criticism is that there is no globally recognised standard of right and wrong. Different peoples and cultures around the world often have very different moral standards, although some anthropologists emphasise the similarities between cultures more than the differences.

Conscience

God has also placed in each of us a conscience, an in-built sense of right and wrong, which can also be used as a basis of making ethical decisions. There are different views of what the conscience actually is. God can speak to us personally through our consciences (if we listen!). But this is very subjective, and therefore not totally reliable, and therefore needs to be tested against an objective reading of the Scriptures. A more secular view is that the conscience is merely human emotion, and develops from our childhood. However people experience great changes in conscience, particular after conversion to Christ.

The conscience is very sensitive and is easily damaged by sin. When a person first commits a particular sin, they may experience strong feelings of guilt, but if the sin is repeated, there are progressively weaker guilty feelings, until none are felt at all. At this point the conscience has become seared (1 Tim 4:2). Ignorance also makes the conscience ineffective. Even though ignorance of the law is no excuse, we will not feel guilty about breaking a law we do not know about. For example, a person who has been brought up in a situation where sexual promiscuity is normal will not have feelings of guilt when they follow the example given by their parents. Other people have an over-sensitive conscience and will feel guilty about doing something which is not actually sinful, normally because they have been taught particular religious observances, which may be considered to be legalisms by others, like standards of dress and what they are allowed to do on Sunday.

Conclusion

As each of these approaches to ethical decisions has its strengths and weaknesses, we need to make use of a combination of them to come to satisfactory decisions. There is a great need for Christians to gain confidence in using these methods to wrestle with today's complex ethical issues and bring the truth of God's word to a world which is crying out for answers.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John
Jude

Revelation

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Jewish Calendar
The Importance of Paradox
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
OT People Search
Ephah Converter (volumes)
Holy War in the Ancient World
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Tithing
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah


Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
Israel Museum Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS