Whatever Happened to Christian Ethics?: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Over the past four or five years I’ve read and heard a load of pronouncements emerging from those who identify as Christians. Strangely, at least to me, most of these pronouncements have been political, even though they have been delivered covered with a thin veneer of theology. We have been told who we should vote for and why based upon prophecies, biblical proof texts and the promise of a “Christian nation”. Of course, Jesus never spoke of such things, but that seems to be beside the point for those who speak to these matters with such conviction.
Bad history has been employed in order to bolster bad theology. The Capitol insurgent who donned a George Washington costume and then assumed the posture of prayer (for photographers) as his compatriots battered in doors and windows and attacked policemen could be used as an example of bad history. Our founding fathers did not intend to establish an evangelical paradise but something far more difficult, that being a constitutional representative democracy. They had no interest in a theocratic state. These were men of the Enlightenment, whose views on religion would, for the most part, be eschewed by most modern evangelicals. This is not intended to offend either the 18th century Deists or 21st century evangelicals, but merely a statement of fact.
So, over these years we have had some pretty bad theology mixed with some bad history overlaid with numerous questionable resorts to scripture. There is one area, however, that it seems to me that we have heard nothing about whatsoever and that is ethics, or more properly, Christian ethics.
At one time, Christian ethics (also known as moral theology) held pride of place among believers of all sorts and conditions. I am old enough to remember the continuing furor over Joseph Fletcher’s book, ‘Situation Ethics’ as his views were debated in churches and seminaries for decades. Over these past four or five years, however, I have heard precious little ethical debate or consideration emerge from most churches. Indeed, we seem to have abrogated any discussion of ethics to the relevant committees in the House and the Senate.
Whatever happened to Christian ethics?
A Christian ethic encompasses two aspects which are inter-related. The first aspect has to do with personal virtue which involves the formation of an ethical character. The second aspect is that by which we assess choices in which the choice made is based upon whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of understood rules of conduct, rather than based upon the consequences of the action. In classic moral theology, the ethical character that we seek to emulate is that of God as revealed in the person of Christ. Likewise, our rules of conduct are drawn from the teachings of Christ and the manner in which those teachings have been understood and taught by the Church through the centuries. All this is to say, character counts. The choices that we make count.
I believe, however, that the reason we hear so little concerning Christian ethics is because, for the most part, we have abandoned them in favor of a secular ethic of pragmatism in which the means (that assessment of choices mentioned above) do not matter so long as they move us to a desired end, which, of course, we always convince ourselves is godly or for the greater good. In this secular pragmatic ethic, virtue and character are of little importance. Likewise, the choices we make along the way are not judged on the basis of right and wrong, but rather on the basis of expediency and they may be made in the moment.
In much of the Church we have strayed so far from an understanding of Christian ethics as to make the debates over ‘Situation Ethics’ in past years to be laughable. Even the words, ‘virtue’, ‘character’, ‘rules of conduct’ now seem to come from a different age. I would suggest, however, until we recover the meaning of Christian ethics, there is little hope of presenting an alternative vision of life to a watching world. Today, in secular society, almost everyone is a pragmatist with a pragmatic ethic. Once upon a time, however, we considered presenting an alternative vision as our reason for being…