Situation Ethics

Forty and fifty years ago, Christian preachers of every stripe, color and denomination so soundly and roundly condemned this philosophical principle that people have feared to even utter the words lest they be laughed at for their stupidity as they be spirited away by hell’s flame-winged demons.

I have no fear of these two words situation ethics. I have no fear of the philosophical principle which they describe.

And I have no fear of people who would roundly and soundly condemn me for uttering them, and defending even a part of that principle.

Part of it is what I wish to defend, and all that I wish to defend.

As long as we all understand that it does not supersede scripture.

And that the end does not justify the means.

There are serious difficulties and aspects of the principle that are just plain wrong — and by that, I mean indefensible in light of scripture. But there is also a truth or two at its core that we cannot, must not so easily dispense with.

One of Satan’s most powerful tools in the war against Christianity is his myth that any given action must-be-and-is intrinsically (of itself) either right or wrong.

And we have swallowed that lie as if it were a draught from the river of life itself.

Let me state this plainly:

Not every possible action we can take is, in and of itself, morally right or morally evil.

Some actions are morally neutral. We perform thousands of them each day: Tying a shoe. Walking out of a house. Driving away in a car.

It is the situation in which those actions or objects are found that can make them morally right or morally wrong.

Tying someone else’s shoes together without their knowledge is wrong. Tying your own shoes together is stupid, but at least you’re only wronging yourself.

Walking out of a house that is on fire without telling anyone else that it is aflame is wrong.

Driving away in a car you’ve just stolen is wrong.

You get the point.

Even scripture recognizes this.

Paul wanted to take with him on his mission trips a young man named Timothy, who had not been circumcised. In order for Timothy to enter a synagogue (where Paul initially always went on those trips), he needed to be circumcised. There was nothing wrong with it circumcision just wasn’t a prerequisite to salvation (Acts 15). Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3).

On a trip back to Jerusalem, however, Titus would not be compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3) because it would have seemed to support that false doctrine, that circumcision was a prerequisite to salvation.

Is circumcision morally right or wrong?

Well, obviously, in one situation it helped the gospel and in another situation it hindered the gospel.

Isolated example, you say?

Then you need to read the entirety of Paul’s letter to Rome, but especially Romans 14. Believers were asking Paul to make rules about whether it was right or wrong to celebrate certain holidays; whether it was faithful or evil to eat meat of unknown origin; meat which might have been partially sacrificed in honor to a pagan god or idol. Paul’s response is that the good or evil of it is in your own heart; follow your conscience. If you violate your conscience, you do evil. But you cannot violate someone else’s conscience nor can they violate yours, because a conscience is a deeply personal, individually formed thing.

Christian speakers of a previous generation would have liked for Romans 14 to have ceased to exist, and they avoided and refuted it (by re-interpreting or limiting it) as much as possible. Having every action declarable as right or wrong makes things easier to control; makes it easier to judge and condemn others and frankly, too much of Christianity has been in the business of doing those things for so many centuries that a blanket condemnation of situation ethics was a very comforting blanket indeed.

Don’t start on me. There have always been, and always will be, scriptural injunctions against specific acts of evil and encouragements to specific acts of virtue. They will not change. Ever. God meant for us to discern good and evil, or the potential for it would never have been placed in the garden east of Eden, right next to the tree of life. (This, by the way, is where the principle of situation(al) ethics goes awry; it does not ask if loving God is important or if expressing it by obeying His will for us is important. It considers only love for others.)

Don’t warn me of the slippery slope. Every day we live and breathe and have our being; every moment we make moral choices, we’re facing a slippery slope. Each time we sin, it gets a little easier. It doesn’t matter what the sin is. Each time we sin, we drive a little more wedge between ourselves and God.

That’s why it’s so vitally important that we understand that this world of choices was never created in moral black and white or even just shades of grey, but in every conceivable, perceivable color and hue and shade and texture and sound and smell.

God put man in the garden to see what he would do; to see what he would name the animals; to see if man would understand that there is a difference between good and not-good, and that being alone is not-good. God gave man choice in order for him to be able to discern good from evil because He knew that we learn best by doing. Man chose the easy way, the knowledge of good and evil in one great gulp — and learned the hard way that evil has consequences and that evil separates one from God.

That was the situation God put man in.

He puts us in our situations to be able to discern good from evil, too; to act out our own ethics and learn from the experience; to taste what is good and see that it is good and to taste what is evil and to see that while it is pleasurable and self-satisfying and seems good to self, self, self … it is bitterness and poison and death in the end.

Now this puts us in very uncomfortable territory. It would just be easier to have a big book of rules and follow the rules and make God happy and generally be ignorant about life and discernment and wisdom. It would be easier for God to just keep everyone under control by giving us a big book of rules and smiting anyone who disobeys.

But that violates the very nature of God, the very meaning of the Word/ Logos, the very Spirit of Holiness. Because that one Word which makes sense out of everything that’s hard to discern is love.

God IS love.

Love the Lord your God with everything that is within you and is you.

Love your neighbor as dearly as you love yourself.

Do this, and you have the key, the linchpin on which the law hangs and the world revolves.

In any situation, it is the defining ethic.

In matters clearly defined by scripture, follow scripture. It is God’s word; God’s revelation of His very nature and His will for us. But it is not a mere rule book. It does not cover every possible and conceivable action, let alone every situation in which that action can be taken. If you’re not sure about any action you feel compelled to consider; doctrine you’ve been taught … if you can’t find it in scripture (not everything God would like to see us do and become is explicitly spelled out there!), then measure it by this golden rule:

Do for others as you would have them do for you.

That’s the way God operates. That’s the way Jesus lived and lives in you. That’s the way the Spirit moves.

He has given and given and given. He has loved and loved and loved. He wants the joy found in that life to be yours, forever.

There is no joy in judging others.

He does not want that for you.

That will be His task, as little joy as it must give Him in far too many cases, for He alone is competent, worthy, righteous, just, merciful, forgiving, perfect.

We are not.

That, my dear ones, is the situation in which we find ourselves … and find our God … and find that He has placed us.

For our own good. For everyone’s own good. And for His own good.

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21 thoughts on “Situation Ethics

  1. Keith: My name is Greg Gwin. I preach for the Collegevue Church of Christ in Columbia, TN. I just found your blog – in fact, it was forwarded to me by someone else. I read your comments about situation ethics with great interest. I’d have some differences with some of your conclusions, and that’s why I’m writing. We do an Internet program called ‘The Virtual Bible Study’. It airs via live audio and video streaming every Thursday evening at 8pm Central time. Here’s the link: http://www.TheVirtualBibleStudy.com . Would you do us the favor of an interview on this topic? While we disagree to some extent, I assure you that we would conduct the discussion in a fair and courteous way. You can check out some of our past programs where we have interviewed people from various denominations, etc. We’d love to have a 30 minute phone discussion to search out this issue more thoroughly. Would you be available this Thursday? or some upcoming Thursday evening? Thanks!

      • OK, sorry we won’t be able to discuss this – would be informative and helpful. I am surprised that you declined after your comments in the blog . . . “I have no fear of these two words situation ethics. I have no fear of the philosophical principle which they describe. And I have no fear of people who would roundly and soundly condemn me for uttering them, and defending that principle.”

  2. Keith, I know you have read, Romans – Chapter 3 and Romans – Chapter 6 .
    Rom 6:1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
    Rom 6:2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
    Jhn 8:34 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.

    No the situation you find yourself in does not alter the word of God, the situation should be altered.It your ethics or morals are based on anything other than the “Word of God” they should change when you become a Christian.

  3. Why don’t you square your attack on the CFTF lectureship speakers and attendees with your comment here on “there is no joy in judging others.” It seems to have given you great pleasure to do so, before you wrote this article. But then liberalism has never been known for its consistency.

    • What is and what seems to be are very different things, brother.

      How do you detect pleasure when you read what someone has written? What indicates that I find joy in seeing what others have done that I believe displeases God?

      Was I attacking? What made it seem so?

      There is no joy in judging others. There should not be. It should not be taking place, at CFTF or this blog or anywhere else. We are to judge actions and words OF others, though – and love requires that we approach them if those words and actions are not consistent with God’s will. If that is what has taken place at CFTF, then my fears are unfounded.

      Is that what has happened there?

  4. You arrogate to yourself the rights to yourself in these matters, but deny the same to your opponents. There is a Biblical word for such a practice. It is obvious to anyone who can see through a ladder, as Brother Wallace often said. Your rationalization of what you do will not avail you before the Judgment bar of Him with whom we all have to do, Keith. I believe you know that deep down, even if your behavior ignores it.

  5. Thomas Warren often said that “liberals are people who believe that everyone has a right to his own opinion, just as long as that opinion is the one they hold.” That seems to be true of what is to be seen on this blog.

    • I’m sorry, Howard; you have me at a disadvantage. I can reply to specific complaints with examples cited; I am at a loss for a response to vapid generalizations.

      If you want my opinion on labels like “liberal” or “conservative,” feel free to search for those terms on my blog.

      If you are interested in what I think about final judgment, you can search for that, too.

      If, brother, you have no good answer to my questions, then just be honest, admit it and withdraw.

      Forgive me if I don’t spend a lot more time responding.

      I have a family to pray for.

  6. Keith, you have no real questions to answer other than those in your obviously self-contradictory and vapid thinking. Your snippy response is typical of one who cannot handle the simple fact of his hypocrisies being pointed out. You practice what you condemn. You decry things, and then use the same things you decry. You prate against judging, while doing it all along yourself, even as your snippy comment above intimates yet again. You need to add some prayer time for repentance on your part while you’re praying. Meanwhile, I too shall continue to pray for your family as well as for you to come to your senses. May God indeed give you the space to repent! I know that’s not a popular message with the liberal crowd — the idea that God will indeed punish false teachers. If you have a problem with that fact, then take it up with the Management; I did not write the Scriptures (cf. 2 Peter 2:1-22).

    • I do believe God will punish false teachers.

      Why do you think I wrote the article “Time to Pray for My Friends Again”?

      I’ve been clear there that I believe it is wrong to judge people, but asked of us by scripture to judge words and actions, and to reach out to them with your concerns about what they might be saying or doing that is not in accord with scripture.

      I expressed my fear in that article, and it engendered a response.

      If you feel that I judged wrongly by the method I used — which is the method used by the folks at CFTF — then you must feel that they judge wrongly by the method they use.

      That is simple logic.

      • Again, you do not catch your own self-contradiction — “I’ve been clear there that I believe it is wrong to judge people, but asked of us by scripture to judge words and actions,..” The folks on the CFTF program do what you claim we ought to do in the second clause, but you condemn them for doing so! You arrogate to yourself and your cronies rights you forbid to your opponents. You do not even see the glaring hypocrisy in your actions. Well, all you continue to prove is that you haven’t really haven’t been “loved” until you’ve been “loved” by liberals!

  7. BTW your article rails against brethren who oppose situation ethics, while your own version of the doctrine is not even what situation ethics properly defined entails. It shows that either you don’t really have a clue as to what the doctrine of situation ethics really is (and thus also not a clue relative to your criticisms of brethren opposing it), or you know better and are being disingenuous here for whatever is your purpose. In logic, which you obviously despise, that would involve a strong disjunctive.

    • My article here protests those who throw out the baby with the bathwater … who are so anxious to discredit the entirety of the situation ethics doctrine that they declare that love does not help determine a course of action not specifically treated by scripture. I think that purpose is clear to most people who read this article.

      You keep accusing me of despising logic, but I don’t. I distrust people who elevate their own logic and conclusions to the same level of reliability as scripture. I was clear about that in the article where we began our conversation, brother.

  8. Your article evidences that you do not know what situation ethics really holds. That’s the point. You are typically attacking a straw-man. You are painting brethren who oppose situation ethics as rubes and dolts, when in fact you have misunderstood (if not misrepresented) what situation ethics really entails.
    Furthermore, it is not a matter of elevating one’s logic to the status of the Scriptures, but properly using logic to interpret them. You attack people who do so, and have to resort to the same processes in order to do it. That, again, is, at the very least, hypocrisy, as you claim that you do not fear logic itself.
    Liberals smugly ridicule, for example, the role of implication in Bible authority. Yet, if implication has no place at all, then no text of the Scriptures could in any way apply to any living human being today, because no living human being is directly addressed in the Scriptures. One must reason deductively (entailing implication) to reach the conclusion that a particular text (any text) applies to him or her. Liberalism is self-defeating in its own smugness.

    • You’ll have to point out to me where I said “rubes” and “dolts.”

      I use logic all the time. You can’t help it. I don’t oppose it. You said that.

      It’s obvious that neither of us will persuade the other. I’m sorry that you’ve been driven to the point of insult and reading motives and judging me by them, when clearly only God can know them, and only God can judge.

      I think we’re done here.

  9. It’s in your absurd use of tying one’s shoes as an example to attack those who oppose situation ethics. No one I know of among brethren who have opposed situation ethics in their preaching has ever asserted that every action is innately good or evil. To attack a straw-man by such means is disingenuous, to say the least.
    You use insult against your opponents, and then decry it when you feel insulted by the responses of one of them?! That’s yet another amazing example of hypocrisy. Well, I have learned to expect no better from the liberals in our Brotherhood. Again, you judgmentally condemn the CFTF folks for doing what you say one ought to do — judge according to the works and words that others do and use. Why do you not address the extensive documentation that was presented by each writer on the books reviewed, for example, in their lectureships on the books covered? Do you prefer to curse the dark rather than light a candle? If genuine error is documented to have been found in these works, and if false teachers are to be punished (as you have admitted), then why not either call upon the brethren guilty of that false teaching to repent or else show that what was documented to have been taught by them to be true the Bible? I suspect you know that such would be to bite off far more than you are willing to chew. And at that I bid, adieu! You cannot say that you have not been “looked in the I.”

  10. If you would like to listen to the radio program, which I did decline, the link to it is here: http://www.collegevuechurch.com/mp3/VBS_02_21_13.mp3 . The tenor of the discussion there, with multiple hosts, confirms my suspicion that I was being goaded into something I simply didn’t want to be a part of.

    I did respond to some comments here on the blog and I was not afraid to do so, nor was I afraid to respond to these gentlemen on the air of their radio program. But a wise person avoids an ambush, and given the content of the other programs that the link led me to, I think I was wise to avoid it.

    Fully one-third of the time was spent examining my character for declining, rather than going into an examination of the points of the blog.

    The timing of this blog was unfortunate in the extreme; it was something that had been on my heart to write about for some time. I had hoped to follow it up with an examination of the basic principles of situation ethics — which have a biblical basis — but the error in logic that occurs when applying them to the extreme. When Angi receieved her initial diagnosis of possibly advanced pancreatic cancer, there was no way to proceed. Everything in my life went on hold but my family, and it was not possible to share that information until the diagnosis was confirmed by testing a week later.

    My primary difference with those who hosted the program is their contention that situation ethics only refers to morally wrong acts being held to be right when done in love. That, in fact, is the extreme application that Fletcher and others made the error of jumping to — in ignoring a love for God and a recognition of His will for us. This post only dealt with the broader definition of the term, which I still believe to be accurate in its examination of ANY act, some of which simply are morally neutral.

    (And I was the one who was accused of arguing a straw man and proceeding from a false assumption.)

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