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.