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Speaker: Rich Knopp
Dr. Rich Knopp, of Lincoln Christian College in Lincoln, Illinois
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“Biblical Ethics and Absolutes:
Considerations for Personal and Social Ethics”
Madison Park Christian Church
Rich Knopp, Ph.D. firstname.lastname@example.org Prof. of Philosophy & Apologetics Lincoln Christian College & Seminary Program Director, WorldViewEyes www.worldvieweyes.org
Philippians 2:14-15 “... prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, Children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”
I. Morality and Absolutes:
A. Disturbing stats
- Barna study: 66% of Americans believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth.
- 70% of teens: “There is no such thing as ‘absolute truth”; two people could define ‘truth’ in conflicting ways and both could still be correct” (Barna, Real Teens, p. 93).
- 81% of teens: agree that when it comes to morals and ethics, “truth means different things to different people” (only 17% disagree) (Third Millennium Teens, 44). [Henceforth, TMT]
- 47% of teens: the question of moral truth is something they have never really thought about. Another 8% say they’ve considered it but not reached a decision. (TMT, 42).
- Only 15% of teens say there are moral absolutes that are unchanging (Barna, TMT, 42).
- Just 9% of all teens are certain that absolute moral truth exists (TMT, 42)
- 1999 study: 65% of high school seniors had had sexual intercourse, and 39% of 9th graders had done so (see Kaiser Family Foundation Aug 2000 Fact Sheet).
B. Disturbing statements
- Gallup’s research has concluded that “there is little difference in the ethical views of the church and the unchurched....”
- George Barna, (The Frog in the Kettle, p. 22) states: “Let's face it: If we do not stand up for Christian moral principles nobody will.”
- “Now if selves are defined by their preferences, but those preferences are arbitrary, then each self constitutes its own moral universe, and there is finally no way to reconcile conflicting claims about what is good in itself” (Robert Bella et al., Habits of The Heart: Individualism and Commitment In American Life [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985], p. 76).
II. Comparing Different Ethical Systems
A. Key Questions to Ask of Any Ethical System
- How well does it identify what is right and wrong?
- Is it Objective or Subjective?
- Can it give us any Absolutes that apply to everyone (“universals”) or is everything ultimately relative to an individual or a particular society?
- Would it be “livable” if applied consistently?
- What motivation is there for following it?
- What provisions are offered to help one deal with moral failure?
B. Alternative Ethical Systems
1. Relativistic ethics
- Right/Wrong based on personal feelings or mere social standards.
- Cannot be universal or consistently lived.
- Give no basis for any moral criticism or condemnation.
2. “Act-based” ethics (cf. legalism)
- Right/Wrong based on actions in themselves.
- Criticism: no consideration for consequences, motives, or the situation.
3. Situation Ethics
- What’s right or wrong depends on the situation.
- Often based on motive: “It’s right if you do it out of love.”
- In principle, any act can be right.
- No specific guidance on what action is right.
Dr. Rich Knopp, “Biblical Ethics & Absolutes” Page 1
- Right and wrong are determined by the consequences.
- The right action (or rule followed) leads to the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
- Can’t really know the future consequences.
- Something that gives greater happiness to many could mean terrible injustice for a few.
C. General Characteristics of a Christian Ethic.
- It is an objective ethic. It bases its principles on something outside our personal feelings.
- It is an absolute or universal ethic. It holds that some ethical principles apply absolutely and will not change according to time or place.
- It is a livable ethic (if applied consistently).
- It offers the highest and noblest motivations.
III. Christian Ethics and Moral Absolutes
A. Some Preliminary Questions about Christian ethics
- Do the absolutes apply exclusively to actions?
- Do moral absolutes ever conflict with each other? If so, how are these handled?
- Is it possible for the same action to be right for one person but wrong for another person?
- To what extent, if at all, does Christian ethics involve considerations about the situation?
- To what extent, if at all, does Christian ethics involve considerations about the consequences of actions?
- To what extent, if at all, does Christian ethics involve considerations about the motives of actions?
B. Some preliminary claims
- Christian ethics has absolutes, but they are not to be naively or simplistically applied.
- Christian ethics does give consideration to situations, to motives, and to consequences.
- Christian ethics recognizes that absolutes can conflict, and it offers some guiding principles in these cases.
- Christian ethics stipulates both personal morality and social obligations (cf. personal and social ethics).
IV. Biblical Principles for a Christian Ethic
A. A Christian ethic should consider all the following, not just actions.
- The Action: that which is done or not done
- The Agent: the one who does the action
- The Situation: the context in which the agent acts
- The Consequences: the results or effects of an agent’s action
B. A Christian ethic is an absolutist ethic that considers the morality of specific ACTIONS. Some ACTIONS are objectively, universally, and eternally right or wrong.
1. Old Testament
- 613 different commandments
- 248 ‘positive’ commands
- 365 ‘negative’ commands
2. The New Testament does not retain all the ceremonial requirements, but it still indicates that some actions, in themselves, are absolutely wrong.
- Some actions are matters of Morality.
- 1 Cor 6:9-10 “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
- Col 3:5-6 “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come.”
- 1 Thess 4:2-3,8 “For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God … that you abstain from sexual immorality …. So he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.”
- Cf. Romans 1:20-32; Galatians 5:19-24; Ephesians 5:3-13; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; Ephesians 4:29.
- Some actions are matters of Legality.
- We are told to “be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1).
- If we disobey such authority, Paul says that we “oppose the ordinance of God” (Rom 13:2).
- If an act is “illegal” in the eyes of the government and God’s Word does not speak to it otherwise, you are morally obligated to abide by it.
C. A Christian ethic is also concerned about the moral worth of the human AGENT—the person doing the action.
1. Your Motive: (See Matthew 6:1-5; 23:5,25-28)
a. One major problem with focusing just on actions is that it easily leads to “legalism”—where we are only concerned with external acts.
Dr. Rich Knopp, “Biblical Ethics & Absolutes” Page 2
- Wrong motives will condemn you even if you are performing the right act.
- Just because you do the right things, or don’t do the wrong things, this does not automatically mean that you are morally “right” or have “moral worth.”
- Just doing the right acts does not, in itself, give you moral worth in God’s sight.
- There’s more to a biblical ethic than just thinking about the list of acts that you should or should not do.
- Proper acts must be done with the right “heart” (Matt. 15:7-9).
- Good actions done with the primary purpose of being “seen by others” can be condemned by God (Matt. 6: 1-4; 23:5-7,27-28).
- Your level of knowledge or ignorance. (See Lk 23:34; Heb 6:4-6; Heb. 10:26-27; 2 Peter 2:20-22)
- Your will (See Rom. 1:32)
- Sometimes you can be morally/spiritually wrong even if you don’t actually do the action.
- If you give “hearty approval” to those who practice prohibited behavior, you can fall under God’s condemnation (Rom 1:32).
- Your Conscience: (See 1 Corinthians 7:7-13; 1 Cor. 10:23-33; Romans 13:5; Romans 14:1-23)
- Some people think that everything is either “Black or White.”
- However, biblically speaking, even if an action is morally acceptable or “good,” it can be morally wrong for you to do.
- Rom 14:14 “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything is unclean, to him it is unclean.”
- When we seriously consider this biblical point, then it is true, on some things, that an action can be ‘right’ for one person and ‘wrong’ for another person.
- Yet this does not destroy the idea of moral absolutes.
D. God’s biblical ethic also considers the ethical SITUATION.
- The Bible indicates that there are many different moral absolutes.
- Some absolutes are “weightier” than others.
- Jesus refers to the “weightier matters of the law” (Mt 23:23) and to the “least of the commandments” (Mt 5:19).
- He also states that loving God is “the great and foremost commandment,” and loving one’s neighbor is the “second” greatest commandment (Mt 22:37-39).
- He says that the entire Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments (Mt 22:40).
- This means that it’s possible for us to encounter a situation in which two absolutes conflict with each other.
- The Bible provides some guidance that, if absolutes inescapably conflict, some absolutes should have greater priority than others.1
- Any genuine and unavoidable conflicts between God’s absolutes are VERY infrequent.
- But they are possible.
- E.g. Obey God over government.
- Daniel 3-6; Acts 4 (Peter).
- Yet humbly accept the punishment for civil disobedience (1 Pet 3).
- E.g. Save innocent life over truth-telling.
- Rahab (Joshua 2): Rahab, the harlot, lied in order to save the spies from the nation of Israel, and it appears that she is actually rewarded by God for her behavior (Josh 2:1-14; Heb 11:31).
- Hebrew midwives (Ex 1): The Hebrew midwives disobeyed the nation’s ruler and then lied; yet God blessed them for their action (see Ex 1:15-21).
- This is NOT “situation ethics.”
- Unless there is a totally unavoidable conflict—which is very rare—one is morally obligated to keep all of these absolute principles. (Situationism evaluates all acts according to the situation and has just one “absolute”—that of love.)
- If you have to make an exception, you are obligated to keep the absolute of greater “weight.”
- It is an exception that arises only because of the conflict between two different absolutes; the exception does not become the “norm” for ethics.
- A biblical ethic does not naively and simplistically apply absolutes. It recognizes infrequent but possible exceptions. But it does not abandon the existence and relevance of absolutes either.
E. God’s biblical ethic is also concerned about the CONSEQUENCES of actions. (See Romans 2:5-10; Colossians 3:25; Gal. 6:7-9; 1 Cor. 15:32 1 Pet. 2:20.)
1. A Christian morality does not simply consider the consequences to determine the rightness or wrongness of an action.
Loving God has priority over loving man (Mt 22:36-38). Loving God is the “greatest” commandment. (cf. Mt 10:34-37 “he who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me”). Obeying God has priority over obeying the government (Dan 3-6; Acts 4:18-20; 5:27-29; Ex 1:15-21). (Yet we should still be humbling willing to accept the punishment. See 1 Pet 3:18-25.) Meeting significant physical needs has priority over the ‘technicalities’ of the law. E.g. Jesus’ hungry disciples ate grain in the fields and broke Sabbath regulations (Mt 12:1-8). David ate forbidden consecrated bread (1 Sam 21:1-6). Dr. Rich Knopp, “Biblical Ethics & Absolutes” Page 3
2. However, according to a biblical ethic, there are situations when the consequences of a “good” action can make it “wrong.”
- A morally acceptable action can be “wrong” if it creates a “stumbling block” for others.
- And a morally acceptable action can be “sinful” if it leads others to do something that violates their conscience. (It’s not just your conscience that you must consider, it is the conscience of others.)
- Note a couple of important passages on these points:
- Rom 14:20-21 “All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the one who eats and gives offense. It is good not … to do anything by which your brother stumbles.”
- 1 Cor 8:9-13 “But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And thus, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble.”
3. A Christian ethic, therefore, is not a system of just “absolute rights” and “absolute wrongs.”
- Some actions are “absolutely right” and some actions are “absolutely wrong.”
- But there are actions that may be “right” (or morally acceptable) in themselves and yet not be “right” for everyone to do them.
- A particular action in this area can be “right” for one person to do, but “wrong” for a different person to do.
4. Christian morality, even though it rests on moral absolutes, allows for an area of genuine freedom.
- In a sense, one person can rightly be “free” to do a particular act (and be “right”), while another person can be “wrong” in doing the same act.
- However, this “freedom” must be exercised in a manner that considers others.
- Paul gives instructions on how such people are to interact with each other.
- Rom 14:2-3: “One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him.” Another person thinks it’s “wrong.”
- One of the challenges, of course, is knowing what examples apply today.
- In the New Testament, the question was about eating meat that had been offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:7-13).
- Today, it apparently applies to things that are, in themselves and for us individually, morally acceptable— yet things that, if done, can create a stumbling block or lead someone to do an act that violates their conscience.
- Just because an action, in itself, is morally acceptable does not mean that it is the “right” thing to do.
- If you want to live a Christian morality, you must be concerned with how your behavior affects other people, even if it’s technically “okay” for you to do.
- 1 Cor 10:23 “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.”
- Rom 15:2 “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.”
V. Biblical Ethics and Specific Social Obligations2 (Rom 13:8-10 “… he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law…. it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”)
A. Responsibilities to one’s own
1. To one’s self
- Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18,34; Mt 19:19; 22:39; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jam 2:8).
- 1 Thess 4:11-12 “… tend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.”
- 1 Thess 3:10 “… if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.”
2. To one’s family
- 1 Tim 5:8 “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he had denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
- 1 Tim 5:16 “If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed.”
3. To fellow believers in the church
- Gal 6:10 “… let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”
- 1 Jn 3:17 “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?”
See Norman Geisler, “The Christian and Social Responsibility,” chap. 10 in Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), pp. 178-195.
Dr. Rich Knopp, “Biblical Ethics & Absolutes” Page 4
c. James 2:15-16 “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?”
B. Responsibilities to all (Gal 6:10; 1 Tim 6:18 “Instruct them [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share”; Heb 13:16 “do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased”)
1. To the poor
- Mosaic provisions for the poor (Lev 19:9; Lev 25:35).
- Is 10:1-2 “Woe to those who enact evil statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of My people of their rights, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans.”
- Amos 8:4-9 [The Lord will not forget the deeds of those who “trample the needy.”]
2. To widows and orphans
- Ex 22:22-23 “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan….”
- Deut 24:19 [the forgotten sheaf of harvest “shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the Lord may bless you in all the work of your hands.”]
- Deut 26:12-13 [a required tithe every 3rd year is to be given “to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.”]
- 1 Tim 5:3 “Honor widows who are widows indeed.”
- James 1:27 “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress ….”
3. To anyone in genuine need
- Lk 10:27-37 [“Who is my neighbor?”]
- Matt 25:34-46 [Reward and condemnation are based on our actions toward the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.]
4. To the slaves and oppressed
- Deut 23:15 “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you.”
- Ezek 18:5-9 [The righteous person is described as the one who “does not oppress anyone … gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing ….”]
5. To the ruling authorities
- Rom 13:1-7 “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities ….”
- Titus 3:1 “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed.”
- 1 Peter 2:13-14 “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.”
A. A truly biblical ethic provides what is necessary and desirable for individuals and societies.
B. It gives principles that are:
- Objective and Absolute, not Subjective and Relative.
- Universal and Unchanging.
- Adequate for the complexities of life.
C. It identifies actions that are morally right and wrong, and gives us a sufficient standard for living.
D. But it does not simply apply rules and totally disregard tough issues and even exceptions.
E. It is a morality that gives us freedom, but not the kind of freedom that can be used as an excuse for doing evil (Gal 5:13; 1 Pet 2:16).
F. It is a morality that provides the highest motivation to follow.
- Based on love (i.e., obeying God and loving others because God loves you and because you love Him). See Rom 5:8; 1 Jn 3:16-17; 4:9-11,19-21.
- Based on eternal considerations
- 2 Peter 3:10-13 [The elements “will be burned up, “the heavens will pass away, and Christ will bring a “new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells.” “Since all these things are to be destroyed this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness ....”]
- Col 3:1-6 [put away all evil for “the wrath of God is coming.”]
- 1 Thess 4:3-7 [“… be sanctified” and “avoid sexual immorality…. The Lord will punish men for all such things ….”]
Dr. Rich Knopp, “Biblical Ethics & Absolutes” Page 5