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Ethical Issues

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The Bible in Christian Ethics

 

The Bible rightfully enjoys a place of honor in doing Christian ethics, not only for its moral teachings, but also for providing an appreciation of the communal life of early Christians,  their theological explorations, and their lively sense of the power and presence of Jesus Christ.

How could one do Christian ethics without the Ten Commandments, the eighth century B.C.E. cry of the prophets for justice, the “Sermon” on the “Mount,” the Great Commandment, and the pastoral Paul, sometimes hurling thunderbolts of condemnation, but also pleading the way of love and consideration for the weak of conscience.
     

Unanswered Questions 

Yet it has never been easy to apply biblical teaching to the circumstances in which believers find themselves. Consider the problem faced by Clement of Alexandria in the third century: if Jesus had advised the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor, how was this hard advice to be accommodated to Clement’s comfortably situated clientele? Likewise, from the episode of Jesus’ telling Peter to put his sword back in its sheath (John 18:10-11), Tertullian (circa 200) argued that in ungirding Peter of his sword Jesus was ungirding every Christian. Was this pacifist teaching well founded? Does it make a claim on our consciences today? There are no simple answers.
     

If the insights of the Bible are to be implemented with wisdom and grace, and not to be imposed as “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10), we would be prudent to team biblical ethics: (a) with the moral wisdom embedded in the tradition of the church, (b) with consecrated reason which recognizes our obligation to love God with our minds, and (c) with prayerful openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ promised to send his followers to lead them into all truth (John 16:7-13 ), the Spirit who would assist disciples in discerning what is right, in the midst of puzzling ambiguities. 

Even if the Bible, tradition, reason, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged as working cooperatively in helping us form our moral judgments, we do not overlook the extent to which these judgments are formed—whether we recognize it or not—by the norms of society—for better or for worse, and more often for worse. There is such a thing  as culture-religion. We in the United States with ease carry into our moral consciousness prevailing views on race or capital punishment or gun control or the baptism of greed. 

It will become evident in the following discussion why biblical ethics cannot pull the load by itself, but needs to be harnessed with tradition, reason, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. What then do we actually find in the Bible?

     

Varieties of Biblical Ethics

We discover a wide range of moral teaching and behavior in the Bible, ranging from the sublime rigor of the “Sermon” on the “Mount” to remnants of ancient Israelite folkways. 

To forego the pleasure of viewing the data in the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Wisdom Literature, the Letter of James, the Letters of Paul, and the Jesus Tradition, click on An Approach to Moral Decision Making. 

   The Pentateuch.  

We begin with the well-known Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).

These commandments prohibit the worship of other gods than Yahweh, the God of Israel; prohibit the making and worship of images; prohibit the unworthy use of the divine name, Yahweh; specify the Sabbath (the seventh day of the week, not to be confused with the Christian Sunday, the first day of the week) as a day of rest; require respect of parents; prohibit killing (usually understood as murder); prohibit adultery; prohibit stealing; prohibit perjured testimony; and prohibit covetous attitudes (which might prompt theft or adultery).

We note also the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), not to mention the less well known commandment to love the stranger in your land as yourself.

Leviticus 19:34  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

In addition to these general or apodictic commandments we also find case law, statutes which deal with specific situations, as shown in this sampling of topics: 

•  Dietary regulations (Leviticus 11)
•  Child sacrifice ... Homosexuality ... Bestiality (Leviticus 18)
•  Regulations for gleaning ... Not cursing the deaf or putting stumbling block for blind ... Judicial probity ... Not hating brother in your heart ... No vengeance against one’s own people ... Case of intercourse with slave who is betrothed ... Not eating flesh with blood in it ... Augury and witchcraft ... Tattoos ...  Just weights (Leviticus 19)
•  Due process ... Witnesses ... Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth [lex talionis] (Deuteronomy 19)
•  In war, against some cities, males to be slaughtered, women and children taken as booty; other cities, genocide of all (Deuteronomy 20)
• Inheritance rights of children in case of a man with two wives ... A stubborn son to be stoned (Deuteronomy 21)
•  An escaped slave, not to be returned to master ... No lending upon interest, except to a foreigner (Deuteronomy 23)
•  Divorce procedures (Deuteronomy 24)

•  Forty stripes, as punishment ... Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25)

For a more complete sampling of case law in the Pentateuch, click on Case Law .
     

   The Prophets.  

The prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. build upon earlier covenant ideas, and make a number of significant advances, as is evident from the following sampling.

• Concern for the poor, and their oppression by the rich (Amos 2:6-8; 4:1; 5:10-11; 6:1-7; Isaiah 3:14-15)
• Condemnation of unethical business practices (Amos 8:4-6), and bribery (Amos 5:12; Isaiah 1:23; Micah 3:11)
• Protesting against religious formalism, which performs the required rituals, but neglects social justice:

21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:21-24; cp. Isaiah 1:11-17; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 6:19-21).

• Taking generally an anti-establishment position (Amos 7:10-17; Jeremiah 22:13-19).
• A morality of inwardness, written on the heart, or mind (Jeremiah 31:33)
• An emerging sense of individual moral responsibility (Ezekiel 18:2-4; Jeremiah 31:29-30). The ancient notion of communal connectedness and responsibility, sometimes referred to as “corporate personality,” is manifested in the episode of Achan’s sin (Joshua 7); here in the prophets the idea is enriched, if not entirely displaced, with the principle of moral agency.

 

   The Wisdom Literature. 

These books are pervaded by a simple, and somewhat simplistic, view of virtue and rewards, especially in Proverbs (as in 2:20-22; 16:20; 17:20), and in Psalms 34 and 37. The virtues of truthfulness, hard work, thrift, and domestic fidelity are held up for emulation.  Job and Ecclesiastes are in some respects refutations of this view that the righteous prosper, and the wicked suffer.

In the references to the massacre of the Galileans and the collapse of the Siloam tower (Luke 13:1-5), the Jesus tradition likewise rejects the reward-punishment theory of wisdom literature, without offering a satisfactory alternative.

     

   The Letter of James 

A sampling of New Testament teachings shows a good deal of variety. The wisdom tradition seems to be alive and well in James, which may be regarded as a New Testament wisdom book. Also, a scribal argument is brought in (James 2:9-11) to show that a lapse in the observance of a single law puts one in jeopardy for the whole law. 

James goes beyond wisdom teaching with the enuncation of the parousia or coming of the Lord, who is also judge; thus there is an end-of-time type of reward-punishment scheme, with a crown of life for the virtuous, and, presumably, judgment for the sinner. Virtues and vices are spelled out with some specificity [click on themes for a more complete listing]: 

•  Steadfastness, wisdom, faith, being slow to speak and slow to anger, meekness, bridling the tongue, visiting orphans and widows (presumably, with assistance for them), loving your neighbor, showing mercy, performing good works, being peaceable and gentle, being open to reason, having clean hands and a heart purified, and humility, are all to be encouraged; and

•  Being double-minded, unstable, rich, partial, jealous, ambitious, inclined to controversy, and swearing an oath, are all to be avoided

What James calls the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8), is quoted with approval, but it is not given the central rôle which it has in Paul (Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:8-10) or in the synoptic gospels (Mark 12:28-31 || Matthew 22:36-40 || Luke 10:25-28). 

     

  The Letters of Paul. 

Paul lays down a central, comprehensive, unifying principle. By the time he writes Romans, he is able to formulate the love commandment as the summation and fulfillment of the law (13:8-10; compare Galatians 5:13-14). His poetic essay on agapê (love) in 1 Corinthians 13 is justifiably reckoned as a major contribution to spirituality and ethics. But we also note that this is not the only principle to which he appeals.

Paul, on the permissibility of visiting a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:12-20): If certain Corinthians had felt themselves free from constraints, and thus believed that they were permitted to join themselves to prostitutes, Paul does not deny the principle of freedom, but instead reminds them of the absurdity of their actions: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Corinthians 6:15). How can they join their body to the body of a prostitute if they are members of Christ; or as Paul will later phrase it, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Paul thus gives a Christological and ecclesiological warrant for moral behavior which is distinct from the agapê principle, though not unrelated to it.

Beyond these general principles, Paul offers lists of virtues (Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 4:8), which serve as models of good behavior; and of vices (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 1:26-32), which serve as patterns of conduct to be avoided.

As noted elsewhere [click on discerning], Paul’s moral teachings are partly time-bound and contingent; and partly of perennial value. The prime candidate for a teaching that is of perennial value is surely the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. When agapê is applied to a particular moral problem, Paul’s approach is recognized as possessing perennial value, even if the particular issue, as in the question of eating food offered to idols, is no longer an urgent one.

Paul on food offered to idols: the moral puzzle to be solved in 1 Corinthians 8 is whether the freedom enjoyed by knowledgeable types entitles them to offend the consciences of others who suppose that eating such food involves them in idol worship; Paul proposes that, for love’s sake, the knowing ones should refrain from causing a fellow believer to stumble—the one for whom Christ died. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

It would be ignoring the obvious if we did not also mention that if agapê is the moral basis for considerate behavior, then atonement theory is the theological basis: the fellow believer is the one for whom Christ died (1 Corinthians 8:11).

We now turn to a case where Paul delivers an unexceptionable opinion on the immorality of the behavior, though the proposed punishment, without recourse to agapê, seems rather extreme.

Paul on incest: he issues a straightforward condemnation of the incestuous man (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).

On the issue of homosexuality (currently the subject of considerable discussion), his position seems clear, especially if one accepts the usual understanding of the texts (for an alternative rendering, click on presentations by Gray Temple in texts; and reference a more extended hermeneutics [pp. 8-10, 18-31]):

• Paul on homosexuality: homosexuals are not in very good company; the outlook for them, not promising.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; compare Romans 1:26-27).

It is uncertain whether his opinion would have been different if he had known, as is now reliably claimed, that same-sex orientation, whatever its cause, is not a matter of choice but is something ineradicable. Paul’s position is arguably time-bound and contingent.

As important as agapê is for Paul, it is not clear in the cases mentioned below how his particular moral judgments are grounded in this principle. These are examples of contingent cases:

• Paul on slavery:  he was no abolitionist (1 Corinthians 7:21-24); his shop, or prison cell, was no station on the underground railroad for escaped slaves. (He had a return ticket for Onesimus, as Philemon makes clear.)

Paul on marriage: celibacy is  his preference, for others as well as himself. His view of marriage is at best a concessive one, based on various considerations: a) end-of-time exigency, b) mission urgency, and c) a degree of realism and moral expediency (1 Corinthians 7:6-9); he advises, “If [the unmarried and widows] are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).

Paul on women:  his views, though not unusual for a person of his day, do not earn him a pass on the charge of sexism (1 Corinthians 11:3, 7, 11; 14:33-36 [a later editorial insertion?]).

• Paul on hair- and headware-fashions (1 Corinthians 11:4-14), and the subordinate place of women (1 Corinthians 11:3, 7-9; though parity is suggested in 11:11-12): today there is a fairly substantial consensus that fashions change, and that women are no longer to be relegated to second class status.

Paul’s on a high valuation of the state, and on submission to the emperor (Romans 13:1-7): his sentiments are well-intentioned, but curious (did Nero have some redeeming features we don’t know about?); click on moral issues in Romans. It would of course be anachronistic to expect Paul to sound like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson.

Fortunately, Paul himself acknowledges that on certain issues he has no word of the Lord, but only gives his opinion (1 Corinthians 7:12, 25). We can leave open the possibility that on other issues also he had no word of the Lord.

 

  The Jesus Tradition

For a sampling of moral teachings in the Jesus tradition, we can do no better than to turn to the “Sermon” on the “Mount,” a well organized collection of the sayings of Jesus as they came to the author from his written and oral sources. Especially illuminating are the six contrasts in Matthew 5:21-47 [click on (1-3)  and (4-6), for detailed discussion].
     

• A warning against anger and hatred (Matthew 5:21-24)

• A warning against lust (Matthew 5:27-28)

• The permanence of marriage (Matthew 5:31-32)

• The avoidance of oath taking (Matthew 5:33-37)

• The rejection of retaliation (lex talionis) in favor of reconciliation (Matthew 5:38-42)

• Loving your enemy (Matthew 5:43-47)

• Avoiding preoccupation with treasures (Matthew 6:19-21; compare Luke 12:33, “Sell your possessions, and give alms;” with which compare the episode of the Rich Ruler, Mark 10:17-31) 

• The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12)

Our sampling includes other teachings, as follows:

• Defilement is to be understood not as what goes in [food] but what comes out of a person [fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly] (Mark 7:14-23).

• Jesus refuses to settle a dispute over inheritance (Luke 12:13-14).

• The Great Commandment is affirmed: loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34).

• Jesus provides a functional definition of agapê in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).

• The payment of tribute to Caesar? Jesus seems to say: Figure out for yourself what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (Mark 12:13-17)!

• Though the Jesus tradition provides little basis for supposing that he was committed to social change, it is also true that the tradition generally portrays him as anti-establishment (Mark 11:15-19; 12:38-40; Luke 13:31-34).
    

An Approach to Moral Decision Making

Sola Scriptura?

The Bible is for Christians an invaluable source for moral guidance, as we have earlier affirmed. Nevertheless, our sampling of biblical ethics brings to light the limitations of relying only upon the scriptures as our authority (sola scriptura):

  1. A number of teachings in the Bible are obsolete (most of us do not need guidance on liability exposure in a case where a person is gored by an ox), or morally repulsive (genocide, slavery, sexism), or unresponsive to the requirements of modern economic life (the prohibition of usury).
     

  2. A number of teachings in the Bible have been superseded by kinder, wiser, and sometimes more demanding moral insights, as in the six contrasts of the “Sermon” on the “Mount.” Jesus himself was evidently not reluctant to implement a process of development: the truth is ensured by integrity, not oaths; the lex talionis, a relative good, is displaced by a turn of the cheek, or a second mile; hatred of enemy is to give way to love (agapê). We see a similar process in his virtual termination of the Jewish dietary regulations in Leviticus 11; see Mark 7:14-23. See also comments on the status of the Bible for Jesus and for Paul.
     

  3. But development continues after the close of the biblical period. Today it seems odd, and morally offensive, to be told of a slave’s obligations to his or her master, or of a master’s kindly treatment of his slave (Colossians 3:22 – 4:1; Ephesians 6:5-9), when the evil is slavery, a condition which overrides the freedom and dignity of persons created in the image of God. Similarly, we now know that unqualified obedience to the state (Romans 13:1-7) is perilous to the health of humanity.  

We need look no further than John 16:7-13, to find a warrant for such post-biblical development and the undoubted work of the Holy Spirit in moral discernment: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).
     

  4.  Again, the absence of any biblical teaching on many of today’s urgent questions is problematic, if one depends upon the Bible alone (sola scriptura) for guidance. Down through the centuries, but especially today, Christians have encountered problems to which the Bible provides no ready answers. 

When the Bible informs the reader, “God blessed [the male and female human beings], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Genesis 1:28), 

• What encouragement does this text lend to environmental responsibility? What is to prevent mindless abuse and selfish exploitation of God’s creation, instead of respect and preservation and renewal? The Bible itself does not provide such guidance.

•  What counsel does this text give on population control? Our problem is over-population, not the problem of under-population which was sometimes the case in areas decimated by war, disease and famine in ancient (and medieval) times. 

What guidance does the Bible offer for problems of nuclear proliferation? of world trade policy? of global warming?  of campaign finance reform? of stem cell research? or of artificial insemination?

Some remarks on The Authority of Scripture are relevant to the present discussion.

     

In Search of a Selective Principle

The bewildering array of moral teachings which we have already presented (Varieties of Biblical Ethics)  makes clear the need for a selective principle. Unless such a principle is put to use, we are exposed to the risk of “cherry picking” those biblical rules which we find congenial and ignoring those we do not find so. Such choices are in danger of being subjective and arbitrary. One might, for example:

  • favor biblical provisions which permit divorce, but ignore (as most Christians do, by common consent) the requirement of Sabbath [seventh day] worship and rest—in distinction from the observance of the Lord’s Day [first day]; or
  • favor the lex talionis and capital punishment but ignore loving one’s enemy; or
  • favor polygamy, for which there is biblical warrant, but ignore selling one’s possessions.     

We have not far to look for a guide (a) through the profusion of biblical teaching, and (b) through the daunting landscape of contemporary moral perplexities. For Christian ethics the best guidance is to be found in Jesus himself, his life of service and inclusiveness, the liberating power of his death and resurrection, his teachings, and especially his recognition of the love commandment as the summation of his teachings. (Click for further discussion of his ethical perspective.) Rules which are informed by these considerations are useful, up to a point; nevertheless, the best of rules have their limitations, as may be seen (a) in the fact of ethical dilemmas which people encounter in real life situations, and (b) in the need to leave room for the Holy Spirit to update our moral consciousness.

The centrality of the love commandment for both Jesus and Paul—even James pays tribute to it—should be evidence of its necessity as the guiding principle for which we are searching.

       

Justice: A Corollary of Agapê (Love)

If agapê is selfless concern for others, this principle will imply the quest of justice for members of the human family. Or, to put it differently, to claim to love these members of the human family, but to deny them justice, is to show a lack of that very concern which is central to agapê. This quest for justice will include not only retributive justice, guaranteeing, for example, due process rights, but also distributive justice, which would seek to provide access to good nutrition, housing, environment, education, and medical care, to name a few basic examples. Social structures which deny either retributive or distributive justice constitute human sinfulness as much as violations of the Ten Commandments, and are equally in need of redemption. This concern for justice is not without biblical precedent, as shown already in the work of the great eighth century B.C.E. prophets.

 

On Leaving the Door Open

We earlier urged (as many others have done) that we would be prudent to team (a) biblical ethics with (b) the moral wisdom embedded in church tradition, with (c) consecrated reason, and with (d) the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Christian ethics, as a systematic reflection upon moral choices which are Christian, makes use of important insights in the Bible; but Christian ethics is not biblical ethics. To equate the two is to fail to acknowledge the limitations of biblical ethics, and to restrict the work of the Holy Spirit, who, in tandem with biblical teaching, consecrated reason and the best experience of the Christian community, is able to assist us in realizing our true humanity in Christ: 

“ . . .  13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children. . . .  15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:13-16).

 

For further reading: 

   www.diocal.org/downloads/HolyRelationships.pdf

   www.telusplanet.net/public/diocese/News/pastoral-letter/Aug-15-2002.doc

 

Revised June 7, 2004

 

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