I wanted to get a post up about Christian ethical decision making before the 12th December UK general election, so what follows is an adapted version of an essay I wrote for St Mellitus College at the end of an ethics module in the second year. It doesn’t argue in favour of this party or that party, but more offers a paradigm for Christian moral choices, based on reasoning from scripture. I hope you will find it useful, even if you don’t entirely agree!
There are multiple understandings on how the Bible informs Christian ethics. To some extent, the Bible can be seen as the ultimate rule, because it makes clear ethical statements like “Love your neighbour” (Mark 12:31; Leviticus 19:18), and claims to “equip believers for good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This shows that Scripture makes clear statements regarding Christian moral behaviour.
However, these Biblical statements often have specific contexts around them. So, for example, the same epistle that states that Scripture equips believers for good works (as quoted above) also goes on to command “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas”! This shows that not every instruction or statement in the Bible is intended to be acted upon by all Christians in every time period and in all places! I for one don’t know anyone called Carpus, I’m not planning to visit Troas, and I doubt I’d find the right coat there now, anyway, so I’d not be able to act on this particular Biblical command!
There is therefore a need to interpret scripture around this ‘gap’ between the Bible and how it should relate to behaviour. Additionally, as well as these statements which Scripture makes that we are clearly not meant to act on to the letter (like fetching a coat from Troas), the Bible does not include exhaustive lists of what to do in every ethical situation. For example, there are no explicit instructions in the Bible about car parking morality!
Nevertheless, it is often possible to infer appropriately Christian behaviour from the things the Bible does say. So, this post will examine some ways in which Scripture can inform Christian moral deliberation, and will argue that Scripture can be interpreted reasonably to provide ethical paradigms for contemporary Christian morality.
The first five books of the Bible are sometimes called ‘the Law’ (Torah in Hebrew). Here, moral conduct is often dictated as divine fiat, for example Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, with commandments like “You shall not murder”, “You shall not commit adultery”, “you shall not do any work on the Sabbath”. Consequently, some commentators insist that the Bible really clearly delineates Christian morality.
And indeed, endorsement of these sorts of commandments appear throughout all of Scripture, not just in the Law. For instance, other books in the Old Testament such as the Prophets repeatedly refer to moral conduct as being consistent with Torah, and immoral conduct as being the opposite of Torah – abusing and exploiting people, harming others for your own gain. Similarly, in the New Testament, both Jesus and St. Paul summarise the Law with the phrase “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Consequently, much of Jesus’ teaching seemingly encourages morality consistent with his summary of Torah, and some of St. Paul’s epistles include ‘sin lists’ which are consistent with the “you shall not do x, y, z” style from Torah, such as Ephesians 5:3-6. Thus, from its first books to its last, Scripture is full of statements on Christian moral choices.
As well as the statements in the Bible like the ones above, some further ethical paradigms can be inferred from reading Scripture. For example, Genesis 1:26-7 asserts that humans are made “in the image of God”. This can be taken to mean that humans therefore have “extrinsic” dignity and worth – we have value in part simply because we bear God’s divine “image”. We can then infer that Biblical Christian morality should be life-affirming, based on this high valuing of human life.
However, Scripture can also generate multiple interpretations. For example Psalm 139:13’s statement “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” appears to support pro-life claims that personhood begins in the womb. But Psalm 139:15 then says, “I was woven together in the depths of the earth” – obviously not a factual statement. This could show that Psalm 139 does not irrefutably prove that the foetus in utero is Biblically a person – without also proving that humans are made underground! As such, the ethics of pro-life/pro-choice convictions are undecided in Christian interpretation of Biblical morality.
Similarly, other scriptural statements can be interpretted to mean different things, depending on context. For example, 1 Timothy 2:8-9’s statement that “I want women to dress modestly” is sometimes taken to mean that women should dress plainly, perhaps to avoid sexual objectification. But the passage continues, “I want women to dress modestly – not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes”. Some commentaries, then, take the implication here to be about not showing off your wealth with expensive clothes, hair styles, and accessories. This begs the question of what interpretations are valid in Christian deliberation about morality.
Binding and loosening
In the lead up to Jesus’ birth, Jewish culture had a tradition of “binding and loosening” the ethical statements in scripture: binding means a really rigorous interpretation of a command, and loosening means inferring a more relaxed paradigm from a command. Similarly, the New Testament sometimes takes an Old Testament law and intensifies it, and sometimes takes an Old Testament Law and relaxes it. This shows two divergent directions that Christians could argue are consistent with Scripture.
For example, in some cases Scripture encourages taking paradigms like love of neighbour well beyond the requirements of Torah. For instance, in Leviticus 6:1-5, the Old Testament Law requires a person who has committed fraud or extortion to repay the whole amount that they took, plus 20% extra. However, in the New Testament, when a man called Zacchaeus repented of extorting others in Luke 19:1-10, he promised to compensate everyone the amount he had defrauded, plus 300%, and to donate half his wealth to the poor! This suggests that Christians should follow a moral paradigm which goes much further than the requirements of the Law, to show very abundant love to our neighbours.
Similarly, Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 commands love of neighbour as based on the Law: here, Jesus takes specific statements from Torah such as “You shall not commit adultery” and then elaborates with even stricter statements like “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. This can be articulated as “Not only ‘do not commit adultery’, but also ‘do not even look at someone else lustfully’”. This shows Jesus taking the moral requirements of Torah and intensifying them considerably. It is easy to build other “not only x, but also y” paradigms from these statements of Jesus’, which likewise imply a rigorous moral paradigm for Christianity.
Yet on the other hand, some of Jesus’ other teaching and actions make for a far less rigourist approach. For example, he freely associated with people who were clearly guilty of breaking Torah, such as extortionate tax collectors like Zaccheus. Indeed, in some ways, Jesus did not hold himself to austere moral standards, either. For example, he was criticised by his enemies for his love of food and drink, and they called him “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19). This suggests he was not a harsh perfectionist taskmaster, but much more relaxed and enjoying life.
An instructive example is the Sabbath law. Jesus himself apparently broke the Sabbath law repeatedly, healing people on the Sabbath, despite the Torah stating we should do no work on the Sabbath. On balance, this can be said to encapsulate Jesus’ attitude to the Law. He argued that the Sabbath was made for the good of man, and that we should not be bound by a slavish obedience to the Sabbath law. This suggests an ethic which is conducive to human rest and flourishing, rather than rigorist legalism.
Indeed, both the demanding Torah statements of ‘You shall not commit x’ and the even stricter New Testament paradigms of ‘you shall not only not commit x, but you shall also not commit y’ can be seen as rooted in this consistent love of God and neighbour: don’t commit adultery because it does not respect the extrinsic worth of your spouse and it does not show love to them; similarly don’t look at a passer-by lustfully as it does not show respect for their extrinsic worth and does not show love for them as a human being.
Such a paradigm can thus explain incidents where Scripture’s binding and loosening appears to contradict itself. For example, the Law of Moses permits divorce in cases of adultery. This can be seen as love of neighbour – permitting the wronged spouse to divorce their adulterous partner who has so neglected to show love of them. However, Jesus seems to forbid divorce, equating it to adultery in Mark 10:2-12. But Jesus’ moral paradigm is consistent with Moses’ – love of neighbour – in that he speaks against abuse of the divorce law whereby men wrongfully divorced their wives and did not love and honour them as the paradigm requires.
Similarly, Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 notes that although the Lord “commanded” partners should not separate, St. Paul permits separation in cases where an unbelieving spouse leaves a believing spouse. This too may be built on a paradigm of love: he comforts the abandoned believer that they have not broken Jesus’ commandment. As such, we have a consistent paradigm (love of neighbour) which results in three different outcomes.
This post has sought to show that Scripture makes certain clear statements on Christian morality, but that these often require interpretation for proper application. Jesus offers “love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself” as a summary of Christian moral conduct. So, while there are no stated commandments pertaining to good car parking etiquette, Biblical morality can be used ‘paradigmatically’, to infer the right ethical response in different situations.
Some paradigms imply requirements beyond the rigours of Torah, such as Zacchaeus’ repaying more than the Law required, or Jesus’ “not only x, but also y” statements.
Other paradigms require less intensified approaches, such as Jesus’ attitude to Sabbath, or the various statements scripture makes about permitting or not permitting divorce. Invariably, the paradigm is rooted in love of God and love of neighbour. Contemporary Christian morality therefore should consistently arrive at ethical behaviours which emphasise respect for God and what he has created, and a heart for the flourishing of others alongside ourselves.
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