Ethics Beyond Duty (1 of 4)

Recently, blogger Xulon, from Theologica posted this excellent series focusing on ethics, Law, and the question of the Sabbath. This is post 1 of 4.

Introduction: A while back, there was a report on the Prime Time America radio broadcast about pastors leaving the ministry. They reported that ministers are leaving the ministry at a rate of 1800 a month. They mentioned ways to reverse that and seemed generally good. One thing caught my attention. At one point, the announcer said that if you attended a pastors conference, the people there would not be the most physically fit you have ever seen. He then said that God commands us to take care of our bodies and “pastors really need to consider their disobedience to God in this matter.”

Though I am neither a pastor nor out of shape, when I heard that pastors “need to consider their disobedience to God” I thought, “Oh great, another way I am disappointing God. Just put that on that big pile over there.” There are those listening to that program who may take that kind of appeal seriously but my guess is that the majority of burned-out pastors already feel overwhelmed by their own list of how they are “failing” God. On the other hand, the speaker clearly thought this was a good thing to say and, as I said, there probably were some listeners who thought this was a good point. What this illustrates, if we can step back from the specific example of physical fitness, is there are different ways to appeal to action. Likewise, there are different ways that people respond to appeals.

Background: I once taught at the local Moody Extension School. Though I hoped to teach a Biblical Studies class, I was assigned a course called Christian Ethics. Having not even taken such a course, I purchased and read several books on the subject*. Ethicists write that there are basically three appeals to ethical action. Most writers have all three appeals. Some writers have only two basic appeals, the first and the second. Christian writers commonly say that of the appeals only the second is the biblical ethic. I believe this is because the second seems objective while the other two, more subjective. My problems with that breakdown include: It is the third appeal that strikes me the most. All three appeals are found in Scripture, so how can one say that only one is biblical? Finally, I felt that if such a thing as Christian Ethics existed, its appeal had to be Christianly unique in more ways than “We have this big God who is going to strike you” (To be fair, Jesus seemed to use that Luke 12:5). The three appeals would be unchanged if God did not exist. There is a fourth appeal. It is not only found Biblically, it is an

appeal that people do not naturally give a flip about and so is uniquely biblical (revelatory).

The first appeal is called Teleological (Gr. Teleos – Goal, End). It is defined as Ethics in which moral choices are based on a goal. So, in a given situation one makes his ethical choice based on the goal or end to which he is committed.

This is often criticized for its subjective nature. Commonly referenced here is Situation Ethics (a book by that title was written by an Episcopal Priest Joseph Fletcher) which has as its goal to show love, which has at its most extreme applications stories of “loving adultery”. Ultimately, WWJD is a goal-based ethic. I make it my goal to act like Jesus and approach decisions by asking myself “What would Jesus do?” In the end, a goal-based ethic’s value really is a function of the chosen goal, whether it is being like Jesus or being a millionaire by age thirty.

There are times the Bible uses a goal based ethic. In 2 Corinthians 5:9, Paul writes that he makes it “our ambition to please him”. Further, people have as their goal that at the end, they will hear “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). Were I to put the appeal of losing weight into a goal based appeal, I would speak of the ultimate benefits associated with good health, including better endurance for the tough times.

The second appeal is Deontological (Gr. Deon – Duty). This is defined as Ethics in which moral choices are based on duty or law. This, as I said before, is often stated as the only “Christian” ethic. It is also the base of the call to action quoted above, “the Bible says it, this is your duty, consider your disobedience.” In ethical situations, one considers what his duty is when choosing. Need I say that this is often the type of appeal we hear from our theologically conservative churches? It also is the most common caricature of church people used by the world outside the church. “Obey!” they screech, in mock imitation of the stereotypical pulpit pounder.

It is also true that the Bible uses appeals to duty. “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). “For you know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:2,3); “Now by this we know that we have come to know God: if we keep his commandments. The one who says “I have come to know God” and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person” (1 John 2:3,4). So then, brothers, we are under obligation. (Romans 8:12)

The third appeal is Areteological (Gr. Aretos – Virtue). This is defined as, Ethics in which moral choices are based on virtue or character. In some ways, this can be a variation of the first appeal, but it specifies admirable characteristics. It is shown negatively in the expression “what are you, a coward?” People do not want to hear something like that. His choice is a reflection of his character. So, in situations, one chooses based on what virtue or characteristic he has developed or considers most important.

Scriptures contain appeals to virtue. “for you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light” (Ephesians 5:8); Appeals to the character of light. “He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) appeals to the virtues of justice, mercy and humility.

As a summary: the three ethical appeals are based on Goal, Duty and Character. A not so recent illustration was when the US Army changed their advertising slogan from a goal-based appeal (“be all that you can be”) to a character-based appeal (“The Army of One”) while their “corporate

personality” is duty based. I have found this to be a helpful grid through which to think of my and others’ actions and reactions.

But, as I reached this point in my studies, I was dissatisfied, thinking there was something missing. A light finally came on when I thought of: Doxeological (Gr. Doxos – Worship). This can be defined as Ethics in which moral choices are based on the Worship of God. As I said earlier, this has as its base something uniquely Christian—The Glory of God is something the world opposes.

This is indeed found in Scriptures. “Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name ofthe Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him” (Colossians 3:17).

This appeal strikes me as over-arching in its application. The other three are at play, but unless they are subject to the Worship of God (Submit your members as weapons of righteousness to God – Romans 6), they are just so much flesh even when they are being used to make ethical decisions.

Excursus: Luke 20:21-26 I’ll have to explain this a bit. This is the well-known story of the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus by asking whether they should pay tax. Jesus asks to see a coin. “Whose likeness is this? Caesar. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” What belongs to God? That which has His likeness (how it is determined what goes to Caesar). Every one of us is created in the image of God. It is true that how we treat the image is how we would treat the reality (that is why burning in effigy is a popular protest). If the Christian ethic is one based in worship of God, then how we treat His image is important. If we treat others with honor, then we treat the One whose image they bear with honor. If we treat them disrespectfully, we disrespect the One whose image they bear. James applies this concept this way: “With it (the tongue) you bless God and curse man who is made in God’s image” (James 3:9)

*My favorite books which I found most helpful at the time of my teaching:

The Moral Quest by Stanley Grenz

An Introduction to Biblical Ethics by Robertson McQuilkin

Christian Ethics: an Essential Guide by Robin W Lovin

The text I chose for my students was A Public Faith by Charles Drew

Currently I am reading an excellent book (if more philosophical), To Will and To Do by Jacques Ellul

Facebook Comments

1 thought on “Ethics Beyond Duty (1 of 4)

Leave a Reply