The scope of Christian ethics

I am not quite sure how to put this, but I am wondering if Christian attempts to formulate ethics applicable to the whole of society don’t have a wee bit too much of a Christendom aroma about them.

For example, one of the common objections to Christian pacifism is the question, “What if everyone did this?” Well, they’re not. 100% conversion of society to Christianity has only ever been achieved by violence. QED

Or take the issue of homosexual marriage, would it really be the end of civilisation as we know it if homosexual marriage was legalised? It seems to me that the more critical issue is this: would churches be forced to do it by the state?

In my own situation I constantly mix with people with very different values, with very different ethics. I don’t feel threatened by that. What I do feel is important though is to teach my kids to differentiate, to understand that we think and act differently when it comes to some issues, like what movies they can see at age 6. I have to say, well those are their values but these are ours.

In other words, I only expect Christian ethics to be held by Christians. Conversely, I expect non-Christians to have non-Christian ethics.

Have you ever run into a situation where someone confused your suggestion that they were not really Christian with a suggestion that they were not really ethical? I have and I find it very problematic and a huge barrier to the gospel. Being a good citizen and being a good Christian should not be equated too lightly. Similarly, popular ethics and Christian ethics should not be equated too lightly.

4 thoughts on “The scope of Christian ethics

  1. To be frank, I find many Christians’ beliefs that Christians are the most ethical people — if not the only ethical people — to be the height of conceit. Quite frankly, I’ve found many of their ethics to be lacking.
    Oh sure, they can pontificate on the evils of homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia. But when it comes to other areas such as honesty — especially when you start to view honesty as more than merely not telling lies — I’ve found they’re much less robust.
    Allow me to share an example. A few years ago, we had a malfunctioning vending machine at my office. I discovered this malfunction when I paid 4 quarter. for an item that was supposed to cost $1.75. The machine registered each quarter as a dollar coin. As a result, I got the item plus $2.25 in change. I immediately informed the office manager and gave her the appropriate amount to make things right with the vending machine.
    When I told people about the experience and commented on the fact that our office manager seemed shocked, most of my friends commented it was because most people would have just pocketed the money and kept quiet. In fact, no less than three Christian acquaintances admitted that this is what they would have done. I was horrified.
    I was especially horrified because these same Christian acquaintances were the type of people to go on at length about the “immorality” of others: those having sex outside of marriage, gay people, and so on. And yet, here they were admitting that they were willing to secretly accept a $3.00 error in their favor, even though that money was not rightfully theirs. To me, that was stealing and I found their moralizing to be particularly hypocritical that day.
    I will note that the issue of not letting that kind of error slide is a very strong topic for me, even if said error is “in my favor.” This is because my sister used to work the cash register at the BX (a sort of department store for military men found on Air Force bases) before she and my brother had kids. The BX is very strict about making sure that each cash register has the correct amount in it at the end of each shift. An employee’s register that is off by one penny in either direction is required to remain at work until they can account for the discrepancy. I spent a couple of evenings waiting half an hour for my sister to account for missing change in her drawers. Since then, I have talked to people in the civilian sector and have learned that other stores outside the military often have similar policies. In fact, I spoke to one person who admitted that the store they worked for had a policy of firing anyone who’s register was off for the third time. It became clear to me that “errors in my favor” can still have dire consequences for those who made the error, no matter who seemingly small and insignificant. I’d rather be honest. I don’t need the money that badly, and I’d rather see the other person keep their job.
    And yet, somehow, some people still seem to think I’m the unethical one. (Yes, it does bug me. Is it really noticeable?)


  2. Jarred, yes I can certainly appreciate how the hypocrisy of those Christian colleagues would gall you. My father, who has not attended church since I was in my teens, has a similar story of a supposedly committed Christian who was less than honest in business dealings. Your comments illustrate another good reason why we Christians should focus more on the ethics of Christians and less on the ethics of everyone else. In this case the issue being Christian ethical integrity.
    To be honest I wonder how much of the problem within evangelicalism is with evangelical theology itself, which seems to disconnect salvation from ethics, placing much more stress on “salvation through faith” than “the obedience that comes through faith”. This has led some people to think you can be saved without experiencing any sort of ethical transformation, and others to think you can force Christian ethics onto non-Christians.
    So in both cases I say, let’s focus closer to home, let’s focus on Christian ethics as it applies to Christians. I think there would be a lot less harping on about homosexuality if we did, and far more productive questioning of our involvement in jihads for Jesus.


  3. No, ok, maybe I worded that in a more black-white way than was strictly necessary. What I mean to say is, the thrust of Christian ethical critique should be from the inside out. Take the log out of our own eye first, that sort of thing.
    In the case of apartheid, I would say my sharpest critiques would have been directed against the churches who supported it and called it ethical. A very concrete way of protesting against racism is tackling segregation within Sunday worship services.
    In the case of our society, what I am saying is that I am far more concerned, ethically, with hate mongering theocratic churches and exploitative Christian businessmen than I am with gay Pagans. Even though I may not agree with Jarrod on everything, I think he has some legitimate complaints. If we, as Christians, find the peace teachings of Jesus impractical, how can we legitimately criticize non-Christians for finding the marriage teachings of Jesus impractical?
    Closer to home, what I am trying to teach my kids is, live your values, let them be seen by how you live.


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