Christian ethics is guided by God’s revelation in Scripture above other systems of thought as it seeks to love God and neighbor in every moral and ethical issue.
The highest ethical duty of a Christian is the same as the greatest commandment: love God and love your neighbor. Scripture is the Christian authority for ethics, just as it is for theology. This is because God is our ultimate authority and standard, for he himself is goodness. While Christians know God’s character through reading Scripture, unbelievers are able to partially and imperfectly understand what is good through the created order and their consciences. And while Christians ultimately derive their ethics from Scripture, different parts of Scripture (like the Mosaic legal code) must be read in their redemptive historical context and not simply applied from one distant culture to another. Philosophical systems that attempt to provide ethical norms can be helpful for the Christian thinking about ethics, but Scripture must remain the authority for any Christian ethical endeavor. Finally, while there are many issues today that the Bible does not speak directly to, there are biblical principles that can be relied upon to make an informed moral judgment.
A person’s highest ethical duty is to love God with all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength. Their second highest ethical duty is to love their neighbor as themselves. For a Christian, fulfilling these moral obligations takes place in obedience to the Law of Christ and submission to the teachings of God’s Word. The ultimate goal is to glorify God in everything that is said, done, thought, and felt. Other broad ethical goals include being a blessing to others and growing as a virtuous person.
Given this positive vision, it is quite sad that many people—both Christian and non-Christian—tend to see believers as legalistic and condemning. In a world that is in rebellion against God, those who uphold God’s moral standards will have to shine light into darkness and will have to speak against sinful practices that may be widely accepted in society. But the Bible does not merely present an ethical code which consists of restrictions and “thou shalt nots.” Yes, there are things to avoid, but there are also many positive moral duties that the Scriptures require. If we properly form our ethical views from the Bible, we will find that we ought to both shun evil and perform good works. There is a categorical difference between good and evil, and right and wrong, and the Christian life can be a joyous experience of doing good; Christian ethics should be a delight.
Christian Ethics and Scripture
Evangelical Christians should not find it controversial to say that the Scriptures—God’s Word—is our authority and standard for ethics, just as it is for theology. This is because God is our ultimate authority and standard. There cannot be a higher standard for ethics than God, not because he is all-powerful, but because he is the source of goodness itself. Moral goodness is defined by the nature of God, and everything he commands is in accordance with his perfect and righteous goodness. We must obey every word of God because every word he gives us flows from his character, and his character is infinite and absolute moral perfection. God does not measure himself against an abstract standard of goodness; he does not consult anything other than his own nature when he issues commands and moral rules. His moral commands are not arbitrary and they could not be other than what they are since they are based on God’s unchanging moral goodness. Since God’s commands are found in Scripture, the Bible is our authority for ethics.
Knowledge of God’s moral demands does not only come from reading Scripture, however. Although special revelation is definitive, everyone on earth has some knowledge of God’s moral standards through general revelation. We need to be careful about equating what’s “natural” with what’s good, but God has created the world in such a way that there is a general correspondence between moral truths and what is naturally best for people. People can often see what is best to do (or not do) when they apply their reason to the facts of the situation they are in. God has also created human beings to operate with a basic sense of his moral law through their consciences. Reason and conscience are not as reliable or authoritative as the teachings found in Scripture, but they are nevertheless useful sources of moral knowledge. Christian ethics interprets general revelation through special revelation but uses both sources to gain insight into ethics.
Christian Ethics and the Mosaic Law
Despite agreement amongst evangelicals about the importance and authority of Scripture for Christian ethics, there are debates about the role of the Mosaic Law in Christian morality. This is not the place to engage in discussions of covenantal continuity and discontinuity, biblical theology, or hermeneutics, but it does seem safe to say that Christians are not directly under the authority of the Mosaic Law, since the Law was part of the Mosaic covenant. Christ’s inauguration of the new covenant has brought about a change in law, as the Book of Hebrews makes clear. The church is not a theocracy, and Christ has brought about an end—by fulfillment—of the old covenant sacrificial system. Nevertheless, since all of Scripture is God-breathed and useful, many particular laws in the Mosaic Law still find application today in both the church and society. Forbidding murder and theft, for example, are laws which reflect the eternal moral character of God. The two greatest commands identified by Jesus are enshrined in the Pentateuch and apply to all of Christ’s disciples. Sometimes, however, there are cultural factors that require Christians to discern the principle of the law rather than applying it in a woodenly literal way. One common example is the command in the Mosaic Law to build a parapet or rail around the roof of your home. Since people in that culture spent time on their flat-roofs, falling off a roof was a potential danger. People do not spend time on slanted roofs, however, or the roofs of grass huts, so that law does not apply everywhere. The principle behind the law, though, is that we are take reasonable precautions to keep people safe, and that is an ethical idea that applies in every culture. The principle is the same, even if some of the forms of application in a particular culture can differ.
Christian Ethics and Philosophy
Outside of Scripture, philosophers have proposed various systems for the evaluation of ethics and morality. Some have sought the justification for ethics in the consequences that stem from certain behaviors. In these systems, something is considered good if it produces good consequences that outweigh the negative consequences. Some people assess the consequences for the individual alone, but most would look for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In practice, this can be almost impossible to evaluate, but the sensibility behind it seems fairly widespread and beneficial. Other ethicists have ignored consequences and focused on the intrinsic moral value of actions and agents. Perhaps the most famous example is the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant. He argued that we should only act out of a good will, and a good will does its moral duty for the sake of duty alone and not for the sake of consequences. He said that we should only act in such a way that we could make our conduct a universal law that everyone would follow. Take the case of lying: Would we wish it to be a universal practice that everyone tells the truth or that everyone lies all the time? If we cannot wish for everyone to lie all the time, Kant would argue that lying must be strictly forbidden without exception. Another school of ethics has focused more on the cultivation of a virtuous character and the motives of the agent who acts. In this model, actions should further develop virtue in the one who acts.
There is room in Christian ethics for all of the considerations mentioned in the paragraph above. None of those systems can stand on their own; they need to be built on the foundation of God’s truth. The Bible makes it clear that things are right or wrong in relationship to God’s character. Thus, morality is objective, and we must obey God’s commands. This does not mean, however, that consequences are entirely irrelevant. Although the morality of an act is not based on consequences alone, there are many warnings and encouragements in Scripture that hold out either the positive or negative consequences of obeying or disobeying God. We are to look at the consequences for disobedience, and we are to look at the rewards for following God’s path. We are also to act to bless others, and this requires assessing the consequences of our words and actions. God is producing spiritual fruit in the lives of his children—he is forming a virtuous character in them that reflects the character of his Son. Thus, acting and growing in virtue is an important component of Christian ethics.
The ethical status of an agent and action is assessed at more than one level. Sometimes all we can do is judge the action itself, but the action alone is not sufficient for moral evaluation. Perhaps we know that someone shot another person, but was it murder or justified self defense? To properly assess ethical conduct requires knowledge of the action, the circumstances in which the action occurred, the agent’s character and intentions, and possibly some of the consequences. The Pharisees may impress others by their religious good works, but God looks at the heart. Even praying and giving gifts to the poor displease God if the heart’s motives are wrong.
Christian Ethics in Today’s World
There are, of course, an enormous number of practical ethical issues that Christians face today. Some issues in certain societies are relatively recent, like legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. Other issues are more universal and perennial, like general sexual issues or the justification of self defense and war. Sometimes God has spoken clearly and directly about an ethical issue (e.g. do not steal), but there are other topics that could not have been directly addressed in the Bible (e.g. issues that require contemporary technology, like genetic engineering or in vitro fertilization). Even when the Bible does not specifically speak to an issue, there are biblical principles that can be relied upon to make an informed moral judgment.
- John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life. See the contents of this book. Read a critique by New Testament scholar Doug Moo.
- John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World
- Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues. You can see a brief summary of this book here.
- Ronald Nash, Lectures on Christian ethics
- Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics
- TGC Courses, “Public Theology”