In recent years, evangelicals have unapologetically stood upon the inerrant Word of God and sought to rightly order our lives around the rich theological truths found in the pages of this sacred revelation. Our focus on orthodoxy and the propositional truths of our faith is laudable and needed amid massive theological drifts inside the church as well as the shifting sands of culture that influence everything about our lives.
But an unfortunate by-product of this rootedness is a failure to consider the fullness of our calling to faithful orthopraxy as well. We need an emphasis on right actions, not just right beliefs. We often diminish the task of Christian ethics to the mere application of theological beliefs rather than seeing the beautiful and inextricable relationship of theology and ethics as the two primary disciplines of the Christian life.
We see this imbalance play out today in our churches and classrooms—and even the public square. But to retrieve the proper relationship between these disciplines, we must be reminded that our actions (ethics) reveal what we truly believe (theology), just as our beliefs equally inform our actions (175).
This rightly ordered vision of theology and ethics as central to the Christian life undergirds Ethics as Worship: The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship by Southern Baptist ethicists Mark D. Liederbach (professor of theology, ethics, and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Evan Lenow (director of church and minister relations at Mississippi College). This book serves as a helpful introduction to the Christian ethic as a form of worship centered on our love of God and neighbor.
Ethics as Worship: The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship
Mark D. Liederbach & Evan Lenow
Ethics as Worship: The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship
Mark D. Liederbach & Evan Lenow
Ethics as Worship examines the biblical, theological, and philosophical foundations and application of Christian ethics, offering an ethical system that emphasizes the worship of God as motivation, method, and goal of the ethical endeavor. It concludes with an exploration of how worship ought to shape a response to particular ethical topics and issues most relevant in our day: from race, justice, and environmental ethics to sexuality, reproductive technologies, and other important issues related to life and death.
Liederbach and Lenow illustrate the fullness of the Christian ethic, not as a mere application or subdiscipline of theology but as a foundational element to the Christian life.
The title Ethics as Worship picks up on the theme of the Great Commandment (Deut. 6:4–5; Matt. 22:37–39; Mark 12:28–31) of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves (xxii). Liederbach and Lenow establish early on that this double love command undergirds both the theological and ethical aspects of the Christian life—both are to be a form of worship that gives to the “correct God . . . all the praise, honor, and glory he is due from the heart, as he instructs, in every aspect of our existence, both by ourselves and corporately with all people created in his image” (xxiii).
Ethics as worship then fuels the entire method of ethics that the authors develop and apply to both the personal and social aspects of the Christian life.
The volume is laid out so each section could be used independently, but they also build upon one another to give readers a complete sense of the Christian ethical system. This stands in stark contrast to many of the most popular non-Christian systems of our day, including the ever-prevalent and widely employed ideas of consequentialism and its modern form of utilitarianism.
Liederbach and Lenow guide readers through an introduction to the Christian ethic (part 1) by showing the metaethical foundation (part 2), the normative formulation (part 3), and finally the application of the Christian ethic to many aspects of life and culture (part 4). The authors employ a metaphor for each element of the Christian ethic, with metaethics as the compass, normative ethics as the map, and applied ethics as the journey (15).
Foundation of Ethics
One of the main strengths of this volume is that the authors begin by exploring the metaethical foundations of ethics—or, as they describe it, the “revealed reality.” Though our entire ethical system is built on it, this reality is rarely expounded in Christian ethics texts. The authors convincingly argue that our growth as disciples and our worship of God is rooted in first understanding “the nature of how things ought to be and how they actually are before we can best understand how we ought to live” (29). Many popular texts used for teaching Christian ethics assume a basic metaethical framework rather than spending time on this crucial element of the Christian ethic as they begin their exploration in the normative formulations and applied aspects of ethics.
While the majority of the book is rightfully dedicated to applied ethics, it’s commendable that the authors spend more than 100 pages on these metaethical themes as they explore the motif of ethics as worship through the biblical metanarrative (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) as well as the role of both the Holy Spirit and the Bible in Christian ethics.
We fail to see the beautiful and inextricable relationship of theology and ethics as the two primary disciplines of the Christian life.
They rightly show that metaethics informs the Christian worldview and ethic, which is built upon a right metaphysic (study of being), epistemology (study of knowledge), anthropology (study of humanity), theology (study of God), and axiology (study of value) (14).
Given the size of the book and its focus on Christian moral discipleship, the discussion of metaethics primarily deals with how Christians are to understand these foundations. Thus, curious readers will need to consult other works in moral philosophy to see how the Christian metaethic differs from non-Christian formulations of the subdiscipline. Despite this, the authors provide a robust account of these foundations that’s much more expansive than texts often used in university and seminary settings, which treat metaethics as a footnote or relegate it to a few pages of introduction.
Methods of Ethics
After establishing the why of ethics with metaethics, the authors turn on the what of normative ethics by exploring the most widely used ethical theories, which they describe as the theological/normative domains of ethical assessment. They show the six primary methods or domains of ethics, including systems that focus on the telos, agent (virtue), act (deontology), circumstances (situational), consequences (consequentialism/utilitarianism), and relationships (ethics of care).
In each of these domains (180), the authors include a short introduction to these moral systems and show how each can play a role within the Christian ethic. For example, while a consideration of the consequences shouldn’t have a primary role in Christian moral evaluation, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for evaluating the consequences of an action (216).
Throughout these sections on normative ethics, readers are reminded that “without a firm, transcendent foundation, the ethical process becomes a battle for power to invent morality instead of a discovery of what God has fixed and revealed about the nature of reality and morality” (225n24). There’s a helpful chapter on the apparent problems of morally complex situations (explored through the lens of humble absolutism) and a guide to navigating these situations that naturally occur when ethics is being applied in the real world (277–79).
The final and most substantive section rightfully focuses on applying this system of ethics as worship to many of the most important aspects of our personal and social lives today. The authors don’t shy away from exploring topics that become divisive in the church as we seek to live consistently with our biblical calling to speak truth with grace. This calling is particularly difficult because our society often rejects a transcendent foundation of truth and reality, and because our church culture at times speaks truth without grace.
The authors explore a wide range of issues from biblical justice to creation care to bioethical questions like abortion, end-of-life decision making, and reproductive technologies. The applied ethics section is, regrettably, missing a substantive look at the ethical contours of emerging digital technologies. But this is understandable given the breadth of the project as a whole. This volume can be a great aid to those teaching and learning ethics since the authors end each chapter with key terms and concepts, Scripture references, study questions, and lists of further reading.
This is a wonderful introduction to the vast world of Christian ethics and a helpful reminder that simply having the right beliefs fails to consider the fullness of Christian life and our pursuit of being transformed into the image of Christ. The church would do well to heed the call of Ethics as Worship and remember that our beliefs inform and shape our actions just as our actions reveal our true beliefs.