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Ethics and the SBC (Part 2)

In my last post, I surveyed three major ethical systems that, in my opinion, summarize the history of ethics in a broad fashion. Yet, I probably frustrated some of those who took the time to read the post because the content of the post had little or nothing to do with the second half of the title—the SBC. Well, this is the follow-up to the first post where I will attempt to make observations and draw some conclusions about ethics in the SBC. I am particularly interested in observations from the churches of the SBC rather than the seminaries. My goal is not to draw conclusions about the ethical behavior of individuals within the denomination. Rather, I intend to address general observations from my own experiences in churches across four different states in which I have been a member, served, taught, and preached as well as observations made known to me by others.

How are ethics, or perhaps the term moral theology fits better, taught in the typical, conservative SBC church? I propose that the typical approach is that of deontological ethics. Imagine with me for a moment a fourth grade Sunday School classroom at FBC Somewhere. As the teacher attempts to address the finer points of moral theology to this group of 9 and 10 year-olds, he/she will probably say something along the lines of this: "God wants you to obey your parents. You need to do your best in school. Stay out of trouble. Pick the right friends…." Then little Johnny asks, "Why?" Typical responses: "Because it is the right thing to do. Because God says so. Because the Bible says so. Because it honors your parents…." The list could go on, but you get the point. Fast forward 5 or 6 years to a high school SS class, and the tactic does not change that much—only the issues change. Now the teacher says, "Don’t do drugs. Don’t have sex outside marriage. Graduate from high school and go to college…." The now bitterly sarcastic teenager responds, "Why?" The answers are much the same: "Because it is the right thing to do. Because that is what God commands in his Word. Because when you get married your spouse will appreciate it…." One last time, let us move forward 20 years to a married adult SS class. This time the teacher proclaims, "Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t steal office supplies from your job. Discipline your kids with love…." In response to the now probably sincere question of rationale, the teacher responds, "Because God teaches us these things. Because you owe it to your boss. Because it is the right thing to do…." I am confident that I am not far off the path of moral instruction in the typical, conservative SBC church. If your experience was different, I suggest that it was the exception rather than the norm.

So, let’s evaluate these statements and answers in moral instruction from an ethical standpoint. I argue that almost every single example falls in line with deontological ethics. Now before I go too far in my evaluation and critique, I want to be clear that I am not dismissing deontological ethics. It still has a valid role to play, but that discussion will come in another post. The focus of the aforementioned moral instruction is on what is right. It also bears the burden of duty and obligation. When the fourth grade SS teacher tells the students to obey their parents because God says so, this is unadulterated divine command theory of ethics, which is a form of deontology. Divine command theory understands that God made the universe and that God made the rules about right and wrong. Our creaturely nature, therefore, obligates us to rules that are part of the created order. And, while there may be logic to God’s action and decrees, it is presumptuous for humans to believe that our finite minds can discover it. In essence, our duty is to God and that should be enough. Even if God had given the rationale for his commands in Scripture (which I believe He does), it would not be necessary because we are bound by this duty to obey. This divine command theory is, in essence, a form of deontology. Some of the other responses focus on the "rightness" of the action or the obligation to one’s neighbor (boss, spouse, parent, etc.). Again, these responses are duty-based and duty-bound concepts of moral theology. Are they wrong? Not necessarily. Do they miss out on something greater? I would argue that they do miss it. Why?

Deontology is worth its weight in gold when used to evaluate the shortcomings of other systems of ethics. It usually provides a consistent, objective standard from which to evaluate actions because it draws the individual back to a set of rules and/or principles. However, deontology also has its drawbacks, especially from a Christian perspective. First, deontological ethics relies upon reason to the extent that the individual must evaluate the action in light of a set of principles/duties. In this sense, individual reason is raised to a similar standard as the set of rules or duties. Therefore, a person who is looking for the best way to fulfill an obligation must use his own reason to determine what is best. Unfortunately, as Christians we believe that man’s reason is fallen. Now is not the time to get into a debate over how much man’s reason is fallen, but we can at least agree that it is not perfect. Therefore, man must depend upon a faulty cognitive ability to determine what is right in relation to a set of duties. Granted, most of the time, this should probably work, but it is not free of error. Second, deontology has little or no means to determine the necessity of supererogatory acts. Supererogatory acts are those acts performed to an extent not required. The best example of this would be going the second mile. In Matthew 5:40–41, Jesus said, "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two." Deontology has no way to deal with such statements. The deontologist would say, "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give him exactly what the court requires but nothing more. Whoever forces you to go one mile, do not go a step farther because the law only requires one mile." Of course, someone could argue that the command is here in Matthew 5 and now becomes a duty. My response is that it certainly does but only to the extent to which man’s reason can carry him beyond the two specific examples given here in Scripture. At its heart, deontology is missing something—it needs more information.

Even with its lack of fully working out moral theology, deontology is where we have traditionally stood as Southern Baptists. I cannot speak for the entire history of our convention, but I would venture to say that deontology has dominated the day for most of this span. So this is where we stand as far as ethics are concerned within our convention. I know there are pockets within our convention that offer a fuller understanding of moral theology, but again, they are the exception rather than the rule.

As I make these observations and critiques, I am aware of movements in the realm of moral theology and ethics that have dismissed deontology for something new and different. Some of our SBC churches have also latched on to these new movements. That will be the subject of part 3.