Entries Tagged as 'Ethics'

Same-Sex Marriage in California

The news networks and internet are buzzing about May 15’s decision by the California Supreme Court striking down a California law that had previously banned the practice of homosexual marriage in the state. Now this does not tell the complete story because California grants registered “domestic partners” very similar benefits that are afforded to married couples (inheritance rights, insurance, etc.). While the initial effects of this decision particularly for the rights of homosexual couples may not change much for people in California, it is the foundation of the decision that may produce the most long-lasting effects.

The California Supreme Court declared that marriage is a fundamental right for all people and no distinction can be made regarding sexual orientation. The majority opinion stated, “We therefore conclude that in view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples.” If it is a fundamental right to form a family relationship defined as marriage, then the impact of this decision could be far-reaching.

First, homosexual couples who marry in California will ultimately move to other states. Those states that do not recognize homosexual marriage will face lawsuits attempting to force them to recognize their marriages as fundamental rights. Most of these cases will probably end up in their respective state supreme courts, and those justices will certainly be weighing the arguments of the California court.

Second, the definition of marriage as a fundamental right may ultimately lead to a stamp of approval for polygamous, polyamorous, incestuous, and underage marriages. In California, marriage has already been redefined; therefore, the next case may be to define marriage no longer as between two individuals but to include three, four, or more. While this case does not directly equate such relationships to marriage, it opens the door to these arguments.

Third, the court overturned a statute that had been previously approved through democratic process by the popular vote of the people of California. The “votes” of four judges overturned the votes of millions of citizens. Thus, we have seen the will of the people overturned by the will of the court. In our democratic republic with representation appointed by the vote of the people, this could have lasting consequences regarding judicial activism across the country.

Let us not think that this is an issue only affecting the West Coast. It is in our neighborhoods and our churches. The debate over homosexuality is alive and well in the Christian community—just look at the new books on the subject in the last few years. For Christians, it comes down to an interpretation of Scripture. However, there are some who attempt to interpret Scripture to support homosexuality (and ultimately homosexual marriage) as well. At the risk of sounding self-serving, I recently presented a paper evaluating the hermeneutics of those who attempt to support homosexuality from Scripture. You can find the audio here.

New Article Available on Betrothal View of Divorce

Back in October, I posted an entry discussing the betrothal view of divorce and remarriage. The issue of divorce and remarriage continues to be a hot topic and one that I find my students are struggling to come to a consistent position. This issue probably generates the most response in my classes, and I have devoted an extra week of class this semester to the topic based on last semester’s discussion.

In the October 20, 2007 issue of Christianity Today, David Instone-Brewer wrote an article regarding his view of divorce and remarriage that is perhaps the most permissive view found within evangelical circles. Now there is a new article on the other end of the evangelical spectrum from Instone-Brewer. David W. Jones, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has recently had an article published in Bibliotheca Sacra. His article is entitled "The Betrothal View of Divorce and Remarriage" and can be found in the January-March 2008 edition of BibSac. This is an academic journal that can be found at the libraries of your nearest seminary, divinity school, or university with a religion department.

Much of what Jones discusses in the article may also be found in the audio from his presentation at Southwestern Seminary’s 2007 Baptist Distinctives Conference on "The Family." Jones offers lexical and contextual support for the betrothal view and provides and academic source for those doing research on the issue of divorce and remarriage, specifically as it relates to the betrothal view.

Divorce and Remarriage: The Betrothal View

I had one of those moments in my class last week that every professor dreams of having (or was that a nightmare—I’m not really sure). There was a moment in my lecture that I clearly communicated something to my students about which most of them had probably never thought. We were studying the issue of divorce and remarriage, and I had been pontificating on the various Christian views on the subject. I saved the two best for last: the Erasmian (or majority) view and the betrothal view.

The Erasmian view of divorce and remarriage holds that divorce is allowable in situations where adultery has taken place (according to the exception clause of Matt 5:32 and 19:9) or when an unbelieving spouse leaves (the so-called Pauline privilege of 1 Cor 7:15). Proponents of the Erasmian view also hold that remarriage is allowed in these cases as well. This is by far the most widely held view of divorce and remarriage in evangelical circles.

The betrothal view also allows for divorce when an unbelieving spouse leaves. However, the betrothal view interprets the exception clause in Matt 5:32 and 19:9 as referring to sexual immorality discovered during the typical one-year betrothal period customary in first century Jewish culture. Thus, the betrothal view does not allow for divorce in cases of adultery after marriage (Note: A slight exception to this stance may allow for divorce in such cases where the guilty party is unrepentant and abandons the innocent spouse and files for divorce. In this situation, the guilty party is exhibiting the behavior of an unbeliever and may be treated as such). The betrothal view never allows for a believer to seek a divorce and does not allow for remarriage in any circumstance unless one of the spouses dies.

When I expressed that I hold the betrothal view and that it does not allow for remarriage unless a spouse dies, there was a collective gasp in the room. Now I know that there are a number of students in my class who agree with me. At the same time, I know that there are a number who disagree. Then there are certainly some who do not know where they stand.

We can certainly discuss this issue in the comments, but let me explain why it is important. The divorce rate in the United States for 2005 (the most recent statistics to come from the US Census Bureau—2006 stats will be available in December) was 48%. In 2001, 21% of all adult American men and 23.1% of all adult American women had been divorced at least once. According to the Barna group, the divorce rate in the church is the same as that among non-believers. This issue is serious, and I believe one reason that so many people just accept the world’s view of divorce is that our churches do not discuss it. Certainly, we have divorce recovery groups and discipleship classes for blended/step-families, but do we confront the issue of divorce on the front end?

Before you go to calling me a legalist and insensitive, let me inform you that divorce has impacted my family in several ways. Thankfully, my parents will be celebrating their 36th anniversary next week; however, so many people in the rest of our family have been impacted by divorce. I am aware of its pain. I am aware of its struggles. But I am also aware of how seriously God takes marriage. Jesus himself said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" (Matt 19:4-6). When it comes down to it, I would rather my view of divorce and remarriage be shaped by Scripture than by experience (actually, that is how I do theology and ethics as a whole).

For those of you who are not familiar with the betrothal view, I would like for you to consider two pieces available online for a fuller treatment (my summary is entirely too short to get the full understanding). A pastoral viewpoint of the betrothal view is available from John Piper here. An academic viewpoint is available in audio format from David W. Jones (Assoc. Professor of Christian Ethics at SEBTS) here.

In the end, I always tell my students that you must hold your view of divorce and remarriage humbly because you will always make someone mad no matter what view you hold. There are also sincere, Bible-believing Christians and scholars who disagree with me. What I ask is that you give me and the betrothal view a fair hearing.

Playing God in the Womb

GodIn a recent article, NY Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof discussed the concept "When we play God with our own species." Kristof brings back to the forefront the ever-changing status of medical technology for genetic screening of embryos.

The opening premise of the article was a trip that Kristof took to India where he encountered Americans looking for potential surrogate mothers. The potential savings is tremendous to have an international surrogate, even if a little questionable. The money quote follows the opening context. Kristof writes, "Ultimately, that kind of surrogacy could be mixed with genetic screening of embryos—to weed out babies of the ‘wrong’ gender or with the ‘wrong’ characteristics—to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance. Yes, all this gives me the willies, too."

I for one am glad that Kristof gets the "willies" from the idea of combining surrogacy and genetic screening "to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance." I hope the rest of us get the willies at that idea as well. Kristof then presents one of the most pressing issues in ethics today as he writes, "So some of the most monumental decisions we will face in the coming years will involve where we draw the line making some genetic tinkering legal and some illegal."

At this point in the article, it looks like Kristof is quite in touch with ethical issues, especially for a newspaper columnist. My problem is that he moves from description to prescription as the article unfolds. Kristof presents one of the newest ethical challenges in the realm of the unborn as he describes preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This procedure "allows a couple to test embryos that have been created in vitro when they are roughly 3 days old. PGD is now used principally to test for serious genetic diseases, including Down syndrome and Tay-Sachs. But it could equally be used to test for milder risks." While this procedure is exclusively for in vitro embryos, similar types of tests exist for babies in utero. Such tests can also determine the gender of the baby and potentially other genetic predispositions. The end result is that some parents might "opt out" of continuing the life of the child in hopes of getting a "more suitable child" the next time.

Near the end of the article, Kristof offers his vote for the role of PGD and other genetic screening. He writes, "As for genetic screening, I would accept PGD to cull embryos at risk for medical problems. And my vote is to allow parents to use PGD to choose the sex of a child in the United States, although I would feel differently in countries like China and India where the son preference could create a huge shortage of girls. What should cross the line into illegality is fiddling with the heritable DNA of humans to make them smarter, faster or more pious—or more deaf. That is playing God with our species, and we should ban it."

I appreciate Mr. Kristof’s effort in establishing some sort of ethical standard in this controversial realm; however, I believe he has missed the mark in a few of areas. Let’s first look at the rationale used in the argument and then draw some biblical perspective into the debate. First, I get the "willies" when I read the words "I would accept PGD to cull embryos…." Wow! Are we to the point of culling humans? Merriam-Webster defines "to cull" as "to reduce or control the size of (as a herd) by removal (as by hunting) of especially weaker animals." I did not realize we had reached that point with the human race. To Kristof’s benefit, I do not believe he meant it entirely in this sense, but the other definitions of the word do not fit the context. On the other hand, he very well may have intended exactly what he said.

Second, the PGD test and others basically can only tell that the child is "at risk" of having a certain condition—they cannot confirm the existence of that condition. Thus, "well-intentioned" parents could end the life of a perfectly healthy child who only showed signs of a certain disease but did not actually have it. Again, this is a tragic situation.

Third, why is it right to end the lives of children who have certain medical conditions? Is a child with Down syndrome more likely to have medical issues and learning disabilities? Certainly. Does that mean that such children cannot live productive lives? By no means! We recently reconnected with some friends from North Carolina after having moved away 7 months ago. They have a child with Down syndrome. I only got to see him in the church setting, but my wife was able to observe him in a preschool setting during the week as well. Having not seen him in over 7 months, I fully expected him to be the same, hard-to-control but loving child I knew before we left. To my surprise, he had advanced significantly in the span of several months. He was able to feed himself without difficulty and perform simple tasks without immediate supervision. I was astounded. Even though his parents were encouraged to terminate the pregnancy upon finding out that he would probably have Down syndrome, he has proven to me that children with serious medical conditions can lead fairly normal lives. It may take extra work and a few more tears, but isn’t that what parenting is all about?!

Fourth, Kristof offers a situational approach to gender selection that is based upon regions of the world. Gender "culling" would be appropriate, in his opinion, in countries like the US where parents are typically open to having both boys and girls. However, it would be inappropriate in China and India where girls would almost always be eliminated due to the population controls already in place from those governments. Now why in the world would this be right in some parts of the world and wrong in others? I propose that Kristof sees it this way because he employs some form of consequentialist ethics in all areas. In essence he is saying that our decisions regarding right and wrong should be based on the circumstances at the time and how the consequences of that decision will play out. In this case, the consequences of gender selection in the US would be minimal (he assumes); however, the consequences of gender selection in China would be devastating to the subsequent generations because there would not be enough females to continue the Chinese population into the next generation. While this may seem reasonable on the surface, let us turn the question around. What if it were determined that a certain abnormal gene predisposed someone to be a journalist? Since we know that journalists (especially of the blogging type) do little more than stir up trouble, it is in the best interest in the US to cull out children who are predisposed to be journalists because we already have plenty to keep the profession going. However, China is lacking journalists to stand up for freedom of speech; therefore, it would be wrong to cull out those children. You say that’s ridiculous! Of course it is. But there is little more logic in Kristof’s reasoning. If we apply a consequentialist approach to ethical decision-making, then we could justify almost anything we want.

What does Scripture say about PGD, genetic screening, and gender selection? Well, not really anything. Suffice it to say that such technological advances didn’t hit the streets during the times of the prophets or apostles. Scripture does speak, however, to the issues of life and death and speaks specifically about life in the womb. In Psalm 139:14 the psalmist says, "I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well." The prophet Jeremiah records God’s proclamation, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer 1:5).And in Isaiah 49:1, the prophet states, "Listen to Me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb; from the body of my mother He named me." These passages clearly speak to God’s knowledge of the child in the womb and His handiwork in crafting them together. Thus, it is not man who forms the child, but the Father himself who does the handiwork. Who are we to play God in the womb (or in the Petri dish)?

For those who would consider following the advice of Mr. Kristof and being open to the idea of gender selection, then admonish you to consider who is the author of life. Is it man or is it God? If it is God, then let Him do His job.

*While not the point of this post, there are also issues related to in vitro fertilization that should be taken into consideration as a part of the argument. I will attempt to address those issues in a later post. Suffice it to say, we need to be grateful for technological advances in modern science and medicine; however, not all things are profitable.

Ethics and the SBC (Part 4)

In this final post of the series, I hope to outline a different approach to teaching ethics in the church, especially as we train our children in the area of moral theology. This method is not revolutionary in the sense that the idea has been around for centuries (and I would argue is ultimately the biblical model). It is revolutionary in the sense that Southern Baptists have little grasp of this concept from my perspective. Thankfully, there are professors at two or more of our SBC seminaries teaching this approach to ethics to the future pastors, teachers, counselors, and educators in their classes. The catchphrase is "Ethics as Worship." The technical description is a deontological-virtue ethic.

Taking what we have already discussed regarding deontology and virtue ethics, we can put these together to give a definition to this approach to ethics. At the end, we will see how this works itself out in worship. As previously stated, virtue ethics focuses on the character of the person rather than the act. It emphasizes a life of excellence in light of the character of the person. Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas have given definition to the virtues, and the latter two have placed them within a Christian context. The key to virtue ethics is the development of the character of the person. This teleological (looking toward the end) approach looks past the minutiae of everyday life and seeks the end product. Virtue ethics provides a good foundation because it shows us that there is more to life than just the basic decisions we make each day. Virtue ethicists are not so blinded by the forest so as not to see the trees—they recognize that the trees make up the forest. However, the downfall of virtue ethics is that it often gives little direction on how to "build the forest." How does one build the character of a man without knowing the basic steps of how to get there? This is where deontology comes in.

Deontological ethics focuses on the act and the duty, or obligation, fulfilled by performing (or not performing) that act. In contrast to virtue ethics, deontology focuses on the here and now—what do I do in this situation. There are some forward-looking elements of deontology, but the focus is certainly on rule-keeping. Deontology falls short in its reliance upon human reason and its inability to address the necessity of supererogatory acts. Deontology greatly assists virtue in the way of putting some concrete steps to aid the journey to the virtues. It’s easy to say, "Be a wise person." But the steps of getting there are difficult. Deontology shows us the way by putting rules, duties, and obligations before us whose end is wisdom. Virtue gives deontology a forward-looking aspect by making one look to the character that is being built.

Let’s take a biblical example and show how this works. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) is probably the best example of how this works. Jesus begins with statements such as these: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God….Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God….You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world." That is all well and good, but how does one become poor in spirit or pure in heart or the salt and light of the earth? Well, Jesus then moves to address some of the Old Testament commandments. In some senses, he places greater restrictions upon those who seek to follow the commandments. However, I would argue that Jesus is showing his listeners that there is more to the commandments than a simple duty to keep. He is showing that a true understanding (and keeping) of the commandments leads to a virtuous life—one that is poor in spirit, pure in heart, and the salt and light of the world. Thus, the commandments give us specific duties to uphold but also point us to a virtuous life.

Now let’s consider how this relates to worship. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas develops an intriguing theme for all of theology and life. This theme has been called "exitus et reditus." This is a Latin phrase that basically means "coming out and returning to." For Aquinas, this meant all things come from God and, in their proper response, return to God. For us, it means that the actions we take are leading us to God if they are performed with the proper focus. We can look at it as being properly aligned with our compasses pointing due north (toward God) when we act. Otherwise, our actions are merely splendid vices. Thus, every action is an act of worship when it is properly aligned toward God.

Although the concept of ethics as worship is an enticing approach to the study of ethics, it is not without its own problems. First, this approach must define worship. While the Christian ethicist may certainly have in mind a biblical approach to worship wherein God is glorified in all things (1 Cor 10:31), worship could also be defined in numerous other ways. In essence, any approach to honoring a person, being, or object above all others would be a form of worship. Contemporary culture could be accused of worshiping man or material possessions. As a result, the ethical standards of a society may reflect such worship "practices." For a rightly ordered concept of ethics as worship, one should first look to the Shema of Deut 6:4–5, which reads, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." Thus, the primary expression of worship is the complete love for the Lord from every part of the person. This is expressed in speech, behavior, and ethical mores; however, there is more to the concept of worship than mere behavior. Above all, it is an attitude of the heart and mind toward God that is expressed in ethical behavior. This attitude is also expressed in Rom 12:1, as Paul writes, "Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship." Again, the emphasis is not on a particular set of behaviors for worship; instead, the focus comes on the attitude of the worshiper. Admittedly, worship is a difficult term to define, but one’s attitude of response toward God for who he is and what he has done is the foundation of worship for the Christian.

The next issue that needs to be addressed by the proponent of ethics as worship is to determine whether worship or ethics comes first. Some believe that ethics is the primary expression of worship, thus leading to the idea that ethical standards come before worship. Others argue that ethics is just one part of the expression of worship. Part of the difficulty stems from a false bifurcation of the two concepts. For a biblically aligned system of ethics, one must have both worship and ethical standards—one cannot separate the two and speak of one as if the other did not exist. Thus, proponents of the concept of ethics as worship are partially at fault for presenting a possible division between the two ideas. Even if a bifurcation of these two ideas is a false concept, one must still address the issue of which one comes first. In John 14:15, Jesus says, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." In John 14:21, Jesus repeats this concept in a different fashion, saying, "He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him." So, which one actually takes place first, love and worship or obedience? These verses do not offer a distinct division between the two, which should be noted for any discussion of ethics and worship. However, one can look to another biblical passage for further insight on the difference between ethics and worship. In Exodus 32, Moses had been on the mountain speaking with the Lord for an extended period of time. The people became impatient for Moses to return, so they asked Aaron to make them an idol to worship. In verse 8, the Lord informed Moses that the people had fashioned a golden calf and had worshiped and sacrificed to the idol. The people had not received a set of ethical standards from the false god and had no way to determine right and wrong based upon the "reality" of this new god; therefore, it would be difficult to say that ethics preceded worship in this circumstance. As a result, I believe that worship actually precedes ethics and that ethics is a response of worship to the one that we worship.

I believe this pattern of worship to ethics is also affirmed in the New Testament in 1 Peter 2. In verses 9–10, Peter encourages his readers, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." Following this proclamation of being the people of God and the response of proclaiming God’s excellencies, Peter urges his readers to live morally upright lives "so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation" (v. 12). Regarding this passage, David Horner writes, "This picture, rich in ethical content, is grounded in worship from beginning to end. We are called to be a worshiping people, to glorify God, and to point to His worth. And we do that in many ways, in fact, in all that we are and do. How we live ethically is actually an expression of worship. And the result, according to Peter, is not only so that other people will want to live ethically, but also that they will worship and come to glorify God themselves" (David A. Horner, "Speaking Freely: Dr. David Horner on Ethics and Worship," With All Your Mind 8 (2003), 4). Thus, an ethical lifestyle is a part of worship, but does not comprise the entirety of worship.

With a properly defined concept of worship and a forward-looking gaze to the character of the ones we are trying to teach, we can effectively instruct those in our church with how to live in this world. We receive from God and return our actions to God in love and worship, seeking to be virtuous people for his glory, not our own. When we teach our people about ethics, we show the end as well as the means, and the focus is on loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. It is in the last two (mind and strength) that I believe we find our ethical actions, but they are informed by the former (heart and soul).

Ethics and the SBC (Part 3)

In my last post, I discussed what I believe to be the basic approach to moral instruction/moral theology/ethics in the typical, conservative SBC church. I described it as the historical theory of deontological ethics, and then I brought out some of the critiques of deontology. In this post, I will discuss where I believe some SBC churches and many mainline denominations are heading in moral theology. These directions, I believe, are directly influenced by the culture in which we live.

The first direction I see is the path of utilitarianism. In my opinion, utilitarianism serves as the guiding principle for how ethics is done in the Western world. Utilitarianism seeks to provide the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people. Initially introduced by Epicurus, utilitarianism found its greatest exponents in Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham describes the principle of utility as follows: "By the Principle of Utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question." (Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, chap. 1, par. 2). Utilitarianism is employed through the use of "moral calculus" which requires the decision-maker to determine which action will bring the greatest amount of utility to the greatest number. Since there is no uniform way to quantify utility, the decision-maker is faced with a subjective choice between two or more options. Utilitarianism, though a system of ethics in itself, is little more than another form of deontology. The difference is that there is only one rule—do the most good for the most people.

Utilitarianism is how our government works. What program will give the most support to the most number? Legislate that one. Now, of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that politicians do not have their own personal agendas and that their end goal is not to look out for ol’ number 1. Yet, utilitarianism is typically our expectation of the government, and now it is infiltrating our churches. Church members expect the pastor to "meet the needs" of the most number of people in his sermons. They expect the music minister to increase the pleasure of the majority by picking songs, hymns, or styles of music that meet the personal preferences of the majority. They expect the programs of the church to reach the needs of the most number of people (i.e., let’s sacrifice the needs of the elderly for the needs of the young adults because there aren’t many elderly left—of course this example could be just as easily reversed; or let’s neglect the minority communities in our area because we are mostly a "white" church). Gone are the concepts of sacrifice and service—slaughtered on the altar of utilitarianism. I am not suggesting that utilitarianism is being taught in the SS classroom or from the pulpit. I am saying that it is the dominant system of ethics by which many act in the church.

Another movement of ethics that has infiltrated our churches is much more subtle, but perhaps much more dangerous. This one is the communitarian ethics movement. This system of ethics is much less defined than deontology, virtue, natural law, or utilitarianism. It is amorphous because it is attached, in part, to postmodernism. Communitarian ethics asserts that the ethical mores of a group are established by the community. What constitutes a community? At this stage it appears any group of two or more people could be deemed a community. This system takes into account that various cultural groups could have different moral standards that they have developed through their own rational (or irrational) worldviews. This accounts for how cannibalism could be an accepted practice in the remote jungles of South America, but the Western world sees it as an atrocity.

From a Christian perspective, communitarian ethics has found it greatest proponents in Stanley Hauerwas and the late Stanley Grenz. It rears its head not so much in the poor ethical standards of those in the church, but instead in the response of the Christian to the culture when morality is out of whack. Take for example the homosexual marriage debate. The communitarian in the church is the one who says, "I would never support homosexual marriage personally, but who am I to tell another group of people what they should and should not do?" In making such a statement, this person is validating the idea that (at least) two separate moralities coexist in his world without opposition or contradiction. The subjectivity of this approach is debilitating to the Christian message, and completely shreds any sense of cultural impact for the church and the gospel.

Where do we go from here? What do we teach our children in the home and in the church? What can our SBC churches do to stem the tide of these movements? Those items will be the content of part 4 in this series.

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.

Ethics and the SBC (Part 1)

Amidst all the controversy swirling around the SBC and the Christian world in general, I thought it might be interesting to explore the role of ethics in the life of the believer, and specifically within the SBC since that is our context. Certainly, there are many approaches to this subject, and not even Baptist, much less evangelicals, agree on the best approach to ethics. Since this is my field of study, however, I will throw my hat into the ring.

To provide a little historical perspective, there are three major systems of ethics that pre-date the birth of Christ. These are virtue ethics (roughly 4th century B.C. with Plato), natural law ethics (roughly 5th century B.C. with Sophocles, but made famous by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century A.D.), and deontological ethics (dating back to the Exodus, but made famous by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century). Of course, there are other systems that play a role in the development of ethics, but it is my opinion that most other systems can be seen as an offshoot of one of these (if not just virtue and deontological).

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the person rather than the act. It emphasizes a life of excellence in light of the character of the person. Aristotle famously set forth the four cardinal virtues of temperance (self-control/moderation), justice, prudence (wisdom), and fortitude (courage). Aristotle considered the virtues to be the "golden mean" (though he never used that terminology) between two vices. Hence, fortitude is the virtuous mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness. Augustine came along and subsumed the cardinal virtues under Christian love. Then Thomas Aquinas developed the concept of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas discusses more than 60 virtues, but all of them fall under the categories of the cardinal or theological virtues. Virtue ethics seemed to fall off the face of the map for a few centuries but has seen a revival in the last 50 years or so, especially from the pens of Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Stanley Grenz.

Natural law theory saw its beginning with Sophocles and Cicero, but it was made famous by Aquinas (in combination with his virtue ethics). At the heart of natural law ethics are the following principles: natural law is given by God in laws of nature together with human reason; natural law is naturally authoritative over all human beings—necessarily binding on everyone, not subject to individual choice; natural law is naturally knowable by all human beings—those with defective reasoning must defer to those with better reasoning; good is prior to the right; and when there is more than one way to reach our common ends, human law is introduced to supplement natural law. Natural law has typically been the approach to ethics for the Roman Catholic Church since the days of Aquinas. Current natural law scholars include Robert George, John Finnis, and J. Budziszewski.

Deontological ethics is a duty-based, or obligation-based, system of ethics. It generally dates back to the days of Moses in the exodus, but did not become influential until Immanuel Kant developed his categorical imperative. Kant’s imperative includes a universalization principle and a means-end principle. The universalization principle states: "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." The means-end principle states: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end." This system of ethics focuses on the act and the duty, or obligation, fulfilled by performing (or not performing) that act. Deontological ethics still holds some influence among academic circles due to the vast influence of Kant. However, the greatest concentration of deontology, I would argue, can be found in the typical conservative, evangelical church.

So how does this relate to the SBC? Stay tuned for part 2.