[1]        Principles (1): Ethics & Different Perspectives

STORY: On Judgment Day, a man approaches the judgment throne. God shows him a long list in red letters and asks him, “You said you are a Christian, but why have you persistently and unrepentantly committed all these sins violating my commandments?” The person replies, “Sorry, God, I don’t know about your commandments. I would have followed if I knew about them. Can I be pardoned because of my ignorance?” What do you think God’s answer will be?

1.      What is ethics?

a.   Ethics is the study of moral principles and of right and wrong conduct. The term “ethics” comes from the Greek words ethika (custom) and ethos (character, 1Co 15:33), thus referring to the “manner of life and conduct”.

b.   Divisions in ethics:

(1)  based on use:

o        general or theoretical ethics (study of principles and concepts)

o        special or applied ethics (application of principles to moral issues)

(2)  based on theoretical level (3 levels):

o        descriptive ethics (portrays moral actions or virtues, making no claim about ethical normativeness)

o        normative or prescriptive ethics (examines descriptive ethics by evaluating actions or virtues as being morally right or wrong)

o        metaethics (analyzes normative ethics by clarifying the meanings of ethical terms, and assesses the principles of ethical arguments or ethical justification)

(3)  based on foundation:

o        philosophical ethics (teleological, about goals and consequences; also called anthropocentric, humanistic, empirical-deliberative ethics)

o        theological ethics (deontological, about duty; also called theocentric, evangelical, revelational-normative ethics)

There are 2 major approaches in theological ethics. (a) Based on essentialism (ethical theory grounding in the nature of God), which sees ethical duties grounded in God’s nature and revealed in God’s creation, the emphasis is on general revelation. This is “creation ethic”. (b) Based on the divine-command theory or voluntarism (ethical theory grounding in the will of God), the emphasis is on special revelation of God’s will, thus stressing on the uniqueness of Christian ethics. This is “kingdom ethic”.

Theological ethics

The “creation ethic” leads to natural law theory, supported by the Roman Catholic Church. It was first developed by the Greek Stoics and later became the standard medieval Christian view. According to the theory, knowledge of human nature provides a foundation for understanding moral values and obligations. For Christians, God created human life for certain purposes, and identifying these purposes can help us develop and justify a Christian ethic. The bases are: (a) A true ethic is natural to humans in the sense it rightly corresponds to true human nature. (b) Human reason can discover a natural ethic without using special revelation, thus emphasizing rationalism.

The shortcoming of “creation ethic” is that human reasoning may not always lead to the viewpoint of God because of human fallenness. The shortcoming of “narrative ethic” is that stories change with time and differences experiences and different cultures often lead to contrasting understanding. Both approaches may end up in ethical relativism.

Some speak of a third approach called “narrative ethic”. It focuses on an individual’s life story, the story or tradition of one’s community or group, and the stories of others, and how these shape one’s character (virtues) and influence one’s life patterns. The basis is: The Bible is not a prepackaged authority; its authority grows out of the process of its functioning in the believing community. The church tests and adapts the Scripture pragmatically within its own life. The Bible is not the sole source of ethical understanding; experience, tradition, philosophy, and science all contribute to ethical knowledge. This comes from a postmodern mentality that ethical knowledge comes through limited perspectives that are justified in practice (not in theory) by a community of people (not by individuals) who share a history. The approach sounds like ethical relativism and situation ethics.

c.   The objective of ethics is to understand how to make morally right decisions. The simple and direct way is to act according to “moral rules” or “norms” (examples for norms: murder is wrong, honesty is right). It is important because right decisions contribute to the well being of every person.


Ethics: the philosophical and theological analysis of morality

Morality: the right behaviour or conduct, including virtuous character, honourable intentions, and right actions

Value: in the moral sense, a quality (such as loyalty, truthfulness, or justice) that human beings esteem and toward which they direct their moral behaviour

Norm: a rule, a guide to character and action

Principles: broad moral guidelines and precepts that are more foundational and more general than rules

Rules: concrete and specific directives for conduct that derive from principles

Absolute or universal: moral norm that allows no exception, applying to the conduct of all human beings

2.      What is foundation of Christian ethics?

a.   For Christians, norms are founded on the will of God. While individuals should always seek direct guidance from God, the objective and unchanging source of norms which helps us to discern the will of God is the Bible – The Word of God. This is the foundation of Christian ethics.

b.   The Christian ethic is vastly different from the ethic of the society which is characterized by:

(1)  Ethical relativism. It denies the existence of absolute moral rules. Today’s society believes that all norms are “relative”; they can and will be changed with the changes in cultural beliefs and preferences. In reaction, Christians must not compromise their principles and must not be afraid to ride against the tide of popular opinion or political correctness (Ro 12:2; 1Co 3:19; Col 2:8; Jas 4:4).

(2)  Secular Humanism (the religion of today’s society). With the motto of “Man is the measure of all things,” man makes himself God. In reaction, Christians must reject such devious philosophy and insist that God is our guide in life and the sovereign Lord of the universe.

(3)  Culture of death. Secular humanism preaches a culture of death which supports and glorifies death (2Co 11:14), including abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality (which leads to much shorter lives). But the Bible is about life. It is pro-life. The objective of God’s Word is to lead to salvation and eternal life (Jn 20:31). The Bible does not speak of eternal life as only in the future; we already have it here in the present. God wants us to live not only a full future life but also a full present life (Jn 10:10). A real Christian (not a nominal one) has no choice but to emphasize the sanctity (sacredness) of life.

There is now a great moral polarization on matters of death. On one side are the pro-life people who are politically conservative, more religious, anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia. On the other side are the “pro-choice” people who are politically liberal, favouring abortion rights, gay rights, and right-to-die legislation; they include secular humanists and environmentalists.

c.   Murder is the most heinous crime of all. Therefore “murder is wrong” is certainly a universal norm accepted by all cultures. Secular ethicists talk about 9 ways to determine ethical or moral behaviour. Below is a list of these 9 theories and how each justifies the norm of “murder is wrong”. [The first 7 are deontological ethics and the last 2 are teleological ethics.]

·         Ethics of Divine Command: I must not murder because God commands me not to. The reason behind it is that man is created in the image of God so murder is a violation of God Himself (Gen 1:27; 9:6).

·         Ethics of Conscience: I do not murder because my conscience tells me not to.

·         Ethics of Justice: I do not murder because murder is an unjust act.

·         Ethics of Virtues: I do not murder because I want to be a good and virtuous person.

·         Ethics of Duty: I do not murder because of my duty of doing good to mankind.

·         Ethics of Respect: I do not murder out of respect for others.

·         Ethics of Rights: I do not murder because everyone has the right to life.

·         Ethics of Egoism: I do not murder because I may face punishment which will be bad for myself.

·         Ethics of Utilitarianism: I do not murder because it is not good for the world; if everyone murders, the human race would be extinct.

d.   It is clear that except the first one, all the rest focus on the qualities resident within each person. There is certain truth in these positions (Ro 2:14-16), but not complete truth. Because human beings have in them a sinful nature, which impedes them from heeding or fulfilling the moral requirement based on their own conscience, all these 8 positions will lead to inconsistent decisions dependent on other factors, that is, some people may still decide that murder is right.

e.   It is unavoidable that secular ethics can sometimes lead to very different conclusions from Christians ethics (Jas 4:4). Christians must learn to resist being conformed to the world (Ro 12:2) and to persevere in the will of God.

3.      Why is it important to obey God’s commandments?

a.   God demands His children to obey His Word.

·         To be a Christian involves more than just a belief in your heart; it involves two components: a Christian faith and a Christian practice. Faith is the roots which leads to the fruit of living our faith in our daily lives. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (Jas 2:26; also 2:19,22) The importance of both faith and practice is again shown in 2Ti 3:16 which describes the 4 functions of the Bible: teaching [right faith], rebuking [against wrong practice], correcting [against wrong faith] and training in righteousness [right practice]. These two components (faith and practice) are handled by dogmatics and ethics.

C&MA Constitution, Statement of Faith no.4: “The Old and New Testaments, inerrant as originally given, were verbally inspired by God and are a complete revelation of His will for the salvation of people. They constitute the divine and only rule of Christian faith and practice (2Ti 3:16; 2Pe 1:20-21).”

·         God demands obedience (Jn 14:15,21,23-24; 1Jn 5:3).

·         Obedience is part of discipleship (Mt 28:20; 1Jn 2:3-6). Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Only the obedient believe.”

·         One’s salvation is linked to obedience (Mt 19:17; Ro 6:16; Eph 5:5-6).

b.   When we encounter an ethical dilemma, how do we decide what to do? Since Christians have the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, we can seek God’s direct guidance. One way to help us make a decision is to ask ourselves the question: “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD) This is based on Php 2:5: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” If we are genuine in our prayer, the Holy Spirit will guide us to follow God’s will.

c.   Then why do we still need the Bible to help us make ethical decisions? It is because we may be deceived by different things which block God’s guidance. These include: (1) our preconceptions and biases shaped by our baggage of past knowledge and experience, (2) our hardheartedness which ignores or suppresses our conscience, or (3) deception by our own desires (Jas 1:14), by the world (1Jn 2:16), or by the Devil (1Jn 5:19). Therefore, the Bible, the Word of God, is the reliable and unchanging foundation for our ethical decisions.

A confession by the author of these notes:

I know for a fact that many people in church do not know about the correct Christian position on many moral issues. About 10 years ago, I conducted a survey on moral issues in my former church. One question is whether abortion is right or wrong. Among the young people, 1/4 said it is right, 1/4 said it is wrong, 1/2 said that they “don’t know”.

I take this task of teaching ethics very seriously. When I teach Sunday School, I always remind myself of Jas 3:1: that a teacher will judged by God more strictly (also Mt 5:19 “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Also Mt 18:6; Mk 9:42).

I have to admit that for many years after I became a Christian, I still held mistaken positions in many ethical issues. Today, I am still learning and I am willing to accept correction if I am wrong.

It is difficult to accept corrections. Everyone hates to be told that “you are wrong!” But I ask that everyone (including myself) can be open to correction by God’s Word.

4.      Can Christians tell white lies?

a.   White lies are those lies with a supposition that the motive of the lie is worthy.

b.   Lying is prohibited by God (Lev 19:11) and is contrary to the truthful character of God (1Sa 15:29; Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18). As a rule, white lies are wrong. Those who habitually tell whites lies soon become colour blind to all lies.

c.   However, not every act of deception is the moral equivalent of a lie because a person cannot tell the complete truth all the time, e.g. deception in sports such as football, or your true feeling about all your friends.

d.   Can we tell young children fairy stories or Santa Claus?

Yes; telling fictional stories is not a lie (not even a deception); it can help children develop their imagination. Further, children at very young age can distinguish between the imaginative world and the real world.

e.   Can we falsify to get a friend to a surprise birthday party?

No; because there is only one norm involved. When a situation involves only one norm, that norm must be followed.

Geisler, a theologian, uses the surprise birthday party as an example of exception. He says that: “Lying ought never be done, but falsifications in a context where the truth is not expected are not strictly equivalent to lies, or may be regarded as the only exception.” However, this position is perhaps too lax as the thrill from your friend’s surprise does not justify breaking a moral rule. You may hide the fact of the surprise party but when you are specifically asked about whether there is a party, you should not tell a lie.

5.      How can a situation with conflicting norms be resolved?

a.   The example of Rahab (Jos 2:1-6; 6:25) is a good illustration of ethical decisions when norms are in conflict (an ethical dilemma).

b.   What are the conflicting norms involved in Rahab’s situation?

(1)  “You shall not murder” (6th Commandment, Ex 20:13). Here, the spies would certainly die if Rahab told the truth. Rahab would then be responsible for the murder.

(2)  One should not lie (Pr 19:9; Mt 5:37; Eph 4:25; Col 3:9).

c.   What are the alternatives before Rahab?

(1)  tell a lie to save the spies

(2)  tell the truth and hope for God’s miraculous delivery

d.   Rahab told the lie. But, is she correct? Apparently yes, Rahab’s action was regarded by God as righteous (Jas 2:24-25).

e.   A similar example is the Hebrew midwives who disobeyed the king’s command. They told a lie and were rewarded by God (Ex 1:20-21).

6.      What are the different ways in resolving a conflict of norms?

a.   Three kinds of relativism (norms are relative, not absolute):


1. Anti-normianism

2. Utilitarianism

3. Situationism

Regarding Norms

no absolute norms

some absolute norms but all depend on the end result

one absolute norm: love, all other norms relative

Principle Applied

Lying or telling the truth can both be right because there is no good or bad.

Lying is generally wrong but the ‘end’ of good results justifies the ‘means’ used.

Lying is right if it is done out of love.

Rahab’s Possible Action

Rahab would do whatever she thought was right, telling the truth or telling the lie to save the spies.

Rahab may tell the lie because she would then get the Israelites to spare her family later.

Rahab may tell the lie out of love, that is, to save the lives of the spies.


Types of moral relativism (belief that there are no absolutes)

(1)   Cultural or descriptive relativism: view that different societies have disparate views on basic ethical judgments (upheld by anthropologists and sociologists)

(2)   Normative relativism or Conventionalism: view that what is right in one culture or for one person may not be right for another

(3)   Metaethical or Conceptual relativism: view that moral terms (“right” and “wrong”) and rules of justification are not universal, but relative to specific persons, cultures, or religions

(4)   Ethical skepticism: view that no one’s ethical beliefs are true or rational; the epistemological version holds that even if objective moral values exist, we can never know what they are; the ontological version holds that no objective, absolute morals exist

(5)   Emotivism: view that moral statements do not state moral facts but are merely utterances of one’s emotion (likes or dislikes)

(6)   Private subjectivism: view that moral statements represent simply a private psychological fact about the person holding the view

(7)   Ethical naturalism: view that denies the objective existence of moral properties and statements by reducing them to natural scientific properties which could be verified scientifically


b.   Three kinds of absolutism (norms are absolute):


4. Non-conflicting absolutism

5. Ideal or Conflicting

6. Graded or Hierarchical

Regarding Norms

many absolute norms that should never be broken

many absolute norms, breaking them is wrong but sometimes excusable

many absolute norms, but can be suspended by higher norms

Principle Applied

Lying is never right and one should not lie in any circumstances.

Lying is not right but is acceptable as the lesser of two evils.

Lying is not right but it is right in order to satisfy a higher norm.

Rahab’s Possible Action

Rahab would tell the truth or simply not respond and hoped God would use His miracles to save the spies.

Rahab would tell the lie to save the spies even though she would feel guilty afterwards.

Rahab would tell the lie to save the spies because it is done to satisfy a higher norm of avoiding killing.


Attackers of the Bible use the following examples of actions which contradict moral laws and which are apparently according to the will of God:

        patriarchs practising polygamy [The Bible always assumes monogamy is the proper way; polygamy was prohibited for church leaders in the NT.]

        Abraham sacrificing Isaac (Gen 22) [It was God’s test for Abraham who believed that God would resurrect Isaac after death (Heb 11:19). Also, Abraham eventually did not commit the murder.]

        Jacob lying to his father (Gen 27) [The Bible never approves his conduct.]

        Israelites despoiling (and hence stealing from) the Egyptians on their exodus from Egypt (Ex 12:35-36) [The Israelites asked for the materials; they did not steal them.]

        Samson killing himself (Jdg 16) [Samson’s suicide was indeed God’s plan as Samson’s death brought judgment to the Philistines.]

        Hosea committing adultery (Hos 1:2-3) [Hosea married an adulterous woman to illustrate the relationship between God and Israel; Hosea never committed adultery outside marriage.]


Applying moral norms: Some Definitions:

Moral dilemma or conflict of duties: situation in which there is a conflict between two or more ethical absolutes

Act-orientation: approach to ethics that emphasizes the uniqueness of particular ethical decisions

Rule-orientation: view of ethics that classes similar acts into groups and develops general norms to cover all instances in the category

Legalism: ethical systems, condemned in the Bible, that overemphasize law and developed detailed rules for many specific matters without regard for justice and mercy

Principalism: ethical approach that applies broad, abstract moral guidelines (principles), in contextually sensitive ways, to general classes of cases


Anti-normianism: ethical viewpoint that rejects all ethical norms and rules

Generalism: theory that considers some ethical norms binding in most situations; however, generalism allows that in certain cases all norms are subject to exceptions; utilitarianism is an example

Situationism or situation ethic: act-oriented view of ethics; sees ethical analysis applying to individual cases; stresses personal responsibility for a decision in concrete moral contexts (elaborated by Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal professor in the US)

Graded absolutism (hierarchicalism, contextual absolutism): theory maintaining that when two or more absolute ethical norms come into unavoidable conflict, the right and nonculpable course of action is to follow the higher norm

Ideal absolutism (conflicting absolutism, lesser-evil absolutism): theory stating that when moral dilemmas occur, one’s duty is to choose the unavoidable lesser evil and then seek forgiveness for sinning

Non-conflicting absolutism: theory that holds that ethical absolutes do not actually conflict; God’s absolutes, properly understood, allow no exceptions


o        Situationism holds that love can justify anything. The most loving thing in the situation is the right and good thing. It is an act-oriented view of ethics; it sees ethical analysis applying to individual cases; stresses personal responsibility in concrete moral contexts; sometimes also called contextualism. Rules are regarded not as prescriptive but only illuminative. The mark of existentialist situationism (such as Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher) is its requirement that one should always act wholeheartedly in conscious personal freedom. This emphasis on freedom ultimately approaches antinormianism.

Joseph Fletcher: “The situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illustrators of his problems.  Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so.” (based on Jn 14:15; Col 3:14; 1Jn 5:2-3)

Fletcher’s “situation ethics” is wrong for many reasons:

a.     Situation ethics ignores the fact that there is a higher principle than love for others, and that is love for God. (Mt 22:37-40)

b.     Situation ethics assumes that man is able to know what is the “loving thing to do” in a given situation without God’s guidance. (Pr 14:12, Jer 10:23)

c.     Situation ethics ignores the fact that the Bible is filled with examples that prove that the “end does not justify the means.”

d.     Situation ethics ignores the fact that the Bible is filled with absolute prohibitions (see sin lists).

e.     Situation ethics obscures right and wrong. (Isa 5:20-21)

f.      Situation ethics insults God and His word (2Pe 1:3).

g.     Situation ethics cannot work practically, because it necessarily leads to chaos. (Jdg 17:6)


o        Non-conflicting absolutism: All relevant absolutes can and must be followed in situations of apparent conflict. There is no qualifications or exceptions to norms but they are sometimes within another absolute, for example, obey the parents but only when consistent with the teachings of Scripture. There is no moral accountability for whatever evil may be done by others in response to obedience. The Christian believes that his responsibility is obedience and that the consequences of moral action are then in the hands of God. If telling the truth causes others to die, this also is within the providence of God. However, NCA also accepts the principle of “double effect”. In cases of ethical conflict where it appears that a given action will produce two effects, one desirable and one undesirable, it may be permissible to perform the action as long as the undesirable effect is not directly intended, for example, wounding or killing a person in self-defence.

o        Ideal absolutism: Theory stating that when moral dilemmas occur, one’s duty is to choose the unavoidable lesser evil and then seek forgiveness for sinning.

o        Graded absolutism: Theory maintaining that when two or more absolute ethical norms come into unavoidable conflict, the right and nonculpable course of action is to follow the higher norm.

Support for graded absolutism: (1) There are higher and lower moral laws. Jesus spoke of the greatest commandment (Mt 22:36). Many wrongly interpret Jas 2:10 as equal guilt for all sins. Two norms are compared in the same verse (Ac 5:29; Ro 13:5; 1Pe 2:13-14). (2) There are unavoidable moral conflict, e.g., Samson committed a divinely approved suicide. (3) No guilt is imputed for the unavoidable, e.g., Rahab and Hebrew midwives. So there is an ethical “right of way”.

Charles Hodge (a great 19th century conservative theologian) says that a higher obligation occasionally suspends a lower one.

c.   Norms in the Bible are absolute in the sense that they are divine commands from an absolute authority (God) and that they possess eternal validity (Jas 1:17). [This is “ethical absolutism” which holds that norms are universal and apply to conducts of all human beings in all times.] A Christian perspective should only be founded on absolutism, that is, choosing one of the last 3 alternatives listed above. Christians must reject ethical relativism.