[2]        Principles (2): Priority of Norms

STORY: A 2003 survey in the US reports that 87% believe in the existence of God; 80% believe in Judgment Day; 81% say that prayer is an important part of their daily lives. Yet only 59% say their religious faith is important. What do you think is the percentage of Canadians who say their religious faith is important? /// only 30%. It is clear that Canada is rapidly becoming a very secular society, a society without God.

It is also clear from the above survey that conservatives are more religious. Of those who described themselves as conservatives, 81% answered positively to all 3 questions. These include many Christians from evangelical churches like C&MA. In contrast, only 54% of those who described themselves as liberals answered positively to all 3 questions. Now, what about you? How would you answer the 3 questions?


10 Trends among youth, also in society

1.     rising youth violence

2.     increasing dishonesty (lying, cheating, stealing)

3.     growing disrespect for parents, teachers, and authority figures

4.     increasing peer cruelty

5.     a rise in prejudice and hate crimes

6.     the deterioration of language

7.     a decline in the work ethic

8.     declining civic and personal responsibility

9.     a surge in self-destructive behaviours such as premature sexual activity, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide

10.   growing ethical illiteracy, including ignorance of moral knowledge and the tendency to engage in destructive behaviour without thinking it wrong


There has been a decline in moral values among youth. A 2002 US survey reported that 74% of high school students admitted cheating on exams in the past year (13% higher than in 1992); 38% of students admitted to shoplifting in the past year (7% higher than in 1992); 43% agreed that “a person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.” Another survey reported that 82% of students believe that right and wrong are relative terms and that morality is a ridiculous concept; 78% said they regularly lie to their parents.

7.      What principles can be used to judge the priority of different norms?

a.   Most evangelical theologians take the position of graded absolutism meaning that: when a decision involves a conflict of norms, the lower norm is suspended and is preceded by the higher norm. In the example of Ex 1:15-21, the midwives violated the norm of obeying the government in order not to violate a higher norm of not to kill.

b.   General principles in judging the hierarchy of norms:

(1)  Persons have priority over things (Mt 16:26).

(2)  God has priority over human beings (Ac 5:29; Da 3:17-18).

(3)  Many persons have priority over few persons (1Co 9:19; 10:33).

(4)  Irreversible actions (e.g. death) are more crucial than actions with long term effects, which are in turn more crucial than actions with short term effects.

(5)  Do to others what you would have them do to you (Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31).


Common (Secular) Normative Principles in Applied Ethics

      Principle of benevolence: help those in need.

      Principle of paternalism: assist others in pursuing their best interests when they cannot do so themselves.

      Principle of harm: do not harm others.

      Principle of honesty: do not deceive others.

      Principle of lawfulness: do not violate the law.

      Principle of autonomy: acknowledge a person’s freedom over his/her actions or physical body.

      Principle of justice: acknowledge a person’s right to due process, fair compensation for harm done, and fair distribution of benefits.

      Principle of rights: acknowledge a person’s rights to life, information, privacy, free expression, and safety.

There are extensive similarities in ethical codes in various cultures, e.g. principles of fairness, kindness, honesty; emphasis on duties toward parents, elders, and ancestors and toward children and descendants; universal admiration of virtues such as generosity, mercy, compassion, wisdom, courage, self-control, patience, humility, perseverance.


c.   The most important is to seek the will and guidance of God through fervent prayer.

8.      How can the Pascal’s Wager be extended to serve as an ethical principle?

a.   The argument for the importance of a belief in God is called the “Pascal’s Wager”, formulated by Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), in his book Pensées. He was one of the most intelligent person in history, French mathematician, physicist, philosopher, theologian (Jensenist, non-Catholic), great prose writer.

b.   The Argument: Suppose logical reasoning cannot decide for or against the existence of God; then we must “wager” on this question of utmost importance. If you place your bet with God, you lose nothing, even if it turns out that God does not exist. But if you place it against God, and you are wrong and God does exist, you lose everything: God, eternity, heaven, infinite gain.

c.   Therefore the only wise wager is to believe that God exists. If God exists, he wins the reward of eternal life; if God does not exist, at least he wins the reward of a good present life with joy and peace. In other words, to wager that God does not exist is always a stupid wager.

d.   The application of the principle: choose life not death; fight against the culture of death.

9.      Can we claim that some commands in the Bible are particular to the history and culture of the Biblical times and are therefore not applicable to today?

a.   When we apply the Bible in ethics, it is important to distinguish between general principles or commands and specific applications of those commands. While general principles are relevant for all times and all cultures, specific rules relating to particular circumstances of a culture of biblical times may not be applicable today.

b.   Some Christians reject the idea of “cultural relativity” but this rejection is never total. Some may insist on head-coverings for women (1Co 11:5) but very few arrange for their daughter’s marriage (1Co 7:36 of KJV).

c.   Many of the Old Testament laws established for Israel are not applicable now (not even in modern Israel) because:

(1)  Ceremonial law was superseded by the death of Christ (Heb 10:10-18).

(2)  New Testament argues for the end of Mosaic law (Ro 10:4; Gal 3:21-25; 5:18).

(3)  We are not under a theocracy.

d.   Since there is no such thing as a divinely ordained culture, some commands specific to the New Testament times may not be applicable today (such as head covering for women in 1Co 11:5). However, it is dangerous to discount parts of the Bible by the claim of cultural relativity. Many liberal Christians today use this argument to explain away most of the commandments in the Bible. Therefore, clear guidelines should be developed for such a claim.

e.   Three questions should be asked:

(1)   Is the command inherently moral?

o        Those that are inherently moral are absolute and applicable to every culture. These include the sin lists: Mk 7:21-22; Ro 1:29-32; 1Co 5:11; 6:9-10; 2Co 12:20; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 4:31; 5:3; Co 3:5; 2Ti 3:2-4; 1Pe 2:1 (not exhaustive lists). Those commands that are not inherently moral may therefore be cultural expressions and may change from culture to culture.

Sin Lists

wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips, slanderer, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful, invent ways of doing evil, disobey parents, senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless, approve sin (Ro 1:29-32)

sexually immoral, greedy, idolater, slanderer, drunkard, swindler (1Co 5:11)

sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexual offenders, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers (1Co 6:9-10)

quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance, disorder (2Co 12:20)

sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies (Gal 5:19-21)

bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, malice (Eph 4:31)

sexual immorality, impurity, greed = idolater (Eph 5:3)

sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed or idolatry (Col 3:5)

lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure (2Ti 3:2-4)

evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, folly (Mk 7:21-22)

malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander (1Pe 2:1)

o        Summary of sins in the lists:

about money [17 times]: greed (6), idolatry (4), 7 others [Money is the religion of many non-Christians.]

about speech [16 times]: slander (8), 8 others

about sex [13 times]: sexual immorality (6, 5 times mentioned as first sin), 7 others

about thought [12 times]: malice (4), evil (4), 4 others

pride [7 times]: arrogance (3), 4 others

jealousy [6 times]: envy (4), jealousy (2)

others: drunkenness (3), impurity (3), rage (3), selfishness (2)

(2)  Is there a uniform position/prohibition in the Bible?

o        If there are different positions, then the command is not absolute, e.g. eating food offered to the idols (Ac 15:29; 1Co 10:25-26).

(3)  Do we share similar specific life situations?

o        The cultural setting of Biblical passages and the intent or reason of the command need to be understood, e.g. prohibitions in Ac 15:20 were a compromise to satisfy Jewish Christians.

10.  Can Christians swear an oath, such as in courts?

a.   Mt 5:34 and Jas 5:12 prohibit swearing an oath. Should Christians then refuse to swear an oath even if it is required by law?

b.   Let us use the 3 questions above to decide.

(1)  Is swearing an oath inherently immoral? No, it is not.

(2)  Is there a uniform position in the Bible on swearing an oath? No, there is not.

o        Dt 6:13  Moses urged a legitimate oath.

o        Lev 19:12 prohibits only false swearing.

o        Mt 23:16-22  Jesus accepted the authenticity of oaths.

o        Mt 26:63-64  Jesus spoke under an oath, implicitly accepting the legality of oaths.

o        Ro 1:9  Paul, in the form of an oath, says that God is the witness to his truth (see also Gal 1:20).

(3)  Is the prohibition of oaths related to specific life situations?

o        The verses in the Bible are not directed at legitimate oaths required in court. The prohibition is against the common but unnecessary Jewish practice (rash swearing) of using God’s name or a sacred object to guarantee the truth of what is spoken.

c.   Conclusion: Christians can swear an oath when required by law, such as in courts.

11.  What is the proper attitude if there is disagreement among Christians about ethical decisions?

a.   There are different levels of ethical decisions/actions based on the seriousness of consequence.

·         3 Questions can be used to determine the level:

(1)  Is it a sin or an immoral act?

o        if yes, then it is an “immoral act” [level 1] that is clearly wrong based on the commandments and/or sin lists, e.g. theft, greed, lie, slander

o        if no, ask the next question

(2)  Will it lead to sin for yourself or for others? AND Will it be regarded as objectionable by the majority of Christians?

o        if yes to either one, then it is an “improper act” [level 2] that may lead yourself to sin, or may lead others to sin but the act itself is in the grey area/zone (not white or black), e.g. smoking, wearing sexy clothes

o        A note on wearing clothes: How do you know whether your attire is proper? The proper attire of course differs from culture to culture, from place to place. A general rule is that the attire is probably proper if you do not feel conscious about it. Also, it is a good practice to wear better clothes to go to worship. Presume you are going to a wedding or a funeral, what would you wear? Probably not casual clothes. Going to church on Sunday is to worship the creator of the universe. What do you think is proper?

o        if no, ask the next question

(3)  Will it be objected by more than a few Christians?

o        if yes, then it is an “inappropriate act” [level 3] that may be objectionable but does not lead to sin, e.g. using foul language, showing off an expensive car

o        if no, then it is a “morally neutral act” [level 4] that is acceptable behaviour (in the colourless area), though occasionally may require God’s guidance, e.g. wearing jewelry

o        [A few Christians may object Christian women wearing any jewelry, but without a valid ethical reason. In such cases, avoiding such acts is not necessary. Otherwise, it becomes tyranny of the weak where the Christian with the weakest conscience (1Co 8:7) dictates the behaviour of the whole congregation. The “stumbling” in 1Co 8:9 refers not to mere dislike but to actual commission of sin.]

o        As for foul language, some are more objectionable than others. The use of God’s name (including Jesus’ name) in expressing disgust or exclamation or simply in a careless fashion is a violation of the Third Commandment (“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Ex 20:7) and is a violation of “hallowed be your name” in the Lord’s prayer (Mt 6:9), therefore a serious matter.

b.   For questions that do not involve essential matters of faith, positions can be held tentatively. The position may allow revision when there are new information or new arguments. One good example is capital punishment, upon which even evangelical theologians cannot agree.

c.   The majority of the questions discussed in ethics do not involve essential matters of faith (except those regarding sin which must require a definitive response). We need to be more tolerant and not legalistic. We should agree to disagree agreeably.

d.   An excellent saying of Charles Simeon (1758-1836), attributed to the Church Fathers, is a good guideline.

In essentials, unity.

In non-essentials, liberty.

In all things, charity.