Evangelical churches, in general, are failing to adequately equip young Christians to live the Christian life because we do not offer them a robust ethical framework to understand the moral situations they encounter in this world. Instead, we allow culture to teach them ethics or assume that they will pick up the right moral lessons from Scripture without explicit instruction. We, as the church, need to reconsider how we disciple young believers to live ethically in the world.
For some people, thinking about ethics seems to mean pondering the difficult questions on the margins of life. For example, the trolley problem is a popular exercise in moral reasoning. It is supposed to have deep significance in understanding the meaning of human life and our duty to one another. Another common moral dilemma is whether one should lie if Nazis come to the door asking if one has Jews hiding under the kitchen table. This is supposed to be a test to show how one values truth against human life.
There is meaningful discussion to be had behind these sorts of problems. However, they are far from useful in generating truly helpful thought about ethics when the are presented before real ethical structure is offered.
Lack of an Ethical Framework
Most people lack a coherent ethical framework, and that is a problem. Some might argue that my perspective on this is driven by my training as an ethicist. This is, in part, true. It is my training as an ethicist that helps me to recognize the need for a coherent framework and the problems with a lack of a coherent framework for ethical thinking.
Consider, for example, the question of lying to the Nazis from above. When this is presented to most people, it is pitched as a choice between (1) valuing truth telling over human life or (2) seeing the immeasurable value of humans. The right answer for most people is to lie to the Nazis.
What happens, though, when one reasons from dilemmas to an ethical structure is that the odd, unlikely cases begin to define the norms in an unhealthy way. Once the idea that human life is more valuable than truth is established for the case of the Nazis, then it does not take much to argue that human flourishing (often undefined) should champion over supposed truths. The structure has been set by the dilemma, so that a slight shift in meaning can make worlds of justification possible.
We need better ethical thinking before we run into life’s dilemmas.
The Problem with Dilemmas
The problem is not the outcome of the case, but the situation of the case itself. These dilemmas are typically set up to produce a particular response or push people into a specific train of thinking. In the case of the trolley problem, it is nearly always some smart, innovative person tied to one set of tracks with a large group of commoners tied to the other. The dilemma ignores the facts that (1) our choices are rarely so clear, (2) there is no right choice, (3) there are alternative options. The trolley problem is set up to enforce consequentialist ethics, by evaluating whether the genius saving many lives is more worthy than the commoners living their own lives. What shall we do in the face of such conundrums?
Most of the time, the best answer is to ignore these unhelpful problems or, better yet, to look for an option nor offered in the setup. The trolley problem has been refined to ensure there is no other option, because for every possible alternate solution a defeater has been established. For example, no heroism is possible in dashing out to untie the genius because you are locked in the control house. The setup of the problem is a setup. Additionally, the scenarios are usually presented in unrealistically: we are told that the genius will invent some drug that will save the lives of millions. No one knows these things, so the case is fraudulent.
When it comes to the case of lying to the Nazis, the problem is also in the setup. First, the setup relies on the assumption that any untruth is a lie. For those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is often pitched as a violation of the Ten Commandments. However, the Ten Commandments actually mandate not bearing false witness against our neighbors. There is more than untruth happening here: it is untruth combined with an authority that deserves truth (the court) and a bad motive (to damage the neighbor). Without discarding the norm of communicating truth, the complexity of the ethical action (saying an untruth) helps to simplify the problem.
One solution to the question of lying to the Nazis relies on my understanding of the complexity of moral actions. In this case, I believe it to be just to tell an untruth to the Nazis because, as an unjust government they do not warrant a truthful response, and my motivation (I hope) is to glorify God by preserving the life of the innocents hiding under my table. This resolves the question, but, it really creates more problems than it solves if presented in the wrong circumstances.
Even in this case with a more complex ethical structure, if the situation and solution is presented to immature hearers (for example, children), then marginal case is often interpreted as having a much broader application. Often children’s literature tends to make such marginal cases the norm. For example, one of the major premises of Harry Potter is that the adults are idiots and that only the kids can save the world. The plot of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets depends on him willfully withholding key truths from Dumbledore. While at the end of the book, Harry, Hermione, and Ron save the day, what we really have is a case where their immaturity put everyone’s life at risk unnecessarily. It makes for fun reading, but bad ethics.
The problem is that we rarely offer a better alternative from within the church.
Some Thoughts on Ethical Education
Rarely to we invest the time with young Christians helping them work through the ethical framework they need for life.
Instead, we often attempt to do moral reasoning as a drive by to exegesis and we wonder why people in the church come up with the wrong ethical conclusions.
To be clear, exegesis is important and we cannot do without it. In some cases, Scripture is so abundantly clear in particular passages that trying to avoid the truths presented requires all sorts of mental gymnastics—much like the approach commonly demonstrated by those lobbying for a revisionist sexual ethics. However, we cannot always jump from a passage of Scripture to a moral principle without passing it through the whole of counsel of God, because our circumstances are analogous not identical to those in Scripture.
Part of the discipleship process ought to be discussions about ethics. All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for edification, but Scripture is not an instruction book. Rather, it is a complex tapestry of genres of material that requires a lifetime of dedicated study and appreciation to begin to understand.
When we send young Christians out into the world with a fideistic ethics (God said it, I believe it, that settles it) then it is not surprise when alternative interpretations of Scripture or the silliness of the application of some supposed ethical norms (e.g., not wearing mixed fabrics) leads to abandonment of any vestige of Christian ethics and, often, Christianity.
Even the most biblicist of fundamentalist preachers has a more robust ethical schema than the literal application of the whole Mosaic law. The problem is that we too rarely talk about those things in our Sunday School classes, from our pulpits, and as we disciple one another. So, the result is that we send young Christians out into the world with a handful of inconsistent principles and a methodology that is incoherent, and we wonder why they don’t flourish in the Christian life.
As Christians, we need to reconsider how we teach ethics during the discipleship process.
Suggestions on Where to Start
A good place to start in gaining an understanding of a robustly orthodox Christian ethics is David Jones’ book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. He provides a framework for Christian ethics that begins and ends with Scripture. It is robust and clear. The paradigm is sufficiently complex to handle ethical questions both simple and complex.
I am also partial to John Frame’s work. For a brief introduction, his volume Perspectives on the Word of God offers a primer to his triperspectival theology and ethics. Additionally, his much longer volume Doctrine of the Christian Life offers a more thorough explanation of his ethical methodology with application to a large number of moral issues.
For pastors and educated lay people, the gold standard for Evangelical ethics is Oliver O’Donovan’s seminal book, Resurrection and the Moral Order. This is a very important book, too rarely read, but it is also very difficult reading.