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What are Christian Ethics?

The Christian life resembles a three-legged stool. For the stool to stand firm, each leg must rest securely in place. The three legs are faith, fellowship, and fidelity. Faith entails knowing God and trusting him for salvation through Christ; fellowship implies being a functioning member of Christ's body; and fidelity means showing loyalty to Christ by living a worthy life. Without each of these three supports, the stool shakes, the Christian walk begins to stumble.

The word "ethics" comes from a Greek adjective that means "pertaining to character." "Morality" derives from a Latin word that the Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BC) used to translate the Greek word for ethics. In modern times, ethics is the study of how we ought to behave; it asks questions about what is right and wrong. Morality is the set of rules we live by, rules that reflect the expectations of our culture, the demands of our religion, or some combination of both. You might say that ethics is theory and morality is practice—sometimes indirectly linked.

For Christians, ethical and moral behavior relates directly to fidelity--living a life that honors Christ's sacrifice, but it pertains to faith and fellowship as well. How we as Christians understand God, ourselves, and our relationship to others provides the basis for how we act in specific situations. With the Holy Spirit's help and guidance, we reach spiritual maturity by informing our minds, deepening our relationships, training our emotions, and disciplining our behavior (Romans 8:11-17; 1 Corinthians 2:11-16).

Christian ethics touch upon thought, feeling, and action. "The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil" (Matthew 12:35). From the "treasure of our hearts," thoughts and feelings, come the actions that ultimately prove ethical or unethical, good or evil.

Ethics point the way to living a good life. The study of ethics is a practical attempt to learn how to live, just as the study of politics is (in theory, at least) a practical attempt to learn how to make society flourish. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), the purpose of ethics was finding how to be happy or fulfilled, because the person who lived a good life, he believed, was also a person with a strong sense of well-being.

Christian ethics have an added dimension because Christians believe that goodness is a characteristic of God. To be good is to be like God and eventually to be with God. To know good, one must know God as he has revealed himself and live according to that knowledge (Jeremiah 9:23-24). Simply knowing about God does not produce ethical behavior, as the scandals occasionally created by certain prominent Christians demonstrate. "Even the demons believe" we read in James 2:19. By the same token, the reverse is true: Even believers are capable of demonic behavior.

Practical ethics attempt to identify the qualities that exemplify good character. We test the validity and usefulness of ethical principles as we apply them to specific moral decisions about behavior. Should a Christian own a restaurant that serves alcoholic beverages? Should a Christian banker charge interest on loans to fellow Christians? May a Christian wife ever divorce her husband and remarry? Can a Christian activist justifiably shoot at a doctor who performs abortions? Can Christian soldiers kill in the service of their country?

Easy answers to ethical questions rarely exist because rules of thumb do not always suffice in difficult situations. These lessons do not attempt to ask or answer every ethical question. They simply seek to provide adults with food for thought and discussion about what it means to become more Christ-like.


1. Is it worse to be called “immoral” than to be called “unethical”? What is the difference? For example, is immodesty unethical or immoral? What about murder? What about divorce?
2. Aristotle says that "activities in conformity with virtue constitute happiness." His definition assumes that in order to be happy a person must have the physical means to engage in good activities. What do you think the term "happiness" means to a Christian? Do you agree that happiness depends to some degree at least on having a sufficient number of possessions?
3. If a law-abiding driver accidentally kills a child who darts into the road, American society does not consider that person unethical (although African society might). Does ethical or unethical behavior require intention or premeditation? If you and the grocery checker accidentally overlook a small item in your grocery cart and you do not discover that you have taken it without paying until you are putting your groceries in the car, are you obliged to go back into the store and wait another ten minutes in line to pay for that item? After all, you did not intend to steal it. Can you think of another example of unintentional wrongdoing? Is all unintentional wrongdoing guiltless?
4. In making ethical decisions, Christians experience the reality of God. James Gustafson says that the practical purpose of Christian ethics is to aid Christians in "discerning what God is enabling and requiring them to do." Tell about something you did or didn't do because you thought God would approve or disapprove.
5. If bombing a residential area would hasten the end of a war and save thousands of lives, would it be morally right to kill innocent women and children? How does the rule "You shall not murder" apply in this case? How does it apply to cases of personal self defense or to capital punishment?
6. Paul seems to suggest that rules (or laws) are the means to an end rather than the end itself (Romans 2:12-15). Can you imagine an ethical life without following rules or laws? Are there other approaches to ethical living aside from following rules?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 27, 2007 4:43 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Is It All Relative?.

The next post in this blog is Whose Values, Whose Virtues?.

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