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Whose Values, Whose Virtues?

Values and virtues are not the same. The word "values" was first used in its modern sense by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche thought nothing was good in itself, but only because someone "valued" it. He meant his use of the term "values" in preference to "virtues" as an attack on conventional morality that he perceived as weak, foolish, and meaningless.

When we read that values should be taught in the public education curriculum, we might ask what values the writer has in mind. Influential citizens tout many secular values that are rarely if ever alluded to in scripture: egalitarianism, cultural diversity, privacy, environmentalism, vegetarianism, feminism, animal rights, capitalism, a woman’s right to choose abortion, patriotism, democracy, academic freedom, and gay rights, to name only a few. Values are indeed what some group deems valuable, but values do not necessarily constitute a part of Christian ethics. In fact, certain secular values may become the enemy of Christian virtues if they contradict biblical teaching or if they take priority over weightier concerns that lie closer to the heart of God.

Values are human choices. Christian ethics stand upon principles that come from the mind and character of God (for example, Leviticus 19:2). In the process of "values clarification," students confronted with a moral dilemma usually must begin by responding to the question, "How do you feel about this?" As Robert Bellah and his colleagues write in Habits of the Heart, "In modern morality, utility replaces duty; self-expression unseats authority. 'Being good,' becomes 'feeling good.' Something moral is something you feel good after; something immoral is something you feel bad after, which implies you have to try everything at least once. Acts are not right or wrong in themselves, but only because of the results they produce, the good feelings they engender or express." Such an attitude often finds expression in contemporary song lyrics such as when Elvis sings, "Baby, if it feels so right, how can it be wrong?"

Values are ideas and attitudes that result in moral decisions. Christian virtues are those character qualities necessary for pleasing God and living an authentic Christian life. Christians try, insofar as possible, to make biblical virtues their own core values. For example, Paul writes in Philippians 2:4-8, "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross!" Paul is urging Christians to become humble altruists, based on the example of Jesus.

Choosing certain values and rejecting or subordinating others lies at the heart of Christian ethics. Ethics, like time management, involves making difficult choices between competing values or activities and then sticking with those choices. Understanding what is right is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for doing what is right. It is equally essential to pursue the right with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength.


1.What does the phrase "family values" suggest to you? What do you think it might mean to a non-Christian?

2.Do you think that some values can be subversive of Christianity? Name some non-Christian values not already mentioned in this lesson. Can you name any non-Christian values that actually conflict with Christian teaching?

3.Write down what you believe to be the top five core Christian values. What are your reasons for choosing these values? In what way do you think these are the "weightier concerns" that lie close to the heart of God?

4.What do you think Robert Bellah means by the assertion that "self-expression unseats authority" in modern morality? Can you cite some examples from personal experience of authority that has been overthrown by those who want the freedom to express their personal values? Have you encountered any Christians who want to unseat biblical authority in order to follow a contemporary value?

5.Which biblical values do you think contemporary Americans have the most difficulty accepting? Are there any that you yourself have difficulty accepting?

6.Do you know of Christians who have behaved badly in public or private? Why is it that some Christians know perfectly well what is right yet fail to do it?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 23, 2007 11:16 AM.

The previous post in this blog was What are Christian Ethics?.

The next post in this blog is Is the Golden Rule Sufficient?.

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