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How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part Three

Christian ethics involve much more than simple rule-keeping. Ethical behavior requires us to seek the mind of Christ. Rule-keeping alone is inadequate for several reasons. First, rule-keeping may be done for the wrong reason, like the teenager at home who eats his vegetables just so he can have dessert but who stops eating vegetables at college when Mother is no longer around. Hypocrites are those who superficially keep rules for ulterior motives.

Second, biblical rules are often too general and too few in number to cover every ethical case that arises. Inevitably one has to use judgment to apply the rules that exist appropriately. Is abortion ever permissible in cases where the mother's life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest? Is divorce ever permissible in cases where there is no adultery but extreme physical and mental abuse? Only prayerful deliberation and sound judgment can apply biblical teaching to such painful questions.

Third, rule-keeping may degenerate into legalism wherein rules are kept for their own sake with little understanding of the principles that lie behind the rules or of greater principles that take priority over the rules. The Pharisees had made keeping the Sabbath into an inhuman rule that flew in the face of compassion, and Jesus condemned them for this mindless and mean-spirited rule-keeping (Matthew 12:1-14).

The purpose of these "tests" of right and wrong is not to create a set of rules but rather to establish practical procedures for developing the mind of Christ, which is the foundation of all Christian ethics.

SEVEN - The Influence Test: Will my doing this influence others to become Christians? Will it influence my family members and fellow Christians to become stronger or weaker?

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

People seem to understand the influence test better than any other because they know that actions speak louder than words and they recognize the influence others have had on them for good or evil.

EIGHT - The Publicity Test: Would I want everyone to know I have done this?

Secrets abound in human society: corporate secrets, state secrets, and personal secrets. Doing things "under the table" seems like the only way of accomplishing certain ends. But it is extremely dangerous for Christians to do anything "under the table." Paul wrote that "God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Romans 2:16), and Jesus said: "For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light" (Luke 8:17; 12:2-3).

Would you want it known that you paid your female employees less than your male employees for doing exactly the same job? Would you want it known that you supplied false information on your tax return? Would you want it known that you took office supplies from work to use for a Sunday school project at home?

Privacy and the need for confidentiality preclude our telling every secret we have or know, but Christians should always behave in such a way that the cold light of publicity would only enhance their reputation for integrity.

NINE - The Reasonable Person Test: Am I behaving in a way that any reasonable person would approve were he or she in my position?

This final test is akin to the publicity test, yet with a difference. Sometimes we may do something that conventional public opinion might frown upon. For example, as an elected representative we may break a campaign promise not to vote for a tax increase upon coming to the realization, after an exhaustive study of the matter, that a tax increase represents the overall best and fairest solution. Sometimes judges have to anger the majority in order to protect the interests of the minority. This does not mean they harm the majority, only that, by showing mercy or doing justice, they may trouble, inconvenience, or simply ignite the righteous indignation of many.

Applying this test assumes that a "reasonable person" possesses lucidity, the clear perception that something is true or right even when it is unpopular, against the common wisdom, or against one's own self-interest. Without this insight of lucidity, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to make courageous moral decisions that run counter to culture.


1.Can you illustrate the limitations of rule-keeping from your own experience? For example, can you think of a situation where someone did wrong by rigidly adhering to the rules?

2.Of the nine tests discussed, which two do you personally use most often or find most practical? Do you know of some other valid tests not mentioned in these chapters?

3.Some states require that, as a matter of public record, state universities must publish the salaries of their employees. Do you believe Christian colleges should keep the salaries of their administrators and faculty members secret? Should any Christian business keep salaries secret? Why or why not? Do secret salaries ever lead to ethical abuses?

4.Who has influenced you most for good? Who has influenced you most for evil? Can you think of specific Christians, aside from family members, who have become notable examples of virtue or sinfulness?

5.In the 1950's and 60's, some white congregations refused to allow blacks to be baptized in their baptisteries out of the conviction that the races should always be kept separate or simply for fear that their white members would then refuse to be baptized in a "contaminated" baptistery. Was this unethical? Explain your answer in light of the nine tests.

6.Can people who are ignorant, emotionally volatile, or unreflective and lacking in good sense be held responsible for their acts? Is it true that a person may be "just plain stupid" instead of immoral? Give some examples.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 8, 2007 9:40 AM.

The previous post in this blog was How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part Two.

The next post in this blog is Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part One.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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