« Why Do Some People Not Believe in God? | Main | When I Say, "I Am a Christian" »

When In Doubt About What Is Ethical

When I was a teenager, I would sometimes read dangerous books. What do I mean by “dangerous” books? Well, I mean books that I thought had the potential to destroy my Christian faith. For example, I read Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher and mathematician. I read The Philosophical Letters of Voltaire in which he makes a scathing attack on the Christian apologetic writings of Pascal. What I discovered, to my great surprise, was that neither Russell nor Voltaire really had any understanding of what genuine Christianity was all about. Their criticisms, far from shaking my faith, seemed to me rather ridiculous because I realized that, unbeknownst to them, they were attacking a straw man and not Christianity itself.

Another dangerous book I remember reading was Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher. It was a book on that touted a new morality, and I read it with trepidation lest it destroy the foundations of the Christian morality on which my life was built. Fletcher maintained that ethical decisions should depend on the situation in which they arise rather than on some eternal principal. Although the new morality caused quite a stir in the 1960’s, the old foundation of Christian morality still remains. Meanwhile, the book Situation Ethics is no longer in print.

What struck me as unconvincing about Situation Ethics was Fletcher’s constant appeal to highly unusual, exceptional situations rather than to what we generally encounter in ordinary life. For example, he asks, “Would you lie if Nazi storm troopers knocked at your door demanding you hand over any Jews you were sheltering?” At the time, it seemed highly unlikely that would happen to me, and, sure enough, it never has. But I am confronted day by day with very ordinary situations that require a decision on how to act. Often, there is no specific directive in scripture that tells me what I should do. Sometimes I find myself in doubt as to what exactly a Christian should do it such a situation. What do Christians do when they are in doubt?

Let’s begin with an example drawn from Randy Cohen’s book, The Right, the Wrong, and the Difference:

"One rainy evening I wandered into a shop, where I left my name-band umbrella in a basket near the door. When I was ready to leave, my umbrella was gone. There were several others in the basket, and I decided to take another name-brand umbrella. Should I have taken it, or taken a lesser quality model, or just gotten wet? -I. F. S., New York City"

All right, what should someone do in this situation and why? Notice that the person is in doubt. She doesn’t want to get wet on a rainy night, yet someone has either purposely or mistakenly taken her umbrella. What should she do?

Randy Cohen agreed with her action of taking an equivalent umbrella. He added that, to be on the safe side, she might have taken a lower-quality umbrella, thus ensuring that no one will leave the shop shortchanged. His answer, however, is based on the assumption that no theft had taken place, only the mistaken switch of one umbrella for another. This seems to me like a convenient assumption that allows you to rationalize taking something you know isn’t yours. If, indeed, a theft had occurred, someone will eventually leave the shop without any umbrella at all.

What should a Christian do in a dubious situation like this? Are there any principles to guide? As a Christian, I disagreed with Randy Cohen’s answer. I thought the lady should have left the shop without an umbrella, even at the risk of getting wet. Of course, she should have given her name to the shop keeper in case her umbrella was returned or in case one was left over at the close of the day, but she should not have taken an umbrella she knew for certain was not her own. After all, if someone had stolen her umbrella, then she in turn, by taking an umbrella herself, would have been stealing another one from someone else. But on what biblical teaching do I base such advice?

I think there are four general principles that apply in dubious situations:

1.The Principle of Self-Sacrifice: Jesus left us the supreme example of self-sacrifice by his death on the cross (Phil. 2:4-8). Peter says that as Christ suffered, so we should expect to follow in his suffering steps (1 Pet. 2:21). This passage pertains to persecution, but I think it applies equally to the suffering that comes from putting the interests of others above your own. Paul alludes to this principle in 1 Cor. 6:7, where, instead of endorsing lawsuits against fellow Christians, he says, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” The principle is this: It is better to suffer an unjust wrong than to do wrong yourself. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Therefore, it is better to get wet than to take an umbrella you know is not yours and risk making someone else suffer.

2.The Principle of Surprise. In 1901, Mark Twain spoke these words to a church group: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.” Christians should surprise people by their self-sacrificial behavior. One notable characteristic of Jesus’ teaching is that people were surprised by it, even his own disciples (Mk. 1:22; 6:2; 11:18; Mt. 19:25). They were surprised by its originality, by its authority, and by how radical and challenging it was. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, if effect, that if you behave in conventional ways, how can you be considered a holy and peculiar people (Mt. 5:46-47).

3.The Principle of the Extra Mile. In his teaching, Jesus emphasizes going beyond what is expected (Mt. 5:40-41). This is an elaboration of the surprise motif. I think Jesus means that Christians can gain the attention and respect of non-Christians only by exceeding their normal expectations. In their ethical behavior, Christians should not be calculating the minimum they can do and yet still be considered ethical. Rather, they should go beyond the minimum, thereby making a statement of their commitment to ethical excellence.

4.The Principle of Noblesse Oblige. This French phrase expresses the idea that special people have special obligations and duties that derive from who they are. Peter says, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Our status as saints or holy ones obliges us to behave nobly. Noble behavior exceeds ordinary expectations or assumptions. It calls us to holy living, not simply moral or ethical living.

To my mind, following these four principles would lead a Christian to say: “When in doubt, take the high road—and by 'high road' I mean the road of holiness and self-sacrifice."


1.When an ethical situation involves personal gain or loss but has no clear and easy answer, the temptation is always to rationalize the situation in our favor (in other words, avoid getting wet). Do you agree or disagree that the Christian approach, on the contrary, is to be self-sacrificial? Can you give an example?

2.Telemarketers offered us a free weekend at a fabulous ski resort if we attend a one-hour sales presentation. I’d love to go, but my husband thinks it would be unethical since we have absolutely no intention of purchasing a time share. What should we do?

3.My dad takes me to a lot of baseball games and always buys the cheapest tickets in the park. When the game starts, he moves to better, unoccupied seats, dragging me along. It embarrasses me. Is it okay for us to sit in seats we didn’t pay for?

4.I’m a university professor, and I often get unsolicited copies of textbooks from publishers in the hope that I’ll adopt them for my course. They clutter up my shelves until book buyers come through, offering cash for review copies. Is it wrong for me to sell them and pocket the money? Should I donate them instead?

5.I frequently carry a can of soda or a package of snacks into the movie theater. Does the theater have the right to insist on “No Outside Food”?

6.The mandatory meal plan at my college allows you to eat as much as you want but prohibits taking food out of the dining hall. However, I think it’s okay to slip a sandwich in my backpack for an afternoon snack. My sister believes this is tantamount to bringing an extra-large purse to a Holiday Inn buffet. What do you think?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 20, 2007 10:58 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Why Do Some People Not Believe in God?.

The next post in this blog is When I Say, "I Am a Christian".

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

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35