Before we stray onto the muddy edges of the path, let's stay in the clean, dry center for a bit longer. In the last post, I suggested that it was impossible to practice true Christian ethics, as outlined by Jesus, in your own strength. We may not commit murder, but Jesus said in Matthew 5:22 that (some) anger, speaking in contempt or even saying, "You fool!" carries the same penalty. He told us to love even our enemies with the same pure, all-consuming love that He showed us.
So, what is the answer? In the same Sermon on the Mount talk, Jesus also said,
Matthew 6:33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.He was specifically talking about not worrying about food or clothing, but the principle applies to pretty much everything. You don't become Christ-like (which would really fulfill those Christian ethics) by coming up with a list of rules and then determining to follow them. You become Christ-like by seeking HIM, and the rest will follow in God's own time.
The book of Galatians in the Bible is kind of a scolding by Paul of the Galatian Christians who were going back to following the Jewish Law to be right with God, instead of faith in Jesus. Now, most Gentile Christians aren't going to fall into the trap of trying to live under all those 600+ dietary and other rules in order to earn eternal life. However, we can easily slide into thinking that unless we live out perfectly all of God's expectations, we are failing and might even lose our salvation. You fall further and further from God because you wind up thinking of Him as this stern judge, ready to whip you for every infraction. Dear ones, in your own strength, you will always fail. Even Paul, the world's greatest evangelist, said,
Romans 7:18b For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.So, in Galatians, this same Paul is scolding the Galatian Christians for trying to be right with God through the Law. Is he saying that the law is no longer important, that it is invalid? Granted, much of the mosaic law doesn't apply to Christians, like those dietary laws. In Romans 14:20, it says "all food is clean," (unless it causes someone to stumble), and we don't worry about mixing our fibers in our clothing. Some of the laws were specifically given to counter the pagan fertility practices of the surrounding people. On Bible.org, here, it says the law can be broken down this way:
So, those laws governing the moral life of the people would still apply, and you can find many of them, in principle, at least, in the New Testament. So, Paul is not scolding them for trying to live the way God wanted them to live. He is scolding them because they were binding themselves to the law in order to be right with God. They were listening to people who said they needed to be circumcised, for example.
- Codex I = The Commandments: The moral law governing the moral life guiding man (Israel) in principles of right and wrong in relation to God and with man (Exodus 20:1-17).
- Codex II = The Judgments: The social law governing Israel in her secular, social, political and economic life (Exodus 21:1–23:13).
- Codex III = The Ordinances: The religious law which guided and provided for Israel in her spiritual relationship and fellowship with God. It included the priesthood, tabernacle and sacrifices (Exodus 25:31: Leviticus).
How we live is still important, or in terms of this post, Christian ethics are important. Paul says in Galatians 5:14, For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
But how? By letting the Holy Spirit lead and teach you:
How exactly you do that - live by the Spirit - can be a lifelong study, but that is the point. It's not something you do. It's something the Spirit does in you. And it is a lifelong process. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
Galatians 5: Life by the Spirit13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Here is more for your reading, if you are interested: Living by the Spirit. There are also quite a few posts on this blog that apply, especially the ones regarding Peter's list:
2 Peter 1:3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.You can find those posts beginning February 3, 2012.
5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
OK - now for those muddy edges. So far, I haven't written anything that most Christians would argue with. I can stay in the middle of the path and avoid controversy, but where's the fun in that?
Why are there literally millions of articles, videos and websites on this subject? How can there be such disagreement on the subject of Christian ethics? Either the Bible says something is wrong or it doesn't, correct?
I'm not going to give any space at all to those who argue from an anti-Bible standpoint, at least right now. I'm also not going to give any space to those who are speaking from a "The Bible only contains God's word and we must mine it to find it" point of view. That probably wipes out at least half of the "stuff" on the subject of Christian ethics.
There's the "our application of the Bible must change with the times" crowd. Those are the ones that say that what the Bible says is irrelevant if it disagrees with a society standard. For example, these folks would say that it doesn't matter whether homosexuality was considered wrong by Christians in the past. Society has changed, and therefore, Christians must change with it. For example, the Presbyterian Church USA just approved gay marriage by vote.
So, I'm going to skip that group, too. For my purposes, and the position of this blog, "Christian ethics" are what is right and what is wrong according to the Bible - the whole thing being God's word. If your "Christian ethics" are defined by anything else, in my opinion, you are not on the muddy edge, you are off the path all together.
Of what remains, most of the division, as you'd expect, comes from controversial subjects. Some of it is just innocent (or maybe not so innocent) ignorance. For example, does the Bible say it's OK to be cruel to animals? Of course not. That is part of that natural law that God put within us - that it's wrong to be cruel to any living thing. The sacrifices in the Old Testament were not teaching cruelty to animals. It was to show us that sin must be covered by the shedding of innocent blood. That Passover lamb? It was brought into the house and treated as one of the family for four days before it was killed. Wasn't that horribly cruel? Of course it was, but it was to show the seriousness of sin. That spotless lamb represented Jesus, who lived among us, without sin, teaching and healing the sick, and then was killed in the most gruesome way imaginable.
What about freedom of religion? Don't Christians say that all other religions are false and Jesus is the only way to heaven? Isn't that what the Bible teaches? Absolutely. However, no where in the Bible does it say it's right to force someone into Christianity. In fact, even the most basic understanding of the Bible would lead someone to believe that you can't force faith, and it's only by faith we are saved. We win people by sharing the Gospel: Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (Romans 10:17). People also are attracted by the way we live and the peace we have. In fact, Francis of Assisi said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." Never will a person practicing true Christian ethics ever attempt to force anyone to adopt Christianity. In love, and like God, not wanting anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), I'm going to gently and lovingly share the Gospel with as many people as I can, though.
One of the controversial subjects, as you might imagine, is homosexuality. Is it right or wrong? What about gay marriage? Is it right or wrong? Some people come to their views about it because of what others have taught. Some will say that it was mistranslated in Deuteronomy 23:17 in the Old Testament and should have been translated "male temple prostitutes" and in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, where they say it should have been translated "men who have sex with boys". (lots of arguments on both sides. In my opinion, the "men who have sex with boys" is stretching it) For those people who haven't spent much time in the Bible, or maybe got their information from catechism or church instead of the Bible itself, it's then easy to accept this because it sounds scholarly and quickly discard what they grew up with as uninformed. However, even if these "mistranslations" are true, if you approach the Bible without an agenda, you're going to have to do a LOT of explaining away to come to the conclusion that the Bible doesn't condemn homosexuality. That said, bear in mind that it also condemns every other kind of sexual immorality also.
Other people come to their views about homosexuality and other issues because some people teach that because Jesus came to fulfill the law, none of that applies. God makes no broad statements to the Christian any more. Everything was fulfilled in Jesus, therefore God deals with you on an individual basis. What might be wrong for that Christian is right for this Christian. Again, because it sounds scholarly (sort of) and appeals to what people want to be true (tickling ears?), they accept this. This is so easily disproved, it's hard to imagine that entire congregations believe this way. This isn't applied to just homosexuality, but pretty much everything the Bible calls "sexual immorality." As long as you believe in Jesus, live in love, and follow your heart, you're living the way God wants you to.
Well, when did Paul, Peter and John write? They wrote after Jesus ascended. Much of our New Testament understanding of how to live in a way pleasing to God comes from Paul, Peter and John. So, were they just wrong? That completely removes the inspiration of the Bible. And, if they're wrong, what else is wrong? Teaching that because Jesus fulfilled everything, nothing applies to us any more, is not only grossly twisting most of the New Testament, it is a faith-killing position to hold. Besides, what did Jesus Himself say?
Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.Sorry - I'm still not done with the muddy edge. Most of those examples are not on the edge, but again, off the path entirely.
What do you do if you are convinced the Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong, but then your child announces that he is gay? How do you react? How does it affect family dynamics? Never is there a reason to treat someone with anything other than love, but if you are convinced that the person is on a path that leads to hell, how can you stay silent? And, what if you do your best to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:14) but the other person rejects it entirely and breaks off a relationship with you?
What about those real, Bible-believing Christians who are convinced that, for example, murder is wrong? What position do they take with capital punishment? Do they separate punishment for wrongdoing from murder and say one is OK, but the other is not? Or do they say that taking a life is taking a life? What about those people who wholeheartedly agree that abortion is wrong, but then the mother-to-be is diagnosed with cancer and without treatment, she will certainly die, but her treatment will kill the baby?
Real, true Christians might come down on different sides with those sorts of issues. And, real, true Christians can be at different stages in their maturity and understanding. In God's eyes, even the most learned is little more than a toddler, with a very long way to grow. Paul spends an entire chapter in Romans 14 talking about some of these things. We are not to be stumbling blocks to others. We are to treat each other with love, grace and mercy. If we really, truly, "love our neighbor as ourselves" all the while, letting the Spirit teach us what that means, we won't be treading the muddy edge very often.
Books and books have been written on this subject of Christian ethics. I encourage you to comment on anything I've said or left unsaid.
Let me end with Romans 14 from the NIV:
Romans 14:1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister[a]? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”[b]12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.
22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.[c]