Embracing Biblical Ethics, Pt. 1

How do we live as Christians? What does it mean to follow Jesus in the myriad situations of contemporary life? Think with me of all of the complex issues which face us on a daily basis – social media usage, persistent racism, abortion on demand, angry rhetoric, unrestrained consumerism, and so much more. In the youth group days of my early journey of faith, we would slap on bracelets bearing the letters WWJD (What would Jesus do?); but it seems that we now need more than shallow readings of the Gospels to chart a path through the predicaments. We need fully fleshed out biblical ethics.

In an earlier post, I made the suggestion that the adjective biblical implies four types of “openness” – to the Word, to the tradition, to the community, and to God’s creation. We rightly use this word when we have a posture of submission and attentiveness in these four areas of life. To be biblical is not to simply have the right set of beliefs about a given issue. Moreover, the description cannot be the sole possession of one group of Christians, as it is abundantly clear that many Christians of many denominations are trying to live in ways broadly consistent with this designation. It should not surprise us then that biblical ethics is not about simply knowing the rules or having a certain opinion about an important social issue. This needs to described in more detail.

Biblical ethics is not a list of rules. We live in one of the most legalistic cultures in the history of the world. When congressional bills are passed, they are often so complicated and so long as to be fundamentally inaccessible to the layperson. We have rules for every area of our lives. This is what we should and should not do at work. This is what we should or should not do when we are driving. These are the state laws that we must follow. Here are the local laws (seriously, the height of my grass?) that must be obeyed. On top of that, most of us are relentlessly interested in developing techniques and processes for how to accomplish our objectives. If you want to lose weight, you look for a diet-and-exercise system that works. If you want to manage your time better, you desire someone to give you a step-by-step plan to follow. We often add the final touch by telling people if they are violating our protocols, especially focusing on those people with whom we disagree online.

But the Bible does not give us a list of rules for Christian living. Though they can be printed in a similar format, the Ten Commandments can never be treated like the “pool rules” we find down at the community center. Take the first and last commandments for example. The first commandment tells God’s people: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 NIV). To not place others before God is not less than a rule, but it is certainly more. For the question of idolatry is not about external conformity alone. It invites us to ask serious questions about what we desire and what we love. Do we love anything else before we love God? And how about the last commandment – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17)? Coveting is an inner condition. Coveting is something that we do in the heart. To not dive in the shallow section requires no character formation. Biblical commandments call on far more than external obedience.

Biblical ethics is not the “right” opinion on contemporary social issues. In this connection, it is important to emphasize that, though the Holy Spirit wields all parts of the Word to accomplish God’s purposes in our lives, the Scriptures were writen for cultures different than our own. This by no means suggests that the Bible has no relevance for our contemporary social issues. Such a suggestion is contrary to the Bible’s 0wn witness about itself (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It does, however, mean that the Bible does not address our social concerns in a direct manner, as if it was designed for that purpose. As God’s inspired Word, Holy Scripture speaks to people of all cultures without attaching itself permanently to any one culture and its concerns.

The Bible teaches us a range of things which have a bearing on much discussed social issues. We know that human beings are made in the image of God and should be treated accordingly (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9-10). We know that God wants his people to care for the vulnerable (Exodus 22:21-24; James 1:27). We know that the Israelites were to build safety measures into their houses to prevent needless death (Deuteronomy 22:8). In Paul’s epistles, we see that governing authorities have been given by God the authority to uphold justice (Romans 13:3-4) and that we are to pray for those in authority so that all people might live dignified lives (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Now what do all of these things (and more!) have to do with gun control policies? The Bible certainly speaks to the issue, but we can’t simply flip open our Bible and find the answer in Numbers. The alternative is to observe that biblical ethics is mostly about the way in which we go about our ethical decision making and the priorities that we have as we do so. Of course, some answers are more biblical and God-glorifying than others. Good and evil, right and wrong, are still helpful designations. But it does take some intellectual and spiritual work to get there.

If biblical ethics is neither a rules list nor positions on social issues, what is it? I will take this up next time.