reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Ethical
Issues pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the
principal Web, http://www.paulonpaul.org,
and thus that the designation at the top of the page, As Paul Tells It . .
. , is not quite accurate.
The Ethical Issues Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents,
to be found at the top and bottom of each page.
The Bible in Christian Ethics
|The Bible rightfully
enjoys a place of honor in doing Christian ethics, not only for its moral
teachings, but also for providing an appreciation of the communal life of
early Christians, their theological explorations, and their lively
sense of the power and presence of Jesus Christ.
How could one do Christian ethics without the Ten Commandments, the
eighth century B.C.E. cry of the prophets for justice, the “Sermon” on
the “Mount,” the Great Commandment, and the pastoral Paul, sometimes
hurling thunderbolts of condemnation, but also pleading
the way of love and consideration for the weak of conscience.
Yet it has never been
easy to apply biblical teaching to the circumstances in which believers
find themselves. Consider the problem faced by Clement of Alexandria in the third
century: if Jesus had advised the rich young ruler to sell all he had and
give it to the poor, how was this hard advice to be accommodated to
comfortably situated clientele? Likewise, from the episode of Jesus’
telling Peter to put his sword back in its sheath (John 18:10-11),
Tertullian (circa 200) argued that in ungirding Peter of his sword
Jesus was ungirding every Christian. Was this pacifist teaching well
founded? Does it make a claim on our consciences today? There are no
|If the insights of the
Bible are to be implemented with wisdom and grace, and not to be imposed
as “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (Acts
15:10), we would be prudent to team biblical ethics: (a) with the
embedded in the tradition of the church, (b) with consecrated reason
which recognizes our obligation to love God with our minds, and (c) with
prayerful openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ
promised to send his followers to lead them into all truth (John 16:7-13 ),
the Spirit who would assist disciples in discerning what is right, in the midst of puzzling ambiguities.
Even if the Bible, tradition, reason, and the guidance of the
Holy Spirit are acknowledged as working cooperatively in helping us
form our moral judgments, we do not overlook the extent to which these
judgments are formed—whether we recognize it or not—by the norms of
society—for better or for worse, and more often for worse. There is
such a thing as culture-religion. We in the United States with
ease carry into our moral consciousness prevailing views on race or capital
punishment or gun control or the baptism of greed.
It will become evident in the following discussion why biblical ethics cannot pull the load by itself, but needs to be harnessed with tradition, reason, and the
guidance of the Holy Spirit. What then do we actually find in the Bible?
Varieties of Biblical Ethics
We discover a wide range of moral teaching and behavior in the Bible, ranging from
the sublime rigor of the “Sermon” on the “Mount”
to remnants of ancient Israelite folkways.
forego the pleasure of viewing the data in the Pentateuch, the Prophets,
the Wisdom Literature, the Letter of James, the Letters of Paul,
and the Jesus Tradition, click on An Approach
to Moral Decision Making.
We begin with the well-known Ten Commandments
These commandments prohibit the worship of other gods than Yahweh, the
God of Israel; prohibit the making and worship of images; prohibit the
unworthy use of the divine name, Yahweh; specify the Sabbath (the seventh
day of the week, not to be confused with the Christian Sunday, the first
day of the week) as a day of rest; require respect of parents; prohibit
killing (usually understood as murder); prohibit adultery; prohibit
stealing; prohibit perjured testimony; and prohibit covetous attitudes
(which might prompt theft or adultery).
We note also the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself
(Leviticus 19:18), not to mention the less well known commandment to love the stranger in
your land as yourself.
Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to
you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for
you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD
In addition to these general or apodictic commandments we also find
case law, statutes which deal with specific situations, as shown in this sampling
regulations (Leviticus 11)
• Child sacrifice ... Homosexuality ... Bestiality
• Regulations for gleaning ... Not cursing the deaf or putting stumbling block for blind ... Judicial
probity ... Not hating brother in your heart ... No vengeance against
one’s own people ... Case of intercourse with
slave who is betrothed ... Not eating flesh with blood in it ... Augury
and witchcraft ... Tattoos ... Just weights (Leviticus 19)
• Due process ... Witnesses ... Life for life, eye for eye,
tooth for tooth [lex talionis] (Deuteronomy 19)
• In war, against some cities, males to be slaughtered, women
and children taken as booty; other cities, genocide of all (Deuteronomy 20)
• Inheritance rights of children in case of a man with two wives ... A
stubborn son to be stoned (Deuteronomy 21)
escaped slave, not to be returned to master ... No lending upon
interest, except to a foreigner (Deuteronomy 23)
• Divorce procedures (Deuteronomy 24)
• Forty stripes, as punishment ... Levirate marriage
For a more complete sampling of case law in the
Pentateuch, click on Case Law .
The prophets of the
eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. build upon earlier covenant ideas, and
make a number of significant advances, as is evident from the following
• Concern for the poor, and their oppression by the rich (Amos
2:6-8; 4:1; 5:10-11; 6:1-7; Isaiah 3:14-15)
• Condemnation of unethical business practices (Amos 8:4-6), and bribery (Amos 5:12;
Isaiah 1:23; Micah 3:11)
• Protesting against religious formalism, which performs the required
rituals, but neglects social justice:
21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn
though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will
not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted
animals I will not look upon. 23Take
away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody
of your harps. 24But
let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an
everflowing stream (Amos 5:21-24; cp. Isaiah 1:11-17; Micah 6:6-8;
• Taking generally an anti-establishment position (Amos 7:10-17;
• A morality of inwardness, written on the heart, or mind (Jeremiah
• An emerging sense of individual moral responsibility (Ezekiel
18:2-4; Jeremiah 31:29-30). The ancient notion of communal connectedness
and responsibility, sometimes referred to as “corporate
personality,” is manifested in the episode of Achan’s sin
(Joshua 7); here in the prophets the idea is enriched, if not entirely
displaced, with the principle of moral agency.
These books are pervaded by a simple, and somewhat simplistic, view of
virtue and rewards, especially in Proverbs (as in 2:20-22; 16:20; 17:20),
and in Psalms 34 and 37. The virtues of truthfulness, hard work, thrift,
and domestic fidelity are held up for emulation. Job and Ecclesiastes
are in some respects refutations of this view that the righteous prosper,
and the wicked suffer.
In the references to the massacre of the Galileans and the collapse of
the Siloam tower (Luke 13:1-5), the Jesus tradition likewise rejects the reward-punishment theory
of wisdom literature, without offering a satisfactory alternative.
The Letter of
A sampling of New
Testament teachings shows a good deal of variety. The wisdom tradition
seems to be alive and well in James, which may be regarded as a New Testament wisdom book. Also, a scribal
argument is brought in (James 2:9-11) to show that a lapse in the
observance of a single law puts one in jeopardy
for the whole law.
James goes beyond wisdom teaching with the enuncation of the parousia or coming of the Lord, who is also
judge; thus there is an end-of-time type of reward-punishment scheme, with
a crown of life for the virtuous, and, presumably, judgment for the sinner. Virtues and
vices are spelled out with some specificity [click on themes
for a more complete listing]:
• Steadfastness, wisdom, faith, being slow to speak and slow to anger, meekness, bridling the tongue, visiting
orphans and widows (presumably, with assistance for them), loving
your neighbor, showing mercy, performing good works, being peaceable and
gentle, being open to reason, having clean hands and a heart purified, and
humility, are all to be encouraged; and
• Being double-minded, unstable, rich, partial, jealous,
ambitious, inclined to controversy, and swearing an oath, are all
to be avoided.
What James calls the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor
as yourself” (James 2:8), is quoted with approval, but it is not given the central
rôle which it has in Paul (Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:8-10)
or in the synoptic gospels (Mark 12:28-31 || Matthew 22:36-40 || Luke
Paul lays down a central, comprehensive, unifying principle. By
the time he writes Romans, he is able to formulate the love commandment as
the summation and fulfillment of the law (13:8-10; compare Galatians 5:13-14).
His poetic essay on agapê (love)
in 1 Corinthians 13 is justifiably reckoned as a major contribution to
spirituality and ethics. But we also note that this is not the only
principle to which he appeals.
• Paul, on the permissibility of visiting a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:12-20): If certain Corinthians had felt themselves free
from constraints, and thus believed that they were permitted to join themselves to
prostitutes, Paul does not deny the principle of freedom, but instead reminds them
of the absurdity of their actions: “Do you not know that your bodies
are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and
make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Corinthians 6:15).
How can they join their body to the body of a prostitute if they are
members of Christ; or as Paul will later phrase it, “Now you are the
body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians
12:27). Paul thus gives a Christological and ecclesiological warrant for
moral behavior which is distinct from the agapê principle,
though not unrelated to it.
Beyond these general principles, Paul offers lists of virtues
(Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 4:8), which serve as models of good
behavior; and of vices
(1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians
5:19-21; Romans 1:26-32), which serve as patterns of conduct to be
As noted elsewhere
[click on discerning],
Paul’s moral teachings are partly time-bound and contingent; and partly
of perennial value.
The prime candidate for a teaching that is of perennial value is surely the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
When agapê is applied to a particular moral problem, Paul’s
approach is recognized as possessing perennial value, even if the
particular issue, as in the question of eating food offered to idols, is
no longer an urgent one.
• Paul on food offered to idols: the moral puzzle to be
solved in 1 Corinthians 8 is whether the freedom enjoyed by knowledgeable types entitles
them to offend the consciences of others who suppose that eating such
food involves them in idol worship; Paul proposes
that, for love’s sake, the knowing ones should refrain from causing a
fellow believer to stumble—the one for whom Christ died. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”
(1 Corinthians 8:1).
It would be ignoring the obvious if we did not also mention that if agapê
is the moral basis for considerate behavior, then atonement theory is the
theological basis: the fellow believer is the one for whom Christ died
(1 Corinthians 8:11).
We now turn to a case where Paul delivers an unexceptionable opinion on the immorality
of the behavior, though the proposed punishment, without recourse to agapê,
seems rather extreme.
• Paul on incest: he issues a straightforward condemnation of
the incestuous man (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
On the issue of homosexuality (currently the subject of considerable
discussion), his position seems clear,
especially if one accepts the usual understanding of the texts (for an
alternative rendering, click on presentations by Gray Temple in texts;
and reference a more extended hermeneutics
[pp. 8-10, 18-31]):
• Paul on
homosexuality: homosexuals are not in very good company; the
outlook for them, not promising.
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of
God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male
prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers,
robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians
6:9-10; compare Romans 1:26-27).
It is uncertain whether his opinion would have been different if he had
known, as is now reliably claimed, that same-sex orientation, whatever its
cause, is not a matter
of choice but is something ineradicable. Paul’s position is
arguably time-bound and contingent.
As important as agapê is for Paul, it is not clear in the cases
mentioned below how his particular moral judgments are grounded in this
principle. These are examples of contingent cases:
• Paul on
slavery: he was no abolitionist (1 Corinthians 7:21-24); his
shop, or prison cell, was no station on the underground railroad for escaped slaves. (He had a return ticket
for Onesimus, as Philemon makes clear.)
• Paul on
marriage: celibacy is his preference, for others as well as
himself. His view of marriage is at best a concessive one, based on
various considerations: a) end-of-time exigency, b) mission urgency,
and c) a degree of realism and moral expediency (1 Corinthians 7:6-9); he advises, “If [the
unmarried and widows] are not practicing self-control, they should
marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
• Paul on
women: his views, though not unusual for a person of
his day, do not earn him a pass on the charge of sexism (1 Corinthians 11:3, 7, 11; 14:33-36
[a later editorial insertion?]).
• Paul on hair- and headware-fashions (1 Corinthians
11:4-14), and the subordinate place of women (1 Corinthians
11:3, 7-9; though parity is suggested in 11:11-12): today there is a
fairly substantial consensus that fashions change, and that women are no longer to be relegated to second class status.
• Paul’s on a high valuation of the state, and on
submission to the emperor (Romans 13:1-7): his sentiments are well-intentioned, but
Nero have some redeeming features we don’t know about?); click on moral
issues in Romans. It would of course be anachronistic to expect
Paul to sound like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson.
Fortunately, Paul himself
acknowledges that on certain issues he has no word of the Lord, but only
gives his opinion (1 Corinthians 7:12, 25). We can leave open the
possibility that on other issues also he had no word of the Lord.
The Jesus Tradition
For a sampling of moral teachings in the Jesus tradition, we can do no better
than to turn to the “Sermon” on the “Mount,” a well organized collection of the sayings of
Jesus as they came to the author from his written and oral sources.
Especially illuminating are the six contrasts in Matthew 5:21-47 [click on
(1-3) and (4-6),
for detailed discussion].
• A warning against anger and hatred (Matthew 5:21-24)
• A warning against lust (Matthew 5:27-28)
• The permanence of marriage (Matthew 5:31-32)
• The avoidance of oath taking (Matthew 5:33-37)
• The rejection of retaliation (lex talionis) in favor of
reconciliation (Matthew 5:38-42)
• Loving your enemy (Matthew 5:43-47)
• Avoiding preoccupation with treasures (Matthew 6:19-21; compare
Luke 12:33, “Sell your possessions, and give alms;” with which
compare the episode of the Rich Ruler, Mark 10:17-31)
• The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12)
Our sampling includes other teachings, as follows:
• Defilement is to be understood not as what goes in [food] but what comes out of a
theft, murder, adultery,
avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly]
• Jesus refuses to settle a dispute over inheritance
• The Great Commandment is affirmed: loving God and neighbor
• Jesus provides a functional definition of agapê in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).
• The payment of tribute to Caesar? Jesus seems to say: Figure out for yourself what belongs to Caesar
and what belongs to God (Mark 12:13-17)!
• Though the Jesus tradition provides little basis for supposing
that he was committed to social change, it is also true that the
tradition generally portrays him as anti-establishment (Mark 11:15-19;
12:38-40; Luke 13:31-34).
An Approach to Moral Decision Making
The Bible is for Christians an
invaluable source for moral guidance, as we have earlier
affirmed. Nevertheless, our sampling of biblical ethics brings to light the limitations of relying only upon the
scriptures as our authority (sola scriptura):
1. A number of teachings in the Bible are obsolete
(most of us do not
need guidance on liability exposure in a case where a person is gored by an
ox), or morally repulsive (genocide, slavery, sexism), or unresponsive to
the requirements of modern economic life (the prohibition of usury).
| 2. A number of teachings
in the Bible have been superseded by
kinder, wiser, and sometimes more demanding moral insights, as in the six contrasts of the
“Sermon” on the “Mount.” Jesus himself was evidently
not reluctant to implement a process of development: the truth is ensured
by integrity, not oaths; the lex talionis, a relative good, is
displaced by a turn of the cheek, or a second mile; hatred of enemy is to
give way to love (agapê). We see a similar process in his virtual
termination of the Jewish dietary regulations in Leviticus 11; see Mark 7:14-23.
See also comments on the status
of the Bible for Jesus and for Paul.
3. But development continues after the close of
the biblical period. Today it seems odd, and morally offensive, to be told of a slave’s obligations to his or her master, or
of a master’s kindly treatment of his slave (Colossians 3:22 – 4:1;
Ephesians 6:5-9), when the evil is slavery, a
condition which overrides the freedom and dignity of persons created in
the image of God. Similarly, we now know that unqualified obedience to the state
(Romans 13:1-7) is perilous to the health of humanity.
We need look no further than John 16:7-13, to find
a warrant for such post-biblical development and the undoubted work of
the Holy Spirit in moral discernment: “I still have many things to say
to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he
will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).
4. Again, the absence of any biblical
teaching on many of today’s urgent questions is problematic, if one
upon the Bible alone (sola scriptura) for guidance. Down through the centuries,
but especially today, Christians have encountered
problems to which the Bible provides no ready answers.
When the Bible informs the reader, “God blessed [the
male and female human beings], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and
multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion
over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every
living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Genesis 1:28),
• What encouragement does this text lend to environmental responsibility? What is to prevent mindless abuse and selfish exploitation
of God’s creation, instead of respect and preservation and renewal? The Bible
itself does not provide such guidance.
• What counsel does this text give on population control?
Our problem is over-population, not the problem of under-population which was sometimes the
case in areas decimated by war, disease and famine in ancient (and
What guidance does
the Bible offer for problems of nuclear proliferation? of world trade policy?
of global warming? of campaign finance reform? of stem cell research?
or of artificial insemination?
remarks on The Authority of Scripture
are relevant to the present discussion.
In Search of a Selective Principle
The bewildering array of moral teachings which we
have already presented (Varieties of
Biblical Ethics) makes clear the need for a selective principle.
Unless such a principle is put to use, we are exposed to the risk of
“cherry picking” those biblical rules which we find congenial and
ignoring those we do not find so. Such choices are in danger of being
subjective and arbitrary. One might, for example:
• favor biblical provisions which permit divorce,
but ignore (as most Christians do, by common consent) the requirement of Sabbath [seventh day] worship and
distinction from the observance of the Lord’s Day [first day]; or
• favor the lex talionis and capital punishment but ignore loving
one’s enemy; or
• favor polygamy, for which there is biblical warrant, but
ignore selling one’s possessions.
We have not far to look for a guide (a) through the
profusion of biblical teaching, and (b) through the daunting
landscape of contemporary moral perplexities. For Christian ethics the
best guidance is to be found in Jesus himself, his life of service and
inclusiveness, the liberating power of his death and resurrection, his
teachings, and especially his recognition of the love
commandment as the summation of his teachings. (Click
for further discussion of his ethical
perspective.) Rules which are informed by these considerations are
useful, up to a point; nevertheless, the best of rules have their
limitations, as may be seen (a) in the fact of ethical dilemmas which
people encounter in real life situations, and (b) in the need to leave
room for the Holy Spirit to update our moral consciousness.
The centrality of the love commandment for
both Jesus and Paul—even James pays tribute to it—should be evidence
of its necessity as the guiding principle for which we are searching.
Justice: A Corollary of Agapê (Love)
If agapê is selfless concern for others, this principle will
imply the quest of justice for members of the human family. Or, to
put it differently, to claim to love these members of the human family,
but to deny them justice, is to show a lack of that very concern which is
central to agapê. This quest for justice will include not only retributive
justice, guaranteeing, for example, due process rights, but also distributive
justice, which would seek to provide access to good nutrition,
housing, environment, education, and medical care, to name a few basic
examples. Social structures which deny either retributive or distributive
justice constitute human sinfulness as much as violations of the Ten
Commandments, and are equally in need of redemption. This concern for
justice is not without biblical precedent, as shown already in the work of
the great eighth century B.C.E. prophets.
On Leaving the Door Open
We earlier urged (as many others have done) that we would be prudent to team
(a) biblical ethics with (b) the
embedded in church tradition, with (c) consecrated reason, and
with (d) the guidance of the Holy
Spirit. Christian ethics, as a systematic reflection upon moral choices which are
Christian, makes use of important insights in the Bible; but Christian
ethics is not biblical ethics. To equate the two is to fail to
acknowledge the limitations of biblical ethics, and to restrict the work
of the Holy Spirit, who, in tandem with biblical teaching, consecrated reason
and the best experience of the Christian community, is able to assist us
our true humanity in Christ:
“ . . . 13until
all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son
of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We
must no longer be children. . . . 15But
speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him
who is the head, into Christ, 16from
whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with
which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the
body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians
June 7, 2004