Understanding Christian Ethics

by frankbeswick

Christian ethics can only be understood when you realize that it is essentially a God-focused way of living.

There is a great divide between religious and secular ethics, and it is the case that not many secular people really understand religion or its ethical system. For many secularists religion consists of a set of commands from an old guy up there in the sky who threatens to punish you if you disobey. This misconception is worsened by the belief that religious people are only good because they want a reward in heaven. This is a caricature of what religious ethics is all about. But religion is far subtler than this simplistic caricature would have us believe.

Image courtesy of Renata Sedmakova

The Roots of Christian Ethics

Firstly, there is a vast difference between Christian and secular, humanist ethics, although far too few people recognize the size of the gap between them. While Christians and humanists both agree that murder, rape  and theft, etc are wrong, the two sides are marching to different drummers and their ways of life differ. 

The fundamental questions of ethics are:

  • how should I live in society
  • what sort of respect do I owe other beings
  • of what does human excellence consist
  • and linked to this last question, what sort of character should I have

Secular ethics as practised by humanists is an ethical system that is centred on enlightened self-interest. It regards humans as rational beings who want to assert their own rights, but who need to live in a society where others have rights as well, and it believes that it is in our mutual interest to respect the rights of others. Beings other than humans are often, though not always respected,  and given their due weight in ethical decision making. Utilitarianism, a form of secular ethics, asserted from early on in its history that animals have to be considered as well as humans, though utilitarianism disbelieves in rights. There  is no goal to secular ethics other than a shared acceptance that humans are here but once and that they want their lives to be as comfortable as possible, and humanists recognize that this involves ensuring that others have the same consideration as they do. In humanist ethics there is no room for gods or higher spiritual beings, who are not believed to exist. Love is praised, but not required,and self-sacrificial love may be admired, but it is not even an ideal. 

Here we find one point of contact between Christian and secular ethics: the principle of giving due regards to all beings. It is clear that humanists/secularists have a reasonably good record on animal rights, because they recognize that animals merit due consideration, not as much as persons in most cases, but certainly consideration for their need to live and die without pain and in some dignity. Christians might agree, but they point out that there is a higher being who is greater in power, wiser and far better than humans are, and this being deserves proportionally great respect, service and love. Thus they regard this being as their leader, the source of their law. Christians obey God, not as mere slaves to a tyrant in the sky, a capricious old man with a beard, but a loving  leader whose wisdom extends far beyond the wisdom of humans, and who can therefore guide us in the right path.

Another point of contact between Christians and humanists is that both believe that life matters. But while the humanist believes that there is but one life that should be enjoyed to the full for the brief time that it exists, while Christians set this life in the context of something longer, even infinite, that extends beyond death. This next stage of life matters. But the humanist accusation that Christians focus exclusively on the next life might be true for some Christians , but in most cases Christians work  for a better world and believe that this life really matters, which is why they do so many acts of charity. 

This takes us to a key point of Christian ethics: it is teleological, which means that it is goal directed. The goal is to have life eternal, and so Christian ethics aims not only at happiness in this life, but happiness beyond life. Secular ethics does not.

The relationship with Jewish Ethics

So far there is much in common with the ethics of other religions, but the distinct characteristic of Christian ethics is that it is rooted in the Christ event, the arrival of Jesus Christ among the Jewish people. Jesus was  simultaneously a Jew rooted in the ancient faith of Israel and a powerful charismatic presence that wrought a transformation in the ancient faith for those who accepted him.     

The essence of the Jewish faith and the ethic that it contains is that it is based on a sense of members of a covenant community. The covenant, detailed in Exodus 19, was the agreement between Israel and God  that Israel would be protected by god in return for keeping the law, the Torah. At this time Israel elected to be a consecrated nation, a holy people. There is a whole corpus of law, but its core is the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, given at Sinai. One of Israel's profoundest insights is that the moral law is not to be seen as an external imposition to be accepted grudgingly as a condition of social living, but a vital part of a truly human life. Morality is to be taken up joyfully and lived with enthusiasm.

Christianity sees itself as the people of the New Covenant. This New Covenant was promised by the prophet Jeremiah, and it was to be a step up from the old covenant at Sinai, as it was to be written not on tablets of stone, but on the human hearts of those who accept Christ. The Ten Commandments still  operate, but the New Covenant has its own set of  principles given by Jesus and elucidated in Matthew's gospel, the Eight Beatitudes. These are not rules, they are the character  traits that God  desires in humans: peacemaking, mercy,purity of heart, etc. Thus they prescribe no specific courses of action, but tell us what we ought to be like. The Beatitudes are a fine example of what is known as virtue ethics. Along with these come the  two great commandments, love of God and  love of neighbour. Along with these go forgiveness. Just like the Beatitudes  these are character traits that Jesus teaches are at the core of the way of life that God wants from humans. Of course, positive character traits have to be translated into action and this makes for some challenging decisions. 

Here is where there are differences of opinion. For some Christians there is a strict set of rules that are quite inflexible, but others accept an element of situation ethics. Situation ethics involves asking what love demands in a specific situation and so allows for some flexibility. The problem is that humans can be swayed overmuch by emotion and social pressures, and they can lack the wisdom to make judgments, so it is sometimes possible for practitioners of situation ethics to err and perhaps drift with social pressures. Thus finding the right boundaries and knowing when to stick to rules  and when to adapt them is a major issue in Christian ethics. There are certainly times when strict adherence to rules is the right way, but at other times the rules can be applied flexibly.  

The Confidence of Christian Ethics

The Christian ethical system cannot be separated from the whole Christian way of life. Of critical importance in the Christian way of life is the belief that God's power is available in the human soul and is effective in making changes, helping people to reform their lives and move forward in love of God and neighbour. Thus Christians believe that they can recommend high standards of ethics that involve individuals making hard choices for the good, because they believe that God's power is available in their lives.This belief has led to the tendency of Catholics to attempt to heal sinners. Thus the Church has attempted to heal Christians guilty of abuse, because they believe that all can change. This alienates us from those who believe exclusively in punishment and  exclusion. Punishment  is necessary, but healing is also possible. Christians allow repentance late in life, even on the death bed. For example, the Nazi Hans Frank, responsible for many murders in Poland, was  accepted back into the church before his execution. His new faith allowed him to accept death as the right penalty for his crimes and to die asking God for mercy.Quite a transformation wrought by God's grace in a soul that had come to accept it.

This leads us to the principle that we all must carry our cross. After revealing himself to the disciples as the Christ, Jesus emphatically told them that the Christian way of life is about taking up the cross. This is taken to  mean accepting the challenges of living rightly as God wants, facing the dangers confronting those  who seek to follow God's will and not letting one's standards fall. It means accepting the challenge of love. Christian love is agape [a gap ay] and is sometimes called charity, though this can be sometimes shrunken to mean donations to good causes. Agape is self-giving, unselfish love, the love that puts others first. It abides by rules, but cannot be contained by them.  

 But we must realize that God's power, his grace, is the only way to sustain the Christian way of life. Cut off from the source of moral strength that lies in God the Christian way of life and the ethics that go with it are impossible. The church believes that this power is accessed through a prayerful life, especially in the community of the church, which is there to provide support for Christian living.   Without prayer, the Christian life withers away and agape is impossible. With prayer, much is possible. 

Updated: 02/06/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/19/2016

One principle which I did not have space to adequately cover is natural law ethics. While the Protestants believe that all ethics are in the Bible, the Catholic Church believes that there is an ethical system built into nature and accessible by all people of all faiths and none by reasoning. The role of religion [Church and the Bible] is to help us understand this ethical system more completely, which it does by revealing its author, God to us, and also to show some aspects of it that transcend reason,such as the primacy of love.

WriterArtist on 02/19/2016

There are a set of rules that one needs to adhere to. These are common for all religions. They hold good to theist and atheist alike.

Don't you feel unsettled when you do wrong. Did you ever wonder why one needs to follow virtuous traits and protocols for living a pious life? After all, if adultery, cheating, infidelity and crime were the traits that one had to follow wouldn't they gain merit and be rewarded.

There is a reason why humans need to follow good traits such as humanity, service, peace making and compassion.These traits are universal whether you belive in God or not; and whether you believe in any religion.

frankbeswick on 02/08/2016

Yes, it was reported that Frank accepted his guilt and the need for punishment, and that he was the only Nazi to enter the execution room with a smile on his face. It is thought that he knew that he was paying for his sins. There is one line in the liturgy [I cannot remember exactly where] "Oh God, who wills not the death of a sinner, but rather that he be converted and live." This line expresses Christ's mission and the Christian mindset perfectly. It is with this salvation hope in mind that I hark back to the vision of Julian of Norwich. She "saw" Hell. It was empty! She believed that on the Day of Judgement the Trinity would effect a work so wonderful and so beyond human comprehension that even the damned will be rescued.

Luther argued that God does not accept unjust excommunication, as happened to Joan of Arc.

blackspanielgallery on 02/07/2016

Frank, you mentioned a former Nazi accepted back into the Church,. Indeed, does not forgiveness allow for all to repent? I would have a problem if he were no allowed to ask forgiveness. And, even excommunication does not mean God will condemn, as is the case of Joan of Arc, now a canonized saint. Religious ethics must allow God to have the final say, and should. Or, how about Paul, who persecuted Christians. God can assist anyone in change.
Enjoyed reading this, as expected.

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