Why the Christian ethic isn’t simply about rules

Often when Christians (and even non-Christians) speak about biblical ethics, we tend to focus on the rules that Scripture gives us. For example, we think of the Ten Commandments in which the second half begins with “you shall not _______.” Whether it’s about murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, or covetousness, we tend to relegate the Christian ethic to a set of moral rules by which we are to live. This type of ethical system is known as deontology, where ethics is merely a set of rules, duties, or obligations. 

Portraying the Christian ethic in this manner has some merit since God clearly communicates certain commands and rules to his people through Scripture. But one major difficulty with a pure deontological approach is that Christian ethics is accused of failing to address many of the modern ethical dilemmas we face today. The rise of digital technologies, biomedical advancements, and other gifts that the Lord has given his people should be used to love God and love our neighbors (Matt 22:37-39), but they can pose problems for some versions of deontology. How can the Christian ethic deal with contemporary issues for which there aren’t any rules?

Often this question is used as an excuse to abandon traditional aspects of Christian ethics as simply outdated, and attempts are made to justify novel approaches to ethics that are rooted in a more human-centric approach to morality. An example of this novel approach is Peter Singer’s infamous “preference utilitarianism,” which simply states that we are to reject moral rules and obligations in favor of an outcome-oriented approach to ethics focused on the preferences of those affected by these moral decisions. Or, we also see this take place in more progressive forms of Christianity, where traditional moral obligations and rules — especially surrounding sexuality — are exchanged for a more libertine and feelings-based approach to ethics reminiscent of the lie humanity believed at the very beginning of time, “Did God really say?”

As Christians, we must not and cannot approach moral decision making lightly or assume that ethics is nothing more than the mere application of theological beliefs. Without a rich foundation for Christian ethics, we may inadvertently apply the moral teachings of Scripture in ways contrary to the actual ethical framework that the Bible illustrates. This framework is not simply tied to rules or obligations, nor easy to shoehorn into traditional philosophical moral labels such as consequentialism or virtue ethics. At the risk of sounding as if Christianity is wholly unique in its approach to ethics (though it is), the Christian ethic transcends many moral traditions. Indeed, Christians can approach the study of ethics with two main categories: Christian ethics and non-Christian ethical approaches. But what makes it so unique, and how does this change how we see the moral rules and obligations in Scripture?

Rules rightly ordered

To begin his work Practical Ethics, Peter Singer exposes a deficiency in how many people, including Christians, have often viewed ethics as just a list of moral prohibitions, primarily (and at times exclusively) concerned with sex. He writes that headlines decrying the “declining moral standards” of recent generations often had to do with the rise of promiscuity, homosexuality, and use of pornography. Religious leaders of the past, he contends, seemingly saw ethics as simply a set of “nasty puritanical prohibitions, mainly designed to stop people from having fun.” While Singer rightfully points out that ethics is often unfortunately relegated simply to rules about sexuality, especially in Christian circles, he fails to acknowledge that many of his examples are on the heels of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s–1980s which sought to upend the created order for sexuality and represented a major turning point in our society. Sexuality has become one of the main points of debate in our culture, especially today, and thus any study of ethics would naturally have to address these questions.

In light of his assessment, Singer goes on to claim that a rules-based approach to ethics — namely deontology — simply cannot account for the modern complexities we face today, especially with what seem to be conflicting and overlapping moral rules. Whenever your views are criticized, it is always a wise practice to honestly engage criticisms and to acknowledge that even those outside of our cultural enclaves may see certain things that we may miss given God’s great gift of common grace. This does not mean that we accept all things as truth, but that we humbly admit that we simply cannot and do not know all things perfectly. 

So is Singer’s account of religious ethics — specifically Christianity — a fair assessment? 

While he may be uncomfortably correct in his assessment of how we have often narrowly focused ethics on sexuality in recent generations, any honest look at the great moral tradition of Christianity would acknowledge that Christian ethics is centered on the imago Dei, therefore it is more than just rules centered on sexuality. The image of God radically alters how Christians think about a host of personal and social issues including human dignity and the right to lifejustice, racismenvironmental issuestechnologybioethicspolitics, and so much more. Singer’s assessment of Christian ethics as simply a list of arcane rules is completely off the mark. He then goes to remove God from the moral equation by arguing that our moral intuitions are simply an outworking of evolution and that we are the ones who get to decide what the good is for our society. Ethics then essentially becomes about what we want rather than based on an outside, objective reality under God’s sovereignty. But while deontology plays a role in Christian ethics, it is not exclusively a set of rules because the commands of God are not given to simply control our behavior as much as they are given to us in order to form us into certain types of people with the goal of glorifying God forever.

The structure of the Christian ethic

As Christians, our ethical decision-making isn’t dictated or built upon the prevailing cultural moral attitudes, the in-crowd or prevailing ethic of the day — namely utilitarianism —, nor does it seek to be on the “right side of history” of the so-called idea of moral “progress.” At the most basic level, the Christian ethic is a transcendent and revealed morality. It is concerned more with glorifying God than it is about our perceived happiness, comfort, or desires. The Christian ethic runs contrary to the prevailing moods and ethical outlooks of the day because it forces us to look outside of ourselves for truth and how we are to live, rather than hyper-focusing on our inner life and the things that we prefer or desire for ourselves.

Christianity recognizes that God created all people in the imago Dei. This truth speaks to the dignity of all people but also the sense of moral agency and moral responsibility we each bear in his world. God did not just create an arbitrary set of “nasty puritanical prohibitions” but a moral system with a teleological orientation, with a particular goal or end in mind. As ethicist Andrew T. Walker has rightfully stated, the Christian ethic entails “not only arriving at the right conclusion but arriving at it the right way and with the right demeanor.” A fully formed Christian ethic must be tied to the realities that God has not only created the entire universe with a particular end, but also spoken to his people about how they are to live in light of his Lordship.

Kenneth T. Magnuson, who teaches ethics at Southwestern Seminary, describes how the Christian ethic doesn’t neatly fit into the philosophical moral categories of deontology (duty/rules), consequentialism (outcomes), nor virtue (personal traits) approaches. He writes that the Christian ethic is analogous to an ancient building with a foundation, pillars, and roof. To adapt this picture slightly, I think it is best to see the foundation of this building as the natural law and ontological realities of how God created the entire world to function, including his people as distinctly made in his image as male and female. Building off of this ontological foundation come certain deontological pillars — commands and rules on how to live rightly — with a roof of virtue — the cultivation of wisdom and the transformation into the true image of God (Colossians 1:15-17). The entire Christian ethic is then pointed up with a purpose and goal of ultimately glorifying God, not ourselves. And finally, we must recognize that this building exists within a certain context where the people of God must take into account the outcomes or consequences of our action, but never letting them become the primary point of ethical decision making.

Failing to acknowledge or live out any of these aspects makes the building unstable and dangerous, as it may collapse on itself or be used in such a way as to dehumanize others for sinful purposes. This fully-orbed approach to Christian ethics is clearly seen throughout the gospels, but especially in Mark 12:29-30 (ESV) when he is asked about the great commandment. Jesus answers, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The Christian ethic begins with God, not rules, outcomes, or personality traits. It is summed up with a fundamental others-focused orientation — loving God and others — being given to the Church as new creations in Christ who are called to be virtuous and wise in all their actions (Matt. 10:16).

While some may claim that the Christian ethic is simply a set of moral rules and obligations, this reflects a deficient and malformed understanding of the Christian moral tradition that is actually rooted in the created order and illuminated by the special revelation of Scripture. The Christian ethic transcends many of the caricatures of being unable to account for the modern problems or questions we face today because the rules were never meant to be the complete standard of the Christian ethic. They were meant to function like bumpers on a bowling lane, keeping the focus on the end goal of glorifying God and enjoying him forever. These moral rules and principles are to guide us throughout our lives and are more than able to help us navigate the complexities of our culture. This house of Christian ethics is not deficient in any way as it is built upon a foundation of other-oriented love that can weather whatever novel storm may come (Matthew 7:24-27).

A version of this article was originally published at ERLC.com