Developing A Set Of Biblical Ethics
The constant temptation for Christians is to blend in. We instinctively do not want to be thought of as being “different.” The thought that living a godly life could cause us to be looked upon with contempt by our neighbors is quite disagreeable. Indeed, such thoughts make us feel very uncomfortable, and although we know the Bible calls upon us to be pilgrims in our own culture (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 11:13), we do not enjoy feeling like strangers, particularly in our own culture. Satan, our ancient and crafty adversary, by reason of his experience with the human race, knows our weaknesses very well and is certainly not slack in fully exploiting them. Realizing that he would probably fail in a full frontal assault, he tries to convince us that Christianity is a relaxing, easy-going, laid-back religion. He tries to convince us that we really do not need to keep our minds razor-sharp (I Peter 1:13). He tries to tell us that we do not need to be careful. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth taught in God's word!
If our behavior is not radically different from the world's, then we can be certain that we are not pleasing to our Lord and Savior. If we are being conformed to this world instead of to the image of Christ, then we can be sure that our heavenly Father is displeased with us. If our minds have not been transformed from what they once were when we served our own lusts, then we are not proving to the world what the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God is (Romans 12:2).
So, how do we do this? Well, we do so by developing a set of Biblical ethics. In the space that follows, we'll examine a working model that facilitates this very thing.
A Biblical Model For Developing Personal EthicsThe following model, which consists of five principles, is to be applied to particular issues to evaluate whether they are acceptable behavior for a Christian to be engaged in. This model is completely transcultural. This means that that these principles are to be applied to every culture equally (i.e., it is totally inconceivable that God would permit these principles to be violated in any cultural setting).
The Five Principles Are:
In the space that follows, we will examine the Biblical justification for each of these five principles.
- Does it violate any clear teaching of Scripture?
- Does it destroy any part of my body (physically, mentally, or spiritually), which is the temple o f the Holy Spirit?
- Does it cause a weaker Christian or non-Christian to be hindered?
- Does it violate the express will of one who has the God-given right to exercise headship over me?
- Does it glorify God? In other words, can I ask God's blessing upon what I am doing with a clear conscience?
The First PrincipleThe first principle assumes that the Bible is authoritative and normative when it comes to ethical concerns. It is based on the idea that the Bible is God's revelation to man and is to be used as the standardized guide in determining all matters of faith and practice. In one sense, all the remaining principles are based on this one. Nevertheless, it needs to be spelled out here. This principle says that any practice which the Christian is trying to evaluate that violates the teaching of Scripture is wrong. This principle covers the obvious incidents of overt sin. If someone is trying to make a decision as to whether it is right to take the property of another, this principle applies. The Bible clearly prohibits stealing. Various cultural ideas about what constitutes stealing have to be weighed according to what the Bible says. Consequently, Bible settings that address the issue of theft serve as the guide in defining what constitutes theft in the Biblical sense and take precedence over individual cultures.
Great care must be taken to extract the teaching of Scripture on particular issues. Hermeneutical procedures, like those outlined in the article entitled Rules For Bible Study, ought to be followed in doing this. All the various passages that deal with the particular behavior being questioned ought to be gathered to formulate a comprehensive understanding of the subject and its various ramifications. Any ethical issue must be submitted to this first principle and may be determined right or wrong based on the Biblical data accumulated.
Many passages could be cited to support the claim that the Bible is authoritative in the lives of believers because it is God-breathed (e.g., Jeremiah 36:2; Ezekial 1:3; Acts 1:16; II Peter 1:21; or Revelation 14:13), but for this study we will cite and expound upon only one passage—II Timothy 3:16, 17, which says: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” According to this passage, Scripture is the standard one is to use in sorting out truth from error. It is the standard one is to use in order to correct his path so he can do the good works Christ called him to do. Therefore, anything that violates Scripture is ethically wrong, no matter what any particular culture might have to say about it. The basic authority of Scripture is transcultural, because one cannot conceive of any circumstances when God would release one from His revelation's authority.
The Second PrincipleThe second principle has to do with the basic sanctity of the body. The Christian is not to do something willingly which he knows will destroy his body. The body is sacred because it is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. By implication, a holistic concept of the body is in view here. In other words, the body, with its physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions is under consideration. Anything which deteriorates one's state of existence is prohibited by this principle. Variations as to what such things may be can be different in different cultures. Nevertheless, the Bible is the ultimate standard of authority in these matters. Any willful destruction of the body, mind, and ultimately the spirit is strictly prohibited by the word of God.
The passage we have chosen as justification for this principle illustrates the effects of sexual impurity on the physical body. But, in doing so, it also addresses the sanctification process. In other words, the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5: 22,23) cannot be produced in a vessel that is being destroyed by sexual sin. The word of God makes it clear that spiritual and mental factors cannot be excluded when considering the destructive nature of sexual laxity.
In Corinth, sexual impurity was rampant. The city was well-known for its temple of Aphrodite, which had over one-thousand prostitutes. That the Corinthian church was composed mostly of Gentile converts is well established. This means these converts would have brought many wrong and hurtful pagan ideas along with their entrance into the Corinthian church. Therefore, a great deal of teaching was necessary in order to direct them in Christian living. Paul's letters to the Corinthians reflect this fact, particularly his first letter. The text which justifies the principle we are considering is drawn from I Corinthians 6:12-20, but we wish to focus on verses 19 and 20, which say: “What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.” In I Corinthians 3:16, the apostle Paul refers to the entire church as the temple of God. In this verse, however, he uses the word “body” in the singular. Each Christian individually represents the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, anything that would be out of place in God's temple ought to have no place in the Christian's life; especially sexual impurity. As Paul gave these instruction, he demonstrated that he was not willing to let the Corinthian culture define what was sexually permissible. The word of God is the standard. In addition to sexual immorality, modern issues that come under close scrutiny as a result of this principle are the abuse of alcohol, tobacco, non-prescription drugs, certain types of literature, movies, music, etc. If something a Christian is evaluating for acceptability as godly behavior leads to self-destruction, he can safely conclude that it does not respect the sanctity of the body and, consequently, does not glorify God and should, therefore, be avoided.
The Third PrincipleWhat we do or say may have either a constructive or destructive effect on other people, particularly spiritually weak Christians who may have problems understanding the nature of Christian liberty. The concept of a "weaker brother" means that Christians are not at liberty to do anything which offends the conscience of a brother in Christ. The texts we will use to justify this principle make it very clear that everything that is lawful may not actually enhance the spiritual walk of others. If one insists on doing something which may appear to some to be questionable, and he does this at the risk of causing a brother to stumble, then he demonstrates his willingness to put a fragile spiritual life in great peril. In doing so, he sins. Furthermore, the Bible also teaches us that the Christian must also be sensitive to the conscience of a non-Christian.
I Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:23-33, and Romans 14:14-23 are the passages which give the clearest understanding of this principle. Actually, these passages are a further elaboration of what it means to love one's neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:28; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8). As we have already said, many of the Corinthian Christians were Gentiles who were coming out of idolatrous backgrounds. Consequently, some of the old pagan customs were still sensitive issues to their consciences.
In Corinth, it was the practice to celebrate festive occasions with an animal sacrifice offered to some pagan god or idol, and then eat the animal. These events were often held in the temples dedicated to these false gods. What was not eaten of the sacrificed animal was often offered for sale in the local meat market. As it was difficult, if not impossible, to identify the meat that had been so “used,” it was quite possible that a Christian buying meat in the market might purchase this “used” meat. Evidently, some of the Christians who came out of pagan backgrounds had not matured enough to overcome the meaning they had previously attached to such things. Some in the Corinthian church were being offended by the careless attitude of others in regard to the eating of this meat. In this context, the apostle sets forth a simple principle. Chapter eight contains his basic instructions on the subject. Whatever we do, we must not “wound...[the] weak conscience” of a brother. If we do so, we sin against Christ Himself. Chapter ten extends this principle even to non-Christians (verses 27-29). In other words, we must be careful to “Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God“ (verse 32). In Romans 14:14-23, the apostle expounds on the law of love and how it relates to this issue.
The Fourth PrincipleIn society there must be some sort of authoritative structure to ensure order. Anarchy and chaos result when everyone does that which is right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Under such circumstances, everyone goes his own way, soing his own thing. But, eventually the various paths cross. When they do, there is bound to be trouble. If society is going to resolve conflicts, protect individuals, and promote the general well-being of its inhabitants, there must be some kind of order. According to the Bible, certain relationships and their roles have been established for the ongoing of society. The roles and functions prescribed for each person in these relationships serve as the glue that holds society together.
According to the Bible, the most fundamental social relationship is the family. The Biblical model for this unit prescribes roles for the husband-wife and parent-child relationships. Outside the family, the Bible prescribes other roles and relationships. For example, roles and functions are set for the employer-employee (or master-slave) and government-citizen relationships. Fundamentally, the essence of each of these relationships is that of head-subject or leader-follower. Of course, in modern circles, the idea of submission raises people's wrath. Nevertheless, can any social relationship function without there being someone willing to submit to some degree? Any law, or policy, whether decreed or voted on, means someone will have to follow and accept the will of another.
However, it must be clearly understood that there is a limit to which one is expected to submit in any such relationship. This right to resist is not rooted in selfish defiance of those in authority over us, but in the fact that those in authority over us cannot require us to submit to them if they are asking us to do something contrary to the God's word. Our ultimate authority is the Lord Jesus Christ, and no one has the right to ask us to do anything that would violate this relationship.
The system of headship prescribed in the Bible regulates the horizontal relationships of human social interaction, but only so far as these relationships do not violate one's vertical relationship with God. If something the Christian is thinking about doing contradicts the express will of his duly authorized spiritual head, then it is sin. We must always remember that the spiritual head is placed over the individual by God. As such, the head has the authority of God unless he negates his own position by expecting other to sin by submitting to his authority.
The key passages that expound this principle are Ephesians 5:22-6:9 and Romans 13:1-7. Other passages that teach this same principle are Colossians 3:18-4:1 and I Peter 2:11-3:7. The key to understanding these relationships is the word “submit.” The Greek word hupotasso was used in military settings and meant “to draw up in order of battle, to form, array, marshal.” According to Strong's Concordance, the word meant “to arrange under; to subject one's self, obey.” As we have already pointed out, to discuss the concept of submission in modern settings often provokes rage. Independence movements, women's right's movements, et cetera, all resist such a notion. This, in many cases, has been brought on by the abuse of rights by the spiritual head. The husband, parent, master, employer, and government official, contrary to what some seem to think, do not have the right to exercise absolute dictatorial control over their subjects. They have been given their positions by God in order to lead and guide those in submission with a selfless love. It is unfortunate, but truth, that sin frequently interferes with these God-ordained relationships. For this system to work as God intended, the heads must remember at all times that they too are in submission to God. This will rule out any arrogance on the part of the spiritual head.
In summary, if something is going to be correct ethically, it must not cause us to go against the rightful will of our spiritual head or heads.
The Fifth PrincipleThis principle is really the practical extension of the second and third principle. Paul's whole argument in addressing the various issues at Corinth is that whatever one does in regard to ethical questions, in the final analysis, it ought to glorify God. In I Corinthians 10:31, Paul summarizes his entire appeal that ran through the preceding four chapters by saying: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” The idea is clear—all things are to ultimately glorify God!
Admittedly, discerning whether something will glorify God can be highly subjective. Yet, at the same time, it can be very practical. Faith, the Bibles tells us, comes by hearing God's word (Romans 10:17). Consequently, if we are going to do something that will glorify God, it must be done by faith. This means we ought to have book, chapter, and verse for what we are thinking about doing. If we don't have Biblical authority, then what we are about to do is sinful. Furthermore, if we don't know whether we have Bible authority to do a particular thing, and we do it anyway, we sin by violating our conscience (Romans 14:23) and could not possibly glorify God in such a thing.
In ConclusionWe have now considered a model for developing a Biblical ethic based on five scriptural principles. You must bring to this model a willingness to seek, find, and follow the will of God regarding any particular ethical issue. If you do so, I am convinced that you will know how the Lord wants you to conduct yourself ethically (John 7:17).