Ethics Beyond Legalism

by Andrew Youd
20th October 2014

Rules and laws fill our world and affect each of us on a daily basis. Homes have “house rules” that parents give to their children, workplaces have rules and policies guiding workplace behaviour, the nation as a whole has many laws that govern almost all areas, and our social and cultural interactions are mediated by explicit or implicit rules of etiquette. We even find rules within our church institutions in addition to more general Christian ethical rules or laws. In fact, despite the Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone, Protestant churches often still carry with them the reputation for being moralistic and, dare I say it, legalistic. While rules and laws are an essential and foreseeably permanent part of our lives, what place should they have in our Christian faith? The following is a discussion of some strengths and weaknesses around the use of rules in Christian living.

What Does God Require of Me?

I am sure most Christians have the desire to do the right thing and to be a good person. The continual question that plagues the Christian on the pilgrimage of faith is simple and yet challenging: what does God require of me? While Christians offer many answers to this question, one common approach is to phrase the answer in the negative: “God requires the Christian to avoid sin.” This leads to the next important question: what is sin?

The textbook Christian answer is that sin is, “missing the mark;” but what is the mark that sin misses? Often it is claimed that sin misses the mark of God’s will through disobedience. For instance, consider the question; “what did Adam and Eve do wrong in the garden?” A typical answer, “they were disobedient to the command God gave them.” According to this understanding of sin and ethics, what is wrong (bad, unrighteous, unholy, etc.) is that which goes against the commands that God wills. While this seems simple enough, it is discerning the will of God that becomes the next challenge.

Historically for Christian evangelicals, this has meant turning to scripture to find the prescriptive commands of God. One such contemporary proponent of this approach to Christian ethics is Norman Geisler.* According to Geisler, God’s good will has been given to us in His authoritative and inspired scripture in the form of absolute “divine prescriptions”, or rules. Now God could share his good will for our lives in many forms. For instance, (1) He could give us a role model and command us to follow and model our lives on him, or (2) He could give us values, virtues, and character traits and exhort us to embody them, or (3) He could give us a list of actions that we can and cannot do. Of course, scripture gives us all of these (and more), but Geisler wants to restrict his focus to the latter, arguing that God has given us prescribed actions that we can and cannot do. These prescriptions are universal and unchanging – absolute – and are clearly revealed in scripture. Accordingly, when faced with any ethical dilemma, all a Christian needs to do is to search the Bible and s/he will find the answer clearly commanded – scripture is deemed the rule book for life.

I’m sure you are familiar with this approach to dealing with ethics. A troubled Christian approaches the Christian leader and says, “My partner and I are thinking about taking our relationship to the next level by having sex; is this ok?” The response from the leader is likely to be, “In the Bible Paul clearly states in 1 Corinthians 6:18, ‘Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body…’.” According to this approach to ethics, the Bible has a clear rule-based answer to every moral problem; one’s goal is simply to find the relevant rule and to obey – end of story.

Before we evaluate rules, it should be noted that a rule based approach is limited in situations of conflict. That is, what happens if two ethical rules are in conflict? For example, your friend, who I will call Bob, confides in you his feelings for another friend of yours, who I will call Jane; and he asks that you promise not to even tell Jane that he even talked to you about her. The next day Jane asks you directly if Bob has shared his feelings towards her with you. Do you lie to keep your promise, or break your promise to tell the truth? Both truth telling and promise keeping are important biblical moral constraints that one should follow, but you can’t follow both in this situation.
Geisler responds to situations of conflict by insisting that all rules can be evaluated and placed on a spectrum of those that are more or less morally significant. When two or more rules are in conflict, the Christian is obligated to obey the higher, while culpability is suspended for neglect of the lower. While more could be said about situations of conflict, I will have to leave this for another time. What I would like to do now is note some challenges that ought to be considered in our use of rules.

Rules are Not Good Enough

There are a number of weaknesses that need to be taken into consideration if rules are to continue to have a healthy place in Christian Ethics.

First, rules do not inform us how to handle and apply them, this requires a theology of the good that is broader and more foundational than the rules themselves. This is evidenced when discerning which prescriptions in scripture are universally binding and which are culturally specific. We make this difficult distinction when we no longer stone Sabbath breakers (Exodus 31:14) but maintain that murder is still wrong. The next difficulty is trying to apply the limited and historical rules in today’s context. Sometimes the rules don’t fit neatly, or sometimes we face situations in which there are no scriptural rules (like whether we should consume genetically modified food). Furthermore, a foundational understanding of “the good” is required so one can grade the rules in situations of conflict. In these situations (discriminating, modifying, or evaluating) the rules themselves don’t give us all the answers. Instead, we must draw upon a theological conception of “the good” that both informs the rules and can help us to handle them. This leads to my next point.

Second, rules cannot assume to be the totality of what is good, because, in this, we must look to God. As discussed above, scripture gives us a number of important modes from which we can understand what is good. Ultimately, however, the purpose of scripture in informing us about what is good is not to lead us to laws, but to God alone who is good (Mark 10:18). As theologian Stanley Grenz says, “The ultimate purpose of God’s self disclosure is to bring us not into a relationship with either a body or mass of timeless laws of universal moral axioms, but into relationship with the self-revealing God, and as a consequence with one another and with all creation …”** God’s own nature and character is the foundation and standard of goodness, as testified to in the great law giving passages of the two covenants in redemptive history (Leviticus 11:44, 45; and Matthew 5:48). The goodness of God (which is the mark at which we aim) transcends any rule. We aim not to be perfect rule-followers, but to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ who is God incarnate. The theory of ‘the good’ that we need is none other than our theology of God.

Third, when rules are negatively framed and directed at behaviour alone they fail at giving us a positive ethic. Christian ethics must take Jesus’ focus on the heart of the person (i.e. motivation and character) as central to Christian ethics (Matthew 15:18). This is not to say that ethics is about inward sentiment or intent alone. Character leads to the characterisation of the person’s life, meaning ethics is from the inside out. Moreover, the preoccupation with rules can shift the focus from doing good to others to one’s own culpability and moral status, resulting in self-righteousness. When people are just given negative prescriptions then ethics restrict a person’s ability to desire to be good, as well as their ability to actively do good as opposed to just avoiding evil. For instance, telling someone not to have sex before marriage merely tells them what not to do, it doesn’t tell them the positive aspect of their ethical treatment of their partner. In addition to expressing the rule, one should encourage the person to honour, respect, guard, and cherish the other’s sexuality in refraining from intercourse until one’s commitment to the person matches the significance of the act and vulnerability that is involved.

Finally, one of the most significant difficulties with a rule only approach to Christian ethics is it can take the focus off of loving others. For instance, if I refrain from lying to another person because of my moral obedience to God alone, then my moral motivation is about God and not necessarily my neighbour whom I am also commanded to love. To further illustrate let me give the hypothetical example between two young children I have named Simon and Jessica. If I caught Simon hitting his sister Jessica I would intervene and tell Simon that he cannot hit his sister, I would lay down a rule. Image the day after this event, it is evening and I am putting Simon to bed. After night time prayers he turns to me and says, “Daddy, I didn’t hit Jessica today because I love you and did what you told me”. I would be flattered and somewhat proud but also somewhat unsatisfied. The reason I would want Simon to refrain from aggressive behaviour toward his sister is not just because he loves me (and can obey my words) but because I wanted Simon to love his sister Jessica and to recognise her moral value to him. Sometimes we Christians can be like this with our moral treatment of others. We can get so focused on our obedience to God that we forget to love and value the very people that God has asked us to treat ethically.

Jesus did not just model perfect human love for God, or the perfect love of God for humanity; he also models perfect human love for humans. He showed that the love of God is connected to the love of others (famously put in his dual command to love God and neighbour). God is loved by the valuing and loving of people that he created with inherent value, worth, and dignity. In order to obey God and to treat ethically other people made in the image of God, I must love them as Christ loved others.

Conclusion: Rules, what are they good for?

Rules undeniably have their place in ethics. Homes, social groups, churches, workplaces, and governments all have rules. Rules help us limit generally bad actions by providing important boundaries for healthy and constructive relationships. Nevertheless, Christian ethics must not stop at just obedience to rules. Christian ethics must focus on motivation and character, acknowledging that ethics begin with the heart. Christian morality doesn’t just focus on one’s own actions and culpability, but it moves beyond to focus on the moral value of others so that we can love them and do what is good for them. Finally, Christian ethics must also have a theory of “the good” by which one can properly discern, modify, or appropriate rules and laws for our context. In so doing, this foundational good and goal of our actions becomes none other than God’s nature and character. His nature and character are revealed throughout scripture and most significantly in the life of Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate and in whose likeness we have the mark of our discipleship. While much more could be said on this topic, I hope that this article has inspired you to reflect on the role rules play in Christian living, and how we understand and articulate the moral vision of our faith.

* Norman L Geisler, Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues & Options (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010)
**Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics (IVP Academic, 2000), 245.