Editorial—What Sort of Ethic?

What Sort of Ethic?

At this writing Mark Zuckerberg is promoting his company, Facebook (market capitalization $436,000,000,000), as the new replacement for the church:

“It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else. We all get meaning from our communities. Whether they’re churches, sports teams or neighborhood groups, they give us the strength to expand our horizons and care about broader issues. Studies have proven the more connected we are, the happier we feel and the healthier we are.” (Zuckerberg: Facebook Can Build Communities Like Churches Have, MarketWatch, June 27, 2017)

What sort of ethic is Zuckerberg assuming here? And what sort of Christian ethic can coherently sustain the following alternate set of authoritative yet perplexing exemplars?

  • Jesus endorses David (who is not a priest) eating the bread of the presence in the tabernacle “which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat” (Mark 2:23–28, Matthew 12:1–8, Luke 6:1–5).
  • In Acts 16:1–5, Paul circumcises Timothy when at Lystra and Iconium “because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew his father was a Greek.” But at Jerusalem, Paul supports his colleague, Titus, as they together refuse circumcision for Titus “though he was a Greek” (Galatians 2:1–5).
  • The church altered the practice of observing the Third Commandment when, in its earliest days, Christians relocated Sabbath observance from the last day of the week (Exodus 20:8-11, 31:13-17) to the first day of the week (cf. Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:1–2).
  • Rather than quietly forbear (Colossians 3:14), or even actively turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) when dealing with a pontificating antagonist (Matthew 5:39), Luther in hisTreatise on Christian Liberty (seventh paragraph from the end) tells us instead to “resist, do the very opposite, and offend them boldly.”
  • In World War II, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among the modern church’s most respected theologians (who famously wrote a book entitled Ethics), covertly acts as a double agent in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency, in order to conspire in the plot to murder Adolf Hitler.
  • Jesus commends Mary but reproaches Martha despite Martha’s valid point that Mary is not acting in accord with the responsibilities of her vocational roles (Luke 10:38–42).
  • Paul potentially introduces resentment and discord into the household of Philemon when Paul obliges Philemon to forgive and restore Onesimus after this slave commits a serious crime (Philemon 1–22).

These examples prompt some of us immediately to offer exegesis and explanations. Others continue to puzzle over the examples and their apparent inconsistencies with our conventional inclinations. Either way, they expose our orientation to an ethic of some sort. The examples also alert us that a particular ethical theory or moral system that relies on rules (natural law), or virtues (proverbs or Aristotelean habits), or intended outcomes (consequentialism or utilitarianism) may often yield important reflection for the Christian (or others)—but not always a response that corresponds neatly with these examples from Scripture or with the decisions of Christians who operate with a comprehensive biblical framework. And such examples alert us that Zuckerman’s evident appeal to a Facebook utilitarianism of health and happiness clearly will not square with an ethic for a theologian of the cross.

This gap between the theories and these examples also alerts those who teach and preach within the church that we need to know the theories and not just know about them. We need to be able to recognize and detect their uses in case studies and disciplines in our subject areas, parish circumstances, and professional practices. And more than this, we need to know how such ethical theories and systems, often undisclosed, undetected, and taken for granted in our practices and case situations, may or may not be congruent with the Gospel.

This edition of Issues will not unpack all the theories and their implications for the church and world today. Our articles will, we hope, assist some readers as a refresher on why the ethics discussion is important and assist other readers as a primer for such discussion and further reading. Dirk Reek’s editorial, “Faithful Ethics,” reminds us that ethics is about action, and Christian action is about our vocation and our care for neighbor. David Coe’s feature article, “A Place for Everything” locates our ethical deliberation within the First Commandment and the Creed and keeps us oriented to an ethic that reflects God’s image first in Christ and then in us. In “Learning Mercy and Sacrifice,” Charles Blanco applies Jesus’ assigning us to learn about mercy and sacrifice to the enterprise and ethics of Christian education and especially higher education. Jeff Mallinson walks us through the current discussions of virtue ethics and ways that it relates to the Christian’s calling and formation in his article, “Virtue Ethics and its Application within Lutheran Congregations.” And our “Briefly Considered” section includes selected books—some are newer, some are old standards—that will get you started or continue your understanding of Christian ethics and Lutheran ethics in particular.

Most of us are not ethical theorists, philosophers, or theologians. Instead, to manage our way through life’s daily decisions we try to rely on some set of norms and heuristics that seem serviceable—or at least they used to. Life has always been complicated as we know from the antiquities: Greek tragedies, Roman politics, and the Bible itself. But in our own times, we have experienced the erosion of the Judeo-Christian tradition which, while not a full-fledged frame of reference and not embraced by all, did serve roughly as a common social narrative. Those social norms and heuristics (that didn’t work seamlessly in the first place) are no longer part of any shared cultural narrative about which we might even agree or disagree. Facebook notwithstanding and as social media info-chaos actually demonstrates, we now merely have drift, and for many people even life’s small, daily decisions are no longer moored to any reference points that we can expect the other person to share.

In our current cultural Babel of ethics, we may understandably be tempted to simplify ethics to an ethic of grace, or compassion, or care. Yet as Joel Biermann reminds us, “Ethics is about the Law—what we are to do and not do—and Lutherans must avoid the temptation to fashion an ethic around the Gospel,” which can too easily distort the doctrine of justification, turn the Gospel into “friendly law,” and substitute well-intended pietism for our alien righteousness in Christ. (For further discussion see Jeff Mallinson’s article on virtue ethics and the Briefly Considered booklist elsewhere in this edition of Issues.)

Or we may be tempted to approach ethics with law only. And Luther does note, “When outward duties must be performed, then, whether you are a preacher, a magistrate, a husband, a teacher, a pupil, etc., this is no time to listen to the Gospel. You must listen to the Law and follow your vocation” (LW 26, 117). The Gospel does not tell us what to do or how to be. That is the function of the Law. Yet in a post-lapsarisan and sinful creation in which the three sources of sin—the devil, the world, and the sinful self—conspire against us with dynamic and constantly morphing strategies, sin sometimes just will not hold still for a straight-on application of the Commandments. Consider these now too-common situations for pastoral counseling:

  • The spouse in an abusive marriage and the 5th and 6th Commandments
  • The need to institutionalize a family member and the 4th and 5th Commandments
  • Whether to violate a genuine pledge of confidentiality (perhaps medical, perhaps in the context of confession and absolution), the 8th Commandment, and several other Commandments.

Teasing out the ultimate and penultimate implications can work fairly well on paper but not always in action, especially when the conditions and circumstances keep changing.

And as George Forell reminds us in the title of his 1955 introduction to Christian ethics, the Christian life is unavoidably an Ethics of Decision. Even (or perhaps especially) when the world around us no longer provides any common basis for life, when Facebook purports to make itself our new community, and when many regard Amazon as our new source of providence, we have some teaching to do. We and our neighbors continue to make decisions about value and meaning. As Forell also points out, some ethic of decision is inevitable because not to decide is still to decide.

Though he did not write a book explicitly on ethics, Luther did address constantly in his writing the theological and practical matters of ethics, particularly as he encountered the complications of the Reformation throughout the 1520s. His continual study and teaching of Galatians grounded him in both the stability and obligations of our vocational roles (see Galatians 5:16–26 and the Table of Duties in your catechism or hymnal) and in the radical and disruptive nature of the Gospel which supersedes and frees us from those obligations when our neighbor’s temporal or eternal welfare is not best served by our conventional roles (see Galatians 3:23 – 4:7 and the bullet points in this essay).

When culture holds approximately steady, much of our life and decisions can be guided by that culture’s norms and virtues which can be adapted to the Christian life as Peter counsels us in 1 Peter 2:11–17. Larry Hurtado, however, catalogues the many ways that even early Christianity was regarded as silly, irrational, perverse, and hateful when it did not conform to or accommodate that culture (see Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, Baylor University Press, 2016). In our present time of culture shift, our Christian life may well have to be an ethic more of the peculiar than the conventional. Such a life for the Christian, the church, and the church’s schools is empowered, as Luther discovered and recovered from Galatians and Romans, by the Gospel. Such a life is not permissive or self-indulgent (Galatians 5:13–15), but our life in the Christ of Calvary is always free to put the Law and its norms in service to the promise, practice, and proclamation of Christ. It is for this freedom that Christ has set us free, freedom to serve the neighbor rather than self, or cultural norms, or cultural drift, or even the Law (Galatians 5:1, Luke 10:25–37).

Such freedom makes us nervous. Thus, we Christians often tend to turn the Gospel into friendly law, or retreat to some sort of pietism that is emotionally analgesic for us, or rush to justification without enduring the Law’s needed work of tentatio and anfechtung (which can often though not always disclose a workable and ethical course of action). Thus, an easy ethic renders the costly grace of Christ’s justification for us into our own cheap grace and self-justification.

So Lutheran ethics is not an auxiliary or adjunct to the Gospel. A Lutheran ethic is an ethic informed and guided by the Law yet not ultimately under the custodianship (paedagogos, Galatians 3:24) of the Law. It is the freedom of the Gospel at work in a world that will find our decisions and actions in our congregations, schools, and organizations now more often out of step with the world’s expectations, just as it often finds the Gospel out of step. Out of step–and and yet compelling, “both to those who are being saved and those who are perishing, to one as a fragrance from death to death, to the other as a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15–16). Now comes putting that freedom to work in our own times, and we have our ethical work cut out for us. We will do well to go about this work with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12–14), but not with a spirit of timidity (2 Timothy 1:7), and always in light of the resurrection of Christ and the confident hope it brings. Here is an ethic for congregation, school, and the church of a different sort than Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook ethics. We warmly invite you to read further and benefit from our articles about educating in Lutheran ethics.

Russ Moulds, Ph.D.
Editor, Issues in Christian Education


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