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When Can You Bend Christian Ethics? Historically, It Depends

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Lately, I have been reading a great deal of primary and secondary literature about Christian ethics – beginning with the ancient church fathers.

In my opinion, Richard Hayes’ “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” more than adequately covers New Testament ethics, so the book I’m currently working on will begin with the second-century church fathers.

I have run into some very startling ideas about the right way to live the Christian life – in the church fathers and in Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other, later, great Christian ethicists.

First, most of the church fathers and Erasmus and Luther (and to some extent Thomas Aquinas) regarded money as spiritually toxic.

They heaped scorn on wealthy people while cautiously admitting that one could be wealthy and a good Christian if one used one’s excess wealth for the benefit of the poor. Their statements are very strong.

John Chrysostom condemned wealth and luxury and advocated a kind of communism in which property would belong to all people.

Erasmus and Luther also advocated, as an ideal, a “common purse” not only within the church but in society in general.

However, they did not think that was practical. Nevertheless, they condemned hoarding wealth when people were hungry and homeless.

Second, nearly all the church fathers except Augustine, plus Erasmus and Luther, considered violence evil and urged Christians to avoid it whenever possible.

Basil the Great and John Chrysostom banned Christian soldiers from partaking of communion for one year if they killed someone in battle.

Luther, of course, notoriously argued that one can kill for a righteous cause in love, but he strongly discouraged Christians from practicing violence in self-defense. It was only justified in defense of another.

Third, many great Christian thinkers easily made exceptions to revealed rules of conduct – as traditionally interpreted by Christians.

This exceptionalism might be called “occasionalism” or “contextualism” to avoid the stigma of “situation ethics.”

Luther condoned polygamy (or at least bigamy) in some cases and also said that if a wife discovers her husband is impotent, she is justified in having sex with his brother in order to have children.

Bonhoeffer justified lying and said that the Christian must only tell the truth when the person deserves the truth.

Often, he more than implied, the person being spoken to does not deserve the truth and then it is OK to lie.

Soren Kierkegaard, of course, spoke about the “teleological suspension of the ethical” and argued that true religion, Christianity, transcends ordinary ethics.

The true “knight of faith” must do what God commands even if it violates a known law of God.

Does all this sound somewhat like “situation ethics”? During the 1960s, Episcopal theologian Joseph Fletcher published “Situation Ethics: The New Morality,” which was thoroughly trashed by conservative Christians.

Admittedly, there are differences between Fletcher’s situation ethics and the “occasionalism” or “contextualism” of some of the church fathers and reformers and Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer.

(I could throw in Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, too, but their “exceptions” to the revealed will of God are not as strong or as extreme as some others.)

It is exceptionally difficult to stick to a strict rule-based ethic, even within Christianity.

Immanuel Kant tried to do it, even arguing that it would be wrong to lie to save the life of a friend.

But Kant lived in an ivory tower of pure thought and hardly ever encountered the real world outside his home and university.

Luther needed Prince Phillip of Hesse to support his reformation; the prince had two wives. Luther at least condoned it.

Philip Melanchthon more than condoned it. It’s possible that he even performed the second marriage while the first wife was still alive.

Bonhoeffer lived in a “world” where innocent people, including children, were being killed for no reason other than insane prejudice and hatred.

When I was a teenager growing up in a fundamentalist church in the 1960s, one of the worst things anyone could be accused of was “situation ethics,” and yet I observed many of my denomination’s own leaders doing things that I knew to be unethical.

I won’t say how I knew, but I knew beyond any doubt that one denominational executive was forging another one’s signature on documents and checks – perhaps with the other one’s consent but it was still illegal in some cases.

Everyone winked at it because it was simply too difficult then to get the right signature on the check or document.

I well remember many instances in which pastors, evangelists, denominational leaders did things that were blatantly unethical in a rule-based ethic but justified them given the circumstances.

In all of the cases I remember, nothing like life was at stake; these were minor “offenses” if offenses at all. They were certainly technical offenses, violations of law in some cases.

I was being taught one thing and watching my spiritual mentors who taught me ethics doing the opposite.

When is it ethically OK to violate a rule? Is there a rule for that?

Ethics is messy. Virtue ethics sounds nice but is no complete alternative to “quandary ethics” – ethical decision-making based on case studies. Augustine’s “rule” was “Love and do as you please.”

Fletcher said much the same thing in “Situation Ethics.”

I was taught that it is never right to break a rule. I grew out of that.

Now I have the task of teaching when and why it is OK to break rules. It’s complicated.

The history of Christian ethics is full of surprises and it’s challenging.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Olson’s blog. It is used with permission.

Roger Olson

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”