In the early posts on ethics, under the perspective of normativity, we have already seen much of what we could discuss under the perspective of the individual Christians role in ethical decisions. Each Christian is a member of the new creation, expected to act accordingly. They are to live under the law of Christ and are expected to seek the glory of God in everything they do. We could add that the Holy Spirit is ever with us, so we are to act as those who are participants in Christ by the Spirit, who bring God into all the sin in which we partake (1Cor. 6:19-20). Instead, I want to briefly discuss the individual Christian as an ethical agent and the role of individual experience and gifting in ethical decision making.
First, the Bible stresses everywhere the sovereignty of God. God predestines, plans, works all things together, orders the steps and searches the hearts of humans, raises up nations, brings down rulers, and orchestrates all of human history (e.g., Hab. 1:5-11, 2:5-20; Romans 8:28-39; Eph. 1:2-14). God is the giver of faith, the one who enacts the necessary heart change so that individuals can believe (Deut. 30:6-14, John 6:44-45, Rom. 10:5-13). Yet, humans are held responsible for their actions. Those who crucified Jesus where not given pardon because God predestined their actions (Acts 2:23; 3:17-21). Babylon was not excused because God raised them up for their horrific acts of conquest (Hab. 1:5-11, 2:5-20). Wicked trees cannot help but bear wicked fruit, yet Jesus says that they will be judged on the final day (Matt. 12:33-37; Luke 6:43-45). This tension between God’s sovereign work and our responsible contribution is seen in ethical action. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” writes Paul, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). We are called to walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh (Gal. 5), to put to death the flesh and set our minds on things above (Col. 3:1-2, 5), yet the only way we can do this is through God’s help. So Christians, as moral agents, are responsible for their actions but are utterly dependent on the Spirit for right living. We are, then, a dependent people, who need the Spirit for ethical action and, because of noetic effects of sin (the corrupting effect of sin on our minds), right ethical decision making. The opposite side of this is that Biblical ethical living, right action before God, is impossible for one who is not regenerate. At the level of actions, the Spirit is needed to walk according to God’s law. At the level of ethical decision making, only actions done in faith, in consideration of God and with a humbly dependent orientation towards Him, are right (e.g., Rom. 3:9-18, 14:23; Heb. 11:4-7). Because unbelievers are in rebellion against him, they are unable to obey His law (Rom. 8:6-8)—to even understand it (1 Cor. 2:6-16).
Second, the Bible makes clear that the individual is a factor in ethical decision making, in determining what it means to individually glorify God—to redeem the time given to us. Consider sins of omission: James writes that to know what is right yet to fail to do it is sin (James 4:17). That is, sin is not just doing what is wrong, but failing in the appropriate situation to do what is right. Thus, ethics is not just a consideration of what one shouldn’t do, but also due diligence in seeking to do what is right. A sin of omission is a failure of an individual to do what they know the law commands in a particular situation.
An individual also brings a role or social position to the ethical decision making table. What to do in a specific situation will differ if the subject acting is a parent or a child. Thus, Christian ethics must take into consideration God’s particular commission to those in particular stations. Married Christians are instructed not to withhold sexual intimacy from one another (1 Cor. 7:3-4), yet single Christians are to abstain from all sexual intimacy. Slaves are to be good servants towards their masters as to the Lord, being content with their position until opportunity arises to become free (1 Cor. 7:17-24, Eph. 5:5-8, 1 Pet. 2:18-21). A Christian already married to an unbeliever should attempt to remain married (1 Cor. 7:13-16), yet Christians are to only marry other believers (1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14). An elder is to lead well, rebuking and acting with unique authority (1 Pet. 5:1-4). Someone who is not an elder is to submit to the elders’ authority (1 Pet. 5:5).
In addition to individual knowledge of the law and individual social position, ethical decision making for a Christian involves discernment concerning his or her role in the Church. Christ commissioned His apostles, and so His Church, to go into all the nations and make disciples, baptizing and teaching. Yet, if every Christian went from North America into China, who would be left to evangelize Canada? If every Christian spent his or her time learning and teaching Christian doctrine to other Christians, who would be going out into the nations? Paul puts it like this: “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:17-18). God has gifted each and every Christian to do the work of ministry and to train others for the work of ministry, each in differing ways (Eph. 4:11-14; Deut. 6:7; Eph. 6:4; Titus 2:2-8). The great commission is the mission of the Church. Each individual’s responsibility as it regards the fulfillment of the commission depends on their place within the local church. To set up for a church gathering every Sunday is part of fulfilling the great commission, as is contributing money for missions training and travel. Preaching the Gospel from the pulpit is as essential to the great commission as preaching the Gospel to co-workers. No individual Christians bears the full weight of the commission God has given the whole body of Christ. Each Christian bears the responsibility of identifying their contribution to the local and universal church, with the aid of other Christians, and seeking God’s kingdom first by doing everything in their power with the time given them to glorify God in that role.
This series of articles has shown that the Bible has much to say about the traditional categories of philosophy: it teaches a worldview. The Bible shows us that humans are subordinate to God, yet created in His image. We are participants in the grand narrative of this created world, which God has ordained for the end of His glory. We know the things in this world because God has revealed Himself. All our knowledge is true in as much as it is consistent with God’s interpretation of reality, and all our efforts to know must therefore be performed in submission to the authority of God. Ethically, humanity has fallen into sin but God has given us His Spirit so that we might be obedient to Him. Ethics is dependent on the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit. Ethics involves submission to God’s law as revealed in Scripture, applying it to each situation in the world through consideration of an individual’s knowledge, role, and gifting.
This article adapted from the first appendix of my paper, To Love God with All One’s Heart Soul and Strength.
Image: “decisions” flickr photo by totemisottapa https://flickr.com/photos/svobodi/6066388574 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license