Christian ethics is an ethical system that emphasizes an informed biblical theological approach to behaviour that is deemed either right or wrong. It focuses and guides Christians on dealing with the poor, vulnerable, oppressed, races, sexes, and so on. Much debate and discussion, for instance, revolves around subjects of abortion, and war, and other important subjects. Christian ethics is centrally focused on Jesus and his teachings. Thus it is Jesus (1) and the Bible that is the fundamental source of Christian ethics (2).
Although the societal and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament Jewish nation have passed away and do not apply to Christians living post Jesus’ death, Christian ethics emphasizes the Old Testament moral laws and thus implements the 10 commandments as a guide for living (3). Moreover, a good deal of Christian ethics has its basis in many of the teachings from the New Testament. Jesus’ given of the Great Commandment to love God with all one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is one such teaching that has shaped how Christians interact with the world and with people (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). Thus, one’s moral obligation is to centre his life on God as well as to love his fellow human beings. And perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Christian ethics comes from Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies (Mat. 5:44). There are also several identified virtues with four of these known as cardinal virtues whereas and the other three as theological virtues:
–Prudence – also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
–Justice – also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue
–Temperance – also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation tempering the appetition.
–Courage – also termed fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.
–Faith – belief in God, and in the truth of His revelation as well as obedience to Him (cf. Rom 1:5:16:26)
–Hope – expectation of and desire of receiving; refraining from despair and capability of not giving up. The belief that God will be eternally present in every human’s life and never giving up on His love.
–Charity – a supernatural virtue that helps us love God and our neighbours more than ourselves.
As already stated there are several areas very pertinent to contemporary Christian ethics. These would include, though are certainly not limited to, matters of abortion, alcohol, war, wealth, sexual morality, divorce, and homosexuality. Although there have been diverse views from Christians on abortion throughout history, most would identify it as a sin (4). Protestant Christians have been seen within both the pro and anti-abortion camps (5) whereas the Catholic Church is strictly anti-abortion and says that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception” (5). Abortion is considered a moral evil by the vast majority of Christians.
Divorce is generally informed by Jesus’ teachings in which he stresses both the permanency of, and honesty within, marriage (Matt. 19:6). The Apostle Paul likewise stipulates conditions of a God centered marriage within his letters (Eph. 5:22-31). Sexual morality is also pertinent to the debate. For example, Christians reject extramarital sex, adultery, and prostitution, although views have not always been consistent throughout history. However, Christian ethics does not condemn sex; rather, sex is natural, and sex within marriage is both proper and necessary (7).
Homosexuality is particularly contentious due to how many within contemporary society views any negative opinions of it as intolerant and bigoted. Christians, however, seem to have a diverse perspective of homosexuality; many identify homosexual practice as being sinful whereas others accept it and find no biblical condemnation. However, the Bible, within both the Old and New Testaments, outright condemns homosexual activity as an abomination; this is because it goes contrary to God’s ideal marriage of one man and one woman. In fact, in Leviticus 20:13 homosexual relations is punishable by death. Paul in the New Testament also condemns homosexual relations (1 Rom. 26; 1 Cor. 6:9-10). Moreover, many churches are open and welcoming to people with homosexual feelings although they encourage them to work towards overcoming it.
Wealth and prosperity have been a long debated topic. Adherents of the prosperity gospel identify financial prosperity and well-being as a blessing from God. Other Christians urge people not to make money and wealth the central focus of one’s life (8). Jesus, for example, warns against wealth (Mark 4:19; Luke 19:23–27) since it can take one away from focusing his life on God. Jesus further exhorts his hearers to sell their Earthly goods and give to the poor (Luke 12:33). He also spoke of storing up heavenly treasure (Luke 19:1-10). This is particularly pertinent to our contemporary western context since so much value and identity is placed on material wealth and prosperity.
Finally, there is much about war and violence as expounded on within Christian literature. The Christian pacifist, for example, identifies violence as being incompatible with Christianity (9). They ground these teachings in Jesus who, they argue, was a pacifist and expected his followers to likewise be pacifists. It is clear that Jesus opposed violence. He rebukes one of his disciples for taking up the sword to defend him against his enemies (Mark 8:33; Matt. 16:23) and likewise taught that “all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Thus, stemming from the teachings of Jesus himself, we can know why so many Christians throughout the centuries, as well as today, have taken a strong stand against violence.
Common critiques would generally focus on certain immoralities from within the Bible. Naturalist philosopher, Simon Blackburn, argues that the “Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual habits, and elderly women” (10). Elizabeth Anderson, a Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies, says that the Bible is “morally inconsistent” as it “contains both good and evil teachings” (11). She understandably points to certain chapters that “license or even command murder, rape, torture, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We know such actions are wrong” (12). This would explain, as some have contended, why Christianity was so involved in the African slave trade which promoted the buying and selling of human beings, and so on (13).
However, Andersen makes an important distinction through noting that this is particularly an issue for biblical inerrantists; those who accept “biblical inerrancy… must conclude that much of what we take to be morally evil is in fact morally permissible and even morally required.” She notes episodes in which God punishes four generations of descendants of those who worship other Gods, kills 24000 Israelites because some of them sinned (Num. 25:1–9), kills 70000 Israelites for the sin of David in 2 Samuel 24:10–15, commands others to to kill adulterers, homosexuals, and “people who work on the Sabbath” (Lev. 20:10, 20:13; Exo. 35:2), and many other things.
There has also been a good deal of criticism of Jesus. For example, Blackburn identifies flaws in Jesus concerning him possibly being racist (Matt. 15:26; Mark 7:27), sectarian (Matt. 10:5–6), uncaring towards animal life (Luke 8: 27–33), and accepting of brutal portions of the Old Testament.
However, apologists have responded to such criticisms although Christians do tend to hold to diverse views on how to deal with the troublesome passages. Some Christians, notably Paul Copan (16) and Norman Geisler (17), look to preserve biblical inerrancy in their defence of the Bible (15). Alternatively, other Christians have sought to discover ways for reading the Bible, as well as holding to its inspiration and authority, that does not assume biblical inerrancy, notably Randal Rauser (18), Peter Enns (19) and Thom Stark (20).
1. Long, S. 2010. Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. p. 13.
2. Childress, J. & Macquarrie, J. 1986. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics. p. 88
3. Long, S. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.
4. Reiman, J. 1998. Abortion and the Ways We Value Human Life. p. 19-20; Schiff, D. 2002. Abortion in Judaism. p. 40.
5. McGrath, A. & Marks, D. 2004. The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism. p. 294.
6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2270.
7. Deming, W. 2003. Paul on marriage and celibacy: the hellenistic background of 1 Corinthians 7.
8. Liacopulos, G. 2007. Church and Society: Orthodox Christian Perspectives, Past Experiences, and Modern Challenges. p. 88.
9. Roland Bainton quoted in Robin Gill’s A Textbook of Christian Ethics (2006). p. 194.
10. Blackburn, S. 2001. Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. p. 12.
11. Anderson, E. 2007. “If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. p. 337.
12. Anderson, E. 2007. Ibid. p. 337.
13. Olupona, J. 2014. African Religions: A Very Short Introduction. p. 95.
14. Anderson, E. 2007. Ibid. p. 336.
15. Blackburn, S. 2001. Ibid. p. 11–12.
16. Copan, P. 2011. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God.
17. Geisler, N. 2012. Defending Inerrancy: Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a New Generation.
18. Rauser, R. 2012. The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails.
19. Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.
20. Stark, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God.