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Christian Ethics: The Bottom Line

A brief thought and addendum to my Values and Virtues series: My discussion about the differences between morality and ethics wandered long, but I neglected one significant datum: morality has to do with humans living together in general, and Christian ethics has to do with being Church.

Christians will have different ideas about what a good common life means than will Muslims or secularists or Marxists, but the questions are common questions. Anyone theorizing about morality will want to talk about justice, property, murder, sex, children, tradition, and all sorts of other things. The answers can and will differ between and among groups, but the questions do not go away. Christian ethics, on the other hand, can only be Christian ethics, because they have to do with being Church in relation to the World. That’s a philosophical and ethical problem that Marxists and secularists and Muslims simply do not have to worry about.

Likewise, I suppose, Marxist ethics has to do with being Party in relation to Workers and Owners, and secularist ethics might have to do with being intellectual peacemakers relative to sectarians. Just as Christian ethics proper does not concern itself with either of those constellations of questions, neither do they have to worry about ecclesiology.

Just a thought that occurred to me as I read for comprehensive exams.

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Christian Ethics: The Bottom Line

  1. >You nailed it! It is truly about relationships. I loathe a Christian ethic that is either sectarian (fundamentalism) or individualistic (some forms of evangelicalism) in nature and neglects how believers should relate to one another and those outside the community of faith. Nathan, I’ve enjoyed this, but I must get back to my studies.Cheers!

    Posted by me | November 3, 2007, 5:44 pm
  2. >I would want to tweak it just a bit more before we proceed. I would contend that both morality and Christian ethics have to do with relationships; after all, as Aristotle noted, human arete in general derives its meaning from common life.The difference, I think, is not so much the presence of relationships but, as you noted, the particular character of those relationships. So, for instance, whereas morality might ask how Christians and Muslims ought to live together, Christian ethics begins from a slightly different question, namely how we Christians ought to treat our Muslim neighbors (who might also be our Muslim enemies, to use the terms of the Sermon on the Mount). The distinction is subtle, but our vocation to witness to the gospel of Jesus the Messiah makes that subtle difference quite important.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 3, 2007, 4:56 pm
  3. >”Christian ethics…deal with relationships…”Bingo. This is where I was heading. So the question is, “What is so distinctive about Christian ethics and what exactly does this look like?”I ask this because I find the definition of Christian ethics within the church in American evangelicalism is a strange blend of biblical and secular ideas. I am an American and I am a Christian but I think if you asked Christians from other parts of the world what Christian ethics means you might get very different answers. For example, an American would have a very individualistic notion of ethics while a Christian in China will have more of a community idea. I bring this into the discussion because I find most of the talk about Christian ethics comes from within the American church and other cultures that are close to a democracy, for example, here in England, while those who are Christians in oppressive cultures are more concerned with not getting their hands or their heads chopped off.How does our idea of Christian ethics mesh with theirs I wonder?

    Posted by me | November 3, 2007, 4:19 pm
  4. >Not necessarily. Both have to do with “is” and “ought.” The main differences have to do with how one relates to other people. When one discusses morality, one speaks of how one relates with other people in general. Morality might govern questions such as what material objects are proper to which people and by what means (contracts, central distribution, voluntary charitable giving, almsgiving, etc.) a group of people decides how to distribute them. Questions of morality do not necessarily distinguish between atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, or Libertarians. People from those different groups can and will disagree on how people ought to live together (or whether they ought to), but moral categories have to do with people in general. Christian ethics, on the other hand, deal with relationships that simply do not exist within, say, Communist ethics. A Communist does not worry about how the Church relates to the World because those categories do not exist within Communist ethics. For a Communist to talk about Church and World, he must speak of it at a remove (i.e. “What Christians think about Church and World,” not as one who is part of Church living in relationship to World. Likewise, as a Christian who is not a Communist, I can talk about being part of the Party at a remove, but I do not talk as a member of the Party, living in relationship with Owners and Workers. Ultimately, as a Christian, I can name resonances between Communist and Christian ethics and dissonances between the same, but in order to do Christian ethics with those resonances, I must re-narrate them into categories of Church and World.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 3, 2007, 3:52 pm
  5. >Are you classing morality then as what one “does” and ethics as what one “should do?”

    Posted by me | November 3, 2007, 3:32 pm
  6. >One more thing: I’m not by any means saying that morality and Christian ethics have nothing to do with one another; rather, they’re two sets of categories within which Christians talk about the goodness and the badness into which lives can travel.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 3, 2007, 3:13 pm
  7. >Good question. I’d say that in each of my sets, the groups exist in relationship that may or may not be antagonistic. For instance, a Communist will likely think herself part of the Party, at the service of the Workers, together against the Owners, while most secularists I know think of themselves as serving the sectarians who are “reasonable” (in the deconstructible post-colonial sense) while in opposition to the sectarians who are not.Likewise, the Church at once walks around in the world, finds herself persecuted by the world, lives a life of agapic mutuality for the sake of the world, claims by hope to see beyond the world, lives by faith with the world, and always listens to the voices of Scripture so as not to be of the world. There are moments of opposition in there, but the relationship is far more complex than simple opposition.My point in setting up that pairing is to note that morality, philosophically speaking, does not deal with how a Christian lives in relationship with the world, while Christian ethics, philosophically speaking, must.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 3, 2007, 3:11 pm
  8. >Nathan,It seems like in your contrasts of: “The Church in relation to the World, Party in relation to Workers and Owners, and intellectual peacemakers relative to sectarians,” that you are showing one set of groups to be at odds with the other. Certainly I understand the difference between “The Church” and “The World” but I was wondering how you then define Christian ethics. Does it have “anything” to do with the world? Are not Christian ethics also determinative of how we relate to others both in the church and in the world? Just a thought. Your posts are always very stimulating and I thought I would interact with you on this one. Mark

    Posted by me | November 3, 2007, 3:04 pm

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