September 29, 2020

Thinking Differently, Disagreeing Charitably

I was recently reading a book of Catholic apologetics that wanted to illustrate the insufficiency of sola scriptura. For an example, the author selected some issues about which evangelicals feel strongly, but which the author believed are not specifically spelled out in scripture to the extent that evangelicals claim.

One of the issues was polygamy. Another was abortion.

Yes, I said abortion. This Catholic apologist felt that Protestants are mistaken to say they can prove their pro-life position solely from reading the Bible.

No one can possibly fault the Catholic Church for its consistent and well-articulated stand on pro-life issues, but evangelicals would be cautious about the assertion that the Bible alone isn’t the sole sufficient source for shaping a position on abortion.

Catholic doctrine and ethical teaching comes out of the Catholic view of authority: scripture, tradition and magisterium. All work together to arrive at the conclusion.

This difference in method is a signal that evangelicals should pay attention to: Christians don’t all think alike on moral issues, even when they agree strongly, often because they don’t use the same method in arriving at ethical conclusions.

I attended seminary for the first time in 1979, and I took a required course in Christian Ethics that first year. Southern had two professors teaching the course. One had a very public pro-choice reputation, as well as a reputation for being somewhat strident toward students who differed with him. So I took the course from the other professor, who is no longer at Southern, but who has been a highly regarded, well known writer on ethics, justice and non-violence for many years.

This was a course utterly different from anything I had been exposed to in fundamentalism or in my undergraduate studies. My exposure to Christian ethics consisted of my denomination’s World Hunger emphasis and whatever my church happened to be against at the time.

But in this course, my professor introduced me to a world of Christian ethical issues, all anchored in scripture, but explored in church history and with a judicious use of reason. We studied energy policy, environmentalism, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, hunger, justice, non-violence, economic ethics and the ethics of life.

My professor made a cogent, Biblical, reasonable case that some Christians and Jews took a less-than-at-conception on when a fetus became a “person.” I remember clearly his exploration of the Bible in this regard, and his explanation of the conclusion that before a child “moved” in the womb, it would not have been considered “moved” by the animating Spirit of God in ancient culture.

Now while he may have been correct, I did not buy this as a convincing argument regarding abortion, not then and not now, and my professor didn’t require me to buy it or anything else he said in defending a moderate pro-choice position. He was completely respectful of those who differed with him, which was a good portion of the class.

But what I learned in that class, what I learn from the catholic writer I mentioned, and what I learn from a collection of Christians outside my own setting, is that not every Christian thinks entirely the same on the issue of abortion.

Evangelicals tend to see abortion as a “duh” issue, i.e. it is so plainly condemned in scripture that you can’t take the Bible seriously at all and come to any other conclusion than theirs: abortion is murder.

My ethics professor suggested that the definition of a “person,” in a full sense, was a more complex matter, and it’s hard to deny that human beings tend to make distinctions between the unborn and those who have lived in the world as recognized person.

My professor was introducing factors that failed to answer fundamental questions of personhood in reference to God, and that, in my view, was a failure of ethical method. Personhood in reference to God must be foundational for all other kinds of personhood. So it is more than incidental that the Biblical writers celebrate God’s knowledge of their personhood, identities and mission before anyone else knew them at all.

But there are Christians who think differently. Wrongly? Perhaps. I think so. Depending on less Bible-centered methods of doing Christian ethics? Perhaps. Sometimes coming to conclusions with which we would vigorously, vehemently disagree? Yes, certainly.

Let’s think again about the Catholic Church. Catholics oppose capital punishment, using their own methods of moral reasoning to come what they see as a consistent pro-life position.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to support it strongly, and tend to do so because the Bible seems so unambiguously in favor of it.

This difference among “pro-life” Christians should be examined more closely. Evangelicals are unlikely to ever oppose capital punishment, even when it is demonstrated to be a frequent source of the abuse of government power.

Similar differences regarding ethical positions among Christians can be found on issues such as pacifism, the ethical use of energy, limitations of government power, support for public education, censorship, economics and methods of compassion.

These differences in ethical reasoning are seldom decried by evangelicals as examples of “failing to believe the Bible.” Given that some evangelicals can’t understand anyone who thinks differently from themselves, most are able to recognize that even clear Biblical statements will not automatically result in agreement on all ethical issues.

Further, evangelicals are unlikely to villainize those who differ from them on other issues into automatic non-Christians. But those who differ with them on abortion and gay marriage are regularly demoted to being unbelievers.

This is even more ironic to me when I consider the actual diversity that emerges among evangelicals when the abortion discussion moves to advocating actual public policy options. Agreement on the pro-life position is widespread, but those same methods of interpretation do not yield agreement on implementation.

My point here is simple: We ought not be so amazed at ethical differences. We ought not to reject someone out of hand because they differ with us on ethical issues. We may lament and deplore these divisions, but if we thoughtfully consider them, we won’t be stupefied.

Perhaps we could try an ethical stand that would really make a difference: listening and speaking with kindness and respect to those with whom we differ. “Speaking the truth in love” prefaced by “Listening to the other person with love and respect.”

Did you ever notice how Jesus deals with those he has serious disagreements with?

Those Pharisees? Jesus had a lot in common with them. But at some of those key points, there was serious division and disagreement.

So watch Jesus. Do what he does. Don’t do what Jesus doesn’t do.

He interacts with the Pharisees. He doesn’t avoid them.

He lets them finish their sentences.

He doesn’t yell at them.

He asks good, subversive, insightful questions.

He tells stories.

His “points” are simple and on target.

He understands how these differences arise, i.e. out of methodology or values.

He never compromises.

He leaves the conversation in the hands of the Holy Spirit.

Can you improve on that? I can’t. In fact, I have a long way to go to get anywhere close to it.

One last note, consider what the comments and discussion ought to be on this post:

1) What are the different ethical methodologies that are found in the various Christian traditions?

2) Why is ethical consistency so difficult to find in Christianity? Why does it always seem to be just one or two issues that animate Christians? (Often leading to strange conversations pitting one ethical concern against another.)

3) What can we learn from Jesus about conversation with those with whom we share substantial agreement, but also have significant disagreement over highly emotional issues?


  1. Oh dear God why are you reading Mark Shea?

  2. Michael,

    Great questions. But I have a more foundational issue, if you will.

    What if we’re going about the analysis of ethical issues in the wrong way? That is, in a way different from the way Jesus prescribed.

    What if extrapolating abstract “ethical rules” from the biblical narrative, and then trying to “apply” those rules to specific circumstances is an exercise in missing the point.

    What if we recognized that there is one rule that Jesus issued, something we mysteriously call “Love,” and that the application of that rule will look very different in each and every context?

    Something to chew on…

    Grace and Peace,

  3. Raffi:

    Do you have a solution to the question of how to do ethics with a singular methodology? I assume that we’re always going to have a diversity of ethical approaches.



  4. *blinks*


    When did that suddenly pop up as a matter of urgency? Michael, are Evangelical churches full of ex-polygamists? Are you boys trying to convert the state of Utah en masse? Is this the next frontier in the culture wars?

    And why aren’t we concerned, if so? After all, there are plenty of Catholics who are all too ready to ride off madly in all directions for smaller matters 😉

  5. Many Christians have another dimension in their ethical thinking and that is a hierarchy of values. I am one of them. That is issues are not simply right or wrong, but are also–to way oversimplify–in a “more important / less important” relationship to each other. What do I mean? Let me give you one quick example from Scripture, Rahab the harlot in the Book of Joshua.

    When Rahab was asked about the Israeli spies, she lied. Nowhere does the Bible ever condemn her, or rebuke her, or even chide her. If anything she received an indirect commendation for her actions, up to, and including, her lie, and that in the New Testament: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.”

    In fact, if you think about the role of a spy, it is to lie by word, action, clothing, etc., to so deceive the enemy as to make them believe that they are someone other than who they really are. And, yet, the spies who were hidden by Rahab are clearly commended for their actions.

    Why are both Rahab and the spies not called on their lying? Why is there no thought given to the several falsehoods that were told? Because in war, lying can take a lower priority to gathering information about the enemy and to protecting lives. Thus, Corrie ten Boon openly admitted that her family lied to the Nazis when they hid Jews.

    But, in all of life, this type of “comparing” of priorities happens. Many times there is no conflict between issues, the answer is clear cut. But, there arise those times when one ethical mandate conflicts against another. We are not to lie. We are not to betray innocent people, especially if they are God’s people, to a brutal enemy. Life wins over lie, so we hide the Jew and need suffer no pang of conscience whatsoever over the fact that we told a bald faced lie to save their life.

    The problem with “situational” ethics is that it is all too often based on this undefinable “love,” which all too often simply means what feelings you have about the matter at the time the decision must be made. The problem with a strictly one-dimensional black/white ethic is that all too often conflicts arise between competing ethical values, which can lead to an ethical paralysis and difficulty in making choices.

    Hierarchical ethics says, on the one hand, that different situations may merit different responses, but, on the other hand, it says that the decision is made based on a hierarchy of values which help order what value has a higher priority than what other value. BTW, the hierarchy comes from observing how conflicts of value were handled in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Holy Tradition. [Eastern Orthodox do not have a unitary Magisterium like the Roman Catholics.]

    I had better stop here, but more could be said.

  6. To be serious for a moment, I think the abortion issue is because (1) Judaism permits abortion in some instances and (2) the arguments that pro-choice advocates make grounded on Exodus 21:22 “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.”

    Their argument is that causing a miscarriage is not considered the equivalent of manslaughter or murder, therefore the foetus is not to be considered as fully human life, and hence abortion before viability is permissible.

    I think my co-religionist is making the point that, arguing solely from Scriptural texts, there is no absolute prohibition and so the Christian tradition that abortion is wrong is not solely based on the Bible alone.

    Then again, as a Papist, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 🙂

  7. Fr. Ernesto, I think over here on this side of the Tiber we call that whole area “moral theology”.

    It starts off with our relationship with God and how we must attain that end – union with God. Then it applies it to our state of life; how should we live in order to attain that end? How do we apply the principles and the commandments in our daily earthly lives?

    In examples such as you give, where there are those seeking to do harm or even to murder a person, have you a duty to preserve life over the duty to tell the truth? Most people would say “Yes, of course!” but I believe there were instances in the early Christian period during the persecutions, where some of the Fathers held you should tell the truth even if the soldiers asked you did you know where the fugitive Christian was hiding.

    So obviously there is a development of ethical methodologies to cope with questions such as these. And equally obviously, these will develop along the lines of the different emphases the various traditions/denominations place on what is of greater and what is of lesser importance.

    As regards the second question – the lack of consistency – I think that’s because we’re humans. I think we easily see the errors of the generation before our own, and rush to the opposite extreme in an attempt to balance them out, but don’t see our own errors. So we get a pendulum effect see-sawing from too much/too little of X to too much/too little of Y.

    As regards the third question – I have no idea. Not even a notion where to start.

  8. Okay, yes – third question. There’s the quote that just came into my head.

    “Don’t bind burdens upon the backs of others.”

    Matthew 23:4 “For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them.”

    For those of us who are very good at pointing out exactly how wrong the other person is going, the way he’s going wrong, but not so hot at going the right way ourselves. (Me too with the Pharisees).

  9. Ky Boy but not now says

    “This difference among “pro-life” Christians should be examined more closely. Evangelicals are unlikely to ever oppose capital punishment, even when it is demonstrated to be a frequent source of the abuse of government power.”

    I spent about 10 years coming to a conclusion on the death penalty that we (the USA) should not have it. I’ve had this position for a little over 10 years now. But I believe that the death penalty is a valid punishment for some crimes when applied in a biblical judicial manner. But I’ve decided the judicial system in the USA is structured in such a way that will we will be killing innocent people in non trivial numbers no matter what the ethics of people like me. Our police and justice systems are just stacked against getting it right 99.99999% of the time. Their culture is to get a conviction more than to get it right. So therefore I’m against it as a policy of the government.

    And this stand doesn’t go over well with my evangelical friends. Mostly they say it’s OK to kill innocent people since God allows it to happen. I get a bit apoplectic at that point but they rarely even consider there’s a remote possibility they might be wrong much less change their mind.

    And don’t even get me started about how people who are on death row and profess a conversion experience should be pardoned while those that have truely changed their lives but not become Christians still be put to death. Please.

  10. Martha & Fr. Ernesto:

    I see your points, and I have slightly different interpretations of your texts and how they apply. I see the miscarriage in Exodus as a live birth. Miscarriage, by definition, doesn’t necessarily result in death, as many of us would tend to believe. “And yet no mischief follow” I think simply means that the baby didn’t die. “so that her fruit departs from her” means birth, most likely prematurely from a traumatic experience.

    As for Rahab telling a lie, I see no prohibition in the bible against telling a lie per se. Bearing of false witness as prohibited in the ninth commandment isn’t in the context of always telling truth, I see it is a legal context of falsely convicting the innocent. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Rahab wasn’t bound to provide damaging information to evil men. It was none of their business. They had no right to even know the truth. She wasn’t bearing false witness against anybody else to condemn them, so God commended her. Same with the Hebrew midwives. We lie to our loved ones when we plan surprise parties for them. 🙂

    I think just the fact that I have a slightly different take on each of these texts gives validity to the original point of the post.

  11. On point 2 Why is ethical consistency so difficult to find in Christianity?
    I see a lot more ethical consistency within the Christian community than without.
    I know of no denomination that is pro-abortion for example. Whether by scripture or tradition, we agree on life.
    The last political election showed a common ground with church leaders. Didn’t help them much, but there was unity in message.
    All Christian organizations seem to value mercy and good works. All sponsor hospitals, prison outreach, homeless shelters. etc. We all know we need a Savior.

    I am no expert on their methodologies, but I find great consistency on ethical values. What am I missing? Is there a First Church of Euthanasia or something? If I want to work in a community for the common good I will find my allies under the roof of a house of God.
    As for 3} what can we learn, steel sharpens steel. If we do not change each others mind, the Socratic argument will hone what we really believe and provide a differing perspective from which to view a given point. Invaluable. Why, just last month I learned on Fr. Ernesto’s blog Luther was a Liberal. Seriously, that never entered my mind. Foreign thought. I was taught Luther was..ah, not now. I see where Fr. E. is coming from. I may not agree, but my understanding of Luther is increased. [sorry for length. ]

  12. Michael,

    Uh, yeah..the “always diversity” thing. I mean, there will be some circumstances where the application of the rule of Love will lead to blazingly obvious results. Is torturing a baby for fun consistent with love? No. No diversity issue there.

    But in most circumstances, the application will be as diverse as the billions of unique, diverse issues involved in the particular issue. Jesus feasted with some sinners and chastised others. Diversity. Wisdom. Discernment. Faith. Hope. Love.

    I mean, just imagine for a moment the ethical analysis that lead to the following conclusion: “Under these circumstances, the most ethical thing I can do is allow myself, innocent, to be shamefully executed on a Roman cross.”

    Hey, no one said this was gonna be easy.

    Grace and Peace,

  13. “Did you ever notice how Jesus deals with those he has serious disagreements with? Those Pharisees? Jesus had a lot in common with them. But at some of those key points, there was serious division and disagreement. So watch Jesus. Do what he does. […] He doesn’t yell at them.”

    Er. Matthew 23:13-35, anyone? 550 words of pure invective, beginning “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” and ending “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

    “Nice” is not always right. Usually, but not always.

  14. I would argue that Matthew 23 is not indicative of how Jesus typically dealt with Pharisees as a movement or in individual conversation.

    I like Matt 23, but Christians need to be careful. When the sinless son of God talks like that, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that when we start name calling, we are as pure as Christ. We’re not.

    I could cite some blogs as proof, but you probably know them.

  15. The Other Rob says

    Why does it always seem to be just one or two issues that animate Christians?

    If I understand the question correctly, it would seem that this has always been the case. And I think it is quite simply because each age has its pressing issues. We live in age where it is legal to murder millions of babies each year, in the US alone. Marriage, and its benefits for society, is being radically undermined. People will tend to gravitate to strong stances on such positions just by virtue of their environment.

    I think, certainly in our church anyway, you see many of our bishops (including the pope) trying to make sure that Catholics are seeing the whole picture. Fer instance, the pope has been speaking an awful lot about stewardship of creation over the past year. Bishops have been speaking out on immigration issues. I admit that my first instinct is to label them all as out-of-touch Euro-weenies, but I think that reflects more on me than them. 🙂

    More to the first question, the Catholic Church acknowledges that there are some acts that are evil, per se, always and everywhere, and others that are evil by virtue of other defects. So abortion figures high on the Church’s agenda because it is wrong by the act itself. There is no situation in which abortion is morally licit. It is an “intrinsic evil”. However, despite some Catholic’s attempts to paint it otherwise, capital punishment is NOT an intrinsic evil. Consequently, “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics” about the application of the death penalty. So the issue of capital punishment, important as it is, does not rank as highly on the Church’s agenda. Same goes for issues of war and immigration etc.

  16. Steve, if I follow the argument of the religious pro-choice side, they claim that the phrase “and yet no mischief follow” applies to the woman, not the unborn child; that is, if the woman does not die or become seriously ill as a result of the assault, it is not to be treated as murder.

    In this instance they ignore the status of the baby – whether it is born prematurely and survives, whether it is born prematurely and dies, or whether it is at such an early stage of pregnancy that a still birth follows seems to be all one.

    Obviously, I don’t accept that interpretation, but the fact that there is debate means that a purely “arguing from the plain word of Scripture” approach will not yield a yes-or-no answer.

    Though I am fascintated to know why my co-religionist adduces polygamy as a topic of serious Evangelical concern up there with abortion. Tell me more – what *are* you people up to over there? 🙂

  17. The Other Rob says

    I am fascintated to know why my co-religionist adduces polygamy as a topic of serious Evangelical concern up there with abortion.

    From distant memory, he does not adduce polygamy as a topic of serious Evangelical concern. But that is kinda the point. Evangelicals have nothing to do with polygamy. It is a settled point that marriage is to be monogamous. But why is it a settled point? The author’s argument is that it is not based on scripture alone.

    And by the by, the push for legalization of polygamy *will* follow closely on the heels of the legalization of homosexual marriage. Marriage used to be between one man and one woman. First up: why only men with women? Next up: why only one? Finally: why humans at all? When consent is all that matters, anything can be consented to.

  18. Not all “evangelicals” get all worked up about abortion: granted, I find it morally vile, but the same can be said of most all of my sins, regardless of whether or not I can find specific Biblical passages defining each of them.

    And polygamy? Who’s getting worked up over this these days? Besides, The OT examples of the polygamists show pretty clearly that the patriarchs and kings w/ > 1 wives tended to have nothing but troubles cast on them. No papal decree needed their either.

    Sola ecclesia will never work for me. It reminds me too much of a system in which a man translates the greatest Book ever into the common tongue, and as a result gets burned alive for doing so.

  19. [Mod edited] The main issue is that “The letter killeth but the Spirit gives life.” Any moral/ethical methodology that leaves the decision making on the actions, attitudes and consciences of individuals in the hands of an intelligentsia because they are the only ones who can accurately interpret ancient texts and/or the volumes of catechizes and Canon Law creates the two tiered system that Jesus death and resurrection abolished. The Law is now written on our hearts; each one of us is our own judge.

    Look it up. 🙂

  20. Well, the polygamy issue comes into play when people from a polygamous culture comes to belief in Christ. In South Africa there were in a church which I was ivolved with several polygamists – traditional Zulu men who came to Christ later in life. The way the church (actually a sect, but that is beside the point here) dealt with it was to teach them to love and care for all their wives, equally – whereas before swaying favoutitism led to abuse and neglect in some cases. These men become good men and husbands an fathers, but as per Paul’s instruction, were barred from eldership etc.

    As to the original question – I tend to agree with Fr Ernesto. Scripture does seem to follow that approach – although it is not an ethical matter, but the situation of the Syrian General in the House of Rimnon comes to mind. These principles are also played out in secular law outside of the US – where it does seem that number of convictions (as per Ky Boy)and a wooden application of the law holds sway. In times before in South Africa the legal system was Roman-Dutch Law, which held to the principle what would the the average, reasonable man do in situation XYZ? Thus the law was tempered with humanity, yet not abandoned. In recent years, however, the legal system there has gone awry, but due to entirely different reasons.

  21. I think you could make a pretty good argument from the Scriptures that abortion is not murder. In Exodus, it says that if you strike a pregnant woman and kill the baby, you get fined, but if you kill the woman, you die. Clearly then, the woman and the fetus are not equal.

    Against that, what is there? The verse in the Psalms where it says “In iniquity did my mother conceive me” or in Jeremiah when it says “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”? Flimsy hardly begins to describe it. I don’t blame non-Christians for brushing us off, if that’s all we have. I think a lot of evangelicals are more opposed to abortion for extrinsic reasons, that it facilitates fornication, than for intrinsic ones.

    But the Jews are not sola scripturists. The Jews started with the written Word, discerned legal principles and developed them into a working body of Law, through legitimate authorities, the judges, kings and rabbis. They did not hold that they had to do everything precisely as written, although that is what the Pharisees were attempting to return to, and what Jesus opposed several times.

  22. STeve said,
    “As for Rahab telling a lie, I see no prohibition in the bible against telling a lie per se.

    I’m a tad troubled by Rev. 21:8

    “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

    That’s a pretty stern warning, and makes me pretty nervous endorsing an ethic of dissembling, even in Fr. Ernesto’s scenarios. And of course it raises a question mark in the case of Rahab and The Spies; I don’t have an answer for that one.

    As to Michael’s 3 questions: (1) in my particular evangelical/Pentecostal tradition, ethical standards are often a function of just how assertive your local pastor happens to be. Ours is very, very adamant about his opinions (which on ethics usually come right off the same page as the dominant consensus in Evangelicalism), and I’m quite sure he would brook no discussion on the issues. Period. To do so would rank you as some kind of heretic.

    That sheds a light on question (2), where in the absence of a monolithic authority, you are left with a lot of differing opinions, which takes us right back to the authority issues with the Reformation…

    As to (3): with the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, scribes, et al, Jesus was always ready with a logical rebuttal, with a barb aimed right at the heart of his challengers. With those asking honest, searching questions, he was far more compassionate. But then, Jesus seems to have been given insight into the hearts of those He interacted with (instances too numerous to list). Since we seldom have such supernatural insights, I suggest we err on the side of grace and mercy…

  23. So watch Jesus. Do what he does. Don’t do what Jesus doesn’t do.

    I think I need to make up a sign with that — and put it in every room in my house. I nominate it as The Golden Rule II; Electric Boogaloo. I appreciate your ability to get to the heart of the matter.

    1) What are the different ethical methodologies that are found in the various Christian traditions?

    I’m not sure how to approach this question. I feel like I need an ethicist to identify the methodologies, first. Just thinking about conversations I’ve had or to which I’ve been privy, it seems clear to that sometimes, some of us use/view the ethical situations presented in scripture as prescriptive (only).

    Sometimes, some of us view/treat them as descriptive (only). And it seems to me most people I know, in practice, have their own methodology which is part prescriptive and part descriptive.

    And I think we all rely upon tradition. RC and Orthodox faithful, seem to me to just have a more official fishing area, because in addition to scripture, they recognize a more codified tradition that has already parsed scripture.

    Of course we Protestants draw on tradition too, we just…admit it less readily, perhaps? We have two thousand years of tradition we look at, too. Granted, we mostly focus on the last five hundredish years (and over the last few decades, more of us have been open to the writings of the early Church Fathers — that is, to those who already agree with us). But I think we rely on extra-biblical authroties too, even when we pay lip-service to sola scriptura.

    Throughout life, we’re influenced by how our parents, Sunday School teachers, friends, pastors, professors, friends, and well-known theologians, evangelists, writers and even non-believers interpret the ethical situations and issues presented in scripture. We look at and to Lewis. We look to Calvin, Wesley, sometimes Rome, and or to…Rick Warren, et alia.

  24. My response may be situation ethics, I’m not sure. The bottom line has to be what action of mine will lead to the greatest love and shalom for God and neighbor. Love is the end of the law. Galatians is the last word on the Law (moral and ceremonial). A moral hierarchy is a good general guide, but the action of the HS at the point of a decision is what really matters. Church history proves a cycle of law, then freedom, more law, then freedom. Pharisees in Jesus day, then Paul’s authentic letters not Tim and Titus. The time before the reformation, freedom with Luther. Trent then and relaxation of law with Vatican 2. People need the security of law but law quenches the free movement of the H.S.

  25. “I think you could make a pretty good argument from the Scriptures that abortion is not murder. In Exodus, it says that if you strike a pregnant woman and kill the baby, you get fined, but if you kill the woman, you die. Clearly then, the woman and the fetus are not equal.”

    But the law in Exodus has to do with causing an accidental miscarriage, not any kind of intentional abortion. And it does carry a punishment according to the will of the husband. Who’s to say that a husband may have not ordered the death of the offender? That may have put one in conflict with another law, I don’t know.

    But in any case, the apparent subordinate status of the unborn baby to the mother does not necessarily prove that an intentional termination of the pregnancy would be allowable under any situation. And another way to look at it is, the punishment for causing a miscarriage is open-ended – is the punishment for accidental manslaughter open-ended as well?

    I do agree with Martha’s original point, however – there isn’t an open and shut case against abortion derived solely from the pages of Scripture. However, when you consider that Christian tradition has always been firmly against it, the case becomes stronger. Which is a very good reason why it is wrong to reject tradition.

  26. JimBob, that’s where moral theology comes in. What is a lie? What makes a person a liar? Is there a difference between Rahab telling her clients what they want to hear (depending on whether you think she was a prostitute or an innkeeper) and telling the king’s men “Foreign spies? They went thataway”?

    If we tell our children about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, are we lying?

    Suppose a man with a gun comes to my door looking for directions to John Smith’s house – should I tell him “Go down the street to No. 72” or should I say “John Smith? I don’t know the man”?

    One interpretation would have it that I should always tell the truth; saying I don’t know John Smith when I do, and I know where he lives, is lying. Another says that false or equivocating speech is not necessarily lying; here I am not acting from malice or for my own advantage, but to prevent harm to John Smith.

    Both accept that lying is morally wrong; there’s a difference of approach as to what constitutes lying and is it absolutely wrong always or are there exceptions – the way that if you are starving, have no other means of gaining food and are desperate, if you take a loaf of bread that’s not stealing.

    But yes – this is where parsing comes in, and one man’s Dominican “always distinguish” is another man’s Jesuitical casuistry (that last should be said with curled lip and, if possible, in imitation of Dr. Ian Paisley for proper degree of stout Bible-believing contempt) 😉

  27. To be fair to Dr. Paisley, he’s become wonderfully tolerant in his old age. (Power-sharing with Sinn Féin ministers in a devolved assembly? Literally could not believe my eyes when I saw it.)

    Like the joke about the supposed Northern Ireland Protestant clergyman asked what was the difference between Prebyterians and Free Presbyterians: one set believes Catholics are predestined to be damned, while the others believe Catholics will be damned on their merits 😉

  28. Some of the Anglican churches in Africa have been dealing with the polygamy issue as well because of Muslims and other people of various tribal religions that come to Christ and already have multiple wives. Their solution is similar to the one The Scylding mentioned:

    –They must discontinue sexual relations with all but the first woman they married.

    –They are not required to divorce or get rid of the other wives. In fact, because it is so hard for women to provide for themselves and their prospects of marriage now are virtually nil, they are encouraged to keep them and their children under their care.

    –They are not allowed to add any more wives.

    –They are not permitted to be in leadership (pastor, elder, bishop, etc.)

    And as someone said, just wait. This debate over what marriage is as it applies to homosexual unions is only the start. The next domino to fall is why we limit it to only one other person. Why not multiple wives, multiple husbands or group marriages?

  29. Ragamuffin – correction: The situation I am familar with did not proscribe the discontinuation of sexual relations with the other wives. Indeed, they would have found that problematic. But for the rest, it was the same.

  30. Anyone who needs detailed apologia about what’s wrong with [abortion] for almost any reason and all reasons — given that just about every other life form on the planet would sacrifice its own safety to defend that offspring — would not benefit from that explanation, even if “Thou shalt not abort your own or anyone else’s fetus,” was included in the Commandments of Moses.

    Artificial Religious moral methodology can’t work on wrong thinking adults anymore than reasoning works on a crazy person. That’s what the Old Testament is all about. It doesn’t work.

  31. If we could only be humble enough to admit that ALL our interpretations – whether they are about moral, doctrinal or other issues – are taking place in a highly individual and limited box, much would be won already.

    Call it “postmodern”, “relativist”, or whatever – I think it’s an undeniable fact. The charity in discussions usually ceases when any of us begin to insist that our personal box either doesn’t exist or is clearly bigger or superior to the one we disagree with. It usually goes hand in hand with the notion and belief that “being right” is more important than treating others with dignity and respect.

  32. If a person does not have the Holy Spirit, all the apologetics and Biblical proofs in the world would not help him to get a grasp on what the Will of God is. With the Holy Spirit all of the same exhaustive efforts should not convince the person that the Internal Counsel he is receiving is wrong.

    And woe unto him who succeeds in such convincing.

  33. Don’t try to start a Catholic/Protestant Sola Scriptura debate on this thread please.

  34. Not my intention, Imonk. It is the “two-tiered system” I have a problem with no matter where it is — and it is everywhere, more so in Roman Catholicism than anywhere else, although Rome is not as aggressive in its enforcement as it used to be.

    God made Moses the go between because the people demanded it. He gave them kings because they wanted that, too. A human system designating people to determine moral methodology for determining ultimate spiritual truths for everyone is bound to fail. It failed with God’s handpicked and genetically engineered people administered by His chosen servants. When His Anointed — His Only Begotten Son — the perfect revelation of the Father — showed up at the appointed time most of the “faithful” remnant not only didn’t recognize Him, they had him killed as a heretic.

    Why would anyone think that they could do any better than that with a “system of methodology”?

  35. “Anyone who needs detailed apologia about what’s wrong with [abortion] for almost any reason and all reasons — given that just about every other life form on the planet would sacrifice its own safety to defend that offspring — would not benefit from that explanation, even if “Thou shalt not abort your own or anyone else’s fetus,” was included in the Commandments of Moses.

    Artificial Religious moral methodology can’t work on wrong thinking adults anymore than reasoning works on a crazy person. That’s what the Old Testament is all about. It doesn’t work.”

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but this is the first post of yours I’ve read that I thought was truly profound. I’m very impressed! 🙂

  36. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t all this discussion about Christian ethics simply a moot point? It isn’t as if we’re trying to live under the law. Under grace we as Christians have the leadership of the Holy Spirit to guide us (although that really does seem to spiritualize a very technical issue). Ethics are man made systems that are excellent for maintaining order in secular society, but I don’t feel obligated to subscribe to them. I think Christians have a higher calling.

  37. Miguel

    So, if you were asked to teach a class to business leaders on “Ethics in Business” or to Athletes on “Ethics in Sports,” you’d have nothing to say?

    That the law can’t do something perfectly doesn’t mean it has no use. Calvin’s Three uses of the Law included the law as a way to restrain evil, to reveal the need for a savior and to guide the Christian.

    Why is Paul writing epistles if all that is needed is the leadership of the Spirit.



  38. Indeed, I have no intention of getting caught up in the treadmill of Sola Scriptura when we all end up talking past one another.

    Can I just say quickly, though, from the RC side we’re not saying “Scripture is insufficient”, we’re saying “How we apply it to our lives develops over time as we understand it better and that’s where moral theology/ethical methodologies come in.”

    Miguel, I get your point about the difference between ethics – based on human reason and free actions – and morality – based on the natural law and supernatural revelation – but while it’s possible to have one without the other, in practice they’re intertwined.

    Christian morality says “Thou shalt not kill.” Very well, but under the leading of the Holy Spirit, some have claimed this means that a Christian cannot be a police officer, a soldier, or any trade or profession that may involve taking a live, even in the defence of others. Others say this is not so. How do we decide? Everyone agrees that murder is wrong – but is the public hangman a murderer?

  39. very good points. but just to be clear i’m not against ethics in general. I believe that they are excellent for maintaining order in a secular society. I’ll add that they are worth studying (especially in the academic sense) so that we are intellectually processing what it is we actually do.

    but to say that christianity has it’s own set of ethics (if we ever could agree on them) almost sounds like, if you do this you’ll be a christian, and it’s this set of values, choices, and actions that make me a christian. but i thought it was just Christ’s work on the cross and my acceptance of his gift on my behalf that made me a christian.

    apparently i not that great of a Calvin scholar even if i’m sort of tulip-inclined. but didn’t paul write the epistles (besides to dictate God’s message of course) to give us examples of how to handle conflicts in a christ like manner? If they are an exact guide for all ethical decisions (which they may) than am i the only one who ever wishes they were more exhaustive or simplistic?

  40. In this Country we elect citizens as representatives and their task is to determine the will of the people as to what acts can be prohibited by law in our society.

    The prevailing theory in religious ethics is that, either by apostolic succession or by special anointing, individuals are “chosen” to decide what God wants, by theological study and/or spiritual revelation. Then these people tell the rest of us what to believe.

    In reality belief is the most private and personal act of the individual will and as history has demonstrated over and over, you can’t force anyone to believe anything. People must be convinced. Only God can convince anyone that He exists and only God can convince anyone Who He is, and what He wants. And no matter what Calvin says the Bible is for or what the Pope says the Bible means, if God has convinced me otherwise … well it seems it’s out of the hands of the modern day apostles and prophets.

  41. OK, now a bit on question two.

    Ethical consistency is difficult to find in part because ethics is where the rubber meets the road. Theology helps us pull together the different parts of Scripture and Holy Tradition [yes, yes, I know Protestants do not use Holy Tradition] into a coherent non-self-contradictory whole. Even the principle that a particular Scripture passage must never be interpreted in such a way that it contradicts another Scripture passage is itself a theological conclusion from the evidence in Scripture and Tradition. In one sense, theology helps us look to what is eternal.

    However, ethics is where the dogmatic and doctrinal conclusions of theology are applied to the actual behavior of the Church and of individuals. If theology leads to orthodoxy, ethics leads to orthopraxy. But, this is a messy world, and it is rare that two situations are completely alike. As some have pointed out, there are clearcut issues. But, much of ethics works with the non-clearcut and the times when ethical principles conflict. It is often not the least surprising that two similar situations may lead to two different conclusions. So one reason for lack of consistency is simply the difference in the makeups of real life situations, even similar ones.

    There are also two additional things that contribute to ethical lack of consistency between Christians. Since ethics applies theology, then people with different theologies will inevitably find situations in which their ethics have reached different conclusions. To say it more philosophically, different a priori may lead to different conclusions.

    But the second thing that contributes to lack of consistency is human sin. The desire to fit in, or the desire to spite someone, or . . . [fill in the blank] can easily lead to a deliberately twisted ethical conclusion which allows one to do what one wants despite the lack of either logical or pastoral foundations.

    Finally, the Orthodox use the concept of economia to make ethical judgments. But, some other time for that discussion. Google the term if you are interested.

  42. Ah, yes. What makes a Christian a Christian? Of course, it is our faith in Christ and accepting Him as our Lord and Saviour.

    But taking Paul’s epistles, part of them is rapping the young congregations over the knuckles. Fine, you’re all believers. But you guys over there – stop acting like pigs with your snouts in the trough. And you lot over there? Can stop laughing up your sleeve at them, because you’re no better with your factionalism.

    And you lot who think you can do whatever you like now because Law is gone and we live under Grace? Just wait till I get finished with you.

    I wouldn’t say St. Paul’s Epistles are the last word on how to solve church conflicts, but I think that part of the reason they were written is because he’s certainly telling them “Yes, Christians should behave like this and not like that.” The fruits of the new life in us are … and not …

    But I think I’m wandering off the point now, which was how do we settle disagreements with our brethren in a Christ-like manner; how do we reconcile our different emphases on what are the defining struggles of the day without either anathemising each other or letting it all melt into a gloopy pool of tepid “as long as we all really, really wuv each other, it’s all good”?

  43. Michael,

    Where is abortion “so plainly condemned in scripture”? I don’t find it. I have friends who are very strongly against abortion (and legal choice for abortion) and yet they cannot give me a case from scripture for their view. I have searched for such a case and not found one. Not “so plainly condemned” to this Christian.

    As for your belief that the baby in Exodus 21:22 survived: BIG assumption on your part, Michael. The only translations that do not characterize it as miscarriage are those that are slanted (such as ‘virgin’ in Isaiah) to sell to evangelicals. As a grandfather of two children who were born prematurely, I can safely say that children born prematurely 3000 years ago did not survive. I guess that is just my belief contrary to yours, and we can’t prove it either way.

    Dennis Veith

  44. Dennis,

    If you are talking to me, I took neither of those positions. I never even discussed the second one.

    Please clarify who you are speaking to.


  45. What a great blog and a fascinating post. I have only just discovered your website, and have really enjoyed it.


  46. Michael,

    You are exactly right. I apologize. In rereading, I realize that your ‘duh’ sentence was expressing what you see as the standard evangelical view, not necessarily your own. And the Ex. 21:22 came up in comments on your posting.

    I am frustrated that my pro-life friends say something like what you described: “Isn’t it obvious that Scripture shows that abortion is murder?” It is not obvious to me. As a Bible-believing Christian, I intuitively believe that abortion is not God’s will. But that is as far as I can get.

    I really appreciate your blog. Keep up the good work!

    Dennis Veith

  47. In defense of moral theology, while it can lead to legalism, it can also lead us away from legalism by helping us understand the essential nature of the sin, the heart of the matter.

    True slavery to the Law arises from an obligation to the Law without an interior understanding of the Law. To paraphrase Chesterton, it can help us learn the big rules to avoid becoming a slave to the little rules.

    The Jewish legal tradition, the halakha, as well as the Christian, has this aim, although the Jewish legal framework is the Torah, whereas Christians are bound by nothing but the natural law, accessible by reason and guided by revelation.

  48. Clavem Abyssi, The Curt Jester has touched on this topic only today:

    “In Catholic moral theology husbands and wives must share the remote control. This is called “remote material cooperation.”” 🙂

  49. I do think some of the problem is that Scripture is insufficeint for what WE want it to do: spell everything out with perfect clairity. We want systematic theology. The scripture at time seems at times to leave us with an impressionistic painting.

    Someone may say that it is only because of my poor understanding, but that leads us nonCatholics towards looking for our own popes to settle things for us. The is of course the option that the one who are “really” saved will agree on everything.

    When it really comes down to it, the issue of abortion is really a question of having those who are against it being forced to fund them. If it is cut and dry murder we should be pushing for the death penelty for the mothers and doctors.

    I do think that polygamy is just like smoking. You can’t really show clearly from scripture that either one is a sin, but in general the consequences of either one are unpleasant enough to steer me away.

  50. I have always believed that abortion really is such a “duh” that any person of conscience, beliver or non-believer, is able to recognize abortion for precisely what it is, without any need to resort to Scripture, much less to parse Scripture. And it’s simply a cop-out to say (lamely) that, “Yeah, abortion is a sin God hates, and there are lots of other sins God hates.” While true, it’s also disingenuous; a five-year-old stealing a cookie before dinner may be sinning, but there really is a difference — at some level — between his action and Hitler’s authorization of the Holocaust. All this being said, the pro-life establishment — Dobson, the National Right to Life Committee, the pro-life wings of the Catholic and Baptist churches — have all been wasting our time and money for the last 36 years. I mean, look at the results — no change at all. I don’t quite know what the answer is, except for more true evangelism (of the kind Michael advocates on this site) and a dedication of all Christians to create and sustain a culture that nurtures life, birth, children, and families — without the hostile edge that the Dobson wing puts on “family values” and the rest of the right-wing, greedy-Republican agenda. I really do not have the answer, except that we cannot compromise on truth, we must change our tactics, and we must not simply allow the “issue” to die. I’m certain that looking to the examples of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King will be helpful to us. More pro-life pregnancy centers with more outreach. (I dislike the term “crisis” pregnancy — it smacks of the hysterics we need to avoid.) More good evangelism. My own pastor simply will not preach on abortion from the pulpit, for good reason — Tim Keller’s reason. People simply need to accept Christ, and then they have the soft heart that will allow the pro-life truth in.