As pastors and teachers in the church seek to exposit and apply the Bible to their congregations, they need to handle wisely the moral matters discussed in the Scriptures. We need wise positions on hot-button topics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but we also need a sound theoretical understanding of morality rooted in the Bible. As Paul told Timothy:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15; see also Titus 3:5-6).
Some parts of the Bible are more directly related to ethics than others. Questions of conduct cannot be avoided when teaching on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-18; Deuteronomy 5:1-21), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), or the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). All of Scripture is profitable for guidance on how to live well before the face of God (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, all of Scripture, in one way or another, concerns the moral life—our obligation to do good and to avoid evil, our need to learn to become a virtuous person, and our doing of good works.
It may not be obvious, however, that moral theory can help ground and organize the church’s teaching on ethics.1 Teaching ethics at Denver Seminary—and elsewhere—for nearly thirty years has convinced me of this. So, let me explain and illustrate a few basic elements of moral theory in the hope that preachers and teachers will appropriate them for solid and clear teaching for God’s people.
In the first paragraph, I said that Scripture concerns “our obligation to do good and to avoid evil.” That phrase captures the deontological aspect of ethics. Deontology concerns moral duties or responsibilities. In the biblical context, duties are based on God’s commands. Our actions should conform to his directives. The Ten Commandments are the moral backbone of biblical ethics.2 Eight of the Ten Commandments are negative: You shall not have another God, take God’s name in vain, worship an image of God, commit adultery, murder, bear false witness, steal, or covet.”3 Positively, you shall keep the Sabbath and honor your parents (Exodus 20:1-18). These commands all address actions to be done or avoided. When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was, he replied:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus is not replacing the Ten Commandments, but rather getting to the heart of them. Loving God and neighbor needs the structure of God’s specific commands, lest “love” be reduced to untutored and unhinged sentiment (as it is so often today). For example, it is never loving to commit adultery, to dishonor one’s parents, or to murder. And Paul writes that “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). It cannot be loving to delight in what breaks God’s commands.
The demands and commands of God’s law for our behavior always call us up short and point us to the Cross of Christ for forgiveness and new life. In fact, we are commanded to repent and come to Christ. As Paul preached, “God…now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30; see also John 6:29).
Since the Bible is so insistent on obeying the commands of God, some Christians have neglected two other elements of ethical theory that are revealed in Scripture. The first is virtue.
Virtue theory dates to the ancient Greeks, principally to Plato and Aristotle. For them, someone cultivates particular character traits by finding a moral model and following his lead in the context of a virtue-forming community. The cardinal virtues of this tradition are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Christian thinkers added the virtues of faith, hope, and love to this list (taken from 1 Corinthians 13). While Christians should obey God’s commands in their actions, we are also called to be a particular kind of people on the inside. Our characters should be so shaped by the Holy Spirit that we obey God gladly and habitually and learn to respond affectively to situations in a God-honoring way. We may know well that we should not covet anything that belongs to our neighbor (deontology), but learning to be content—through prayer and mental discipline—is a matter of virtue. Thus, the virtues assist us to want to obey God’s law and to do so in the right way, with a heart of love and service.
The second element of moral theory besides deontology is consequences or the consequential aspect of morality. Some moral theories, such as utilitarianism, make the achievement of good consequences the entirety of ethics. Utilitarianism teaches that we must bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. Now the question becomes, “What is the good to be brought about for the masses?” Utilitarians may answer this differently, but the standard model claims that the good is pleasure. God is not against pleasure, since he invented it as good in the beginning, but what fallen humans take pleasure in may not be truly good—for themselves or for anyone else. Think of the pleasure some derive from pornography or the pleasure derived from being a ruthless and heartless businessperson, who will do most anything to make more and more money.
Christians can agree what we should do as much good to as many people as possible, but we should not attempt this apart from moral duties (deontology) and moral virtues. James tells us that our saving faith is verified by our good works (James 2:14-26; see also Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus tells us to serve “the least of these” who are his “brethren” (Matthew 25:31-46). God told the Jewish exiles to seek the welfare of the city to which they were banished, because when it prospered, they would prosper, too (Jeremiah 29:7). Only as we our definition of good goes beyond mere pleasure can we bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. We cannot violate the law of love to bring about more pleasure for more people. Moreover, our moral goal is not pleasure per se, but the service of God and neighbor through lawful and virtuous obedience to God. One abolitionist, John Brown, said that American slavery had to be abolished even if all Ten Commandments had to be broken to accomplish it! Of course, no thinking Christian would every believe that.
Christians can sometimes seek results at the expense of principles and godly character. I was in an evangelistic meeting where the teacher asked for eyes to be closed while he asked people to put up their hands if they wanted to become Christians. I kept my eyes open. Just after he asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to accept Jesus as Lord, he said, “I see hands going up everywhere.” They weren’t. I looked. After he lied, other hands went up. Only God knows how many people were born again that evening, but deception is never the proper method for evangelism or disciple making. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica:
For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young childrenamong you (1 Thessalonians 2:3-7).
Much more can be said about moral theory in relation to the Bible, but I hope I have shown that the categories of deontology, virtue, and consequences are pertinent to moral decision making and moral action for the Christian. Teachers and preachers in the church can help clarify the moral vision of the Bible by explaining these terms and showing how the Bible’s teachings about ethics can be understood in these terms.
1 For an in-depth treatment, see Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), chapters 1-3.
2 To defend this claim, see the exposition of the Ten Commandments in The Westminster Longer Catechism.
3 On the significance of this negativity, see Rousas John Rushdoony, “The Negativism of the Law,” in The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973).