Christian ethics is often described by Christian commentators as a dimension of Christian theology which offers a way to describe, understand and hopefully act upon concepts of right and wrong behaviour. For many Christians the teachings and actions of Jesus are a key source of behavioural ideals of those intending to live as followers of Jesus. It is understood that at least some of these ideals would be shared by people who live according to other faiths and other beliefs. Attempting to live in such a way as to benefit the well- being and future prospects of others, minimizing harm to others and making wise choices about safeguarding the environment would be principles in common for many Christians as well as for many living outside the Christian faith. This sounds reasonably straightforward, at least in intention.
Even if we can set aside the cultural dimensions of faith as well as the conundrum of whether looking to the interests of one’s own community might be detrimental to those living outside that community, local history still has a part in shaping our ethical choices. For example those who seek Christian perspectives are by no means agreed on the relative ways to use the standard but distinguishable sources. While it is assumed that with a common history, Christians share the same Bible as well as the same Christian tradition, yet in practice Roman Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians and evangelical Christians find the Bible and the respective traditions sometimes can inspire radically different behaviours.
Certainly the information about Jesus starts with the Biblical record but emphasis on different parts of the record leads to different conclusions. For example some scholars believe that the focus should be on resurrection, heaven and the end times while others prefer to see Jesus as a champion of situational ethics and regard much of the gospels as having symbolic meaning which needs to be interpreted in historical context.
Some insist that miracles happened in a literal sense while other scholars appear equally certain that the truth in the gospels is truth in a more relative sense. For example the respected modern scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg argue for some of Jesus’ miracles and reported actions and words being the equivalent of parables about Jesus rather than accurate reporting.
Even if we accept the Gospels as true in a literal sense, and further, even if we can reconcile the apparent contradictions in the record, it still leaves us with serious moral questions. For instance, did Jesus words on forgiveness and love preclude violence as a form of defence for his followers? Certainly for the first two hundred years after Christ there is strong historical evidence for fairly widespread pacifism amongst the early Christian communities whereas in the more recent centuries there are few denominations in which widespread pacifism is expected from members.
Did Jesus with his teaching on not storing up treasures on Earth and taking no thought for the morrow really mean that the accumulation of modern possessions eg clothes, houses, cars, bank accounts mean that such actions preclude a serious acceptance of his teaching? Did his absence of teaching on virtually all the modern ethical problems like the potential nuclear weapons mean that such problems do not matter to modern Christians?
With ethics of any sort it is assumed that the way the ethical framework is assembled will follow standard philosophical principles and methods. In practice when it comes to ethics emerging from faith, the selection of ethical choices are apparently coloured by traditional attitudes and practice. It doesn’t require deep analysis to notice that different sectors of the Church may claim to follow the same Lord and read the same Bible yet have radically different attitudes to views on the rights of those considering abortion or contraception or different conclusions about such matters as alternative views of marriage, contraception or eligibility for Church leadership.
Curiously at various times the consensus expressed by relatively large sectors of the Church have come to diametrically opposite conclusions on the same ethical issues. Here we might think of issues like slavery which were once apparently justified by various Biblical teachings yet are now largely rejected by those of a later generation in the same denominations.
The acceptance of women priests and women Bishops is an issue in which current opinion is in the process of change as is varying denominational views about the acceptability of homosexuality and same sex marriage. Although two of the largest denominations in the US (the Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholics) remain opposed to having women in leadership as priests or Bishops, polls show that gradually even there the attitudes are softening.
Perhaps we should also admit that because many of the Christian norms are traced back to a Bible where the source documents remained relatively unchanged over almost two thousand years, this means that it is only when different attitudes towards the scriptures develop that key ethical choices can change. History also shows us that changes on traditional Bible based attitude are almost invariably slower than the changes which occur in scientific understanding where key ideas are constantly reviewed by an experimental falsification process.
By way of example whereas over the last fifty years there were dramatic changes in understanding the mechanisms of Genetics, over the same period of time relaxation of views on the acceptability of interracial marriage as reflected by polls seems to have changed at about 1% of the Christian population per year.
It is intriguing to note from history how various attitudes to Christian ethics have worked out in practice. Since Christian ethics have evolved in changing contexts, one area of debate is about how Jewish ethics should continue to influence the emerging understandings about Christian moral choices. Since the marriage contract now has very different legal and social implications from contracts relating to marriage in Jesus’ day, some Bible teachings e.g. instructions about obtaining a divorce or obligations to for a brother to marry his wife’s widow, seem to imply a need to take a new look at the obligations and safeguards.
Another contentious area is that for different sectors of the Christian Church the fragmentary record of Jesus’ teaching allows distinctly separate conclusions about what Jesus considered as key teachings. For example some theologians take the view that fundamentalist and literal interpretations of every part of the New Testament are required while others place more emphasis on the significance of the life and teaching of Jesus. Clear differences in annual Conference reports from different denominations seem to reflect differences in emphasis with some focussing on social needs and questions of justice while others prefer to argue weighty theological matters. Knowing that Jesus was recorded as offering a variety of directives and suggestions in the gospels does not resolve the argument about which of his insights matter in the modern world.
Old Testament teachings are not uniformly respected by those who see themselves as Christian. Many for example would assume the 613 commandments scattered through the books of the Old Testament make little sense for modern non-Jewish groups in that they appeared designed to produce group behaviours that better fitted the ancient tribes of Israel.
At one time commandments about dress and appearance e.g. allowing sideboards to grow and wearing pouches containing key scriptures in particular ways would have been helpful in providing instant recognition of fellow Jews. Commandments about treatment of slaves were no doubt appropriate in an age where slaves were considered an essential part of the community structure, but unacceptable to those currently more worried about the sexual exploitation of children. Not coveting a neighbour’s ox (except presumably when playing scrabble!) now seems irrelevant in an age of city dwellers.
Suggested Bible cures for leprosy might have represented last resort best practice in Old Testament times but with excellent and consistent cures now available from qualified medical practitioners, the Old Testament edicts now appear quaint and of dubious value.
Distinctly different attitudes to key ethical questions reflect different sectarian and denominational customs. For example the Jehovah’s Witnesses fasten on verses which forbade eating blood (and one from Corinthians which states the more general need to abstain from blood) and are interpreting this to mean refusing blood transfusions – and accordingly oppose blood transfusions in hospital operations. The Quakers have a focus on verses calling for forgiveness of enemies and the Commandment from the Ten Commandments that forbids taking life and as a consequence display an absolute opposition to warfare and many have faced imprisonment rather than take up arms for their country. The seventh Day Adventists believe they are required to rest on the Sabbath which they identify as Saturday. Other verses are taken by different Conservative Church members are considered to require opposition to genetic engineering, to stem cell research and to all forms of abortion.
By convention each denomination constructs its own set of worship based customs and although to an outsider these might be seen as cultural and artificial behaviours there is little doubt that some Church members see these as part of the package of acceptable behaviours to Church followers. For example Baptism is seen by some as a welcoming into the Church family and is accordingly offered to Children. Other denominations (using quite different liturgies) will only baptise those who wish to enter into full Church membership as mature Christians, and then only if they have first undergone a study as to what membership will mean, and only if a suitably qualified leader is available to administer the ceremony.
Another ceremony which is often highly structured (and which bears little resemblance to Jesus’ last fellowship supper with the disciples) is that of Communion. Again who is qualified to administer the ceremony, the choice of acceptable words used in the ceremony, the required age and Church membership status of those allowed to receive communion are all often radically different for different denominations and although no doubt deeply meaningful to the initiated, would probably be largely incomprehensible to followers of a different historical tradition.
In terms of attempting to live as a Christian in a modern world I would be interested in hearing from readers as to what they consider to be essential Jesus-inspired behaviour that would meet widespread support from across a relatively wide spectrum of forms of Christian belief.