Relative Morality

I am worried we have messed up. Not generally, but in one very specific way. I believe we messed up how we determine right and wrong. As Christians, we should only use the Bible as a source of right and wrong, but quite frankly, that simply isn’t the case in the US. We struggle to separate what God said when it compliments or contradicts what our “Christian Nation” says. We don’t know how to really define good when just about anyone who’s better than most is a “good ole boy.” And I want you to know, I think we should all be worried.

I would like to start by defining some terms we will discuss throughout this article, ethics and morals. I honestly believe many people are confused about them and don’t even realize it.

Ethics are the expectations placed upon individuals due to the society in which they reside. They are codes of conduct. A social contract between a person and a place (or a group). They provide external pressure and are fundamentally dependent upon others for definition and enforcement. Lawyers, doctors, even policemen are required to follow an ethical code laid down by their profession. To violate that code often results in criminal or professional punishment. 

Morals, on the other hand, are entirely personal. They are the principles an individual uses to determine right or wrong for them. Morals are ultimately a compass that points a person’s beliefs in one particular direction. Morality usually transcends cultural norms and is typically consistent across all contexts (i.e. something is always right or wrong, no matter the circumstance). 

Here’s where we run into problems. As a society, we often base our ethics on morally grey areas of behavior. Think about war, violence, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, cohabitation, vulgarity, even pedophilia. All of them can be viewed in a vacuum as inherently evil under circumstances or justifiable under others. 

A certain example really should hit home for the Church. Divorce rates are falling across America. That’s a good thing. For years, we’ve preached about the dangers of divorce so we can celebrate that number. But, we must admit it’s not because marriage is finally respected like it should be. Simply put, less people are getting married. More couples now live together (with marital rights) instead of taking the plunge. Many are children of divorced parents and want to avoid the pain that came from it. Ethically, as a society, that shrinking number looks good from one point-of-view, but morally, it’s creating more and more children born out of wedlock and promiscuous relationships that are not pleasing to God. That means it’s bad.

Here in America, cultural appropriation has made the balance of what’s right and wrong even harder to figure out. As a melting pot, our country offers every culture an equal playing field within reason. That brings division and even ethical degradation when we’re not careful. Consider the following issues as a primer on the difficulty of determining right and wrong in the American experiment.

First off, eating beef is morally right and ethically approved in our country by most people. I would say, millions even encourage the choice, yet it’s an immoral act in India because cows are considered sacred and holy. So, what do immigrants from India think when they drive through rural America and observe cattle farms or drive-through a fast food chain only to discover there are 33 variations of a hamburger on the menu? It must be confusing. Is it right or wrong? That depends on who you ask.

Secondly, women are free to attend school and hold a job in America while showing their face and wearing clothes that do not cover every single part of their body. My wife and both of my daughters are guilty of being educated and showing show skin (though not too much). A woman born in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Sudan does not have those rights. They will not be afforded the freedom my girls take for granted. Yet, how often have we seen some of those immigrants uphold wearing a hijab in American cities? It’s not common here in Tompkinsville, but I’m sure it must be in larger metropolitan areas. That must be confusing to someone. Is it right or wrong? That depends on who you ask.

The question our citizens must ask is simple. Do we compromise our national ethic to accommodate those who move to our country because their morals are being challenged when we eat a certain food or wear certain clothes? Of course not, we use the correct application of liberty and allow a person who moves here to exercise moral choice in the face of ethical acceptance.

We don’t force any black and white choice on them, because we are ethically grey, and we do not believe in a universal right and wrong for all Americans. It’s all relative. And it’s dangerous.

Here’s why all this should matter to Christians. If we’re not careful, we’ll develop a spiritual relativism in our congregations that mimics the moral relativism of our country. We’ll learn to accommodate the teachings of others due to societal acceptance. When Christianity requires an ethical and moral component that is black and white on many topics, how can we navigate with compasses tuned to grey?

It’s not easy.  

Both the group (Church) and the individual (Christian) have a responsibility to monitor what’s socially acceptable and what’s morally right within our community. That allows for some communal acknowledgement and individual preference in a healthy balance of brotherhood. Then and only then, can we use Scripture to govern our community’s standards of ethical behavior and to sharpen our own morality when it comes to thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

We have to recognize that some things are right and wrong, but others are not. The right and wrong can’t deviate from congregation to congregation or Christian to Christian. The grey areas (those areas of liberty like eating in a building, using powerpoint, paying a preacher) can be left up to each congregation and each Christian only as long as we realize it’s okay to disagree.

Here are a couple of Biblical examples to explain what I mean:

The Samaritans were hated by the Jewish people of the First Century. They idea of a “Good Samaritan” would have been unheard of. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well in John 4, He violated the cultural ethics of His people and religious community. It was His own personal morality that created the opportunity. He saw her as a person, not someone beneath Him and He offered her grace and an opportunity to know the Messiah. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most Jews would have resented her even talking to the Messiah, let alone becoming a disciple.

The Woman caught in adultery in John 8 is another example of faithful people using their ethics poorly. Their culture gave the men who accused her the right to stone her (see Leviticus 20:10). It’s clear, God’s Word was unyielding in that moment. She deserved to die. But she wasn’t the only one. Leviticus says both members of the adulterous couple were to die. Where was the man? Did he run away? Was he among her accusers? Had this all been a set up? Who knows for certain. We’re left to guess, but Jesus saw through their acts.

It says in 8:6, “this they said to test Him, that they might have some charge to bring against Him.” She was just a pawn in their vengeance, nothing but collateral damage. They are surely the same type of people Jesus was talking to in John 5:42 when He said, “you do not have the love of God in you.” Jesus gave her compassion when He stated “let him without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” His morality, which saw a soul in need of grace, forgave her action instead of condemning it. Ethically, He could have thrown the first stone, morally, He forgave her and plead “go and sin no more.”

We’re running into that problem today when some Christians want to justify sinful behavior. The big ideas are worth mentioning. Some congregations have compromised what the Bible says about salvation, worship, divorce and remarriage, even homosexuality. I believe many did it with noble intentions. They wanted more people to believe, they didn’t want to drive anyone away. So, they compromised the ethical standards of God’s Word by allowing the morality of the world to determine their behavior.

How is that any different from the Jews who hated Samaritans or wanted to kill that woman? Both sets of people compromised the ethics of God’s kingdom to satisfy their culture’s morality. Both are wrong, but only one was specifically called out by Christ in the First Century.

So what do we do? First of all, we must admit there is an ethical and moral truth to God’s Word. Consider verses like Luke 6:31, Galatians 6:10, and Philippians 4:8. They teach us to be good, not simply for the sake of being good, rather for the purpose of living faithfully. 

Secondly, notice that Scripture describes God as our final ethical and moral authority. His community (the trinity) is ethical and we are “made in their image,” (see Genesis 1:26). Supposedly, we model our lives after their actions (i.e. “take up your cross and follow me,” Luke 9:23), that means the society we draw our ethics from isn’t worldly, it’s divine.

To double-down on that. Isn’t the Church, the “bride of Christ?” Don’t we have a relationship with God that builds community? And since we are Christians (literally “Christ-like), don’t we have a moral example to follow a person who made choices no one else would so that we would also do the same?  

Simply put, I want to challenge each of us. Our ethics and morals must never be relative. They must be concrete. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth…” He’s not one way or one truth, He is the truth. 

As born-again disciples of God who are sanctified and justified by the blood of Christ, there are no ethical or moral grey areas for you and me.

We have God’s ethic and morality to uphold by what we teach, how we live, and where we find ourselves. Now, let’s go out and prove to the world around us that our morality isn’t relative at all, it’s firm and established on God’s Word.

Photo by Kitera Dent on Unsplash