Sunday, 13 January 2013

Situation ethics is alive and well amongst British evangelicals

I was recently out for a meal with a friend, with whom I have a great deal in common, who told me that he/she disagreed with me about three things.

While I was inwardly shaking my head with astonishment at ‘only three’(!) my friend informed me that the three things in question were abortion, assisted suicide and homosexuality.

Now I suspect that there are several billion people on the planet currently who disagree with me on more than one of these things but if I told you that the friend in question was an evangelical Christian and a Bible college lecturer I wonder what your reaction would be.

If you are at all familiar with the Evangelical Alliance survey on evangelical belief you would probably not be that surprised.

EA surveyed 17,000 ‘evangelicals’, mainly at conferences like New Wine and Spring Harvest, in 2010 and published the results in January 2011 (summary here and full survey here).

Amongst the questions were one on each of (you guessed it) abortion, assisted suicide and homosexuality.

Participants were asked if they agreed or disagreed with each of the following three statements

1.Abortion can never be justified
2.Assisted suicide is always wrong
3.Homosexual actions are always wrong

I have extracted the results and posted them on this blog.

Now one might imagine that those evangelicals who attend conferences like New Wine and Spring Harvest would be a more serious and committed subset of evangelicals generally.

One might also expect them to be fairly black and white on ethics – especially with respect to killing and sexual immorality.

But that is not the case at all. Because the above three statements were supported by only 37%, 60% and 73% respectively.

In other words – 63% of British evangelicals do not agree that abortion can never be justified, 40% do not agree that assisted suicide is always wrong and 27% do not agree that homosexual actions are always wrong.

Now, although I have no data to support it, I suspect if mid 19th-century evangelicals had been asked the same questions a much greater proportion would have agreed with all three statements.

So why the change?

Well obviously the prevailing culture has shifted hugely on these questions. But this should not necessarily account for the quantum shift amongst Bible-believing Christians. What explains this?

An anonymous evangelical theologian has blamed it on the rise of Darwinism and humanism.

I’m sure there is a lot of truth in this along with the decline in Bible (and especially Old Testament) reading generally.

But I suspect another powerful ingredient is the way that evangelical Christians are taught (or not taught) to think about ethics - in particular the rise in popularity of what is called ‘situation ethics’.

Situational ethics (see also here) is a Christian ethical theory that was principally developed in the 1960s by the then Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher.

Fletcher taught Christian Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at Harvard Divinity School from 1944 to 1970 and wrote ten books and hundreds of articles, book reviews, and translations.

Interestingly, he later identified himself as an atheist and was active in the Euthanasia Society of America, the American Eugenics Society and was one of the signatories to the Humanist Manifesto.

Situation ethics basically states that other moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if love is best served; as Paul Tillich once put it: ‘Love is the ultimate law’.

The moral principles Fletcher was specifically referring to were the moral codes of Christianity and the type of love he is specifically referring to is ‘agape’ love.

Fletcher believed that in forming an ethical system based on love, he was best expressing the notion of ‘love thy neighbour’, which Jesus Christ taught in the Gospels.

He believed that there are no absolute laws other than the law of ‘agape’ love, meaning that all the other laws are only guidelines to how to achieve this love, and could be broken if an alternative course of action would result in more love.

In effectively divorcing ‘agape’ love from moral law Fletcher was steering a subtly different path from Jesus himself.

Jesus indeed said (Matthew 22:34-40) that the most important commands in the Old Testament Law were love of God and neighbour (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). In fact he said these summed up the whole of Old Testament Law (Matthew 22:40 and Luke 10:25-28). Furthermore he criticised the Pharisees for obeying the less important parts of the law (tithing mint and cumin) whilst neglecting the ‘more important matters of… justice, mercy and faithfulness’.

But he also said that ‘anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:19) and reproved the Pharisees by saying that they should have ‘practised the latter’ (important commandments) ‘without neglecting the former’ (lesser commandments).

Certainly there is no place in the Gospels where Jesus implies that those commandments which deal with killing and sexual immorality (numbers 6 and 7 of the ten commandments) should be disobeyed.

By contrast he exhorts his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to go beyond the mere legalities of ‘you shall not murder’ (6) and ‘you shall not commit adultery’ (7) to embody the very spirit of love which undergirds them. Not only no murder or adultery but no hate or lust either! (Matthew 5:21-30).

It is this more exacting moral standard that underlies the ethical teaching in the epistles. Christians are exhorted to be imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) and God (Ephesians 5:1&2), to walk as Christ walked (1 John 2:6) and to ‘abstain from sinful desires’ (1 Peter 1:11).

In short we are to live by the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21 and Galatians 6:2) and to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34-35). And love of Jesus means obedience to Jesus (John 14:15,21 and 15:12).

This is not to say that we are saved in any sense by good works (Galatians 2:15,16 and Ephesians 2:8,9). We are saved by grace through faith. But nonetheless we are saved for good works (Ephesians 2:10 and Titus 2:14) and they are part of the evidence of saving faith (James 2:14-26).

Furthermore the Bible is very clear that judgement is on the basis of works (Revelation 20:12, 21:8, 22:15).

Obedience to Christ is of course only possible by God’s grace but Christians are nonetheless called to obey him. In fact the heart of the great commission, sadly so often distorted into merely an exhortation to evangelise, is to ‘make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19, 20).

So whilst we may say that there are situations where choosing not to kill or to indulge in sexual immorality requires great grace, courage, restraint and self-sacrifice, there are no situations where one may choose to kill or to do something sexually immoral and claim to be acting in love.

If Christ had been directly tempted in such a way, and indeed he must have been if he was ‘tempted in every way, just as we are’ (Hebrews 4:15) we can imagine him answering as he did in the wilderness, ‘It is written, “you shall not murder”, “you shall not commit adultery”’.

By my reading Situation Ethics is a distortion of biblical ethical teaching. It is, in short, heresy. But it is a heresy that appears to be very much alive and well amongst British evangelicals in the 21st century, which of course brings us back to the three issues which prompted this blog post: abortion, assisted suicide and homosexual practice.

Can anyone build a biblical case for them? If so then let’s hear it. But if not, then let’s ensure that evangelical Christians, who are supposed to believe in the authority of the Bible, are taught that there are no situations in which they can be deemed right.

This is turn will prompt us to work harder in providing godly and compassionate alternatives for those situations where we are tempted to embrace these courses of action.


  1. OK so I haven't been to "conferences like New Wine and Spring Harvest" but my impression, from what I have been told, is that these are hardly events where deep theological or moral matters are discussed. Indeed I wonder if such events are not partly to blame for the level of Situational ethics in the churches.

  2. Excellent article Peter. "Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences and in the process it ceases to exist", Pope Benedict. If you have not already done so, you might like to read the encyclical ''Charity in Truth'.

    1. I haven't seen it. Can you give me a link?

    2. If you Google Charity in Truth, it is the second one on the list.

  3. There is a problem with the first statement. Some (particularly Catholics) would draw a distinction between 'abortion' and 'termination of pregnancy', the second being a situation wherein the mother's life is in danger if the pregnancy continues, such as an ectopic pregnancy-in that, they would recommend everything possible be done to make sure the baby lives, but if this is not possible, then the pregnancy should be terminated anyway; as if the mother dies, then the baby would anyway. However, most people are not aware of this distinction, and may well be thinking that in the case of the mother's life, termination of pregnancy would possibly be the only possibility.

  4. Yes but the death of the baby can only be tolerated if
    1. Everything possible is done to save it.
    2. Its death is an unintended secondary consequence of the treatment given, never a direct consequence. The key words are unintended and secondary. The death of the baby may be forseeable but could still be unintended and secondary.

    I am not qualified enough to go into medical details here.


  5. >> In fact the heart of the great commission, sadly so often distorted into merely an exhortation to evangelise, is to ‘make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19, 20).

    Well said, Peter. Good to hear a hardened evangelist like youself recognise this! Too many evangelicals think it's about the "conversion".

    As or situational ethics, it is utter nonsense. Only an idiot would believe there were no absolutes. This is a legacy of modern political correctness - the 'anything goes' principle.


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