Monday 11 November 2013

Divorcing love from morality - the New Liberalism infecting British Evangelicalism

The Old liberalism had its roots in the radical biblical criticism of the 19th century. Old liberals doubted core Christian doctrines like the incarnation, Christ’s death and resurrection, his ascension and second coming, the authority of Scripture, justification by faith, the day of judgement, the sovereignty of God, and so on.

The New liberalism is actually orthodox on these things. New liberals will gladly tick the boxes of the church creeds and the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Alliance and many of them know their Bibles well.

They are liberal not on what we might call the core beliefs of Christianity, but on ethics (for examples of the wide range of views on ethical issues amongst British evangelicals see here). They would argue that ethical issues are in the category of what Paul, in passages like 1 Corinthian 8 & 10 and Romans 14, called ‘disputable matters’.

‘Disputable matters’ are things on which Bible believing Christians can legitimately disagree whilst remaining in fellowship with one another. If you like they are in the same category as debates about the timing and amount of water to be used in baptism, the modus operandi of the Lord’s supper, the sequence of events around the return of Christ, forms of church government and the place of Israel.

I see this view as a revival of what in a previous generation was called ‘situation ethics’.

Situation ethics is a Christian ethical theory that was principally developed in the 1960s by the then Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher (pictured).

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.

Situation ethics basically states that other moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if love is best served; as theologian 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 on how to achieve this love, and could be broken if an alternative course of action would result in more love.

In order to establish his thesis he employed a number of examples of ‘situations’ in which it might be justified to administer euthanasia, commit adultery, steal, tell a lie etc.

But 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 two commandments 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 the shedding of innocent blood and sexual immorality (numbers six and seven 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 also 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). In fact Jesus famously answered one of the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness by quoting from Deuteronomy, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’. Note every word.

So whilst we may say that there are situations where choosing not to shed innocent blood or to carry out a sexually immoral act requires great grace, courage, restraint and self-sacrifice, there are no situations where one may choose to murder 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) as we are told he was, 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. No more clearly is it evidence than in the shifting views and lack of clarity amongst evangelicals about sexual morality and the shedding of innocent blood.

Interestingly, Fletcher later identified himself as an atheist and was active in the Euthanasia Society of America and the American Eugenics Society and was one of the signatories to the Humanist Manifesto. When he started out, his position was barely distinguishable from orthodoxy. But he finished up in a very different place altogether.

This is exactly what happens when we define ‘love’ in a different way from the way it is defined in the Bible. 


  1. It has a ring of truth, is the problem. If an SS officer asks 'do you have any Jews hiding here?' you can't exactly say 'Yip, they're just upstairs in the attic'. But does that mean that lying is not a sin?

    1. It does have a ring of truth. That is why is it so seductive. Corrie Ten Boom answered that particular question by saying 'Yes. they are under the kitchen table'. They were (through a trapdoor) but the Nazis thought she was joking and never looked. I don't think that the obligation to tell the truth means that that we have to tell all the truth to those who intend to use it for evil purposes. There is a legitimate place for the use of decoys and misinformation in war which the Bible recognises.

    2. Very good post Peter. Interesting reading. I'm struggling to see how Corrie ten Boom hadn't committed a sin anyway by saying they are under the table. She is deliberately distorting the truth knowing that the guards will have taken her words a particular way when she knows she meant something different. If the standard is never to lie then, IMO, she has broken that standard.

      That said, I don't necessarily think it's wrong to tell the guards that you don't have Jews in your house. :/

      I think I might be a bit of a situational ethicist but I can't see any situation in which it would be better to commit adultery than not.

      Do you think God might be called a situational ethicist? Controversial, yes but just thinking of that passage in scripture where Jesus says Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of your hearts but from the beginning it was not always so.

      It seems God responded to cultural imperatives because of our fallen human nature. But he's God, so he can...mmmm

      Stream of consciousness for you there. Do with it what you will.

      All the best.

    3. Do you remember the passage in the Old Testament when the two spies hid in someones house and when the men who came for them asked, where they were, were told they may have gone That was a little subdefuge for the better good. Like saying to your boss when he does not want to speak to someone and you ask him to step outside the office and you can then say on the phone, he is not in the office at the moment. which is technically true. So there does seem to be a little allowance made

    4. This was Rahab and she was commended for her faith in Hebrews 11:11 and James 2:25. We are not obliged I believe to provide such people with such information. Rahab risked her life to protect the spies.

    5. Rahab had joined Israel. The soldiers of Jericho were an illegitimate occupying force in Canaan. She was under no obligation to tell them the truth. Indeed, it would have been treasonous to do so and to pass by an opportunity to thwart them. The same would hold true for ten Boom. She had no duty of truthfulness to an occupying power opposed to her government which was in exile.

      In Christ,

      James Horgan

    6. James, as per my question to Peter: if you transfer these examples to civilian situations, do you think it's morally correct to lie in order to save the life of an innocent person?

    7. I think one can simply refuse to divulge the information. That is not lying.

  2. Peter, your last sentence puts the finger on a key problem. From an orthodox point of view, one might well agree with "love as the ultimate law." The immediate question following is, so what is love? And that is where many part way with orthodoxy, because love so often becomes "what my culture defines as love," which may well hollow out to become a mere "whatever feels right and good."

    "Love as the ultimate law" only works if we then sit at the foot of the cross and learn from the one who is himself the definition of love. And that means, among other things, paying careful attention to his revealed will. And so we're back where we started.

    1. Yes I agree. Jesus said, 'If you love me you will obey my commandments'. Agape love and obedience are inextricably linked.

  3. Peter, I have a few questions:

    1. What do you make of Judges 3:12-31? That looks to me like God using murder for an ethical purpose.

    2. In your reply above you say "There is a legitimate place for the use of decoys and misinformation in war which the Bible recognises." So if we change to a hypothetical non-war situation, such as a psychopathic gunman entering a school classroom and asking where the children are hidden, would you say the person being questioned is morally obliged to tell the truth?

    3. Don't we have clear examples of Jesus breaking the Sabbath law? This looks to me like a case of Jesus practicing situation ethics.

    1. 1. Murder (6th commandment) is the intentional killing of an innocent human being. Killing was justifiable under OT law for capital crimes, holy war and self-defence.

      2. I don't think we are morally obliged to provide such people with that sort of information. In fact I would say we are morally obliged not to.

      3. Jesus never broke the Sabbath commandment, only the Jews' oral traditions (Mark 7:6-8).

    2. 2. So if the gunman asks "where are the children?", you think the right thing is to lie to him? Sounds like situation ethics to me.

      3. I was thinking of Mark 2:23-27 (admittedly not Jesus breaking the Sabbath law himself, but seeming to endorse it) and Mark 3:1-6. Isn't Jesus saying in both of these cases that it's OK to break the law for ethical reasons?

    3. Hi Dan,
      I get the point you're making regarding the Mark passages but Peter's point still stands. Two reasons for this:
      1) Jesus is doing it. As part of the Trinity, He has an understanding of the Sabbath that we don't. We can't question His divine take on it.
      2) However, even if it weren't Jesus, say Peter or Paul providing the narrative here then I think it boils down to what is the Sabbath. Certainly it is a day of rest but at which point does it go from being a blessing from God to being a legalistic chore saturated with Jewish tradition.
      If you look at the Mark 3 passage you quoted it ends with the Jews looking for a way to kill Jesus for healing someone. The point here is clear, Jesus offended the religious elite not God. The Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.
      Your first question is trickier to answer.
      There is a clear prohibition on lying in the Bible and there is a clear prohibition on murder. So how do you deal with this situation. The obvious answer is to misdirect the gunman with a lie. However, you then are a liar but if you tell him the truth you become an accomplice in his murdering spree.
      There are a few problems with this scenario.
      1) The gunman is more likely to shoot you than strike up a conversation.
      2) I don't think the actual command implies that the defence of others in this case would be wrong. The command seems to be focused around being a false witness for ill purposes. 99.9% of the time lying is inexcusable but I would guess that refusing to provide this information to the SS, lunatics, or molesters, etc is not a violation of the command.
      3) The question can be answered honestly too without revealing the location of the children. eg They're hiding from those who would seek to do them harm. At no point is your safety secure.
      4) The question is really is it okay to violate the law to save another or preserve a higher point of the law? Everyone has violated the law in one form or another. So the question is are we forgiven by Christ? All sin requires damnation and the forgiveness for murder, and a white lie has the same cost. The effects of say murder over coveting are more severe. You hardly like to face prison for coveting! The idea of a sliding scale for sin more of a human condition (for our judicial systems) than anything.
      However, is lying to save a life the same as lying to save your pride? Probably not. However, that's my take on it and I don't have anyway of backing it up.
      5) I don't think such a scenario is covered by situational ethics. SE from my reading is about endorsing a sinful act. I don't think the gunman scenario would be endorsing anything. Secondly SE is heresy in the sense that it puts love above God's law, and therefore above God.

    4. 1) no we can't question Jesus' divine take on the matter, but we can assume that the inclusion of this story in the gospels is intended as an illustration of the real truth. Jesus is demonstrating that the Sabbath law is not 100% immutable. Which to me is SE - breaking a moral law for the sake of the greater good.

      2) I think it's easy to see people becoming slaves to the Sabbath law and therefore not seeing the bigger picture. However it's not so easy to say the same for murder and sexual immorality. I wonder if that's why Peter focussed on these two sins in his post?

      As for the the gunman question - as you say, the law is really about bearing false witness (misrepresenting someone), not just about saying something that's objectively untrue. So I think the whole Jews in the attic thing is a red herring, and I'm not sure why Peter started bringing Corrie Ten Boom into it.

      However, to come to your last point - Jesus definitely (in my reading) endorsed what were then considered sinful acts - working on the Sabbath, and eating unclean foods. Which to me is clearly endorsing SE.

      But of course we don't consider the "clean foods" laws to be applicable to modern Christians. So I have to ask - what are the uncrossable moral lines that Peter is discussing? The ten commandments? Only those laws specifically endorsed by Jesus?

      The article reinforces that "‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’. Note every word." However, my understanding is that many of the words of God have been superseded by the New Covenant.

      How do modern Christians discern which parts of God's law they should live by?

    5. 1. I don't think Jesus broke the Sabbath in either of these scenarios. In the first he used the precedent of David who when hungry ate bread on the Sabbath. In the second he healed on the Sabbath; demonstrating that it was in accordance with God's will to do good and to save life. Jesus helped to define the scope of the Sabbath commandment.

      2. With respect to the gunman one can simply refuse to answer the question or ask a question. eg. 'Why should I help you kill this person?'

      For the relation between Old and New Covenants see my piece on shellfish - Christians are not under the Old Covenant but sexual immorality and the shedding of innocent blood are equally condemned under the New, whilst food laws are no longer binding even for Jews. Jesus pronounced all foods clean (Mark 7:19).

    6. Well, you can call it breaking the commandment or call it redefining the commandment (which of course Jesus has the authority to do). But the clear message is that the basic law, "Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work" is not the full picture. Jesus is showing that you don't have to apply every letter of this law if it would prevent you from doing good. Do we read this as a specific, limited case, or a general principle for how the law should be read? I think that's purely a matter of opinion.

      Regarding David, Jesus refers to the unlawful eating of the consecrated bread. Jesus is clearly showing that David broke a law in pursuit of the greater good. Looks like a clear example of SE to me.

  4. One big problem is that the Greeks had four words for love, ranging from agape, the love which expects nothing from its target (as in God's love to us) through to eros, erotic love or even lust.

    Which of these 'loves' allows us to set aside other considerations? Agape, I can understand. But I fear it may too often be eros.

    1. Yes I agree. I am talking about agape.

    2. A pivotal passage in a biblical understanding of 'love' is Exodus 33:17 to 34:8. There, God spells out his name, essence and character. 'Love', while it is prominent, is listed equally with other virtues - compassion, graciousness, faithfulness, mercy and forgiveness, righteousness and justice. 'Love' should be seen not as the prime virtue, but as the 'harmonious binder' (Colossians 3:14) within the fullness of God's character and nature. As the song says about love and marriage, so here: 'you can't have one without the others'. True love can't exist without righteous actions which accord with the will of God (John 14:21). True love can't exist without faithfulness (Jeremiah 31:3)(Malachi 2:16ff). True love produces mercy and justice together (the cross of Christ). To isolate 'love' and 'compassion' from his other characteristics is to reduce God to a 'Santa Claus' figure who tolerates all and judges no one. That's not love at all!


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