Understanding ethical systems: Biblical ethics

January 19, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. This and future articles can be found here.

“We have two kinds of morality side by side,” said the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “one which we preach but do not practice, and the other which we practice but seldom preach.” Russell was an atheist, but his aphorism is all too applicable to many Christians. Too often we preach a type of moral theory that not only differs radically from that which we practice, but with which we would not want to be associated. For example, we would rightfully reject—at least in what we “preach”—that “the end justifies the means.” But in practice we do tend to justify the unjustifiable if it leads to an outcome that we desired. To bring our preaching more in line with our practice, we need to develop a clearer idea of ethical systems and how they are connected to the Christian faith.

Ethics is the study and application of moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or conduct. The sub-branch that focuses on what action a person should take is normative ethics. In this series, we’ll look at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), consider their strengths and weaknesses, and compare them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” By developing a clearer understanding of ethical systems, we can better understand how to apply them in our own lives—or whether they should be rejected entirely.

What is Christian ethics?

This application of ethics in our everyday lives primarily involves the process of moral decision-making, a process which requires us to primarily answer two questions: “What should we do?” and “What should we be?” For a Christian, the answer to those questions should ultimately be: “What God has commanded me to do—to obey him” and “What Jesus wants me to be—to be more like him.”

In John 14:15, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” That’s not a suggestion—Jesus framed it as an imperative. Those who love Jesus will keep his commandments. The corollary is that those who do not keep his commandments do not truly love Jesus. Loving Jesus is the minimal standard for identifying as a Christian. If you do not truly love Jesus—if you do not even attempt to keep his commandments—you should not call yourself a Christian.

The central paradigm for Christian ethics is thus union with and conformity to Jesus, primarily through the Spirit-driven process of obeying all that Jesus has commanded of us. As the Christian ethicist John Murray said, “If ethics is concerned with manner of life and behavior, biblical ethics is concerned with the manner of life and behavior which the Bible requires and which the faith of the Bible produces.”

Because Christian ethics should be rooted in Scripture, all Christian ethics should be biblical ethics. But because that is not always the case, we’ll use the term biblical ethics to refer to a specific form of biblically based Christians ethics.

What exactly is biblical ethics?

Biblical ethics, as defined by Murray, is the study and application of the morals prescribed in God’s Word that pertain to the kind of conduct, character, and goals required of one who professes to be in a redemptive relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Biblical ethics is bibliocentric (Scripture-centered), theocentric (God-centered), and Christocentric (Jesus-centered). As David W. Jones explains in An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, this means our approach to biblical ethics should:

There are at least five distinctives of biblical ethics, says Jones, that make it different than other ethical systems:

All three of these last three elements—conduct, character, and goals—are interrelated and can be visualized in this moral events triangle, says Jones.

The first corner of the moral events triangle corresponds to conduct, that is, the “practice” of moral events. Moral conduct is based on an ethical rule or principle and focuses on external acts and behavior. Conduct is typically an orientation of person-to-person.

The second corner of the triangle stands for character, that is, the “person” of moral events, and focuses on motives and internal disposition. Character deals with the things inside each person—that is, a person’s self-relations. Character is an orientation of person-to-self.

The third corner of the triangle represents goals or the “purpose” of moral events, which is oriented toward a purpose and focuses on design or intended end. In biblical ethics goals deal with relations between man and God. Goals are an orientation of person-to-God.

Our character and our conduct are ultimately oriented toward the end goal of biblical ethics—the glorification of God. In John 14:21 Jesus taught his disciples, “The one who has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” And in Matthew 5:16, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his listeners, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Therefore, a primary way Christians love and glorify God is to keep his commands and perform the good works that flow from godly character and actions.

How do we know when an action is moral?

In determining whether an action is moral, we first start at the top of the moral events triangle with conduct, the “practice” of moral events. When faced with a moral scenario, the first question that should be asked is, “What ethical rules or principles apply in this particular situation?” We must know and understand the rules/principles as well as the relevant facts and context about the situation, what we’ll call the “fact pattern.”

Once the applicable moral norms are identified we then move to the next point on the triangle, which concerns character—the “person” of moral events. In the process of making a moral decision, believers ought to consider their motives and ask the question, “Am I acting out of love for God and love for neighbor?”

Finally, we get to the last step in the process of moral decision making. As we noted earlier, the end goal of biblical ethics is the glorification of God, so we need to answer the question, “What path, choice, or answer would bring the most glory to God?”

A primary way Christians love and glorify God is to keep his commands and perform the good works that flow from godly character and actions.

The right path is to keep the moral law out of a love for God and neighbor with the intent of bringing glory to God. We also need to make sure we have the proper order and connection between love of God and love of neighbor: Love of God comes first, and love of God leads to love of neighbor.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at moral decision-making, including how we know which rules or principles apply to a given situation, what we do when moral acts conflict, and the role of conscience.

For further reading

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24