What is the basis for Christian ethics?

October 5, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new primer series on Christians ethics at ERLC.com. Each Monday this fall, a respected leader and thinker will recommend and give a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. You can find the entire series here

Perhaps the moment was around a campfire. Maybe all that could be heard were the sounds of crickets in the woods around, along with the crackling of the flame and one voice talking. Jesus was telling his disciples of his impending arrest, and saying, it seemed irrationally, that they should not be troubled about what was to come. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” He said to them, And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself that were I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going” (John 14:3-4).

This is when, I expect, that murmuring commenced, and one can easily see why. Thomas is wrongly caricatured as “doubting” in our age, but Thomas, it seems to me, displays a need for certainty lacking in, say, Simon Peter, who often believes he can debate or sword fight his way out of difficulty. Thomas probably realized how often this band of disciples misunderstood Jesus’ sayings and parables, not to mention how often they fell asleep while he was praying. Thomas probably wondered if Jesus had given directions for them to meet somewhere on a mountain, to recite a particular incantation, in order to be received into this heavenly reality about which he was talking. If so, no one seemed to know what these directions were. 

The basis of Christian ethics

“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas asked (John 14:5). And then Jesus spoke words his followers have memorized for the long centuries since: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In this, Jesus summed up the basis for the Christian gospel, and, flowing out of that gospel, the basis of Christian ethics. 

In this, Jesus spoke consistently with what he spoke elsewhere, in numerous other situations. When the religious leaders pondered the kingdom of God—as though the kingdom were an abstraction—Jesus said, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21), speaking, of course, of himself. When Jesus told a grieving Martha that her brother would live again, she responded that she knew that, that he would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). But Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection, and the life” (John 11:25). 

Jesus is not a means to an end. He is, himself, the End and the Means, the Alpha and the Omega. The mystery behind everything in reality is that God’s purpose is to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). To come to Christ is not to adopt a philosophy, but to be united—as a body to a head—with the very life of Christ himself (Col. 3:1-3). 

Ethics, then, is a way—and that way is a Person. We, like the first disciples, follow Jesus. He is the Way. We, like the first disciples, have our inclinations and expectations reshaped and re-formed by Jesus’ teaching. He is the Truth. And we, like the first disciples, find the power to carry out transformed lives because we are enlivened by the Spirit that raised him from the dead (Rom. 8:11; Col. 2:19). 

The gospel points us to—and then joins us by faith—to this Jesus, crucified and resurrected. And this gospel, by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, calls us to offer up our lives as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1), as we are conformed to the life of Christ (Rom. 8:29). 

Christian ethics are the overflow of a way connected to the Way, of truths anchored in the Truth, of a life rooted in the Life.

Thus, a Christian ethic is not about the pursuit of already-agreed-upon abstract human virtues with Christian doctrine and practice as the way to best realize them. Christian ethics is instead applied Christology. When we seek out a Christian ethic, we are asking, “What does this universe around me—and the way I make in it—have to do with Christ and him crucified? How do I walk, by his power, where he is leading us?” 

Signposts and contradiction

Christian ethics include, then, both signpost and contradiction. God designed the cosmos by the Word (John 1:1-14), in wisdom and in righteousness. He embedded in every human psyche the criterion by which he would judge humanity on the last day (Rom. 2:15-16). It should not surprise us, then, when Christianity confirms some moral intuitions we can find in other places. Most people intuit that murder is wrong—at least until they find a murder they want to commit. Most people intuit that theft and fraud are wrong—except in the cases in which they want to steal and defraud. These moral intuitions are pointing beyond themselves, to the reality that morality is not defined by power or by will but by a holy and transcendent God. They are a signpost to the kingdom for which the creation was spoken into existence.

But Christian ethics is also a contradiction. After all, the creation is not the way it is supposed to be. Something primal—and inescapable on our own—has gone wrong. Even in the best of circumstances, we sense that we are exiles here, and, in our clearest moments of self-reflection, we can see that we do not live up even to the moral truths we acknowledge, much less those we downplay and ignore (Luke 10:25-37; Rom. 1:21-23; 2:17-24). In a fallen world red-in-tooth-and-claw, a fallen world in which the will-to-power and the glory of the self seem to be ultimate, the way of Christ can seem not like a superior way to achieve what humanity already wants, but as strange and irrational and even dangerous. 

The call to love not just one’s tribe or kin, but one’s enemy, hardly seems to achieve any biological purpose. The assertion that we are blessed when we are persecuted or reviled or impoverished—as Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount—seems hardly as obvious as, say, the virtues of the Stoic or the mindfulness of the Buddhist. The call to carry a cross, to save one’s life by losing it—none of that makes any sense if the universe is the way it seems to be. And that’s the point. The kingdom Jesus unveils and embodies is not helping us to “adapt” to the universe as it is, but instead is conforming us to the universe as it was created to be, and as it will be once more. 

That’s why Christian ethics confirms the morality written on the heart and, at the same time, interrupt us from the way that often seems “right” or “realistic” to us. Christian ethics are the overflow of a way connected to the Way, of truths anchored in the Truth, of a life rooted in the Life. Christian ethics can include complicated philosophical and existential reflections about the most complex of personal or social dilemmas. But, at its heart, Christian ethics is about hearing the voice of Jesus—maybe around a campfire—saying what he has said to us from the beginning, “Come, follow me.” 

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the … 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