Why the Christian ethic isn’t simply about rules

The structure of biblical ethics in an ever-changing world

March 14, 2022

Often when Christians (and even non-Christians) speak about biblical ethics, we tend to focus on the rules that Scripture gives us. For example, we think of the Ten Commandments in which the second half begins with “you shall not _______.” Whether it’s about murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, or covetessness, we tend to relegate the Chrisitan ethic to a set of moral rules by which we are to live. This type of ethical system is known as deontology, where ethics is a set of rules, duties, or obligations. 

Portraying the Christian ethic in this manner has some merit since God clearly communicates certain commands and rules to his people through Scripture. But one major difficulty with a pure deontological approach is that Christian ethics is accused of failing to address many of the modern ethical dilemmas we face today. The rise of digital technologies, biomedical advancements, and other gifts that the Lord has given his people should be used to love God and love our neighbors (Matt 22:37-39), but they can pose problems for some versions of deontology. How can the Christian ethic deal with contemporary issues for which there aren’t any rules?

Often this question is used as an excuse to abandon traditional aspects of Christian ethics as simply outdated, and attempts are made to justify novel approaches to ethics that are rooted in a more human-centric approach to morality. An example of this novel approach is Peter Singer’s infamous “preference utilitarianism,” which simply states that we are to reject moral rules and obligations in favor of an outcome-oriented approach to ethics focused on the preferences of those affected by these moral decisions. Or, we also see this take place in more progressive forms of Christianity, where traditional moral obligations and rules — especially surrounding sexuality — are exchanged for a more libertine and feelings-based approach to ethics reminiscent of the lie humanity believed at the very beginning of time, “Did God really say?”

As Christians, we must not and cannot approach moral decision making lightly or assume that ethics is nothing more than the mere application of theological beliefs. Without a rich foundation for Christian ethics, we may inadvertently apply the moral teachings of Scripture in ways contrary to the actual ethical framework that the Bible illustrates. This framework is not simply tied to rules or obligations, nor easy to shoehorn into traditional philosophical moral labels such as consequentialism or virtue ethics. At the risk of sounding as if Christianity is wholly unique in its approach to ethics (though it is), the Christian ethic transcends many moral traditions. Indeed, Christians can approach the study of ethics with two main categories: Christian ethics and non-Christian ethical approaches. But what makes it so unique, and how does this change how we see the moral rules and obligations in Scripture?

Rules rightly ordered

To begin his work Practical Ethics, Peter Singer exposes a deficiency in how many people, including Christians, have often viewed ethics as just a list of moral prohibitions, primarily (and at times exclusively) concerned with sex. He writes that headlines decrying the “declining moral standards” of recent generations often had to do with the rise of promiscuity, homosexuality, and use of pornography. Religious leaders of the past, he contends, seemingly saw ethics as simply a set of “nasty puritanical prohibitions, mainly designed to stop people from having fun.” While Singer rightfully points out that ethics is often unfortunately relegated simply to rules about sexuality, especially in Christian circles, he fails to acknowledge that many of his examples are on the heels of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s–1980s which sought to upend the created order for sexuality and represented a major turning point in our society. Sexuality has become one of the main points of debate in our culture, especially today, and thus any study of ethics would naturally have to address these questions.

In light of his assessment, Singer goes on to claim that a rules-based approach to ethics — namely deontology — simply cannot account for the modern complexities we face today, especially with what seem to be conflicting and overlapping moral rules. Whenever your views are criticized, it is always a wise practice to honestly engage criticisms and to acknowledge that even those outside of our cultural enclaves may see certain things that we may miss given God’s great gift of common grace. This does not mean that we accept all things as truth, but that we humbly admit that we simply cannot and do not know all things perfectly. 

So is Singer’s account of religious ethics — specifically Chrisitanity — a fair assessment? 

While he may be uncomfortably correct in his assessment of how we have often narrowly focused ethics on sexuality in recent generations, any honest look at the great moral tradition of Christianity would acknowledge that Christian ethics is centered on the imago Dei, therefore it is more than rules centered on sexuality. The image of God radically alters how Christians think about a host of personal and social issues including human dignity, social justice, racism, environmental issues, technology, bioethics, politics, and so much more. Singer’s assessment of Christian ethics as simply a list of arcane rules is completely off the mark. He then goes to remove God from the moral equation by arguing that our moral intuitions are simply an outworking of evolution and that we are the ones who get to decide what the good is for our society. Ethics then essentially becomes about what we want rather than based on an outside, objective reality under God’s sovereignty. But while deontology plays a role in Christian ethics, it is not exclusively a set of rules because the commands of God are not given to simply control our behavior as much as they are given to us in order to form us into certain types of people with the goal of glorifying God forever.

The structure of the Christian ethic

As Christians, our ethical decision-making isn’t dictated or built upon the prevailing cultural moral attitudes, the in-crowd or prevailing ethic of the day — namely utilitarianism —, nor does it seek to be on the “right side of history” of the so-called idea of moral “progress.” At the most basic level, the Christian ethic is a transcendent and revealed morality. It is concerned more with glorifying God than it is about our perceived happiness, comfort, or desires. The Christian ethic runs contrary to the prevailing moods and ethical outlooks of the day because it forces us to look outside of ourselves for truth and how we are to live, rather than hyper-focusing on our inner life and the things that we prefer or desire for ourselves.

Christianity recognizes that God created all people in the imago Dei. This truth speaks to the dignity of all people but also the sense of moral agency and moral responsibility we each bear in his world. God did not just create an arbitrary set of “nasty puritanical prohibitions” but a moral system with a teleological orientation, with a particular goal or end in mind. As Southern Baptist ethicist Andrew T. Walker has rightfully stated, the Christian ethic entails “not only arriving at the right conclusion but arriving at it the right way and with the right demeanor.” A fully formed Christian ethic must be tied to the realities that God has not only created the entire universe with a particular end, but also spoken to his people about how they are to live in light of his Lordship.

Ken Magnuson, who teaches ethics at both Southwestern and Phoenix Seminary, describes how the Chrisitan ethic doesn’t neatly fit into the philosophical moral categories of deontology (duty/rules), consequentialism (outcomes), nor virtue (personal traits) approaches. He writes that the Christian ethic is analogous to an ancient building that has a foundation of virtue — the cultivation of wisdom and transformation — with deontological pillars — commands and rules on how to live rightly — with a roof of teleology — purpose and goal of glorifying God. And this building exists within a certain context where the people of God must take into account the outcomes or consequences of our action, but never letting them become the primary point of ethical decision making.

Failing to acknowledge or live out any of these aspects makes the building unstable and dangerous, as it may collapse on itself or be used in such a way as to dehumanize others for sinful purposes. This fully-orbed approach to Christian ethics is clearly seen throughout the gospels, but especially in Mark 12:29-30 (ESV) when he is asked about the great commandment. Jesus answers, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The Christian ethic begins with God, not rules, outcomes, or personality traits. It is summed up with a fundamental others-focused orientation — loving God and others — being given to the Church as new creations in Christ who are called to be virtuous and wise in all their actions (Matt. 10:16).

While some may claim that the Christian ethic is simply a set of moral rules and obligations, this reflects a deficient and malformed understanding of the Christian moral tradition that is actually rooted in the created order and illuminated by the special revelation of Scripture. The Christian ethic transcends many of the caricatures of being unable to account for the modern problems or questions we face today because the rules were never meant to be the complete standard of the Christian ethic. They were meant to function like bumpers on a bowling lane, keeping the focus on the end goal of glorifying God and enjoying him forever. These moral rules and principles are to guide us throughout our lives and are more than able to help us navigate the complexities of our culture. This house of Christian ethics is not deficient in any way as it is built upon a foundation of other-oriented love that can weather whatever novel storm may come (Matthew 7:24-27).

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … 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