By / Mar 14

Until the end of World War II, Christian healthcare professionals faced few threats to their ability to practice their profession according to their sincerely held beliefs. Several reasons contributed to this cultural harmony, the most prominent of which is that most of the population identified nominally with the Christian faith. However, this began changing in the 1950s as peace and prosperity grew in the United States, and then it accelerated significantly in the 1960s with the introduction of the birth control pill and the subsequent sexual revolution. 

The sexual revolution brought an increasing demand for individual sexual autonomy, unmasking those subscribing to a pretended Christianity who voiced increasing petitions for sexual liberty. With advances in healthcare, such as safer anesthesia and wide-spectrum antibiotics, it was inevitable these demands would eventually include access to “safe” abortion. 

The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in all 50 states presented Christian healthcare professionals with a major challenge to their ability to practice medicine according to their sincerely held Christian beliefs. While it took time for some Christian denominations to formalize their opposition to abortion, countless healthcare professionals instinctively knew that destroying preborn life inside the uterus was against God’s law. 

Fortunately, several federal statutes protecting conscientious healthcare professionals from being forced into performing or referring for abortions were initially passed in the mid-70s and have been maintained in the following decades. These statutes included the Church Amendments, the Public Health Service Act or the Coats-Snowe Amendment and the Weldon Amendment. These provisions provided healthcare professionals and healthcare entities protection from being coerced into abortion provision by threatening the withdrawal of federal funding.

This is important, because enforcement of these provisions requires the action of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to investigate and initiate the withdrawal of federal funds. If HHS is inclined toward promoting abortion, they are less inclined to enforcement of these federal statutes. Just recently, the Biden administration has proposed a new rule that weakens the enforcement mechanisms available for HHS to investigate violations of these protections. 

The new problem posed by chemical abortions

With the approval of mifepristone (trade name mifeprex) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in September 2000, the era of chemical abortion began in the U.S., adding a new threat to the conscience freedoms of Christian healthcare professionals. The initial prescribing and dispensing of mifepristone were highly regulated. Only certified physicians were able to prescribe the medication after an in-person evaluation of the patient, and they directly dispensed and administered the medications during those visits.

These initial safety precautions have been progressively relaxed over the last 22+ years, so that chemical abortion drugs are now available by virtual appointment and subsequent mail delivery. Recently, the FDA also relaxed its dispensing requirements, allowing certified pharmacies to dispense the potent drugs that cause chemical abortion. 

This exceptionally relaxed prescribing environment for such potent drugs has increased pressure on Christian healthcare professionals to not only prescribe but also dispense this tragic regimen. This increasingly hostile environment created by our secular culture forced Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA) to turn to the courts to protect its members from these increasing threats to their ability to practice medicine according to their God-given conscience. For example, HHS initiated a rule change with profound consequences in 2016 under the Obama administration. They proposed and successfully changed the traditional definition of sex discrimination within what is known as section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to include pregnancy and gender identity. 

CMDA immediately recognized the implications of this radical change, which meant that any member who refused to refer for or perform an abortion could be accused and found guilty of sex discrimination with its consequent penalties. Furthermore, the rule change could also force CMDA members to engage in the prescribing of puberty blockers and/or cross-sex hormones as well as conducting surgeries assisting a patient who desires to change their secondary sexual characteristics. 

This deceptively small but radical change in terminology changed the concept of discrimination from prejudice against a whole person, something CMDA adamantly opposes, to the refusal to engage in certain procedures. CMDA filed suit in federal court against this unjust attack upon the conscience freedoms of conscientious healthcare professionals. It took six years and several court decisions for us to finally achieve victory through the provision of a permanent injunction protecting CMDA’s current and future members against direct HHS action based on Section 1557. 

This protection comes just in time, as HHS recently used the new Section 1557 rule to demand that pharmacists across the country provide certain abortifacient drugs such as the morning-after pill. 

CMDA is thankful that our pharmacist members are now protected from this new HHS “guidance” and won’t have to worry about HHS attempts to enforce this regulation. While this legal protection is limited to current and future CMDA members because of how our legal system works, we mourn the overall increase in threats to the conscience freedoms of all conscientious healthcare professionals who seek to practice according to Hippocratic values. Healthcare is transitioning from being a profession practiced by highly trained, conscientious practitioners into training providers who acquiesce to the autonomous desires of patients without concern for their overall spiritual and emotional health.

While CMDA is extremely thankful for the current protection achieved by this recent court victory, we know it does not protect our members from all attacks against their conscience freedoms. Previous surveys of our membership have revealed that more than 90% are likely or very likely to leave the healthcare profession if they are put into a position of having to perform or refer for a procedure that they morally oppose. So, this is a battle not only for the souls of Christian healthcare professionals but also for the soul of healthcare itself. 

Let us not grow weary in doing good, but let us successfully recruit the next generation to continue to stand in the gap protecting traditional Christian principles in healthcare. Our culture and the dignity of every life deserves nothing less. 

By / Mar 10

On this episode, we feature a webinar hosted by Jason Thacker on discipling your church for a world in sexual crisis. Thacker talks to Dean Inserra, Katie McCoy, and Andrew Walker about a biblical sexual ethic and how to communicate it with truth and grace in a secularized society. 

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By / Mar 10

Over the past decade, scientists have developed a technique called mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), which allows for the creation of babies with three genetic parents. MRT was originally developed to prevent the transmission of certain genetic diseases from parent to child. Yet as MIT Technology Review notes, “new evidence suggests it doesn’t always work—and could create babies at risk of severe diseases.” It was also discovered that MRT has been used as a way to treat infertility.

Whether or not this technology has the potential to prevent the transmission of certain genetic diseases or to help overcome infertility, the technology raises serious and significant bioethical and theological concerns. Here is what Christians should know about this controversial IVF technique. 

What is mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT)?

The process of creating babies with three genetic parents involves replacing the faulty mitochondrial DNA of the egg with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a donor, a technique, known as mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT). Mitochondria are the energy-producing organelles within cells, and their dysfunction can lead to serious health problems for the baby. By using MRT to replace the faulty mitochondria, the child could theoretically be protected from mitochondrial diseases.

But the techique is not as sucessful as it once appearred. MIT Technology Review found two cases in which babies conceived with the procedure have shown what scientists call “reversion.” In both cases, notes Jessica Hamzelou, the proportion of mitochondrial genes from the child’s mother has increased over time, from less than 1% in both embryos to around 50% in one baby and 72% in another. “These mitochondrial diseases have devastating consequences,” as Björn Heindryckx at Ghent University in Belgium told MIT Technology Review. “We should not continue with this.”

Where is the technique currently legal?

Australia and the United Kingdom are the only nations that have explicitly authorized MRT. However, it has been used in IVF clinics in other countries, such as Greece and Ukraine.

The procedure is currently disallowed in the U.S. because Congress has, since 2015, included a provision in the federal budget that forbids altering the genomes of human embryos intended for pregnancies.

What are the concerns about MRT?

While this technique may sound promising, it raises numerous ethical and medical concerns.

One of the most significant bioethical concerns about this technique is that MRT involves the manipulation of genetic material, which could alter and affect the genetic makeup of future generations. This could have dangerous consequences, particularly in cases where the genetic changes are passed down through multiple generations. The reason is that mitochondria are not merely energy-producing organelles; they also play a role in a wide range of cellular processes. By replacing a woman’s defective mitochondria with healthy mitochondria from a donor, there is a risk of disrupting these cellular processes and causing unintended health problems. The long-term effects of MRT are not yet fully understood, and the safety of the procedure has not yet been established.

However, the research needed to make the technique viable and safe is itself unethical. Christians believe in the inherent value and dignity of all human life at every stage of development—including the embryonic stage. MRT requires the creation and destruction of human beings in the embryonic stage solely for research purposes. This killing of human beings for the purposes of research is an unjustifiable violation of the sanctity of life. 

Genetic modification may also lead to an increased acceptance of eugenics. Eugenics is the idea of improving the genetic quality of the human population through selective breeding or genetic engineering. While MRT is not directly related to eugenics, it does involve selecting and manipulating genetic material to achieve a desired outcome. This could potentially lead to a slippery slope where parents feel pressure to select certain traits in their children, or where certain traits are seen as more desirable than others. This could lead to a further devaluation of human life and a focus on genetic perfection rather than the inherent value of every human being made in God’s image.

Finally, there are concerns about the impact of MRT on family relationships. The creation of a child with genetic material from three different individuals raises questions about parentage and identity. This could lead to legal and social issues, such as disputes over custody and inheritance rights. MRT could further undermine the traditional understanding of the biological family unit (i.e., one biological mother and one biological father) and could have negative consequences for the emotional and psychological well-being of children created through this technology.

While the technique has ​the remote potential to offer hope to some couples at risk of passing on genetic disorders, both the known ethical concerns and the unforeseeable and unmanageable effects on future generations make it a reproductive technology that Christians should reject and oppose. 

By / Mar 3

Last month, the government of Canada introduced legislation to extend the temporary exclusion of eligibility for medical assistance in dying (MAID) where a person’s sole medical condition is a mental illness until March 17, 2024. The legislation (Bill C-39) passed the House of Commons and has been introduced in the Senate.

Here is what you should know about Canada’s law that allows for voluntary euthanasia.

What is Canada’s MAID law?

MAID is the acronym for Canada’s medical assistance in dying law. The laws allows physicians and nurse practitioners (in provinces where this is allowed) to help a person commit suicide by either directly administering a substance that will end their life or prescribing such as substance so that it can be self-administered.

The law provides exemptions from the criminal law concerning suicide and provides protection from liability to pharmacists and pharmacy technicians/assistants, healthcare providers who help physicians or nurse practitioners, and family members or other people who have been asked to participate. They are able to assist in the suicide process without being charged under criminal law as long as they follow the legal requirements. 

This legal right to voluntary euthanasia has been in effect since March 17, 2021. Prior to that, the Supreme Court of Canada had ruled that a prohibition on medical assistance in dying violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

What should Christians think about medically assisted suicide?

Medically assisted suicide is a form of euthanasia, the intentional act of taking a human life for the purpose of relieving pain and suffering. Christians should reject euthanasia because it denies the inherent dignity that God has given human beings and seeks to take the place of God in determining the end of life.

While those seeking MAID and those participating in the practice may want to eliminate suffering, what they are doing is actually undermining the objective value of life. Although the Bible does not speak about euthanasia directly, it teaches that we must regard life as belonging to God and approach issues of suffering with a critical and biblically-based approach. As Mary Wurster has written, “The value of human life in all its forms and at all stages is the central theme of the gospel, for it is the very purpose of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. To fail to respect human life at any point mocks the very essence of Christ’s mission to humanity.”

See also: How would you counsel someone interested in assisted suicide?

How many people are being legally euthanized under Canada’s MAID law?

In the five years since the law was adopted, there have been 31,664 medically assisted suicides. As the Canadian government notes, “annual growth in MAID provision continues to increase steadily each year.” In 2021, the total number of MAID deaths increased by 32.4% (2021 over 2020), compared to 34.3% (2020 over 2019) and 26.4% (2019 over 2018).

In 2021 there were 10,064 MAID related suicides, an average of 28 per day. MAID suicides account for 3.3% of all deaths in Canada. Across Canada, fewer than seven deaths were from self-administered MAID.

What is the reason people in Canada choose MAID?

According to the Canadian government, the most commonly cited intolerable physical or psychological suffering reported by individuals receiving MAID in 2021 was the loss of ability to engage in meaningful activities (86.3%), followed closely by the loss of ability to perform activities of daily living (83.4%).

Who is eligible for medically assisted suicide under MAID?

To qualify under MAID, a person wanting to take their own life must satisfy all the following criteria:

  • Be eligible for government-funded health insurance in Canada.
  • Be 18 years of age or older and have decision-making capacity.
  • Have made a voluntary request for MAID that was not a result of external pressure.
  • Give informed consent to receive MAID after having received all information needed to make this decision, including a medical diagnosis, available forms of treatment, and options to relieve suffering (including palliative care).
  • Have a “grievous and irremediable condition,” meaning they have a serious illness, disease, or disability (excluding a mental illness until March 17, 2023), be in an advanced state of decline that cannot be reversed, and experience unbearable physical or mental suffering from an illness, disease, disability, or state of decline that cannot be relieved under conditions that the person considers acceptable.

Does a person have to have a terminal illness to qualify for medically assisted suicide?

No. The diagnosis has to be considered “serious” but not necessarily “terminal” (i.e., a condition that cannot be cured and is likely to lead to someone’s death).

Does a person with a mental illness qualify for medically assisted suicide?

If the sole underlying medical condition is a mental illness, they are not currently eligible for MAID. However, this exclusion is only in effect until next March, at which time it will be automatically repealed.

This exclusion also only applies to conditions that are primarily within the domain of psychiatry, such as depression and personality disorders, and does not include neurocognitive and neurodevelopmental disorders, or other conditions that may affect cognitive abilities. For instance, a person who has dementia, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, or Parkinson’s are all able to receive medical assistance in their suicide. In 2021, 12.4% of MAID deaths were for neurological conditions.

Are medical practitioners able to refuse to participate in Canada’s MAID law?

The MAID law does not itself compel doctors or physician assistants to participate in the medical killing of another person. However, various Canadian provinces have issued guidelines that “strongly encourage” medical practitioners who are unwilling to provide MAID to refer their patients to other institutions or providers.

Some provinces violate the conscience rights of doctors and physician assistants by requiring transfer of care or referral  to a medical provider who will participate in the suicide. For example in the province of Ontario, objecting providers must make an “effective referral” to an available, accessible physician or agency willing to facilitate a request for assisted dying. 

By / Mar 3

On this episode, Brent Leatherwood and Lindsay Nicolet talk to Jason Thacker about his new book, “The Digital Public Square,” and how Christian ethics apply in a technological society. They discuss the importance of Christians engaging various technological tools with wisdom and the motivation to love God and love our neighbors. 

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By / Feb 21

A few years ago, I read an insightful article by Shira Ovide of the New York Times on the splintering of the internet and the complexities surrounding digital governance around the world. 1Shira Ovide, “The Internet Is Splintering,” New York Times, February 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/technology/the-internet-is -splintering .html. She writes about how most countries around the world have their own car safety regulations and tax codes, but currently there is widespread debate over how online expression should be governed. She highlights how technology companies—many based in the Western world—are essentially governing speech and free expression online, which leads to major controversies and dissension as many countries want to retain that power for themselves.

One of the most salient points she makes in the piece concerns the promises of how technology was going to usher in a new world order. She writes, “The utopian idea of the internet was that it would help tear down national boundaries, but technology watchers have been warning for decades that it could instead build those barriers even higher.” Not only are those barriers being built higher around the world, but technological power is also being exerted by powerful governments and leaders to control and manipulate people created in God’s very image. 2For more on the widespread use of technology to suppress human rights and free expression around the world, see chapter 11 by Olivia Enos in this work.

Over the last few years, we have even seen numerous companies shut down the internet to quell protests and dissension among their own people, like that in Iran, Belarus, China, and Cuba. These stories represent a much larger question that is being debated about how technology companies like Meta, Twitter, and many others should do business around the world, especially in areas where there is significant disagreement over the basic freedoms we enjoy in America. 

But even in the United States, we have significant differences and major disagreements on the role of the government and third-party technology companies concerning issues like content moderation, free expression, and online governance. These complexities and differences are present even though we have some level of a shared culture and agreement on many basic human freedoms—even though that agreement seems to be fraying with each passing day.

An opportunity for Christian engagement

Technology policy expert Klon Kitchen, who serves at the American Enterprise Institute as a Resident Fellow, wrote a brilliant essay at National Affairs about the realities we face in this technological age. He states that “all governments must [now] acknowledge and adapt to the fact that they no longer wield exclusive power and influence on the global stage.” 3Klon Kitchen, “The New Superpowers: How and Why the Tech Industry Is Shaping the International System,” National Affairs, no. 49 (Fall 2021), https://nationalaffairs .com/the-new-superpowers-how-and-why-the-tech-industry-is-shaping-the-international-system. The rise of a technology industry operating transnationally with enormous power over public discourse presents a unique challenge to our society but also an opportunity for Christians to engage with these companies as we have historically done with governments, standing for human dignity and religious freedom around the world. The Christian church has a rich heritage of public theology and navigating church/state relations, drawn in large part directly from the scriptural calling to honor the leaders God has placed in charge, hold the government accountable to their calling to stand for justice, and honor the God-given freedoms of all as created in God’s image (Rom 13:1–6). 

While the rise of these transnational entities in the digital age may present unique challenges on issues like online governance, it also presents a unique opportunity for Christians to engage the technology industry with a robust public theology built upon an unchanging understanding of human dignity and freedom derived from Scripture. It is far too easy in our technological society to see other human beings as simply problems to be solved or as pawns in the pursuit of power. But a Christian understanding of humanity and the nature of society is rooted in the dignity of all people that transcends our national allegiances and even the technological order itself we spoke of earlier.

As Christians engage on these important ethical issues, we must do so from a position of principled pluralism—recognizing the inherent dignity of all people and with a clear moral vision of a common good grounded in God’s Word.

Grounded in these two truths, we can model for our society how to have these debates from a convictional, yet grace-filled perspective. In a society that prizes efficiency, speed, and at times public contempt for our political and social “enemies,” we should seek to prioritize the dignity of all, including those who disagree with us on these important issues. We can do so by recognizing that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the cosmic powers of darkness (Eph 6:12). That means that we engage from a position of hope and grace, knowing that we are to seek the right changes in the right way (Rom 3:8).

A second and vital requirement is understanding the basic tenets of the debates at hand, rather than simply dropping into these complex debates or speaking to issues without a full understanding of the gravity of the situation. Just as we seek to gain insight and expertise in other areas of life—especially engagement with government—to honestly engage, we must do the same with the technology industry and the complex issues they face doing business around the world. This is one of the many reasons this volume consists of two corresponding chapters speaking to the domestic and international issues of technology policy as well as a host of important issues in the digital public square. 

It does not serve well the message of the gospel, much less our society, to engage on issues without knowledge or awareness of the issues at stake, even if our society seems to reward hot-takes on social media over true action oriented toward lasting change. Even with the immense complexity of these debates, one thing is clear: the dignity of our neighbor is at stake around the world, especially under repressive authoritarian regimes. We must keep that truth central in this debate over digital governance. Even though these issues may at times seem to be simply about tweets, posts, and even the contours of content moderation, these are simply expressions of how human beings, created in God’s image, are able to communicate, express themselves, and do life in an ever-increasing digital society.

Adapted from The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society, edited by Jason Thacker, and published by B&H Academic.

  • 1
    Shira Ovide, “The Internet Is Splintering,” New York Times, February 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/technology/the-internet-is -splintering .html.
  • 2
    For more on the widespread use of technology to suppress human rights and free expression around the world, see chapter 11 by Olivia Enos in this work.
  • 3
    Klon Kitchen, “The New Superpowers: How and Why the Tech Industry Is Shaping the International System,” National Affairs, no. 49 (Fall 2021), https://nationalaffairs .com/the-new-superpowers-how-and-why-the-tech-industry-is-shaping-the-international-system.
By / Feb 2

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Feb. 2, 2023—Jason Thacker, director of the research institute and chair of research in technology ethics for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a new volume titled, “The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society,” published by B&H Academic.

This volume is among the first to focus on questions of digital governance, content moderation and the role of social media in society from a distinctly Chrisitan perspective. It is a part of a long-term research project launched by the ERLC that explores the intersection of Christian ethics and the increasingly digital public square.  

“Social media and emerging technologies have challenged some of our most basic understandings of truth, faith, and even the idea of a public square,” said Thacker. “Today we face immense ethical and social challenges such as the proper role of government, corporate responsibility, and personal accountability in light of the ways that technology is shaping us and the public square. The Christian moral tradition is not only sufficient for the immense task before us but also reframes these debates in light of God’s unchanging character, the Christian concept of human dignity, and a vision of social transformation and the common good rooted in the gospel message.”

Thacker assembled a team of 12 contributors to aid the church in applying the Christian moral teachings to topics including: 

  • Censorship;
  • Technology policy; 
  • Free speech;
  • Conspiracy theories;
  • Sexual ethics;
  • Hate speech;
  • Religious freedom;
  • Digital authoritarianism;
  • Tribalism;
  • Discipleship; and
  • Christian witness. 

Contributors such as David French, Patricia Shaw, Keith Plummer, and Brooke Medina cast a distinctly Christian vision of a digital public theology to promote the common good throughout our society and around the world.

The Digital Public Square project was launched by Thacker and the ERLC in September 2021 and is a multi-year initiative in technology ethics. The ERLC released the first ever faith-based statement of principles on artificial intelligence in April 2019.

“For years now, the ERLC has produced a number of thought-provoking resources about technology and the ways it is both challenging and changing us,” said Brent Leatherwood, ERLC president. “This newest resource continues that work to help our churches understand the complexities of our increasingly online world. While it can be tempting to think the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about emerging technology, Jason Thacker and the incredible team of thinkers he’s put together in this volume reveal how, in fact, Christian ethics offer the best possible guide for successfully engaging the digital public square.”

For more on this volume and the other resources from the Digital Public Square research project, visit jasonthacker.com/books.

By / Nov 15

Nashville, Tenn., Nov. 15, 2022Southern Baptist ethicist Jason Thacker of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and renowned, moral philosopher C. Ben Mitchell recently contracted with B&H Academic to edit a new eight-volume series entitled Essentials in Christian Ethics, set to begin release next year.

The first in the series of short, introductory level volumes features the work of theologian and ethicist David VanDrunen of Westminster Seminary California on the topic of natural law and the moral order, which will be released in November 2023.

With the Essentials in Christian Ethics series, Mitchell and Thacker hope to help equip the next generation to see the centrality of ethics in the Christian life, especially in the training of future leaders for the church. Volumes will begin releasing in 2023 and continue through 2026.

“Ethics is not merely an academic discipline, but intricately woven into the very fabric of the Christian life as we all seek to apply God’s word to the society in which we have been placed and live in light of those truths, no matter the circumstances we face today,” said Thacker.

Current volumes under contract include: 

  • Natural Law Ethics with Van Drunen;
  • Biblical Ethics with Jacob Shatzer of Union University;
  • Metaethics with J.P. Moreland and David Horner of Biola University;
  • Political Philosophy with Bryan Baise of Boyce College;
  • Bioethics with C. Ben Mitchell;
  • Just War and the Ethics of Contemporary Warfare with Paul D. Miller of Georgetown University.

About Jason Thacker: Thacker serves as the director of the ERLC’s Research Institute and chair of research in technology ethics where he leads the Digital Public Square research project. He also teaches at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky. and is the author of multiple works on Christian ethics and public theology. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Christian ethics, public theology, and philosophy from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

About C. Ben Mitchell: Mitchell earned a Ph.D. with a concentration in medical ethics from the University of Tennessee. He held the Graves Chair of Moral Philosophy at Union University for more than a decade before his retirement in 2020. Mitchell previously taught bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Graduate School and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

By / Mar 14

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).

By / Feb 7

One of the (many) ongoing debates within the Church today centers around the usefulness of worldview studies and how we are to think about the nature of the Christian life. Some rightfully see that a key element of the Christian worldview is having the right beliefs about God, ourselves, and the world around us as revealed by Scripture. Often, this is seen in the high emphasis placed on studying theology throughout the Christian life.

A quick look at church history shows that when doctrinal beliefs are compromised, it leads to countless dangers and a watering down of Christian truth in hopes of accommodating more popular and culturally acceptable beliefs. Thankfully, many have sought to bolster the teaching and preaching of God’s Word throughout the years and to inculcate a love of theology in our churches, seminaries, and on the mission field. Theology matters, but is simply having the right beliefs really enough to sustain the fullness of the Christian life?

Juxtaposed to this emphasis on right doctrine and belief are those who seek to emphasize the priority of our “loves” and seek to give attention to our actions and practices. Proponents of this line of thinking argue that worldview studies is traditionally overly rationalistic and propositional, focusing exclusively on having the right beliefs to the neglect of our hearts and practice. These thinkers are often challenged by the first group saying that they focus too much on the experiential aspects of life; emphasizing our experiences and habits is too person-centric, which takes the focus off the transcendent and rational truths of Christianity.

The relationship between theology and ethics 

I believe this debate over the value and nature of worldview reveals a deeper chasm within Christianity, especially in Protestantism, over our understanding of the proper relationship between theology and ethics. To many, Christian ethics is seen just as the mere application of Christian theology, meaning it doesn’t need to be studied as formally as theology. It is often unintentionally downplayed — subsumed under the theological discipline rather than studied as a crucial element of the Christian worldview alongside theology. 

As a result, Christian ethics is frequently neglected in theological education. Many college and seminary graduates entering ministry receive at most one or two courses in ethics as opposed to numerous required courses in theology, biblical studies, and the languages — unless they choose an ethics or philosophy concentration. This emphasis on theology and doctrine is laudable given the biblical emphasis on knowing truth and the ongoing rejection of traditional Christian theological beliefs over the last century or so throughout society. But what good is a head full of knowledge if those beliefs either aren’t put into practice or are put into practice wrongly? It is true that God willingly discloses himself and certain truths throughout Scripture, but equally important is that God also reveals to us how we are to live in light of those truths. Unfortunately, our lack of emphasis on and formal study of ethics is seen throughout many of our churches today as our beliefs, too often, are not reflected in our actions. 

This confusion over theology and ethics was made clear to me by a friend who mentioned that he had considered studying ethics at the doctoral level but decided on the “real work” of theology instead. I don’t believe that he ever meant to denigrate the study of ethics, but his words reveal the attitude of many in evangelical life. Theology reigns supreme, and everything else is downstream from it. But as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer has written in Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine, “head knowledge, either of scripture or doctrine, is not enough to make disciples.” Indeed, something more is needed.

Studying both theology and ethics is crucial for the Christian life. It also helps overcome the tendencies of worldview studies to neglect the heart and the truth that what we do usually reveals what we truly believe. Dutch Reformed theologian and ethicist Herman Bavinck, writing in Reformed Dogmatics, reminds us that theology (dogmatics) and ethics are “not materially different,” yet they are “formally distinct.” He goes on to state:

“Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of those divine deeds. In dogmatics human beings are passive; they receive and believe; in ethics they are themselves active agents. In dogmatics, the articles of the faith are treated; in ethics the precepts of the Decalogue. In the former, that which concerns faith is dealt with; in the latter, that which concerns love, obedience, and good works. Dogmatics sets forth what God is and does for human beings and causes them to know God as their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; ethics sets forth what human beings are and do for God now; how, with everything they are and have, with intellect and will and all their strength, they devote themselves to God out of gratitude and love. Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God.” 

Loving God and our neighbor

This intricate and beautiful relationship of theology and ethics is also seen in the words of German theologian Christoph Ernst Luthardt, who described the connection of theology and ethics as, “God first loved us is the summary of Christian doctrine. We love Him is the summary of Christian morality.” Thus, whether in worldview studies or the regular disciplines of Christian life, it must not be an either/or approach to theology and ethics, or placing a higher priority on one or the other. 

When we focus exclusively on having the right beliefs, we can fail to acknowledge that what we say we believe does not always align with what our actions reveal as our true beliefs. In our pursuit of the pure and unadulterated truth of God’s Word, we can neglect to emphasize how that truth informs our practices and especially how we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). We study ethics not only to understand how God calls us to live in light of these truths but also to see how the philosophical and ethical theories of our day routinely shape our approach to the text and the great moral challenges before us. These non-Christian theories can even blind us in justifying certain ungodly actions for some greater goal or right outcome.

Christians study ethics in order to love God and love our neighbor faithfully as we become more like Christ, not just in believing the right things but also in doing the right things. Studying ethics does not mean that we should neglect to study God’s Word through a theological lens, but it does mean that we must emphasize the rightful place of Christian ethics in our doctrinal study and pursuit of Christ — not just in the academy, but from our pulpits and discipleship strategies in the local church. The study of ethics can help us see the rich relationship of our beliefs to our practices, of the truths of God’s Word to their application, and of the rich relationship of both theology and ethics in the Christian life.