Part 12: What Am I To Do?
One day a student walked into my office. This person happened to be “head resident” of a dormitory, which meant that he was, so to speak, in charge. He was responsible for the behavior of all the residents in that it was his job to maintain order and if any of the rules were broken, he was to report it to the college administration. One of the rules was, in fact, being broken, a rule involving a serious moral principle. His question was: should he report it? If he did, the students involved would probably be suspended from school and, in all likelihood, be drafted into the armed services. If he did not, other students in the dorm would no doubt become aware of the situation and could be affected. If the situation became publicly known, he, as head resident, would probably lose his job, which paid for much of his tuition, thereby threatening his own education and career. What was he to do?
A girl discovers that she is pregnant. She is in love with the father, but he is not at all sure whether he is ready to take on the responsibilities of a wife and family. Besides, their financial situation is drastically inadequate, and their parents would not be very understanding, or so they think. Should she tell her parents? Should she have an abortion?
A woman, married twelve years, one day meets a man, and after a short period of time, falls in love. She finds herself uneasy in the presence of her husband, and often grouchy with the children. Life, she realizes, is but a short journey, and she dreads the thought of losing this new love which creates for her so much happiness. On the other hand, she feels an obligation to her husband and children. What is she to do? Call off her new relationship, and try to be content with what she already has? Tell her husband? Take off down the highway with her new man?
These situations are hardly atypical. Everyone reading these words has been in situations where he or she was torn between the alternatives, unable to decide the right way to act. And it seems that no matter how you decide, you lose. The ethics of human decision sometimes make you just want to cry.
Confronted with such ethical agony, how is one to arrive at a course of action? How does one decide what to do? When caught in a behavioral dilemma, we all want the answer-what am I going to do? But behind that question is a prior one: How do I arrive at that answer? What must I take into account? What are the considerations which will lead to an answer? In other words, the two basic questions for the persons mentioned above pertain not only to what they will do, but how they will arrive at that decision. The two questions of ethical analysis, therefore, refer to content and to method.
What a person does, the content of one’s act, depends on how one analyzes the situation, that is, the method by which one decides. We need, therefore, to consider the latter question first. A good way to get into the various methods is to consider two of the letters of Saint Paul, the letter to the church in Galatia, and his first letter to the church in Corinth.
In Galatia many of the early Christians were converts from Judaism. As the church began to grow, other persons wanted to join who were not Jews, but Gentiles. Now the Jewish converts insisted that all male Gentiles wishing to become Christians had to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses. That is, they felt that all Christians should submit to and accept the legal codes outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures. For our purposes, the insistence on circumcision is not as significant as the fact that the church in Galatia was insisting on full obedience to the Law. Their position can be reduced to the general rule that, when it comes to ethical decisions, one must obey the law. Appropriately, this position can be called legalism. The basic idea is that once you have a set of laws, you can and must fashion your action in accordance with these laws or principles.
We must note, however, that just what those laws are may vary. For the Galatian Christians, the law was the Law of Moses, which was rather clear-cut. But consider our head resident. If his law was to obey the rules of the college, then in legalistic fashion he would have to report the infractions. That is, regardless of whether or not his act ruined the lives of the students involved, what they were doing was against the law, and they would have to be reported. But maybe he lived by a different principle, such as “always watch our for yourself and do what will best benefit you.” If this were the law by which he determined his behavior, he might also end up reporting the students just to save his own skin. Notice how two different principles can lead to the same result-in each case he turned in his fellow students. But the principle was different in each case. In other words, legalism means that whatever law has been set up must always be adhered to, regardless of what the content of that law might be. To take an extreme case, a person might have for a basic principle that whatever the law of society is, one ought to do just the opposite. This person is a legalist! His principle-always break the law!
On a superficial level many people today are legalists. How many times have we heard someone talk about the “principles” by which they live? We say “superficial” in order to indicate that perhaps when it gets down to the actualities of an ethical problem people follow their principles less often than they care to admit. Many so-called good Christians are legalistic at least to the extent of accepting the Ten Commandments as absolute law. In this sense they seem to be following an interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures which, by and large, holds that the Law represents the will of God, and even God himself.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is an uncompromising attack on legalism. His main theme is that human beings are “justified” before God not because they fulfills the law, but because they believe. When it comes to human behavior, the guide, according to Paul, is not law but love. “For freedom Christ has set us free”-free from the confines of law, free to love. In other words, proper ethical action is guided not by law only, especially not by legalism, but by love. There is a danger, Paul admits that. The danger is that this freedom in Christ could be interpreted as meaning that one can do anything one wants. Since we are free from the law, let us eat, drink, be merry, and do as we please!
It was this attitude which Paul encountered in Corinth. Corinth was something of a wild town, having a reputation for moral laxity and licentiousness. Apparently Paul had preached to the Corinthians about the new freedom in Christ, a freedom which the Corinthians were only too ready to accept! Freedom from law, after all, fit quite nicely into their already-established free way of life. We can well imagine how horrified Paul must have been to discover that his message of freedom was being used as a rationale for total moral irresponsibility.
The situation among the Corinthian Christians seems to have been that of moral anarchism. “All things are lawful, so let me do as I please.” Inasmuch as this was an ethic where law played no role whatsoever, it can be called antinomian (from the Greek words anti-against, and nomos-law). Whether or not total moral anarchism is possible can be debated. What we can say, however, is that the freedom in Christ of which Paul had spoken, was not to be interpreted along the lines of antinomianism. The difference between Saint Paul and Corinth was love.
All things are lawful-on this they agreed. But Paul added, not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful, but not all things build up.” Helpful for what? Building up what? Answer: one’s neighbor. One is free to do whatever needs to be done in order to love, help, and serve the neighbor. That, in essence, is Paul’s way of arriving at an ethical decision. Clearly, what one does in love depends entirely on the situation or context within which one finds himself. On this basis, such an ethic has been called “situationalism” and “contextualism.”
The tenth chapter of First Corinthians offers an illustration. In Corinth the Christians lived side-by-side with people who worshipped a variety of gods. The meat offered for sale in the markets was often meat that had first been sacrificed or dedicated to these gods. Should a Christian eat such meat? Why, of course! “Eat whatever is sold on the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” If an unbeliever invites me to dinner and sets on the table meat offered to idols, should I eat? Yes, again. But, Paul adds, suppose a weak Christian, one who does not fully understand this freedom in Christ, is sitting beside you and whispers something like: “This is defiled meat. I don’t think we better eat it.” If this is the case, then you have to worry about not setting a bad example for this less mature Christian. Maybe, for the sake of his faith, you should not eat. All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. Love for the neighbor is the only qualifying factor.
Nobody today worries about meat offered to gods, But lots of Christians cringe at the thought of imbibing some alcohol, as though it were a violation of their religion. Many are the times when a clergyman, aware of Christian freedom, has been chastised if not kicked out by a more immature congregation horrified at what they considered to be the immoral activity of their pastor. Taking this freedom seriously, suppose such a pastor frequented the local bar in order to make contact with some of the people there. I put this question to a fine elderly lady once, and her response was that she’d do it-but drink milk or soda pop instead. To this her husband rather quickly replied that he figured he could talk a lot better in the bar if he were drinking what everybody else was!
Freedom, total absolute freedom, qualified only by love-this is the contextual ethic of Saint Paul. You mean I can do anything I want? Yes, provided it is done out of faith in God and love for one’s neighbor.
A case can be made for all three of these ethical methods being compatible with Christian faith. Antinomianism could be interpreted as asserting irresponsibility, and this is unacceptable. But it could also be read to mean that in every moment God will inspire one to do the right thing. That is, apart from all law, the Spirit guides one in making a decision. Interpreted in this fashion, antinomianism comes close to the love ethic. The real choice, therefore, is between legalism and contextualism.
Laws and principles offer security and certainty. They tell us what to do and what not. Or do they? Let’s say that you are a Christian who accepts the Ten Commandments as a fundamental law by which you guide your behavior. The fifth law says: Do not kill. And yet when it comes time to go to war, will you not volunteer your service in the armed forces? There are, it seems, cases in which it appears that the right thing to do is to break the law. Can that be so? More critically, there are thousands of ethical problems for which the Law seems to offer no help. Remember the girl who discovered her pregnancy. What law can tell her what to do? Or think of President Truman as he contemplated dropping the atom bomb on Japan. To what law could he turn? There have been attempts in Christian moral thology to work out answers based on laws for any situation that may arise. But are any two situations ever alike?
It seems to this author that the only way, both biblically and practically, to arrive at ethical decisions is through contextual analysis. This does not mean that one has to come up with a decision in a vacuum. There are some very important aspects of the total context which deserve consideration. To begin with, the total context is that of divine presence. All of our actions take place in a world that is loved by God. It is a world in which God right now is seeking to lead us on the road to fulfillment. The ultimate context of our behavior, therefore, is divine love and involvelvement.
Next, whatever we do is a risk. Very seldom are we assured that we’re doing is the right thing. Christian moralists have always told us that if we obey the will of God, we’ll have nothing to worry about. But in the name of God, what is God’s will? Just as we can only hope that we are faithful persons, so too we can only hope that we are doing the loving thing. If we really believe that Love is the essence of the universe, then ultimately our hope is that God will take whatever we do and bring good out of it. If we make a mistake, God is forgiving. Sometimes we get hung up because we feel that the whole situation rests on our shoulders, which it does not. This is not to detract from the seriousness with which we agonize over our problem, but we should be aware that in the final analysis, we are not alone. God is not only with us, but we have around us fellow human beings. As we indicated in chapter three, in times of distress and trouble, we have about us a community of persons who face similar problems, and they are a source of help. This mutual building-up and comfort is one of the marks characteristic of a true Christian community. Love should be our motivation, as best we can understand our motivations at all. To attempt the loving act means that we must take into consideration all factors-the persons involved, the laws of society, the consequences that might be forthcoming. But oftentimes, even after analyzing all of these considerations, we are still puzzled, and we recognize the need for decision amidst doubt. We can only hope that our decision works out well.
Paul has laid out for us a difficult path. It is often assumed that a situational ethic is easy, that it is much harder to have your principles and stick with them. Further reflection may indicate, however, that the freedom to love and do whatever the situation calls for, may be a more frightening responsibility.
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Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, The Void and the Vision and The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.