I am about to begin preaching through Matthew 5-7, better known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” This message was presented by the Lord Jesus Himself and sets the bar extremely high for the conduct of life. In my preparation I have confronted again and again the issue of “ethical” standards as they relate to Jesus and His penetrating Words. Nearly 3 years ago I wrote about my concern for people forgetting about true biblical ethics as they slowly accepted the ever changing morality of this world and the age.
Allen Raynor Weblog: Ethical Standards and Changing Morality
(Nov. 6, 2014)
What or who determines standards? In times past in America, the obvious answer was the Bible. This was true even for individuals, marginal in their Christian commitment. But no such standard exists anymore – at least not in the minds of a great number of people. Where there is no standard, confusion will rise to fill the void left in its absence.
It is near political suicide for a candidate running for office to quote from or refer to the Bible. The only exceptions might be vague, general reference to a passage that is hardly controversial. The 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary defined a great many terms by appealing to the Bible as the absolute standard. Our American laws all are rooted deeply in the standards found in the Word of God. Laws were not simply pulled out of the air. Their basis was overwhelmingly in Scripture.
Over time morality and ethics have become largely lumped together and essentially are now viewed as being one and the same. However, drawing a clear distinction is valuable. Morality is a measure of what “is” taking place; what people are doing; their attitudes toward certain issues and standards of behavior. Therefore we can conclude that morality is forever in a state of flux and change. The phrase “moral standards” is mostly an oxymoron. A standard is set and unchanging, whereas morality is merely a reflection of what “is” taking place. There is no guiding principle. Ethics, on the other hand, speaks to the “ought.” Ethics are grounded in a true and unchanging standard. Christians would appeal to biblical ethics, in particular, and see Scripture as the standard of all ethical conduct. In other words, “ethics” should determine “morality.” Even if it is not perfectly followed, believers would claim that we “ought” to follow the teachings and standards of the Bible.
In our present world, no such distinction is made between ethics and morality. The absolutes of ethical standards have given way to the moral norms of the ever-changing culture. To say someone is “moral” only means they are consistent with what is generally seen by a society as being moral. However, to say someone is “ethical,” means they are following standards that may be outside normal behavior and might even be quite counter to the culture. To say someone is “biblically ethical,” means someone is ordering their life around the teachings of Scripture.
Many Bible-believing Christians lament that their adult son or daughter is, for example, now living with their boyfriend or girlfriend out of wedlock, or are engaging in other behaviors that are contrary to the standard taught by the parents in the home. This standard was based in the Bible. What has happened? Presumably, the parents taught an “ethical” standard to their child, particularly a “biblical ethical standard.” However as the child left home, went to college or joined the military, and got out into the world their biblical ethics came into sharp conflict with the morality of the culture. In the back of his/her mind the biblical ethic remained, but the morality of those around them was such that they were made to feel uncomfortable and felt tremendous pressure to conform. Typically this does not happen overnight. It usually takes time. It is very hard for those with ethical standards to consistently live up to the standards in which they believe when their encouragement for doing so is minimal or non-existent. And it is further difficult when their encouragement to adopt the moral norms of those around them is strong. You see this, for example, on a college campus. What is more common, to see incoming Christian freshman influence the campus with Christian ethics and teachings or to see the moral norms found on campus to influence the incoming Christian freshman?
God knew of this dilemma long before human beings ever gave it a thought. He knew believers needed to encourage one another, because “lone wolf” Christianity was always destined for failure. “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” (Prov. 27:17) Church is the institution He gave, not only for that “sharpening” or “encouragement” to take place but also a place for instruction. Many have sought answers to why there is such a decline in morality today, when compared with previous generations; but the answers are fairly simple. People attend church far less frequently, and the Bible is read and studied more infrequently than before. Add to this the fact that culture is imposing itself on all people with far greater intensity. Christianity is under direct assault, and the price to be paid for living by biblical ethical standards is much greater than it has ever been for men, women, boys and girls.
There is more to life than living for the moment. Moments come and moments go. According to James 4:14 our lives are a “vapor” that appear for just a moment and then are gone. The “morality” of the moment is here, and then it is gone. But biblical ethics are standards that come down to us from God and they do not change. God declared in Malachi 3:6 “For I am the Lord, I do not change.” As mankind in every generation grapples with trying to determine morality, God’s ethical and absolute standards remain preserved in the Bible.
Dr. Allen Raynor, Pastor