cart before horse ethics
Meditation and Reflection

The mission of the Church is not ‘right ethics’

This is the 15th contribution to His Grace’s emergency team ministry during the coronavirus pestilence. The author wishes to be known as The Snail @. He has a background in pharmaceutical research (human hormones), and keeps a low profile on the web for reasons which can’t be divulged.


Jesus said in Matthew 7:12: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’ This is the ethical standard by which humanity should live; this is the Law and the Prophets. Acknowledging this ethical standard does not make one a Christian.

The Christian ethic is positive. It does not consist in not doing things but in doing them. Jesus gave us the Golden Rule which bids us do to others as we would have them do to us. That rule exists in many writers of many creeds in its negative form. Hillel, one of the great Jewish Rabbis, was asked by a man to teach him the whole law while he stood on one leg. He answered, “What is hateful to thee, do not to another. That is the whole law and all else is explanation.” Philo, the great Jew of Alexandria, said, “What you hate to suffer, do not do to anyone else.” Isocrates, the Greek orator, said. “What things make you angry when you suffer them at the hands of others, do not you do to other people.” The Stoics had as one of their basic rules, “What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not you do to any other.” When Confucius was asked, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” he answered, “Is not Reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” Every one of these forms is negative. It is not unduly difficult to keep yourself from such action (William Barclay, Insights: Forgiveness [1975]).

Or consider the following quote from Bertrand Russell, an atheist philosopher who is positive:

The root of the matter (if we want a stable world) is a very simple and old-fashioned thing, a thing so simple that I am almost ashamed to mention it, for fear of the derisive smile with which wise cynics will greet my words. The thing I mean — please forgive me for mentioning it — is love, Christian love, or compassion. If you feel this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessity for intellectual honesty. If you feel this, you have all that anybody should need in the way of religion. Although you may not find happiness, you will never know the despair of those whose life is aimless and void of purpose, for there is always something that you can do to diminish the awful sum of human misery. (The Impact of Science on Society [1951, Ch.6], ‘Science and Values’).

The statement above did not make Bertrand Russell a Christian. He, like those from various times and civilisations mentioned by William Barclay, acknowledges an ethical position that he shares with Christians. He says: ‘If you feel this, you have all that anybody should need in the way of religion’, but perhaps instead of religion, he should have said ethics. All these ethical systems mentioned above have much in common with the ethical stance of Christians.

But no religion, belief system or commercial product was ever promoted by emphasising what they have in common with others in the field. For example, washing powders are not sold because they wash clothes – they all do that. No, they wash whiter, cleaner, leave the clothes softer or smelling better, etc. They emphasise these unique selling benefits of the product. After all, why would one start using a new product or change an adherence to a new religion or new belief system unless the new one was in some way at least different, if not superior?

Many churches and Christian organisations seem to be involved in ethical issues. Their clergy discuss and argue about the moral issues of the day, hardly seeming to bring anything uniquely Christian to the debate. They are often praised by people of other faiths and none. But in this scenario evangelism goes by the board, since in many ethical situations there will be a commonality of belief, no matter who is discussing the issue.

St Paul exemplifies this situation in Romans:

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them. (Rom 2:12-15).

St Paul is saying that the Law provides an ethical standard for those schooled in it, but for those ignorant of it, they also have some innate knowledge of the law and have a ‘Law unto to themselves’. We notice this from the many societies mentioned above.

As CS Lewis points out: “All men alike stand condemned, not by alien codes of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt.”

The raison d’etre for Christianity is not to provide a better Law, although it may do that; it is to provide a solution to the problem that St Paul outlines in Romans.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (7:21-25).

Those who are ‘a law unto themselves’ have the same problem. They all fail their own standards of behaviour. Should anyone contest this, some of the media spend a great deal of their time in exposing the hypocrisy of everyone, from celebrities and royalty to the common man. They interview some well known person, pointing out they said or they believed one thing, then did something which denied their avowed belief. Oh, in what schadenfreude the audience indulges, as the interviewee squirms at the exposed hypocrisy. How well this type of interview increases ‘circulation’ of the media!

Jesus had very little involvement with the secular power of Rome. He was mainly involved with individuals. He criticised the religious leaders of his time, because they were leading people astray, but he had no political manifesto. Even the Sermon on the Mount was addressed to his disciples. His mission was bottom-up – change individuals and you will change society. The Great Commission is about converting individuals. One does not convert and baptise nations. The mission of the Church is to proclaim ‘Peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ‘. Ethics follows: it is the cart not the horse!

Some people on this blog have seen the coronavirus plague as a judgement from the Almighty on our secular society. I do not know. If it is, that is also an indictment of us as Christians, in that we have not been the means of converting enough people in our society. Is that why we also are part of this punishment?

This virus is contagious. As I write, there are over one million recorded cases in a few months. On average one person infects 2.5 others. If we Christians were that successful in converting non-believers, we would be building churches at the rate we are having to build hospitals.

Perhaps the proclamation of the gospel has been so weak, or even dead, that like an attenuated or dead virus, it has just made our society immune (apathetic) to the real thing?

Perhaps we should pray something like this: O Lord, so mutate our faith, that by the power of your Spirit we will be able to overcome the apathy of our friends and neighbours and lead them to you. Amen.