Putting ethics in its place

I throw magazines in a pile for reading when a little time becomes available; sometimes those magazines linger for years. Such was the case with the Fall 2004 issue of Christian Ethics Today. I unearthed it this week and quickly found a jewel.

Joe Trull, editor at the time, wrote a lead article titled “Should Ethics Come First?” This full article is available at the CET web site, but I want to highlight a few portions.

Theologian James McClendon Jr., in his Systematic Theology: Ethics, asked the question that became Trull’s title.  “Unlike most theologians, McClendon argues for the chronological priority of ethics,’ noting theologians are forever leaving ethics until last, and at times leaving ethics out altogether,” Trull writes.

“McClendon is right—ethics came first in Christian history. The first disciples of Jesus did not proclaim a new philosophy or another national religion. Rather they lived as a new community—’resident aliens’ (Phil.3:20) whose lives were counterculture to the world. The church of the first century was identified not by its theological teachings or its mystical revelations—in the beginning Christianity was a new way of life.

“In a Graeco-Roman society of vicious immorality, where wealth was worshiped, life was cheap, and purity and chastity were vanishing, came a new moral influence. The extraordinary ethical life of Christians was a moral witness that astounded and attracted the first-century world. That is why the earliest disciples of Jesus were called ‘people of the Way’ (Acts 9:2) even before they were called Christians.” (p. 2)

I do not necessarily agree with the beginning of these paragraphs. It seems to me a new understanding of God’s revelation to humanity and a new relationship between the two came first, but I’m slow to disagree with Dr. Trull because he was my seminary ethics professor and his understanding of things has converted me on other matters. That said, there is no doubt that very, very early in its history, the church quickly became known to the broader world by how believers lived their lives.

That, of course, is no longer the case. Studies continually reveal that Christians in America live their lives about like non-believers. Either non-Christians are doing just as well in living like Jesus or both groups are not. The answer is the latter, because Jesus has words that challenge many popular notions of our society.

Christians of the not-to-distant past had a tremendous impact on the English-speaking world. Two hundred years ago, Christians led the effort to end the British slave trade and eventually slavery itself. William Wilberforce, whose primary motivations arose from his Christian faith, led the anti-slavery effort on the political front.

One hundred years later, at the end of the 19th century, Christians in England and America “cried out for reform in light of the social problems growing out of the Industrial Revolution,” Trull says.

“The mushrooming inner cities were congested with the poor working class. Economic injustices became the breeding grounds for crime and moral corruption.

“The Social Gospel Movement focused on the ethics of the kingdom of God and sought to apply Jesus’ teachings to bring social harmony and eliminate gross injustices. To their credit, these SGM leaders brought about the abolition of child labor and influenced legislation that improved working conditions and the lot of the urban poor.

However, due to the liberal theology of the SGM (optimism about human nature and the possibility of establishing the kingdom of God on earth), more individualistic Christian groups rejected both the theology and the ethics of ‘cultural Protestantism.'”

That theological problem caused many evangelical Christians to turn their backs on social ethics in order to focus on evangelism and missions. It should not have been an either/or decision; it should have been ethics, evangelism, and missions.

In Southern Baptist circles that began to change in the middle of the 20th century, but I stress “began.” That beginning is, in many ways, attributed to one man–the late T.B. Maston, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Maston produced a cadre of Baptist leaders with a high view of Scripture and a commitment to the importance of ethics or living a life consistent with the life and teachings of Christ.

Still, progress has been slow and there is much farther to go. Writing in 2004, Trull noted the following:

“In a day when ethical issues are numerous and complex, what is our response? Churches seem to avoid ethical questions. So concerned with ‘Growth’ and ‘User Friendly Congregations,’ many modern church leaders opt for neutrality—take no stand on anything that is controversial, just confess belief in patriotism, the American way, and bottom-line success.

“I agonize with church and denominational leaders who are trying to keep their ship afloat. Yet, isn’t the kingdom of God bigger than being Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or even the inoffensive No-Name Church that is obsessed with neutrality? My how we need prophets today like Micah, Amos, and Isaiah.

“And now the punch-line—my own grand obsession! If ethics came first in Christian history, if the first-century world was turned ‘upside-down’ by the moral witness of Jesus’ disciples, if the need for Christian ethics is widespread in our morally confused culture, then why in heaven’s name are we minimizing Christian ethics in the classroom and in pulpits? Why are we retreating? Why are we so reluctant to be honest with the teachings of Jesus?

“Have we been corrupted by our culture? Are we so intent on church success that we have sacrificed the ‘hard sayings of Jesus’ in order to be numero uno?”

It seems in 2011, those are still legitimate questions. There is reason for hope. The emerging Christian generation understand at a deep level that ethics is a key part of Christian theology. We now have an opportunity. If we can wed that intuitive understanding with biblical and societal knowledge then the future is looking brighter for the Christian faith and, therefore, for the world.

Work cited:
Trull, Joe E.. “Should Ethics Come First?” ChristianEthicsToday. The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Fall 2004 (Issue 51 Page 2)

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