How can Christians engage in fruitful discussions within our culture about issues of morality? One may also ask how anyone may do so in our current pluralistic context. There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what ethics are and how one may establish or argue for a particular ethical framework. We have some in our culture who think they are ethical relativists. However, this belief mysteriously disappears when it comes to establishing civil law or protecting their own personal rights. Others may have a sense of “right” and “wrong” but don’t really know where they got their moral standards. There are also Christians, who even share the same authority for ethics, but still cannot agree on what the Bible says. Many times engaging in a discussion of morality provides an opportunity for people to identify the basis for their ethics or to think clearly and consistently about them. Beyond this it is important to think clearly about the relationship between law, ethics (morality), and religion. For example, where do appeals to religion fit into a discussion concerning public policy in a system that requires freedom of religion? I hope to explore these dynamics in future posts.
For now, it may be helpful to identify how a Christian basis for morality fits into the overall study of ethical theory. There are relativistic theories, command theories, utilitarian theories, deontological theories, and virtue theories (see Ruble, Critical Thinking, 144-151). A common version of command theory is “the divine command theory, according to which only God has the real power to create morality. What God has commanded is moral, and only because God has commanded it” (Ruble, Critical Thinking, 146). The basis for Christian morality is whatever God has said is moral. This is unique from the other theories because it inherently includes religion as a part of the discussion.
As a proponent of this view, I would make one important modification. Righteousness is not established only because God said that it is righteous; righteousness is established because God is righteous. Right and wrong are not established by his whimsical set of rules, as if he could have just as well established a different set. Righteousness flows from his character and it will not change. Other command theories end up being another type of relativity theory since the standard is relative to whoever is in command (Ruble, Critical Thinking, 147). The Christian divine command theory, however, is unique in its claim that the character of God is the basis for righteousness for all humans.