Galatians 2:20 ESV, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
In the world of Christian ethics there is a tendency to imagine the lines between right and wrong being drawn much more precisely than is the actual case. As Christians, we view the scriptures as our “rule for faith and practice.” We seek within the pages of holy writ guidance for right and wrong, so that we can live a life pleasing to God, the author of scripture. This search for moral direction within scripture is admirable. It is also wise. However, we have to agree that not every choice in life is spelled out within scripture. When facing such choices we have to look in a different direction. Fortunately, God has given us tools to use to find the right course of action.
Before getting into the details about making such decisions, let me remind you of another problem. Many people wrongly assume that every possible choice can be decided by looking for a command in scripture. “I am considering action A. If I look hard enough there should be a scripture telling me to do A or to not do A. Then I simply obey the words of scripture, and morality is easy.” However, Christian morality, like all moral reasoning, is far more complex than that. This error comes from two false assumptions:
- All actions can be classified as morally forbidden or morally binding.
- Scripture provides exhaustive moral guidance—covering all possible moral questions.
The second is easy to address. Scripture’s moral instructions were never meant to be exhaustive. A human life is made up of innumerable choices, from the moment one is capable of moral choice to the moment one is no longer capable to make such choices, one must decide moment by moment what action to take. Some choices will require little thought—for example, we make some choices simply because of our culture or from long practice, as a sort of ethical muscle memory. However, even a moral choice without thought is still a moral choice, just a habitual one.
In case you think all of life’s possible choices can be found in the pages of scripture remember the one life which scripture records in far more detail than any other—that of Christ Jesus. John tells us that not all the books in the world could hold all the things that Jesus did (John 21:25). If this is true of simply recording the deeds done in a three year period of a single life, imagine how many books it would take to lay out “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” commands for every possible choice faced in every possible human life in every possible time.
This erroneous thinking is actually tied to the first false assumption above. We imagine the world as “black and white” in all moral questions. In doing this we classify everything as either right or wrong. So long as we understand right or wrong to mean “acceptable or unacceptable” this is fine. Acceptability is morally vague. If an action is acceptable, then it is something I may choose, but if I do not choose it then no harm, no foul. This is because acceptable is not obligatory—it is…um…acceptable. However, a problem arises when we try to give the impetus of moral force to every choice by classifying everything as either morally obligatory or morally forbidden. If we imagine that every possible action is either morally forbidden by God (Thou shalt not…) or morally demanded by God (Thou shalt…) then life is lived far more harshly than scripture ever intended. We can easily find ourselves in situations where one must choose between two equally immoral actions. This usually happens because we have applied scriptural morality in a way that was never intended.
When morally right and wrong are understood to mean moral obligation to act or to act not, we see the two extremes of black and white separated by a great gulf of grey. By this, don’t imagine that I mean vague or relative morality. What I mean is, along with the morally obligatory and the morally forbidden, there is also a category of morally neutral actions. These are actions that God neither demands nor forbids we perform. In these actions, we are free to choose either way without moral violation. In these cases I may go right or left without any moral results.
If I am sitting here on a morning and want to spend the day at the local amusement park for some entertainment, are there any moral imperatives to consider? Well, if it is a workday, and to go I would have to call and lie to my boss, then going to the amusement park would be immoral. Let’s imagine that I have volunteered with a local agency and promised to take some children to the amusement park, but decide that I would rather not go and break my promise by calling and pretending to be sick. In this case, not going would be immoral. But are these the only possible scenarios? Of course not. If it is my day off and I have no other obligations, the decision to go to the amusement park is morally neutral—I am neither obligated to go, nor forbidden to do so.
Many Christians put little thought to the morally neutral. Some of the more legalistic among us imagine there is no such thing as morally neutral. They often do this by misapplying James 4:17. The problem comes from reading it in the King James Version, which says, “Therefore, to him who knoweth to do good, but doeth it not, for him it is sin.” It is too often assumed this means that if I see possible action A, and I can tell that it would have some good result—perhaps it would help someone, or would improve someone’s life—then I am obliged to perform it. This would change any action with a possible good result into a moral imperative. However, this is not what the passage is saying. It is a bit more obvious in modern translations, such as the ESV which reads: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The issue in James 4:17 is showing that moral imperatives can be positive or negative. They can command us to act, just as bindingly as they tell us to refrain. It is too easy to say, “I have not done x, y or z, so I have behaved morally.” But morality can also bind us to an action so failing to do something morally binding is just as immoral as doing something forbidden. However, this does not make everything binding. It merely addresses those things that are truly binding.
Part of the problem with applying everything as morally obligatory or morally forbidden is that it destroys the concept of an action being praiseworthy or of an action going beyond one’s moral duty (supererogatory actions). Actions beyond one’s duty and therefore praiseworthy are actions where the person was morally free not to act, but chose to act anyways. They were not obliged to go either way, but they took action. Was Jesus morally bound to die on the cross? If so, then he deserved the death. He was morally free to choose to escape that death. His death is praiseworthy because he was not morally obligated to die, but chose to do so. You can see even greater danger to the “all actions are always morally obligatory or morally forbidden,” when you apply this back to this example of Jesus’ death. If this is true (one is always morally obligated either to act or not act, with no morally neutral) then since we have already determined that Jesus was not morally obligated to die, then he must have been morally obligated to live. If so, then receiving the death that we all agree he had the power to prevent would mean Jesus acted immorally by dying for us. If all choices are either black or white with no grey, meaning all actions are either morally forbidden or morally obligatory with no morally neutral, then either Jesus died because he deserved it as a sinner, or he sinned by dying. It should be obvious that such a dichotomous look at all moral considerations is indefensible. We must recognize the morally neutral in order to have any sensible morality.
One reason many want to deny the idea of moral neutrality of certain actions or choices is because it is in this area that most moral difficulty arises. If I accept that scripture does not lay out exactly how I must act in each and every choice of life, then I am forced to expend great effort in making my own choices. This effort is actually a sign of maturity. Years ago, when working as a substitute teacher in a small rural school on a Native Reservation, I was often assigned to work with the middle school because they were the most difficult. I would always tell the class, “If you act like an adult, I will treat you like an adult; act like a child, I will treat you like a child.” One day a student raised his hand and asked, “Mr. Cluck, what’s the difference?” I responded that “A child does what is right because doing otherwise brings punishment, but an adult does what is right simply because it is right.” The mature must learn how to know right from wrong and learn to act in the right way by internalizing these so that there is no more need for direction (this is the essence of the morality of the New Covenant, Heb 5:12-14 and Heb 8:11). The mature does not act out of a fear of punishment but out of a developed desire to do right.
Most effort to find a direct command in scripture to morally require either action or abstinence are inspired by a lack of confidence. We may believe the other person incapable of making a right choice, so we look for guidance for them. We may believe ourselves unable to convince them, so we look for a written command to force them. These may be what we admit to inspiring us, but there is one thing we will seldom admit though deep down it is the most likely cause of this effort. We simply do not trust the Holy Spirit to guide them. We do not trust the Holy Spirit to change them. We want to play the part of the Holy Spirit by finding a way to make our own moral pronouncements binding. When we do this to ourselves, we may simply not trust the Lord’s resolve to save us. We may fear that God is just waiting for some reason, some excuse to scratch our name out of the book of Life.
Don’t misunderstand me. If scripture says “Do it” then you do it. If scripture says “Do it not” then do not do it. If there is no command, look for a principle to guide you. However, if there is no scripture to command and no principle to guide then choose wisely, and confidently. Of course, someone may always come to you later and show you a principle or passage you missed. When this happens, accept the correction, repent of the action, ask forgiveness and move on. Christian morality was meant to improve us, not to condemn us—“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1).