Lesson 15: The Simplest Christian Ethic

Prodigal SonThe simplest Christian ethic is based on what Jesus said and did. It begins by believing Jesus said exactly what he meant. It discerns that he lived by what he said. And it assumes if we are to follow him, we are to do the same. Other New Testament writers and the early Church pretty much accepted this ethic.

The most concise record of what Jesus taught is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6: 20- 49). You get the gist of its commandments to love and share unconditionally by contemplating the implications of the most radical of Jesus’ statements, “Love your enemy!” Jesus is calling for an entirely different life that demands repentance as a complete change in the way we live. The motivation to do this is based on the belief that this is the truth that sets us free.

Jesus proclaimed this is to live according to God’s will that sends sun and rain on the good and the evil. God’s Way is not to destroy, but to bless; not to take away, but to provide. You can appreciate what he meant when you understand that the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) and the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16) for all practical purposes say the same thing. Luke shows the graciousness of the father toward all his children; Matthew presents how this works in an economic framework. Yet most Christians I know believe the first is most beautiful story in the Bible and the second the most unjust. Obviously, we are not ready to accept Jesus’ kind of justice that is based not on fairness, but supplying what people need.

Jesus lived by this redemptive ethic. His life is a record of overcoming evil with good. Even in the face of violent death, he remains silent. Jesus’ life from beginning to end remained faithful to God’s covenant that is based on love not retribution. As Paul writes in Romans 5: 6-11 Christ died for us while we were weak, sinners, even enemies. God’s salvation is always redemption, always based on loving enemies.

In this passage to believe is to allow this truth to change our lives. When we accept it, we experience God pouring his love into our hearts. The simplest Christian ethic is then to imitate Jesus. Like him we are to overcome evil with good (I Peter 3: 9 and Romans 12: 17-21). Acts 2 and Acts 4 report this is exactly what the early Church did when they shared according to the principle “from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their needs”. And we know for the first 300 years the Church refrained from bloodshed of all kinds.

The implications for us are radical indeed. They would include no capital punishment and no war. They would include an economic system that provides enough for all. They would call for us to oppose the paganism all around us with only prayer and martyrdom.

Most people respond to this simple Christian ethics by declaring it is impossible and so immoral. I’m not so sure. I think we have to start here and justify every deviation very carefully. On examination, I find most of these are rationalizations for refusing to do God’s will.

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    I agree that people find this simplest Christian ethic to be impossible, but not necessarily immoral. Of course all ethics are “impossible” in the sense that man as a sinner will not be completely ethical. Also the idea of overcoming evil with love is so counter-intuitive that it seems overly idealistic.

    We live in a world whose structure, culture, and laws are profoundly not Christian. How do we square that with our Christian aspirations? One way is to avoid the “simplest Christian ethic” by finding other passages and rules in the Bible (an eye for an eye) that are more consistent with our actual practices. There is an obvious conflict between the ethics of the Old Testament and the New Testament, especially towards “enemies,” that can easily be exploited to justify a large range of actions that don’t fit Jesus’ simple, radical teaching.

    The result of all this is that following the “simplest Christian ethic” becomes an act so radical, so counter-cultural, so “overly idealistic” that very few people have the psychological, ethical, moral, etc. resources to do so. This has been so at least since 312 A.D. when Christianity took a “wrong turn” and became a state religion. At that point Christian ethics changed from that of a small, persecuted sect to that of society at large.

  2. Rita Yeasted says:

    Maybe because we’re human, and we’re far more influenced by our upbringing and life experiences–and the ideas of friends and family–than we’d like to admit. Education has some effect (or should) I think. For example, my father was a John Bircher, a good guy who voted Democratic, but was as anti-government as some of today’s Tea Partiers. I vividly remember running up the hill to our house when I got off the public bus from high school (we had no school bus–Catholic school in 50s) and watched the McCarthy hearings, sincerely believing (as my father did) that he was a national hero.

    That was then, this is now. I entered a convent and was re-educated on the spiritual life and the requirements to follow the Gospel. Then came Vatican II and the civil rights movement (and the Company at Kirkridge), and my politics have become more liberal the older I get. Not so most of my educated brothers and sisters, who are as conservative as I am liberal. I have found that interesting and sometimes distressing, but we grew up yet often did not really change those basic family values of my parents, yet we live them out very differently. Our allegiance to Church doctrine is obviously different as well.

    So I guess my observation is that people all hear the same Bible read on Sunday, but we filter it through our own life experience. If you’re a wealthy doctor like my brother, who “worked hard to get to where he is,” you are not as eager to share your wealth with those “lazy freeloaders” that only take and don’t give. You hear the same Beatitudes, and you filter them with your own life decisions and experience.

  3. Derek says:

    I don’t think people find these Christian ethics to be immoral (perhaps almost impossible). However I think things are seen in a very different light when you attempt to transfer individual choice to government policy.

    For example if someone gave away all they possessed to the poor and glorified the Lord, they would be very well regarded.

    However if you attempt to transfer that concept to government policy then “give” becomes “take” and glorifying the Lord is left out entirely. That’s why “from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their needs” remains associated with “godless commies” as opposed to any sort of Christian movement.

    Similarly following the example of Paul or Christ and being childless to focus on ministry and praying for and showing love to those who are killing you would be seen as exemplary in an individual. As government enforced policy those would probably be seen as crimes against humanity.

    That said I don’t think we should forget about ideals when considering policy. I think the current American concept that you need to separately compartmentalize government and religion means not only have we strayed in some case, but I think it also means those who are religious on the left have not felt the need to go through the mental process of harmonizing leftist/liberal policy and Christianity. Or if they have there has not been a movement to discuss it.

    Also I can’t help but feel that the origin of these policies stems from past (and current) failures of Christian churches to meet the needs of the poor and the widow and to create loving communities. As a result people, even Christians, are looking to “Caesar” to solve societies problems.

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