Back to the Question of Situational ethics

This past Sunday, we had the opportunity to consider the story of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus, chapter one.  They were commanded by Pharaoh to kill the boy infants born to the Hebrew women.  Because they feared God, they refused to obey Pharaoh’s command.  When called to account for their failure to heed his command, they lied and said that the Hebrew women were vigorous and gave birth before they arrived.

We find a similar story in Joshua, chapter two.  Joshua sent spies into the land to discern the strength of Jericho.  The two spies were hidden by Rahab the harlot on the roof of her house.  When the authorities came to her seeking to arrest the spies, she lied to them; she sent them out on a false report and continued to harbor the men until she could help them escape from the city.  And just as with the Hebrew midwives, God blessed her obedience.

The question that arises from both of these stories is, “Did God condone their lies?”  Such a question launches us into a discussion of ethics.  While ethical categories and theories abound, I want to present to us three of the most common theories regarding ethical decision making.

The FIRST is the theory of “moral absolutism” which contends that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong regardless of other contexts such as their consequences or the intentions behind them.  Practically applied, the theory of moral absolutism would commend Rahab for initially helping the spies to hide and escape detection.  However, moral absolutism would also contend that she absolutely had the obligation to tell the truth when questioned by the authorities, even though it would result in the murder of men she was attempting to help.

The SECOND is the theory of “graded absolutism” which qualifies moral absolutes.  It contends that a moral absolute, like “Do not kill,” can be greater or lesser than another moral absolute, like “Do not lie,” based on extenuating circumstances.  In this theory, the person is obligated to obey the greater absolute to accomplish the greater good.  Practically applied, graded absolutism would commend Rahab for choosing the greater good and obeying the greater absolute to protect human life, even by lying.

The THIRD is the theory known as the “third alternative view.”  This view contends that there are never any real moral conflicts and that there is always a third alternative.  Persons just need to be wise and exercise creative lateral thinking to discover the third alternative to avoid moral conflict.  Once again, to apply this theory practically, Rahab could have helped the spies, and when she was questioned regarding their whereabouts, rather than telling the truth or lying, she could have chosen the third alternative and said, “I would rather not say.”

Biblically speaking, I believe Christians are called to approach ethical decisions on the basis of moral absolutism.  Our God is a holy God, He is perfect in moral purity.  He has given us very clear commandments and He has called us to be a holy people who obey those commandments.  He Himself is the standard that we are to strive for in all our decisions and behaviors.  Though we see graded absolutism being practiced by persons in Scripture, as with the Hebrew midwives and with Rahab the harlot, we must not conclude that God endorses shifting our ethical standards on the basis of extenuating circumstances.

God blessed the Hebrew midwives and He blessed Rahab the harlot because these women feared Him and walked by faith and obeyed Him insofar as they protected human life.  He did not condone their lies.  As Calvin noted in his commentary on Exodus one, the lying of the midwives was reprehensible and displeasing to God.  However, since no action on our part is free of sin, God rewarded their greater work of obeying Him and saving children even though it was tainted with the impurity of the lie.  In fact, this active grace of God is the only reason He accepts or is pleased by anything we accomplish in our flesh.

But aren’t there extreme situations, such as these two examples, where one commandment may have to be broken in order to obey a greater one?  Perhaps in extremely rare cases, but that does not absolve a person of the sin of breaking the commandment.  In 99.99999% of ethical cases, we will not be faced with situations where human life is at stake.  Furthermore, it is simply dangerous in our fallen world to make graded absolutism our personal ethical policy.  Even the most mature believer can still be tempted by their flesh to embrace an “ends-justifies-the-means” mentality.  If we fail to espouse moral absolutism, we can quickly degrade into serious sin.  We can find ourselves justifying reckless driving on the basis that we don’t want to be late and lose our job; we can find ourselves justifying lying on the basis that we don’t want to anger our parents; we can find ourselves justifying stealing on the basis that we want to give our kids better presents at Christmas.

God has given us moral absolutes, and we should always be striving, by His grace, to keep those absolutes.  “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3