William M. Tillman
Some time ago in response to my question, "Why should one study Christian ethics?" a student answered, "Because it's required to graduate!" Certainly fulfilling the requirements of a degree plan is a worthy motivation. Yet, it falls beneath some higher motivational and valuing levels.
This chapter will attempt to answer the question, "Why study Christian ethics?" with some positive suggestions toward the rationale for the study and application of this discipline. The outline essentially posits some of these reasons. The careful reader will be able to discern a definition of the discipline emerging as well. For the not so careful reader, the majority of the chapter involves delineating a description of Christian ethics. A final section will expand upon the normative nature of the enterprise that is Christian ethics.
A rampant heretical assumption is that every Christian will know automatically (by virtue of his or her conversion) the right thing to do and will act out of that knowledge. This assumption virtually knocks the air out of the assertion which says every Christian should not only be about the business of learning the right but also acting upon what he or she knows is right.
A new Christian does not come fully mature into the life of the kingdom. Those with the most profound understanding of conversion to Christ's way of life still need cultivation and nurture in the ways of the Christian life.
Celebrity conversions often are given much attention, sometimes to the detriment of the individual who testifies of great changes of life-style. Observation of such persons over a long period of time reveals that these, along with those who have much quieter conversion experiences, should not be hurried in their understanding of the living of the Christian life.
Christian ethics is in one sense an emphasis study. That is, it, more than any branch of theological study, is geared specifically toward matters of virtue, character, rightness and wrongness, and application of such knowledge to the multiple circumstances of life in all of its personal and corporate relationships.
None of this is to say that a new Christian, or any other Christian for that matter, is incapable of making ethical decisions without a study of Christian ethics. Quite the contrary, anyone reading this material is already making ethical decisions. The point is to examine and evaluate decision making in light of the best resources which biblical materials, sociological data, and decision-making principles and skills can provide. To avail yourself of such knowledge and skills in application entails, at the least, proper stewardship of one's life, and, at the best, comprises what it means to follow the high calling of Jesus Christ.
Most who read this book will do so for academic reasons. Its contents will be assigned for readings, testing, and general knowledge. But why are such assignments made? One major reason is that people—theologians, ethicists, and curriculum experts—have determined over a period of centuries that a study and application of the Christian faith is a necessary part of the education for the person who would call himself or herself an accomplished and theologically educated individual. Well-rounded theological education demands that ethics be a part of the curriculum even for those who do not recognize the necessity of the study when they begin.
A characteristic mentality of many students is either-or thinking. Whether out of sociological background or psychological disposition, individuals come into educational settings ready to hear only one side of an issue or assuming every ethical concern has only one clear right and one clear wrong response. Obviously a student with these predispositions considers ethical reflection to be unimportant.
Yet the testimony of those who have invested themselves in ethical study is that Christian ethics provides a needed balance to other academic and practical studies. An understanding of ethics is essential to a full understanding of any other discipline, such as biblical studies, historical studies, theological studies, and practical studies; for ethics is integrally intertwined in each and all of these.
The matter of relating Christian faith consequently includes conversation with other disciplines or professions. A constructive view of ministry enables us to realize that contact with many professional spheres of life is imperative. While the Christian does not need to have special expertise in any or all of those areas, it is incumbent upon each of us to be aware of those areas in order to ask the ethical questions appropriate to those areas. An avenue for further witness and application of the gospel can sometimes be opened by the ability to dialogue with the ethical dilemmas of another vocational interest.
The Christian ethicist should be encouraged that so many professional fields are developing ethics courses as a part of their academic credentialing processes. Though many of these developments have come because of ethical laxness in the various professions, openness to a search for integrity provides new opportunities for Christian ethicists to act as consultants in previously closed arenas.
Medical ethics, business ethics, legal ethics, engineering ethics, educational ethics, political ethics, journalistic ethics are only a few of the burgeoning directions for ethical inquiry. In some ways ministers are no different than any of the professionals of these fields in functioning as responsible members of society. If for no other reason than their individual responsibility to society, ministers should study Christian ethics.