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Ethics from the Inside

By Patti Duckworth, Associate Executive Minister, ABC/Northwest

Of late, we have been accosted by numerous reports of what can only be termed outrageous behavior. Whether it is murdering people on camera, leaving children in cars during the summer heat, scamming seniors out of their retirement in the name of a charity, or cheating on spouses via a web-service, we are faced with blatant and consistent events that are destroying lives and well-being. The question “can ethics be taught?” has long held my concern, and every time a new leak, scandal or crime is detailed, I ask the question anew. To a certain extent, I have always felt ethics can and should be taught, and preached. But doing so effectively – that is, teaching/preaching where the outcome is people actually behaving in moral ways on a regular basis – well, that is where the rubber meets the road. 

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A great deal is written and said about this topic; just type the question into your favorite search engine and you will see. I did that recently. Including the variations, there were 4.1 million hits. Most writings look at behavior only as outward actions. Morality becomes a matter of conformity for public consumption. Often writings of religious nature also come from the conformity viewpoint: God says do or don’t do something so we humans either get on board or we don’t. As a result we gain the reward or pay the price. Morality happens only when others are watching, a reward is gained, or punishment is avoided. However, moral behavior that is primarily the result of conformity to external forces leaves me deeply dissatisfied. The stage is set for behavior that comes as a result of force and power, two things human nature does not manage well. Remove enough of the consequences (force) or call into question the reasons for “good” behavior (power), and those with the power or position usually behave in ways that only benefit themselves.  King David’s actions regarding Uriah and Bathsheba and the results are one example (2 Sam. 11, Ps. 51).

For ethics (values) and morality (behavior) to be dependable under pressure, what we need is goodness that emanates from our very core. Without the internal piece – the desire that results in being and doing good deep within us regardless of circumstances – the results are shaky at best: I am good or do good only when I don’t get caught doing /being wrong or I get some kind of reward. We aren’t naturally or habitually good at our core, but this core of goodness is part of the salvation Jesus Christ offers those who choose to follow Him. Jesus invites us to come live like Him.

Hugh Halter, author of Flesh: Learning to Be Human like Jesus, calls living like Christ whimsical holiness. “You live as holy as you can, but there’s a whimsy to it. When people sin around you, you don’t have to gasp for air or wring your hands or pull your hair out or lock your kids in the house. You learn as a missionary and as a missionary family how Jesus prayed for his disciples: ‘Father, I pray not that you will take them out of the world’ – even knowing what this world is like – ‘but I pray that you will protect them from the evil one.’” (John 17:15) 

Another way to express living like Christ in the world is what I call ethical faith. Our Baptist forbearers in the northwest called it “Christ life.” It is not enough to just believe the right things. Those beliefs must be motivated by love of the Lord and demonstrated by Biblically-based actions that promote the present and eternal well-being of ourselves and those around us (Mark 12:28-31).

So back to the question. Can ethics be ‘preached’ or taught?  Absolutely. However, first steps to effectively preaching or teaching morals (and not winning arguments) is to live a “Christ life” reflected by a set of convictions that come from a relationship with Christ and based on Scripture. In short, our behavior needs to be aligned with values that are first Biblically based, then relationally sensitive, and articulated in both word and deed. Our motivation is being like Jesus who went around doing good (Acts 10:38), not avoiding bad consequences. 

Please notice two things: the focus is neither on personal preference nor a total list of specific issues. In Christ-centered ethics, primary place is not given to personal preferences, or “ethical egoism.”  It is on the complete and total transformation and salvation of every person through Christ’s work in hearts and minds. In Christ-centered ethics, Christ’s transforming truth needs to be spoken and lived out in all of life. There must be both grace AND truth (John 1:14).

Our next ethics conference will cover several issues that confront pastoral and lay leaders within the context of church life. As healthy churches and leaders, we want to create within and among our congregations an atmosphere of living in Christ-like ways, to be clear about why we do what we do, and to give a Biblically-based reason that comes out of our relationship with Christ. Some of the topics at the conference will be healthy boundaries regarding sexuality, finances, social media, work with children and youth, and self-care. The conference is for all pastors and lay people who have leadership responsibilities of any kind in the church. It will meet one of the requirements for ordination and fill the conditions insurance companies make for coverage regarding work with children and youth. Join us for the ministry ethics conference November 13 and 14, graciously hosted by First Baptist Church of Twin Falls, Idaho.  More information will follow next month.  And look for the webinar in the near future.  

In the meantime, I invite you to find one way this week to live your faith on purpose, to do good which comes from your relationship with Christ so that it “causes a conversation to happen where the good news can make sense, and people can have a transformation of heart.”