It seems that among many Christians, it is popular to ignore holy living or ethics. When we look to conservatives, “ethics” is adhering to a strict code of law, where everything that is right and wrong is laid out in black and white. How you act towards others seems to be irrelevant. When we look to liberals or those in the Emergent conversation, it seems that “ethics” is defined by acting in social justice; the ethics of Christ require helping the poor. What you do in your personal life seems to be irrelevant.
In both cases, ethics are treated as rules to follow. Though the liberal/emergent spectrum is more fluid and claims to be relational, it’s really not. It’s fluid concerning personal morality or personal holiness, but not so much when considering public action. For instance, if you say you are a Capitalist, favor letting people fail, or are against most forms of public welfare, then such a Christian would chastise you. If you responded, “This is what my relationship with God has taught me,” they would immediately argue that you are wrong and misguided and most likely point to Scripture to prove their point. Thus, they still operate under a set of rules.
Such rules are good, but only when applied in a general sense. Rules give us a general idea of what we should do – “do not kill” is general, because sometimes killing might be justified (e.g. in defense of another). The ethics of the Bible tend to be general rules for living (making them absolute) that we then apply to our lives in our specific situation (making the application of ethics subjective). While the principle of ethics is absolute, the application of ethics will look different according to time and place.
But being moral relies on one factor more than all others; a true relationship with God. While those who reject Christ can still be moral (it is within their nature to be moral), they can never obtain a “higher” morality as someone who has a relationship with Christ can.
Morality flows from the nature of God. God is either a person or He isn’t a person. If He isn’t a person, this means He lacks a will, which then raises the question, “How can we say He is God?” If He is a person, then He has a will, which means He has a purpose in all that He does. In creating us, this would indicate He has a purpose. That purpose is for us to get closer to Him. However, since He is a person and is higher than humanity, this means that humanity must rise up to Him.
If John, who is the president of a nation, wishes to befriend Peter, who is the peasant of that nation, both must make compromises and change how they react around each other in order to become friends and become closer to each other. It requires change and compromise on both their parts.
God, however, is higher than humanity and therefore does not need to change or compromise. That is, He doesn’t need to conform to us in any way in order to befriend us. We, on the other hand, must be conformed to God in order to befriend God. Thus, whatever flows from His nature is holy and therefore ethical.
In conforming to God, we both work towards personal holiness and toward helping our communities. We have the broad command to “be holy,” and we look to Scripture and our experience with God to see what it means to be holy. When the two align, we know what it is to be holy. In this holiness, we will help others because that is what God does. We will begin to mimic Him and His actions, meaning we will help the public. This help might come in various forms among different people (subjective), but the overall principle of help will remain (absolute).
Christian ethics is not about being personally holy first and then helping the community or about helping the community and then (maybe) becoming personally holy. Rather, Christian ethics is about finding and seeking God and discovering His holiness and then attempting to live in that holiness. When we do this, we both grow in our personal holiness and in our public holiness. The target should never be ourselves or the community, but rather our target should be God.
In doing the above, we must accept that often times we are wrong. Often times, the things that make us feel good – such as rampant drug use, sexual activities, drinking, constant entertainment, wealth, etc – may go against God’s nature and therefore prevent us from conforming to His nature. If I try to be personally holy, then I can define what is holy by making up a set of rules. If I try to be publicly holy, then I can ignore my own personal conduct so long as I help my community. If I try to conform to the nature of God, then I am without excuse as to my actions and must conform to Someone higher than myself. To submit to the nature of God, one must be humble.
Though rules exist, keep in mind that these are broad rules. In order to understand these rules properly and to apply them perfectly, we must seek after God first and all else will fall into place.