Pastors and church leaders have to deal with ethical issues every day, but what is Christian ethics, and how can they sharpen their sense of ethics? Theologian Russell D. Moore offers answers to these frequently asked questions in an interview.
Most people have a limited understanding of ethics, as they think it either involves personal, moral choices alone or has to do with politics, said Moore, dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, during an interview with David Mathis of Desiring God ministry.
These two things are included in ethics in Christian understanding, but that's not the entirety of it, said Moore in the video interview posted on the ministry's website.
"In scripture the way that you see an ethical vision of reality, it's first and foremost to do with when Jesus told us to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness," explained Moore, who also serves as professor of Christian Theology and Ethics. "Well, that's ethics… What are you doing when you're seeking the Kingdom of God… so what does that look like, what pleases God… when we see God in Christ respond to the cries of the fatherless or the widow or the oppressed? That informs the way we ought to live, how we imitate Christ, how we live the life of Christ out."
This understanding also changes our dynamic congregationally, added Moore.
A pastor or a church leader has to deal with ethical issues, "not only because part of what it means to be sanctified is to be able to think ethically… but also in preaching of the Gospel much of what you're doing is a call to repentance and has to be defined ethically."
However, ethics can't be a list of issues with the right Christian answers to those issues, Moore cautioned. Ethical problems are changing. They are complex and you cannot anticipate the way people are going to be challenged in the future. Previous generations, for example, didn't have to think if human cloning is ethical.
"You got to have a broad picture of what does God's Kingdom look like, what does God delight in, what does God rejoice in, what does it mean to love neighbor, how do I have a sense of the dignity of human beings, how do I have a sense of the wellbeing of the community around me… so I'm loving people made in the image of Christ. That means having a constant reflection upon who Jesus is, the kind of life He is ongoingly living and then to be discerning."
The critical part of ethics is in discernment, Moore stressed. "I think ethics is just a subset of wisdom."
Jesus reflected wisdom, he said. The Bible says Jesus was always able to read the hearts of people around Him. "I don't think that is Jesus in His deity; He's not doing anything supernatural at that point of time, although I believe Jesus is God." Jesus, with the power of the Holy Spirit, knew what human nature is like, what sin is like and how it shows up.
There's a danger in not teaching ethics to congregations, as people will then get their ethical sense from the culture that is there right now. For example, while people know that divorce is not good, they may justify it in their own situations, Moore said. He mentioned a prominent feminist, who rightly scoffed at the polls on abortion that show that the majority of American people are pro-life. She pointed out that most Americans are pro-life with three exceptions: rape, incest and "my situation."
"That doesn't happen suddenly. You don't have a sudden breach of ethics," Moore suggested. "You have a conscience that is not able to operate… is able to be shut down." Conscience has to be functioning and working, and that happens in "very, very small decisions we take every day."
While everybody thinks about ethics, for Christians what really matters is whether their sense of ethics is biblically attuned, Moore said. For that, you need to be immersed in the Word of God, looking around and questioning and reasoning with one another.