weighing ethical issues

I have been thinking about the cultural pressure on Christian physicians, lawyers, educators, pharmacists, counselors, photographers, florists, and bakers (this list is growing fast), and I have created a grid to help Christians talk to each other about our response. We may not agree on our answers to these questions, but at least we can gain clarity on where we stand and why. This is my initial attempt, and I welcome any kind suggestions for improvement.

While different scenarios may vary in moral intensity (e.g. Should Christians take pictures for a homosexual wedding? Should Christian pharmacists sell abortifacients? Should Christian doctors perform transgender surgery?), we must answer three questions about each situation.

     1. Moral Question: Is it morally permissible to do X?

     2. Christian Freedom Question: Should Christians who disagree with me have the freedom in Christ to do or not to do X? Is this act a debatable matter of Christian freedom?

     3. Religious Freedom Question: Should Christians who believe it is morally impermissible to do X retain legal permission not to violate their conscience?

We may answer differently depending on the issue, but here are the most likely possibilities (I apologize for using the terms conservative and progressive. I do not mean to pigeon hole anyone and I realize that one’s position may change depending on the issue. These are broad terms that roughly seem to work).

     A. Consistent Conservative: this person believes that if we say No to #1, then we must also say No to #2 and Yes to #3. If an act is morally impermissible, then it is not a debatable matter of Christian freedom and we must be allowed room to refrain.

     B. Inconsistent Conservative: this person may say No to #1 but then Yes to #2 and #3. For example, he may believe that homosexual marriage is morally wrong but he wants to give room for other Christians who believe it is okay. There is inevitable tension in this view, and we may reasonably wonder how long this position will be maintained. It seems that eventually this person will either allow his views on morality to trump Christian freedom or allow his views on Christian freedom to change his moral position. If the latter happens, he will find himself in one of the following camps.

     C. Charitable Progressive: this person answers Yes to all three questions. She believes it is morally permissible to do X but graciously allows space for her brothers and sisters to disagree and defends their legal right to do so.

     D. Conflicted Progressive: this person answers Yes to #1 and #2 but No to #3. He believes Christians have the right to follow their consciences but they must be willing to suffer whatever legal consequences they have coming.

     E. Condemning Progressive: this person answers a strong Yes to #1 and No to #2 and #3. She believes the act in question is not only morally permissible. It is morally obligatory. She argues that fellow Christians must perform the act in question and they lack biblical and legal grounds for refusing.

I realize “Condemning” is a loaded term, but it fits my alliteration and reflects how this position is perceived by consistent conservatives. Of course, consistent conservatives may also be perceived as condemning. They must be careful to hold their truth in grace. Tone matters.

Is this grid helpful? Any major or minor tweaks that you would make?

Photo by houstondwiPhotos mp. Via Flikr. Used by permission.


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  1. Good thoughts … I would focus a bit on the role of “conscience.” Conscience (in the Bible) is not a judge, but a witness. It is a witness to the worldview and values we recognize and apply. So we do not follow our conscience, we follow our WV and values. Conscience is merely an internal witness to our self-reflection. Furthermore, if our self-reflection is wrong, our conscience will not be bothered IF that judgement is part of our WV and values because the conscience is a slave to the WV and values we recognize and apply. See my chapter on Conscience in the Subjective Challenges section in Decision Making God’s Way. 😉

  2. You are right about the conscience, Gary. It’s important to note that just because our conscience is clear doesn’t mean we will get a free pass with God.

  3. I believe we don’t give the innate conscience enough credit. Knowledge of right and wrong (sin) is not as subjective as some (the world and to some extent the church) would think. I like what Augustine writes in Confessions, Book VIII, ” …the decision to renounce worldly ambition and follow you alone was that I could as yet see no certain light by which to steer my course. But the day had dawned when I was stripped naked in my own eyes and my conscience challenged me within. “‘ Where is your ready tongue now? You have been professing yourself reluctant to throw off your load of illusion because truth was uncertain. Well it is certain now…”
    Augustine said when we get rid of pride and are ” stripped naked” our conscience is permitted to surface. Paul writes,”You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord.”(Eph 5:8) Whether it is homosexuality, abortion, or shoplifting the flaw is not in not knowing what is sinful. James Montgomery Boice in his Commentary on Ephesians, instructs, “The problem is not the standard (innate in our conscience). The problem is ourselves (moral blindness). Then John Stott adds, “Holiness is not a condition into which we drift but rather an active working out of WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN WORKED INTO US.”(Baker) The Bible gives little or no space to subjectivity or ignorance of the law but it does have a lot to say about blindness and forgiveness.

  4. I had to face this issue just recently and it led me to leave my church. The issue was: Do I feel comfortable sharing communion (a new church initiative) with another church whose main leadership (the overarching body of local churches) allows for same sex married leadership and same sex marriage ceremonies? I searched the Scriptures and found a clear answer, in the negative. The issue for me is yes, to accepting all sinners in our midst but no, to allowing those in leadership who practice sinful lifestyles. The crucial words here are practice and lifestyle. I voiced my objection to my pastor and we decided to part amically. She doesn’t see the issue as a “salvation” issue, whereas I do.

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