Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership

Ethics – its not just a theory

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Introduction – What Comprises a Theology of Ethics?

man hugging a woman wearing black tank top

Living an integrated faith

It is easy for ethical models to be disconnected from real life. James McClendon is one of many who have worked on creating ethical models that exercise a theology of ethical decision-making. McClendon (1986) writes that to be truly distinctive as Christian ethics – talking about morality must correlate with the fact that we are “. . . (1) part of the natural order, organic beings, bodies in an organic continuum, God’s natural creation; but also (2) part of a social world that is constituted first by the corporate nature of Christian existence, the church, and thereby our share in human society, God’s social creation, as well; and (3) part of an eschatological realm, the kingdom of God, the ‘new world’ (καινή κτίσις) established by God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.”[1]

McClendon summarizes these three strands as:[2]

  • body– we live in a body and so its desires and needs are not in themselves a problem but a blessing and a way to interface with our surroundings.
  • social – life finds meaning both in its connection to others and ultimately in our share in Christ’s story
  • resurrection – makes it inescapably clear that the story is to be marked with incalculable surprises. It summons us to a deeper engagement with our context not on the basis of known rules but on an eschatological basis that looks for the work of God’s promise that is unconfined by the way things appear to be.

In thinking through his theology, McClendon seeks to avoid a compartmentalized view of ethical thinking that often characterizes the way Christians behave ethically. Hence his efforts at explaining the interconnectedness of body, social, and resurrection realities in ethical thinking. He reinforces his project noting that:

…Paul was not willing to reduce Christian ethics to the third strand by denying the contributions of nature and of the storied community to the Christian situation – he was not willing to reject strands one and two in order to capitalize on the Christian strand.[3](258)

McClendon desires a theology on ethics to serve as a mirror that can confront the church with her potential convictions to ask whether she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. In reading the case below, keep this challenge in mind. How would you answer the question raised by my former student? In what ways does my answer keep the recognition of how the church can be in body, social, and resurrection perspectives rather than simply recognizing how the Church is? What changes would you make to my answer? What aspects of the question did I not address?

The Case

Dr. Wheeler,

Sorry to reach out suddenly but I got some serious question that I just don’t know how to answer. A Friend of mine recently came to me and told me that his close friend (of whom he had feeling for but never expressed and grew into a brother sister love) came to him and asked him to sponsor her; meaning to marry her for papers. I don’t know how to answer this.[4]

He says that he’s only considering it because he wants to help her. He feels that as long as it’s done through city hall that he wouldn’t feel like it’s done officially under God and maybe they might grow to love each other seeing as they are close and if not he’s ok with it.

What are your opinions?

I feel that a marriage is a marriage and if he goes with it it’s under God. So, divorce shouldn’t even be an option, but I don’t know.

All feedback is very appreciated on this delicate subject.

Jerry.

An Analysis

Jerry,

Your friend is working under a false premise. An agreement founded on fraud Is fraught with multiple challenges.

First, he must lie to immigration about the true status of his relationship with his friend. The act is illegal designed to serve no good purpose. It can’t be justified in any ethical model.

Second, he must lie to himself by justifying his action – here by what you shared, his justification is the possibility of a healthy relationship. The odds are slim that a healthy relationship can be built on such a flimsy foundation. How does one build a foundation for the transparency, vulnerability, and repentance needed to build intimacy by working to maintain a lie?

Third he must lie to his friend. Does he desire sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy, and spiritual intimacy with his wife? Has he explained this desire to his friend? Or is he willing to forego sexual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy for the sake of her ambition? If he simply goes along with the plan he is lying to her. Or worse, will they simply hook up out of convenience? In this case they not only lie to one another about what they want, they violate a true covenant of marriage by passing off physical intimacy as irrelevant because they weren’t really married. Paul warned the Thessalonians against this kind of violation of others.

Fourth he must lie to his family or involve them in his deception. Either choice is a moral lapse.

Fifth, he must lie to the church by either declaring he is married or denying it.

Sixth, and most seriously, he must lie to God. His rationale that a civil marriage is not a real marriage before God is the first lie. How does one justify violation of law, family, friends, or the church?

So, agreeing to this action is illegal, he puts his own status at risk as well as hers. The act is unethical in that it is filled with deceit that only has caustic consequences in all his relationships not just the direct relationship with his friend.

So, I agree with your assessment – the idea isn’t just bad, it is spiritually, morally, and relationally destructive.

Ray

Conclusion

Why is ethical/theological reflection so important? McClendon cuts to the chase in his question of whether the church she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. The absence of ethical reflection and action by the church yields behaviors that contradict the hope and the message of the church and this results in behaviors that are destructive and toxic. The community around us has no reason to consider the hope of the good news found in Jesus Christ if there is functionally little or no difference between our behavior and the behavior of anyone else.

The questions and issues I raised in writing my former student are not exhaustive. There are certainly other questions that are theologically appropriate to ask. There are other ethical models that would ask completely different questions e.g., individual utilitarianism. However, the context of the question arose in the behavior of the church and as such demands an approach that considers the issues raised by McClendon.

How well have you thought through your ethical model?

[1] James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1986, 66.

[2] McClendon 231-232.

[3] Idib 258

[4] In case this is not clear, this is a request rooted in the process of immigration.

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Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

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