By Tim Chermak
After many hours spent studying, researching, reading, and contemplating, I have come to a less than satisfactory conclusion concerning the state of Christian ethics, which provides the foundation for my own personal ethical system. This hypothesis is neither definitive nor clear; rather, it is a frail attempt to name something which cannot be named, to describe something that may or may not exist, and to give form to the formless.
To embark upon the journey of synthesizing a clean-cut system of Christian ethics is nearly impossible, because at its core, Christianity is not an ethical system. It cannot be. To reduce the ultimate reality found in Jesus to a simplified constitution of do’s and do-not’s cheapens Christ’s message in favor of the Pharisaic system of thinking.
The deliberate elucidation of Jesus’ revolutionary proclamation to mankind-one which, if anything, seeks to abolish human systems of achieving goodness and justification-is a giant leap backwards. To be so absurd to think that Christianity can be merely reduced to rules guarantees a life of fruitless emotional, mental, and spiritual labor-labor that will be in vain, because a finish line does not exist. It is with this in mind that I propose anyone who seeks to define a system of Christian ethics has eliminated the need for God; therefore, whatever ethical system they have produced cannot be “Christian,” because without God there is no Christianity.
One of the main problems with this way of thinking goes back nearly two thousand years, to the time of the Roman Pax Romana. The Pharisees, often portrayed in the gospels as Jesus’ religious enemies, controlled the Jewish way of thinking in Roman-occupied Palestine.
Pharisaic tradition focused on obeying large lists of commentaries, laws, suggestions, and Scripture. To ensure people followed their belief system, they invoked the will of God as their higher authority. Guilt and threat of being on the “wrong side of eternity” drove people to obey the Pharisaic traditions. (Good thing we’re past that…)
Unfortunately, these traditions distanced people from God, because they merely reduced Yahweh to a neat list of rules and regulations. The gospels record Jesus bursting onto the scene and immediately calling into question the Pharisaic “ethical system.” He creatively exposed the foundational flaws in their way of thinking, and proposed a fresh, third option-the restoration of shalom.
I hereby propose that Christianity is much more about what we are to do than what we are not to do. Consequently, a Christian “ethical system” is irrelevant in view of God’s eternal purpose for humanity. If we become part of the solution and not the problem, worrying about rules and regulations becomes an utter waste of time.
God’s eternal purpose, the restoration of the Jewish concept of shalom, is prophetically ushered into existence whenever someone actively participates in it. This includes acts of hope and love-via the conduit of faith. If humanity actively embraces God’s eternal purpose, living ethical lives is merely a side effect of the greater transformation within-the truth of Christ.
The Christian ethical system, if in fact there is one, is merely a perfect hybrid of the existing explanations of proper morality. It would borrow heavily from Aquinas’s natural law theory, because at its essence, shalom is merely “the way things are supposed to be.” However, for a Christian, the motive and result of any given behavior is equally important, so any “Christian” ethical system must not place greater importance on the means or the end-they are equally vital.
Additionally, an ethical system suitable for a follower of Christ must always place the well being of others before the given individual. The Greek concept of agape love must be the primary motive for all ethical decisions, however insignificant they may be.
A true Christian system of ethics must be invisible in order to be visible, and it must be undefined in order to define it. The way of Jesus has an easy yoke, but is a difficult process. This process is what we must question, search, and wrestle with, in order to illuminate a true Christian ethical system.
Tim is a writer hoping that somehow, someway, his work will influence the world in a positive way. He is currently an undergraduate student at North Central University in downtown Minneapolis.