When we hear the term ethics, our minds often race to stories we have heard about bank fraud and other financial scheming. Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme that stole billions of dollars from unsuspecting investors is one textbook example of unethical business practices. We also think of ethics in terms of doctor-patient confidentiality or client-attorney privilege. In both examples, the patient and client enter into a relationship with the professional having the expectation of privacy regarding their personal information. If this privacy fails protected, a breach in ethics has occurred and the medical or legal professional may be held legally accountable.
There is more to ethics than what goes on in the public realm. There is also a very personal dimension to ethical living and has everything to do with our walk with God. When we speak of the Christian life in terms of obedience to God’s commands and applying the teachings of scripture to our everyday lives, often it doesn’t cross our mind that this is the realm of Christian ethics. Throughout the pages of scripture we discover obligatory appeals to God’s law, not as a means of salvation, but as a matter of sanctification. The Bible teaches us that as Christians we are to
put on the new self, created after the likeness of god in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:24)
Righteousness and holiness are moral categories that describe our guilt or innocence as it pertains to our keeping of God’s commands. These are terms that speak to moral purity with a correspondence to God’s character and the sinless life of Jesus. When scripture calls us to a life without sin, to emulate the holiness of God, we are being called to an ethical life—the good life.
Teaching ethics has for me become more than an academic pursuit. I have discovered with delight and great satisfaction that the discipline plays an extremely important role in the church’s ministry of discipleship and evangelism. This is because moral questions prompt additional questions on authority and obligation. They invite us to think beyond doing the right thing to the question of how we know what the right thing is. What is our source for ethical knowledge? How authoritative is this source? Over whom is it authoritative? These questions exemplify the interplay of apologetics ministry with the task of ethics.
Apologetics is the ministry of the church that focuses on defending the faith in various ministry contexts. It is a ministry not just for pastors and church leaders, but for any believer asked to explain the basis for their belief in Jesus. The term apologetics is found in several New Testament passages; probably the most popularly taught is this one:
…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15)
In this verse, the word defense is a translation of the Greek term apologia which refers to a reasoned statement or argument. But this verse doesn’t just call the Christian to give an answer without other considerations. The answer, or the defense, finds its motivation in a love for Jesus, a love for the lost, and a love for truth—not simply the desire to win an argument. The argument is not for the purpose of being argumentative, but to argue rationally and coherently. As well, “gentleness and respect” aren’t just a passing thought in these words written by Peter. With a deliberate interest that God’s truth be shared in a manner that serves well the reputation of the gospel and the church is how we are to understand this passage.
While it is possible to have all the right arguments and explanations that force a person to admit Christianity makes the most logical sense of any other known worldview, an apologetic must be absent of pride, arrogance, and gloating. God can use anything, but winning arguments at any cost is a risk to winning souls for Christ.
Already, the task of apologetics focuses our attention to ethics. There is a right way and a wrong way to defend the faith. We are immediately called to an approach with an obligation to love the person we are speaking with in such a way there is no mistaking our character, though there are times when some unfortunate perceptions cannot be avoided. We are called to strive for character that unmistakably demonstrates that we take seriously the requirement of God’s law to love our neighbor. Unfortunately, well-intentioned apologists often forget their motivation and the character expectations associated with the task, but this should not cause us to negate that ministry of apologetics.
But when I write that there is an interplay between apologetics and ethics, I am not just referring to the call to godly character anticipated by 1 Peter 3:15 and many other passages in the Bible. We also need to understand that the quest for moral truth often raises other questions every member of Christ’s body should be prepared to answer. For example, when teaching young women about dressing modestly and practicing abstinence, surely there are specific scriptural passages we will point them to, teaching them that these are not just our personal preferences but are moral expectations that God has for each of us.
Our society, however, has bombarded everyone with a buffet of moral choices, each rooted in a particular view of reality. Remember when you were little (or when your kids were little) and why? was always on the tip of your tongue? We have within us something that makes us want to know how things work. We don’t just want to do, but we want to know why we do. When it comes to ethics, the young women being taught modesty and abstinence are often wondering why they should do what the Bible says. How is it that the Bible has any special authority, especially when not everyone agrees that the Bible is all that special? For many people today, the Bible is simply a book used as a source for traditional values, but these beliefs are just the arbitrarily chosen beliefs of this Christian subculture. Are you prepared for these questions?
Even when these questions are not asked, it is important to be able to reinforce the moral teachings of scripture with the answers to these questions. This gives the person being discipled the ability to better communicate the reasons for obeying God’s commands, thus becoming a better disciple herself. Moral claims without the ability to give an answer may give the appearance of blind faith, one that’s viewed as illogical or against reason. But Christianity is far from unreasonable and Christian morality is far more than a set of customs.