Christian Ethics 101: What Makes Ethics “Christian”?

I am teaching a five-week course at my Episcopal church on Christian ethics. In tandem with the class, I’m going to post a “Christian Ethics 101″ column on the blog once a week, reflecting on what my class participants and I discussed the previous Sunday.

What do we mean by “Christian ethics”? Ethics in general is a discipline that people of all religious backgrounds, and none, can participate in. In our diverse and pluralistic culture, we frequently call upon very general principles—principles that are not unique to a particular religious or philosophical world view—to help us figure out what actions are and are not “ethical.”

To kick off my Christian ethics class, I asked participants to list principles that the secular culture uses in ethical decision-making, and contrast that list with principles that are explicitly Christian. Here are our two lists:

Secular Principles

Reason (We ask, “Is this reasonable?” about a particular ethical stance.)
Cultural norms
Level of harm to self and others (We ask, “What leads to the greatest good/the least harm?”)
Parental values and guidance (“What would my mom/dad do?”)
Autonomy (independence, freedom of choice)
Duty (What allegiance or actions we owe to family, community, nation)
Avoiding or preventing suffering

Christian Principles

Stewardship (caring for what God has entrusted to us)
Sacrifice — putting others ahead of self, doing the right thing even when it means our needs might go unmet
Valuing both self and others as made in God’s image
Respecting self and others because we belong to God
Dignity of all people (every person is valuable because they are made in God’s image)
Community/communal values over individual values
The Baptismal Covenant — staying true to all that we profess when we commit and re-commit to our Baptismal Covenant
The broader idea of “covenant” with God and others — allegiance not just to ourselves and our families, but to God and our community
Compassion (responding to suffering when we see it)

To me, the two principles that best illuminate the difference between how we discuss ethics in a democratic, pluralistic context, and how we discuss ethics in a Christian context, are autonomy and suffering.

A Christian View of Autonomy

Under both secular and Christian thought, we are autonomous beings. We have free will. We make choices. We have an inherent right to govern our lives free of undue coercion, even if such coercion is offered “for our own good” or the good of a wider community.

But Christians must exercise our autonomy within the context of our primary identity as God’s beloved children and as those created in God’s image. We have free will, but we are not free agents, with license to live however we like with no consideration for how our lives are connected to God and others. As Christian bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender explains, “What makes us true individuals…is that God calls us by name. Our individuality is not a personal achievement or power, and —most striking of all—it is established only in community with God. We are most ourselves not when we seek to direct and control our destiny but when we recognize and admit that our life is grounded in and sustained by God.”

Whatever autonomous choices we make, therefore, must remain consistent with the fact that we do not belong to ourselves, but to God. The difference between secular autonomy and Christian autonomy becomes particularly relevant in answering many bioethical questions raised by advancing technology. Technology may allow us to do many things that transcend biological limitations, such as conceive babies with genetic material from three or more parents, predict who is most likely to develop Alzheimer’s, or significantly lengthen human lifespan. Our identity as God’s beloved people created in God’s image forces us to ask whether we should do all that we can do, or whether such technologies lead us too far astray from who God has created us to be.

A Christian View of Suffering

In secular discussion of ethical questions, it is often assumed that relieving or preventing suffering is one of the highest, if not the highest, moral imperative. For example, laws allowing for assisted suicide often make suicide legal only for people with particular types of illnesses in which a significant level of suffering is expected. We perceive the prospective occurrence of terrible suffering as justification for two activities that we don’t condone under other circumstances: taking one’s own life, and allowing doctors to hasten a patient’s death.

Christian theology, however, offers a unique take on suffering. Christ’s death and resurrection illustrate that suffering can be redemptive, that suffering can have meaning, and that suffering is not necessarily the worst possible thing that befalls human beings. This does not mean that we embrace suffering as an unequivocal good, that we are supposed to seek out suffering, or that there is no place in Christian thought for compassionate relief of suffering. But it does mean that we must avoid the temptation to believe that any activity that alleviates suffering is ethical and good. As Meilaender describes, “We must…always be of two minds about [suffering]. We should try to care for those who suffer, but we should not imagine that suffering can be eliminated from human life or that it can have no point or purpose…Nor should we suppose that suffering must be eliminated by any means that is available to us, for a good end does not justify any and all means…to make elimination of suffering our highest priority would be to conclude mistakenly that it can have no point or purpose in our lives. We should not act as if we believe that the negative, destructive powers of the universe are finally victorious.”

Ethics Through a Christian Lens

Starting with these basic understandings of the similarities and differences between secular ethics and Christian ethics, my class and I are going to be discussing several specific ethical issues in the coming weeks. When we talk about ethical quandaries, we often think first of those issues that make for juicy news stories and contentious debates, such as assisted suicide and abortion. But I’ve decided to devote our first few discussions to questions around money. Most of us are likely to confront difficult decisions around topics such as abortion or assisted suicide very rarely, if at all. But every day we make decisions about money—how to earn it, how to spend it, whether and how much to save, whether and how much to give. My next two “Christian Ethics 101″ columns will focus on these and related questions.



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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.