Ethics: A system, a sound byte, or a person?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a lot to say about Ethics, and with good reason.  A pastor/theologian by heart, he was committed to the way of Jesus which, by all his understanding, meant a way of non-violence.  In spite of this, he ultimately became part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.  The reasons behind his decision are far beyond the scope of this post, but central to this post is Bonhoeffer’s belief that ethics flow from a person, not a system.

The questions that have come out of this past Sunday’s sermon (Lust, Anger, Divorce) seem to be looking for formulas. “When should I express anger and when should I let it go?” “Is masturbation an acceptable way of dealing with my singleness?” “Just what does ‘sexual immorality’ mean in Jesus’ divorce teaching in Matthew 5: 32?”  We’re looking, it seems, for a grid, formula, or system, whereby we might know the right thing to do; every time, in every situation.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it simply doesn’t square with Jesus’ teaching or life.

1. He tells his disciples to buy a sword, and he tells them that those who take up the sword will perish by it.

2. He warns people against anger and then walks into the temple and creates chaos.

3. He spends time, alone, with the Samaritan woman.

4. He’s accused of being both too ascetic, and too indulgent.

Who is this Person?  He’s the one whose ethic defies systems and formulas – and here’s what we learn from him:

We’re invited to a person first and foremost. This doesn’t mean there are no ethics, but it means that in the end, our wisdom comes, not from a system, but from a person.  Anger?  It’s appropriate in a moment, wrong in another.  I’m not the one to tell you when though, Christ is.  Masturbation?  Again, you need conviction that flows out from Christ.  The same would be true as you seek to respond to tensions or stagnation in marriage, or any endless number of other issues.

That person speaks through his Word, and his Body.  This is just one of the many reasons it’s vital to have your coffee with God, and to be involved in real community, where real people love you enough to speak the Word of Christ into your life.

This doesn’t mean everything’s situational.  There’s never a time to sleep with someone else’s spouse; or lie in order to flatter someone; or lash out in thoughtless, reactive rage; or continue to hold a grudge.  The list is long, and it’s important to recognize it.

But there are nuances as well, and it’s there, in the grey realms, that the author to the Hebrews tells us that the mature follower of Christ has trained his sense to discern good and evil.  This, by the way, is one of the reasons the church would do well to be intentional about being intergenerational and nurturing mentoring relationships – but that’s a different post, for a different time.

Systems?  Laws?  Ultimately, our Ethic comes from following, moment by moment, a person.  This may not play well in an area where 140 characters is often the extent of expression, and TV images change every 2 seconds or so – but thoughtful convictions for each situation, born from intimacy with Christ and his followers is the way of wisdom.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Brett Owens

    Could not agree more..

  • Brett Owens

    Could not agree more..

  • Vicki

    Richard, I have to say – I’m disappointed…

    I was really looking forward to some interesting debates in the comments to whatever you wrote as a follow-up to last Sunday’s sermon. But this is just too reasonable. How are we supposed to have a good argument when you kick if off with something like this?

    • raincitypastor

      That pesky Jesus! He defies formulas… :)

  • Vicki

    Richard, I have to say – I’m disappointed…

    I was really looking forward to some interesting debates in the comments to whatever you wrote as a follow-up to last Sunday’s sermon. But this is just too reasonable. How are we supposed to have a good argument when you kick if off with something like this?

    • raincitypastor

      That pesky Jesus! He defies formulas… :)


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