How do we know what is right and wrong?

How do we know what is right or wrong? Romans 13:1-10

We live in a complicated world – a moral maze. How do we know what is right or wrong? Abortion, Euthanasia, Stem cell research, global warming, the population explosion, being rich Christians in a world with so much hunger. How do we make moral choices in today’s world?

We are going to prepare the ground for discussing these issues in future weeks by exploring general principles tonight through one specific issue? Is it ever right for Christians to rebel against the state?

Romans 13 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

Submit to the governing authorities – the Bible says. But what about in being a Christian in South Africa in the days of apartheid? Or indeed in America in the days when slavery was perfectly legal. Surely those Christians who stood up against oppression and discrimination were disobeying Romans13. What about those Christians who resorted to violent resistance? Christians like the German Lutheran Pastor Deitrick Bonhoeffer who conspired against the Third Reich and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler? Or how about those Christians who broke into the American air base at Greenham Common to protest against Nuclear weapons? Surely all of these were disobeying the clear commands of Scripture!

How can we know what is right and wrong in today’s world.

Some Christians will tell you it is easy. Just obey the rules God has given us in His Word, the Bible, his guidebook not just for Christians but for the whole of humanity.
Read the 10 commandments which God gave us. Read the words of the prophets and the words of Jesus. Just obeying the rules in the Bible and you will be ok.

In theory of course I agree with that approach. I absolutely agree that the Bible should be our ultimate authority in all matters of faith and conduct. I am totally committed to the inspiration, reliability and sufficiency of Scripture. But we live in a complicated and ever-changing world. We need to take great care as we apply the rules in the Bible to today’s world. As simple examples, we Christians claim to live by the Old Testament rules but completely ignore the Jewish laws about which foods are clean or unclean to eat. Christians of most traditions agree that the Bible condemns homosexual acts (and I agree with that understanding.) However most Christians also agree that commands found in the same book of the Bible, 1 Corinthians, about women always covering their heads during worship do not necessarily apply any more. So it is not so simple as to say that we should always “obey the rules in the Bible.” In practice there are some Bible rules which Christians disregard – for very good reasons. We will look at this issue in future weeks.

Then there is another important reason why “obeying the Bible rules” is only the beginning of ethics for Christians. There are situations and ethical dilemmas in todays world where the Bible doesn’t give us any rules at all! We should not be surprised to discover that the Bible doesnt mention Global Warming. Or population control. Or gender reassignment. Or genetic engineering. Stem cell research was not remotely envisaged in Bible times. What do we do when the Bible doesn’t give us any rules?

Vivisection and medical experimentation on animals was not contemplated in Bible times. Some people would suggest that animal experiments which lead to increased knowledge and possibly valuable medicines are more morally acceptable than the ways in the Old Testament animals were used at God’s command in ritual sacrifices.

Is suicide a sin? Church tradition has always said yes, but actually the Bible is silent on that question. If ending one’s own life is not explicitly forbidden then is helping somebody who wants to die to end their own life necessarily wrong? How do we decide what is right and wrong when there isn’t actually a specific rule in the Bible about euthanasia?

It is too simplistic to say that Christians just have to obey the Bible. What about all the dilemmas where the Bible doesn’t contain a rule to guide us.

Not only in situations where the Bible is silent, but actually in every situation, the Bible itself points us beyond specific rules to general principles by which we Christians must live our lives.

Romans 13:9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
Here is the fundamental underlying principle of Christian ethics. Love. Loving God, and loving your neighbour as yourself.

Augustine said “love God, do what you like”, What he meant was that if we are truly loving God then that love will guide us in all our actions. A popular phrase today is “W_W_J_D? What would Jesus do?” How would Jesus express HIS love in this particular situation?

There are other general principles too of course. Principles of justice and righteousness. Principles of truth and honesty and integrity. And this is where Christian ethics in the real world gets very messy. Because there are situations where different Biblical rules or principles are in conflict – in tension.

Consider the 9th Commandment: Do not bear false witness. Do not lie. Christians have rightly always valued truth and the obligation always to tell the truth very highly. But you are a Christian in mainland Europe sheltering Jews against Nazi persecution in 1943. The soldiers are at the door demanding to know “Do you have any Jews hiding in your cellar?” Are you allowed to lie and say no?

Or what about the seventh commandment. Do not murder. Is it ever acceptable to take a human life? Is it ever acceptable for a Christian to take up arms to defend his country if that might involve killing the enemy. Is it ever acceptable to use “lethal force” when acting in self defence, or to save the life of an innocent child? Is killing people always wrong?

Many Christians believe that all human life is sacred and that includes the human embryo from the moment of conception. That makes all abortion wrong. But what about a situation in the early stages of pregnancy where the pregnant mother is about to die and the only way to save her life is to abort her baby. If the mother dies the baby will also surely die. Could it be that in that situation although it is always wrong to take human life, the right thing to do would be to abort the baby and save the mother’s life? We will discuss that specific issue in a few weeks time.

For now, let’s come back to our example for this evening. Is it ever right for Christians to rebel against the state? To stand up to the governing authorities? Even if that leads to violent resistance? Romans 13 is totally clear and unambiguous. Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities … he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, There is the Bible rule. Rebellion is forbidden.

But there have been times in places in history when Christians have rebelled and led rebellion and hindsight and history have said they were right and justified in rebelling. South Africa and apartheid. Times of oppression and persecution even in recent years when Communist and Islamic States have declared evangelism or conversion to Christianity or gathering for worship illegal. Yet in those times believers have followed the apostles’ example in saying “We must obey God, not men”. They have even gone against these direct commands in Romans 13. And many Christians would say they have been right to do so.

When asked why they have disobeyed this specific Bible command to be subject to the ruling authorities, some Christians have said that they don’t believe Romans 13 applies any more. It may have applied in Bible times but it doesn’t apply today. Some people use similar arguments in discussions about issues such as homosexuality. The Bible doesn’t apply today.

But here in Romans 13 there is nothing to suggest that this command not to rebel is tied to its original context or its original culture. Six times the passage mentions God. The reason you obey the ruling authorities is because of God. God has established all the authorities – no exceptions – all authorities. Rebelling against authorities is rebelling against God. Rulers are God’s servants – obey them!

So Romans 13:1-6 are God’s commands for all people in all places. It is wrong to say that the rules in the Bible were for those days but the world has changed and Bible rules don’t apply in today’s world. That is a wrong idea here in Romans 13 and in many other places too. But if God’s rule still applies today – be subject to the ruling authorities – rebellion is wrong, then how can it ever be right to disobey such commands?

The answer given by many Christians in South Africa who rebelled against apartheid is this. That in rebelling they were following a greater command, a command which is more important than the command to obey authorities. They would say that they were obeying the greatest command of all – to love their neighbours. See the suffering and injustice of their black African neighbours, the obligation to love has taken priority over the specific command to be subject to authorities. Meeting the needs of those suffering under oppression have been more important than the command not to rebel.

What I am saying here is that in this messy sin-spoiled world, it is too simplistic to suggest that the Bible has a rule for everything and that all we need to do is learn the rules and live by the rules. In the real world, Bible rules and the fundamental principles of love and truth and justice which underpin them need to be applied very carefully. And sometimes it will turn out that those rules and principles will stand in tension with each other. Sometimes obeying one rule will lead to us disobeying another rule.

So to take the example of bearing false witness – not lying. You are a Christian in mainland Europe sheltering Jews against Nazi persecution in 1943. The soldiers are at the door demanding to know “Do you have any Jews hiding in your cellar?” Are you
allowed to lie and say no?

I believe that the right thing to do in that situation would be to tell a lie. To conceal the Jews in the cellar from the soldiers and so to save their lives. In my understanding that is the right thing to do because in that scenario the command to “love your neighbour” takes priority over telling the truth. I continue to believe that telling the truth is very important. It is a command which applies just as much today as ever it did. But in this messy world there may be just a few situations where the command to love will be in tension with the command to tell the truth.

Some philosophers and theologians would describe this as the principle of “the lesser of two evils.” To lie to the soldiers and protect lives is a “lesser evil” when it would be a “greater evil” to tell the truth and condemn those innocents to death.

In the same way, in South Africa, Christians argued that the command to love one’s neighbours took priority over the command to submit to the governing authorities. Again, I am NOT saying that the command not to rebel does not apply today. This is a general principle which is not tied to the original context of the church in Rome but is universal and timeless. In rebelling, a Christian will recognise that he is doing something which is in itself wrong. But he rebels against an unjust or oppressive reigime in order to obey the more important command to show God’s kind of love.

In the middle of the struggle against aparteid in South Africa, in a brave document entitled “A call of an end to unjust rule”, theologian Allan Boesak rightly pointed to love of neighbour as a possible motive for revolution. `It is the love for the neighbour which infuses, shapes and substantiates Christian action in the world. … the Christian is obligated to the neighbour, to unrestricted love.’

But at the same time the command not to rebel cannot be ignored. When love for neighbour leads Christians into protest or rebellion, the ` tension’ with submission to authority safeguards them from descending to situational ethics where `the end justifies the means’. Christian opposition to the state will be constrained to be humble, prayerful, regretful and moderate.
Rev Dr Dick France was vice-principal of London Bible College and taught me everything I know about the book of Romans. He wrote, “the apparently universal Christian conviction that at least some governments must be opposed … is surely better explained as a case of the “lesser evil”, where there is a conflict of principles, each in itself good, and divinely sanctioned. To resist government is bad in itself, but the alternative may be worse. … The same “conscience” which requires our submission to government … may also cause us to defy a particular government’s edicts to the point of advocating its overthrow.”

You may be thinking to yourself – surely if loving my neighbor required me to do something which was in and of itself wrong, like telling a lie or rebelling against the established authorities, then surely in such a situation I should simply do nothing. Better to take no action at all than to disobey one of the Bible’s rules. In fact – no! Doing nothing is not an option – because to fail to do good when we can is just as much wrong as doing something bad. Sins of omission can be as serious as sins of commission. To fail to take action can be a sin!

So although the Bible may command Christians to be subject to ruling authorities, and even though that Bible command still applies in today’s world, there may be times when it is not only permissible but actually imperative for Christians to disobey that command, in order to obey the greatest commandment which is to love our neighbour. Our neighbour may be suffering in a way that sitting around and doing nothing is not an acceptable way forward.

Bible rules, Bible principles and choosing the lesser of two evils. These are the kinds of ways Christian philosophers and theologians look at ethics in today’s moral maze. I have deliberately introduced these concepts using examples which are remote to our lives in Britain – although very pressing issues to our brothers and sisters suffering persecution in many parts of the world even today. Next week an issue we all DO have to form an opinion and take a side on – global warming!

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