How the Bible Influences Ethics

The church has always insisted that we read the Bible theologically and morally as a whole, with Jesus himself as the larger horizon in which we weigh the diverse witness of the texts themselves.

When I converted to Christianity as a young man, I was new to the Bible and to the social conventions of the evangelical Baptist Church I soon joined. My long, flowing locks were troubling to many of my new church community (not to say my attire and attitudes) and I was approached by some who made the case that I should cut my hair. They did so on the basis of a single verse (1 Corinthians 11:4) presented without context. (It was only through my own search of Scriptures that I learned Paul himself had worn long hair — see Acts 18:18.) This early experience was important in my development as a Christian because it brought me early on to an important understanding.

The Bible must be read as a whole in the Christian community, through the eyes of faith in Christ. To treat the words of the Bible as somehow magic, picking a verse or two to address a complicated social or moral question, is to abandon the wisdom of the ages. Granted, we confess the Scriptures as the only written Word of God, but it was also written by human beings at particular times and places, and not every part of it speaks to our condition here and now. No, the Church catholic has always insisted that we read the Bible theologically and morally as a whole, with Jesus himself as the larger horizon in which we weigh the diverse witness of the texts themselves. They are given to us by the Holy Spirit, transmitted through Israel and the early Church, and need to be read looking for another meaning beyond (but rooted and grounded in!) the original, historical meaning in its context.

This approach is important for every use of Scripture, and to ignore it is troublesome not simply in cases of big moral or social dilemmas, but in the everyday intimacies of our walk with Christ. Imagine a more everyday occurrence, since Christian wisdom about applying the Bible to our moral lives is the same in both cases.

Discipleship means following Jesus every day, and this includes our moral lives along with everything else. Imagine standing in a long line, and it’s getting hot outside. A single person lets in their large family in front of me. As I am tempted to get angry, I pause and wonder to myself, “How should I respond, Lord?” This is not what happens often for me, but what I pray would happen more often! For the first thing to know is that we do not make these daily decisions alone: the whole Triune God is with us through faith every second of our existence as Christians. And we are not individuals, either: we are vital parts of the Body of Christ on earth, and thus have a place in the mission and worship of the Church wherever we go and whomever we are with.

The great diversity of literature in Scripture speaks to many things in us as a whole people, and as individuals. We live and stand with the company of saints who went before us, and there is a vast wisdom to be learned from other believers, past and present. In this quest for knowing what is right as God would have us do and be, we are never isolated individuals any more than single verses are the whole of God’s message. So here are some principles that have helped guide the community of faith across time.

First of all, before we ever make any moral decision, we need to focus on our moral character. We are not born morally upright, and in a loving Christian community, in the regular attendance to the many means of grace such as devotional Bible reading, works of justice in the name of Christ, attending worship and preaching, and being involved with a spiritual small group or soul friend — all of these things are used by the Holy Spirit to shape our moral character; that is, our habits that have some ethical meaning. We call these virtues and vices. Christ Jesus is the Christian example of good moral character, and we have much to learn from studying his life and teachings, and reading Scripture for guidance.

Not every part of the Bible is ethical: it’s not a moral textbook! So wisdom is needed to discern when a story or teaching should be taken to heart, and we use Christ as a guide here. To return to an earlier example, to get angry and yell at the people in line is to show a lack of humility and patience. If I look to Christ and the other virtuous examples of this in Scripture, I will not yell (however much I may have to wrestle with the impulse!). Theological and moral interpretation is a matter of prayer, worship, and community in mission to the world. After all, we were bought with a price and we are no longer our own.

Now beyond character other areas of ethical reflection are needed as well. Virtue-thinking alone is often not enough to give us specific guidance. We also need to think of our duties and obligations, the likely consequences of our actions (or inaction), and the morality of the dominant or central motive. Motives are tricky, because we usually have many, so thinking about a moral problem involves self-knowledge nurtured in reflection and ruthless honesty about what my motives really are. In our example, I have obligations to others to consider. These include seeking justice and loving our neighbor. Even so, if I speak out politely without anger to the people in front of me, and tell them the polite thing to do is ask permission of those behind, am I doing it for selfish motives or out of a concern for everyone behind me, and a love for these people? As you can see, obligations, motives and consequences all get put together in actual practice (but in analysis and moral learning we need to distinguish them). What is more, each act we take (or do not take) that has any moral implications also has the consequence of showing and strengthening our vices or virtues. So in practice all of these come together!

The Bible as sacred Scripture speaks to every dimension of life, simply because the reason God the Holy Spirit gave us these texts through Israel and the Church has to do with worship, mission and discipleship: to deepen our knowledge and love of God above all, and to assist the Holy Spirit and the Living Christ in working through us by faith in this world. This applies to the whole community, and thus also to each believers as well.

No verse of the Bible, taken in isolation and read out of this larger context, has moral authority for us today. This sounds radical, but it’s simply the practical implication of all we have presented. So to be shaped by Christ Jesus, we do need to participate in regular Christian practices, not least of which is daily prayer.

We let each text speak for itself, but then seek a higher or deeper meaning for this verse in the Bible as a whole. Christ provides the horizon within which we seek to see our situation in Christian terms, and therefore also biblical ones. In this way, the teachings, laws, wisdom and stories of Scripture allow us to interpret the world and our life in a new way, from the perspective of the people of God and the moral core of what it means to follow God in this world.

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