Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Situation Ethics is a Trap

Our local town library has a "Friends of the Library" used bookstore. When I visit, I have often been able to add to my extensive Christian book collection. One book that I started reading months ago is Fritz Ridenour's "How to Be a Christian in An Unchristian World." The book was originally published back in 1971. The copy that I have is from the fifteenth printing in 1982. The ninth chapter caught my attention today. The chapter title asks the question, "Are you a thermometer or thermostat?"

The chapter starts off with a quote from an anonymous coed at a New Jersey school,1:

"All formulas, rules and regulations, should be left unsaid. All decisions depend to some extent on the individual and the situation and his relationship to God. There are no pat answers."

Such a quote may appear to sound like a "real life" comment that some may deem to be quite wise and contemporary. One might certainly agree that back then, as well as today, it is perceived that there are no pat answers.

Ridenour: "Why, even Paul might concur. According to what he says in Col. 2:16-23, he is down on rules, regulations and playing games to earn Christian brownie points (see chapter 7). and in Col. 3:1-4, he is up on relating to Christ and letting heaven fill your thoughts (see chapter 8).

And, didn't the girl say that all decisions depend on you, the situation and your relationship to God?

But wait...what's this in the next paragraph of Paul's letter to Colosse?...

"Away then with sinful, earthly things; deaden the evil desires lurking within you; have nothing to do with sexual sin, impurity, lust and shameful desires; don't worship the good things of life, for that is idolatry. God's terrible anger is upon those who do such things. You used to do them when your life was still part of this world; but now is the time to cast off and throw away all these rotten garments of anger, hatred, cursing and dirty language. don't tell lies to each other; it was you old life with all its wickedness that did that sort of thing; now it is dead and gone" (Col. 3:5-9)

What is Paul doing? He just finished putting down legalism (back in Colossians 2) and now he comes up with a big list of no-no's. Isn't the Christian supposed to be free from the law? the codes? the life of legalistic games?

Joseph Fletcher, a leading advocate of what is called "situation ethics," has gone to great lengths in his riting and speaking to assure Christians they are free from all laws - except for the one he calls the "law of love." In brief, Joseph Fletcher says:

The only thing that really matter in life is love. You should alsways distrubute your love according to what you decise is most loving in those circumstances, and never allow a list of prescribed rules or laws to be the fianl authority for making you deciesion. You might consult lists of laws and rules, but you have the last word.*

*[Note: For a complete presentation of Fletcher's views, read his books Situation Ethics:The New Morality, Westminister Press, Copyright 1966. Also see Fletcher's book, Moral Responsibility: Situation Ethics at Work, Westminster Press, Copyright 1967.]

All of this sounds very much like the coed whose comment opened this chapter. Forget the formulas, rules and regulatinos and let the individual work out his own decision according to the situation and "his relationship to God." For Joseph Fletcher the Ten Commandments aren't a list of authritative laws. In fact, he says that "For the situationst there are no rules - non at all." If situation ethics "has any rules, they are only rules of thumb."2

Joseph Fletcher's situational ethic seems to make perfectly good sense. It sounds so mature, so responsible, so free to say you want to make each moral decision according to what is "most loving for that situation." It all sounds like a perfect way to go beyond a life of legalistic games.

Except for one fairly important item.

You aren't perfect (i.e., God).

Situation ethics is a trap for two reasons.

1. It leads to moral and ethical dead ends. There is alwasy the sticky problem of coming to some situations and not wanting to do the loving thing or not being abel to. Fletcher almost ignores the problem of sin, which all of us still have to cope with. Without moral absolutes the practice of situational morality, with each person doing his own loving thing, quickly turns into a sick, very confused joke. Because Fletcher accurately labels legalism as sick and confused does not make his system the answer.

2. Situation ethics leads to spiritual dead ends. Intimacy with Christ - living in Him and He in you - does not make you autonomous; indeed you don't want to be. For the Christain who takes the Bible seriously (not, in Fletcher's terms, as "rules of thumb") the existence of the Big Absolute - Jesus Christ - leads to other absolutes or the concept of "absolute" means little.

I will return to finish this post later. Meanwhile, I found a great PDF paper called The Effect of Situation Ethics Upon Moral Values. Although it is long, I recommend that you read it. I personally found it to be an excellent piece that goes in depth and supports why belief in situation ethics is a trap for all, including some Christian believers who may have fallen into such a mindset.


1 Larry Richards, What's in It for Me? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1970), p. 104

2 Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), pp. 36 and 55.

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