All Things are Legal?

I Corinthians 6:12    
June 6, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

I want to begin by asking you a question.  It seems to be a simple question, but I want you to consider it carefully before you answer.

“Is there a Christian ethic?”  In other words, is there a set of ethical principles that you must adhere to if you claim to be a follower of Christ?

I would answer “yes” to that question because if there is no ethic, then your behaviors don’t matter: you do what you want to do when you want to do it no matter who it may hurt or what the consequences.  Without an ethic, kindness is no more valuable than cruelty; beauty no more cherished than ugliness.  If there is no Christian ethic — if nothing that you do really matters one way or the other — then Jesus died for a world that is ultimately meaningless.  And with few exceptions, I think Christians of every flavor and practice will agree that we are called to order our lives in certain ways and refrain from certain behaviors in order to be in sync with the values that we hold as followers of Christ.  So, yes, there is a Christian ethic.  

But if I asked you to answer the corollary question — what is that ethic?  What specifically are the values that we should hold and practice as Christians?  — it is here that all heck breaks loose.

Some time ago, the Student Affairs office at Alfred University decided to open the year with a training exercise for their staff and since I am the part-time Interfaith Advisor at the University, they invited me to attend.  On the day of the training, about 40 of us gathered in a large meeting room and the director of the orientation told us that we would begin with an activity concerning ethical decision-making.  The director would present us with various scenarios and then ask us to decide whether the characters in the scenario had acted ethically or not.  Those who believed that the characters had been unethical should register their opinion by moving to the left side of the room while those believing the characters in the scenario had acted ethically should move to the right side of the room.  This, of course, meant that our judgment of ethics was also affected by peer pressure but…. anyway.  The first scenario the director presented was this one: “The resident director of one of the dorms has a friend from out of town visiting and they go out for drinks at Gentleman Jim’s at 2:00 in the morning.  Is this ethical or not?”

Most of the people immediately moved to the left side of the room, indicating that they believed that the behavior was unethical.  I admit I was a bit surprised by this wholesale condemnation and wondered if I had accidentally stepped into a Baptist temperance meeting.  But one member of the crowd explained their thinking saying, “As a Resident Director, you have to set an example for the students under your care and going out carousing in the bars at 2:00 in the morning is inappropriate in your position.”  

In essence, the group redefined the word “ethical” from meaning “moral value” to meaning “appropriate behavior.”  

The dictionary defines the word “ethical” as “…. behavior concerned with the goodness or badness of human character.”  An ethical behavior is a behaviors that we consider indicative of a good person and we often frame those behaviors as absolutes such as, “Do not steal, practice honesty, be humble of spirit.”  Now, I’m guessing that everyone at that Student Affairs workshop would have agreed that a person of good character and moral worth can enjoy a beer with a college friend at 2 in the morning, but the group wasn’t really judging the ethics of the situation; they were making a claim about the professional expectations of the person’s job.  The whole workshop, which had been labeled as an exercise in ethical decision-making was actually an exercise in professional standards.  In the confines of an orientation workshop for a Student Affairs staff, that was probably more important for people to discuss than a having philosophical debate about ethics but the problem is that this confusion of definitions happens all the time.  We are constantly in our society confusing ethical values with professional expectations, cultural practices, societal civilities, and personal choices and this is particularly true in our faith.  Churches make lists of forbidden behaviors that they call unethical, but are in fact, only behaviors that they have decided are to not up to the standards of their particular community.  Behaviors that are “not in keeping with our ways,” however, is not the same as unethical.  “We’ve never done that before” is not the same as unethical.  Unprofessional, inappropriate, discourteous, even unwise is not the same as unethical.  Ethics have to do with the core value of being human and Christian ethics have to do with the core value of being Christ-like in our lives.  What did Jesus say our Christian ethics should be?  He reduced it to one sentence:  love God and love your neighbor.

Yes, there is a Christian ethic and it is this:  love God and love your neighbor.  Anything else we are tempted to put on the list is more about us than it is about Christ.  

Our desire to expand on Christ’s ethic to make long lists of behaviors is not new but goes back to the very first days of the church.  As the church expanded into the Gentile world, some of the church leaders believed that it was necessary for new Christians to adopt the practices of Torah in order to follow Christ but Paul argued that the purity rules of the Torah about what you should eat, about who is clean or unclean, and laws describing the minutia of appropriate behaviors were not necessary to the Christian life.    

“All things are lawful,” he said, trying to clear the way for the Gentiles’ entry into the church.  Paul understood that the only Christian ethic is love of God in Christ, and love of your neighbor and that the rest is open to debate.  The problem Paul encountered, however, was that some of the members of the Corinthian church took his argument so much to heart that they became enthusiastic libertines, throwing out all limitations on their behavior.  If the Corinthians had been at that Student Affairs orientation and were asked whether the Resident Director should go to GJ’s at 2 am, they would have charged off immediately to the right side of the room shouting, “Christ has superceded the law and now all things are lawful!  We have been saved by Christ and the rest doesn’t matter!  Break out the beer!”  Enamored with Paul’s philosophy of freedom from the law and assured of their own salvation, some of the members of the Corinithian Church hung out a shingle advertising, “Have it Your Way at the Church of Corinth.”  Members began partying it up and loving one another quite literally.  With rumors of orgies and beer blasts ringing in his ear, Paul quickly hammered out a disclaimer to his theological proposition that all things are lawful in Christ saying, “Hey!  All things might be lawful but not all things are beneficial! ”

Paul knew that to insist on a lengthy set of behaviors which every Christian is called to practice leads to the judgmental legalism that he believed Christ’s gospel frees us from but he also understood

that removing all standards and practicing a mushy, “If it feels good, do it” ethic is the same as no ethic at all.  It trivializes the ministry of Christ and his death on the cross.  In Corinthians 6:12, Paul astutely steers a way through this dilemma by saying that yes, there is only one absolute – love of Christ and neighbor – but under that one absolute there is a subset of behaviors and beliefs that can be beneficial in bringing our ethic of love to bear on the world.   

I believe that this verse is crucial to the church’s ethical decision making today and can give us a way forward through the many culture wars consuming Christianity — issues of homosexuality, race, gender identify, abortion, and the other thorny questions that embroil us.  By describing certain behaviors as “beneficial” rather than ethically absolute, Paul frees us to be able to accept differences in our opinions without judgments about each other’s moral worth, and he allows us to more easily discard old standards and take on new positions as cultures and time evolve.  What was once a beneficial behavior may no longer be beneficial and as the needs of our neighbor changes, we are more able to adopt new attitudes and positions toward them because, while everything is lawful, what is most beneficial may constantly change.

At that Student Affairs workshop exercise, while most of the room headed to the left and the libertine Corinthians would have danced quickly to the right, I remained uncomfortably in the middle.  It seemed to me that I couldn’t determine whether the character in the scenario had behaved ethically or not because I didn’t have enough information.  For me, the ethical decision is one which is consistent with Christ’s charge to love God and our neighbor, so I would have needed to ask, “Why was the resident director going to GJ’s to drink beer at 2:00 am with his friend?”  If he blew off the students in his charge to go party it up with his friend, then placing his desires before the needs of the students, an unethical decision, but what if his friend was going through a rough time and had arrived in the middle of the night desperate for some counsel?  In that case, heading to GJ’s was the most ethical choice.  I remained in the middle of the room because I didn’t think the question was a multiple-choice question; I thought it required an essay.

Too many in the church want to make the moral choices that confront our society into yes or no choices but the reality is that they are all essay questions.  

“Love God and love your neighbor,” Christ said, “but how you do that — deciding what is most beneficial to your neighbor in your place and in your time — I will leave that for you to discuss.”