A great deal of controversy has surrounded the topic of situation ethics. The main purpose of the belief is to vindicate or legitimize the act of sin under certain conditions so that good may be the result. The philosophy was developed primarily in 1966 by an Anglican theologian named Joseph Fletcher. “Fletcher rejects Legalism because it cannot accommodate 'exceptions to the rule'. If you reject one aspect of the law you surely reject it all. He also rejects Antinomianism for the reason that it provides no foundation with which to evaluate one's morality and offers no justification as to why people should live in any other way than they want to. However, in rejecting these two views this is not to say that Fletcher's Situation Ethics is devoid of any fixed ideals and creativity (relevance). Rather, Fletcher proposes a key principle with which to guide moral decision-making, rather than rules. This primary principle is that of acting in the most loving way” (www.faithnet.org). Even members of the church have become embroiled in heated discussions and debates over this issue, resulting in hurt feelings and sometimes divisions – surely an ironic result of such a belief! Specifically, the idea of situation ethics began a number of years ago when philosophers started moving away from moral absolutes and into the age of relativism. The positive merits of an action, according to many great thinkers, are determined by its effects, and not according to any moral standard. As long as good comes from it, anything we do to each other should be acceptable. In plain terms, situation ethics is this: doing evil deeds to bring about good results. It is a means by which sin is made acceptable.
Just imagine now how many sins were “liberated,” so to speak, and are now openly practiced by people in our society thanks, at least in part, to situation ethics. A situation ethicist would say that divorce is okay when the damage done by the constant arguing is greater than the emotional damage done to the kids by the separation itself. A situation ethicist would say that homosexuality is okay because it frees trapped homosexuals from their bondage and allows them to be happy with who they think they are. A situation ethicist would argue that it is okay to break all the laws of God found in the Bible as long as another person benefits from it! Stealing to feed a hungry family. Lying to protect a friend. Committing adultery because a married woman is lonely and feels distant from her husband. Producing fraudulent signatures to help get an important measure on the voter’s ballot. Compromising the Laws of God in order to maintain “unity in diversity.”
Situation ethics is not a Biblical idea. In fact, this idea goes against the very nature of God in His righteous judgment. If there are no moral absolutes and all of our actions are simply judged by their immediate, carnal merit, then God is a liar – because it is written in Colossians 3:25, “For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality” – and Christians are truly “of all men most to be pitied” (2 Corinthians 15:19). If we cannot even trust in the Bible, then what can we trust? If even God will not righteously and impartially judge the world, then why are we even sitting here studying the Bible? What is the point if we can actually do more good by helping at a food kitchen every Sunday morning instead of meeting together to worship God?
Turn to and read Matthew 12:1-14. This is the scripture to which most Christian supporters of situation ethics will turn when arguing in favor of their doctrine. The basic interpretation of this story emphasizes the idea that Christ taught, primarily, that specific, written laws take a secondary role to more abstract emotional or spiritual laws. In other words, it is okay for Christ’s disciples to break the Sabbath Day in order to feed themselves just as much as it is acceptable for the priests to perform their sacrificial duties and a farmer to rescue his animal on the Sabbath Day.
In the same way, supporters of this doctrine would have us believe that situation ethics can be applied to every New Testament command. Some may say that we really do not have to attend worship services on Sunday as long as we are doing something better such as working at a soup kitchen or building houses in Guatemala. Naturally, many have taken it to the most extreme, improbably cases. For example, baptism would not be necessary for someone suffering from hydrophobia (fear of water). Repentance of sins is not necessary if repenting involves hurting somebody’s feelings. Daily Bible study is not necessary for someone who is illiterate. And the excuses go on and on and on! Remember that the situation ethicist seeks to do evil deeds to bring about good results. It is a means by which sin is made acceptable.
All of this is completely ridiculous, though! I would like to take apart the story from Matthew 12:1-14 to find out just what it really means. Is Christ really teaching situation ethics?
12:7 “You would not have condemned the innocent” – It is absolutely important for us to understand one point before moving on. His disciples were not breaking the Sabbath by crushing the grain heads in their hands and eating. Christ said it Himself that they were innocent of any crimes and the accusation in verse 2 is a lie, “Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
The true intent behind the Sabbath had been lost over generations of misinterpretation by the Jewish leadership. Adam Clarke writes in his commentary that in the inter-testamental period, the Jews were so poorly following the true meaning of the Sabbath that they would not even defend themselves from Roman and Egyptian attacks on Sabbaths. This is the main reason why Judea was conquered and crushed by Roman invaders. “The Jews were so superstitious, concerning the observance of the Sabbath, that in their wars with Antiochus Epiphanes, and the Romans, they thought it a crime even to attempt to defend themselves on the Sabbath: when their enemies observed this, they deterred their operations to that day. It was through this, that Pompey was enabled to take Jerusalem” (Commentary on the New Testament, Adam Clarke).
12:4 “Which was not lawful for him to eat” – While it is clear that the disciples of Jesus were not sinning by eating the grain heads on the Sabbath, Christ does say that David sinned in his partaking of the showbread, meant only for the priests. It was not lawful for David to eat this bread. It was a sin, in fact, for David to eat this bread. Take a look at Leviticus 24:5-9. We see that it was lawful for only the sons of Aaron to eat of this bread.
The story about which Jesus is speaking is found in 1 Samuel 21:3-6. The very first mistake the priest made was even considering the use of the showbread in such an inappropriate manner. He disobeyed the law of God in two ways; first by establishing a quality that was not authorized by God (that is, nowhere in the Old Testament does it say it is okay for non-priests to partake of the bread if they have been kept from women [21:4]), and second by giving in to the pressures of David and allowing him to eat the bread. God did not authorize the use of the bread in this way.
There is good reason to believe that the justice of God was wrought upon Ahimelech the priest providentially through Saul. We read in a later chapter that Ahimelech was executed by Saul for his disobedience in aiding the fleeing David (1 Samuel 22:16-18). Let us be clear in our understanding that there is a major difference between what the disciples of Christ were doing and what David did. While one was not sinning, but wrongly accused of it, the other was sinning and a priest lost his life because of it!
The main point behind the story is that Christ was trying to make a comparison between what the Pharisees thought was sin and what actually was sin. The Pharisees, coincidentally, taught situation ethics, and they often used the example of David and the showbread to support this doctrine. They also had an understanding that priests did not break the Sabbath when they participated in the service of the sacrifices. Why does Christ bring up the instances of David and the priests on the Sabbath? To show the hypocrisy of the Pharisees! While the Pharisees had no trouble teaching and practicing situation ethics when it suited them, they were very quick to jump on the supposed sin of Christ’s disciples and say that they were breaking the Sabbath. The Pharisees were true hypocrites and Christ wanted to expose this.
Christ did not teach that situation ethics were okay in God’s eyes. He does, in fact teach the opposite. David was not justified in eating the showbread. He was a sinner for that action. The Pharisees, however, did not believe he was sinning in doing this activity. On the other hand, the disciples of Christ were not sinning by breaking the grain heads and the Pharisees were accusing them of that. It seems that the Pharisees were quite mixed up in their logic!
12:9-14 “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” – If that was not enough, then the situation ethicist would turn to the next few verses to justify his belief in the doctrine. According to a situation ethicist, Christ was using situation ethics when He supposedly broke the Sabbath in order to do good, as if doing good was not authorized according the Sabbatical regulation. Essentially, we are to believe that Christ set aside a less important law to fulfill a more important one, that is, the command to do good to one’s neighbor.
But the situation ethicist fails to read the phrase in Matthew 12:12, “So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Christ did not break the Sabbatical command by doing good on the Sabbath Day. In fact, Christ was simply clarifying the true meaning of the Sabbath, and if the Pharisees had understood this they would not have persisted in accusing His disciples of breaking a command that was not from God. There is nothing unlawful about doing good on the Sabbath, so how can this be an example of situation ethics. How can it be called situation ethics if the act is not sinful? How can Christ be teaching situation ethics if His entire premise is based on a deed that is not sinful? That certainly is not situation ethics because Christ would never teach a doctrine that allows people to sin. Christ would never say that it is okay to sin. Christ would never permit us to commit wicked deeds under the guise of good will.
Why Would Christ Never Teach The Doctrine Of Situation Ethics?
So we must ask why it is that Christ would never teach a doctrine like this. The answer is simple; because situation ethics goes against the very nature of God. Situation ethics seeks to justify evil and wicked deeds. Situation ethics relies upon the judgment calls of men in their limited wisdom. An act that is normally considered wrong is suddenly considered right when a human being uses his pitiful grasp of wisdom to judge that that action has good results.
God has never been the Author of such a confusing and “wishy-washy” doctrine (1 Corinthians 14:33). But if God was accepting of situation ethics as a means of judgment, then imagine the chaos that would result! Every man and woman would be judging situations according to his or her own will and wisdom. What would be right in one situation would not be right in another and what would normally be abominable and wicked would suddenly be wholesome and good! But we know from the scriptures that mankind is not intelligent enough or wise enough to determine right and wrong for himself apart from the knowledge of God. We need His help to guide us into righteousness! Turn to 1 Corinthians 2:12-16. A natural man, one who is not dependent on God for wisdom, does not understand the higher ideals of Christianity, so how can he be trusted with the judgment of determining right and wrong? Also see Proverbs 3:5-7, Proverbs 16:25, and Isaiah 55:8-9.
The nature of God is one of consistency and justice. Right and wrong are always right and wrong. Black is always black and white is always white. How could we ever trust a god that does not stay consistent in his judgments? It was put well by Job in Job 8:3, “Does God pervert justice or does the Almighty pervert what is right?” If the Bible is the way, and if it contains everything that is necessary for salvation, and if God will never waiver from His mighty truths (“For I, the Lord, do not change” Malachi 3:6), then a doctrine like situation ethnics is nothing but false.
Let Us Do Evil That Good May Come
Turn with me to Romans 3:5-8. Apparently, some of the Apostles were being accused of saying such a statement, to Paul’s disgust. It is so despicable in the mind of Paul to think that good can come from a man’s sins, or to think that sin becomes somehow justifiable when its result is the furtherance of the Gospel. There are a few lessons that we can learn from this. First of all, realize that there is no cause great enough to justify sin. In the case of this passage of Scripture, the cause was the furtherance of the Gospel (3:7). If the spreading of the Good News is not worth a lie, then no cause is! No charity is worth stealing for, no man is worth killing in cold blood, no woman is so beautiful that you can justify adultery!
A very useful Scripture for our discussion is found in Proverbs 30:7-9. “Two things I have asked of Thee, do not refuse me before I die: Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, lest I be full and deny Thee and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.” How much more clear can the Bible get? The writer of the proverb makes it clear that even if he was starving to death, stealing would still be a sin! Stealing is, in fact, profaning the name of the Lord! If this man cannot steal without sinning, even in his hunger, then no man can steal without sinning.
King Saul certainly tried to justify his situation ethics with his good intentions. Turn with me to 1 Samuel 13:8-14. Saul had every reason to believe that he was justified in his disobedience. He had waited until the appropriate time (1 Samuel 10:8), he had wanted nothing more than to entreat the favor of the Lord, he saw that the people before him were scattering and he wanted to unify them with the hope of God, and he was sure that his motives were righteous. If God was a god of situation ethics then he would have understood and praised King Saul for his righteous and charismatic spirit. He would have told Saul, “You took things into your won hands, examined the situation, made a judgment call, and broke a direct command from Me. Good job!” That certainly was not the response that was given to Saul, though. Instead, his kingdom was taken from him.
Situation ethics sure would have been useful for poor Uzzah, as well. Read about this man in 2 Samuel 6:1-7. If situation ethics were the standard of righteousness, then Uzzah should have been a hero. Although he broke a direct command from God and touched the Ark, he did it for the right reasons and a good result was the end. He disregarded a less important law of God to fulfill a more important law of God, right? If this is true, then why did God strike down Uzzah on the spot? Situation ethics should have had Uzzah covered!
Truly, no good cause is worth sinning for in the eyes of God. Though man may try to justify his sins based on the righteous ends, as Saul tried to do and as the Pharisees would have argued, God does not listen to the petty argumentation and limited wisdom of simple men.
Compassion Without Sacrifice?
When presented with the lesson so far, a situation ethicist will turn to the idea of compassion without sacrifice to justify his belief. That is, there are a number of Bible verses that say God desires compassion and mercy over sacrifice, and that obedience to the letter of the Law is always secondary to having the right motive behind the obedience. But we must always be wary of this argument, realizing that God wants both mercy and obedience equally. He is not disinterested in the kind of actions that we do for His name’s sake, He is simply desirous of the motivation behind those actions. An action without the proper mindset is useless, but also realize that a mindset without obedient action is also useless!
Let us turn to Hosea 6:6. Sure, it seems like this teaches situation ethics, does it not? Given the choice between loyalty and sacrifice, knowledge and burnt offerings, God would rather have the things of the mind. Is that not what it is saying? But let me ask a question; is it possible to have the right attitude toward God and not obey His commands? Is it possible to have a motivation that is righteous and good and not fulfill your duties to Him? Surely, anybody who believes that he has a godly attitude but chooses, willfully, not to obey God certainly does not have the attitude he says he does! Just as it says in John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” And also see John 15:14, “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” And turn to 1 John 2:4, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in Him.” And these are not the only three verses that say the same thing.
God desires mercy, loyalty, and compassion. Without a doubt He wants us to have the right attitudes when it comes to loving Him and loving our fellow men and women. But to say that a person can have the right attitude without any obedience is a lie! Just because God says that He desires mercy, loyalty, and compassion does not mean that sacrifice and obedience are not important. It just means that sacrifice and obedience are meaningless without those attitudes. God wants BOTH loyalty and sacrifice, mercy and burnt offerings, compassion and obedience to His will.
What Do You Do?
Situation ethics is the practice of committing evil deeds so that good is the result. It is the means by which sin is supposedly justified. There is not a single place in the Bible where a man is commanded to sin by God so that good will be the result. In fact, the Bible addresses the issue quite clearly in James 1:13, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” It is against the very pure nature of God to say that He encourages, or even tolerates, the use of sin in accomplishing righteous ends.
Rather, the Bible makes it clear that exact opposite is true. Every single evil deed, regardless of the motive behind, regardless of the positive outcome, will be taken into account on the Judgment Day. It is said in Colossians 3:25, “For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.” There will be no partiality for the sinner, even for the sinner who thinks he is doing good!