Situational Ethics

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death” (vv. 28–29).

- Exodus 21:28–32

Joseph Fletcher ranks among the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century. Fletcher, an Episcopalian priest who became an atheist in his later life, is best known for his book Situation Ethics: The New Morality. First published in 1966, the book cemented Fletcher’s standing as one of the founders of the system known as situational ethics.

Fletcher rejected the traditional law-based approach to Christian ethics in favor of making the circumstances of each particular situation the norm by which right and wrong are decided. It was not that he explicitly rejected every moral absolute, for he said that the principle that has to be followed in every ethical decision is that we must do what love demands in the particular situation that we face. But Fletcher did not define what love demands according to any fixed, transcendent norm; rather, the situation itself determines the most loving response. So, for example, adultery could be the most loving thing in one situation while love could demand chastity in another.

The problem with situational ethics is not that it calls us to take into account the circumstances of the ethical situation. Biblical case law, in fact, shows us that applying God’s law properly in any context requires that we know as much as possible about the specifics of the context in which the decision is being made (see, for instance, Deut. 22:23–27; 1 Cor. 7:12–16). The problem is not even that doing what love requires is a bad principle, though it is reductionistic since the Lord has given us many transcendent principles and commandments. After all, the Apostle Paul tells us that “love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the ful lling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). Thus, if we love God and others rightly, we will have followed the other ethical principles the Lord has revealed.

At the end of the day, Fletcher’s ethic is wrongheaded because it separates God’s law from love. We are morally obligated in every situation to do what love demands; however, the real royal law of Christian ethics is that we ought always to do what the God of love demands—not what we think love requires. We are not allowed to define love on our own. As fallen creatures, we routinely mistake our own opinions for what our Creator defines as love. But we dare not do that, for John says, “God is love,” and therefore God alone determines what love is (1 John 4:8). If we would fulfill the Lord’s command to love, we must look to His law to identify true love.

Coram Deo

Sinners justify all manner of ungodly decisions by appealing to what they think love compels them to do. That is a grave error. We are not autonomous creatures who can be laws unto ourselves with respect to figuring out what love means. Instead, we must trust the only sure source for defining love—the Word of God. If we would love God and neighbor, we must define love according to the standard the Lord has given us.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 19:18, 34
Joshua 22:1–6
Galatians 5:14
1 John 3:18

For permissions, please see our Copyright Policy.