The Razor’s Edge

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

- Romans 12:2

Once, three married couples were held captive in Nazi Germany. While in prison, a guard sexually assaulted one of the wives. Elsewhere, a different guard threatened to kill another wife’s husband if she did not sleep with him. She gave in to save him. In yet another corner of the jail, another wife seduced a guard merely because she desired physical intimacy and her husband was unavailable.

These three couples belonged to the same church, and after the war, the elders had to deal with all three husbands’ demand for a divorce. Based on Scripture’s teaching on divorce and protecting real victims (Deut. 22:23–29; Matt. 19:9), the elders reached agreement on the first and third wife. The third wife had clearly committed adultery, so her husband was allowed a divorce. As she had been forced against her will into sexual contact with another man, the first wife’s husband was not permitted to divorce her.

The second couple caused the elders the most consternation. Many of them thought a divorce was right because the woman had not been physically forced to sleep with the guard. Yet other elders disagreed, recognizing coercion as more than just a physical threat to one’s own life. They said the second wife was coerced into sleeping with the guard to preserve her husband’s life, holding her innocent of adultery.

We see in this instance how difficult it is at times to determine what will please the Lord. Like it or not, all ethical decisions are made in particular situations, some of which require us to apply many biblical principles to circumstances with many unknowns. This is not an argument for situational ethics, for God’s standards never change. We, however, are not omniscient, lacking full knowledge of Scripture, general revelation, a situation’s full details, and other pertinent facts. There are, to us, some areas that seem morally gray. Of course, our omniscient Lord does not suffer these limitations. When things look ambiguous to us, there are no uncertainties for Him.

Consequently, there is always a choice pleasing to God even if the matter is unclear to us. What does this mean practically? Simply that wrong decisions made after much wise counsel, with the intent to please God, are not as grievous as bad choices made with a “high hand” (Num. 15:30). This is no excuse to grow ethically lax; rather, we must study and pray so as to grow more adept in applying God’s Word (Rom. 12:2).

Coram Deo

John Murray, a great Reformed ethicist and theologian (d. 1975), said that the difference between right and wrong can sometimes be a razor’s edge. Since this distinction can be so fine, it is very important that we study Scripture in concert with other Christians, for the collective wisdom of the church takes priority over individual opinions. That way, those areas that seem to be the most gray can become clearer to us.

Passages for Further Study

2 Chronicles 10
Proverbs 24:5–6
Acts 15:1–35
1 Timothy 3:14–15

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