Sep 2, 2020

Situational Ethics and the Word of God

Romans 13:8–10

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (v. 10).

Situational ethics has been one of the more popular approaches to ethical decision making over the last several decades. Of course, Christian thinkers have always understood that the circumstances in which we must apply the law of God do affect how that law is applied. However, situational ethics goes further and says that right and wrong are defined by the situation itself. A key figure associated with this approach to ethics is Joseph Fletcher, who published his thesis in the 1966 book Situation Ethics: The New Morality.

Fletcher was an Episcopalian priest who later renounced the faith and became an atheist, so it is not surprising that his approach takes no account of God’s law. He asserted that we must do whatever love demands in any given situation when we are making ethical decisions. Scripture would have us apply the principle of love, defined rightly, in every situation (Matt. 22:34–40). However, Fletcher had no fixed, transcendent standard for figuring out what love demands. In his view, love is defined by the situation itself, so what is loving is measured not against God’s infallible revelation but according to what one thinks is most loving. Practically speaking, this means that something like adultery is not always unloving. In some cases, it might be the most loving choice.

God’s law recognizes that the circumstances of a particular situation affect how the law is applied. To apply God’s revelation correctly in a given situation, we must know as much as we can about the situation before we make a decision (see, for instance, Deut. 22:23–27; 1 Cor. 7:12–16). None of that entails a thoroughly subjective view of love or a casting aside of God’s law as our fixed, transcendent standard. In fact, the law of God in Scripture is love concretely applied to specific settings. Paul tells us as much in Romans 13:8–10, where he says that love for neighbor is fulfilled when we keep the Ten Commandments.

Situational ethics errs because it separates God’s law from love. We cannot rely on our own intuitions to determine infallibly what love actually is in any given context. Love is defined not by our wishes and feelings but by God Himself, for He is love (1 John 4:10). Yes, we should always do what love demands, but the only way to know what love demands is to study the law of God. Christ does not abolish the law of God; He fulfills it (Matt. 5:17–20).

Coram Deo

Freedom consists not in trusting our own intuitions to define love but in trusting and following the Word of God. If we trust in ourselves, we can never be sure that we are loving others rightly, and we can fall into grievous, enslaving sin. Seeking to know and follow God’s law gives us a marker for understanding what true love is and the freedom to practice it if we have been born again by the Spirit of God.

For Further Study