October 26, 2008

Women's Ministry: Why Ethics Matters

At the risk of being misunderstood, it seems to me that Christians often needlessly spiritualize how we fulfill the call to glorify God.(1) Let me explain. There are times when we say that we are praying about matters when what we are really doing is avoiding a reasoned decision because that might be less than spiritual, or too human. And sometimes when we talk about matters of right and wrong, we avoid injecting any sound ethical principles and, instead, tell our brother or sister that their situation is between them and God. To be fair, there are times that these might be the most appropriate statements to make, but it goes against the teachings of scripture to de-legitimize the role of the mind or the pursuit of the holy life. Our Christian walk cannot be reduced to a Holy Spirit intuition or a lack of ethical reasoning.

The theologian L. H. Marshall puts forth this idea that for Christian living, the Holy Spirit functions as a spontaneous power that mystically causes people to know right from wrong. He said,

The Spirit of God in action in a man’s heart was an adequate ethical guide, and that a man under the sway of the Spirit knew from within what the will of God was and was enabled both to will and to do… (2)
This view not only confuses the entity referred to as the heart (the mind), but it under-estimates the impact of unconscious and conscious beliefs we retain. As well, it ignores the deceitful nature of the heart (Jer 17:9). But the New Testament theologian G.E. Ladd writes,

It is striking that Paul does not appeal to the Spirit as a direct source of moral enlightenment. Paul is conscious that the Holy Spirit reveals the things of God (1 Cor 2:10), but this does not mean that Paul feels himself to be independent of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus.(3)
Ladd shows how Paul’s letters communicate the reality, that new life comes from the Spirit, but that we are commanded to actually participate in this by walking by the Spirit (Gal 5:25).

To bring more clarification to this topic, consider the distinction that is made between law and grace. Paul never insisted that principles of conduct went away with the Law and that the Holy Spirit would provide an answer for every dilemma we face. For redemptive purposes, Christ fulfilled the requirements of the Law yet he also provided a summary for it’s ethical requirements in Matt 22:37-29 in the Great Commandment. Ethical reflection toward a life that pleases God was never replaced with a mystical, abstract approach to living. We are always expected to obey, though our salvation doesn’t depend upon our always succeeding. Yet any ability to obey—to please God—is found in our new nature accounted for through the regenerative work of the Spirit.

For men and women, many of the decisions we face in today’s world are not to be answered with specifics contained in Scripture. Technology, economics, and entertainment leave us wringing our hands sometimes, not entirely clear on how to think Christianly about these areas. But Ephesians 5:10 calls each of us to discern what is pleasing to God—not to guess, hope, or feel….but to discern. Chapters 2-5 in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus focus largely on how we participate—ethical reflection—in pursuit of the holy life. This is a very practical, tangible section of scripture rooted in solid teachings on salvation and God in contrast to our sinfulness. The letter concludes with application in marriage and family. But this is hardly exhaustive in content, and many other areas of our every day living call us to reflect on our walk.

In considering the many perspectives that women in particular face in today’s world, decisions from reproductive technologies and birth control to careers, relationships and matters of the family, room needs to exist for deliberate ethical reflection, grounded in a firm foundation the acknowledges the supremacy of God. The ability to move from Scripture into the specific areas of life that are in question is the process of doing theology. Knowing what the Bible says in its context is the first step, but bringing it to bear on every square inch of your life is where it all becomes real.


1. If you are confused after reading this essay, please contact me for clarification. sarahflashing@gmail.com

2. L.H. Marshall, The Challenge of NT Ethics (1947), p. 220.

3. G.E. Ladd, A New Testament Theology (2002), p. 563.

1 comment:

Collin Brendemuehl said...

Excellent first step. Let's take the next step beyond "Why" it matters and look at "How" it matters. How it matters in practice -- how it changes life to be ethical. The life ethic hits more women that we may realize. Young girls who steal jewelry from stores, older women who are unfaithful, and those in the middle who lack the maturity to see the bigger picture wrt their actions. This is a whole curriculum, but I know you can do it. ;-)