by Al Maxey

Issue #637 ------- October 9, 2014
Eternal truths will be neither true
nor eternal unless they have fresh
meaning for every new social situation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)

Theological Situationism
Reflecting on Situation Ethics

Most peoples, whether primitive or modern, recognize and embrace some form of a basic moral imperative. This may vary according to time, place, culture, etc., but a sense that some things are "right" and some things are "wrong" is universal. These become the "norms," whether written or unwritten, that govern our behavior (both individually and collectively), and when these break down or are discarded, and every person in essence becomes a law unto themselves, the cohesiveness of community is quickly shattered. Even those who profess to be atheists or agnostics, still recognize the existence of certain moral imperatives that are essential to the well-being of the society in which they live, although they may deny these norms find their source in a Divine Being. All of these peoples and cultures, regardless of time and place, also recognize that, under certain circumstances, these moral imperatives can be difficult to abide by: i.e., situations arise where following some societal norm may actually be more harmful than helpful. Such situations challenge our convictions, causing us to weigh in the balance various attitudes and actions that may be contrary to these recognized norms, yet which when embraced may lead to a far more positive outcome. This moral dilemma in the face of accepted moral imperatives has been faced by all people (individually and collectively) at some point in their earthly existence. Are there certain circumstances and situations where it may be deemed proper and permissible to set aside these societal norms? May we transgress a moral imperative, thus doing that which is normally deemed "wrong," yet be regarded by society and/or a Divine Being as having done that which is "right"? This is the question we have all probably faced at some point in our lives, and one with which many continue to struggle.

As humans, if we desire to live at peace with one another, we must all accept some level of moral responsibility for our attitudes and actions, and how these might impact those around us. We thereby recognize and accept certain moral imperatives as normative (the nature of which, again, may vary greatly depending on time, place and culture). Nevertheless, as we all know, situations arise that challenge these "norms," and these challenges must be met by individuals and societies if they are to survive. We often characterize this under the umbrella of "Situation Ethics," which can be very complex and multi-faceted, and which, as one might imagine, has led to considerable heated debate over the centuries. When studying this field of thought and behavior, one will quickly become aware that there are three major schools of thought: (1) Nihilism, which essentially denies a Supreme Being and any objective, eternal right or wrong, and suggests we should each follow whatever course brings us the most satisfaction, regardless of how it may impact others, (2) Relativism, which acknowledges there are moral absolutes, but whether or not they are followed will be determined by the situation or circumstance, and (3) Absolutism, which declares the moral absolutes we accept must always be followed, regardless of the situation or circumstance; everything is "black or white" and there can never be compromise of these absolutes. Most would regard the first and last of these schools of thought as being extreme (with which I agree). The more rational course, in the mind of most people, is the middle school of thought: There are moral absolutes, but these may at times be set aside as being inappropriate or inadequate or counter-productive in some situations. This is known as Situationism.

Religiously and theologically, we might refer to the first school of thought as "antinomianism" (against, or setting aside, law) and the third school of thought as "legalism" (bound rigidly by law: everything is black or white, right or wrong; no "shades of gray" allowed). Again, both of these would fall under the category of "extremism." Although we are all aware of those who embrace these two views (among our fellow disciples we usually encounter the latter more often than the former), neither is truly conducive to acquiring and maintaining a harmonious society (whether religious or secular). There is, in my view, a more rational course: the recognition of divinely ordained moral imperatives that should govern our attitudes and actions during our earthly journey, but which under some circumstances may be acceptably (both to God and our fellow men) set aside so that a greater good may be realized. Thus, I fully embrace, and believe the Bible teaches, what has been termed "situation(al) ethics." We could list any number of illustrations. For example: if a man, who is a complete stranger, asks a woman to disrobe for him so that he may examine her body, most would say this is morally wrong, and most women would not even consider doing so. But, what if this complete stranger was a doctor to whom this woman was appealing for a diagnosis of a medical problem. Most women would disrobe without voicing any objection. Situation ethics. What would be "wrong" in one situation, would be "right" in another.

What about telling a lie? Intentionally deceiving another person! We know the Bible instructs us not to lie to one another, and even goes so far as to declare: "all liars ... will be cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Rev. 21:8). It sounds like God takes this sin seriously! We could even suggest it is a "moral absolute." However, are there situations where one may tell a lie and NOT be condemned by God? Those who are "absolutists" would say the answer is NO. One must always tell the truth; it is always wrong to lie. Period! I would disagree. Consider the actions of Rahab: we are informed she willfully LIED (Joshua 2:1-7) about the spies under her roof. Is there anywhere in Scripture that condemns her for this lie? No. In fact, her name appears in the listing of the giants of faith in Hebrews 11, and James declares that Rahab "was considered righteous for what she did" (James 2:25). She was in a situation where lives were at stake; had she told the truth, these Israeli spies would have died. Thus, she found herself in a situation where the greater good could be served by laying aside what, under normal circumstances, would constitute, in almost every society, a "moral imperative."

In more recent times, we find good, righteous men and women hiding Jews under their roofs from the Nazi troops, and hiding runaway slaves from those who sought to return them to the southern plantations from which they had fled. Time and again, these godly men and women LIED to those who came looking for these people. Most of us would agree that these were special situations that called for lies rather than truth. Do we condemn them for lying? Far from it. We honor them as heroes; we regard their behavior as righteous. Situation ethics. Consider: you hear someone breaking into your house in the middle of the night. You send your young children into a closet to hide. When the armed intruder grabs you, he asks, "Is there anyone else in the house?" What do you say? Do you tell the truth? Do you point to the closet where your children are hiding? In such situations the truth could prove deadly, whereas a lie may save the lives of your children. Would God cast you into the lake of fire for being a liar? Situation ethics. Jesus related the account about David and his men, who were desperately in need of food, and so they "entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread -- which was not lawful for them to do" (Matt. 12:4). In the world of moral absolutism, David had transgressed LAW, a fact which Jesus freely admits. However, in the world of moral relativism, David was deemed "innocent" (vs. 7). Situation ethics.

Yes, we recognize there are moral absolutes: divinely established norms; we also recognize that in certain situations these may be set aside in order to achieve a greater good. The key to understanding this is the principle of Love over Law! In the world of absolutism, there is only right and wrong, black and white. In the world of relativism, there are many shades of gray, and our actions are judged by our motivation (the heart). God is Love, and we are challenged to live in love. Where love and respect for God and others is our motivation, we transcend law (whose primary purpose is to regulate and restrict those who do not have respect for God and others). The two basic moral imperatives given to us by our Lord are: love God and love one another. All else is summed up in these two imperatives. Every situation is thus approached NOT from the perspective of "What would LAW have me do?", but rather from the perspective of "What would LOVE have me do?" LAW can never address every situation; LOVE can! Law is restrictive; love is reflective. Law establishes immovable parameters; love is boundless, extending itself outward as far as it can reach.

This principle is difficult for legalists (moral absolutists) to comprehend. For example, Wayne Jackson, in his publication "Christian Courier," strongly condemned the lie of Rahab, saying "All lying is condemned." "The case of Rahab does not bestow divine sanction upon the practice of situation ethics. ... The narrative regarding Rahab merely provides an example of where God honored a woman ... in spite of her character flaw" [from his article: "A Critical Look at Situation Ethics"]. Another ultra-conservative leader within our faith-heritage, Dr. Dave Miller, concurs. In his 2004 article "Situation Ethics" (which appears on the Apologetics Press web site) he concludes, "Probably no greater threat to the stability of society exists in our day than the humanistic, antinomian philosophy of situationism and its multi-faceted pluralistic and/or post-modernistic manifestations. It is part and parcel of the general rebellion against the authority of God's Word that engulfs America." To the legalists and absolutists there is NO middle ground; there is only right or wrong, black or white. NO situation or circumstance, in their way of thinking, justifies stepping outside the parameters of LAW ... not even to evidence mercy, compassion or love! I believe these people are wrong, and I don't mind saying so! Love, if it is genuine and godly, trumps law in every situation. May God help us all to perceive this ... and to live it!

Our 2014 Vacation
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will be on vacation for the next several weeks.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Greetings and blessings. I appreciate your good work. Keep on keeping on. I have two daughters who far exceed my own spiritual maturity and spirituality when I was of the same age as they. A book was recommended to one of their friends to read regarding women's roles. The title is: "Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15." It is a collection of essays on this topic, and is edited by Andreas Kostenberger and Thomas Schriener. Have you, by any chance, read this book, and, if so, would you be willing to share your opinion of it with me? Basically, the book is described as a work that provides a biblical defense of the traditional complementarian position. From what I can tell about it, without actually having read it, this work seems very biased. I trust your insights and trust your ability to maneuver through all of their bias on this topic. Brother, I can't say enough about how much I appreciate you, your family, and all those who lift you up and support you! God bless you!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Do you have any Reflections on Christians being in the government, or in the military, or killing someone in self-defense, and what is pleasing and acceptable to God in these matters? I have a friend who believes we are to submit to government, but that Christians are not to vote or be in politics. She asked me for some Scriptures on this, but you do a much better job of explaining, rather than just tossing out verses of the Bible. Thanks for your help.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

This was a great article on Alexander Campbell's younger sister: Jane Campbell McKeever (Reflections #636). At the risk of using a cliché, she was truly a "one woman army." It is incredible how productive her life was!

From a Reader in Scotland:

I had never heard of her, Al. Thanks for sharing this study of Campbell's little sister.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, I forwarded your article on Jane Campbell McKeever to a brother in Scotland. As you probably know, Alexander Campbell is almost legendary over there. The brother told me he enjoyed the article, and that he then forwarded it on to another brother in Scotland who has read everything Alexander Campbell ever wrote. This brother also told me he enjoyed the other articles you had written which were linked in your study of Jane. Blessings, brother.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, I really appreciate you bringing to our remembrance these great women of faith and action. Role models such as these women should never be forgotten! Plus, it's a reminder that God has, does, and will use women to advance the kingdom in mighty ways (and I don't mean just silently passing out Communion trays).

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I hope all is well with you. Thanks again for the wonderful work you do through your weekly Reflections. I miss my dad so much, and am always having something trigger memories. Reading your current article (the one on "Alexander's Little Sister"), I saw that you mentioned K. C. Moser, so I clicked on the link you provided and read your biography and tribute to him (Reflections #392 -- "Kenneth Carl Moser: A Powerful Voice for Grace"). He was one of my Bible professors at LCC (the old days before it became LCU), and I was intrigued by your tribute to him, as I was not aware you had done this a few years back. It was a wonderful piece, just wonderful. I remember the first day of class, and he was calling roll. He called my name, then stopped and said, "Are you any kin to -------?" I responded, "My father, sir." He then told me that he really regretted not visiting the congregation more often where my father preached: "I really miss hearing your father preach his grace-centered sermons." We had several wonderful visits throughout that semester, and the years following that I attended LCC. What a loving, accepting, great man he was (just like my dad). How anyone could target and criticize this man and my dad as anything other than Christ-like just amazes me. And yet they did. But, those two gentlemen never reacted violently or cruelly; they always responded lovingly in every such encounter. Keep up the good work, good sir, and thanks for your ministry!

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