Situational Ethics: Is it Ever Right to Do Wrong?

by Robert Driskell · Print Print · Email Email

In the minds of most Christians, the term “Situational Ethics” throws up red flags and is immediately judged to be something that is bad. Let us take a look at this term and hopefully gain some clarity on its meaning and relevance.

Situation Ethics is defined in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology as “...the position that every significant moral decision has to be taken ‘in the light of the circumstances” (p. 1019).

Situation Ethics says it is not always wrong to lie, it is not always wrong to kill, etc. In other words there are no absolute moral values which should be applied to all situations everywhere at all times. Websters defines ‘situational ethics as’: a system of ethics by which acts are judged within their contexts instead of by categorical principles”. (http://www .merriamwebster. com/dictionary/situation%20ethics)

This article will merely scrape the surface of this topic; much more could be said, and I’m sure everyone will not agree with the views expressed here. However, I believe them to biblical, reasonable, and God-honoring deductions gleaned from the Bible, the writings of others, and my own prayerful consideration.

Joseph Fletcher

Joseph Fletcher is usually identified as the “Father of Situation Ethics”. Before he passed away in 1991, he was an Episcopal priest. According to Wikipedia, Mr. Fletcher was named Humanist of the Year in 1974 by the American Humanist Association, he was a signer of the Humanist Manifesto, he served as president of the Euthanasia Society of America, and was a member of the American Eugenics Society and the Association for Voluntary Sterilization (http://en .wikipedia. org/wiki/Joseph_Fletcher).

In order to answer the question, “Is it ever right to do wrong?”, we must determine what is right and what is wrong in God's eyes, and do that.

In order to answer the question, “Is it ever right to do wrong?”, we must determine what is right and what is wrong in God’s eyes, and do that.

The thinking behind situation ethics is that all actions should be motivated by one overarching tenet: love. All behavior should be governed by love. When one is called upon to make a decision, the overriding priority guiding this decision must love (i.e. what is the loving thing to do?). Although Fletcher believed that love should govern all actions and decision, he did not limit this ethic to the Christian community. He believed that all people could live with love as their primary motivating guide.

Herein lies one of the major problems of situation ethics: in order to be able to make decisions based on the principle of love, one must have a clear understanding of what love is. This clear understanding can only be gained through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Any other basis for defining love is simply a man-made construct that will vary from person to person. The biblical record paints a clear picture of the wicked heart of man without God (Genesis 6:5, 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:9; Romans 3:23).

Breaking it down

Of course, it is true that the decisions we make and the actions we take do not occur in a vacuum; there are circumstances surrounding everything we do. To say that these circumstances play no part in the decisions we make would be false. However, the kind of ‘situation ethics’ we are talking about in this article are governed by nothing but a person’s personal judgment of right and wrong; they have no other source of guidance than whatever they deem to be the right thing to do at the time.

For example, a person who is not a Spirit-led Christian might see nothing unloving about having sex with a woman to whom he is not married. After all, it feels right, he wants to do it, she wants to do it. Is that not considered love?

It also might be conceivable to encounter a situation where John Doe thinks that John Plenty has more than he needs and John None does not have enough to get by on. In situation ethics, it would be perfectly acceptable (based on John Doe’s perception of love) to steal some of what John Plenty has in order to give it to John None.

The Christian Difference

This is where the Christian and the non-Christian must part ways. The Christian is taught, by God’s Word, what is right and what is wrong; it is not our prerogative to make our own moral judgments apart from the guidance of God’s Word and His Spirit. Christians are bound to the ethical standard given to us by God, in His Word. Instead of embracing something as wishy-washy as situational ethics, the follower of Jesus Christ should saturate himself or herself with the teaching of the Word of God. In this way, when it comes time to make a decision or take action, the Holy Spirit will prompt the believer to act in a manner both loving and God-honoring.

Is it ever right to do wrong?

There are several instances in the Bible where, in order to promote God, His Kingdom, etc. people lied, or otherwise disobeyed those in authority, in order to further God’s plans (the woman who found Moses in the river, Rahab, Peter and the Apostles, etc.). However, we do not find situation ethics in play here, but total dedication to God and His Will; these events were not the result of people making up their own rules, but decisions made by people who were completely dedicated to doing God’s will. Therefore, in order to answer the question, “Is it ever right to do wrong?”, we must determine what is right and what is wrong in God’s eyes, and do that.

Conclusion

When one conducts his or her life strictly by situation ethics, the logical result will be anarchy. People will be doing whatever feels right to them at the time; while they claim to be motivated by love…and excusing all kinds of behavior in love’s name.

Although, every situation does have its own set of circumstances, God has given us, in His Word and by His Holy Spirit, guidelines and standards by which we are to live. Sin has affected the world in such a way that there may be times when our course of action is not clear to us. However, in such instances, we are not to simply ignore His laws and His will and react in a manner based on feelings or flesh. Rather, we are to trust in God, rely on Him to guide us and give us strength to carry out His will.

Other suggested reading: What Does the Bible Say About Lying

Resources: Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, Editor. Baker Book House, 1984.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

ElderAl February 24, 2014 at 9:14 am

Situational Ethics is a code word indicating “I alone am God and I alone can and will make my own decisions as I alone see fit (without the influence of the traditional God). This is the same evil plan re-hashed from the Garden of Eden: “You know better than God does so you do as you please.”

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David February 26, 2014 at 12:52 am

to Elder Al. I`m not sure. I was reading about a French farmer and Christian who was sheltering a group of Jewish children during WW2, and when the SS came to his farm and asked him if there were Jews on it he denied the fact. I think it would be strange if he admitted to it.
Also if you read 2 Kings 5 vs`s 17-19 Naaman asked pardon for bowing to the god Rimmon thus breaking the 2nd commandment, because I think God sees the heart, and our real self.
Blessings, David Central Europe

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Jessica McDevitt September 19, 2015 at 9:35 pm

Hello! I know you briefly mentioned this in your article but was just curious? In exodus the midwives were commanded by the Pharoah to kill all the newborn Hebrew sons. They feared the Lord however and did not, lying and saying the woman gave birth before they were there. God blessed them for it. But one of his Commandments is not to lie. So if one is trying to follow Gods laws and yet there is example of people going against them and still being blessed, what is one to do? And where does one draw the line? Thanks !!

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Robert Driskell September 21, 2015 at 7:40 am

Hi Jessica,
This is indeed an important, and sometimes confusing, topic. Are all lies sinful? Is it never right to tell a lie? Is telling a lie to save someone’s life a good reason to tell a lie. Each of us must come to an understanding, and a peace with God, concerning this important issue. Here are a few more things to think about that, I hope, will help you with a better understanding (a Godly understanding) about lying.

After considering the cases of the Hebrew midwives and Rahab the harlot, John Piper writes this, “So, is it ever right to lie? I am willing to say only that it is possible, instead of answering the question simply with “yes,” because in neither of these cases (nor anywhere else in Scripture, that I am aware of) does the Bible explicitly approve of lying itself. The midwives are commended for fearing the Lord and not killing the babies. And Rahab demonstrates faith by welcoming the Israelite spies. But their lying is not explicitly approved.

As a pastor, I’ve struggled a long time with how to think and teach about these borderline cases. I’ve concluded that the wisest thing for me to do is to acknowledge that in the fear of God and in the walk of faith, worthy saints have chosen to oppose the effects of evil by concealing the truth from wicked men.

Having recognized that lying may be acceptable in rare situations, we should now consider the overwhelming biblical emphasis condemning falsehood” [http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/deeper-walk/features/21429-is-lying-ever-okay#1sJer9FRCYQzsOto.99].

It is clear from the witness of the Bible as a whole that truthfulness is pleasing to God. However, when it comes to making a choice between obeying God or obeying man, we must obey God. [See this article also: http://defendinginerrancy.com/bible-solutions/Exodus_1.15-21.php%5D

I hope this helps Jessica. This certainly is an important concept to understand. Please continue to pray that God would give you understanding.

Here are a couple more articles to help shed some light on this topic:
http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/is-there-ever-a-reason-for-christians-to-tell-a-lie/

http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/what-does-the-bible-say-about-lying-a-christian-study/

Yours in Christ,
Robert

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