June 11, 2013 by cbbeard
Our lives are meant to be “motorhomes of mission.” In Part 1 of this post, I proposed that we have often misunderstood the role that ethics and mission is to have in our lives. I shared that I used to think that ethics and mission were kind of like my house and my car; ethics was personal, and I would “keep up my house” by living right and clean. To fulfill my mission, I would have to get into my car, leave my house and go do something. Ethics was about who I am, mission was something to do. But instead of ethics and mission being two separate things, the two are inseparable and inform one another. Instead of spending part of our lives in our houses (concerned with ethics) and part of our lives in our cars (concerned with mission) we are to spend our lives in the RVs (combining ethics and mission into one). The bottom line is this: if Christians are to construct an ethical framework that is consistent with Scripture, mission and ethic must be merged to create a missional ethic.
This post will establish the “ethics” aspect of the missional ethic in a way that is consistent with Scripture. Once this is established, we can then see the dependence and inseparability of mission within ethics, according to God’s intentions. I hereby offer these characteristics of a biblical Christian ethic:
Christ is central.
Ethics are the framework upon which decisions are made and life is lived. Therefore “Christian ethics” would be a framework informed by expectations of one who holds faith in Christ. Since Christ is central to the Christian faith, it seems only natural that Christ would be central in Christian ethics. This seems like a simple proposal, but in fact it is more complex than it first appears. The role of Christ in the Christian ethic is multi-faceted. Jesus as seen in Scripture is the example par excellence for the formation of a Christian ethic. We must keep in mind that the revelation of God in and through Jesus Christ is found not only in his teaching, but also in his example. “So to find the heart of Jesus’ ethic, we need to consider both his ethical teaching and his actual practice” (Burridge, 2007, p. 28).
It’s about the Kingdom.
There is no denying the primacy of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings. Ridderbos (1962) explained, “It may be rightly said that the whole of the preaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles is concerned with the kingdom of God” (p. xi). The “way we ought to live” could be redefined as “Kingdom living” according to the teaching of Jesus. The ethical implications of Jesus’ teachings all deal with living in the new reality of God’s Kingdom, ushered in by the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Schillebeeckx, wrote, “The kingdom of God is a new relationship of human beings to God, with as its tangible and visible side a new type of liberating relationship between men and women, within a peaceful, reconciled society”(2012, p. 19). The ethic of Jesus, therefore, is a way of life in response to the new reality that is found in the kingdom of God. What God has brought to fruition through Christ provides the foundation and motivation for a new kind of life that is lived in submission to the reign of God.
It comes down to love.
The central characteristic of the Kingdom of God is love. When Jesus was asked by the teachers of the law to identify the greatest commandment in Matthew 22 (paralleled in Mark 12 and Luke 10) Jesus brought love to the forefront:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, New International Version, 2011)
Not only do “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” as Jesus stated, but all the teachings of Jesus hang on these two commandments as well. Every teaching of Christ with ethical implications flows from the primacy of love in the kingdom of God, and the love that permeates the kingdom is a radical love that is offered even to enemies. Ridderbos (1962) suggested that Jesus’ most radical commandments are simply “particularizations of this love” (p. 293). Every ethical decision should flow from either the love of God or the love of others. This is Kingdom living!
It’s not just about what I do.
Stanley Hauerwas brilliantly stated, ““The question of what I ought to do is actually about what I am or ought to be” (1983, p. 117). The Christian ethic is intended to permeate our very being and who (or what) we are informs everything we do. Living under the reign of God is not just about following rules, it’s about transformation. God transforms is from the inside out with the power of Christ as we obey him and imitate him.
This is where the example of Jesus becomes so important. The life and ministry of Jesus is revelatory of God’s desires and the example par excellence of what a life in the kingdom of God should look like. Therefore we should be imitators of Christ. But the nature of that imitation requires a great deal of care. While the ethic of Jesus is prescriptive, the ethic of Jesus cannot be identified as a systematic moral code. The imitation of Christ is therefore central to the construction of a Christian ethic, but the nature of imitation must be understood within the concept of building the virtues of Christ into our own lives in our own contexts. Hauerwas (1983) wrote, “The theme of ‘imitation’ is subject, however, to much misunderstanding…For there is no way to learn to ‘imitate’ God by trying to copy in an external manner the actions of Jesus” (p. 76). There is a good deal of danger present in any attempt to translate the actions and teachings of Jesus directly to the modern context of one’s life. However, the key to imitation within the Christian ethic is where “the believer’s behavior or attitude is said to ‘correspond to’ or reflect or ‘partake of’ the same quality or nature as that of the Lord” (Yoder, 1994, p. 113).
Therefore, imitating Jesus is not doing everything exactly as he did in Scripture, but rather asking ourselves “if Jesus was in this circumstance at this time, how would he handle it?” Indeed, we are to become so much like Christ that it as if Christ were living in our place.
A Christian Ethic (almost) defined.
Based on our discussion thus far, Christian ethics can be defined as:
The life of a Christ-follower under the rule of the kingship of God, characterized by radical love of God and other human beings, and being continually transformed to obtain the virtues of Christ through obedience.
This definition identifies three main keys in the ethic of Jesus: submitting to the rule of God, a life of love, and obedience of the teaching and person of Jesus Christ. This Christian ethic allows for and promotes obedience of the specificity of Scripture when available, but also allows for obedience in situations unique to the modern context. It is both faithful to the example par excellence of Christ and applicable across time and space.
This definition of Christian ethics is not sufficient, however, when compared to the full ethic of Jesus. While this identification of Christian ethics seems consistent with modern ethical scholarship, it leaves out a vital theme of Scripture: mission.
In Part 3 (and the conclusion) of this post, we will see that you cannot remove mission from Christian ethics and remain consistent with Scripture. We will see that the only true Christian ethic is a missional ethic.
So what do you think? Is this view of “Christian ethics” different than what you’ve thought before? Is there anything missing from this ethic (other than mission, of course)? Is this view of Christian ethics being lived out in the church today?
Burridge, R. A. (2007). Imitating Jesus: An inclusive approach to New Testament ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
Hauerwas, S. (1983). The peaceable kingdom: A primer in Christian ethics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Ridderbos, H. N. (1962). The coming of the kingdom. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed.
Schillebeeckx, E. (2012). Jesus in our western culture. London: SCM Press
Yoder, J. H. (1994). The politics of Jesus (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
 This post is a very abbreviated version of the proposal and discussion of a Christian ethic. If you would like a copy of the full version, feel free to contact me.
 Some scholars claim that Christ is not relevant to a modern ethic, a view with which I completely disagree. I you would like some support to my view that Christ is relevant, feel free to contact me!