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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 51–54 

A Year of Ethics in the Church

Herb Kopp

Ethics is concerned with the promulgation of certain values and the cultivation of specific virtues and behaviors. Religion and morality are closely linked, and Christianity is no exception to this. The church is not an open-ended institution. To be Christian, and to be part of the church which is the visible sign that the Kingdom of God is present on earth, means that the new way of living initiated and modelled by Jesus himself, and taught in the Scriptures, becomes our way of living.

The problem is not one of knowing, but one of obeying.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the human family. Not only is it difficult for us to do what is right, but it is also hard for us to know what is right. Every generation, in fact, redefines the shape of sin. There are, of course, those sins and misbehaviors which are constant and which haunt every generation of Christian people. A quick look at the Decalogue informs us that we, like the ancient Hebrews, struggle with the same issues of truth-telling, faithfulness in covenant relations, idolatry, and other such matters, as intensely as they did. We are also aware of those ethical matters which consumed the earlier generations of our church tradition, and which, today, are largely accepted in practice, or have fallen away as issues. Then there are the {52} new concerns which greatly exercise the thinking of this generation. They are troublesome and are not easily resolved.

The present church year at Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church has become “the year of ethics;” not necessarily by deliberate choice, but rather through a series of events that pushed the church in this direction. Having been nudged in this particular direction, the Worship Commission of the congregation actively began to plan for such an “ethics emphasis.” Four specific blocks of time, created both through internal and denominational interests, motivated the church to think seriously about ethics.

THE HERMENEUTICAL QUESTION

The first block of time, in early fall, got us off to a good start on ethical thinking. It centered on how we read the Scriptures. Three sermons, by three different persons (at Lendrum the preaching task is a shared ministry), focussed on the hermeneutical question, Are all the sayings of Jesus to be taken with equal weight? Which texts do we read literally; which do we read to understand the underlying principles; and which do we understand in a metaphorical sense? How do we sort out, from all the Old Testament commands of God, those which are binding and those which are non-binding? Is it fair, for example, to accept as binding the command that murderers are to be executed, but not the adulteress or the wilfully recalcitrant child?

These sermons were received with considerable interest and led to a second phase.

PASTORAL CARE AND MEDICAL ETHICS

The second important phase in ethics has to do with the pastoral care of persons caught in the tragedies of life. A weekend conference, in late January, which included denominational resource persons, as well as medical personnel from within the church and the greater Edmonton community, addressed the matter of caring for persons caught in the dilemmas of human frailty. The subjects of abortion and euthanasia were of prime concern. A noted, non-Christian physician presented case studies to the participants for dialogue. Are Christian values and medical ethics different from those {53} practiced by non-Christian physicians? Is the Christian viewpoint more compassionate; or, how does Christian theology inform and clarify issues in medical ethics and care-giving?

DENOMINATIONAL CONCERNS

The third phase of our “year of ethics” involved participation in, and reporting to the church body, the findings of the “Institute for Church Ministries,” sponsored jointly by the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and the Canadian Conference Board of Faith and Life (February 27-March 1, 1989).

A wide-ranging set of issues were discussed, including such topics as: contraception, infertility, abortion, euthanasia, end-of-life events, parent abuse, human sexuality, sexual aberrations, abuse and temptation.

We anticipate that these subjects will become material for informative and intense dialogue in the weeks following the conference.

ETHICS AND THE CHURCH

The final phase of our “year of ethics,” in April/May of 1989, will focus attention on the besetting sins of the church. In a six-part series, the Worship Commission is planning to address issues like pre-marital sex, homosexuality, materialism, affluence, civil disobedience, non-resistance, honesty, and covenant loyalty from a biblical perspective. We anticipate (but have not finalized plans) that each sermon will become the focal point for discussion in an inter-generational Sunday school class. The Lendrum congregation is particularly concerned that the young people of the church (Youth and College and Career) are involved in this conversation.

PERSPECTIVES

Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics/theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, in the introduction to his fine book, Mere Morality, writes: “We have a deep primitive sense that morality is woven into the fabric of our humanness. Morality is not a con game that makes losers out of those who play it seriously. Nor is morality just an impressive name for the strong feelings we have about some things, a word we use to add some clout to {54} our complaints. Morality is a basic component of any human sort of life, a reality we feel surely even if we cannot define it clearly. We do have choices, and they are sometimes between real moral options. The choices we make can put us in the wrong with God and our ideal selves—or leave us in the right. And being in the right means being in harmony with God’s design for our humanity” (vii).

In most matters, the issue of right and wrong is quite discernable. The problem is not one of knowing, but one of obeying. It is usually easier to speak and to create resolutions concerning ethical issues, than it is to live them out forthrightly and with sincerity. In all of our study and dialogue, we tend to miss this simple point.

The pastoral concern is for a life that is lived in harmony with belief. It is concerned with nurturing spiritual life, so that obedience and integrity are made possible. In an increasingly relativistic age, it becomes more necessary than ever to think clearly and to call the community of faith to obedience in daily life. Thinking through our ethical positions makes this kind of living possible.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bloesch, Donald G. Freedom for Obedience: Evangelical Ethics for Contemporary Times. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.
  • Geisler, Norman. Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981.
  • Holmes, Arthur F. Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984.
  • Longnecker, Richard N. New Testament Social Ethics for Today. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.
  • Rudnick, Milton L. Christian Ethics for Today: An Evangelical Approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979.
  • Smedes, Lewis, B. Mere Morality. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986.
Herb Kopp is pastor of the Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church in Edmonton, Alberta.

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