Skip to site content

A Christian’s Response to Situation Ethics – Part 1

When I was a kid growing up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity in the 1960s, we were warned about one great horrible “bugaboo” (cause for fear and alarm), which would infect our thinking and lead us down a road to complete personal decadence and eventual loss of salvation – situation ethics.

I don’t recall anything being as forcefully condemned as that by my spiritual mentors.

Now, you have to understand a little bit more about the particular flavor of American evangelical Christianity I grew up in and what it was like in the 1960s.

Our church youth group was used by pastors, evangelists and denominational speakers who happened to come to our church to inoculate us teenagers against all things contrary to our particular, very strict, ethical code.

That code included the usual ones – not drinking alcoholic beverages, not smoking tobacco, not having premarital sex, not thinking “dirty thoughts,” not cursing and so on.

Even using “minced oaths” was considered cursing and, therefore, punishable. An example of a “minced oath” we were not allowed to say is “darn.” That was a form of the curse word “damn” and therefore banned from our speech.

Sometime in the 1960s, “situation ethics” loomed very large in our spiritual mentors’ collection of horrible ideas and it was especially attacked because, so it was said, it would lead to the acceptance of every kind of sin – large or small.

It was the most sinister secular idea in modern American culture that underlay all the other terrible things happening (for example, rock music, “hippies,” drug use, “free love” and so on).

The year 1966 was a watershed year in American culture. Suddenly, so we were told, the whole country began to lose its soul.

That was the year “Time” published its shocking red-and-black cover issue that said, “Is God Dead?”

The article was about the so-called “Death of God Theology” or “Christian Atheism” (Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton).

It was also the year that Episcopal theologian-ethicist Joseph Fletcher’s little book, “Situation Ethics: The New Morality,” was published.

We were not warned as forcefully against “Christian atheism” because it was so manifestly absurd. Yes, we sang songs like “God’s Not Dead.” And some church members’ cars bumper stickers read, “My God’s Not Dead! Sorry About Yours!”

But, for the most part, that particular movement was not considered such a danger to our adolescent Christianity.

Nobody in our religious circles was attracted to it and it was not viewed as “filtering down” to us – at least not in the same way as “situation ethics.”

Numerous speakers at youth gatherings railed against situation ethics. The normal description of it was, “Do whatever feels good because all rules are oppressive.”

It was described as the ultimate justification for the hedonism that lay dormant, or came to life, in every human soul.

There was really nothing worse – for us – than situation ethics because of its insidious nature and attraction.

I remember some of my spiritual mentors saying that the above description of it did not always come through so blatantly, but that it was the essence and inevitable result of situation ethics.

Later, I don’t recall exactly when, I actually read Fletcher’s book for myself. I remember thinking that it was not actually as bad as I had been told.

Its essence, as I recall (I don’t have a copy ready to hand) was the principle laid down by Saint Augustine, “Love and do as you please” (“Sermon on 1 John 4:4-12”).

Unlike Augustine and Luther, however, Fletcher seemed to toss out rules, or at least reduce mature Christian ethics to needing no rules. Like them, however, he did emphasize love as the sole moral-ethical absolute for Christians.

Lately, I have been reading a lot of Augustine and Luther. Some of it I’ve read before; some of it is new to me.

For example, if I ever before read all of Luther’s “Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation,” I have forgotten it.

I know I’ve read parts of it before, but this time I read all of it. And toward its end, there are some pretty shocking thoughts about, for example, marriage with some exceptions made to prevailing norms (both Christian and civil).

Am I suggesting that Augustine and Luther ought to be categorized as “situation ethicists?” Hardly.

What I am suggesting is that there is some common ground between them and Fletcher’s proposal.

The major difference is rules. As I recall, Fletcher portrayed all rules as flexible, able rightly to be violated in the name of love depending on the circumstances.

I do not think Augustine or Luther would go along with that. They would see the obvious dangers in it.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. A version of this article first appeared on Olson’s website. It is used with permission.

Roger Olson

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”