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A Christian’s Response to Situation Ethics – Part 2

“Situation ethics” was popularized in the 1960s by Joseph Fletcher.

As I shared previously, the writings of Augustine and Luther contain similar lines of thought to Fletcher’s ideas set forth in his book, “Situation Ethics: The New Morality,” but with several important differences.

First of all, as I read them, both Augustine and Luther in some of their writings on ethics emphasized principles over rules.

In other words, if a mature and truly converted Christian should happen to find a conflict between love rightly understood and a venerable rule, whether Christian or civil, he or she could rightly violate the rule and abide by the demands of love.

Neither Augustine nor Luther, however, left such a decision solely in the hands of individuals; both emphasized Christian community as the context in which such unusual ethical decisions should be made.

“Lone Ranger Christianity” was foreign to them, while it seemed to be a part of Fletcher’s overall ethical thinking.

Both Augustine and Luther believed a Christian should and even must disobey a civil law if it requires him or her to do something contrary to good conscience – informed and shaped by Christianity.

Both, however, also advocated that a Christian then accept the consequences meekly.

Stickier, however, are some cases in which both great Christian thinkers allowed violations of rules commonly accepted as universal and absolute Christian norms for behavior and conduct – insofar as violating them is the only way to act out of love.

By “love,” they did not mean “romantic love” or lust, of course, but love of neighbor within the wider context of love for all of God’s creatures.

Both treated love – as they defined it – as the sole absolute for Christian ethics. Both tended to view justice as a form of love.

Again, a major difference between Augustine and Luther (and one might add Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer) and Fletcher is the latter’s tendency to believe that a Christian might live without rules.

Augustine and Luther believed very strongly in the need for civil and Christian rules to guide and direct Christian living, but they declined to absolutize rules.

However, especially Luther also (to some extent in agreement with Fletcher) emphasized situations, circumstances, contexts in moral decision-making. Not because he was attracted to relativism; far from it!

It was because he believed that sometimes “God’s will” is not knowable except in the “moment” of moral decision-making.

He was adamantly opposed to scholastic casuistry, which tended to believe and teach that one could decide God’s will for every specific, concrete situation completely apart from it.

Where does that leave us?

Well, first of all, we could say, “Who cares what Augustine and Luther said?” I suspect that would be the approach of my 1960s spiritual mentors and their heirs among fundamentalists.

But, then, what is the point of making any distinction between principles and rules and can that really work in such a complicated world? Who has not found it necessary to lie occasionally out of love?

A classic example there is Corrie Ten Boom’s story of an argument with her nephew over whether telling the Germans who invaded their home looking for hidden Jews that the Jews were under the dining table constituted truth or a lie. They were under it – in a hidden cellar.

Surely, Fletcher was right that when innocent life is at stake, lying is justified by love.

I could muse about whether the lie is still a sin, but I’ll set that aside because what I’m talking about is what a mature, serious-minded Christian ought to do.

I suspect that my spiritual mentors’ condemnations of “situation ethics” were not bad for me when I was an adolescent.

However, later, their caricature of it did tend to make me doubt other things they said and whether they were well-read and well-versed in Christian ethics or just interested in steering me and my peers toward legalistic rule-keeping for our own good.

When speaking to a group of Christian adolescents, I would never quote Augustine’s, “Love and do as you please” or Luther’s, “Sin boldly!”

Neither, however, would I teach them that all rules are always good and right and absolute. Any thoughtful, intelligent one of them would doubt that immediately.

As a Christian ethicist, I am sometimes asked, both by students (mostly in their mid-20s) and church folks (often who remember Fletcher’s book and the 1960s controversy over it) what I think about “situation ethics.”

I always insist on first discussing what is meant by “situation ethics” and explaining that if and insofar as it means discarding all ethical rules and norms except “love,” I am opposed to it.

However, if and insofar as it means love reigns supreme over all rules, I have to admit it and say that I have Augustine and Luther on my side.

Now, I realize someone will inevitably ask me for an example. Here’s one; don’t ask me for more.

Luther married Prince Philipp of Hesse to a woman while he was still married to another woman.

He, by default, justified bigamy, which was technically illegal (within the Holy Roman Empire) and almost universally considered immoral by Christians – both Catholic and Protestant.

Luther had his reasons but did not feel the need to explain them all to everyone. I don’t say I agree with Luther; I just offer this as an example of the flexibility with which he treated rules.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one 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.”