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Archives / 1991 / May


Editorial: Are there moral absolutes?

J. David Newman


I listened to a distinguished Christian ethicist speak about the standards of conduct and moral judgment. I became uneasy when he suggested that there are no such things as absolutes. His guiding principle seemed to be that of "doing the most loving thing for the person or people involved." Eventually I raised my hand and asked him whether he considered the Ten Commandments to be relative or absolute. He hesitated for a long moment, then said, "I would have to consider them to be absolutes."

"How do you reconcile that with your former statements?" I asked.

"Well," he responded weakly, "there are some tensions."

This "tension" stemmed from his unwillingness to accept the Bible as the final authority, especially when it came to behavior. But such conduct as murder, adultery, theft, and lying is always unacceptable.

A story circulating out of the former East Germany illustrates the problem. A certain woman had been separated from her family and incarcerated in East Ger many. Her only hope of escape was a policy that allowed pregnant women to leave.

She pondered her dilemma. Her husband and children now resided in. West Germany. Was it "loving" to leave them without a wife and mother? Making her decision, she bribed a guard to impregnate her, and on proof of pregnancy was allowed to reunite with her family.

In some situations it seems that we must choose between two undesirable outcomes and have no prospects of a third choice; we must choose the "lesser of two evils." In our illustration, for ex ample, the woman "had" to choose be tween remaining separated from her family and committing adultery. Some claim that such situations indicate that there are no absolutes. But these situations pose false dilemmas. God never leaves us in a position in which we are forced to break one of the Ten Commandments.

What about the effects of this woman's adultery with the guard on that man and his family? And how did the woman know that God did not have a mission for her in that East German prison that might transcend the needs of her family? What if Joseph, falsely accused and imprisoned, had decided to find his own way out of the Egyptian dungeon by bribing a guard? God is well able to turn evil into good.

The Bible contains many illustrations of what happens when people place human wisdom above divine wisdom. God promised Abraham a son. Abraham and Sarah could not imagine how that could happen at their advanced age. So Sarah suggested that he help God out by following the local custom of taking a concubine. Scripture records the pain this decision caused.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could have invented many ethical reasons for bowing down to the image on the plain of Dura. Surely God would not want three families to lose their husbands and fathers. And besides, wouldn't God rather have them continue as rulers of the provinces than be killed and have pagans take their place?

They recognized a third possibility--supernatural intervention. But they were prepared to die if God should not intervene. They believed that love and obedience to God superseded all other relationships.

This regarding of love to God as of first importance, and love to others as clearly second, is the only hierarchy of values that God has given. The vertical dimension always comes before the horizontal. The Ten Commandments, the first four of which tell us how to relate to God, are absolutes that allow no exceptions. They describe how we are to maintain the vertical and horizontal relationships. If there is conflict between the two, our relationship to God must take precedence over all other relationships.

David's experience with Saul demonstrated both ends of the spectrum: the choosing of the lesser of two evils or trusting in God, On one occasion David feigned madness before Achish in order to escape. In contrast, at another time when Saul was pursuing him, he fled to Samuel and waited for God to act. On that occasion God's spirit came upon Saul with such power that he forgot his murderous designs and began to prophesy.

God gives us the power, according to our faith, to keep the Ten Commandments. The fact that we do not always keep them does not mean they have failed or that God has rejected us. Our God is a gracious God; He does not condemn us if our faith does not measure up to the ideal. Our salvation is based not on our commandment keeping but on our relationship to Jesus Christ.

As He did for Abraham and David, God desires the very best for us. His unfathomable love means that He can still love us when we fail and that He continues to help us to grow in faith, maturity, and love for Him.

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