Are Ethics Non-Essential?
The English Puritan Richard Baxter popularised the famous maxim, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things love” ... The essentials of Christian belief are clearly listed in the Nicene Creed ... These, then, are the “essentials” around which we can all unite and beyond which we just grant liberty for differing opinions about issues relating to the future of Israel, or the chronology of the end times, or the nature of the priesthood, or the practice of the gifts of the Spirit, or church governance, or even (dare I say it?) impassioned perspectives about marriage and human sexuality. Such topics are all extremely important. We should think about them very carefully indeed and form opinions. But since they do not feature in the Creed they must never be allowed to define orthodoxy or divide the church. The Nicene Creed provides a common language for having conversation within the family of God and having mastered its vocabulary, there is much for us to discuss!
If something is in the Creed, Christians must be united on it, but if it isn’t, we must grant liberty. Orthodoxy is essential; orthopraxy is not. Beliefs, at least the central ones, are essential; ethics, sexual or otherwise, are not. We unite around what we believe, not what we do. It was a provocative paragraph—despite the fact that I agree with Pete on most of his examples—so I made a note to come back to it, and finished the book (which, as anyone who has read Pete before will already know, is a wonderful and inspiring story of prayer, faith and breakthrough).
A short while later, I was reading Alastair Roberts’ most recent Davenant booklet and came across this (emphasis added):
Christian ethics are ... the shape that orthodoxy should take in practice. And, where Christian ethics are compromised, the undermining of the creed is seldom far behind. Whether it is the toleration of substantial moral disagreement and failure to exercise discipline in a manner that undermines the holy unity of the Church, the downplaying of the body and God’s claims upon it, the denial of an objective force to God’s creative ordering of the world, or the radical devaluation of the biblical witness, the downgrading of the truths of the creed has often been the consequence of the rejection of Christian ethical norms. In particular, where significant ethical differences are tolerated, the clarity and authority of the testimony of the Scriptures themselves is practically abandoned.
In practice, that is, you cannot separate ethics from dogmatics, orthopraxy from orthodoxy, what we believe from what we do, faith from works. The Creed, Alastair argues in the rest of the booklet, was never intended to be separated from the moral imperatives of Christian teaching as contained in the Law, or the Sermon on the Mount, or whatever. (An obvious example: the prohibition of murder is not something about which we should exercise liberty.) So ethics are essential.
It won’t surprise regular readers that I agree with Alastair on this one, not least because of my studies in Paul. (Paul clearly regards the eating of meat and the celebration of certain days as “disputable matters.” But when he hears about a man having sex with his stepmother, he doesn’t say “exercise liberty,” but “purge the evil person from among you!”) There are things I could do, not just things I could believe, which, if I was not repentant, would lead my brothers and sisters to remove me from the church, both for the good of me and the whole congregation. But in some ways I suspect our focus on sex in this discussion—and this is the example that both Pete and Alastair use, for obvious contemporary reasons—makes this harder to see, because we know what it will cost us. We know it will mean confronting X, preventing Y from joining us at communion, and having Z regard us as nasty people for doing so. It would be easier to see, I suspect, if the ethical issue was something everybody we know regards as morally reprehensible, yet which some Christians have done (and approved of) nevertheless.
Tragically there are plenty of examples. Let’s say you were part of a church in Rwanda’s Kabgayi parish in May 1994, where 65,000 local Tutsi were killed in the space of three months. Would you agree to disagree with the Christians who were directly involved, on the grounds that it wasn’t mentioned in the Creed? What about the members of the German church who not only failed to oppose the Nazis, but swallowed their antisemitism wholesale (to the point of expunging Old Testament references and Hebrew words like “Hallelujah” from their hymnbooks)? Do you agree with abolitionists like Frederick Douglass that the Evangelical Alliance should exclude slaveholders? Would you share communion with those in the American South who participated in lynchings on Saturday and then turned up to church on Sunday? Or would you regard all these things as matters of liberty?
These are emotive questions. And the point here is not that all Christian ethical positions are morally equivalent (which they clearly aren’t), nor that they all require the same responses (which they clearly don’t). The point is that, when we step back from the specific debates of our own generation, we can often see the principles at work a bit more clearly. Some ethical positions are so central to Christianity, even if they are not mentioned in the Creed, that we have to stand our ground on them and, if necessary, separate from those who act otherwise—and if we introduce enough historical distance, we all know that. How to tell exactly which positions they are is not necessarily straightforward (although the Ten Commandments are probably a decent place to start). But when faced with a credal minimalism on the essentials of Christianity, in which what we believe is non-negotiable but what we do is not, it is worth pausing and asking where it comes from, and whether it is actually true. Dogmatics is ethics, as Karl Barth put it. For faith without works is dead.