Depending on the Situation

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

Text: Romans 5:18-6:2


I.         Dinner time conversation was lively the other night. A few caught Dennis Prager’s Ultimate Issues Hour.

            A.        Now I like Mr. Prager’s show for the most part. You don’t usually find commentators willing to address moral issues from a biblical viewpoint. And generally Mr. Prager is logical in his approach. But not on this topic.

            B.        The contention is that what is morally right can change based on the situation

                        1.         In any situation, he claims that there is an absolute right choice, but that doesn’t remain fixed for all situations.

                        2.         What is wrong in many situations may become right in some situations.

II.        Defining terms

            A.        Absolute morality

                        1.         A fixed standard of what is right and wrong, regardless of context, consequence, or intentions.

                        2.         The standard is independent of custom or individual opinion.

            B.        Moral relativism

                        1.         The standard of right and wrong change by the individual or by a societal group.

                        2.         What might be right for you, may not be right for me

                        3.         It is a claim that there isn’t an absolute or universal standard for everyone.

                        4.         Those who claim that it is wrong to judge others subscribe to moral relativism, whether they realize it or not.

            C.        Situational Ethics

                        1.         Joseph Fletcher is considered the father of Situation Ethics.

                                    a.         He stressed “freedom from prefabricated decisions and prescriptive rules”. [Moral Responsibility, p. 7]

                                    b.         He defined it as being relative, non-absolute, variant, and non-universal.

                                    c.         The rules change, not based on an individual or group, but upon the situation presented.

                        2.         It is actually a form of consequential morality, where right or wrong is determined by the outcome of the decision.

                                    a.         Fletcher defined it as “the relative weight of the ends and means and motive and consequences all taken together, as weighed by love.” [Moral Responsibility, p. 23]

                                    b.         In other words, whatever generates the greatest “love” is the best choice.

                                                (1)       Of course, you can’t know all outcomes in advance, so this is tempered by decisions where you intend to produce the greatest amount of “love.”

                                                (2)       More pointedly, “love” is not really defined, so it isn’t surprising that it degrades into a personal feeling, and thus moral relativism.

                        3.         Prager tries to rescue Situational Ethics by saying that right and wrong are based on the situation, but the choice must be based on a moral absolute.

                                    a.         Thus, if something morally right results from a choice, then it doesn’t matter if a law was broken to gain that result.

                                    b.         He used the illustration of a Polish woman who used sexual favors to distract those looking for Jews hidden in her home.

                                                (1)       Prager would argue that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong

                                                (2)       But the preserving of life is a higher ideal and thus the sin was justified.

                                    c.         Thus, he claims there are moral absolutes where the situation makes exceptions to one rule to uphold another.

                                    d.         His aim is to see how God would see the situation and which choice is the one God would make.

III.       Problems

            A.        Prager’s justification is based on verbal slight of hand

                        1.         He points out that killing is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

                                    a.         Murder, which he defines as immoral killing, is wrong

                                    b.         But a death penalty for a condemned murderer is right

                                    c.         Or killing in the defense from harm of yourself or others

                        2.         He then claims that lying is the same. It can be right or wrong based on the situation.

                        3.         But here is the flaw: All murder is killing, but all killing is not murder.

                                    a.         Murder is defined in the Scriptures. In is the intentional killing of another, directly or indirectly, because of malice toward the victim - Numbers 35:20-21

                                    b.         Manslaughter, the intentional killing of another is also defined as wrong, though carrying a different sentence - Numbers 35:22-23

                                    c.         Death penalties were a different class of killing. It had to be by judgment of evidence and it required multiple witnesses - Numbers 35:30

                                    d.         Defense of others or self is also commanded - Proverbs 24:11; Exodus 22:2-3; Nehemiah 4:14

                                    e.         Does killing change based on the situation as to whether it is write or wrong? Yes

                                                (1)       But the criteria is defined by God, not man

                                                (2)       And within those criteria, right and wrong doesn’t change

                        4.         But Prager then takes lying and implies it can be right or wrong

                                    a.         The problem is that lying is defined to always be wrong - Revelation 21:8

                                    b.         Lying is an abomination - Proverbs 12:22

                                                (1)       This is particular interesting because Prager has argued that homosexuality is always wrong and a key argument is that God called it an abomination

                                                (2)       But Prager argues that there are times that lying is acceptable.

                                    c.         There is no acceptable lies in the context of the Scriptures

                        5.         To make a fair comparison, Prager should have said that speech is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

                                    a.         He didn’t compare two similar things, which is why he ended up with a falsehood

            B.        It bases decisions on what is perceived to be the best near-term outcome.

                        1.         Situational Ethics uses a man’s view of a situation to decide what is the best course of action - Jeremiah 10:23

                        2.         We have limited knowledge of situations. We don’t see everything. We might be able to guess near term outcomes, but not long term ones

                        3.         For example, who would choose hardship and persecution for himself or those he loves? - James 1:2-4

                                    a.         Consider Matthew 5:12 – those prophets died!

                                    b.         The example of Paul - Acts 21:11-14

                                    c.         Was Jesus innocent death good? - Matthew 26:39

                                    d.         The immediate is bad, but the long term is better

            C.        It rates laws

                        1.         Situational Ethics asks people to decide which law is more important and then gives permission to break the lesser laws.

                        2.         By saying in some situations a law can be broken, it is giving permission to subtract - Deuteronomy 12:32

                        3.         This is second guessing God about importance of His laws. But God doesn’t think like people - Isaiah 55:8-9

                        4.         One sin is not worse than another - James 2:8-11

                        5.         Jesus taught that all was to be followed - Matthew 23:23

                        6.         Better to suffer for doing good - I Peter 3:17, 14

            D.        It sets up a false dichotomy

                        1.         There is an assumption that there only two choices.

                                    a.         You lie to protect the lives of those in your house or they are killed.

                                    b.         There is the option of saying nothing at all or talking about everything else but.

                                    c.         Being truthful does not require telling everything you know - I Samuel 16:2

                        2.         There is always a way out - I Corinthians 10:13

IV.      The Bible does teach moral absolutes

            A.        Sin is the breaking of law - I John 3:4

                        1.         Situation Ethics turns this from a definition to a “could be”

            B.        Take the case of Uzzah in II Samuel 6:1-7

                        1.         Does Uzzah let the ark of the covenant fall? Or does he touch it in violation of the law? - Numbers 4:15

                        2.         Situation Ethics says the touching is a minor infraction.

                                    a.         The consequence of a few finger smudges is far less serious than the ark falling and getting damaged.

                                    b.         David and Uzzah’s intentions are good.

                        3.         By all intents and purpose, the infraction was justified in this system – yet Uzzah died.

                                    a.         The system ignored the fact that this situation should not have even started.

                                    b.         If they had carried the ark as God ordered, none of this would have happened - I Chronicles 15:12-13

            C.        One does not sin to create good

                        1.         It is a false idea - Romans 3:8

                        2.         Grace is good, but you don’t sin to create more grace - Romans 5:20-6:2

                        3.         The idea is self contradictory

            D.        Trust God in doing good - I Peter 4:19

                        1.         Situation Ethics doesn’t trust that God’s laws are always right

V.        There is a reason God said not to alter His word - Galatians 1:6-10

            A.        Situational Ethics is a poor attempt of justifying alterations of God’s laws to suit a person’s perceptions of the current situation.

            B.        We need to have more respect for God than this - John 14:15

            C.        God really does know what He is talking about.

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