1 Corinthians 10:13
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Practically speaking, how does a Christian, committed to the absolute nature of the whole law of God, face a situation in which laws seem to conflict? Ethics asks the question “What should I do?” We ask this multiple times a day. When Christ tells us to preach the gospel and the government tells us to be quiet, what do we do? When authorities close a nursing home to families during Covid, do I go anyway? When the same God who commands, “Thou shalt not kill” also commands to destroy a whole people, what does the soldier do?
Christ himself gives a classic example of “biblical situationism” when he tells us that David did well—not a bad but forgivable act—in violating the law by eating the showbread in an emergency (Matt. 12:3 ff.). When the priests profane the Sabbath, he does not say they are forgiven, but rather that they are blameless. If the Pharisees only understood these things, they would not have condemned the guiltless disciples who did on the Sabbath a lawful thing that otherwise would have been unlawful.
How does one decide when to keep the law and when to violate it?
Define the law carefully. The first step in solving this dilemma is to define the particular activity precisely. Is it truly a sin on biblical terms? For example, many people feel that all deception is a form of sinful lying; all killing is a form of sinful murder; all civil disobedience is a form of sinful lawlessness; all work on Sunday violates the Sabbath law. However, these definitions are not only naive, but they are also not biblical. When a soldier kills, he is not necessarily committing murder. When the government taxes, taking some of my possessions by force, it is not stealing. It is important to insist that the Bible itself define what kind of deception, if any, is legitimate; what kind of killing is legitimate; what kind of taking by force is legitimate; what kind of civil disobedience is legitimate. We are not free to decide; the Bible itself, giving the command, must be allowed to define the limits of that command.
The faith way of escape. Normally there is a third alternative when we face a moral dilemma. Scripture promises that God will provide a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). Often, this is the way of faith.
Situation ethics not only misunderstands love, in which it specializes, and law, which it opposes. Situation ethics misunderstands human nature. The New Morality places a burden on people that is too heavy to bear.
If humans were not finite and sinful, perhaps they could make the judgment in each situation, but human beings are finite and very sinful. A person can’t make the right decisions because he doesn’t have enough information, and he wouldn’t make the right decisions even if he had the information because his motivation is never pure. That is why God never laid the heavy, frustrating, and impossible burden on him that the new moralist would.
Here is a load too heavy for finite man to bear adequately. The situation rarely allows enough time to figure things out in order to make the proper decision. A person is asked an embarrassing question in the presence of others. In the split second before he answers he must evaluate seven or more questions about that situation, including the question as to the immediate and long-range results of telling the truth, telling a lie, or finding some other way out. Even if a computer were nearby, only a fraction of the necessary data is available to program the computer, and even if it were available, will his questioner wait?
Where is the wisdom of this? Where is the time for this? The Bible takes man’s finitude seriously and gives more than complicated advice concerning a multitude of conflicting principles; it gives commands.
People are not only finite, they are very complicated. Not only does finite man find it almost impossible to judge exactly what constitutes his neighbor’s highest good, he will find even greater difficulty in deciding which neighbor’s good! The loving “surrogate husband” may decide to provide for the sexual needs of an unmarried and lonely fellow church member, but what effect may that have on other “neighbors” — his wife, his children, the church, God himself?
Life is complex. How can one judge the outcome of a single act toward a single person, let alone what a series of acts involving many people might become in the future? Abraham taking Hagar could hardly imagine the impact four thousand years later as the Arab sons of Ishmael fiercely pursue their destiny.
Situationists not only underestimate the significance of human limitations; they seem to deliberately downplay an even greater handicap people must overcome to succeed at situational ethics: sin. Even if a person could consistently figure out what was the ultimate good of each person in his life, would he choose to act in accordance with that knowledge if the cost to himself were very great? Neither experience, history, nor revelation leave us much hope that he will consistently make this choice. Man is sinful and consistently chooses to sacrifice his neighbor’s welfare for his own. Thus, the ideal of the situationist—to act always for the highest good of all involved in a given situation—is possible only for God. Humans are too finite to know even the fringes of such a vast and complicated situation, and they are too fallen to choose consistently what they do know to be best.
But the most important and basic truth about ethics in Scripture is that it is theistic or God-based, not personalistic or man-based. By his own nature God defines what is good and loving. He went to a great deal of effort to reveal this. To build an ethic on love divorced from the unchanging character of God and the clear and absolute requirements revealed by that God is to distort the concept of love and law from the outset. This godlessness is the ultimate flaw in situation ethics. How does God define your actions and choices?