What advice would you give these people?
SITUATION 1: In World War II, a patrol of Soviet soldiers captures a German woman who was foraging for food for her three children. Her husband is already in a POW camp in England, and she is taken to a POW camp in Russia. When her husband returns to Germany, he locates their children but is unable to find his wife. The wife, interred in Russia, learns that pregnant POWs can be released back to Germany. It is her only chance to be reunited with her husband and children. So she asks a camp guard to impregnate her, which he does. When her pregnancy is verified, she is dismissed from the POW camp and returns to Germany where she is reunited with her family. When the child is born, the family loves it dearly because of the role it played in reuniting their family. The couple comes to you for counsel about whether the wife did the right thing or not (Issue: Adultery).
SITUATION 2: A man is diagnosed with a terminal disease. There is a medical procedure that will give him three years to live—otherwise, he will die in six months. He has a large life insurance policy that will be up for renewal in two years. If he refuses the procedure and dies in six months, his family will receive the large insurance payout providing them with some financial security. But if he has the procedure and he is still alive when his policy expires, he knows no insurance company will write a new policy given his condition—so when he dies, his family will receive nothing. He wants you to help him decide: live for six months and give his family financial security, or live for three years or longer with no chance of leaving his family with financial resources for their future (Issue: Euthanasia/Suicide).
These are just two of a number of scenarios—either actual or based on real circumstances—proposed by one-time Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher in his 1972 book, Situation Ethics. He was ordained as a priest, but spent the majority of his career as a professor of ethics dealing with issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and cloning.
For Fletcher—and for situational ethics—there is one law that governs all decisions in life: the law of love—specifically, the New Testament’s agape love. He believed love is the only absolute, inviolable law. All other laws, including those in the Bible, were given to support the law of love. Therefore, any law can be broken in pursuit of greater love.
Here’s the bottom line of situational ethics: the ends can always justify the means. You’re free to do anything in pursuit of what you believe is a greater good (a greater love).
But is that Scriptural? Are we free to let circumstances (situations) dictate what we do? Do some of God’s laws have priority over others—and are we free to pick and choose? Are our values to be based on life’s situations or God’s stipulations?
It’s no surprise that Joseph Fletcher’s work gained popularity in the early 1970s, immediately following the decade of the sixties. During that tumultuous period, most of the moral absolutes on which America had been built were challenged, and many were thrown aside. But Fletcher didn’t throw them all aside—only those that stood in the way of the greater good on a case-by-case basis.
To Fletcher’s credit, the Bible is clear about the value of love. When asked what the greatest commandment in the law was, Jesus said it was to love God with all one’s being—and the second was to love one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). And when the apostle Paul named faith, hope, and love as three important values, he said the greatest of the three is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
But the New Testament never suggests that the pursuit of love is a license for ignoring God’s other laws and values. Indeed, Jesus said He came not to abolish or negate the laws of God but to fulfill them all (Matthew 5:17). He also said, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19, NIV 1984).
Here is how God’s Word speaks about the stipulations given by God to govern our moral and ethical life:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
(Psalm 19:7-11, NIV 1984)
Every law and stipulation of God is perfect and given for a purpose. We are to bring God’s stipulations to bear on life’s situations and circumstances. To do the opposite would put us in the place of judging God’s laws. And to judge God’s laws is to judge God Himself since His laws are a reflection of who He is.
How do we prepare ourselves to live according to 1 Corinthians 15:58—“be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord”—in a world where the morals and values are anything but immovable? How do we bring our circumstances into conformity to the Word of God instead of being conformed and shaped by the circumstances around us?
Here are two principles that will help, based on the J. B. Phillips translation (The New Testament in Modern English) of Romans 12:1-2:
“I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give [God] your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves toward the goal of true maturity.”
First, be unsqueezable. Or, in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:58, “be steadfast, immovable.” If you are immovable, you will not be conformable to circumstances. As I wrote in my new book, I Never Thought I’d See the Day!, we have two options when it comes to resisting the pressures and changing circumstances of the world around us: be conformed or transformed—and there is no middle ground. Since the pressure of the world is relentless, if we are not continually letting the Word of God transform our mind, then we will find that the world’s situations will take precedence over God’s stipulations. We will begin to rationalize the clear teaching of the Word and allow a godly “end” to justify the use of ungodly “means.”
Second, be un-freezable. Sometimes life’s circumstances and situations cause us to freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. We can’t imagine that God has allowed us to find ourselves in such a confounding circumstance. It seems that to obey God’s stipulations is the last thing we should do “given the circumstances.” But remember how J. B. Phillips translated verse 2: “. . . prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” There are three reasons to obey God’s laws in every circumstance:
- God’s plan for you—your circumstances—is good. That is, your circumstances reflect His character.
- God’s plan for you—your circumstances—meets all His demands. That is, He is satisfied with where you are at this moment in your life.
- God’s plan for you—your circumstances—will move you toward the goal of maturity.
That is, your circumstances are for the purpose of your conformity to Christ (Romans 8:28-29). Conversely, if you disobey God because you think His laws are less loving, you will move toward immaturity rather than maturity.
The weather in life changes daily, but “whether” we obey God daily should never change. If your ethics are “stipulational” instead of situational, you can obey God and then trust Him with the outcome.