Ethics and Dogmatics

On yesterday’s post, one person commented that ethics change over time. That is true and not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, let me give you a simple example. What we call ballroom dancing was also called “round dancing” in the 19th century. When I attended Kenyon College (Gambier, OH), as part of one orientation event, we were shown some of the rules that were in place in the early 1800’s. Among them was a rule that round dancing was forbidden. In the Fall of 1969, this made us all laugh. We had all heard sermons, whether on radio or in person, of the Twist, the Mashed Potato, etc., being condemned as unchristian while ballroom dancing (round dancing) was what good Christians did (as long as they did not actually press against each other). Thus, to hear round dancing condemned was particularly ironic to our adolescent minds.

Ethics is the intersection of current culture and of dogmatic theology. In other words, there are things that we believe to be eternally true about God. But, how those eternal truths are applied to our current society may change. Yesterday, I posted about how I was no longer a 1960’s Christian. So why is this a problem, if ethics is about the changing application of morality to today’s world? My objection was that the way in which those subjects were presented in the 1960’s was not as a matter of ethics, but as a matter of dogmatic theology. That is, it was not simply that various Christian pastors were against married women being allowed to get credit cards on their own (one example), but that they phrased this as a violation of the principle of the husband as head of the family, so that married women should never be able to get credit cards without permission. Given that almost no conservative pastor would even consider that explanation today means that this was not as much of a dogmatic issue as was considered back then.

Missionaries have to face the question of ethics all the time. And, missionaries have to deal in grey areas all the time. When one preaches the Gospel in another country, one consistently has to ask oneself whether a local practice that they find objectionable is truly eternally objectionable or whether it is a difference of outlook that has nothing to do with the Gospel. Clothing is often a presentation issue for missionaries. I can remember going to a bank in a very conservative part of southern Peru in shorts. A guard diplomatically asked whether I was on my way to a sporting event. That is when I realized that a man in his 40’s in southern Peru would never step into a bank without being properly dressed. I was inappropriately American in a foreign country. At the other end, I have listened to New Tribes missionaries speak of going to tribes which wore very limited clothing and having to realize that they could not impose American standards on them.

Various hyper-conservative forms of Islam do not buy into this view of ethics. They insist that what was once is still true now. Thus women must wear the hijab, regardless of culture. We rightfully are horrified by some of their other interpretations, including stoning, beheading, etc. But, hyper-conservative Islam is an example of what happens when we confuse ethics and dogmatic theology.

As Christians, we do believe that there is a difference between ethics and dogmatic theology. That is what allows us, as missionaries, to adapt to other cultures. J. Hudson Taylor (and the China Inland Mission, now OMF) was known for adopting Chinese forms of dress in order to further the Gospel. But, all too many Christian pastors do not present clearly the difference between ethics and dogmatic theology. And that is the objection I have to much of what goes on today. I actually have little problem with pastors who argue that the best ethical approach is a particular set of behaviors. We can discuss the issue back and forth. The pastor may very well convince me that I am wrong. Or we may reach a middle approach. But, when a pastor says that a particular issue is not debatable and I disagree, it only leaves the option that one of us is either an apostate or a heretic. There is no room to talk.

As Christians, we need to understand the difference between ethics and dogmatic theology. We need to learn how to phrase many of our explanations in terms of ethical statements rather than dogmatic statements. Yes, there are statements that need to be made dogmatically. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He resurrected in the flesh, “For I received from the Lord, that which I also delivered …”, and so on. Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture place limits on our ethical statements. But, if we make everything a dogmatic statement, then we pay for it in later years when what we called eternally true turns out to be just a passing ethical decision. And that is the objection I have to the way things were presented in the 1960’s and are all too often presented today. If there is any hope for Christians to have an influence in today’s society, we need to clearly learn the difference between ethics and dogmatic theology. I am convinced that people are smart enough to understand the difference between an ethical presentation based on current mores and dogmatic statements based on what is eternally true.

More than that, our Christian relationships with each other will function better if we learn the difference between ethics and dogmatic theology.


  1. says

    I think that’s why God/scripture says that love fulfills the law and all that the prophets taught. It could have said…as it seems many Christians live life this way…that ethics/doing what’s right fulfills the law and the prophets. But since my right and wrong may clash with or offend your right and wrong…because ethics depends on culture and the times…then it would be very reasonable and understandable why God would say that it is love…which fits and works in any society or era…would be THE ethic that He has chosen to be #1.

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