Situation Ethics

It is possible that the average church member does not even know what is meant by the expression, "situation ethics," but it basically means that there is no ethical standard that can be uniformly or consistently applied, for each situation demands its own standard of ethics. Under that theory, you may commit adultery (or almost anything else) if it is done in love, and no one is hurt by it. You may lie, if you think it appropriate to spare the feelings of someone, or to be socially acceptable. That is, if your host wants to know if you enjoyed the gathering, and you were bored stiff, you may say, "I had a wonderful time" for you are trying to do good to him. You may steal, if you do it to help a needy person, such as a starving child. In fact, there is no action you cannot perform if, in your judgment, the action is for a good cause, and if you have the proper motive in performing it.

We have been hearing of it since Joseph Fletcher made the phrase popular years ago, and knew that not only is the phrase popular, the philosophy has been popular for thousands of years. However, I did not know that it had such a widespread impact in the Lord's church. In a recent Bible class, the teacher was talking about the things the Lord hates, and are an abomination to him, as listed in Proverbs 6. When he got to the lying tongue and bearing false witness, some questions were raised from the audience regarding when it might be proper to lie.

If a robber breaks into your house and seems to be interested in doing harm to your wife and children, and asks you if they are in the house, it was suggested that since your motive is to do good and prevent evil, you have the right (and possibly the responsibility) to lie to him. Instead of a lie being defined as "an untruth with intent to deceive" as I believe the Bible shows it to be, it was defined as "an untruth with intent to harm." The idea was apparently accepted by almost everyone in the class, including the elders and deacons, with the exception of the preacher, who was teaching the class, that lying of that nature was proper and right.

The preacher admitted that there is a difference in having a lying tongue designed to hurt and spread discord among brethren, or to cheat someone, and lying to preserve the life of your family. He suggested that God would understand and show mercy to those in the second category. I have no doubt that God classifies some kinds of sins as worse than others, for he indicates that in both Old and New Testaments. I also have no doubt that Christ would understand our weakness, motive and basic desire to do right and would have a feeling for our infirmities, having been tested in all points like as we, yet without sin. However, the preacher pointed out that the principle of lying when you think it does more good than harm leans toward "situation ethics" and could be dangerous.

Since my judgment is that it not only "leans" toward situation ethics and "could be" dangerous, it is dangerous, and the assumptions and attitudes that produce it should be examined with care. Before I do that, I think it appropriate to make some distinctions and observations that are often not made by those who write about lying.

There are those who say, "Telling only a part of the truth is lying." This is not so. You could not tell all the truth if you wanted to, for in the first place you do not know it, and in the second place, God never suggested, implied or taught from Genesis to Revelation that it was wrong to tell a part of the truth. Telling a partial truth, which means part lie and part truth, is a different matter, for the part that is a lie is a lie, and sinful.

There are those who say, "If you conceal information which will cause harm to a person, you have lied." This is not a proper definition of lying. You may commit a greater sin than if you lied, but when we talk about a Bible subject, we should define our terms by Bible information as far as we are able to do so. If I know you are driving down a road where the bridge is out, and I deliberately neglect to tell you in the hope that you will run off the bridge and die, I have not lied, but I have sinned. Any effort to justify such a sin by defining it your own way is improper.

It was suggested that Rahab lied to save the spies, and she is listed among the heroes of faith (Heb. 11:31). That does not suggest or imply that she was listed there because God approved of her lying. Noah was listed, yet Noah got drunk (Gen. 9:21). So does that mean God approves of getting drunk? Samson is listed, and he had all sorts of activities with Delilah. What does that prove? The truth is that you cannot find a single example in the Bible where God indicates that he approved of anyone lying, for any cause.

Note another distinction, which needs to be made. In 1 Samuel 16:2, when Samuel was going to anoint David as king, he said, "If Saul hear it, he will kill me. And the Lord said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the Lord." He thus prevented Saul from knowing that he anointed David, but he did not lie to him. God at no time requires us to tell another person all that he might desire to know from us. This gives us no right to assume that we are authorized to lie.

A woman may come into the building with a monstrosity of a hat that would cause a normal person to be sick at the stomach, and ask, "What do you think of my hat?" Just because you know that she is sensitive and will be hurt at the least criticism, you have no right to tell her, "It is the prettiest hat I ever saw. " You may say, "I never saw another one quite like it." Or you may say, "It is really unusual," but you have no right to lie. If someone asks you how you feel, and your bones ache, your stomach aches, your head aches, and there are a dozen other things wrong with you, you are not required to tell them all about that. You might even say, "I am doing fine" in some cases, without lying. I knew a person who had her back broken and was paralyzed from the waist down, with broken ribs, arms, and a concussion, who said, "I am getting along fine." She was not lying. Paul, who had a thorn in the flesh, might easily and properly have said, "I am doing wonderfully well," but if he had said, "I have never had any problems," it would have been a lie.

Now, let us examine some problems with the idea that one may properly tell a lie to protect himself or his family from harm. We admit that this is in a different category than telling a lie for the purpose of doing someone else harm, but let us notice some assumptions behind such an action that are dangerous, and could even eventually be soul- destroying.

First, one is assuming that if he tells a lie it will produce a good result. The reality is that the person intent on doing the harm may do even more harm if he finds out you are lying. Second, one is assuming that God is either unwilling or unable to help a person who has enough faith to be more concerned with being Godlike than he is in following the example of the Devil. Third, if ones philosophy or theology leads him to the conclusion that it is proper for him to try to decide when he has the right to disregard God's commandments simply because he feels that it will be best to do so, he has left the door wide open for lying or doing anything else he may choose if he feels that the good results justify disobeying God.

If Daniel had believed in that philosophy, is there anyone who assumes that he would have knelt at his window and prayed? I can so easily see myself in that situation saying, "God, you are such a loving and understanding God, you know that in my heart I am kneeling, but if I actually do what you want, I will be killed, and you would lose a great servant. So you will, in your grace, understand." If I had been in the shoes of Shadrak, Meshach or Abednego, I can easily visualize myself saying, "God, I know you said not to bow down to any graven image, and you know that in my heart I am not bowing down. But you will pardon me if I bow my head, for if I do not, the furnace of fire awaits me. I have no fear for myself, but I am wanting to stay alive for the sake of my poor wife and children." I think it probable that God would have understood and showed mercy on all of them if they had thus acted. He showed mercy on Peter when he lied, cursed and swore that he did not love the Lord, and I have little doubt that he would show mercy on me if I should lie to protect my family from harm. That has little, if anything, to do with the idea that it is appropriate to do it, or that God would approve of it.

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive