There are, in the end, essentially only two forms of ethics. One approach is pragmatic, the other principled. Pragmatism on its own, of course, is always incomplete. That is to say, we can’t answer the question of what works until we know what it works for. Ethics, for instance, in Soviet Russia affirmed that the good is that which promotes the interests of the party. Utilitarian ethics affirms that the good is that which promotes the most happiness for the most people. Whatever you plug in as the goal, pragmatism then picks what best serves the goal.
The principled approach, on the other hand, does not look to the future and guess what will come to pass. It affirms that we are called to do what is right because it is right, not because it will create a hoped for outcome. Indeed it would go so far as to say we ought to do what is right even if it were to bring a bad outcome.
Most Christians naturally lean toward the principled approach. Paul tells children, “Obey your parents in the Lord for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). It’s true enough that the Bible does speak to the blessings of obedience. Ephesians 6:2 reminds us that the command of children to honor their parents is the first command with a promise, that it would go well in the land. We start, however, with “for this is right.”
While Christians instinctively lean toward the principled approach we also find ourselves pulled toward the consequential. We don’t like seeing bad things happen, and so begin to strategize. And that’s when the wheels start to fall off. Below are five common ways we find ourselves misled by trying to peer into the crystal ball.
5. The economic safety net. Most Christians know that it is wrong for the state to take money from one person to give it to another. Most Christians oppose socialism in principle. And most Christians believe we need to take some money from one person and give it to another, that we have to have a little socialism. If, these good people seem to reason, we don’t have a social safety net, people will starve to death. Therefore we need to set aside the principle and be more reasonable, realistic. Except that it’s still wrong. As is usually the case, what the consequentialist thinks he knows about what will happen is wrong. People in free economies did not starve before there were safety nets. But that’s not the point. It is wrong to take what belongs to one person and to give it to another, whatever might happen.
4. Legal abortion. Most Christians know that it is wrong for the state to protect mothers and doctors who murder babies. But most Christians are willing to support candidates for office who think otherwise in order to keep worse candidates out of office. If we don’t support exceptions, these folks argue, we will lose elections, justice nominations, and will end up with more dead babies. Again I believe we will have no abortions when God’s people insist that all abortion is murder. But even if that were false, it’s wrong to negotiate over the deaths of little babies, no matter how many might be lost.
3. Government schools. Most Christians know that it is wrong to educate children in a context in which the Lordship of Christ cannot even be mentioned. But most Christians are not only willing to accept the existence of state schools that tax us all to educate children in that context, but are willing to send their children there 180 days a year. If we don’t, we’ll lose the wife’s income. If we don’t the children will not be able to get a good job. If we don’t how will we evangelize the other children there? I believe the complete dismantling of the state education system would be a profound blessing to the nation. I believe Christians taking their children out of the system would lead to the greatest revival the nation has ever seen. But none of that matters. God commands us to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. If that means we obey Him, and we lose income, our children get lousy jobs and unbelievers are evangelized somewhere else, so be it.
2. Seeker sensitive worship. Most Christians know that it is wrong to design our worship so as not to offend unbelievers. But most Christians believe the lost are brought in this way, that church is more comfortable for everyone. Now I believe that if we were to establish a strategy, this is the worst one possible. One man, preaching to a bunch of stiff-necked unbelievers preached this basic message, “You stiff-necked Jews. You crucified the Messiah.” 3000 were brought in the day Peter preached that sermon. That, however, isn’t the issue. That same essential sermon, given by Stephen, led to his martyrdom. Both sermons honored God, not because of the consequences, but because of the obedience.
1. The Mother of them all. Most Christians know that it is wrong to disobey a direct and clear command of God most high. But most Christians also believe it would be great to be more like God, that it is desirable to be made wise. And so, the very first consequentialists, believing their disobedience would bring blessing, ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They thought it would be better to disobey than to obey.
It is not my intention here to open up a massive debate over worship, schools, abortion and the welfare state. The point of this exercise wasn’t to knock those things. Rather, the point is the meta-point. Consequentialism is no way to make moral decisions. And arguing the awful consequences of not doing so is just begging the question. God promises that if we obey Him He will bless. If not, He will curse. We don’t have access to the future. We do have the law of God. Ours is not to strategize, but to obey.