Situation Ethics

When two people respond differently to the same ethical situation does it mean one is right while the other is wrong? Is it possible for truth to be relative? Does the context of the situation define the correct outcome? Modern society shouts, “Why don’t you just keep your beliefs to yourself; what is right for you may not be right for me!” The redefinition of truth has transformed our world, and not for the better. What one person accepts as truth is not anything like the next. What one does in a certain situation may or may not be an acceptable response for another. In the homes, in the supermarket aisle, in the classrooms filled with children, people hold radically different perspectives on truth. This is the frame of mind of our modern world—a world that has accepted the errant philosophy known as “situation ethics!”

Situation Ethics Defined

Situation ethics is defined as, “a system of ethics by which acts are judged within their contexts instead of by categorical principles” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It is the belief system in which all actions must be determined to be right or wrong depending on the contemporary and cultural setting. Situation ethics rejects the idea of absolute truth and deems all truth “relative.”  According to situation ethics truth is defined by the individual in a particular situation.

The manner in which people are changing truth is nothing new; it has been an ongoing, gradual process for a long time. Within the past few hundred years humanity has started to perceive things differently. Consider the shift away from the biblical standard through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.  Josh McDowell remarks, “The inventions, innovations and improvements of the Industrial Age fueled more than factory furnaces; it stoked the fires of human confidence. The progress that men and women saw all around them encouraged them to look to themselves for hope and guidance. Man no longer felt the need to look upward (to God); he need only look inward (to himself).”

The technological and societal changes wrought during these successive historical movements set the stage for gullible man to accept Darwinism. Few men have so profoundly shaped the mind and morality of modern man more than Charles Darwin. His theories have altered the world’s understanding of morality and ethics.

What we now call “Situation Ethics” has evolved through the work and writings of many individuals through the years. One writer, in particular, has articulated the modern concept and enjoyed a wide influence among those who embrace Situation Ethics.  In the mid 1960’s, Joseph Fletcher published his work, Situation Ethics, becoming known as the “Father of Situation Ethics.” Weldon Warnock in his article “Situation Ethics” quotes from Fletcher’s book: “As we shall see, Christian situation ethics has only one norm or principle or law (call it what you will) that is binding and unexceptionable, always good and right regardless of the circumstances. That is ‘love’—the agape of the summary commandment to love God and the neighbor” (p. 30); “For the situationist there are no rules—none at all” (p. 55); “…circumstances alter rules and principles” (p. 29); “…all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love in any situation…the Christians chooses what he believes to be the demands of love in the present situation” (pp. 30, 55).

According to Fletcher, an Episcopalian, all you need is love. If we follow his logic it is acceptable to commit fornication, have extramarital relations, lie, cheat, steal, drink—as long as it is done in with a loving heart. In reality, these are the actions of which the Bible plainly states that those who do such “…shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Notice carefully the sly infiltration of such thinking. At first it was the product of a Godless world. It is understandable, although sad and tragic, for a world who has rejected God to have a skewed view of right and wrong. However, those without God are no longer the only one’s holding to such a concept. Mr. Fletcher has brought it into “Christianity.” Fletcher attempts to justify situation ethics through appeal to Scripture. Sadly, many in the Lord’s church today have been influenced, either directly or indirectly, and perhaps unwittingly, by Fletcher’s teachings.

The Absolutism of Truth

Scripture teaches that truth is absolute: it is the same for all people, in all places and for all time. Truth is truth and does not change; what is true today will be true tomorrow. With the introduction of situation ethics to the religious world truth has been skewed. In the modern religious atmosphere many have forsaken truth. When one considers one’s religious origins, if one is not in striving for harmony with God’s revealed will, then one’s perception of truth will be fluid and flexible. In the work The Truth About The Truth the following is stated, “If you regard the various truths and practices of a religion as socially constructed—created by certain human beings according to the needs (as they perceived them) of certain times—you are likely to feel free to reconstruct them according to the needs (as you perceive them) of the present time.” That is precisely what has and is happening. Several religious institutions were never founded upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, thus they have no true standard for gauging right from wrong. Truth cannot be reconstructed—ever! Jesus plainly states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). Thayer defines truth as, “the truth, as taught in the Christian religion, respecting God and the execution of His purposes through Christ, and respecting the duties of man.” He goes on to remark, “Opposed alike to the superstitions of the Gentiles and the inventions of the Jews, and to the corrupt opinions and precepts of false teachers even among Christians.” Jesus does not merely point to the truth, or a truth, HE IS the truth!  Thus truth is universal and absolute. The Hebrew author remarks, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” (13:8). We are able to conclude that truth cannot be manufactured or ever-changing; it is what it is.

Paul Butler says, “Truth is a representation of the reality of things. The life, and teaching of Jesus Christ is the most complete and perfect fulfillment of the types and figures of all other revelations concerning the reality of all things that can ever be presented to man, this side of Heaven.” In the life of Christ we see as much truth as we can comprehend. The life of Christ establishes for us right and wrong. Thus we understand sin is wrong because it is contrary to Christ.

McDowell sets forth an impressive argument that God is truth.  “If an objective standard of truth and morality exists, it cannot be the product of the human mind (or it will not be objective); it must be the product of another Mind. If a constant and unchanging truth exists, it must reach beyond human timelines (or it would not be constant); it must be eternal. If a universal rule of right and wrong exists, it must transcend individuals experience (or it will no not be universal); it must be above us all. Yet, absolute truth must be something—or Someone—that is common to all humanity, to all Creation.”

Thus, God’s nature and character define truth, informing us of right or wrong. Moses records, “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” (Deu. 32:4). The Psalmist penned, “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether” (Psa. 19:7-9).”

Did Jesus Condone Situation Ethics?

Those who support this philosophy claim Jesus condones situation ethics. They appeal to an incident in the life of Christ involving the actions of His disciples on the Sabbath. Matthew records, “At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, ‘Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day’ ” (12:1-2). The Pharisees were ever looking for an opportunity to catch Jesus doing something unlawful. They thought they had caught the disciples of Christ violating the Sabbath.  In reality, the Lord’s disciples never broke the Law of Moses. They only violated the uninspired traditions of the elders. Notice the response of our Lord, “Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?” (Mt. 12:3-4).

Jesus cites the example of David and his men eating the showbread, which would not normally be lawful for them to eat. The Pharisees regarded David as a great king and would never think of condemning David’s actions. The disciples of Christ, however, broke human tradition and the Pharisees were ready to throw the book at them. Their actions were inconsistent.

Although it is claimed the disciples acted according to the situation (they were hungry so they ate even though it were the Sabbath) they did not break a Divine law. The law was simple: “Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 31:15). The religious leaders had developed several traditions to “clarify” God’s Law.  In reality, these “clarification” were only human traditions, not God’s law. The point Jesus makes is that in the eyes of God the disciples did nothing wrong.

Situation ethics also imply that Jesus justified David’s actions. Such an accusation could not be further from the truth; Jesus only used the story to illustrate the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Jesus said, “…which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him…” (Mt. 12:4). In a very straight forward manner Jesus informed the Pharisees David’s actions were “not lawful.”

On this occasion Jesus made an ad hominem argument. Wayne Jackson paraphrases the Lord’s point as follows, “You Pharisees revere David as a great king and Hebrew hero. David once broke the Law of Moses by the illegal consumption of sacred food. But you do not condemn him for that! By way of contrast, my disciples have violated only your silly traditions—yet you charge them with sin. How very inconsistent you are!”

Jesus is far from allowing situation ethics as acceptable action. The Scripture, concerning Jesus, states, “…was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15). Sin is a transgressing of God’s Law and Jesus stayed far away from such. Jesus said, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat. 5:19). These statements of Jesus lead us to conclude He opposed “situation ethics.”

What Is Wrong With Situation Ethics?

There are several problems with situation ethics. First, it goes against the teaching of Scripture. The Bible is a sufficient guide for humanity. Nothing more is needed to guide us through this life and to prepare for eternity. Paul wrote Timothy, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Second, situation ethics makes subjectivity law. Subjectivity is not and can never be the standard for our conduct. Man cannot be the judge of his own actions, for “all the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes” (Prov. 16:2).

Third, situation ethics deifies man. It makes man his own god. Jeremiah said, “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (10:23). Man needs guidance and council. Man needs One to show him the higher road, the better way. Situation ethics confers on man the authority to determine right or wrong. McCallum states, “…they argue that because humans are part of the cosmos, we are gods too. This is one reason contemporary spirituality focuses on the self, discovering our divinity within. New Age thinking is explicitly concerned with the journey toward realizing our essential divinity.”

Fourth, situation ethics perverts the concept of love. It teaches one can love and still break God’s commands. According to Fletcher, the overarching principle behind an action must be love. Jesus puts it differently, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me:” (Jn. 14:21).

Finally, Situation Ethics allows and encourages permissiveness. It allows a teenager with raging hormones to give vent to their lust in committing fornication. God has clearly revealed to humanity, for a wide variety of reasons, that He wants us to “flee fornication” (1 Cor. 6:18). Situation Ethics justifies adultery when one is living in an unsatisfactory marriage, but according to God’s will, adultery has no place in the marriage relationship. (Gal. 5:19).  According to the doctrine of situation ethics one can insert any sin, as long as they have love. The Scriptures plainly teach sin will be punished (1 Cor. 6:9-10, Gal. 5:19-21, Eph 5:5).


Article by: Brad Shockley