Christian Ethics, Free Course, Lesson 1

William Mc Nicol

Should the church take any interest in the great moral questions which confront society? Or should church leaders see their role merely as supplying a ‘religious’ dimension to life – conducting baptisms, weddings and funerals; providing church services and marking the passing of the seasons with appropriate festivals? ”Let the scientists, sociologists and politicians deal with the real world” some would say.

Or again, is the role of the church simply to preach the gospel in the power of the Spirit? If men and women repent and believe in sufficient numbers and with enough miracles taking place, then all society’s problems will be solved. Or will they? The O1d Testament prophets continually preached against religion which had no concern for the daily plight of men and women. Isaiah cries: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:  to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isa 58:6-7)

Jesus addressed all the great issues of His day in the course of His gospel ministry. Kingdom power would be revealed in Good Samaritans, in prison visitors, in those who gave to the poor, in new marriage ethics, political attitudes and protection of the weak.

All the New Testament letters reflect this concern that the good news should touch every aspect of life. Indeed, Paul sees a day coming when God will reconcile all things through His Son.

The Cross is the great road-junction of life, the meeting place of heaven and hell, life and death, justice and injustice, the rich and the poor, men and women, religion and politics.Obey the signals and we drive up Reconciliation Road: disobey them and we crash.

Preaching the gospel of the kingdom involves bringing the government of God into every department of life. Concern for society, its values and practices, is a central part of the church’s mission. We are called to bring God’s reconciliation to God’s world and this course is about just that. In these 10 studies we will consider some of the main issues of our day, the biblical principles which apply to them and some of the practical things we can do about them.

Ethics is a vast field and this is only the merest introduction to it, but hopefully it will help us as Christians to understand and face up to the social, ethical, medical and cultural issues around us and thus will both stimulate our concern and set us thinking along the right lines.


Read: Luke 4:18-19; Prov. 31:8-9.
Human rights are important because it is the basic issue that lies behind many of the ethical and social problems that society and the church face today.

A. A Definition of Human rights
The United Nations declaration of human rights proclaims the right:
* To life, to freedom from subjection, to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or to slavery, servitude or forced labour.
*To liberty and security of the person.
*To a fair trial.
*To freedom from retroactive criminal law or punishments.
*To respect for private and family life, home and correspondence.
*To freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
*To freedom of expression, peaceful expression and association.
*To an effective remedy against officials who violate these rights.
*To the enjoyment of these rights without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

Today, the majority of the people in the world are held in a bondage which denies all or most of the U.N. declaration. And even where democracy holds sway, human rights are seriously limited for many groups. Justice still works best for Western, white, wealthy males! 

This declaration is an example of idealism. It is an aspiration to human freedom in a world of political, racial, economic, sexual and religious bondage.

B. Christianity and Human Rights.
Christians are neither idealists nor indifferent to human bondage and deprivation. Jesus’ message of freedom is the greatest single contribution to human rights in history. Here is His Nazareth Manifesto: “To preach good news to the poor…. To proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Luke 4:18-19)

This has enormous spiritual implications largely ignored by modern society, but it also declares Jesus’ concern for the liberation of the whole person.Yet Christians have sometimes become the persecutors.

Christianity – the State version – has a bad record on human rights. Slavery, torture, class barriers, sexual subjugation, colonialism and many more vices have been justified in the Name of the One who came to abolish injustice. The church has sinned grievously, and many of today’s secular responses to human rights reflect a recognition of that fact.

Not least has been the emergence of Marxism and its Christianised form known as liberation theology. Both stand in stark contrast to the authentic New Testament church – violent confrontation versus healing love and persuasive wisdom. If liberation theology is a Christian extreme, then so is an evangelicalism concerned only with salvation from personal sin and with preserving the faithful until they go to heaven. Jesus’ message implies far more than this.

C. A Biblical Approach to Human Rights
The issue of human rights confronts us’ squarely with the question: “What is man?”
The gospel begins with creation. Man is dust into which God has breathed. He is midway between the angels and the animals. (See Psalm 8:3-8)

Man (or humankind) was created in two forms – male and female. Both were in the image of God, both were to have authority; both were made without reference to racial, social or intellectual characteristics. Alienation, between themselves and God, and between one another, was unknown. Yet today we are magnificent ruins, made in the image of God, yet marred in every part. This is the root of the denial of human rights (See Rom. 1:18-32).

The gospel proposes a remedy. It isn’t a political solution imposed upon unwilling people but a new heart, which in turn is reflected in a new society. (See Heb. 8:10-12).

If the new heart produces a new attitude of love towards our fellow-creatures, then the gospel of grace also changes our status. The old categories of race, class and sex lose their importance. (See Gal. 3:26-29).

Grace must affect politics but politics cannot produce grace.
This is why Jesus would not lead a political revolution. (See Jn. 6:15).
He avoided an overt attack upon the repressive Roman government which, in His own nation, abused every known human right, simply because He knew that the most dangerous thing you can give to a man is his freedom – unless grace operates to sanctify his conscience and to discipline his heart. 

All rights carry responsibility (Gal. 5:13). We cannot embrace the ways of violence in order to achieve the goals of the Prince of Peace. Proclaiming the gospel of grace is the only sure remedy for injustice.

   Human rights are not an absolute. Doing the will of God is.
Christians are called to sacrifice their human rights for the sake of the gospel. (Mt. 5:10-12; 38-42: 1 Peter 4:12-16). 

The Christian church today is the most heavily persecuted minority in the world.  Religious liberty is purchased with martyrs’ blood. This means, incidentally, that the believer can hardly be a supporter of religious persecution. In all this we follow Jesus who at the cross willingly put Himself into the hands of unjust men. The trial and crucifixion of Christ stand as one of the greatest denials of human rights in history. But it was the will of God. – See Isa. 53:10! 

We must face the fact that we will come into conflict with the powers that be when we speak up for the needy – and this is part of our calling – See Prov. 31:8-9; Rom. 12:14-21.

1. Do you agree that human rights are the basic issue that lies behind the ethical problems of today’s society?
2. Is the U.N. Declaration in section ‘A’ realistic or idealistic? Why?
3. Can you add any other Biblical material to section ‘C’?
4. Do you have a different Biblical approach to that suggested here?
5. Can Christians support the work of:
(a) Amnesty International?
(b) Liberation Theology?
(c) Animal Rights?
(d) Greenpeace?
Give reasons for/against in each case.
6. Can we always allow others the free exercise of their rights? What about children? Criminals? Animals? Nature?

1. Examine your own attitudes before God on this whole issue of human rights.
Have you given it much thought? lf not, then why not? What implication does this have for you in the future in thinking through ethical issues?
2. Have you found this first session boring? Interesting? Challenging? or threatening? Examine your reactions.
3. What positive steps are you going to take before God to get actively involved in ethical and social issues? ‘

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