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We live in an age of unprecedented moral confusion. The public consensus on basic moral issues—the fruit of Christian influence on Western civilization—has been tragically eroded. As pragmatism and relativism reign supreme, we are reliving the period when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). In the midst of this fog, the Christian faith presents us with a coherent worldview that provides straightforward direction on central ethical questions. In this article, we will consider how the Christian ethic speaks to a number of hotly contested issues of our time.

What are the defining principles of the Christian ethic? We immediately think of the two greatest commandments, as expressed by our Lord Jesus: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40). It is entirely true to say that the Christian ethic is love-centered. But what does it mean in practice to love God and others? What does Christian love actually require of us?

To answer this crucial question, we must turn to God’s moral laws, expressed most directly in His commands. Christians have traditionally recognized the Ten Commandments, delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai and written on tablets of stone by the very finger of God, to be a summary of the moral law (Ex. 20:1–17; 31:18). These commandments, which represent our fundamental duties toward God and our fellow human beings, are reaffirmed as abiding moral principles in the New Testament (Luke 18:20; Rom. 13:8–10; James 2:11). It is crucial to recognize, however, that even at Sinai these divine commandments were far from ethical innovations. No one should think that idolatry, murder, adultery, and theft were permissible before the Mosaic covenant. The Ten Commandments reflect what Reformed theologians have called creation ordinances: universal moral norms that are grounded first and foremost in the character of God, and secondarily in the nature of human beings and their social relationships as originally created and ordered by God.

What this implies is that the Christian ethic is rooted in the biblical doctrines of God, creation, and mankind. In fact, once we see that all the basic foundations are laid in the opening chapters of Genesis, the majority of moral issues fall quite readily into place, even allowing for the challenging ethical decisions we occasionally face. Core biblical truths we should acknowledge in these chapters include the following: (1) God is the sovereign Creator of all things, who rules and speaks with absolute authority; (2) there is a natural order to the creation, which we should respect; (3) God made mankind in His own image; thus, we have a special dignity and worth, and we should seek to reflect the character of our creator in all that we do; (4) God’s design for mankind includes a basic sexual differentiation and complementarity: male and female; (5) God established the covenant of marriage for the purposes of companionship, procreation, and sexual intimacy; thus, human society is structured around the basic family unit: one man and one woman, united in marriage, raising children (if God so blesses) to form new families; (6) God initiated the human race with a single family, decisively establishing the fundamental unity and solidarity of all mankind.

The Ten Commandments reflect what Reformed theologians have called creation ordinances.

With these creational principles of the Christian ethic in view, let us consider how they provide clear moral direction on seven disputed issues today: abortion, euthanasia, racism, capital punishment, divorce, homosexuality, and transgenderism.

Consider first the doctrine of the imago Dei and its ethical implications. All life is a gift from God, who alone has “life in himself” (John 5:26). God is the author of life and thus has authority to give life and to take it away. This is true of all living creatures, but the fact that humans are specially created in the image of God means that our lives are uniquely valuable and precious in God’s sight. Cursing someone made in the image of God is nothing short of an offense against God (James 3:9). We therefore have a moral duty to honor and protect human life from beginning to end. Modern science unequivocally confirms what the Bible has always implied: a new human being comes into existence at the point of conception (Judg. 13:3–5; Job 31:15; Pss. 51:5; 139:13–16). A child in the womb, even at the earliest stages of development, bears God’s image no less than a newborn baby or a grown adult. Abortion is therefore the destruction of a defenseless human being and a grievous evil in the sight of God. This must be the baseline for Christian thinking about abortion, even as we wrestle with how to address tragic situations such as fetal abnormalities and pregnancy through rape.

The sanctity of life applies equally to end-of-life issues. Euthanasia is the technical term for “mercy killing”: actively taking a human life to avoid or curtail suffering. Controversy today focuses on the practice of “physician-assisted suicide,” where doctors are enlisted to help patients painlessly end their lives. Consistent with its pro-life ethic, Scripture always portrays suicide—literally, self-killing—in negative terms, and while the Bible has much to say about enduring suffering, it never sanctions suicide as a solution. Thus, while we should fully support compassionate palliative care, euthanasia must be viewed as morally wrong by biblical standards.

Racism has brought tremendous suffering and division to human societies over the course of history. This is another issue to which the Christian ethic speaks clearly and forcefully. We have noted how the biblical creation account underscores the foundational unity of mankind. Strictly speaking, there is only one race—the human race—even though by God’s design it has flowered into a wonderful diversity of ethnicities. Furthermore, the imago Dei does not come in degrees; every human being equally bears God’s image and thus should enjoy the same dignity, worth, and protection under the law. As even secular historians recognize, the modern concept of civil rights has its roots in the theology and anthropology of the Christian worldview.

Support for capital punishment is often portrayed as contrary to pro-life convictions, but it is no less grounded in the doctrine of the imago Dei. The biblical rationale is explicit: precisely because God made us in His own image, murderers should forfeit their own lives as a just and proportionate penalty (Gen. 9:5–6). At the same time, respect for the sanctity of life requires us to apply rigorous standards of evidence and impartiality to ensure that justice is consistently and transparently upheld in our legal systems, especially in the prosecution of capital crimes (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 17:6; 19:15–21).

Let us now apply the creation ordinances of marriage and sexuality to some contemporary moral issues, beginning with divorce. In the United States today, around two in five marriages end in divorce, and the notion of “no fault” divorce is widely accepted. If a husband and wife decide they are no longer in love, that is considered sufficient justification to abandon the marriage. Yet when Jesus was directly questioned about divorce and remarriage, He pointed people back to the divine institution of marriage in Genesis 2:24, emphasizing that when a man and a woman enter into a marital covenant, they are joined together by God in a profound one-flesh union (Matt. 19:4–6). Only marital infidelity or willful desertion that violates the one-flesh union can justify dissolving that solemn bond (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:10–15).

Similarly, while same-sex relationships have been aggressively normalized in Western societies, the biblical teaching is unambiguous. The creation account is clear that marriage was ordained by God as a bond between one man and one woman, to serve as the foundation for family and society. By God’s design, Eve was made “fit for” Adam, not merely sexually but as a companion (Gen. 2:18). Scripture and nature together attest that a same-sex couple cannot form a one-flesh union or “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). Even if there were no explicit condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible, the matter would be settled decisively by the biblical creation account and its echoes in the teachings of Christ.

The same principles apply to trans­gender­ism. Christians should be compassionate toward those who suffer from dysphoria about their sexual identity and their bodies. Nevertheless, God’s plan for human sexuality is clear: we are made in God’s image, male and female, and our bodies are the primary indicators of which of those we are (even allowing for rare anomalous cases due to developmental abnormalities). There is simply no basis in Scripture for a category of “gender identity” that is independent of our embodied sexuality.

Much more can and should be said about these issues and other ethical challenges we face today. Even so, the core principles of the Christian ethic are clearly revealed in Scripture and deeply rooted in the doctrines of God, creation, and mankind. Indeed, as we have seen, the foundations are almost entirely laid in the first two chapters of Genesis.

Christian Living and the Ethical Mandate

Consistent Christianity

Keep Reading The Christian Ethic

From the March 2021 Issue
Mar 2021 Issue