From Guiding Principles to One Clear Command
There is an undeniable attraction in reducing all the Bible’s moral imperatives to just one overarching command. For John Maxwell, this is The Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This involves only asking one question, “How would I like to be treated in this situation?”Maxwell acknowledges that putting it into practice may also require a number of other principles, including:
- Treat people better than they treat you.
- Walk the second mile.
- Help people who can’t help you.
- Do right when it’s natural to do wrong.
- Keep your promises even when it hurts.
Regrettably, this increases rather than reduces the number of fundamental commandments. It also introduces principles that are not directly from the Bible.
Joseph Fletcher, with his Situation Ethics,subjected everything to Jesus’ “love commandment”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). He then ran into a similar problem, being forced to devise a number of other principles (four presuppositions and six propositions), to clarify how the most loving thing might be determined. Maxwell is anxious to distance himself from the “moral relativism” of Situation Ethics and, unlike Fletcher, doesn’t say that the love commandment is the only absolute moral principle in a way that reduces all other moral rules to becoming only helpful “illuminators.” But Maxwell and Fletcher both demonstrate that, while the simplicity of choosing to elevate one principle is attractive and helpful in some ways, it is simplistic and deceptive in other ways.
They also demonstrate the inadequacy of utilizing only one approach to doing ethics; in their cases, the command approach. Both of these examples begin by promoting one absolute biblical command, but then quickly move to consider circumstances and consequences in order to decide which other qualifying commands are required to provide clarity. And the way they talk about love suggests that its demonstration will largely depend on the character of the actor anyway.
John C. Maxwell, There’s No Such Thing as “Business” Ethics (USA: Warner Books, 2003).
Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics (London: SCM, 1966).