The Twin Tasks of Social Ethics

The Twin Tasks of Social Ethics

Dane’s Place © 2005

(What type of person should I be? – What type of community should I build?)

The Twin Tasks of Social Ethics, represented by the questions parenthetically posed above, is a concept that by its very nature causes one to think introspectively.  But, before I can allow that self-examination to occur, I want to first pause and examine the examiner – and think critically of the scrutinizer.  Understanding the questions set forth allows me to be in a better posture to be searched by them.

What type of person should I be?’ and ‘What type of community should I build?’ are questions obviously designed upon a certain framework, or worldview, and they come equipped with certain assumptions already in place.  First, both questions assume that the individual, and the community that he/she lives in, has the necessity to be improved upon.  If the person and community were both already indefectible, there would be no need to change.  Secondly, the questions imply that the individual and community have the capacity for change.  There would seem little need to consider improving character, or building community, if these subjects were not prone to transformation.

These two – necessity and capacity for change – are concepts that are both consistent with my understanding of Christianity.  The ancient account in Genesis Chapter 3 tells us that when Adam and Eve sinned they immediately recognized the need for change as they sought to cover their nakedness.  From that day forward I believe that all of humanity has instinctively recognized the need to change from something that we are, into something that we are not.  Though there are some changes that we are unable to initiate ourselves (i.e., the Church has historically understood the Bible to teach that we cannot in our own power make ourselves holy before God), it is clear that God has created within us the capability of making even very drastic changes within our lives.  For example, there are many people who were once chemically addicted, yet through the power of choice, now live productive lives, free from those addictions.

The questions also make another interesting inference.  At first blush they do not seem to disclose or imply the presence of any supernatural power.  Yet, a closer examination suggests that this cannot be the case.  If we have the power to make a choice in our lives, can we not consider that that power is evidence of God who has power over us?  Jesus told Pilate that Pilate did not have any power over Him unless God granted it1.  In the Christian worldview, the power to make choices is often recognized as power granted by God.

Charles L. Kammer III2 describes this power as God “limiting” Himself3.  According to Kammer, God allows us to make our own choices, and experience their consequences by limiting His own power in our lives. So, whether it is through the direct presence of God, or the limitations of God, the power to choose must be understood as power granted to us by God.

The Twin Tasks of Social Ethics strongly imply a negative power as well.  As we understand the world in which we live, we quickly recognize that building or changing anything requires labor against the forces that offer resistance.  A worker raises a building while laboring against the force of gravity.  And a hammer requires certain inertia to force a nail through the twisting grains of wood.  Likewise, the endeavor of becoming better people, and building better communities reveals a sense of labor, or struggle.  In the Christian worldview, the resistance to improving character can only be understood as the power of evil – and often more specifically, our sin.  The presence of evil in our world and our inward tendency toward sin can very effectively retard our efforts to ameliorate our communities and ourselves.

Therefore, through my worldview, I approach the Twin Tasks of Social Ethics assuming that there is a need for change, capacity for change, the power of God, and the presence of a resistance to change in the form of evil and sin.

What type of person should I be?  During His well-known Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laid out a plan for His followers: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect4.  As a Christian, then, I believe that God’s personal plan for me is perfection – a perfection that requires delicate definition and unique understanding.

Traditionally speaking, Christians have always believed that God is perfect.  As Nelson’s Bible Dictionary intimates, God’s perfection is understood as being without flaws, and “lacking nothing5.”  It is a very independent perfection.  But I cannot believe that Jesus intends for us to attain a kind of perfection in this world that makes us independent of God, and leaves us without want.  Furthermore, I do not believe that Christ’s mandate to be perfect means we should live without errors. John Wesley seemed to recognize this as he commented on perfection, writing that we cannot expect to execute life’s tasks without mistakes6.

Therefore, my understanding of the perfection that Jesus calls us unto is a life reflecting God’s perfection by striving to become holistically complete persons, just as God is a complete Person.  But how can one strive to become perfect in that sense?  That answer, I believe, lies within the Scriptures.

Noah and Job were both described as being perfect men (Gen. 6:9 & Job 1:1).  Expounding on these passages, Barnes’ Notes describes this perfection as “proportionate” and “complete in all its parts7.”  While we know that they were not men who lived without sin, I believe that the perfection they possessed was made known through the integrity that was displayed in all the relationships of their lives.  They were well-rounded people who acted with soundness of character in their relationships to selfGod, and others.  It is in these three areas, therefore, that I find the answer to the first question, “What type of person should I be?

Understanding Jesus’ call to perfection means that I must be a person who seeks to be complete with integrity in all of my relationships.  In relationship to self, I must be willing to admit that I am in need of positive change, and then be willing to strive for that change.  But, immediately, the question will be raised as to where the standard for self-perfection is to be found.

Since I have been flawed by the power of evil, and am under the influence of my own sin, I cannot look inwardly to find the standard for moral perfection.  Simply stated, I cannot be my own moral guide, or repair my own ethical gauge.  That would be akin to accepting the testimony of the man on the psychiatric ward that he is indeed Napoleon Bonaparte.  If truth comes only from within, it remains relative.  When truth is relative, it loses its power to be absolutely true.  And in the vacuum created by collapsing absolute truth, falsehood will pour in to assume a reigning position.

Just as we cannot accept on face value alone the standard that people set for themselves as a universal absolute, my own standard for ethics and morality cannot come from within me.  To be truly ethical, I do not believe that humanity can look inwardly – or the standard will only reflect our imperfections.  For the standard of moral perfection to be truly perfect, it must come from without, and above the hearts of humankind.

In relationship to God, I must be a person of faith.  In my Christian worldview, based on my understanding of scripture, it is faith and faith alone that pleases God8.  The Bible gives us no celebrated person who achieved anything remarkable before God, or anyone who was in meaningful relationship with God, without the vehicle of faith.

Faith is a very personal experience.  But, just as the standards for personal morality must be found outside of ourselves, the standards that help us recognize faith cannot spring from the sin-tainted human heart.  Fortunately, the Christian worldview gives us some standards, or limits, by which faith can be understood.

A mere acknowledgement of God does not seem to be sufficient.  James tells us in his Epistle that “the devils also believe9,” yet their faith is quite arguably insufficient to please God.  Pleasing-faith, therefore, seems to be a belief system that not only acknowledges God, but also places a hope and trust in God.

The expressions of hope and trust that make up faith are varied.  However, it is again clear that there are some standards recognized by historical Christianity that help us define our expressions of faith.  For example, The Apostle Paul warned the Church in Corinth that they should not use their Christian liberty as a license to cause a fellow believer to stumble10.  The Romans were warned that they were incorrect in attempting to evoke the grace of God’s by purposely committing sin11.  And St. Peter described any teaching that denied the Lordship of Christ as a “damnable” heresy12.  These examples give evidence that we indeed have certain limits in the expression of true faith.

Finally, in understanding what type of person I should be, I must consider my relationship to others.  Living a life of integrity with those around me is essential to perfecting myself as Jesus directed.  The most straightforward principle in understanding how I can live in relationship with others is neatly summed in Matthew 7:12, “do to others what you would have them do to you.”  Often referred to as The Golden Rule, this command of Jesus’ provides a simple but complete guideline in directing my interaction with others.

For me, the perfection that Jesus commanded means to be complete in all parts of my relationships with others.  Due to the power of evil, and my sin, I will inevitably fail to live in the fullness of this perfection.  But the presence of God, experienced by God’s grace, is no less equal to my worst.  This grace effectively fills the gaps left by my failures and disobediences, and leaves me prepared to be the type of person I should be.

What type of community should I build?  As a young boy I was enamored by the fictional character, Grizzly Adams.  Life in a log cabin far removed from human influences seemed to me the finest way to live out a life.  But upon hearing me laud the life of a hermit, a wise aunt asked what good I would be to society if I were not in it.  Her response opened a door in my mind where I had not even known there was a door.  She challenged me to think beyond the needs of my own small world, and consider the needs of the world around me.  But most importantly, her words helped me see that my life does not belong to me – that I live under obligation.

In the Biblical accounts of creation we can note that the genesis of humankind was marked with a charge to keep.  Humankind was created into the responsibility of tending to, and ruling over God’s created earth.  God also fashioned humankind to be in relationship with one another.  These basic understandings of creational-intent form the parameters of the obligation that I sense in the world.  God did not create me to be a free agent.  Choosing not to live with respect to my obligations does not remove the weight of that great charge.

Whether I consider the question of ‘community’ to mean my local neighborhood, church, family, or the worldwide, global community, my response is the same: I must work to fulfill the obligations imputed to me by virtue of being human.  First, I must be mindful of my responsibility to “tend” to God’s creation as Adam was directed.  In my life this can be defined as a healthy respect for the created world and its resources.  This respect, however, must be kept in balance by the command of God to have dominion and lordship over the earth – not to be lorded by it.  Elevating the created world to a position that is on the same plane as human life is going against the proclaimed designs of God, and does not recognize the hierarchy that God purposed.

Secondly, I must live out my obligation to God through respect for those in the communities that God has raised about me.  This respect is manifested by recognizing the inherent value that each person bears for having been created in the image and likeness of God; and living a life within that respect.  But it is also manifested by recognizing that the choices I make for myself may have a profound impact on the lives of others.  For example, I may want to accept a friend’s invitation to sit down in a pub for a beer and friendly conversation.  But what about my church-community?  Could those actions adversely affect their lives?  Is it not possible that my personal choices could affect the communities that I am involved in?  Though “all things are lawful13” for me, I must perfect my walk to take in consideration the communities that I am a part of.

Envisioning a better community is important.  But visions are limited in their power to bring tangible change.  Rather, I must accept my incapacity to change the attitudes and behaviors of those around me, and focus my might on bringing about true and lasting personal improvement.  It is then, through the personal cultivation of my acts and attitudes of piety, that God’s unlimited architectural ability can be unleashed to build the community that God desires.

1 John 19:11

2 Charles L. Kammer III, Ethics and Liberation, Wipf and Stock Publishers © 1998, page 57.

3 This author recognizes that some will be offended by the masculine personal pronoun in reference to God.

However, the English language offers no suitable word that combines gender-neutrality and personhood.

Therefore, by default, I am utilizing the word that has been traditionally recognized as acceptable.

4 Matthew 5:48 NIV

5 Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ©1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

6 Albert C. Outler, John Wesley’s Sermons An Anthology, Abingdon Press ©1991, page 71.

7 from Barnes’ Notes

8 Hebrews 11:6

9 James 2:19

10 1Corinthians 8:9

11 Romans 6:1

12 2 Peter 2:1

13 I Corinthians 6:12



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