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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 43–50 

The Christian's Ethical Witness to the World

Elmer J. Thiessen

Do we as Christians have a right to make pronouncements on the ethical values or the lack of such values in the world? This is a thorny problem with a long history, and at the risk of sounding a little presumptuous, let me suggest that most often the Christian church has given the wrong answer to this question. The thesis I wish to defend is that while Christians do have a right to make some ethical pronouncements to the world, we must do it in the right manner.

. . . we should ensure that this ethical witness is limited to basic ethical norms.

A recent issue of Christian Week (Jan. 10, 1989) provides several illustrations of the problem we are dealing with. Several articles and letters refer to the debate concerning prayer and Bible readings in public schools. The general thrust of these articles and letters is that we as Christians do have the right to spread our values via a state system of education? Another major article by Deane Downey defends the controversial B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm for being “up front” about his Christian values. In a recent address at a Campus Crusade for Christ Vancouver seminar, Vander Zalm used Psalm 127:1 (“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders’ work is useless”) as a basis for arguing for the urgent necessity of constructing a safe secure and sound {44} dwelling place for the people of his province, based on a biblical value system. In reviewing the obstacles to building such a structure, Vander Zalm identified one as the lack of public consensus about the correct building code, which he said should be the ethical principles found in the Bible. On another occasion, after the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion, Vander Zalm came out explicitly as a pro life advocate, making no secret of the fact that his convictions were an expression of his religious faith.

Downey bemoans the antagonism Vander Zalm has encountered from the media and the contempt he has often endured from the public, but I would suggest that the antagonism and contempt are in part justified. I believe Vander Zalm is guilty of two common errors often made by Christians when addressing value questions in conversation with the world. These errors concern both the content of the values being imposed on the world and the manner in which they are presented. Regarding content, we need to distinguish between those values that are uniquely Christian and those that we share with people of other faiths (including secular faiths) by virtue of our common humanity. Regarding manner of presentation, we need to defend these common values via rationale that is again understood by all regardless of their religious or irreligious convictions.

I believe it is wrong to impose what are uniquely Christian values on the world because this involves a violation of religious freedom. Religious freedom is a common value that all of us should defend, including Christians. Jesus very clearly respected the individual’s right to reject not only the gospel he was presenting but also to refuse to live by the unique values attached to this gospel. Jesus also says, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (Matt. 7:6). I believe that many times Christians violate this principle when they make pronouncements regarding ethical values to the world.

This willingness to impose any and all Christian values on the world also stems from another commonly made assumption, namely that the United States and Canada are Christian countries. Dorothy Pape, for example, in the same issue of Christian Week, referred to earlier, defends prayers and Bible reading in our schools because we are, after all, a Christian {45} nation. Frankly, I have little patience with this theological and political nonsense. The United States and Canada are not and never were Christian countries. The idea of a theocracy is an Old Testament concept which is specifically rejected in the New Testament. Those of us who belong to a free church tradition have rejected the notion of “corpus Christianum,” the union of church and empire which was so fundamental to the Middle Ages. We believe that we need to separate church and state, though I would be the first to admit that such separation calls for careful definition. But one thing that such separation surely does mean is that we cannot assume that all citizens of a nation are Christians and hence we cannot speak to the world as though everyone is a Christian. And from this it follows that we cannot assume the right to impose our uniquely Christian values on the world.

Jesus’ principle of not throwing our pearls to swine also has some implications for the way in which we present our values. Pigs do not appreciate pearls. The world does not appreciate a specifically Christian defense of values, including those values which we share with them. If someone does not believe in the Christian God, it is futile to defend certain values by appealing to God as the foundation of these values. It is foolishness to them (1 Cor. 1 and 2), and we are wasting our time.

How then do we go about speaking to the world about ethics, and what ethical principles should we present to them? Let me first of all illustrate my position by describing my own experience in this regard. I teach at a state-supported college. My introductory ethics course is the most popular of the philosophy courses that I teach. I am also very concerned about my Christian witness in the classroom. Thus I make it a point to tell my students that I am a Christian and that my Christian presuppositions really permeate my own philosophical convictions, as well as my approach to other philosophical positions. I don’t believe objectivity, in the sense of presuppositionless teaching, is possible, and I tell my students this. How then do I teach ethics to “worldly” students? Ultimately, I believe all values are rooted in God. But does this mean that I first of all need to convert all my students before I can teach them anything about ethics? Surely not! Very early in the course I confront my students with the dilemma of basing ethics on religion. Such an approach makes it difficult to find a {46} common basis for common values. I don’t care whether a person is a Hindu, a Jew, a Christian, or an atheist, I do not want him or her to murder me or anybody else for that matter. I also believe that all people should be truthful, honest, loving, just, etc. I even argue that all people should only enjoy their sexuality within the context of a monogamous marriage. In other words there are some common moral values that all of us share by virtue of our common humanity. How then do I defend these values? Again I avoid a direct appeal to the Scriptures, (you don’t throw pearls before pigs), even though I believe these common values are compatible with what the Bible says. Instead, I provide a qualified Kantian/utilitarian defense of these values. If we accept the value of human beings as self-evident, then their happiness must surely be a good thing. I argue that these common values are really an expression of the way in which society can best operate.

My approach in short is to limit myself to those values that should be common to all human beings and that can be rationally defended in a way that all humans can understand. Here it is important to note that my approach is, I believe, compatible with the Scriptures. I believe that the last six commandments are universal in scope and that a Kantian/utilitarian justification of them is possible because they were given to humanity “for your own good,” and “so that it will go well with you” (Deut. 6:3; 10:13). After all, if God created man, then surely he knows what is best for us and for society. Here I like to use an analogy that students seem to find helpful. When any of us buys a new appliance that we are unfamiliar with, there are two ways in which to find out how to operate it. Most often we ignore the manual and tinker away at the dials until we find out how the appliance works. If we then check the manual, we will discover that most often it confirms what we have discovered. If the manual differs from what we have found, we will probably adjust our operations to conform to the manual, because, after all, the manufacturer knows best how this appliance should operate. Of course, we could have, and probably should have consulted the manual in the first place, because the manufacturer has an inside knowledge of how this appliance best operates because he made it. In the same way, we as human beings can discover, by reason, experimentation and conscience, what are the best rules to follow in our interactions with other human beings and nature. As {47} Christians, we believe that we also could and should first consult the manual, i.e. the Bible, about the moral principles and rules that should govern our behavior, and we further believe that what we, or anyone else, for that matter, discover by reason, experimentation and conscience should always agree with what the Bible says. This analogy helps us to see that there are some common moral values which can be defended in ways that are common to all human beings.

Those who are familiar with the history of ethical theory will see that my position incorporates the basic themes of a longstanding natural law tradition in ethics, most often expressed in Roman Catholic writings. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that man can discover natural law by the “light of reason” thus participating in “the eternal law” of God. Natural law is rooted in the way in which we as human beings are created by God, with fundamental inclinations such as self-preservation, a desire to know the truth, a desire to live in society, and to unite sexually with a member of the opposite sex for purposes of both pleasure and procreation, etc. God’s divine positive law, as contained in the Scriptures, won’t contradict natural law, according to Aquinas, because “grace does not abolish nature but perfects it.”

It needs to be pointed out that this natural law approach to ethics is rejected by many Christians, including Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder. Here I can merely outline my basic problems with Yoder’s and others’ rejection of natural law ethics. Yoder follows Barth in stressing the importance of biblical revelation and the centrality of Jesus Christ as the foundation of knowledge and truth. But surely we must allow that Christ as the creator has also revealed himself in creation, and hence the notion of general or natural revelation, which, if interpreted correctly will always be in harmony with God’s special revelation. Yoder is simply wrong in assuming that ethical principles derived from nature will necessarily be different from biblical ethics. There are striking similarities in the moral creeds of the great civilizations of mankind as well as of the moral thinkers of the past, a point which Yoder himself is forced to admit in places, and these testify to the general revelation of God in creation. The Scriptures themselves testify to a moral law written in the hearts of men (Romans 2:14f), and at times Jesus and Paul justify their admonitions by appealing to the creation order (Matt. 14; 1 Cor. 11). Paul even {48} finds some truth in the religious sentiments of the Athenians and uses this as a starting point to witness to the fuller truth found in Christ (Acts 17). Yoder fails to see that this kind of an approach is also possible in ethics, where the Bible can be seen as supplementing and completing that which is found in natural law ethics.

Not surprisingly, Yoder’s position leads him, at times, to suggest that we can’t impose Christian ethics on the world, since “Christian ethics is for Christians.” I believe this is the implication of a rejection of natural law ethics. Interestingly, Yoder himself does, at times, maintain that Christians can speak to the world about ethics, and a careful study of his writings will reveal that he is forced to introduce a kind of natural law, thus, in effect, contradicting himself. I therefore conclude that Yoder and others are wrong in rejecting a natural law ethics which I believe can provide a common framework for Christians, members of other religious traditions, and atheists alike, and which can then provide a basis for the Christian’s ethical witness to the world. The Christian can and should present an ethical witness to the state and the world at large, but we should ensure that this ethical witness is limited to basic ethical norms that are rooted in the creation order and we should also ensure that we substantiate these common norms in ways that are understandable to the world. Such ethical witness may in fact, on occasion, lead to further opportunities to present the fuller truth as found in the Scriptures, following the model of Paul in Acts 17.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me hasten to add that this is not at all to suggest that Christians will have little to say to the world with regard to ethics, that we should somehow retreat with regard to our ethical witness. No, I believe we should be doing much more by way of being an ethical light to society, and I believe the approach I have described in this paper will serve to strengthen our ethical witness. We can and should speak loudly to such ethical issues as abortion, euthanasia, pornography, adultery, environmental pollution, and the exploitation of nature, etc. We can and should speak loudly to the need for truthfulness and integrity in the marketplace, the need for justice and fairness in the workplace, and the need for a common day of rest. We can and should speak loudly on behalf of the needy, the oppressed, the starving thus reflecting an overriding biblical concern for the widow, the orphan, and {49} the stranger, a concern that ought to be shared by all mankind. We can and should support such pronouncements as were made by eight Canadian Roman Catholic bishops in 1983 who produced a discussion paper entitled, “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis.” While we might not agree with all of their suggestions, all of us should surely support their concern about poverty and unemployment which deny the dignity of man and his deeply rooted need to be creative and work. We can and should speak loudly on the importance and dignity of caring for children, recognizing that a father’s and mother’s nurture and care for children involves work and is the height of creativity.

These ethical concerns, while they agree with biblical norms, need to be defended in the marketplace and the workplace, not by quoting the Bible, but by arguments that rest on assumptions that we share with the world. For example, I believe we as Christians need to speak loudly against Sunday shopping. But this needs to be defended, not on the grounds that we want a day of worship, a value which is not shared by all in our society, but on the grounds that we need a common day of rest, a need that is, I believe, recognized even in atheistic Russia.

But we also need to remember that our ethical witness will only have credibility if we ourselves live by the values we preach. Is this perhaps why we sometimes hesitate to speak out on certain ethical issues? Christians, for example, who frequent restaurants on Sunday after church really have nothing to say about the need for a common day of rest. Their actions speak louder than their words. Parallels could also be made concerning our ethical witness in the area of economics.

Let me conclude with two illustrations. The first involves a fiery layman/prophet of the fifth century B.C. Amos does not only denounce the ethical practices of his own people, supposedly the people of God, but begins by condemning the ethical practices of the pagan nations surrounding Judah. Barbarity, the slave trade, the disregard of treaties, killing out of anger and vengeance, the violation of the rights of the helpless in order to fulfill personal ambitions: All of these are condemned because they violate the natural order of Creation, and therefore the “Lord roars from Zion” even against pagan nations.

The second example grows out of what Richard Lovelace describes as the second evangelical awakening in England of {50} the nineteenth century A.D., where a group of Christian laymen spoke out against and fought against slavery, and the abuses of the Industrial Revolution. What is significant is that these leaders were “detached from the struggle for success or survival in the kingdom of the self, and committed to establishing the reign of Christ through their vocations.” They also recognized the need for spiritual resources for their task, spending three hours daily in prayer. When his son asked Lord Shaftesbury how he could manage so many reforming initiatives at once, he answered, “By hearty prayer to the Almighty God before I begin, by entering into it with faith and zeal, and by making my end to be His glory and the good of mankind.” It is this combination of spirituality and courage in word and action that will give a cutting edge to our ethical witness, a witness so desperately needed in our society today.


  • Aquinas, St. Thomas. On Politics and Ethics, translated and edited by Paul E. Sigmund, New York: W. W. Norton, 1988, p. xix.
  • Lovelace, Richard F. Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1979, pp. 373f, 381f.
  • Yoder, John H. The Christian Witness to the State. Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life, 1964.
  • _____. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972.
Elmer J. Thiessen is Instructor in Philosophy at Medicine Hat College, Medicine Hat, Alberta.

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