Nothing springs full grown to life in an instant. Everything begins in a seed, which is planted, watered, and nourished into full growth. Only in myths or fantasies can an idea come into being instantly. Zeus had a very bad headache, a “splitting headache,” that birthed his daughter Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She leapt out in fully grown from his brow. We don’t take this myth to be scientifically true, but as a metaphor for the difficulty and struggles we undergo to obtain wisdom. As my daddy used to tell me after I’d learned some hard life lesson, “The school of experience is a rough master, and we all earn a costly degree in gaining its wisdom.”
Some of us will repeat the same lessons over and over, as if we expect to get a different result. The purpose of an education isn’t to regurgitate a right answer to pass a test, but to understand why the answer is right. That’s why math classes require showing the steps to the solution, rather than the “full blown adult answer” only. In matters of faith or ethics, many of us haven’t had the training to “set out the proof” for our final answer or deed. In fact, in one situation we may think or act one way, and quite differently in another.
The name for this behavior is “situational ethics.” Less kindly, it’s also known as spinelessness, shiftiness, being two faced, or dishonesty. Mostly it means people don’t have a true center or a plumb line by which they measure themselves. If we’re measuring our lives against other people, we’re measuring against other fallible human beings. Even our heroes have feet of clay, for none of us are gods. When I used to call my parents out on this character trait, they always told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This sets up a moral conflict for most people, even those raised in the church or in religious homes.
We need to have a moral center based on a higher authority than our individual or cultural conventions, one that includes or exceeds the ethics of the group to which we belong, and not just our individual beliefs and actions. Professional groups—physicians, lawyers, clergy, educators, and others—all have ethical standards for caring for those they serve, even if they morally disagree with the behaviors that bring them into their care. Who decides the ethics of the group? At the risk of making my favorite seminary professor, Billy Abraham, roll about in his still fresh grave, we United Methodists do have the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to guide us. Often we assign our personal life experience to this latter quadrilateral edge, but Wesley meant our Experience of the Assurance of God’s All Embracing and Adopting Love. As Wesley once said, “God is able to save all to the uttermost.”
Ethics and morals are often used as synonyms, but ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Ethics is a a late 17th century word derived from the Greek ēthos (disposition, character), in contrast to pathos (suffering). In Latin it means ‘character, depiction of character’, or (plural) ‘customs’.
Then we have the words moral and morals. The first is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior. The goodness or badness of human character is another concern. From these, people decide what behavior is considered right or acceptable in a particular society. We often say a person has morals if they conform to standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do. We can speak of “the corruption of public morals, “ or you can hear people talking as if “they believe addicts have no morals and can’t be trusted,” rather than understanding the disease and abuse bases which often underlie addictions.
These distinctions don’t change the negative consequences of the addict’s behaviors, yet the addicted person still has the same image of God and the same potential for wholeness each of us have, but perhaps with more suffering, or pathos. If we judge the morality of a person’s choices, and then refer that moral state to the individual’s worthiness, we can end up losing compassion for the person as well as losing the will to help them better their lives. This leads to hard heartedness and a lack of love. We reject our neighbors and make them strangers, unwelcome to our world. We forget our spiritual ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, wanderers without a home. How easily we forget our savior, who had no place to be born even in his ancestral home, and whose family fled religious persecution and certain death to live in Egypt, far from home. Strange how some Christians have no sympathy for others in the same fix today.
Moral is a word from the late Middle English by way of the Latin moralis, from mos, mor- ‘custom’, with the plural mores or ‘morals’. It refers to one having the property of being right or wrong, good or evil, or voluntary or deliberate, and therefore open to ethical appraisal. When we apply moral attributes to a person, it means “capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.” Not until 1803 did moral come to mean “virtuous with regard to sexual conduct,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As a noun, we meet the word in the Latin Moralia, the title of St Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job. Later it was applied to the works of various classical writers. All Methodists and the holiness denominations birthed from the seed of the great Methodist revival recognize the genius of John Wesley. We all quote him, but we also apply his wisdom through our own individual preconceived notions of what is “good, true, and noble.”
When John Wesley was asked, “What is that faith whereby we are sanctified?” he answered:
“First believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness; secondly, believe that He is able thus to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him; thirdly, believe that He is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe fourthly, that He is not only able, but willing to do it now! Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not tomorrow, but today. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to His Word.”
In the old days, we said we were “going on to perfection,” not that we were so bold as to claim that we’d already arrived there or been perfected. Oh no, we allowed God could complete this for us and had the power to do it, as well as the will, but our human nature was still fallible. If a word comes up more than once in a text, writers go to the thesaurus for an alternative, but in reading scripture, we learned repetition was a sign of importance, a marker especially meant for those of us who are slow learners in the school of life.
Oliver O’Donovan in “Scripture and Christian Ethics” writes, “Moral theologians have a secret knowledge, apparently concealed from other kinds of theologians, especially those devoted to hermeneutics. They know that the most mysterious and most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, what does Scripture mean?, but, what does the situation we are facing mean?, where do we find ourselves existentially?”
We tend to speak as if our selves and our situations were known quantities, so that it only remains to choose out of Scripture whatever seems to fit our circumstances as we conceive them. Scripture has an uncanny way of shedding light on our self and our situation, to overcome our preconceptions about them. We don’t read about our situation directly in the Scriptures, yet it’s from the Scriptures we gain categories of understanding, which re-frame our view of our situation and ourselves. We can’t look for individual texts to guide our actions, but need to consider the whole of the revealed Scripture and God’s nature as we discern our path forward.
In this sense, the Bible is a mirror which reflects our inner nature to us, convicting us of our failings and giving us grace and comfort in our times of need. We can learn much about ourselves from the verses we lean on, just as much as we can by the verses we ignore. There’s a reason we interpret texts by the whole of scripture, and not piecemeal. This is one way we understand the authority of scripture.
As an interesting aside, SWTX, my original conference, which approved my candidacy for the ministry, didn’t think I should attend seminary because I scored so low on the abstract reasoning tests I took. They didn’t think I would make 65, seminary’s passing grade, in my class work. It’s true I learn and process differently, but knowing this, I crammed a three year program into four years. If I’m slow to grasp the whole until I first understand the parts, this doesn’t reflect on my fitness for ministry or my intellectual ability. It merely reflects a different way of processing information. There’s more way to skin a cat, and many ways people learn.
When I taught art classes, I had to make sure I covered all the learning methods for all my students to have success. I talked about the project, I demonstrated the techniques, I had the steps written out, and for some few children, I had to place their hands in the optimum position to get them started. This covered ear and eye learning, visual reminders, and haptic or touch learning. Some students needed multiple types of learning throughout their working time on a project. Some needed reteaching every class period. Some just needed encouragement when they got stuck at a rough patch. Most all had to learn to talk in positive terms about themselves and their work, as well as about others and their creative process also.
I talk about this teaching method, for this is how we consciously or unconsciously teach those around us ethics and morals. As one youth asked me at a church I once served, “Why are you wearing your cross today? It’s not Sunday.”
“Because Jesus is important to me every day, not just on the day I lead church services.”
I realized even though her family was very active and faithful in our congregation, when they were out in the world of day to day folks, they didn’t stand out from the crowd. Maybe one day day this child will come to a time when wearing a cross becomes bearing a cross. Then again, how many people willingly choose suffering for the sake of the body of Christ? This suffering is often difficult for those of us who’ve committed our lives to Christ’s call, but we realize most laity won’t voluntarily submit to that kind of stress. Yet experience is a great teacher. We learn from others, even those who have differing opinions and choose different actions.
Wesley’s Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm,” has some advice for us: “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men’s lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love.”
As a further reminder from his all time classic Sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1785: “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin…by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin…”In modern terms, when we profess our faith, Christ saves us from the guilt of that first sin. Some say Adam and Eve were disobedient. They then emphasize rule keeping as their moral choice. There’s always a reason behind every behavior, however. Why were they disobedient? We hear the answer in the parable of the Tree of Wisdom:
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
The man and the woman both heard the half truth, saw the shiny fruit, believed the promises of a creature rather than their creator, and ate the fruit they hoped would make them like gods. Instead they only gained knowledge of their nakedness and vulnerability. This first lesson of the school of life came with cost: fig leaves ooze irritating sap. They won’t choose this solution again. God’s providence replaced their poor choice with animal skin clothing even as God sent them out into the world. We might say the attitude of pride or greed drove their bad behavior and was the cause of their negative consequences.
As we grow in holiness and love of God and neighbor, the Holy Spirit destroys any remaining root of sin. One of the important sins, Wesley noted, was pride. Pride is that feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction we get from our own achievements, or those of our family, tribe, nation, or other associated group. In matters of faith, we always have to remember Paul’s admonition to the Romans (10:9-13):
“because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Paul reminds us of the unity of the Jews and the Gentiles, the clean and the unclean, the former masters and slaves, with the gulf now bridged between the former God worshippers and the idol worshiping strangers. Now there’s “no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
When we joined together into one annual conference in 2003, almost twenty years ago, we had good reasons to make one combined administrative body for our faith community. We had underfunded pension obligations, we were over heavy with administrators, and clergy didn’t have equity in retirement accumulation. Likewise, the conferences weren’t equally treated, since one didn’t fully fund pension needs, an act which caused clergy to seek appointments in the other conference, thus robbing the first of talents and gifts. These were the logical consequences of attitudes and behaviors, however.
The logical person thought, “Let’s make Arkansas One Faith, One Focus, One Fellowship,” and this will solve all our problems. It may have looked good on paper, but our congregations had been used to a personal touch to remind them at least once a year they belonged to a greater whole. Their pride in showing off their home church and being a good host for the Superintendent was taken from them if they were just attendees at another group meeting. The moral choice of what’s better for me, a relaxing Sunday afternoon with my family or a meeting elsewhere, gets weighed and measured.
So now here we are, nearly twenty years into this optimistic marriage of the two annual conferences. The seeds for dissent and discontent were planted long ago, even before this joining. When I inventoried the historic memorabilia of the dead bishops at the SMU Bridwell Library, I saw how the chaos of the Vietnam War era and the sea changes our society were experiencing then affected our church in many ways. Some wanted to hold onto tradition more tightly, while others were ready to experiment with new wine in fresh wine skins. These were just “outer trappings,” however, for the message of “saved by faith, sanctified by faith, and made perfect in love by faith” never changes. This is Christ’s work, enabled by the Holy Spirit.
The past sixty years, as the last two decades, haven’t always been smooth sailing. We often have had trials, storms, and tribulations on our shared journeys. Sometimes we’re so far out to sea, we don’t see the land, and the skies are occluded, so we can’t take a bearing off the stars. Yet God’s spirit will blow us along, for even detours are within God’s providence. As James reminds us:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:2-4)
Today we also have powerful economic and political forces that are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They purport to work for religion and democracy, but actually work against the stewardship of our earth ‘s resources and environment, fail to care for the poor and dispossessed, and support military interventions around the world. Moreover, some of them actively work to destabilize religious denominations with social justice callings, such as the UMC, the Presbyterian Church USA, and others. Some today think “things fall apart; the center will not hold.”
Two final words in summary: one is from the ancient wisdom tradition and the other from Paul’s paean of joy in the midst of suffering. Proverbs 22:1 reminds us, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” My dying grandfather spoke these words to me in his last hours. Ive always considered them a plumb line for my life.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” — Philippians 4:8-9
Joy and Peace,
Oliver O’Donovan: Scripture and Christian Ethics
(This is a great read!)
John Wesley: Repentance in Believers (Sermon 14), “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15. The Complete Works of John Wesley, vol. 1 of 3, Kindle ereader. Read on line here:
John Wesley’s Quotes – Seedbed
InterChurch Holiness Convention: a community project of various Wesleyan holiness denominations, with all male leadership
On Patience: James 1:4–But let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.
The Grammarphobia Blog: Ethics vs. morals
The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats | Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming