By Justin Denholm
Many people today think of ethics as a potential 'common ground' for dialogue between people with divergent worldviews. After all, if "we all agree murder is wrong", some would say, "maybe we can work out our differences?" In this kind of approach, often universal humanitarian ideals are appealed to in the hope that we can use them to realise that deep down, we're all the same.
Sometimes I find it tempting to take this approach; certainly it is 'nice' and often popular. For Christians, though, ethical action cannot be divorced from the gospel, and without a clear understanding of the relationship between the two, Christians cannot appreciate what ethics is and how it should be done.
To understand why ethics should be considered so closely linked to evangelism, we need to reconsider why we should act ethically at all. Why does it matter how we live?
The answer to this question is perhaps less clear, or at least less one-dimensional, than it might at first seem. Many Christians feel that ethics is either pragmatic (living in a good way will lead to good results) or that it is primarily about obedience (living well is about simply submitting to God's will). Alternatively, ethical living may be seen by some as confirmation of our relationship with God, perhaps as proof of one's faith. At various times in my life, each of these has seemed to take on particular importance, and there is some truth in each of these ideas. While there is not space to devote to all of these aspects here, one of the often neglected purposes of ethical living demonstrated in the Bible is that connected to the spread of the gospel message outside the church – the connection between ethics and evangelism.
A biblical connection?
There are many biblical instances of an association between how Christians should live and the way their actions can affect non-believers. One of the better known examples of Jesus encouraging his followers to live well uses metaphors that indicate the impact our living is to have on those around us. In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus tells them that they are the 'salt of the earth' and the 'light of the world', and the reason he gives for living in this way is "that [others] may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven". The 'preserving' and 'illuminating' metaphors used here give some insight into the way that Jesus wanted his followers' lives to prompt non-believers to consider God and honour him. In another instance, at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29), an agreement was made to remove some of the requirements of the law, particularly circumcision, from Gentiles seeking to come to faith. In large part, the justification given was to remove any obstacles that may have prevented them from believing, as "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19). The priority of the apostles was on the spread of the gospel, and the tension they struggled with was how to both be faithful to God's ways while leaving aside exclusive social practices.
In both of these examples, the way in which Christians behave is directly linked to non-believers and facilitating their relationship with God. The decision about what actions are appropriate in a believer's life is strongly associated with the goal of seeing those who do not know God come to faith. While the relationship between ethics and evangelism is complex and worthy of more detailed study of scripture, it seems to me that there are five points that can be drawn to provide a general framework.
Five points towards a general framework
First, ethical living provides a basis from which to evangelise. When our lives are consistent with the gospel we want to tell others about, we show them that we mean what we say, and that we offer a viable and sensible message. When our lives and words conflict we show ourselves as hypocrites, and provide tremendous opportunities for others to reject the gospel they hear from us. This is the charge Paul levels at the Jewish teachers in Romans 2:17-14, concluding "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you". Certainly the charge of hypocrisy is one often levelled at the church; when it is true it is devastating and can present an almost insurmountable obstacle for people who do not know Jesus.
In the same way, let your light shine before all people, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. – Matthew 5:16
Secondly, ethics should make us want to evangelise. In Romans 1-2, Paul describes the immoral actions of people who do not know God and the ultimate judgement that will come for them. The urgency of evangelism is highlighted by the actions we see around us everyday, and the contrast they make with the world God intended. Thinking about the world in which I live forces me to reflect on my fallen state and that of those around me. Thinking about the way of life God desires for us should point us towards the future perfection that he calls us to enjoy. Ethics is an activity that should consider the story of the gospel and our place in all creation, and if we are serious about it, must prompt us to think and pray and reach out to the lost people around us. Done properly, Christian ethics must make us long for non-believers to come to Christ. The stark contrast between the ethics of the world we live in and that to which we are called is one of the most powerful motivations for me to reach out to others with the gospel.
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 1 Peter 2:12
Third, ethics provides opportunities to evangelise. When we live in a way that is consistently different from those around us, we will inevitable raise questions about why we do so. If we are clear about our motivations, this immediately gives us an invitation to explain the gospel and how it changes our lives. This doesn't mean that the world will always see the good in a Christian life; 1 Peter 3:15-17 instructs Christians to be ready with answers when their good lives are challenged and even 'maligned'. Nonetheless, lives that are set apart for God will provoke questions and frequently provide a starting point for evangelism.
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. – 1 Peter 3:15
Practically speaking, I have found ethical conversations to lead naturally to the gospel. I would make two suggestions for how you might put this into practice. First, ask ethical questions in casual conversation. I have found it helpful to simply say something like "I don't have much experience with [your line of work or activity]. I'm curious; are there moral problems that you find yourself facing regularly [in your workplace]?" It amazes me how often the answer is "It's funny you should say that, because right now I'm struggling with…." Many people are not given the opportunity to reflect on their lives in an ethical way, and will jump at the chance when it is given. The second practical thing that you can do is to give reasons for your beliefs that are linked to your faith. Instead of saying that you give money to charity because you want to help people, say that you do it because Christians think it's important to be generous, or because Jesus said we should care for the poor, or because the Bible teaches us how important justice is to God. Each of these answers makes clear the link between what you believe and how you live, and steers the conversation towards the gospel in a tangible way.
Fourth, ethics IS evangelism. Ethics is about how we live, and we are called to live in a way that makes us "shine like stars" (Phil 2:15). We are called to be different and to share our faith by how we live. This is evangelistic; it is about demonstrating the gospel to those who don't know it. We are often wary about this point, and are quick to point out the need to explain our faith as well as show it. This is well and good, but we should not be afraid of the acknowledging the power that our faithful actions alone can have.1 Pt 2:12 puts it most clearly, saying that Christians must live well, so that non-believers "may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge".
…children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe… – Philippians 2:15
Finally, we must remember that evangelism is the starting point for ethics. 1 Peter 2:24 makes it clear that it is Jesus' saving work on the cross that enables us to live righteously, while even the apostles were told to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit before going out to witness to what they had seen and heard (Acts 1:6-8). Christian ethics is something that can only be done from within a relationship with God. Without such a relationship, any attempt to live well is futile, both because we cannot know what to do or have the power to do it alone.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24
Implications for us
There are a number of implications for us about these connections between ethics and evangelism. First, seeing ethics as an evangelistic activity means that it should be natural for ethical action to be accompanied by a clear explanation of our motivations and faith. We need to make our reasons clear rather than simply trying to 'live right'. A variety of philosophical and ethical decision-making approaches can potentially lead to the same actions; it is incumbent on us to show not only our conclusions but also our reasoning. Although, for instance, we might be able to use arguments from utility to convince people not to steal, the truth is that we believe that it is wrong because of how we understand God's desired order. Ultimately, "fooling" non-Christians into acting like Christians is a far less worthwhile goal than presenting and challenging them with the gospel.
Secondly, if we take seriously the fact that we need a relationship with God before we can live righteously, our expectations of non-Christians must be affected. While we can present clearly the kind of world that God wants and that we long for, we must realise that we cannot actually expect people who don't know God to live in a way that fulfils his desires. When we advocate for non-Christians to follow Christian moral teaching, such as by lobbying against euthanasia or abortion, we do so because we understand that God's ways are good. People outside of a relationship with God may not see all the ways in which this goodness is manifest, and will certainly not act in those ways for the purpose of glorifying God. Once again, this means that when we argue publicly for non-Christians to follow Christian practices, we need to remember that if we do not match our political efforts with evangelistic efforts, we miss much of the point, and do God and the people around us a disservice.
My wife recently reminded me of this when I was complaining about being introduced to her mother's group as her 'partner'. I wanted to say that I was proud to be her husband with all that entails, and defend our marriage as significant. She insightfully reminded me that this group of largely unmarried women would hear my choice of word as judgmental towards their lifestyles before even meeting us. It would be far better to first develop a relationship, out of which we can share both our love of family and God. My irritation with being her 'partner' needed to be put aside so as not to get in the way of the gospel.
Finally, the way that we do ethics, rather than simply what we do, turns out to be important. When a good thing can be done in a way that proves repellent, it may detract markedly from its effectiveness. One way to speak of this would be to value character as well as actions, but I prefer to say that our ethical actions should strive to be attractive (or, in a dated but useful word, winsome) as well as righteous. This doesn't mean to imply that ethical living is all about appearances, or that living righteously will necessarily make us popular. What it must do, however, is make us different. We must be a faithful, loving, noticeable people, a people whose lives stand out and provide an opportunity for others to see what the lived gospel looks like.
There are more reasons than evangelism to live ethically, but our mandate to share the gospel with the world around us is a powerful impetus. Our desire to see people come to Christ should be a constant spur and reminder for us to live moral, faithful lives.
Justin Denholm is a medical practitioner working in a public hospital in Melbourne. He completed a Masters of Bioethics in 2004, with a thesis focusing on the moral responsibilities of genetic scientists. He is a parishioner at St Jude's, Carlton, and an active member of Ridley's Centre for Applied Christian Ethics and the Australasian Bioethics Association. His current interests include ethics education, Christian approaches to bioethics and the connection between ethics and evangelism.