Social Ethics

By James M. Rochford

We might think that the application of social ethics (for society) and biblical ethics (for the church) would be easy to integrate. After all, we have the Bible, and God tells us right from wrong on most all key moral issues. Yet the issue of social ethics from a Christian perspective is difficult to develop for a number of reasons:

Should Christian ethics apply to non-Christians? If they do, then does this mean that we should create a Christian nation that dictates biblical morals? What if a given nation only consists of 10 percent Christians? Do they still have the moral right to legislate ethics to the other 90 percent?

Where do we draw our ethical command from? Should we apply OT civil laws (given to Israel) for our secular nation? Should we apply NT ethics (given to the Church)?

Why is the NT conspicuously silent on how to run a civil government?

As you can see, the answers to these questions are confusing and not as straightforward as one might think.

Theonomic ethics

Theos means “God” and nomos means “law.” Thus advocates of theonomic ethics (called theonomists) hold that believers should institute laws to run the government as a Christian State. After all, if moral values, duties, and accountability are truly objective, then they are binding on non-Christians—whether they like it or not. Theonomists often appeal to Old Testament (OT) civil laws, which would include executing adulterers and heretics.

Historically, John Calvin signed the execution order for Michael Servetus (who held to a heretical view of the Trinity), while he ruled in Geneva. In 1546, after extended debate with Servetus, Calvin wrote to his close friend William Farel, “If he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.” While Calvin didn’t agree with the method of execution (being burned alive with his heretical books!), Calvin did agree with his execution, writing 17 letters to find him guilty of heresy.[1]

Criticism of theonomy

While this approach to social ethics has dominated Christian ethical thinking for the majority of church history, there are many reasons why many believers reject it (In fact, most Christian ethicists reject it today):

First, Christ fulfilled the Mosaic Law. The NT authors believed that Jesus inaugurated a new era in salvation history, because of his death on the Cross (Mt. 5:17-18; cf. Rom. 8:3-4). Paul writes, “You are not under law but under grace… We have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom. 6:14; 7:6). He explains that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Because of Christ’s work, Paul refers to the Mosaic Law as “that which fades away” (2 Cor. 3:11), and Jesus put an end to the law by fulfilling its demands in his body on the Cross (Eph. 2:15). The author of Hebrews explains that God made the old covenant “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). The OT Law was not a bad thing that has now been abolished (Rom. 7:7), but rather, it was a good thing that has now fulfilled its purpose. The purpose of the law was to point humanity towards their need for Christ (Gal. 3:24).

Consider a man who goes away to war, leaving behind his newlywed wife and newborn baby. When he’s gone, he writes dozens of love letters, telling his wife how much he loves her and cares about her. Finally, when the man returns, he arrives with flowers on the front porch. Now, ask yourself: now that the man is back, what would be the purpose of the love letters? Would the woman leave the man to go back and read his letters? If she abandoned the man for the letters, this would be absurd! In the same way, Christians read through the OT law today, but they should never fall back under law and abandon Jesus. Instead, they should read the OT law, remembering the high price that Jesus paid on the Cross.

Second, the apostles repeatedly demonstrate that OT civil law has been replaced by the new covenant. When we flip through the NT, we see many examples of how the purpose and use of the law changed after the Cross:

Circumcision: In the OT law, Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be allowed into the community of God (Gen. 17:14). However, when Jewish Christians argued for the necessity of circumcision (Acts 15:1, 5), the early Christian leaders determined that Gentiles did not need circumcision (Acts 15:23-29).

False teaching: Israel executed false teachers for leading people astray (Deut. 13:5; 18:20; Lev. 19:26; Ex. 22:18). However, in the NT, Simon (the magician) was not stoned to death; he was converted to Christ (Acts 8:9-13). Later, when he made drastic doctrinal errors, he was not put to death; he was rebuked and corrected by Peter (Acts 8:18-23). Likewise, Paul came across a “Jewish false prophet” named Bar-Jesus. And yet, instead of stoning the man to death, Paul rebuked him (Acts 13:10) and temporarily blinded him (Acts 13:11).

Adultery: In 1 Corinthians 5, a man is caught in adultery (sleeping with his stepmother). Paul doesn’t call on him to be executed, as the OT law prescribed (Lev. 20:10). Instead, he calls for removal from fellowship.

Submission to secular government: In the OT, the people of God lived in a theocracy—not a democracy. “Theocracy” comes from the Greek words theos (“God”) and archos (“ruler”). God ruled this nation personally. However, after the Cross, God commands his people to submit to secular government. For instance, Paul writes, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1a). Peter writes, “Honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17). Moreover, Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (Jn. 18:36; see also Mk. 12:17). Since believers are now “citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20), they are not supposed to identify with the nation of Israel. Instead, they are to go out into all nations with the gospel (Mt. 28:18-20).

While the nation of Israel had hundreds of laws on how to conduct and maintain a civil government, the NT does not contain any instructions on how to run a civil government. Instead, as already mentioned, believers are not called to take over the government, but instead to submit to it.

Third, the OT civil law was not God’s ideal. This might come as a shock to many Bible believers (“How could a perfect God give imperfect laws?”), but it’s true. When God gave his civil laws to the nation of Israel, he was not trying to create a perfect society, once and for all. Instead, he was trying to improve society and “take what he could get.” Put another way, the OT civil law wasn’t God’s final law; it was simply his first law. In the OT civil law, God was condescending to human culture to meet them where they were at.

Jesus explains this for us in the Gospel of Matthew, when he says, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Mt. 19:8). Notice that Jesus did not say that God desired divorce. In fact, God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). But, if God hates divorce, then why does he “permit” it in the OT law (Deut. 24:1-5)? Jesus tells us. He said that God allowed this because of their “hardness of heart.” We can extrapolate this principle to the entirety of the OT civil law. We might say that God didn’t want slavery, but he permitted it. He didn’t want war crimes, but he permitted them. He didn’t want severe punishments, but he permitted them.

This does not mean that moral relativism is true (see “Is It Objectively Wrong to Object to Moral Wrongs?”). It isn’t. The standard for morality has its foundation in the perfect nature of God, which does not change. However, God was not implementing a perfect society, when he was stooping down into human culture in the ancient Near East. He was drastically improving the standard, while at the same time “permitting” laws that weren’t perfect.

Think about a modern example. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, this did not immediately change the culture of slavery in the South. Even though laws were passed years ago, racism still continues through the South to this day. Laws don’t change people’s hearts. Likewise, we need to understand that the OT law was also never designed for this purpose.

Are there any universal moral imperatives in the OT? Of course. One way of identifying these is by comparing them with the NT imperatives. For instance, adultery is mentioned in the OT law, and it is repeated in the NT. This is one way that we can distinguish universal moral imperatives for all time with civil and cultural imperatives for that time.


Clearly, theonomic ethics cannot serve as an adequate foundation for Christian social ethics. Does this mean we, as believers, should not have a category for social ethics? Is it impossible to make any kind of ethical case in a secular society as a Christian?

Natural Law as a foundation for social ethics

Natural law refers to the basic moral law that can be discovered through God’s general revelation. God has made himself known to all people—regardless of whether or not they have the Bible. Paul writes that “God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:19). Later he writes, “When Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Rom. 2:14-15). This law is so clear that they will be judged by Christ based upon it (v.16). Thus instead of appealing to morality based on the Bible, we should appeal to morality that even “Gentiles” can agree upon.

While the Bible makes God’s moral law crystal clear, our postmodern and secular culture does not believe in the authority of Scripture, and we shouldn’t assume that they do. Geisler notes, “Since reconstructionism [theonomy] is government based on religious revelation, the question can always be asked: ‘Whose revelation?’ It is simply bigotry to answer: ‘Mine!’ And it is presumption to respond: ‘God’s.’ Lest Christians be tempted to say a Christian revelation, we need only be reminded that there is a Muslim revelation too. In a pluralistic world no one’s religious revelation is going to be accepted by all others as the basis for government.”[2]

Therefore, we need to appeal to something besides Scripture for social ethics: human conscience. Instead of appealing to specific revelation (i.e. the Bible) for our ethics in society, we should appeal to natural revelation (i.e. natural law through human conscience). Regardless of their knowledge of the Bible, people are able to discern that humans are qualitatively different than other creatures. For instance, when a person first reads the sixth commandment, we doubt that they exclaim, “Wow! It’s wrong to murder someone? I never knew!” This only shows that people can have a direct perception of the moral law apart from specific revelation.

While natural law does not give us a perfect understanding of God’s moral will, it does bring us to at least two clear moral principles: justice and equality. From these two clear moral principles, we can get safeguard basic rights for the disadvantaged and marginalized. This is even the approach taken in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson (a deist) wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice that Jefferson stopped short of mentioning the Christian God to ground these universal human rights (whom he didn’t believe in), and instead, he appealed to general revelation (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”).

How involved in politics should believers be?

Believers should feel free to enter into the public arena to the extent that their conscience leads them—especially in a democratic government like ours in Western culture. However, we should remember that the purpose of the church on Earth is not to “Christianize” our secular government. The only data that we receive on this subject actually teaches us to submit to government, rather than to take it over (Mk. 12:17; Jn. 18:36; Rom. 13:5-7).

Moreover, as believers, we should be careful that our efforts in civil government (a good thing) do not eclipse our involvement in spreading Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness (a greater, ultimate thing). Reaching lost people with the gospel and discipling them into the Christian faith will do more to change culture, and it will also do much more from the eternal perspective.

As a case in point, the Abolitionist Movement was preceded by several decades of revival in evangelism in the United States. The First Great Awakening (1730s) and the Second Great Awakening (1800s) led thousands to Christ through the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. In fact, Charles Finney initiated the “altar call,” so that new believers could come to the front of the church to receive Christ and also sign up for the abolitionist movement (see “The Bible and Slavery”). This “bottom up” approach reached thousands with the truth and love of Christ, and as a result, slavery was abolished by the newly revived American conscience.

While believers should agree on serious moral issues, this doesn’t mean that we will always agree on how to participate in these issues socially. We agree with Feinberg and Feinberg who note,

Scripture gives help on the moral questions (though we may disagree about what Scripture says), but it does not answer the prudential questions. Answers to ethical questions should be ‘the Christian position,’ but answers to prudential questions are not. Real difficulties arise when prudential answers are treated as ethical ones and then absolutized for all Christians.[3]

Whether it is morally right or wrong to pray to God should not be a matter of debate among Christians. However, whether one’s right to pray requires legislation of a mandatory moment of silence so that those who want to pray can do so at that moment is hardly a moral issue.[4]

By contrast, the agenda of the so-called “religious right” is currently taking a “top down” approach, trying to institutionalize Christian laws in the upper echelons of government, rather than placing their focus and emphasis on reaching the culture for Christ. This has done more harm than good for our Christian witness in American culture.

[1] On August 20, 1553, Calvin wrote William Farel, “I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed on him; but I desired that the severity of the punishment be mitigated.”

[2] Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989. 207.

[3] Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 398.

[4] Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 399.