Biblical Principles of Social Ethics
I took a class in college many years ago called Social Ethics. The premise of the course was to show how to make proper biblical decisions and avoid improper decision-making models. Most students seemed to enjoy the class probably because it required us to stretch our thinking on how to make our own decisions. It was a time we were looking to break away from our parents and push forward into a life of our own. There were many decisions to be made during those college years.
In the class we were taught ethical principles that I have personally used for over 20 years to help me make decisions on what is right and wrong in various situations. Most doubts can be resolved with these six principles. But the Bible has many principles that you can use to help you make decisions. The six principles mentioned here are examples of how you can look for other principles in the Bible.
Social Ethics Defined
Social ethics are the set of rules—often unwritten—that are accepted by a society on what is and is not appropriate. These are not laws to be obeyed, rather they are principles to be applied to different situations to help you make a proper decision based on what society deems appropriate. As we look at ethics in several related posts here, I will be talking about ethics in a biblical frame of mind. Therefore, the society that makes up the set of societal rules in this context will be the body of scripture as given by God.
Different societies, cultures and countries have their own set of ethical principles. What is acceptable in one place is taboo in another. Since God wrote His Word to teach us throughout time and history, it is a book full of principles that can be applied in any time or place. Therefore, biblical principles of decision making can be applied in all societies and time periods.
The Decision-Making Process
First we should look to God’s Word to see if there is an absolute law stating what is and is not acceptable. A good example is the Ten Commandments. God tells us what we should and should not do in cases of murder, lying, theft, etc. When God has written a law, it should be obeyed.
However, out of necessity, the Bible is a book of principles instead of a list of laws. It would not make sense to anyone until the start of the 20th century to have a catalog of laws about automobile driving rules in the Bible. But the Bible has principles that can be applied when driving a camel, a car or a rocket ship. Sometimes people will justify something as being acceptable by God because He did not write a specific prohibition of their chosen sin in the Bible. Taking a few minutes to look at biblical principles and applying them to the questions at hand would show the person that what they want to do may be wrong.
To start your decision-making process there are two things you should note:
- God’s laws are to be obeyed.
- God’s principles are to be applied.
One of the biggest mistakes a person can make is to apply ethical principles to that which God has already prohibited in His Word. It causes confusion when you try to use these principles to justify something that God already prohibits.
The Six Principles
There will be a series of posts which discusses each of these principles in detail. My fear is that you will only look at the principle and the question which helps you apply it without reading the full discussion and application of the principle. Please take the time to see how to properly think through the principle and what the biblical basis for the principle is.
- Association Principle: Will this activity require me to associate with that which is evil?
- Offense Principle: Will this activity cause a weaker brother to sin?
- Wedge Principle: Will doing this lead to future sin?
- Doubt Principle: Do I think this might be wrong according to the Bible?
- Edification Principle: Will this activity help build me up as a Christian?
- Expediency Principle: What is the best thing I can do in this situation?
Why Apply the Principles?
Learning to live by principles is a mark of spiritual maturity. Not applying God’s principles of social ethics is a sin as much as breaking one of God’s laws (Romans 14:21, 23; James 4:17; I Corinthians 8:12).
There are many non-biblical ethical models as well. They all break down and are not easily applied in every situation. This is because they are based on man’s wisdom at the time and place the ethical model is devised. At a later time in history those models no longer work because the social ethics of the world has moved to something new.
Learning and applying these six principles of biblical social ethics will help you as you seek to grow spiritually in your Christian walk.