Biblical Social Ethics: Association Principle

God has given us various principles in His Word that can be applied to help us make godly decisions in our lives. These principles should be used when the Bible does not specifically state whether an activity is right or wrong. However, you should avoid applying these principles to that which God has already prohibited or approved in His Word. Using biblical principles to justify an activity that is expressly prohibited will cause confusion.

Association Principle: Defined

God has told us to abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Something might, in and of itself, not be wrong; however, we are told in the Bible that we should not even do the things that would make others think we might be doing something inappropriate.

Association Principle: Clarifying Questions

  • Will this activity require you to associate with that which is evil?
  • What is the present dominant association of the activity?
  • What does society immediately associate with the given activity?

Playing cards with moneyWhile God’s Word never changes, the associations of activities change. A simple example of this is playing cards in the United States. There was a time when cards were only associated with gambling. The dominant association of cards for both the world and the church was with an activity that has its roots in greed and laziness—both of which are sins that the Bible condemns. But there is nothing inherently wrong with pieces of paper which have numbers and pictures on them.

Today if you saw a mom, a dad and two kids playing cards there is really no association with gambling. The present dominant association with cards today is an activity that people play at family reunions where no money is involved. This is an example of where an activity and its association has changed over time. There was a time when playing cards would have been wrong for a Christian, but those days are gone (though they could come back).

Do people still gamble with cards? Absolutely. However the present dominant association with cards today is not with the activity of gambling.

Thinking a bit further through the example though, there may be a time and place where playing a game of Go Fish isn’t appropriate. If I were visiting my friends who live in Las Vegas, I would abstain from playing Go Fish (or any card game) in a public location. Playing with my family at the family reunion down by the lake is different from playing with a group of men at a coffee shop in Las Vegas.

Association Principle: Biblical Basis

A key passage on biblical decision making is 1 Corinthians 8:1 through 11:1. Paul goes into great detail on applying ethical principles when deciding what is appropriate or not. Was it wrong for Paul to eat meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8)? There was no difference in the meat before and after it was offered. If the meat was fine to eat previous to being offered, then it was fine to eat afterwards. The idol does not change the meat in any way. However, the present dominant association at the time was that eating the meat put your stamp of approval on the activity of idol worship. Eating the meat was strongly associated with the idols. Therefore, out of principle, Paul said that he would not eat the meat (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Here are some passages that help us understand the Association Principle. 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 and Ephesians 5:11, 12 talk about our associations with people. Disassociating yourself from evil things is discussed in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1; Romans 14:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:22.

Association Principle: Application

Here are some activities you can run through the filter of this principle. Using the other biblical principles in this series, you can make your own decision about these activities.

  • Should Christians go to the movies?
  • Is it OK for Christian men to have facial hair?
  • How long is too long for a man’s hair?
  • How short is too short for a lady’s dress?
  • Is it appropriate for you to play cards where you live?
  • Should a Christian go to an office Christmas party? At a bar?
  • Would you go to a restaurant that bills itself as a “Bar & Grill”?

We know that the Bible is a book of absolutes in the matters it discusses, but there are always new activities that we need to evaluate according to God’s principles. Some of the above activities would probably never change, however the present dominant association in your culture may be different than what it is in mine.

What other questions do you think the Association Principle can help answer? Do you have a question about one of the biblical principles of social ethics that you want to ask? Leave a comment below.

Social Ethics – Biblical Principles for Making Decisions

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.

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.