By What Standard?

That is perhaps the most important question that Christians need to learn ask early and often when debates about ethics, morality, justice, and equity arise. Which is to say, all the time. Not that believers are regularly having formal debates over the issues, but much of our thinking and conversation does touch on matters related to them.

That has become particularly true with the myriad of conversations that are emerging because of the social justice issues being raised within churches and by certain Christian leaders and organizations. A couple of years ago the book, Divided by Faith, was recommended to me by a trusted friend. The authors, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, are sociologists who apply their training to racial issues within American evangelicalism.

Since the book was being widely discussed and came so highly recommended, my fellow elders and I read it together over the course of several weeks, discussing it each time we met. At first we were a little confused by the methodologies and conclusions that the authors advocate. What helped us gain clarity was when we began to underline every time the worlds “should” and “ought” appear in the text. What we discovered is that the sociologists subtly turned ethicists throughout the book. That is, they went from describing what they observed to prescribing what ought to be.

Since one of my degrees is in sociology I learned long ago that social sciences can be helpful to the extent that they accurately help assess the way things are. An honest, careful sociologist can help you see things in relationships and groups that you might otherwise overlook. But no Christian should ever look to sociology or sociologists for ethical marching orders.

We have a book for that. The Bible not only tells us the way that things are but it also authoritatively instructs us in how to live. It reveals to us God’s will for our lives individually and corporately. God and God alone can tell us what we “should” and “ought to” do. He has done so rather clearly in the revelation of His law. The Ten Commandments summarize what God requires of the creatures who bear His image. In short, they teach us that we are obligated to love God supremely and to love people sincerely (Matthew 22:36-40).

That is the standard that God has given to us by which we can accurately determine what is right, wrong, and just.

The question that we need to learn to ask early and often when someone comes around saying “shoulds” and “ought tos” is, “Says who?” Or, if you want to be more precise, simply ask, “By what standard are you telling me that I ought to do this?” If the standard is not rooted in what God has revealed to us in His holy Word, then feel free to ignore it.

It is for this reason that Article IV is included in the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.

WE AFFIRM that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.

WE DENY that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments.

Get this straight and you will not be easily tripped up by well-meaning sociologists or social justice advocates who take sociology for ethics. You will be free to listen to them and learn what you can that is helpful. But when “therefore you should…” starts to roll off their tongues, smile warmly and ask the question, “By what standard?”