Competing Ethical Standards: Is there really a competition?

I was asked an interesting question recently that made me think…“How do competing ethical standards and globalizing information and influences impact your context?” While I’m still mulling over the answer, here are some of my thoughts. Feel free to share your own!

Evangelical Christianity, commonly associated with the “Bible Belt,” is still the dominant influence shaping ethical standards in my context. However, the “Christianity” being practiced is hardly monolithic. Typical evangelical concerns about abortion and religious liberty are definitely expressed. However, I observe disagreement among churches and individuals about a variety of issues such as how to relate to LGBTQ+ concerns, how to relate to government mandated COVID-19 health practices, and how to enact racial reconciliation. A few other ethical issues such as the role of women in ministry and the extent to which social ministry should drive the agenda of a local church also surface from time to time.

The intensity with which these issues is felt is largely shaped by social media. An issue can lie dormant and then with little warning become the dominant concern on the minds and mouths of many in the church and community. With equally surprising speed, issues that generated intense heat can disappear from public consciousness. In light of this, I consider it misleading to suggest that ethical standards and worldviews are actually “competing.” Too little time and attention is given to any one issue for adequate and reasoned deliberation to occur. The greatest ethical threat is not a worldview or standard contrary to historic Christianity. It is the trivializing of all ethical standards, and the replacement of these standards with virtue signaling. One need not actually act in an ethical manner but merely be perceived as supporting a particular ethical position publicly.

In the absence of deliberation and decision, virtue signaling serves to create the illusion of an ethical “team.” The illusory nature of these “teams” is revealed in that churches and individuals “unite” around shared convictions on a social issue as long as that issue is at the center of public consciousness. When public attention shifts, new “teams” form often made up of churches and individuals who were previously on opposing teams. Ideological virtue signaling has displaced theological conviction as the “uniform” identifying churches and individuals to one another.

For example, it has become a reoccurring practice in my community for a group of churches and individuals to purchase a full page ad in the local paper declaring their support or opposition to a particular issue such as abortion, same-sex marriage, or racial reconciliation. Additional churches and individuals are then recruited to add their names as a demonstration of “Christian unity.” Churches or individuals who do not have their names added are then assumed to be on the opposite side of the issue.

While held up as a display of “Christian unity,” it does not take much digging to see that the “Christian unity” is not very deep. The churches named hold to widely different and sometimes incompatible views on fundamental issues of soteriology (how a person is saved), Christology (who Christ is and what he accomplished), and ecclesiology (who is included in the Christian church). What’s more, the list of churches and individuals changes based on the issue being addressed. This practice contributes to the further sidelining of theology in favor of ideology as the “uniform” identifying a church. Surely, “Christian unity” requires more durable and defensible bonds than this.

So long as public attention sets the duration of deliberation on ethical standards, there is little hope for actually understanding much less resolving competition between standards. So long as virtue signaling marks the depth of Christian unity, there is little hope for durable Christian community. Perhaps we need to look again at the first community formed by Christ? His band of twelve disciples included natural enemies, social opposites, and ethnic diversity as well as ethnic prejudice. Far from uniting around a particular ethical passion, these men subjugated their competing ethical passions to a united commitment to Christ. Christology (who is Christ and what did he accomplish), and thus theology, took precedence for that first community. I have no problem cooperating with Christians and non-Christians on particular social issues. But that cooperation must not be confused with “Christian unity.”

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