There is much talk today about the new morality, often referred to as just the “old immorality.” It seems as if the human race is suffering a complete breakdown in morals. Sex is not the only frontier where morality seems to be making its last stand. The name of God is literally trampled to death, and His Word is labeled as outdated and irrelevant. Young people freely engage in the use of L.S.D. and marijuana, often acting upon the examples of their parents and other adults who just as freely are addicted to alcohol. A major campaign issue in the 1968 elections was not taxes or foreign policy, but “crime in the streets.”
With this picture in the background of your minds, I would like to take a look at one aspect of the new morality known as situation ethics. In 1966 Joseph Fletcher startled everyone with his book entitled Situation Ethics, in which he spells out his “revolutionary approach to morals.” He is against anything identified with legalism, or recognizing a preset collection or rules and laws, such as the Ten Commandments, as authoritative for making decisions between right and wrong. The only binding, authoritative law in his system is what he calls the “law of love.” What matters the most is “What is the loving thing to do?” and not “What is legal?”
Fletcher looks upon the Bible as merely a collection of the moral traditions of mankind. It is a kind of code written by men of another day who were far more qualified to talk about right and wrong in their own situation than in ours. The laws found in the Bible, namely, the Ten Commandments, are only “rules of thumb” that can be tossed out, stretched, bent, or broken if necessary in order to fill what he feels is the one basic, unbreakable law, the law of love. Thus, for Fletcher, Ex. 20:14, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” is not binding or final, but Romans 13:8, “Owe no man anything but to love one another,” is.
Fletcher loves to prove his point by emphasizing not only sticky situations, but exceptional ones, in which it seems that you’re wrong if you do, and you’re wrong if you don’t. He likes to city examples such as the following one, and then asks, “What would you do?”
“You are the father of a girl who is confined to a state mental hospital, a victim of radical schizophrenia. She has been raped by a fellow patient and has become pregnant. You are incensed and have demanded that an abortion be performed at once to end this unwanted pregnancy. The hospital refuses because criminal law forbids any abortion except a therapeutic one in which the mother’s life is at stake. In the hospital’s eyes, any interference with an embryo is taking the life of an innocent being. Who is right? Who is wrong?” An initial reaction of many people is, “These kinds of things never happen to me.” This may be very true, but Fletcher’s question is: What would you do if they did? And what would you do if similar things happen but not on such an extreme scale?
In this sticky situation, Fletcher condemns the solution that a Christian, or legalist, would offer. He says that the Christian would put the letter of the law ahead of love, mercy, and justice. But according to Fletcher, the proper approach would be to examine the conditions and consequences that would result, and then ask, “What is the loving thing to do?”
Here is where Fletcher’s big mistake lies. He obviously proceeds from the assumption that what is legal and right is in conflict with what is loving. Nothing could be farther from the truth! If a parent loves his child, he does not let the child do as he pleases. He gives him guidance as well as love as the child grows up, because he knows that a happy and obedient child is one that abides by certain rules and restrictions. “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of His correction: for whom the Lord loveth He correcteth, even as a father the son in whom he delighteth” (Prov. 3:11, 12).
At first glance, Joseph Fletcher’s situation ethics may seem to be practical and attractive. His “sticky cases” seem to make the Ten Commandments look almost obsolete. But these cases also clearly point out that for any human being, it is not always easy to do the loving thing. The Bible recognizes the basic flaw in man which Fletcher seems to forget all about – sin. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
There are other problems connected with this situational type of reasoning. One obvious one is that what is loving according to one person may certainly not seem loving to another. One person’s opinion is often precisely the opposite of another’s. Where, then, is right, and who knows if he is really doing the loving thing?
Fletcher claims that Jesus stated his m oral ethics in the “summary commandment” that he gave in Matthew 22:37-40. When the lawyer asked Christ what the great commandment of the law was, Christ told him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” This is his proof text for reducing the Ten Commandments to mere rules of thumb and making the only “absolute” in his system the law of love. But is this the complete picture of what Christ taught, or of what the Bible teaches? Christ also plainly stated that he had not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. In Matthew 5:18, he goes on to say that until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle would pass from the law until all had been fulfilled. And then Jesus capped His statement by saying that whosoever would break the least of the commandments and teach others to break them would be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whosoever would do the commandments and teach them would be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Love is not all we need. When Jesus says we must love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and our neighbor as ourselves, He does not throw out all other laws, and leave love standing alone – unsupported. He also says that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments.
We do not love God in and trough our neighbor, as Fletcher puts it. God bestows His all-powerful love on His people, and in turn this gives us strength to love Him and our neighbors. As God showed us His love by sending His only begotten Son to die for us on the cross, we express our love for Him by obeying His commandments and by loving our neighbors in and through God. Without the love of God in our hearts we are powerless to love our neighbor, or to do the loving thing.
Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 4 June July 1970