Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Right, Wrong, & Relationships

Written by: on November 16, 2015

I really enjoyed this book. The Matrix of Christian Ethics by Patrick Nullens and Ronald Michener tackle a very difficult topic and do a good job of simplifying it for all to understand.

For many, ethics are black and white. Do this, don’t do that, and all the while the actual relationship/people piece gets taken out of the discussion. As an example, many conservative Christian groups like to make the issue of illegal immigration a black and white issue while the truth is these are actual men, women, and children impacted by these important decisions. It’s rarely as easy as people think and Nullens and Michener help us understand that.

In their book they define ethics as a “scholarly reflection on morality as a whole, subjecting all of the above to systematic and critical evaluation.[1]” But they then go on to give a more detailed definition of Christian ethics when they say, “Christian ethics is methodological reflection on the values, norms, virtues, and purposes of Christian life in one’s contemporary context, drawing on Scripture and the tradition of faith.[2]” Yet, what we all know, is that people use scripture to defend their own views or they misuse scripture out of ignorance of naivety. By their very definition, Nullens and Michener open up the conversation to debate, yet why I liked this book, is that they directly address the process one must go through to determine Christian Ethics. And it’s not as black and white as any Christians might think.

I appreciate Nullens and Michener making this an issue of relationship with God and not a do this, don’t do this, conversation. We’ve all seen the person pull a scripture verse out of context and seem to shape their entire worldview around it. The authors addressed this when they said, “Whenever we say, “the Bible says,” we must remember that it always “says” through a particular lens of understanding.[3]” Nullen and Michener challenge us to take a deeper look and not just read scripture at the surface level.

For many this becomes a challenge of having more knowledge of scripture. They study Greek and Hebrew. They get scholarly degrees. But knowledge without relationship can be harmful. Nullens and Michener address this too, pointing that it’s not just more knowledge but a relationship that helps understand. The authors state, “Simple bumper-sticker hermeneutics is not the answer by any means, nor is rigorous exegesis alone. Those who think that they may discover the proper ethical application of the Bible solely through more sophisticated exegesis are like people who believe that they can fly if only they flap their arms hard enough. Our ethical character does not lie simply in our rationality, but in our relationship with God as his creatures created in his image.[4]

One of the problems I think our Christian culture has fostered is making Christian ethics a list of rules you can check off from day to day instead of a transformed life. The mainstream media has captured this and they carefully craft news stories into right and wrong issues, all the while successfully making Christianity a polarizing religion instead of a relationship with our creator.

So how does one live in a culture with so much ethical tension? I think we can learn a lot while reflecting on Romans 14. While dietary issues might not be a cultural hot topic issue now, it was back in the Apostle Paul’s day. In Romans 14, Paul makes the ethical question not a question of right and wrong but a conversation of weak faith and strong faith. Paul makes it an issue of personal relationship, between you and the Lord. Whether it’s dietary issues or defining the Sabbath, Paul encourages believers to live in unity with one another, with grace for one another, and yet saying, “so then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.” It’s not always as easy as saying you are right and they are wrong. But I do think it’s as easy as making sure I, personally, am in right relationship with my creator.


[1] Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs: IVP Books, 2010), 9.

[2] Ibid., 12

[3] Ibid., 195

[4] Ibid., 193

About the Author

Nick Martineau

Nick is a pastor at Hope Community Church in Andover, KS, founder of ILoveOrphans.com, and part of the LGP5 cohort.

10 responses to “Right, Wrong, & Relationships”

  1. Jon Spellman says:

    Nick, you mentioned the immigration issue in light of this conversation about Christian Ethics. It reminded me of the reality that the entire story of humanity down through history is a story of migration. People have ALWAYS moved. In small numbers or in massive hoards, people have moved and will continue to move until the return of Christ! I was also reminded of the whole “imagined community” conversation we had in a previous term… It is fascinating how animated we can become in defense of our nationalistic identity when faced with the potential of suffering personal harm.

    I guess I don’t really have a question, just telling you the things I was thinking about while reading your post.


    • Nick Martineau says:

      Jon…Good thoughts. Ethics in light of the immigration debate is timely and fascinating to think about.

      • Mary Pandiani says:

        Jon and Nick – I’m teaching US History next quarter for the first time at the community college. It’s an Adult Basic Ed course which means it’s at the high school level. I decided to use “Immigration” as the central theme for the very reason you address Jon – we’re all migrants of some sort.
        And to your point on immigration, Nick, I am struck by all the rhetoric on what to do. Yet how many really know the stories of the immigrants – legal or illegal? Two of my students have spoken of climbing over barbed wire as young children, hiding in cement water drains with coyotes howling, coming from Mexico to the US. It’s not black and white. There is so much to consider. Auckkkkk…….

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Nick, I think you are on to something here. … “Yet, what we all know, is that people use scripture to defend their own views or they misuse scripture out of ignorance of naivety.” My essay this semester is delving into ethics a bit and I have been realizing how shallow much of the Christianity I run with is across North America. Rules at best, ruled by the do’s and don’ts and a quite pervasive legalism seems to be the ethic vs. deep thinking, contemplation, and contextualization of God’s truth, situation, wisdom, and application. As I have been wondering why on the shallowness of Christian faith I have not really considered how legalism might have played a role but I can start to connect some dots from what a culture of legalism breeds. Great post, great thought.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Phil, Nick, the idea of legalism watering down thoughtfulness is resonating with me as well. If I don’t have to take time and consider my ways, think about my thoughts and how they shape my feelings and behaviors, well… THAT’S the path of least resistance isn’t it? Just do this and don’t do that and fumble along through life until we all arrive in the sweet by and by some fine day in the future… Easy!

      Now, to become a thoughtful person who considers multiple views and steps willingly into the complexity of living as a follower of Jesus… THAT’S hard!


    • Nick Martineau says:

      Phil & Jon…I think this is why I closed by taking a look at Romans 14. It seems to me that Paul wasn’t as concerned with right and wrong as he was pointing out strong and weak. But that’s also not really fair to say because truth matters. I think one of the big rubs for me with legalism is the stubbornness involved. As believers we always need to be learners and be humble with statements and beliefs. The is a really good conversation!

  3. Travis Biglow says:

    Howdy Nick, great synthesis on the important issue of relationship i loved you bringing in Romans and the issue of dietary laws and how love is the most important aspect and not a set of rules. This is so important because i think ethics can kick in when they right relationship with God is in place. Love motivate people to make the right choices. I remember before i had a relationship with the Lord like I have now, i was extremely governed by rules and not love. Now i love God so much it is not out the fear of retribution if I do wrong. Now i follow his rules because of a deeper love and relationship. I don’t even see them as dont do this or dont do that. I see his rules as something born out of his love for us and the Lord not wanting us to do are own self harm. Beautiful brother!

  4. Dave Young says:

    Hi Nick, I appreciate how you focused on discernment through relationship with God, and how Christians who distil everything down to a list of ‘does and don’t’ wrongly believe getting it all right is the point of the Christian life. OF course there is also the other side of the pendulum. Those Christians who believe everything is up for grabs and their everything is a matter of personal discernment with God – ignoring the imperatives of Scripture. And yes this takes us back into the quagmire of hermeneutics. But regardless you land on a great focus, relationship with God and the good of others should guide us… I appreciate your wisdom.

  5. Mary Pandiani says:

    Nick – you struck to the heart of what I thought Nullens and Michener were trying to say: “But knowledge without relationship can be harmful.” It’s important to pursue knowledge (look at all of us), but it requires something more than just the mere pursuit. I know I’m discovering new things as a result of all my research, yet where the real changes are happening in me are a result of our interaction. It’s about the relationships as we converse, explore thought, push back, unpack, and continue to love one another through all the confusion. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could offer that to our congregations? For some reason, I think it has something to do with trust – trusting one another and even more so, trusting God. Thanks for your articulate words.

  6. Brian Yost says:

    “many conservative Christian groups like to make the issue of illegal immigration a black and white issue while the truth is these are actual men, women, and children impacted by these important decisions. It’s rarely as easy as people think”

    This is an issue that is close to my heart. I was an immigrant for 10 years and was thankful that my host countries treated me better and with more respect than my own country often did to them. The answers are always easy when they are distant and have no negative affect on people close to you, but it is a different story when it hits close to home. I don’t expect everyone to show love and compassion to others, but I do expect it of Christians. It doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with the issues, but that we do in a way that Christ would expect us to.

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