DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Ahhh, Ethics!

Written by: on November 7, 2014

One of my roles at Concordia is to serve as the faculty advisor to the Social Work Club. The Club has decided to support the social worker at the elementary school next door – a high need, high poverty school. One challenge the school social worker faces is helping parents who live far away to have transportation to their kids’ school events. Yesterday the Club was brainstorming ideas. Concordia and our local transit authority offer Concordia students bus passes at a significantly discounted rate. The students thought they could buy those bus passes and give them to the parents at the school.

It would be a good thing to do.

But would it be right? Or ethical?

Sometimes these decisions aren’t always easy. It is good to help very low income parents to be able to participate in their children’s school activities. Research tells us that engaged parents increase the engagement and academic success of their children. Low income children face greater challenges in gaining access to resources, which can have a negative impact on their academic success. So bus passes are good. My role as an advisor is to encourage the students to think their decisions through. To use those critical thinking skills for practical applications. I didn’t know if it would be a misuse of the Concordia bus passes. But I asked them to find out what the intent and limitations of those passes were. If the intent is specifically for students, then giving the passes to the parents would be nice, but not right. This particular situation does not have deep moral implications. Yet it seems to be in the relatively minor decisions that we make that we create a foundation for the major decisions.

In Nullens and Michener’s book, “The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context,” [1] the authors provide a thorough overview of the development of ethical thought, particularly from a Christian perspective. The authors define ethics as a “scholarly reflection on morality as a whole, subjecting (it) to systematic and critical evaluation.”[2] It is at it’s broadest construct, how we think about morality. The authors consider the history of philosophy and ethics throughout Western Civilization, and propose various models to guide ethical thinking. Nullens and Michener describe four different schools of thought regarding ethics: Consequential Ethics (considering the consequences of an act). Principle Ethics (considering the principles behind an act), Value Ethics (considering the character or virtue of the person), and Value Ethics (considering the values behind an act). From here the authors move to focus on theological influences on ethical thought. What is the role of Scripture? How does our understanding of God inform our decision making? How do we interpret Scripture? How do the actions of a Christian reflect a transformed life?

This last question intrigues me most. The authors write, “Christian ethics has always emphasized a new and changed life. This entails far more than simply following a set of commands; our character and habits need to be transformed.” [3] As Christians, I think we have higher expectations of other Christians. We are called to walk in a manner worthy of Christ, to walk as He did. And yet we remain human and flawed. So on the one hand, we have high expectations and a call to be transformed, while on the other hand we stumble and err as humans yet perfected. We are disappointed with one another because of our high expectations, and sometimes we lack grace and mercy. But then again, we are called to hold one another accountable and to live lives that are set apart. Oh what a dilemma! While the behavioral expectations may be clear (or not!) we must find the grace to walk through disappointment.

Nullens and Michener propose a matrix to guide a process for Biblical ethics that consider the concrete statements of Scripture, the “rules”, God’s principles, and our convictions about morality. They offer a series of steps to take via a case study. These steps include:

• Collect Relevant Information
• Formulate the Particular Ethical Problem(s)
• Consider the Problem in th View of the Matrix of Commandments, Values, Character and Consequences
• Consider Alternative Solutions
• Make a Decision
• Evaluate [4]

So I conclude with another case study. One of my students has been struggling through some health issues her daughter has had. Two weeks ago, her 14 year old daughter complained of abdominal pain. She took her daughter to the emergency room at the closest hospital to where she lives. They were sent home, after a brief examination, with some Motrin (typically given for menstrual cramping). Twelve hours later she rushed her daughter, by cab, to an urban hospital, much farther away from her home, because her daughter collapsed. Her daughter had a ruptured appendix and was rushed to surgery. Because of the rupture, there is infection, which required another procedure and hospitalization last week, and will require at least one more procedure in the coming weeks. My student is a poor, Black woman who does not present as particularly sophisticated according to dominant culture standards. In my mind I wondered if the suburban hospital had treated her differently because of this, perhaps making false assumptions about she and her daughter. Staff at the second hospital stated that it was possible that the other medical professionals had simply not been able to detect the appendicitis. I am not qualified to offer a medical opinion, nor was I present to observe how my student and her daughter were treated. But I remain curious about the values and assumptions that guided the decisions that were made by the first provider. My student also wonders if she and her daughter were treated appropriately. I told her that I was not qualified to offer an opinion, but that a starting place would be to get more information. Perhaps I can model an ethical thought process that might guide future actions.

[1] Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, “The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern context,” Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Publishing, 2010.

[2] Ibid, p. 9.

[3] Ibid, pp 129-130.
[4] Ibid, pp. 226-230

About the Author


Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.