This is a repost.
The week began with my children’s ministry leader telling she heard that one of the children’s leaders was sleeping with her boyfriend. In a very conservative church sexual matters matter! In the same week, three young adults said they wanted to rent a house that the church owns and had just became available, two women and one man. These are people who have high standards and I trust them. One is my daughter. When I explained that this may not look good to people of the church, she and her girlfriend were a little taken back. They saw it as a matter of trust and not appearance. The standards are changing. Navigating them can be tricky.
Many young adults are positive about their future and downplay any regrets or consequences in their behavior. The recent pop song “We are Young” by the American band FUN sung by Janelle Monae captures the present attitude regarding moral choices. The lead sing said this song was inspired by “my worst drinking night of all time”. He is saying I’m drunk, I screwed up. But I’m young. Right now its okay. I going to enjoy this moment being young.
We are young
So let’s set the world on fire
We can burn brighter than the sun
Now I know that I’m not
All that you got
I guess that I, I just thought
Maybe we could find new ways to fall apart
But our friends are back
So let’s raise a toast
‘Cause I found someone to carry me home”
“The Young Always Win” a pastor once told me. The young eventually take over. What kind of world we create will always be inherited and changed by the next generation. In an ever-changing world of ethical choices leaders want to call people to a high standard, but at the same time not be judgmental or condescending. For some Christian leaders it is simple right is right and wrong is wrong. The Bible is clear. For others, in the name of grace, have softened their approach or become silent for the sake of keeping the peace. How does a Christian leader in an ambiguous moral environment call people to the truth in a clear and respectful way?
Patrick Nullens and Ronald Michener have written a thoughtful and thought provoking book on ethics called The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context. They expand ethical thinking to four basic approaches in ethical discourse. They are:
Consequential ethics evaluates how much pleasure or pain that an action produces. In the world of the young, views on morality are not often coherent. Personal choice is the ethical ideal. But consequential ethics is a great appeal to those who live out of a secular mindset. This is what Christian Smith has discovered. Ethical behavior among the young is very grey. The choices are not clear. Even though their conduct has dire consequences, they think hopefully about the future. One young woman stated that her past sexual encounters didn’t bother her. She stated, “…it just wasn’t that big a deal to me. It just happened. I’m fine with it, it’s not something I regret.” (p.155) The authors conclude that beneath the positive outlook of young adult’s sexual experimentation is a world of hurt. (p.193) The consequences are the metric for choices being made.
Consequential ethics is found in Meg Jay’s Ted TV talk entitled, “Why 30 is not the new 20.” As a psychologist that specializes in people who are in their 20s, she warns that messing around is your 20s establishes behavior habits that effect future relationships.
The other approaches also have great value. Principle ethics lives out the wrongness or rightness of a choice. This is what is often appealed to in our church environment. Things are just right and wrong. It’s just wrong to live together. The questions this asks is “Are there right and wrong choices?” This does requires personal reflection. For young people, they need space in order to evaluate morality as they move into young adulthood.
Virtue ethics focuses on the person making a moral choice. The character of the person is lived out through her or his choices. The thinking here is how the choices in relationship reflects who the person is. We abstain from certain behaviors because we are Christians committed to God’s glory. Who we are as people matters. Even people with poor behavior want to be viewed as good according to some common ethic. Raising the bar for what that goodness is could stir the younger generation to a higher standard.
Value ethics is focused not on the moral choice but the moral person who acts. Love is the metics for behavior. Drawing on Max Scheler’s philosophy, the basis of ethics is that human beings are loving being rather than just thinking beings. The loving desires call forth loving actions. Nullens and Michener call for a matrix of an integrated approach to ethics. All four approaches have value. But each one has weaknesses if used exclusively. (p.190)
What can be the basis for moral choices? Often the Bible is used. Certainly scripture is the forming essence for ethical behavior. Unfortunately, it often has been used as a club to force moral conformity. Other see the Bible as irrelevant. As so many young adults have stated that what is right for you is right for you. You have to look at what is going on around person. Each situation is unique. Nullens and Michener view the Bible as an interpretive framework for morality. They “Look for theological cohesiveness while allowing diversity of biblical data. This avoids the pitfalls of rigid legalism on the one hand and the chaos of situational ethics on the other.” (197)
While this book gives no absolute answers for ethical situations, it does give a balanced and healthy way to evaluate moral choices. It can make a leader realize that there are valid and biblical ways to engage ethics with generations that question every basis we have held dear.
Smith, Christian, Kari Christofferson, Hilary Davidson and Patricia Snell Herzog. Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. New York: Oxford Press, 2011.