Posted by: dacalu | 8 February 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Obedience

This post continues a series on ethics.  My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.  In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle.  In this post, I look at what I consider the next most popular option.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Will of God

One popular key to understanding ethical authorities is obedience.  Christians in the Reform tradition, both within and without the Anglican Communion place their trust in more direct obedience to the will of God.  This need not be seen to conflict with the summary of the law.  In John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Likewise, in Deuteronomy 30:16, Moses addresses the Israelites: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” Obedience can be a form of love, particularly with regard to God.

The question of obedience forces us to look carefully at whether we can have two core ethical principles, or even just one, interpreted in two ways.  Can we embrace both the love of I Corinthians 13 which asks us to bear all things, enduring patiently even the spite of our neighbor and also the love of John 14 which calls for obedience to the will of God?  I think we must try to do so, but I also acknowledge that conflicts are going to arise here.  I think many people of deep faith and thoughtful study fall on both sides, but I also think a choice needs to be made.

Whenever you have two core ethical principles, one will have to be subordinate to the other.  A man cannot serve two masters. At the end of the day, obedience will be seen as a manifestation of love or love will be seen as a manifestation of obedience. We must choose. Most of the time it will not matter, but sometimes it will be critical. Particularly in matters of sexual ethics, we will see cases where sex and marriage are viewed primarily as a duty and cases where they are viewed as grace. I encourage you not to underestimate the breadth of this divide in modern Christianity.

Means and Ends

Our core ethical principle (or principles) will likely contain elements of both love and obedience the real question is how they stack up against one another.  For many, the distinctions will arise when they look at questions of means and ends. One typical approach would be to say that love is the desired end, but can only achieve that through obedience to God’s will. While I have problems with this perspective, I also recognize that I embrace it on a regular basis. I want to do that which will bring about the best relationships at the end of the day and I also follow certain unbreakable rules.

Augustine is famous for saying “Love, and do what you will.”  What most Christians don’t realize is that he was responding to a letter from a Christian governor asking whether or not it was permissible to torture a prisoner. It is fine to say that love conquers all, but most of us think there are things you just don’t do.  Yes, true love toward the prisoner should rule out the torture, but are you comfortable leaving it at that?  Wouldn’t you rather have a rule that says “don’t torture” in plain English.  Unsurprisingly, this question is still alive in the United States.  What if torturing the prisoner means saving lives?  Isn’t that love for other people?

Most of us have moral rules – specific dos and don’ts – that we follow, either because we cannot conceive of them being motivated by love or because we simply think they always apply.  The Ten Commandments provide a convenient example. Perhaps we should have a core value for love, along with some particular restrictions we follow on the basis of obedience…

If love is about ends and obedience is about means, do the ends justify the means?  There is an ancient question in ethics. For my part, I did not see a way out of this dilemma until I had studied Buddhism for a while. The answer is there in Christianity, but it became transparent for me when I looked at the Noble Eightfold Path.  Buddhist ethicists suggest that self-awakening is approached by right intention and right action together.  Each is good, both is better.  It got me thinking about how the intention and action might be as one, how the means might be the ends and vice versa. In Buddhism compassion is both the desired outcome and the way of achieving it, because the only thing we have control over is our own interaction with the world.  Perhaps love is both means and end.  More to the point, perhaps the only way of getting to the end of love, the real love that Jesus and Paul talk about, is by loving people.

At the end of the day I do not think obedience will ever lead to love – even though I think love often leads to obedience.  Thus, I will always pick concrete love for a neighbor over abstract (reasoned from scripture and tradition) obedience to God.

Some Christians choose obedience as their core ethical principle.  Others choose love.  Almost all will embrace both to some extent.  If you embrace both, ask yourself how far each one extends and what your rules are for comparing them.  In the next post, I will turn to the concept of purity.





  1. […] through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In recent posts, I have addressed love, obedience, and purity as possible candidates for core ethical principles. Here I turn to […]

  2. […] Obedience […]

  3. […] the people and a promise the people made to God. Thus they felt a moral obligation, for the sake of obedience, to take a spouse and produce many children. Procreation was considered both virtuous and […]

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