The Holy Bible is not an ‘ethical cookbook'
Written by Stephen C. Gray
March 2001


How do you make ethical decisions? What tools from your faith training help you to discern what God calls you to do or how you are supposed to act as a Christian person?

For Protestant Christians, the answer often is: Turn to the Bible! I certainly agree.

However, "turning to the Bible" rarely guarantees unity of thought or unanimity of decision-making. For generations, Christians have studied the same text and come to radically different conclusions.

How we "turn to the Bible" is perhaps the most important part of the equation.

One way is to search for some ethical teaching that will provide an "answer" to our ethical dilemma.

I suspect this perspective fuels the "display the Ten Commandments" movement.

However, this method of rendering ethical decisions often fails to produce the kind of clarity we seek. As clear as the sixth commandment, "You shall not commit murder" (Exodus 20:13), might seem to be, it has yet to bring agreement between those who favor and those who oppose capital punishment, those who are either pro-life or pro-choice, or those willing to bear arms and those who are conscientious objectors.

Also, there is a whole range of ethical issues (e.g., cloning) that the Bible never addresses.

Another way of turning to the Bible is to understand it not as an ethical cookbook but as a story of faith—a story that provides us with ethical principles that each generation must apply to the context in which it lives.

This way of making ethical decisions is known as "principled contextualism." It asks us to look at any ethical situation from the perspectives of both the Old and New Testaments, and to glean from appropriate scriptures what principles God is presenting before us. Then we must apply these principles to our context, so we can reason what God's will is in each circumstance.

Sometimes the reasoning leads to a clear resolution. Sometimes it does not.

When there is a difference of opinion in ethical decision-making, it is my experience that the difference often begins with HOW we turn to the Bible and apply what we find.

The Rev. Stephen C. Gray is Conference Minister of the UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference.

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