The Lesser of Two Weevils

Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
    and shrewd in their own sight!   Isaiah 5:20-21

The recent election cycle renewed vigorous discussion regarding whether Christian ethics may employ “the lesser of two evils” when faced with apparently competing ethical demands in the moral law.  To hold such a view, however, accepts as a given that there are, in fact, truly competing moral demands.  Ethicists call these “conflicts of duty” or “tragic moral choices.”   We often simply refer to them as “the lesser of two evils.”

But is it valid to assume that such “conflicts of duty” actually exist in a truly biblical ethic?   Are there situations in which our only option is disobedience to some biblical command in order to obey the lesser or two evils?   Does our fallen condition create situations in which obedience to God’s revealed will is not even a possibility?

Many ethicists hold it as a given that such “conflicts of duty” exist and contend that there are times in which it is right to do what God has forbidden or right to fail to do what God has required?   Christian ethicists who hold this view attempt to mitigate the obvious concern over calling evil good, by noting that such necessary sins still require God’s forgiveness.

In his book, Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons and Problems, Dr. John Frame refutes this position on the following points.

  1. In Scripture it is never right to disobey a command of God and never sinful to do what is right.   [To do so] is ethically confused at a basic level.
  2. According to this view, the Scriptures, our fundamental ethical standard, would be contradictory; they would be telling us to do two incompatible things.
  3. Consider the christological implications of this view.  Did Jesus face “conflict of duties?”  If so, then He too was guilty of sin; He too ought to have asked God’s forgiveness…. But if Jesus did not face such conflicts, then how can we say with the author of Hebrews that he was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin (4:15)?   Either alternative is unacceptable, so the premise must be wrong.  There are no “tragic moral choices.”
  4. And 1 Corinthians 10:13 promises that Christians need never fall into sin, a promise that is incompatible with the view under discussion.

Given the belief that there are no “tragic moral choices” and no need to choose the “lesser of two evils,” our ethical task ought to be cut and dried, right?  Yet Frame notes Christians must often struggle longer than situational ethicists to find the consistent answer, biblically, to our ethical questions.  Frame notes several reasons this struggle is difficult.

“Sometimes we don’t understand Scripture adequately.  Sometimes we have an inadequate understanding of the situation to which Scripture is to be applied.  And sometimes our own spiritual immaturity obscures matters in our minds and hearts.”

Situational ethicists often accuse Christians of taking the easy way out by denying “conflicts of duty,” but the reality is that the unwillingness to call good evil and evil good or to put darkness for light and light for darkness makes Christian ethics far more challenging and indeed impossible without the illumining work of the Holy Spirit shining on the Word of God.

3 thoughts on “The Lesser of Two Weevils

  1. Christians generally (and Paul specifically) had the problem of dealing with all the commandments in the Old Testament, circumcision, diet, which animals to sacrifice for which sins, etc. The key to these problems seems to be in Matthew 22:35-40, which I translate to Humanist terms as “Love good, and love it for others as you love it for yourself. All of the other rules are judged by these two.”

    Jesus was often criticized for breaking the rules: working on the Sabbath, associating with sinners, failing to wash his hands before dinner. So it would seem that his ethics were situational. Now, one may grant that an omniscient being would know the ultimate consequences of his actions, a skill most of us lack. And we would be better off in most cases in abiding by a tried and true rule of behavior, rather than trying to figure it out from scratch each time.

    • Marvin, the criticisms leveled against Jesus were not legitimate critique of Jesus’ true violation of the law, but criticism of Jesus’ unwillingness to hold to a man-centered, interpretation of the law designed by the religious leaders of his day to declare their own adherence to the law as sufficient. Jesus habitually showed them that the demands of the law were much more pervasive than they imagined and that his actions established a proper understanding of the laws demands. The scriptures declare Jesus to be without sin (Hebrews 4:14-16) and therefore any variance that appears in his behavior with respect to the law indicates a clarifying in our interpretation of the law’s demands. Jesus clearly articulates the continuity of the law and does not abolish it (Matthew 5:17ff) Likewise, Paul’s concerns regarding the relationship of the law and the gospel are pointed toward a failure of the religious legalists of his day to grasp that “the law is the needle that draws the thread of the gospel.” Paul consistently teaches the continuity of the the law from the Old to New Testament. Neither Jesus nor Paul were situational ethicists.

      • Well, Paul was situational when he discussed dietary rules. I don’t know the book/chapter/verse, but it is the passage where he says that for some it is okay if they believe it is okay, but for others it is unclean if they see it as unclean. And he recommended that those of stronger faith avoid eating it for the sake of those of weaker faith. Peter and Paul were at odds because Peter wanted converts to become Jews first, but Paul was mainly preaching to the Gentiles and had to deal with practical issues like circumcision.

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