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What Does
Require of Us?


When the psalmist looked toward the heavens thousands of years ago and wondered what human beings are that God would take notice of them (Psalm 8), that writer was asking one of the key questions we still ask when seeking a biblically-based ethical position on issues of our day. When we wonder what the Christian ethical approach to cloning or genetic engineering or regulating the Internet is, we are asking that ancient question in modern dress:

Who are we, and what is our relationship to God to be?

The Bible developed as Scripture for the church over thousands of years, always reflecting the dialogue between a faith community and God and among communities in different times and places. The Hebrew canon grew out of Israel’s experience, recording ethical success and failure. The Christian canon grew out of the experience of the early church as it struggled to understand its relationship to God, to Christ and to the cultures in which it ministered. Each reflects the questions and concerns of its times and places, even as those communities’ struggles and insights resonate within our own times and places.

Because the Bible had its birth and was shaped in the context of faith communities, it is most completely understood from within the context of a faith community. The ethical guidelines of the Bible are not directed to individuals in isolation, but to people living it community. Within that community, dialogue, accountability, challenges and moral nurture are found. For United Methodists, that community is our United Methodist Church, in an ecumenical and interfaith setting.

The Bible presents human beings as moral agents who have responsibility for themselves and their world. Through the prophets, God calls Israel to account for behaviors and practices that fall short of the covenant that God has established with them. Jesis’ preaching and teachings and Paul’s writings provide answers to the questions of who we are, and who we are meant to become. Jesus and Paul expect those to whom they spoke and wrote, and us today, to become people who live in right relationship with God and with each other. The Bible tells us human beings are moral agents who are expected to be righteous and to behave justly.

Biblical ethics today

The Bible is not a code of behavior that can simply be transferred into our present church community and daily lives. Some of the issues facing us were not even imagined by those who lived and wrote the Bible:

Other issues appear in guises so far removed from those in the Bible that our faithful response becomes unclear or even the opposite of that proposed in the biblical text.

Christianity today is clear that slavery -- human beings buying, selling and owning other human beings -- is counter to Christian morality. Yet the Bible assumes slavery is a given condition of society and focuses on the behavior of slaves and masters.

For example, the New Testament letter of Paul to Philemon was to be delivered by Onesimus, a slave whom Paul was sending back to his master. Paul gives instructions on how Philemon is to behave toward Onesimus, instructing him to treat his returning slave as a beloved brother.

Were we simply to transport that letter and its context into present-day faith and ethical understanding, we would be faced with applying principles justifying slavery and the return of escaped slaves to masters.

Rather than ignoring the context of Paul’s letter and trying to apply the situation to our own times, we look for Paul’s principles and themes. Such a situation calls for love and forgiveness, Paul writes. He points to an equality in Christ that supersedes earthly status. In Christ, Paul reiterates, there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:28).

In this way, we find within the Bible ethical guidelines for approaching questions and issues facing our community of faith. Love, forgiveness and equality in Christ emerge from this biblical text to become guidelines for our behavior and signs of God’s presence among us.

Patriarchs with more than one wife and/or concubine, women instructed to be submissive to husbands and silent in worship, men instructed to marry their brothers’ widows -- all are situations that demand more than a literal reading to understand biblically-based ethical decisions. Developing a Christian ethical understanding toward homosexuality cannot be based on a few out-of-context verses in the Bible that seem to refer to homosexual behavior. Rather, we are challenged to apply an ethical understanding of God’s justice and love to the issues involved.

Discerning a biblical ethic

Scholars have sought to discern a systematic biblical ethic from the many expressions in the Bible, but they don’t agree on a single overarching theme or principle. The Bible speaks with many voices, each out of a particular context to a particular community.

Some contradict each other, yet all have found a place within the biblical canon. Their placement there creates a rich dialogue about the ethical issues of the faith community in that time and gives us a clue to a process for finding the ethical guidelines for a community. The Bible, made up of many stories told in many ways through many voices, offers us a model of how ethical understandings are reached. The model is for wide-reaching dialogue, extended over time and in a variety of settings.

The process of finding a biblical ethic may be as important as the content.

Just as the Bible does not give us one voice, so the church community today has multiple voices attempting to articulate ethical positions and guidelines. The Bible may tell us the danger comes when one voice from one perspective attempts to claim superior understanding. It is from within the faith community engaged in dialogue that ethical clarity and consensus emerge.

At its best, this is the conciliar principle of The United Methodist Church. In general conferences and annual conferences, we discuss and reason together to discern the answers to the questions before us and the directions we are to go. In some ways, it is too bad that Robert’s Rules of Order have been imposed on the process and that votes are taken. How much better if the dialogue could continue until consensus is reached. That is the process the Bible gives us.

Voices of oppressed needed

Whose voices should be included in the dialogue? The Bible is helpful in answering that question. The poor, the powerless, the outcast, the stranger -- they are invited to the table (Luke 14:1-25). Their experiences and struggles are essential to our discernment of God’s will for the church community. Without their voices, the dialogue is incomplete.

The biblical witness shapes our quest for lives pleasing to God. Whatever the issue we face, we can ask the biblical questions:

The prophet Micah asked and answered a key question for an ethical life. Micah declared: God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God? (Micah 6:8)

Jesus Christ stated the most important commandment, the basis for an ethical life:

We are to love God with all of our mind and heart and strength. And we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (Mark 12:28-31)

When we commit ourselves to those ethical guidelines, we will be on the way to discerning what God requires of us.

Carolyn Henninger Oehler is executive director of Scarritt-Bennett Center, a conference, retreat and education center in Nashville, Tenn., supported by United Methodist Women.