Moral Conflicts
April 14, 1996

We have begun our consideration of the foundations of biblical ethics and did so by considering the way in which the law of God functions as our ethical rule. We have so far argued that the law continues to be the rule of life for Christians, in the new epoch as it was in the days of Moses, we have considered some of the general principles governing its application to the specific issues and questions of our lives, and we have, in some detail, considered the question of casuistry, how the principles of the law are to be applied to specific cases in our experience, specific questions of ethical duty, even cases and issues that are not directly addressed in the Bible.

But now comes this ancient and difficult question: what if it appears that we are in a situation such that whatever we do is a violation of one commandment or another? In the vocabulary of ethics, this question is called the question of “moral conflicts.”
What is to be done when the requirements of God’s law seem to make conflicting demands.

The classic illustration of such an moral conflict in our time is, of course, the conflict of the obligations to preserve life and speak the truth such as was faced by those during World War II who were hiding Jews and other refugees from those who were seeking to murder them. Indeed, most illustrations of such ethical conflicts are extreme cases of this kind and that, in itself, poses a danger. For, it is to be admitted by us all that most of the time our ethical problem is not knowing what to do, but doing what we know good and well is right and true.

In fact, it has to be admitted that the problem of such moral conflicts is posed only for those who have a strong commitment to moral absolutism. That is, only someone who believes that lying is wrong, deeply wrong, is going to be troubled by the fact that he must lie to protect someone else’s life. But, if you use extreme cases to fashion your basic ethical theory, the impression can be easily left that all of ethics is uncertain and that we face such questions at every turn. Establish your ethics on such a foundation of uncertainty and moral conflicts will disappear because to have a conflict one must first have definite convictions that seem to be at odds with one another.

What we are speaking of, when we speak of moral conflict, is not a situation in which we find it difficult to do the right thing, or even a situation when we may suffer greatly ourselves for doing the right thing. If the issue is “sin or suffer” then, however difficult it may be for us to do the right, however tempted we may be to do what is wrong to avoid trouble for ourselves, there is no moral or ethical conflict here. The Scripture makes it clear and often that living righteously will often prove painful and costly.
We are talking about situations in which a man or woman who desires to live a holy life finds himself or herself caught between two moral obligations; to obey the one seems to require that the other be disobeyed.

And we should not suppose that we are, therefore, only speaking of lying to Nazis. We face this question in many mundane situations. What of a person who comes up to you, clearly seeking praise and approval, a person whose feelings, you know, are easily hurt, and he or she asks you what you think of her new dress or his recent teaching in Sunday School. Love, the Bible says, “always protects.” But one is also to speak the truth. Is the Christian thing to tell the person straight out that you thought the class boring or the dress unattractive?

[Prof. David Jones of CTS has an excellent treatment of this question of moral conflicts in his new book Biblical Christian Ethics and I have taken the summary of the various positions on this question largely from him.]

Prof. Jones summarizes the various options in Christian thought as follows.

1. First there is the view known as “consequentialism” in which
it is held that any action is morally right that intends to
produce a greater balance of good over evil than can be
intended by any other available alternative.

In philosophy this ethical theory is known as utilitarianism, in modern Christian thought it is known as “situation ethics.” One is always to do the most good possible, or, in a Christian form, one is always to do the most loving thing.

But, of course, this approach to moral conflicts merely recreates the same problem at another point. What thing will be the most loving and bring the most good? And how does one know that? After all, the consequences of some acts are not known for many years, even, in some cases, for generations and some consequences are impossible to measure.

As Gordon Clark pointed out, “The greatest good of the greatest number is a principle for tyrants.” Hitler did what he did, Mao did what he did, Lenin did what he did for the sake of what they judged to be the long term benefit of the world, and what they did, of course, was to sacrifice millions of people. [Jones, 129]

David Jones quotes Bishop Butler as follows:

“The happiness of the world is the concern of him who is the Lord and Protector of it: nor do we know what we are about when we endeavor to promote the good of mankind in any ways but those which he has directed; that is indeed in all ways not contrary to veracity and justice.”

Situation ethics is, as well, clearly not the ethical theory of the Bible, which regards, as situation ethics does not, certain acts and attitudes as wrong, evil in themselves. Martyrs to the demands of righteousness never laid down their lives rather than sin for some principle of the greater good, they laid down their lives because they feared more to disobey God than the threats of man and because they loved God and never wanted to betray him.

2. The second approach to the resolution of moral conflicts is that which Prof. Jones calls “Tragic Morality.” Here is it held that in a fallen world sometimes there is nothing else
to be done but to choose between two evils and duty requires,
in such a case, that the lesser of the two evils be chosen.

Dr. Packer has expressed himself in favor of this point of view. He writes: “…we shall insist that evil remains evil, even when, being the lesser evil, it appears the right thing to do; we shall do it with heavy heart, and seek God’s cleansing of our conscience for having done it.” In other words, we will tell our thin-skinned friend that we like her new dress and then go ask forgiveness for the lie.

John Warwick Montgomery, who had a famous debate with Joseph Fletcher, the popularizer of “situation ethics” back in the early 1970s, took this tack as well. In cases of moral conflict, he argued, the lesser evil may have to be accepted, but it remains an evil and must drive the Christian to the cross for forgiveness. He gives an example: is it right to shoot a sniper in order to save his intended victims? “To kill a human being,” Montgomery argued, “if Jesus is right, is a sin. It’s morally wrong. Human beings are not to be killed. Thou shalt not kill.” The person who takes the life of the sniper may have been right to do so, but he is not morally vindicated for that reason.

“If the man is a Christian, this agonizing decision will cause him to look in the mirror and see himself as a member of a sinful society. His decision to shoot a fellow human being will compel him to seek forgiveness. There is a solidarity in human life that requires a person to see his own culpability in situations like this and therefore to seek forgiveness.” [Jones, 131]

Now, in my view this is an impossible view for a Christian to take and not only because it is nowhere taught in the Bible, which seems clearly, as I will attempt to show, to teach otherwise, but, especially for this reason: that it cannot be reconciled with the sinlessness of Jesus Christ. For if life presents us with situations in which all we can do is to choose the lesser sin than Jesus either was not sinless or, what is almost worse to believe, he never faced any really tough ethical situation. But, the Scripture says, he was tempted in all points as we are.

3. A third approach, which avoids that immense problem, is
“hierarchicalism” that proposes that in cases of moral
conflict between two of God’s commands, obedience to the
higher obligation exempts one from obedience to the lower.

There is a graded hierarchy of absolutes in the law of God according to which certain obligations are more important than others and in cases where obligations conflict it is righteous and not sinful to choose to obey the higher obligation.

Norman Geisler takes this view. He states it as follows:

“The essential principles of graded absolutism are: There are many moral principles rooted in the absolute moral character of God; there are higher and lower moral duties — for example, love for God is a greater duty than love for people; These laws sometimes come into unavoidable moral conflict; In such conflicts we are obligated to follow the higher moral law; When we follow the higher moral law we are not held responsible for not keeping the lower one.” [Jones, 133]

I think this position is of little help as well. In the first place, in any particular case, finding the greater duty may be very difficult, certainly it is not always obvious. Like the greater good, it will usually, I think, prove impossible for finite minds to calculate with any certainty. Geisler himself has to invent a list of “guiding principles” by which to determine the higher duty, but which, in my judgment, are themselves unlikely to be of much help in many cases. One of them, for example is “Personal acts that promote personhood are better than those that do not.” There are other problems with this view. But, the most important one is that it does not seem to be the view the Bible itself takes.

So let me say what I think the Scripture leads us to say about moral conflicts. And, in sum, it is this: all such conflicts are only apparent, they are not real. In other words, the law of God never requires you to break the law of God. God never orders you to disobey him; there is no such principle of inconsistency or disharmony in either the divine nature or the law of human life that emanates from that perfect, holy, and pure divine nature.

Rather, if it seems that you must disobey one commandment in order to obey another, you have misunderstood one or both of the commandments.

A classic example furnished by the Bible is the case of David taking the consecrated bread — which the law reserved to the priests alone — to give to his men who were hungry and in need.
So, it is argued, David broke one commandment in order to keep another, higher, commandment, viz. to protect the life of his neighbors.

But, as Jesus uses that example (Mark 2:23-27) in his argument with the Pharisees about keeping the Sabbath day, his point is not that it is alright to break the one commandment in order to keep the other. His point is precisely that if anyone thought that that commandment reserving the consecrated bread to the priests required men to starve in plain sight of food, then he had completely misunderstood that commandment. [Jesus goes on to say the same thing about the Sabbath: they had misunderstood the law of the Sabbath and their strictures on plucking grain on the Sabbath — which they had seen Jesus’ disciples do and criticized them for doing — were simply a misunderstanding of the 4th commandment. It did not prohibit what the Pharisees thought it did!] Jesus does not suggest in any way that David had to go home and confess his sin of giving that bread to his men, as the tragic moralists would say he should, or that he had to choose between the two commandments and chose to obey the more important one, as the hierarchicalists would say. Jesus clearly says that David kept the law by feeding his men that bread, for the commandment never meant what the Pharisees supposed it meant.

In other words, we learn what the commandment actually requires from the whole of God’s Word and must be careful not to interpret the law and so our duty out of its context in Holy Scripture.

Let’s consider the classic illustration, that of the question of what ethicists have called “the dutiful lie.” The lie told, for example, by those who hid Jews from the Nazis in WWII?

What are we to make of the Hebrew midwives who lied to the Egyptians in order to spare the Hebrew babies that had been marked for death, or of Rahab who lied to her city authorities in order to spare the lives of the Hebrew spies who were hiding on her roof?

1. Now, some have argued that in these cases the lie was simply
wrong, as that which is forbidden by God, and that neither
the midwives nor Rahab should have told lies. Had they
refused to lie God would have delivered in some other way.

This is the position taken by no less than John Murray in his valuable work of Reformed ethics, Principles of Conduct. The problem with his argument, that the faith of the midwives is commended but not their lie, the faith of Rahab is commended but not her lie, is that there are too many examples of such speech in the Bible that seems to have God’s approval, or certainly is not actually disapproved or condemned in any way.

1. It is a basic rule of interpretation that the reach and
demand of any particular law is defined not only by its
words themselves, but by its applications.

2. You shall not murder, we learn in the larger context of
God’s law does not forbid killing in some cases of self-
defense — though it does when, even in self-defense,
killing can be simply avoided –; does not forbid the
execution of capital criminals; does not render guilty
those who kill accidentally — though it can is the
so-called accident should have been and could have been
foreseen and prevented; it does not forbid all killing in
war; etc. It is only by paying attention to the whole
of Scripture that we gain a true understanding of what
the commandment requires and what it does not require.

The Scripture indicates in many ways how circumstances
alter the nature of a case and the nature of the ethical
obligation we face.

David Jones gives as an illustration an example that was given to him as an argument for the “lesser of two evils” approach to moral conflicts.

“A terrorist throws a hand grenade into a crowd. A man sees what is happening. He chooses to commit suicide by throwing himself upon the grenade and in so doing chooses what he thinks to be the lesser of two evils. The greater evil would be for the grenade to explode and kill five or ten others. Yet suicide is prohibited. What would you do with this kind of case?”

But Prof. Jones’ reply is surely correct. In effect he says that this is not suicide and, therefore, is against no law. Indeed, to say that laying down your life for your neighbor is suicide and so sinful is to accuse the Lord himself of sin. To call the heroic self-sacrifice of oneself for others suicide is to misconstrue the biblical command. It forbids no such thing.

3. Well, similarly with the command not to bear false
witness. It should not be forgotten how fundamentally
important truth is to the entire teaching of Holy Scripture. God is truth, sin is untruth, righteousness and truth are linked together at the deepest level. Lying is a terrible sin with terrible consequences. It is a great offense against the true God.

But does the ninth commandment require a Dutch or French family to tell inquiring Nazis that the Jews they have been hiding are upstairs in the attic? Well, take the Scripture together and it seems that the answer is “No.”

a. First, of course, the Scripture gives us a number of
instances in which lying is avoided by a refusal to answer. Jesus gave no answer to his questioners at some points. He remained silent. [Thomas More in
“A man for all seasons” remained silent, which, by law, implies consent even though his refusal to take the oath everyone knew was based on his disagreement with it.]

b. The Bible also gives us examples of evasion, of telling something that is not the whole truth or even the main truth, though it is not technically a lie. God’s instructions to Samuel (1 Sam. 16:1-3) are a case in point. “I’ve come to sacrifice to the Lord” not “I’ve come to anoint your successor.”

In the Christian ethical tradition, silence, evasion and equivocation have been regarded as permissible, though only in those occasions forthrightness is not possible or would lead to the harm of others, etc.

c. But can one ever just tell an outright lie? Well, contextually, the Scripture certainly seems to say that one can, under certain extreme conditions. It seems to me very difficult to maintain the position that in these cases in the Bible, and there are more than just two, there is approval only of the faith but not of the lie. The lying seems in the narratives essential to their act of preserving life and seems clearly to be approved. What is more, it is just like the other commandments: we learn the reach and the meaning and the obligation of each law by the way in which it is explained and applied in Holy Scripture as a whole.

A principle at work here seems to be: a murderer in search of an innocent victim has no right to the truth from those hiding the innocent and no reason to expect honesty from those aware of the circumstances.

The basic rule in cases of moral conflict then seems to be: always do what is right. There will never be an occasion in which there is not a right thing to do. His duties are always our duties. But, circumstances may alter the particular case and effect the relevance of a commandment. Commandments, when rightly understood and applied, never contradict one another. To deny this is to surrender the sinlessness of Christ or the ethical seriousness of Jesus’ life.

But, if we think this way, might we not be subtly tempted to find our reasons why this commandment does not apply to this case, and so on. Are we opening a door we will never get shut. Well we may be. Every view, every doctrine has its dangers. The heart must be carefully guarded. And, most of all, we must really want to be pure and holy before God. That is the key — as we have already said in other contexts. Motive is first and last in biblical ethics.

Introduce Lest Innocent Blood be Shed. The anguish over having to lie. The lost innocence of children who would have to relearn truthtelling, the simple importance of always telling the truth after the war, ‘Our lost candor.”

Their ethical theorizing was not the best, in my judgment. But I like very much this spirit. This hatred of the lie, this concern to be truthful as a child of God, to be open, to have our word our bond, our yes be yes, no matter what. The man or woman, boy or girl, who thinks that way about lying will know best when it is not a lie to say what is untrue for the sake of others and the Lord. The person who easily says what is not true, or completely true, or entirely true, is the person who will not know and whose false speaking will be, no matter what, just another lie.

No, not for a thin-skinned Christian shall we lie about the dress or the SS class! No, No, you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. And nowhere does the Bible suggest that we can avoid the truth — if we can’t find a way not to say anything, or to evade honorably — simply to escape some unhappy consequences. If someone asks you about her new dress, it is better she learns not to ask such a stupid question than that you should lie and dishonor the God of truth!