Ethics: Biblical Integration and a Better Answer

Reading is a powerful biblical integration tool. Reading widely can give a person wider understanding of the world. It can broaden horizons. For example, I may never live on a whaling ship, but reading Moby Dick can help me understand some of what that was like in the past.

Memoir and autobiography are two related genres of reading that are especially powerful in this way. There is value in reviewing a person’s actions, but even more in getting a window into that person’s mind.

Over the past few days, I have been reading a memoir called Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School. The author, Philip Delves Broughton, offers insight into his experience pursuing an MBA there from 2004 to 2006. Early in the book, he tells of a meeting called by the administration to discuss ethics. His time at Harvard took place immediately following the Enron scandal which was carried out, in large part, through the leadership of a Harvard MBA graduate named Jeff Skilling. The school recognized that they needed to respond to this news and address ethical issues.

Harvard Business School needed to answer the question, “How can we point our students toward ethical decision-making in a world filled with corruption?”

Sadly, HBS, while elite, had an astonishingly weak understanding of ethics. Broughton recalls the school saying, “Ethical lapses… were sometimes necessary to survive… Behaving ethically in business was less about following a set of graven principles than about adapting to changing situations in as decent a way as possible.” Harvard made the case that the problem with being ethical is not that we are selfish and sinful. Instead, the problem is on the outside, and we need to try to survive in this messed up world as best we can.

In the same way that I am unlikely to be a whaler, I am unlikely to set foot into Harvard Business School. However, this window is helpful… and disturbing. The plan to recover from an ethical shortcoming of an alumnus was to tell students that the world is a hard puzzle, so ethics must (at times) be bypassed. Further, they said that ethics were not set in stone, but were situational. There are no real standards of right and wrong. On top of that, the goal of ethics is not to do right, but to try to simply be as decent as possible.

While a Christian school may not hold the elite status of a Harvard in the eyes of the wider culture, it has something better. The Christian school has the even more elite status of teaching in accordance with the Word of God which has been written out for us (some of it literally graven into stone). The Christian school has the gospel. This is the primary difference between the HBS view of ethics and the biblical view–the gospel.

When confronted with the guilt of a graduate, Harvard told its students that the problem is on the outside. It called them to try harder, to do their best, and attempt decency. But they needed to remember that the standard was too high to for them to realistically follow it. When confronted with guilt, the gospel agrees that the Law is impossible for people to follow; we don’t earn God’s pleasure by trying to be good or ethical (Rom 3:10-12). But the gospel does not say “Try harder!” It says to look to Jesus and live.

Jesus told this to Nicodemus in John 3:14. To illustrate his point, Christ brought Moses to mind. Back in the wilderness, the people had turned against God and, as a result, they were attacked by a plague of venomous snakes. When they had been bitten, they did not need to get their life together to be made right. They did not need to work or try harder. No. All they were asked to do was look up in faith at a statue of a bronze snake that Moses had lifted up. The people simply needed to look in order to live. In the same way, Jesus said that He would be lifted up so that everyone who looks to Him in faith would live too (John 3:15).

The Christian school has a strong answer to the question, “How can we point our students toward ethical decision-making in a world filled with corruption?”

First, we understand the corruption: we have all been bitten by the snake of sin and we are all dying because of it. The problem is on the inside. Second, we see the solution: Christ has accomplished righteousness for us on the cross so that if we look to Him we will live. Finally, we see the outworking: the Christian looks to live in ways that please Christ by the power of Christ. God is the One who empowers us to live ethically so that our choices demonstrate the powerful work of God (John 3:21). For the lost person, the law of God shows us how sinful we are (Rom 3:20). For the believer, we consider ourselves dead to sin (Rom 6:11), so we seek to follow God’s ethical standards in order to become more like Him and represent Him with our lives (Rom 6:22). That is a much better answer to the question than the message that Harvard offered its students.  

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4 thoughts on “Ethics: Biblical Integration and a Better Answer

  1. This is great, Kelly! The Gospel lifts the burden of confusion and trying harder. Christ frees us and the Holy Spirit teaches us, reminds us and empowers us. Now we know how to live! As a Christian school we are so privileged to have a platform to speak the truth in love. Your logical explanation and encouragement in this article are good food for us as we lead.

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    1. Thanks so much for this encouraging comment! God is great to have not only given us an important role in his ministry, but also his Word and Spirit to lead and empower us to do it.

      Like

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