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I am a Christian ethicist, but there's something wrongheaded about much Christian social ethics. In graduate school, I learned to examine some social problem in detail, then bring Christian principles thoughtfully to bear on that problem. Curiously, this process most often results in statements about what government—not the church—should do about the particular problem.

Mainline Protestants have dominated the discipline of Christian social ethics from its beginning, but today it is conservative evangelical Christians who are most vocal and visible in telling government what it should and should not do. Sometimes this involves analysis. Often it merely involves raised voices.

Now certainly, the United States government should not be the primary audience for Christian ethics. Over the past 40 years, ethicists beginning with John Howard Yoder and then Stanley Hauerwas have strongly objected to this development. There is something quite wrong, they say, when the intended audience for Christian moral reasoning is the secular world and the institutions that govern it.

This simply does not fit with the biblical witness, especially in the New Testament. The ethical exhortations offered there are articulated for followers of Jesus Christ by Jesus himself or by his apostles. New Testament moral teachers aim to instruct Christians in what manner of life is worthy of those whose identity is bound up with that of Christ. Think, for example, of Paul's great ethical exhortations in Romans. Having been chosen by God and baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, we are to offer ourselves a living sacrifice, not conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds.

The New Testament writers show great confidence ...

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Do Likewise
David P. Gushee serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, where he also chairs the Mercer Lyceum initiative on rebuilding democracy. His column ran from 2005 to 2007.
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November 2006

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