Situational Ethic

John 13:34-35

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

According to John, at least in this moment, Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to love their neighbors, Gentiles or Samaritans, victims or others.  Jesus tells his disciples to love one another – those who are already in the community of Christ. In the context of John’s church, this was important and necessary advice. In order to bring the good news of Christ to the nations, it was necessary that the followers of Christ take care of one another. In the midst of disagreements around the formation doctrine and struggles in establishing the church the disciples of Jesus needed to love one another. The politics of a world beset against Christianity required it.

The advice of the Jesus of John’s gospel continues to be excellent advice – setting aside all our differences, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to love one another. This is immensely more difficult than a proclamation that we love everyone and everything in God’s creation.

In the various forms and the various circumstances in which it’s found itself, from the beginning the church has been grounded in a vision larger than itself. For John’s Jesus, this was showing the world the Light – what it meant to be a follower of Christ. This is different from what Luke would have us hear from Jesus. Luke’s Jesus showed the world aid and concern – he helped victims, ate with those different from him, ministered to whole households, not just the men but slaves, women, and children. Being a disciple of Jesus in that context meant loving into community the whole people of God – not simply loving those with whom one was already in fellowship.

This text reminds us that love within intimate relationships is tougher than loving the stranger, offering shelter to the homeless and food to the hungry. A woman once confessed that “I love strangers… why can’t I find grace for my own parents?” Strangers are easy. Most of us are bothered when we hear the phrase ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’.

Some years ago there was a heavy weight discussion over Joe Fletcher’s book entitled Situational Ethics. It was his experience that with love, one size didn’t fit all. There was no set of absolute standards to define what is and what is not love.  Relativism was the charge made by many with in the religious community.  But here’s the problem.

For instance: A Romanian Jewish doctor aborted 3000 babies of Jewish mothers in concentration camps because, if pregnant, the mothers were to be incinerated. This means that the doctor actually saved 3000 and prevented the murder of 6000. Was this the loving thing to do​?

Another: On an episode of the TV series MASH Hawkeye smothers a crying baby to prevent the bus load of patients from be discovered and killed.

Love decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively. Love does not prescribe in advance what specific course of actions should be taken. Love operates apart from a pretailored, prefabricated list of moral rules. Love functions circumstantially, it does not “make up its mind” before it sees the facts in any given situation.

Most of us have made a valiant attempt to treat our children equally – even though they are different with different interests and desires.  On a very mundane level we function the way Joe Fletcher suggests.

The six fundamental principles

Only one thing is intrinsically good – love: nothing else at all.

The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else.

Love an Justice are the same, justice is love distributed, nothing else.

Justice is Christian love using its head, calculating its duties and obligations, opportunities, resources…(Justice is love coping with situations where distribution is called for.)

Love wills the neighbor’s good, whether we like him or not.

Only the end justifies the means, Actions only acquire moral status as a means to an end; for Fletcher, the end must be the most loving result. When measuring a situation, one must consider the desired end, the means available, the motive for acting and the foreseeable consequences.

Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively.


In the final analysis the goal is to do the most loving thing – the pain we feel comes from acknowledging that we well may be wrong.


This entry was posted in Messages. Bookmark the permalink.