“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:1-3)
I want to consider this text for the ethical vision which it presents.
There are different theories in ethics regarding how to understand right and wrong. There are obviously many nuances in this discussion, more than I care to outline here. I think painting with broad strokes will do.
Some views, called “deontological,” understand right and wrong in terms of moral obligations or duties. On a deontological theory, for example, to say that murder is wrong is to say that we have an obligation not to commit murder. Different deontologists may disagree among themselves as to how rigid these moral obligations may be. Kant, for example, thought it was never permissible to tell a lie; the law against lying is absolute and uncompromising.
Other views, called “consequentialist,” understand right and wrong not necessarily in terms of rigid and absolute moral laws, but in terms of the consequences of action. An action is right — or rather, good — if it produces good consequences sufficiently proportionate to the bad consequences that might accompany it. Consequentialist theories are all about the effects of our actions: if they are sufficiently good, then the act is good, whatever it might be; if they are sufficiently bad, then the act is bad, whatever it might be.
There is also another view, called “virtue ethics,” in which the emphasis is not so much on following absolute laws, nor on producing good consequences, but on acting out of a certain kind of character. The idea in virtue ethics is that our concern should be to act in such a way as to demonstrate virtuous character — a character that is courageous, wise, temperate, and just, for example. And because the virtues are connected to one another — it is not possible to be courageous without also being wise, for example, since “courage” without wisdom is just foolhardiness — it follows that virtue ethics proposes an integrated, holistic understanding of ethical action. The point of ethics is not just to “do the right thing,” nor just to “bring about good,” but to be a wholly good and virtuous person in every respect.
If we return from this philosophical discussion to the text from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we might come to the conclusion that Paul is proposing something like a Holy Spirit-informed virtue ethics. He doesn’t tell his audience to follow certain rules for action, nor to produce good consequences irrespective of their motivations, but rather to become certain sorts of persons, to act out of certain habits of character. They are to become humble, gentle, patient, loving, concerned for unity.
What difference does it make for Paul to take this approach? Here is what I think. It is not always clear what to do in every situation. Sometimes the circumstances of life leave us in dilemmatic situations in which the right thing to do seems hard to find. When confronted with situations like this, persons of different character will incline in different directions. Confronted with a situation of a private sin gone public, for example, a humble and patient person will certainly react differently than a person who is primarily characterized by a zeal for holiness and following the rules. Our characters inform our vision, the way in which we see the world and the way we approach our lives within it.
Paul teaches the Ephesians to become certain kinds of persons because in this way they will be able to navigate the uncertainties of life in keeping with God’s will. Rules don’t always hold, and the concern to produce “good consequences” can sometimes lead us to do evil things. But if we adopt certain traits of character, if we try to think as humble and patient and loving people — more than that, if we try to become humble, patient, loving people, — then we can face the uncertainties of life with the proper orientation and the right thing to do will become clear to us.