Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Misguided "Christian" Moral Reasoning

Making important moral distinctions

One regrettable trend that is present in many segments of the contemporary American Christian church is the propagation of "Christian" clichés that are neither Christian nor true. One of these was brought to my attention recently on Twitter, where Chad Johnson/Ochocinco tweeted that "There's no sin greater than any..." I think he was making the claim that no sin is greater than any other sin, that from God's perspective, they are all equally bad. This is something I've heard repeated for years, in one version or another. People say that all sin is the same in God's sight, since he is morally perfect any form of wrongdoing is just as bad as any other form of wrongdoing. Arian Foster, a current player in the NFL, prior to retweeting Johnson's statement, said that "I'll never understand this" and then: "You mean killing a baby is the same as stealing a stick of gum? I don't get it. Touchy subject."

Foster is right. There are several reasons for rejecting this claim.

First, it is clear that there are degrees of wrongdoing, as Foster points out. The claim that murder and stealing a stick of gum are morally equivalent actions is absurd, for many reasons. For instance, the level of harm is of course vastly different in each case, and harm can be used as one criterion for judging actions in this manner. If someone steals a stick of gum from me, that's not good, but I'm not dead. Moreover, the right to life is a fundamental right. It is the most important right we possess, much more important than property rights.

Second, this oft-repeated claim, that all sin is the same, is in fact contradictory to a claim attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is reported as saying “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24)." So Jesus himself, the moral and intellectual exemplar for Christians, rejects the claim that no sin is worse than any other. There are matters that are more important, morally speaking. For example, justice, mercy, and faithfulness are more important than giving a tenth of their spices.

Third, there are other reasons for thinking that Jesus believed that some acts are worse than others, and that some things matter more, morally speaking, than others. In the first half of Matthew 12, Jesus and his followers are thought to be involved in breaking religious law, by working on the Sabbath, which was to be a day of rest. Over the years, many rules and regulations had cropped up around this day. In reply to these criticisms, Jesus points out that the welfare of people, including their need for food and for healing from physical ailments, takes precedence over such rules. In addition, Jesus claims that the greatest commandments are to love God with all one's being and to love one's neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28-31). So again there is reason to think that some things have greater moral significance than others, from the perspective of Jesus.

While the foregoing is a discussion within Christian ethics, it is also relevant for those of other faiths, or of no faith at all. An important mark of sound moral reasoning, and of moral maturity, is the ability to distinguish between different levels of significance in moral matters. This is important to do as we reflect on our own character. It is important for parents as they seek to educate and guide their children with respect to their moral development. And it is important for our society, as we seek to make decisions in the political realm that involve a variety of tradeoffs that have significant moral implications.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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