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Ethics and Missions

A shorter version of this article appeared in: 'Ethics.'  In Dictionary of Mission Theology: Evangelical Foundations.  Ed. John Corrie. Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press, 2007.


Ethics has to do with how we understand, develop and practice the good life.  Different approaches to ethics arise as the 'good life' is defined with reference to one or more of the following:

(1)    a person's  (or community's) character, motivation and empowering;
(2)    obligations that clarify one's duty to act in certain ways;
(3)    the goal or outcome of actions;
(4)    the specific context (time, place, culture).

Somewhat related to these foci, different ethical arguments arise from different uses of Scripture:

(1)    to describe the moral world in which we live (our moral vision);
(2)    to specify (through rules, norms, practices) obligations and right actions;
(3)    to warrant (by principles, values, virtues) right actions and goals;
(4)    to witness to (with concrete narratives and examples) the good life.

Ethical arguments also differ depending on the authoritative status one gives to Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

Such considerations lead to different views on moral guidance, acceptable means, moral motivation, empowerment, and the content of an ethic.  Roman Catholic ethics has traditionally determined moral obligations and goals from natural law--what is true for all as creatures created by God.  For Immanuel Kant, any moral action should be that which all are obliged to do regardless of context (his 'categorical imperative,' e.g., never lie or treat people as means).  Utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill) argue that one should pursue the goal of 'the greatest good for the greatest number of people'.  But such universal approaches to ethics have come under attack in the last fifty years.  Situation ethics is contextual and opposes universal ethics, but it remains modernistic in its emphasis on the individual making decisions in quandary situations.  It is also reductionistic, being based on a single principle, such as 'do the loving thing'.

Over the past thirty years, universal ethics has been challenged by philosophers such as MacIntyre, postliberal theologians such as Lindbeck, Biblical scholars such as Hays, and Christian ethicists such as Yoder, McClendon, Hauerwas, Stassen and Gushee.  For them, different traditions are shaped by different narratives that give rise to different moral visions of the good life, and so the definition of virtuous character will also differ.  Interest in contextualisation in mission studies is likely to favour non-universal ethics. African Catholic ethicist Bujo emphasises context and community in ethical decision-making. Anabaptists have always insisted on the uniqueness of Christian ethics: the Sermon on the Mount is an ethic for disciples.

Mission and ethics overlap in various ways and form a potentially fascinating area of study.  Both missiology and ethics have contextual, applicatory, and ministerial concerns.  Both relate to some of the same disciplines (Biblical studies, theology, and Church history).  Some mission scholars use moral terms for Christian mission paradigms ('liberation'; 'reconciliation,' 'transformation').  And the same key Biblical stories (creation, Israel, Jesus, the Church) shape our moral vision and mission theology.  The interconnections between mission and ethics may be explored within topics like the following.

Ethics and Mission Practice.  Mission practice involves moral issues such as ministry and profit, leadership, the cost of missions, bribery, and partnership/dependency.  If mission is seen as a kind of professional practice, like business, medicine or law, then it will focus on obligations and develop a moral code.  Concern for the conduct of missionaries was already a subject in New Testament times (cf. Mt. 10; 1 Cor. 9; 2 Cor. 10-12; 1 Th. 2; Didache 11-13), but ministry is not a profession.  Business leadership models for 'Christian ministry', e.g., cannot be plastered onto a theology of the incarnation, God's sovereignty, the cross, and Jesus' future coming, which deconstruct the use of power in service such that even 'servant leadership' becomes suspect.

An alternative approach might be to identify mission practices (prayer, evangelism, repentance, forgiveness, simple lifestyles, community formation, care for those in need, peacemaking, a call for justice) and explore these with respect to the Bible, Church history, theology, Christian community and ethics. What counts for a good performance of such practices?  What virtues are needed for them and how might they be developed in our communities?  'Practices' in this sense is a technical notion applicable to both ethics and missions.

Ethics and mission practice also address the means for bringing about social change.  One's community context often determines how one views the options.  Will the Gospel be practised institutionally (government, agencies, denominations), operationally (addressing the issue non-formally: prayer, evangelism, emergency aid), and/or communally (forming an intentional community, e.g., the Jerusalem church in Acts living out a vision of Kingdom community)?  The Fundamentalists' peculiar choice of a Gospel of word not deed was partly a rejection of the social gospel movement's emphasis on institutional means.  The other two means were more readily embraced.

An important question to ask is, 'How does the Gospel of Jesus determine not only the content but also the possible means of its proclamation?'  Thus, for Paul, ethics and mission in imitation of Jesus remembers his meekness and gentleness (2 Cor. 10.1), puts others first (Phl. 2.1-11; 1 Cor. 10.33-11.1), is gracious (2 Cor. 8.9), welcomes and serves all (Rom. 15.7-9), works in human weakness (not coercively) and by the Spirit's power (1 Cor. 2.1-5), etc.

Ethics, Mission and Contextual Theology.  Discussion of contextualising in mission theology typically leads in a different direction from the discussion of embodying the Christian message in ethics.  ‘Accommodation', 'indiginisation', 'enculturation', 'contextualisation' or 'translation' in mission theology might be taken to mean (1) exegetically, canonically, and theologically separating out the essential from the peripheral in Scripture or Christian theology (as when 'liberation' is affirmed and 'hierarchy' is discarded); (2) hermeneutically moving from the original contextual expression of theology and ethics in Scripture to a new cultural context; (3) contextually determining the right application and practice of essential convictions and practices in new contexts.  This whole rationalising process is open to sinful manipulation by those with their own agendas and totalising '-isms'. 

Alternatively, embodiment of Scripture and Christian life (as we learn from narrative, character, and communitarian ethicists) seeks to (1) recover the peripheral by understanding how the concrete ethic of a people relates to their moral vision; (2) bring this moral vision into sharper focus by seeing how Jesus embodied it; (3) imaginatively place oneself and one's community within this embodied moral vision by letting it shape our loyalties, trusts, interests, passions, way of seeing, basic convictions, and way of reasoning (Stassen and Gushee); and (4) by analogy (rather than abstraction), embody this Biblical tradition in our life today.  Abstract principles such as 'liberation,' 'justice,' and 'love' mean very different things within different narratives and so are easily co-opted for one's own agenda.  But seeing how such principles are embodied in a community's practices, web of beliefs, etc. will make such co-opting difficult.  It will require entering the cultural-linguistic world of the Scriptures just as much as mission scholars speak of entering the cultural-linguistic world of a people.

Ethics, Missions and Inter-Cultural Studies.  Adeney’s Strange Virtues combines inter-cultural studies with a narrative, virtue, and communitarian approach to ethics. He explores how individual, social and cosmic values, priorities, virtues and vices are variously construed in different cultures.  For example, regarding family structure and authority, an egalitarian culture will value equality, independence and self-determination, will see individual rights and personal freedom as priorities, will understand independence and competitiveness as virtues but fragmentation and selfishness as vices.  A hierarchical culture will value honour and loyalty, see duty, security and harmony as priorities, understand respect for the other, obedience, self-control, and loyalty as virtues but oppression as a vice.  Here ethics and etiquette overlap. One culture's bribe is another culture's gift (Adeney).  The same vice might be construed differently: Westerners see adultery as falsehood; Africans see it as theft (Bujo). Recognising the cultural context takes one a long way towards an appreciative dialogue with the different ethics of a foreign culture or non-Christian religion.  What assists Christians in this dialogue is that, no matter how much the cultural differences, the same Biblical narratives give rise to a shared (for Christians) moral vision.

Ethics, Mission and the Church in the World.  Niebuhr's Christ and Culture offered five options for the Church's relation to the world.  'Christ transforming culture' was Niebuhr's preferred option, and subsequently 'transformation' has become an important word in missions (Bosch, e.g.).  Mission journals regularly publish articles exploring ways in which the Church might transform culture regarding corruption, environment, HIV/AIDS, nationalism, racism, violence, social, economic, and political injustice, etc.  A 'Church transforming society' paradigm often approaches such issues in terms of how the Church participates with society in tackling social ills.

Yet Niebuhr failed to see how a focus on the Church as counter-community may entail a prophetic and winsome witness to the world.  Hauerwas has argued that the Church does not have but is a social ethic.  Yoder wrote of the need for a hermeneutic of 'peoplehood', a mission of incarnation as the Church views itself not from a position of power ('Christendom') but as a minority active in service.  The character of a Kingdom community becomes its primary mission.  This thinking alone can lead to an inward focus for the Church. But the Church's outward focus in its mission also shapes a uniquely Christian ethic.  The world mission and community ethic of God's people are both present in the Great Commission (Mt. 28.16-20).  The work of discerning the Church's mission ethic should emphasise Biblical interpretation: Scripture's narratives, community convictions and practices entail both a mission and moral way of being in the world.  Wright, Stassen and Gushee, and Bauckham provide excellent beginnings towards this project.

Ethics, Missions and Development Work.  Development ethics is concerned with topics such as poverty, the marginalised, justice, human rights, aid, globalisation, the environment, nation building, corruption, and peacemaking.  Pragmatic considerations in development work suggest a need for middle axioms (achievable goals falling short of the ideal) and utilitarian ethics.  'Development' is itself a positivist and universal programme (Dower), uneasy in a postmodern age. Yet Myers offers a narrative and Biblical ethics approach that involves 'spiritual transformation,' exemplary witness, a people rather than growth centred approach, and a transformative community engaged in social transformation.

Ethics, Missions and Church History.  Historians of mission studies and of Christian ethics share an interest in many issues, such as colonialism or the social dimension of the ‘Gospel’.  On this latter topic, the division (in America since the 1870's) between the social Gospel and a message of salvation has in large part been overcome (cf. the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, sections 5, 6, 13).  Perhaps during this 100 years evangelical mission societies proved better than Western evangelical churches in offering a holistic Gospel. Yet the question remains, 'To what extent does a holistic Gospel involve the Church in social transformation?'  Are 'nation building' or 'human rights' on the Church's agenda, especially if this means adopting a particular economic or ideological position, a diminished ecclesial role, or a universal ethics argument?

Ethics, Missions and Postmodernity.  Bosch argued that Church history has witnessed various mission paradigms and is now on the verge of a new, postmodern 'paradigm'.  Postmodernity in general emphasises the contextual over the universal, the local over the global, the cultural over the transcultural, practice over theory and systems, relationships over ideas, the marginalised over the magisterium, and so forth.

Yet two very different kinds of postmodernity have emerged.  One variety feeds off of modernity, deconstructing it, pressing its scientific method of doubt and proof into sheer scepticism, retrieving fragments discarded by totalising systems, and fragmenting metanarratives and foundationalist thinking.  This kind of postmodernity is often 'most modern,' an intensification of the forces of modernity and reducing them to their absurd but readily embraced conclusions (see further in Kirk; Hiebert).  Mission ethics in this mode will follow liberation themes.

The other form of a postmodern perspective has its roots in the pre-modern period.  Its ground is not some fragile foundation based on 'pure reason' or scientific proof but a rich tradition that reasons not from but towards first principles (MacIntyre).  It is belief seeking understanding.  Thus the focus of much of its inquiry involves interpreting its sacred texts, embodying its narratives in community, and evaluating the tradition's good and bad performances through history.  This shifts the emphasis from epistemology to hermeneutics (as with deconstructive postmodernity), but a tradition both lives by its own narrative and makes claims about reality and truth beyond itself. A 'tradition inquiry' in mission ethics will be more narrative than anthropological, more communal than contextual, more interested in Biblical mission narratives than a single theological theme (liberation, reconciliation), more concerned with interpreting the Bible than reflecting upon it after praxis, more interested in exploring mission and ethics in the community's historical vision, convictions, and practices, and more interested in developing churches of moral and mission discourse and practice.  A 'tradition' inquiry will identify different versions of Christian mission and ethics, evaluate ideal and actual performances within those traditions, and engage in a critical discussion between the various Christian traditions (Anabaptist, Holiness, Reformed, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, etc.).

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