Many mighty deeds have been done in the past, “for the greater good,” some of which we may think are not exactly honest, or the best course of action as far as Biblical principles are concerned.
To begin with, I would like to define the word “ethics”. Ethics are moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity. They are rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular group or culture, such as medical ethics or Christian ethics.
Ethics always try to dictate what is in the best interest of a person or group of people. In some settings, it can be asked, is it right to be dishonest for a good cause? Would it be less ethical to be truthfully honest; could absolute truth cause more harm or discouragement to another person? For example, when an elderly person becomes terminally ill (e.g. cancer discovered throughout the body), I have seen in the hospital occasions where the family members do not want to let the elderly person know how really sick they are. They want to hide the truth from them, thinking that the person will give up on life if they knew the truth. Is this ethical?
Situation ethics is an ideology that takes into account the particular context of an act when evaluating it ethically, rather than judging it according to absolute moral standards. With the intent to have a fair basis for judgments or action, one looks to personal ideals of what is appropriate to guide them, rather than an unchanging universal code of conduct, such as Biblical law under diving command theory.
Joseph F. Fletcher wrote a book on this subject called, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966). In the book he speaks of flexibility in the application of moral laws according to circumstances. He outlined his objections to both moral absolutism (the view that there are fixed universal moral principles that have binding authority in all circumstances) and supported moral relativism (the view that there are no fixed moral principles at all). His view is that ethics cannot be defined by absolute laws, but on the general Christian principle of brotherly love, which is expressed in different ways in different situations. https://www.britannica.com/topic/situation-ethics
Fletcher, stated that “‘all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love’ in the particular situation, and thus may be broken or ignored if another course of action would achieve a more loving outcome. Within the context of the complexities of the situation, one should come to the most loving or right decision as to what to do.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situational_ethics
Each situation is unique and complex; and it can be callous or inhumane to deal with all problems in an absolute manner. Two examples Fletcher gave are: firstly, the wrongness of abortion no matter what the circumstances within the pregnancy occurs, and secondly, the time when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 152,000 innocent people, causing Japan to surrender. When trying to decide whether or not to use the atomic bomb in this situation, the governing bodies in the USA decided that the lives saved by ending the war swiftly by using these bombs outweighed the lives destroyed by using it and concluded that this was the most ethical course of action, “for the greater good.”
Was not this the same argument the religious leaders used in Jesus’ day? Did they not kill Jesus “for the greater good”? “And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” John 11:49–50
Can we agree with what Joseph Fletcher wrote about? I hope we all disagree. There are many Christian churches, though, who would adhere to this belief because
they put what they call “love” above the law of God. They state that love is the ultimate law, and for “the greater good,” sometimes the law of God has to—be bent or compromised a little.
Situation ethics therefore often tries to consider actions done for what they think is “the greater good” (for love).
In the beginning Lucifer began his rebellion by what he claimed was a good cause. “Lucifer had presented the purposes of God in a false light—misconstruing and distorting them to excite dissent and dissatisfaction. . . . While claiming for himself perfect loyalty to God, he urged that changes in the order and laws of heaven were necessary for the stability of the divine government.” –Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 38. Lucifer’s claim was that for “the greater good”, changes needed to be made in heaven. We see the end result of the changes Lucifer had in mind, and I am sure we can all agree that it was not for the greater good.
Going back into Biblical times, you can read of many people who acted erroneously for what they claimed was “for the greater good.” They made their own decisions based on what they thought was “for the greater good.” And even though they may not have been exactly honest and truthful in acting “for the greater good,” they reason as did Adam and Eve that, “This is a very small sin, and will never be taken into account. But God treated the matter as a fearful evil, and the woe of their transgression will be felt through all time.” –Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 311–312. That all important word, “but”. We may reason one way, but, what does the Bible say? What would Jesus say?
Abraham, a great man of God, made a mistake in this regard. Was it not in his best interest for Abraham to tell a little lie when he went temporarily to sojourn in Egypt? He told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. It was only a small white lie—a half-truth. After all, Sarah was his half-sister and he was only trying to protect her and himself—“for the greater good.” His wife was beautiful and he feared they would kill him and take her for themselves, which was not an uncommon occurrence in those days.
“During his stay in Egypt, Abraham gave evidence that he was not free from human weakness and imperfection. In concealing the fact that Sarah was his wife, he betrayed a distrust of the divine care, a lack of that lofty faith and courage so often and nobly exemplified in his life.” –Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 130. Thankfully the Lord spared him and his wife from any further distress, and Abraham repented of his sin rather than continuing on in obstinacy, as did Lucifer.
Samson was judge over Israel and was a thorn in the flesh of the Philistines. The Philistines came to Israel to capture Samson, but he hid. The men of Judah knew where he was, and for “the greater good” of the nation, they felt it was best to turn him over to Philistines—to betray their own countryman.
“Then three thousand men of Judah went to the top of the rock Etam, and said to Samson. . . we are come down to bind thee, that we may deliver thee into the hand of the Philistines.” Judges 15:11. Samson did comply, and the Lord turned this treachery of his countrymen into a great victory. He ended up killing 1000 Philistine men of war. How many other men, throughout history, have been betrayed by their own people—friends, relatives, church members—“for the greater good”? For example, in World War I, many faithful Seventh-day Adventist brethren and sisters had been betrayed by the very church members they worshipped with in the recent past. Many ended up in prison and even in death—”for the greater good.”
King Saul offered a sacrifice to the Lord (a duty which only the priests were permitted to do), “for the greater good,” to encourage his waning army. Samuel had promised to come, but was delayed. “With growing impatience he awaited the arrival of Samuel and attributed the confusion and distress and desertion of his army to the absence of the prophet. The appointed time came, but the man of God did not immediately appear. God’s providence had detained His servant. But Saul’s restless, impulsive spirit would no longer be restrained. Feeling that something must be done to calm the fears of the people, he determined to summon an assembly for religious service, and by sacrifice entreat the divine aid. God had directed that only those consecrated to the office should present sacrifices before Him. But Saul commanded, ‘Bring hither a burnt offering;’ and, equipped as he was with armor and weapons of war, he approached the altar and offered sacrifice before God.” –Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 618. Although conducting a religious service is a good thing, in this context it was not according to God’s will. Saul was punished when Samuel showed up. He was told that his sons will not reign in the kingdom after him (1 Samuel 13:14). King Saul’s spiritual life declined after this incident. He did not genuinely repent.
David had been anointed king of Israel to take the throne after King Saul. King Saul was not pleased with this and sought to slay David. He hunted him like a wild animal. David, taking matters into his own hands, thought that the safest place for him to live was with the enemies of Israel. “For the greater good” of himself and his family, he went to the Philistines.
The first time he went alone and was not received so warmly. “David fled to Achish, the king of Gath; for he felt that there was more safety in the midst of the enemies of his people than in the dominions of Saul. But it was reported to Achish that David was the man who had slain the Philistine champion years before; and now he who had sought refuge with the foes of Israel found himself in great peril. But, feigning madness, he deceived his enemies and thus made his escape.” –Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 656
David left Gath and wandered around in the wilderness with a group of faithful followers. After being tired of wilderness living, he again went to the same king in Gath, King Achish. This time he was not alone, but went with his fellow soldiers and their families. “For the greater good” and safety of his little support group, he thought to try King Achish again. This time he was received more warmly and was given the city of Ziklag to live in. However, “The Lord did not send David for protection to the Philistines, the most bitter foes of Israel. This very nation would be among his worst enemies to the last, and yet he had fled to them for help in his time of need. Having lost all confidence in Saul and in those who served him, he threw himself upon the mercies of the enemies of his people. God was dishonored by David’s unbelief.” –Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 672
In order to maintain the favour of King Achish, David went on to strengthen the nation of the Philistines by warring against their enemies. However, “for the greater good” David told the king he was fighting the Israelites, which was not true; but, to maintain his safety, he though it would be in his best interest.
“While dwelling in this isolated town David made war upon the Geshurites, the Gezrites, and the Amalekites, and he left none alive to bring tidings to Gath. When he returned from battle he gave Achish to understand that he had been warring against those of his own nation, the men of Judah. By this dissembling he was the means of strengthening the hand of the Philistines; for the king said, ‘He hath made his people Israel utterly to abhor him; therefore he shall be my servant forever.’ David knew that it was the will of God that those heathen tribes should be destroyed, and he knew that he was appointed to do this work; but he was not walking in the counsel of God when he practiced deception.” –Patriarchs and Prophets, p 673. All this was not acceptable to God. David nearly lost his family and the families of his soldiers when the Amalekites invaded Ziklag in his absence. Thankfully David repented and was considered a man after God’s own heart. However, later we see that the Philistines were the most bitter enemies of David when he was king of Israel. No sin goes unpunished.
Judas joined the disciples for “the greater good.” The disciples argued that his talents would be very useful for the furtherance of the cause of Jesus. That was his reason for the betrayal also. “Judas reasoned that if . . . Jesus was not to die, it would only force Him to deliver Himself. . . . If Jesus really was the Messiah, the people, for whom He had done so much, would rally about Him, and would proclaim Him king. This would forever settle many minds that were now in uncertainty. Judas would have the credit of having placed the king on David’s throne.” –The Desire of Ages, p. 720–721. Was this not what the people of Israel were all waiting for? For Jesus to take the throne of David? Thus, could we not say that Judas thought he was acting in behalf of the nation “for the greater good?” In other words, “situation ethics.” The situation demanded that he betray his Master, for the greater good—for the love of his people (and for the love of himself). It was not the only time in history that men of talent were chosen for certain positions “for the greater good,” whose lives clearly were not in harmony with the principles of the laws of God; and it has happened in God’s church in recent times.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church (as was mentioned earlier), decided they must send their young men into the army in World War I, to save their churches, schools and sanitariums from being confiscated and closed. This was “for the greater good” and it made sense for the church leaders to support the war effort. This was clearly against the spirit of Prophecy counsel given many years earlier. “In the army they cannot obey the truth and at the same time obey the requirements of their officers. There would be a continual violation of conscience.” –Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 361. Times have changed, they could
argue. However, we know the result. There was a division in the church with 98% of the membership being shaken out.
We know from all these examples, that although the people claimed to be acting for “the greater good,” in the eyes of God, they really were not. They were, in reality, acting according to situation ethics. While we can agree that this ideology is not according to the laws and moral standards laid out in the Bible, is it possible that some elements of this ideology can creep into our lives or into the church?
Have you ever felt that you had to “bend the rules”, or act in a manner “for the greater good” that was not exactly in harmony with the Lord? You may act and behave differently in different situations. After King Darius made his decree that no one could worship anyone except himself for 30 days (Daniel 6), Daniel could have gone and prayed in his closet. That would have not been a sin. We are encouraged to have our private prayers in a closet. However, praying in his closet would have been hiding his light under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). Daniel was firm. “Daniel in the lions’ den is the same Daniel who stood before the king, encircled by the light of God.” –Gospel Workers 1892, p. 140
Also, the Apostle Paul found himself in many varying surroundings throughout his career as a messenger of the Lord. “Paul in the dark dungeon, awaiting the sentence which he knew was to come from the cruel Nero, is the same Paul who addressed the court of the Areopagus.” –Ibid, p. 140
So therefore, the counsel is given to us: “A man whose heart is stayed upon God in the hour of his most afflicting trials and most discouraging surroundings, is just what he was in prosperity, when the light and favor of God seemed to be upon him. Faith reaches to the unseen, and grasps eternal things.” –Ibid, p. 140
Perhaps you may not be in an adverse situation like were some of the faithful men in the Bible, such Joseph, Daniel or Paul, but we all come in contact with non-believers, whether friends, family or co-workers every week. Ask yourself, do you dress, speak, or act differently around non-believers (family, friends, work-mates, school-mates) as you do around members of the church, or if church leaders are present? What about on the Sabbath, when you happen to come into contact with non-believers? Do you feel you need to speak and act differently in a way that is not exactly in keeping with the 4th Commandment? Is this how we can have a “better influence” on these worldly people “for the greater good”?
This would not be for the greater good. The truth is that, “The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.” –Education, p. 57. Are you one of these men and women?
When one tries to justify clear disobedience by using the argument, “for the greater good,” or “times have changed,” they place themselves above the law and ultimately try to place themselves above God, as did Lucifer. We can call this “diplomatic immunity”—immune to punishment from breaking the law.
“Diplomatic immunity is a form of legal immunity that ensures diplomats are given safe passage and are considered not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under the host country’s laws, but they can still be expelled.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diplomatic_immunity
In other words, the diplomat cannot be prosecuted under the host nation’s laws, but can be expelled. Their own country may have different laws in different situations, and therefore they cannot be prosecuted under the host nation’s laws. As long as they are good, respectful, moral citizens, they do not have to strictly adhere to the host nation’s moral laws. This has been put into place “for the greater good” of maintaining world peace and respecting each diplomats’ culture and ways of living. It could be said that they are “above the law” of their host nation.
This idea has crept into the religious world as there have always been people who try to place themselves above the law—they are a law unto themselves, governed by their own moral and ethical ideologies. They have a different set of laws for themselves as they have for other members.
King Uzziah went into the temple to make a sacrifice and offer incense. Was this not a good thing? It is said of Uzziah that, “When he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense. And Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him fourscore priests of the LORD, that were valiant men: And they withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honour from the LORD God. Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the LORD, from beside the incense altar.” 2 Chronicles, 26:16–19. He was King, was he not? Could he not do as he pleased? Was he not going about to serve the Lord in the temple? But, he went about it in his own way, not God’s way. Was there a different interpretation of the law for the king as opposed to the common people? God brought swift judgment to show who the true Lawgiver is. No human being is above His law.
Are there people in God’s church who feel that they are entitled to diplomatic immunity? —no punishment for law breaking. They know and understand the laws of God as they were taught them prior to baptism. As time goes on they, at times, bend the rules for themselves, but not for the other members. This can happen in leadership as it happened in the days of Jesus. Many of the Scribes and Pharisees were corrupt and felt no pangs of conscience, but they were exacting on the regular common people. “For the greater good” and peace of the nation, they must enforce strict laws to keep the people in control. For themselves, they use the same argument as Lucifer did—they do not need such strict laws for themselves and “for the greater good”, the wheat and tares must be allowed to continue to growing together. Situation ethics states that there are different moral laws and punishment (or lack thereof) for different people as each individual is different and unique with unique life experiences.
Just like those diplomats in the world who are immune to the host country’s laws can be expelled, also those in the church who live, not according to the laws of God, and seem to “get away with it” due to their position, they will be expelled from the heavenly nation when Jesus returns. They will not even be granted entrance. It may have seemed good for the cause of Jesus to have Judas as one of His followers, but he was clearly expelled in the end.
In the time of the end, the true people of God will face persecution, “for the greater good” of the world that is experiencing difficult times.
“As the Sabbath has become the special point of controversy throughout Christendom, and religious and secular authorities have combined to enforce the observance of the Sunday, the persistent refusal of a small minority to yield to the popular demand will make them objects of universal execration. It will be urged that the few who stand in opposition to an institution of the church and a law of the state ought not to be tolerated; that it is better for them to suffer than for whole nations to be thrown into confusion and lawlessness. The same argument many centuries ago was brought against Christ by the ‘rulers of the people.’ ‘It is expedient for us,’ said the wily Caiaphas, ‘that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.’ John 11:50. This argument will appear conclusive; and a decree will finally be issued against those who hallow the Sabbath of the fourth commandment, denouncing them as deserving of the severest punishment and giving the people liberty, after a certain time, to put them to death.” –The Great Controversy, p. 615–616
The reality is, there is no “greater good” in disobedience to the law of God, regardless of the situation. Situation ethics is non-existent in God’s kingdom. There is no “greater good” in diplomatic immunity. There is one law for Jew and Gentile alike and the greatest good is perfect obedience to the law of God, through the help of the Lord, combined with genuine love.
May God help us to be as true as “the needle is to the pole”, and not act out of harmony with Biblical principles for what we may argue is, “for the greater good”. God’s law is exact, His judgment is particular. Those who are true and faithful will be the target of the enemy as the end draws near, but the promises of God are sure. He will protect and save His faithful children. They will not be expelled from His presence. His greater good will soon triumph, and may we be a part of His greater good. Amen.