Published April, 2008 in the Greater Phoenix Christian Chronicle
Ethical rules fall into three fairly distinct categories. First, there are universal rules, which apply to all people in all places, such as, “Do not murder,” or, “Devote time to God in prayer.” Second, there are particular rules, which apply to all people in a group or common circumstance, such as, “Drive 65 or less on most American interstates,” or, “Obey your superiors in the military.” Finally, there are personal rules, which apply only to you, usually based on your individual purpose, character, or commitments, such as, “No alcohol because drunkenness tempts you,” or, “No motorcycle riding because your wife hates it.”
Many well-intentioned people wrongly deny one or more of these categories, and this leads them to be mistaken about how a rule applies. Out of the fear that relativism will take over, some people deny personal rules and turn everything into a universal, such as, “No one should celebrate Halloween.” Likewise, out of the fear that absolutism will turn us all into robots, others wrongly reduce universals to the merely personal, such as, “I would never have an abortion, myself.”
Yet the Bible teaches principles that fall into all three categories. Thus, knowing how to answer an ethical question often starts with properly understanding into what category the question belongs. For illustration, let’s consider three fairly simple ethical issues: murder, sex, and alcohol consumption.
First, imagine the somewhat bizarre situation that a stranger asks you whether it’s okay for him to murder another person. Without hesitation, you say it is not, and you may well seek additional information for the sake of public safety. When people are mistaken about murder, we correct them. If they say it is merely a personal choice, we explain that it is always wrong. But even if they say that it is wrong because it is illegal in America (making it a particular rule), we still correct them by emphasizing that it would be wrong anywhere, even if it weren’t illegal.
Second, imagine if some stranger came and asked you whether it’s okay for him to have sex. You would immediately seek to know what category he is in: married or unmarried. If he is married, sex is mandatory, but if he is unmarried, it is prohibited. Certainly, there can be refinements in personal situations, but that is the ordinary particular rule regarding sex. Obviously, you would also want to be sure that the woman in question is his wife. As this example shows, one interesting thing about particular rules is that they often constitute the exact boundary that distinguishes one category of people from another. Once again, we see that getting the category wrong demands correcting. If someone thinks sex is for everyone or no one, or thinks that some unmarrieds may indulge but other marrieds may abstain (for long periods), they are simply wrong, and part of educating them would involve correcting these category mistakes.
Finally, consider that a stranger wants you to tell him whether drinking alcohol is okay. You might begin by telling him that drunkenness is wrong, particularly so when it is a regular habit. Next, you might inquire as to whether he thinks he has a problem consuming it in moderation. If so, you would surely counsel him against it. Perhaps you would ask him where he intends to drink. At a wedding or at his home, fine. In a park or in front of a former alcoholic, not so much. In Saudi Arabia or in Wisconsin? The difference matters. You might inquire about his finances, his age, what his religion teaches, whether he intends to be driving afterward, and even what his family thinks about alcohol. In other words, you can’t just answer the question quickly because the proper reply depends on a hundred variables. What muddies the waters even more is that this personal rule can take on the appearance of a particular rule, for instance if the man is Muslim or Mormon. But since it is not always a category issue, we don’t start by presuming it to be.
So how does all of this help us? Simple. There is a universal rule to love others. This requires us to assist them in living well, which means we must be careful to correctly know whether, when, and how the rules apply to them. Just knowing the difference between these categories is an excellent start in practically doing this.