“As long as you don’t hurt anybody else”

It seems to me that when dealing with questions of morality, Christians have got themselves into a bit of an unBiblical muddle. Far too often in debates over sexual practice I hear the argument that goes something like this – As long as you don’t hurt anybody else, surely you should be able to do what you want? I mean, if two people love each other and it’s not hurting anybody else, or even affecting them, how can we object?

Of course this argument is an appeal to the Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Often Matthew 22:39 is cited with an explanation that care for one’s neighbour is the paramount conduct instructed by Jesus. Surely monogamous, mutual affection which isn’t causing physical or emotional harm to those beyond it constitutes keeping this rule?

The reality of the use of the Golden Rule in Christian ethics is remarkably different. For a start, Jesus’ use of the Golden Rule contains a variance to that expressed by other religions which completely turns the normal argument on its head. You can read a list of the Golden Rule in many of the world’s religions here and here. Going down the faiths you can see that there is a great degree of similarity in the initial positions. Whether Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian or otherwise, they all seem to express the same thoughts around reciprocity.

Look closer though at the articulation of the Golden Rule in the Gospels and you’ll see that it is utterly different to that of other faiths. Here’s the full exchange between the Pharisee and Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Now in context we see that the Golden Rule is relegated to second place in relationship to another rule which is “the great and first commandment” – to love the Lord your God with everything that you are. Suddenly we are presented with a higher regard than simply the effect of our actions on our neighbours. Jesus only presents such considerations as secondary to the primary concern that your life should be handed over to God in all that you think and say and do.

So the real issue is, what does it mean to love the Lord your God with all your heart etc? Well, Jesus very clearly says “If you love me you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). A love of God is a life that lets itself be lived the way God intends it – it is a life that sells its wants and desires and follows Jesus and his path (Matthew 19:16-22). It is a life that realises that simply doing something that doesn’t harm other human beings isn’t enough – the prior question is whether it is something that God would want us to do in the first place. Our ethical decisions aren’t just to be based in anthropomorphic concerns – they have as much to do with God as they do with our fellow human.

To come back to the title of this post, what Jesus teaches us is that it doesn’t actually matter if we don’t hurt anybody else with our actions. If our choices hurt God and mar his image in us, living and acting in ways that he didn’t intend us to, then we have failed the greater commandment before we even begin to address the Golden Rule. An ethic that doesn’t begin with God and his desires for us is an ethic that ultimately rejects the words of Jesus, not one that is resting within them.

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  • ryan

     Interesting analysis Peter, but I assume that the sort of people you describe would respond by saying that a) individuals still have to decide what behaviours are right with God and b) they can’t conceive of a God who would condemn loving relationships etc. Personally I would remphasise my personal opinion that the merits or otherwise of *Biblical* arguments againt (e.g.) homosexuality aren’t sufficient reason to prohibit the rights of people who aren’ Christian. Curious if you’ll be blogging about the Scott Rennie case, incidently.

  • John Foxe

    Of course the Golden Rule, as often expressed, is put negatively, ie do no harm to others. But that is not the positive Biblical approach which is: do good to others.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe.

  • I was listening in the car today to a discussion about human rights, and it struck me how human rights as a legal secular human concept is utterly inadequate — on a good day everybody agrees what they are and behaves themselves, but when the chips are really down things unravel a la DRCongo, or WW2. The US is usually the constitutional paragon of law and order in the world, but they still opened up Guantanamo. But I believe people deserve respect not out of some human subjective construct founded on agreement, because, however inadequately, they bear the image of God. It’s God’s image that’s objective and not negotiable.

    By this standard harm and good are measured by the maker’s mark, not just by subjective feelings. It completely changes the way the basic premise about not harming people feels. You mar the image, you hurt yourself…