One Rule

When discussing morality and ethics, atheists are wont to say that they are actually more moral than theists because they do what is right because it is right, not out of fear of punishment or hope for a reward. While I will grant that higher morality transcends personal interest, I take exception with anyone, atheist or Christian, who depicts Christian morality in terms of rules enforced through threat or bribe.

The New Testament presents but one rule to govern the lives of Christ’s constituents.  The various biblical writers express it in different ways.  Here is my favorite expression of the one rule:

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.  Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15-16 NIV)

The problem with the “right for the sake of right” ethical formula is that it requires every adherent to be “right.”  Sadly, we’re not all right.  Many of us are very broken.  Sitting here right now I can’t think of anyone who has done wrong because it is wrong.  That being the case, how on earth could we ever expect that humans would ever on a large scale do what is right because it is right? 

Since we can’t count on others to do right, we’ll need to limit human behaviors through laws enforced by duly appointed officials.  Which means that people will do right because they fear punishment.  On an interpersonal level, we’ll need social norms and societal approval or censure to bring people into conformity.  In other words, humans will do what is acceptable in order to be accepted and not rejected – in order to gain reward or avoid punishment. 

Who can deny that these forces inhibit genuine individual liberty?  Given this complex set of incentives, who can claim high morality?  I submit that only genuine Christians are truly free and therefore truly moral.  They have been remade in the image of God demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ.    In Christ ,doing and being have become one.  We have become whole.  Our behavior is driven by our inner life.  When human laws or expectation coincide with right we transcend those motives.  When they conflict, we defy them.  Followers of Christ observe the one rule, “the new creation.” 


  1. The threat reward-model is, at least I think, a big reason why people that have left religion are tired of it, in its traditional forms especially. Christopher Hitchens said that people are tried of being bullied and I think he was right about that in both religion, politics and economics. (as the occupy movement shows) Interestingly researchers are starting to discover that people are inherently good and so not in need of threat-reward as much as traditional systems believe. Dachner Keltner has explored this in great detail That whole site is really great actually. Google ‘mirror neurons’ researchers are starting to see our brains naturally feel empathy by ‘reflecting’ the exact same brain activity as the person we are observing. Here are my thought on it from last year. Alway s a pleasure dropping by.

    1. Of course, this begs the question, if people are basically good and I think that from a certain perspective the Scripture bears that up, why do they end up doing bad? Why do we need laws at all? I don’t know anyone who has read Romans 7:14-24 and could not identify. What do you think?

      1. yes I would think some people are inherently bad, lacking empathy. Even if we are naturally empathetic human behaviour is not that simple, not by a long shot. However it does help to explain why different completely different systems can lead to the same kind of behaviours and attitudes. Fascinating stuff.

  2. This is all very interesting – The longer I look at what Jesus actually taught and did during his time on earth, the more I am convinced he was trying to eradicate religion itself – i.e. this human directed behavior-modification program whereby “bad” people are turned into “good” people by performing according to the “rules.”

    Jesus pretty much systematically bashed that machine to pieces. He also thumbed his nose at the religious institution that painted God as the tyrant-ogre-bully god who was there to scare people into the religious machine. Instead he offered up statements like “Well, if you have seen me, then you have seen the Father who sent me” and then gave maddening examples time after time of a Father who is quite fond of “bad” people who just can’t live up to the standards of religion. Isn’t this why they killed him?

    He wasn’t coming to institute and alternative religion, but to completely dismantle it altogether and replace it with the open-invitation of God. “Look, see – I have wiped away the need to jump through any hoops. Here I am if you want me. If you want a religious system, go somewhere else because you will never ever know me that way. If you just want to live your own life, fine. Either way, when you get sick of doing your own thing, I’m right here with an alternative path to freedom.”

    Oh, how we “Christians” continue to miss it. We present a door to freedom on the outside, but as soon as people enter in, we shackle them with the same damned religious garbage that people were looking to escape from. Have mercy on us Jesus, for we never knew you.

    1. Hmmm … in my quickly mashed out example I put the words “alternative path to freedom” in God’s mouth, but that sounds too religious too, and thus misses it I think, perhaps.

  3. An interesting post Spiritualsavant. I was ironically going to do some posts on morality in my blog given time but as yet they are still work in progress.

    As you say, I’m pretty sure christians don’t do things because they are coerced or bribed, though the carrot at the end of the stick is of course a ticket to heaven. This fear of course is indoctrinated in christians in order to gain conformity within umbrella of the church. I don’t think this is an overriding reason in why christians do things, because they are human at the end of the day and do things of their own volition, and if they say god is making them do it then they aren’t really in control of their own minds, life isn’t a Matrix film scenario, we do things because we want to do them, otherwise what would be the point of life if we were mere puppets controlled by a god?

    In my contact with christians I find many, including friends of mine feel they need to atone for the past in some respect sometimes based on guilt which is hard to shake. They genuinely fear death and hope by doing good deeds they can go to heaven or simply make amends and correct the balance a little, karma I guess.

    Back to morality in general. Christians can hardly claim a superior moral high ground when the bible endorses rape, misogyny, racism and murder. Jesus refers to the Gentiles as ‘dogs’ in both Matthew and Mark, if that isn’t a clear example of racism then I don’t know what is.

    If you were to ask me why I don’t steal then my answer would simply be ‘because it’s wrong to do so’. A christian would probably comment along the lines of something biblical and that if you steal then there will be repercussions come when you die, judgement day et al. This goes back to my carrot and stick mentality. I choose not to steal because I know it’s wrong, christians know it’s wrong too but they have the added gravity of judgement hanging over them, ‘If I choose not to steal then god will let me into heaven because I’ve been good in his eyes’.

    So that said, my actions are done of free will without any thought of heaven, hell or judgement, I just know simply that it is wrong to steal, which I believe gives me higher morality over a christian because no fears or incentives are present therefore none theistic morality strikes me as being more noble and genuine.

    1. Thank you for your contribution to the dialogue. I totally see where you’re coming from. However, what you’ve seen regarding Christian motives is quite far from the New Testament representation of the ideal Christian approach to right living. You don’t steal because its wrong. I don’t steal because I don’t want to. I also don’t want to view pornography, cheat on my wife, defraud the government etc. Conversely, I want to care for the hurting and help others to flourish. I believe God gave me those desires and when I act them out I am doing so out of my genuine center. Dig it?

  4. Oh I totally dig it. You say you don’t steal because you don’t want to but that said, we both know its wrong. If I had to steal to survive then perhaps I would but that changes the perspectives somewhat.

    Don’t you find it interesting that before christianity and biblical times came along, the ancient Greeks had invented ‘Ethics’? Perhaps we should both look to great inquiring minds of that time and draw inspiration, now surely that is something to dig my friend.

    1. Very good point. Perhaps the issue is not whether a person redeemed or not knows right from wrong but whether a person consistently does what is right and avoids the wrong. Consider Romans 7:14-25. Why do you suppose that we humans so often find ourselves in the dilemma which Paul describes?

      1. Good point. What we can take from the bible is what is termed as the ‘Golden Rule’, I believe there are two versions of it in the bible being ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (which Jesus quoted from Leviticus) and ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them’. Which as we both know are basically ‘Do as you would be done by’ and who can argue with that?

  5. I’ve been meaning to get into this thread for a few days now, but have been a bit busy.

    As for the mirror neurons, yes they exist, and when allowed to develop in that crucial window, the resulting child develops into an adult that can easily be qualified as ‘basically good ‘. When life hasn’t allowed that growth in the correct window, children aren’t able to empathize like the rest of us. It is like the kittens who aren’t allowed to see either horizontal or vertical lines in the correct time window, and are unable to see them later in life.

    So if were to do all things possible to raise the children correctly, we would find ourselves no longer surrounded by bad people, but other things like government would fade away as well.

    Hobbit (love the Nick btw) is correct in stating the moral high ground can’t be claimed by the three Jehovic faiths. Morality must be universally applicable, and that is why things such as lies, theft, rape, and government fail morally. I did recently did take a stance against the Golden Rule on my blog.

    Children do take the ideas of Hell and Heaven seriously and the threat of punishment does seem to take precedence, even to the point of excessive fear of death.

    As for stealing in hunger, yes I might; but as V noted in V for Vendetta, one can’t steal from the government as all its property is stolen. I believe I could survive without stealing from people.
    About a year ago, I came up with an interesting thought experiment
    If I was on a crew to Alpha Centauri, would I be willing to lie to have the earth believe we were not alone? Would I be willing to kill for it? Don’t think I could kill for that reason, but the lie is tricky considering how much such a belief would benefit mankind.

    1. Good stuff. (pun intended) I don’t think we needed Berkley to tell us that humans can empathize. We know that; but does that mean that humans are basically good? For instance I might empathize with you but still torture you in my own interest (think Stanley Milgram) or for a perceived greater good (Stalin made a lot of bloody omelets). Would the fact that I empathized with you make you feel better?
      Now here’s where the discussion gets interesting. I don’t believe that morality is ever universally applicable. I’m sure we will agree to disagree on this one because of our disparate ontology. Consider Jesus’ words to the young man in Matthew 19:16-17. When asked about what good thing a person might do to be worthy of eternal life, Jesus discounted the whole issue of “good” by saying, “There is only One who is good.” God defines good; he does not submit to our formulation of it.
      So, how can a human be good? He can accept the indwelling God to restore him to the imago dei. Once that happens, a man can be said to be good. Following the one rule, he has transcended any and every external moral code along with the pursuant consequences. (1 Tim. 1:9-11; Gal. 5:22-26; 1John 4:12-18)

      1. Yes, I think that from the “Christian” argument we have to start with a basic assumption set of assumptions – that God was creator of humans, He had a specific plan and purpose in mind when He designed us, and that the “Fall” essentially frustrated that purpose in the sense that humans no longer functioned according to their intended design. In that sense, yes – God would be justified in defining what our correct functioning should look like. As a software designer I can absolutely appreciate that. I design an application with a certain set of parameters, functions, etc. and if the program fails, throws a bug, or does not live up to its design specifications there is something wrong. I may want to redefine the expected results, but this would be lazy work on my part.

        But of course, our atheist neighbors do not accept our set of assumptions, so they feel perfectly justified in defining the right/wrong functioning of humanity on their own set of principles – derived not from an explicit, intelligent Design, but from an ever evolving one. It just happens to be that this is, I think, impossible to nail down as it can only serve the needs of any person or group of people in the moment. What could possibly be “universal” about a organically based code of animal conduct? I think most social behavior studies among primates even have concluded that they only get along to help ensure their own basic survival. Right and wrong in that sense is very self-serving. With humans the layers of social complexity is amplified. How can any culture or government really be held accountable to any set of moral code? Those of us on the outside of a perceived violation only intervene as we feel it even threatens us, or offends our sense of social identity. But what makes the offense itself explicitly “right” or “wrong”? Only because a group of us decides to define it that way for the common good of the moment? What if we decide next week its not in our best interest? Societies certainly can and do function in this manner all the time – its how most of our governments work – (whether they work well or not is a matter of opinion).

        So, I just cannot buy any argument that says if we are a product of purely natural selection (i.e. no God who purposefully designed humans), than there is anything resembling a universal code of morality. There is what may pass as mutually beneficial codices for preserving the welfare of the race, but there is really no “society of man” so established that we would be held accountable in any way to it. There could only be an ever evolving and fragmented set of societies that will define their own enrichment and protection in the moment that they live, and the rest of us will respond as we see most expedient to our own welfare.

        But of course, I accept a different set of assumptions to start out with, so that changes everything for me … 😉 I accept that God is exactly who He says He is, that humanity’s design was derailed and that we are not functioning according to the intended design or within the parameters intended, but that God’s plan is still on course, the bugs have been purged from the next version, the system will be reformatted, and we will all receive a radical firmware upgrade and possibly a hardware one to boot!

        Happy blogging all …

        1. I do so love the way you think – and you think a lot. I also love the tech analogy. I think Jesus would have used them and that he does use them. You rock, my brother!

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