Social ethics is the collection of values and behaviors of a given culture or people group. Social ethics vary greatly from culture to culture, but most often the social ethics of civilized societies reflect the moral standards given in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17). For example, most civilized cultures recognize that murder, theft, and taking another man’s woman are morally reprehensible, while courage, generosity, and kindness are laudable. Some scholars point to this universality of inherent moral values as evidence that humanity was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). His moral code is stamped on our DNA.
The religious beliefs of a culture play a huge part in forming its social ethics. In societies where Judeo-Christian values have been influential, the social ethics are generally higher. For example, in countries where Christianity has had an impact, women are generally treated better and have more rights. Human life is given greater value, and the poor and handicapped are cared for instead of ostracized, as they are in some cultures. Comparing cultures with a Christian influence with those with no Christian presence, we see a vast difference in the value placed on education, charitable work, and individual freedom.
When God created a people for Himself, He had to redefine their social ethics. The Israelites had adopted immoral and destructive practices from the pagan nations around them. Much of the Old Testament Law was given to combat the wickedness for which God had sent the flood generations earlier (Genesis 6:5–7). Abraham’s offspring had adopted ungodly social ethics while living in Egypt, so, once God delivered them, He warned them, saying, “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices” (Leviticus 18:3; cf. 20:23; Deuteronomy 6:14). God required a new social ethic of His people.
Christians are called to live in peace with our cultures, as much as is possible, without violating God’s standards (Romans 12:18; Acts 5:29). When the social ethics of our communities follow God’s moral laws, we are free to adopt them. But often they are in conflict. For example, an unmarried couple living together as though married was once in conflict with the social ethics of the United States. Now, however, such immorality is celebrated and even expected. Simply because the social ethics of a culture have changed does not make a wrong action right. There are times when we must refuse to follow the world’s cues and follow Christ. Social ethics cannot trump God’s ethics.
The social ethics of any society cannot be our ultimate guide. Paul wrote to Titus, who was ministering on the island of Crete: “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12–13). First, Paul identifies the social ethics of Cretans: lying, evil behavior, and laziness were considered normal. Then he tells Titus to sharply rebuke such conduct. The social ethics of Crete were incompatible with sound faith.
Believers are to have biblical ethics. We are not to love the world or the world’s system (1 John 2:15–16); our treasure is in heaven (Matthew 6:20). The acceptance of the society to which we belong must never be our highest aim. Where social ethics violate God’s Word, we conform to the Bible.
This world is not our home. We are citizens of another kingdom, here on assignment from our Father, the King (2 Corinthians 5:20). While we live here, we should do whatever possible to honor the ethics of the region where we abide, if that’s what it takes to reach others with the gospel. First Corinthians 9:19–23 is Paul’s instruction as to how we should conduct ourselves according to the social ethics of the people we want to reach: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” For the Christian, God’s social ethics must always be our guide.