The Church as a Social Ethic

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Church
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According to Hauerwas, the category “ethics” is a relatively new development.  Beginning with Aquinas, there slowly started to develop a fissure between formative practices and virtuous action.  Furthermore, there was a division that was propagated between virtuous actions and its connection to God.  This eventually culminated in the Enlightenment’s rationalization of virtues apart from their empowerment in the Triune God.
It was only a short step from there to a secular humanism that believed virtue was entirely possible within the human person without any reference to God as the source of righteousness or the ground of empowerment to live a holy life.  The erosion of an objective foundation for such moral conduct provided little or no reason for any moral conduct.  As Nietzsche clearly understood, the only viable option left, without a moral center, was a “will to power” stemming from a fatalistic “nihilism.”  In essence, “ethics” merely became a way to get what we desired through power and manipulation.

The erosion of the confidence sought by modernity has overwhelmingly impacted our understanding of “ethics.”  For one, those within this culture have felt that there is no irreducible and foundational ground upon which to make overarching truth claims based upon meta-narratives.  The conclusion many have reached is that truth, virtue, and ethics are all relative.  Each person must decide what is true for them and it cannot be imposed by another as true for everyone.  Unfortunately, congregants within the Church have fared little better.  We have been just as shaped by these forces as has our culture.  The challenge for the contemporary Church has been to re-establish the “ground” of ethics.

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics contends that worship is the place where we are shaped.  In fact, every human gathering, because we are communal creatures, is worship or ascribing “worth” to something.  It is through our gatherings, in whatever context, that we are shaped toward “the good.”  No gathering is without bias.  However, no two gatherings are equally formational.  There are a number of factors that play into this arena.  These gatherings’ (i.e., amusement park versus boot camp) ability to shape attendees depends upon the commitment expected, the willingness of the participant to be shaped, frequency of meetings, and other such factors.

In similar capacity, simply participating in the “liturgy” does not automatically change a person.  Rather, it must engage the whole person in order for transformation to be possible.  It is not simply about what we do but primarily revolves around who we are and who we are becoming in light of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus.  Worship orients us to what is of ultimate value.  Thus, the Church provides a radical counter-cultural context for transformation in the image of God.

The “gathering” or ekklesia’s purpose is to reflect the character and nature of God back into the world.  Again, “ethics” is a nebulous term if it is without ground for its sustainability.  God provides the “ground” from which “ethics” arise.  However, as Hauerwas succinctly narrates, the ekklesia does not simply practice a social ethic, rather it is a social ethic.  “Ethics names the ways in which disciples discern and embody Christ’s life in the world, and the chief way they learn how to do this is through worship.”[1]

The Church is called the Body of Christ, not simply because it is a collection of loose individuals, because it is to embody the living Christ in our world.  The Church does not always live this out effectively.  Yet, where Christ is embodied we can say that the Church is a social ethic.  As the world comes into contact with the Church and as the members of the Body of Christ participate in that communion, they are both oriented toward God and God’s ultimate view of what is right and good.  Ethics cannot be separated from who we are.  For this reason, ethics is not simply something we practice but is intimately connected to our “being.”  In other words, it is a social ethic; it does not merely practice social ethics.

However, our “being” is not separated from our activity.  Instead, “thick” practices intimately engage and shape our desires thus molding our character toward a specific telos (i.e., Kingdom life or Christ-likeness).  James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom suggests a similar sentiment by supplying a connection between our continuous practices that contribute to the person we are and are becoming.  For Hauerwas, this formative “thick” practice is located in the Eucharist.

Hauerwas’ take on “ethics” stems largely in response to the modernist agenda.  Hauerwas quotes Yoder, writing:

’Christian ethics’ has become – indeed, for the 200 years of its life has, perhaps, always been –the story of how the Church has set aside its practice and adopted a Kantian epistemology in an effort to secure relevance and consensus.  It has been so much taken for granted that the Church had a fundamental stake in the sustenance of liberal social orders that it has gone without question that the Christianity applicable to Christian ethics was that outlined by Kant and characterized by Ritschl and Troeltsch – a Stoic inner conviction of human dignity and individual autonomy, with a sense of finitude and a orientation toward common striving, sometimes called brotherhood… When practices such as baptism are ignored on the grounds that baptism has nothing to do with ‘ethics,’ then the history of Christian ethics cannot help but become an account of what this or that historical figure said about this or that moral problem (33-34).[2]

Thus, according to Hauerwas, ethics is not merely an intellectual affair, the task of reason, or the effort of humanism but must necessarily engage the person on a practical level that is steeped in the traditions of the Church.

The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hayes provides a counterpoint to Hauerwas’ formulation of Christian ethics.  Hayes contends several elements of Hauerwas’ Christian ethics to be faulty and unsustainable.  To begin, Hauerwas’ understanding of tradition, rather than Scripture, as the fundamental foundation for Christian ethics is problematic and concerning.  That is not to say that Scripture is entirely unimportant in Hauerwas’ methodology.  Rather, Scripture can only be rightly understood in the context of Christian community, not by the individual.  It is the Christian tradition, its practices, and the community of believers that guide and instruct us to understand Scripture’s claims upon our lives.

Hays quotes Hauerwas’ picture of how this methodology unfolds within the Church, writing:

The nature of Christian ethics is determined by the fact that Christian convictions take the form of a story, or perhaps better, a set of stories that constitutes a tradition, which in turn creates and forms a community.  Christian ethics does not begin by emphasizing rules or principles, but by calling our attention to a narrative that tells of God’s dealing with creation.[3]

Thus, as noted previously, Hauerwas envisions the traditions of the Church to be the norming force of Christians.

As Hays notes, Hauerwas engages the hermeneutical circle by way of tradition and experience, which he hopes will lead to a full understanding of Scripture.  However, this seems to undermine the role of Scripture as a tool for shaping the community of believers, as well as, revealing God’s Self to those outside the community.  That does not discount the role of the community, but it does not limit God’s ability to speak to individuals either.  God calls both individuals and communities into the very life of God.  Why should Scripture, as a means of grace, function any differently?

Furthermore, as Wesley understood the hermeneutical circle, tradition was not a “source” but a tool for understanding.  Scripture testifies to God’s revelation.  Experience articulates life.  Reason and Tradition are tools used to synthesize experience and Scripture.  However, both Reason and Tradition can be wrong.  Experience and Scripture may be wrongly interpreted, but that only invites a new look at the raw data that these sources provide.

As such, it is difficult to see how tradition can be any less problematic of a ground than “principles” from Scripture for understanding ethics.  Even within various Christian traditions is a wide array of understandings of even such practices as Eucharist.  Thus, we are left at an impasse, with Hauerwas’ model, in determining which tradition, if any, is the model that should be followed.  Not to mention, there have been a number of instances where tradition has admittedly been wrong about the conclusions it has drawn concerning its life and practices (i.e., indulgences, Crusades, Inquisition).  The Protestant tradition, evidenced in Wesley, has understood Scripture to play an important role in guiding and correcting the sometimes false assumptions and presuppositions of the Church.

Hauerwas’ focus on practices is not altogether unhelpful.  Tangible practices can have a dramatic impact on us because we are spatial creatures that inhabit bodies.  Inevitably, kinesthetic learning can play an instrumental role in our formation.  Nevertheless, those practices must first be rooted in the stories of Scripture.  Traditions are shaped and corrected by our experience (understood properly as “experiment” by Wesley) and Scripture.

Likewise, Hauerwas in essence neglects the Christocentric work of the Spirit in the community of believers.  Tradition can be a helpful tool, no doubt.  And, it can be a way that the Spirit engages us.  However, the Protestant tradition is reluctant to depend upon practices as the sole formation of believers, lest we fall into the same trap as the Pharisees of the New Testament.  The Pharisees were rigorous in their outward works, which neglected the weightier matters of the Law because they had incorrectly understood the purpose of such rituals.  In fact, Jesus quite often rebukes the Pharisees for doing all that is required by the Law but remaining unclean inside.  Is Christian tradition any less prone to the similar temptations that faced the Pharisees?  Decidedly not!  In fact, quite often we have used tradition as a means of justifying actions that are antithetical to the good news in Christ Jesus.

Hauerwas’ emphasis on tradition ultimately falls short of a solid foundation for Christian ethics.  As Wesleyans, we believe that prevenient grace conveys a truth about God’s nature.  Simply put, God seeks us in order that we might respond to God and become children of God.  That work is not dependent upon us beyond simply receiving the gift that God has made available in Christ Jesus.  As such, it is quite possible for God to make God’s Self known to the unbeliever through Scripture… even outside the Church.  The Church plays a significant role in making God known in the world by living as a microcosm of the Kingdom now come.  But, that does not mean that God is bound to act and reveal God’s Self only through the Church!

Yet, I agree with Hauerwas in understanding human persons as communal creatures.  Part of God’s plan of redemption is to bring about shalom between us and God, others, and creation.  Thus, opposed to a rugged individualism, Christians are incorporated into the Body of Christ through Baptism and through the continual eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ given in the Eucharist.  Life is not simply about “me and Jesus.”  Not to mention, the apostolic traditions of the Church remind us that this is not “our” individual faith, but one that has been passed down and must be passed on.  Equally important, it is a faith that has been empowered by the Spirit of God through Christ Jesus to the glory of the Father.



Hauerwas, Stanley, and Samuel Wells. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. Malden: Blackwell, 2006.

Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: Harper, 1996.

[1] Hauerwas, Stanley, and Samuel Wells. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 26.

[2] Hauerwas, Stanley, and Samuel Wells. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 33-34.

[3] Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), 262.


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