Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

The Problem of Moral Relativism

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Delivered on the Lord’s Day | April 13, 2008

I Samuel 28:1-10
John 8:1-11

Writer C.S. Lewis once stated that human beings often operate out of a system of value that says, “My neighbor has done something wrong because he is bad and I did something wrong because I didn’t get enough sleep.” What Lewis is saying is that we human beings are often biased in our moral judgments. We often employ a double standard of morality condemning others for their wrongs but pardoning ourselves for the same wrongs. We are quick to point the finger at others, but slow to apply the same standard of morality and judgment to our own behavior or to those who serve our interests.

This double standard of morality is what ethicists call “moral or ethical relativism” or situational ethics. According to these views, there are no moral absolutes. Ethical judgment is arbitrarily determined by each situation or by a sliding scale of moral evaluation or by personal relationships, context or culture.

This means that not only do I condemn others for certain behaviors and then absolve my self of the same behaviors, but, if someone else that I favor commits an act of immorality, I let them off the hook or look the other way or suspend moral judgment because of my personal relationship with that person.

A case in point may be that I judge someone else’s child for unethical behavior and then do not judge my own child for that same behavior. The fact that it is my child will prejudice my judgment and cause me to be more lenient in my moral evaluation of his behavior.  So in this case it is right for Johnnie because he is my son, but wrong for Jamie because he is your son.

On the other hand, if the person committing an immoral act is someone I do not like or favor, or someone with whom I am not in a personal relationship, I then condemn that person and his behavior as immoral.

In such cases, moral value is often influenced more by self-interest and personal relationships than by objective or universal moral standards.

We see this quite often in politics. One political party will condemn members of an opposing political party for certain actions and then condone members of its own political party for the very same actions. Self-interest becomes the determining factor in considering what is “moral” or “immoral”, “ethical” or “unethical.”

We also sometimes see these double standards of moral relativism in matters of race, class, religion and culture our society.

The recent sermon sound bites of Reverend Jeremiah Wright generating a firestorm of controversy were morally condemned and sensationalized in the national media but the comments of other ministers of other races connected to potential political candidates who have made similar or even more controversial statements over the years are often trivialized, overlooked or underplayed.

All too often in our society, moral standards, that is to say the rightness or wrongness of certain actions are too much based on who is making the judgment, who is being judged, and the self-interests and motives of those rendering the judgment. In this case, moral evaluation is more subjective or personal than objective or universal and based more on how the judgment affects me personally rather than what is the right thing to do in a certain situation.

While in cases of moral relativism self-interests often dictate the ethical standards we apply in any given situation, the truth is there are objective moral and ethical standards that transcend all situations and relate to nearly every person and condition. These standards are not conditional. They should not be manipulated or ultimately determined by self-interests. There are certain moral laws whose objective moral standards pertain to all persons regardless of race, culture, religion, class or some other factor. We could not have just and ordered society without these laws and rules.

So moral relativism involves the establishment of double standards of morality where the determinants of what  is moral or immoral, ethical or unethical are based more on personal relationships, situations or the self-interests of the persons making the judgments rather than a fixed standard of moral laws.

On the other hand, Moral absolutism means that there are fixed moral laws that evenly apply to everybody. Whether you are black or white, rich or poor, have everything or have nothing, the same moral standards apply to everyone without exceptions.

These absolute moral laws say that it should not be one moral code for rich people and another moral code for poor people, or one moral rule for powerful people and another moral rule for powerless people. or one moral judgment for politicians and another judgment for the people; or one way for white people and another way black people; or one way for one political party and another way for the other political party; or one way for members of one religion and then another way for members of another religion. For what becomes a moral double standard based upon relationships, self-interests and other matters for some then is nothing more than moral hypocrisy for others.

Many of the problems we have in our society today are due to the belief that we operate of double standards of morality where what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. We live in a society of laws whose primary foundations are ethical and have moral value. In order for that society to perpetuate itself and keep the confidence of its citizenry, it must be governed by a certain set of laws and moral principles that are absolute. Every law enacted by society should be under girded by moral values and principles that determine what is right or wrong in that society.

Our scriptures in I Samuel and Gospel of John deal with this problem of moral relativism. In the I Samuel 28 text, we find Saul, King of Israel issuing an edict to eradicate Israel all of witches, sorcerers and mediums. Apparently, there has been a problem with the people turning to the fortunetellers, readers and others for “spiritual” advice. You must be careful where you go for spiritual advice.

Now “God had strictly forbidden the Israelites to have anything to do with divination, sorcery, witchcraft, mediums, spiritists or anyone who consults the dead. In Deuteronomy 18:9-14, we find these words. It also says in Exodus 22:18 that sorcerers were to be put to death.

Now the Israelites were arrayed in battle against the formidable Philistine army at a critical time in their history. They needed all of the moral authority and physical strength they could garner to obtain the decisive edge over their enemies. God wants them to be strong. God wants them to have the moral and physical advantage over their adversaries but they must follow his directives.

Going back to words of Deuteronomy 18:12 God says, “”Anyone who does these things (these things meaning burning their children in the fire, anyone practicing these various forms of conjuring up the dead through seances and divination,) is detestable to the Lord and because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you.

And then God says, “You must be blameless before the Lord your God.” In other words, God says, if I am going to do these things through you, you must be morally upright. If you are going to defeat your enemies, you can’t indulge in the same practices as they. God promised to dispossess the pagan nations that practiced sorcery. God told the Israelites what to do to overcome their enemies so they could have final victory. God knew that in order for them to have moral authority and moral probity, they could not do what their enemies did. They would have to follow God and not consult sorcerers and mediums.

So King Saul prayed to God as to how to proceed against this great Philistine army, and when he did not receive an answer, he panicked and disobeyed God. Rather than wait for an answer from God, Saul became impatient and says to one of his men, “God has not answered me so find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.”

So the Israelites who were to be blameless by ridding the land of all sorcerers, now has a king who in one breath issues an edict to rid the land of all witches and sorcerers and in the next breadth out of fear and terror and impatience consults the witch of Endor for advice.

Here again we have the problem of moral relativism or a moral double standard which culminates in moral ambiguity. If God said that he did not want anyone in Israel consulting witches, mediums, sorcerers, those casting spells, that meant everyone. The absolute moral rule was the absolute moral rule. The absolute moral law was the absolute moral law, no exceptions.

It is clear in reading this text that God did not have one set of rules for the people and another set of rules for the king! Both were to abide by the rules that God mandated. There was no moral double standard. Because the king was king did not mean that he had any special moral privileges. If anything, he was to lead by moral example and by leading in this way he would minimize the excuses his followers would use to bail out of their ethical commitments.

The great tragedy in this text is that it was King Saul; the leader, the person that God had put in charge of his people, who violated that moral edict. It was the king who was to take the moral high ground; the king who was to demonstrate his faithfulness to God by following and obeying God. It was the king who was to inspire the people to follow God’s lead by his own faithful example. It was the king who set the moral and spiritual tone for Israel’s future. The king would make the decisive difference by his moral example as to whether Israel would win or lose. The king himself was the chief violator of this moral edict and it was his violation, which set in motion Israel’s failure and eventual defeat by the Philistines.

Not only did he consult the witch of Endor, but sat down and broke bread in her home. He had no business going to her in the first place, no business disguising himself and going to her to raise the dead Samuel for advice especially after God had warned all of Israel against such practices. Had he just waited on God and did what God told him to do. Had he just realized that his role as leader had profound moral and ethical implications for building the confidence, morale and strength of his people. Had he just not just been morally ambivalent by ridding the land of all witches in one moment and then consulting a witch himself the next; had he not said “Do as I say do but not as I do.” Had he just realized that the moral laws that God established in this regard were for him as well as the people he led. He and his entire nation could have avoided humiliation and defeat.

When the witch of Endor, who was suspicious of this man dressed in disguise in the first place, raised Samuel through the séance, Samuel came up and was absolutely furious. Saul asked him, “The Philistines have made war on me and God has deserted me. What should I do?”

Samuel said, “Why ask me? God has turned away from you and is now on the side of your neighbor. God has done exactly what he told you through me-ripped the kingdom right out of your hands and given it to your neighbor. It is because you did not obey God, refused to carry out his seething judgment on Amalek that God does to you what he is doing today.” Worse yet, God is turning Israel along with you over to the Philistines. Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. And yes, God is giving Israel’s army up to the Philistines.”

So the king would now lose his power and go down in bitter defeat and Israel would lose the battle against the Philistines due to the leader’s  disobedience to God.

When the decisive moment came, Saul was despondent and in the battle on Mount Gilboa he chose suicide by falling on his sword and his sons, Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua were slain with him.

Moral relativism in this case leads to moral confusion. Moral confusion led to the loss of moral courage. The loss of moral courage precipitated the loss of moral authority. When you lose moral authority as a leader or as a follower, it is difficult to hold people morally accountable because you know that the finger of accusation that you point at someone else is a finger of recrimination that they point back to you.

There are moral absolutes. As people of God, we are called to be morally upright and to live in ways that inspire the confidence of those we are called to lead. King Saul, his family and all of Israel paid a high price for Saul’s moral double standards and indiscretions. You cannot say one thing and do another thing and expect to have moral credibility. This spelled the down fall of Saul and a bitter chapter in the great history of the great nation of Israel.

Now we have the case of the Adulterous Woman.

II. Turning our attention to John 8:1-11, again we have the problem of moral relativism or moral ambiguity. In this case, some scholars and some people who were Pharisees are found condemning a woman caught in adultery. Let me digress here for a moment and make this comment.

According to the Law of Moses they were to stone this woman to death for such a lascivious act.  So they bring her before Jesus in attempt to condemn her and entrap him possibly as a way of discrediting his ministry. Obviously, she was married and there were rules that applied to people caught in these situations.

ADULTERY. In Jewish thought adultery was seen as the willful violation of the marriage contract by either of the parties through sexual intercourse with a third party. The divine provision was that the husband and wife should become “one flesh,” each being held sacred to the other.  In ancient times, however, exception was made among the nations generally in favor of the man. He might have more wives than one or have intercourse with a person not espoused or married to him without being considered an adulterer. But Adultery was sexual intercourse with the married wife, or what was equivalent, the betrothed bride of another man, for this act exposed the husband to the danger of having a spurious offspring imposed upon him.

So there seem to be two schools of thought in the Old Testament. If a married man has sexual relations with a woman who is not married it is not adultery. If a married man has sexual relations with a married or engaged person, it is adultery.

By the time of the New Testament, the rules of adultery seem to be more definitively applied to both husband and wife. If the husband or wife had intercourse with a married person, it was considered adultery and there are other definitions of adultery according to Matthew 19:3-9.

But in this particular case Jesus does something very interesting. Rather than allow these men to condemn this woman through stoning in accordance with Mosaic law, he asks the question to the men who brought her to him. “Which of you is without sin and if you are then throw the stones.”

None of them could throw the stones. This passage, without proof texting, might also possibly be modified to read, “Which of you has not committed adultery?” If you have not then throw the stones. Or “Which of you has not committed adultery with this woman? If you have not then throw the stones.” Now I don’t want to take too much hermeneutical, or exegetical license here, but by asking these men the question, Jesus may have been drawing their attention to their own guilt in regards to this woman or other women they may have known in this way.

Penalties. The Mosaic law assigned the punishment of death to adultery (Leviticus 20:10) but did not state the mode of its infliction. From various passages of Scripture (e.g., Ezekiel 16:38, 40; John 8:5) we infer that it was by stoning. When the adulteress was a slave the guilty parties were scourged, the blows not to exceed forty; the adulterer was to offer a trespass offering (a ram) to be offered by the priest (Leviticus 19:20-22). Death does not appear to have been inflicted, perhaps by reason of guilt on the part of those administering the law (John 8:9-11). We find no record in the OT of a woman taken in adultery being put to death. The usual remedy seems to have been a divorce, in which the woman lost her dower and right of maintenance, thus avoiding public scandal. The expression “to disgrace her” (Matthew 1:19) probably means to bring the matter before the local Sanhedrin, the usual course.

So according to religious law, the woman was to be punished by stoning and there seems to have been some modification or leniency in this law since the bible records no times when women were actually stoned for such action. If a woman were caught in adultery she was divorced.

But Jesus chooses to go another direction with this matter by asking them the question. (The men were not only judging her but they would judge him by his response to determine whether he too should be condemned. Their plan might have been to do away with them both once Jesus revealed his intent to them.)

Now Jesus did not reject Mosaic law. As a Jew, he understood that the Law was the law. He knew the value of that tradition and how it brought order and discipline to society. He knew that according to this law, the woman was to be punished if found guilty.

Why did he not allow the men to stone her? In addition to some leniency in the punishment as we have heard, perhaps he perceived a case of moral relativism or a moral double standard. Perhaps, he chose leniency not only to demonstrate God’s forgiving grace and love, but also knew that some of the same men who were condemning her of adultery and were ready to stone her to death had themselves slept with her. How then could they accuse her of adultery when they themselves might have gone to bed with her and committed adultery themselves as married men? How could they sit in accusation when perhaps some of them had been the main violators or perpetrators? How could they be morally absolute with her but morally relative with themselves?

How could they condemn her, and if they went to bed with her, then not also condemn themselves if they were married? Perhaps Jesus sensed that the very men who were accusing her really had no moral authority themselves because of their adultery. How could they sit in judgment of her and then let themselves off the hook? How could they apply a standard of moral judgment to her and then not apply that same standard to themselves?

So rather than judge and condemn, Jesus offered grace and let her go.

My point here again is the problem of moral relativism. The problem is when we let ourselves off the hook for certain immoral behavior and then condemn others for the same behavior and this is what the men might have done. This was wrong in both scriptural texts.
Saul was wrong to expect the rules of sorcery only apply to his people and not to him because he was king and the religious scholars and some of the Pharisees were wrong to think that the rules of adultery applied only to this woman and not to the men accusing her.

The problem is when we accuse others of for certain immoral behaviors and then excuse ourselves for the same immoral behavior. When I judge someone else for certain behavior and don’t judge myself for the very same behavior, I lose my moral authority and can be considered what some call a hypocrite. God is no respecter of persons. The rules apply across the board.

My moral authority is established by moral absolutes that say if it’s wrong for Johnnie because he did it, it’s also wrong for me because I did it. I don’t say that Johnnie did it because he is bad and I did it because I didn’t get enough sleep.

There are certain laws and moral laws that cannot be compromised, modified or manipulated. There should not be one set of rules for some and then another set of rules for others.

The truth is there are universal moral principles that should not be  prevaricated mutated on the basis of self interests. They are what they are and they should stand as they stand. No amount of rationalization, machinations or manipulation will reduce the power and value of these universal moral principles. “Some things are just wrong no matter how we try to make them right and some things are just right no matter how we try to make them wrong.”

The standard of moral judgment applies to everybody alike. There are no exceptions due to self-interests or other things that give the person a decisive edge.

If it is wrong to kill an innocent child through abortion. It is wrong to kill an innocent child in war.” If it is wrong for a poor man to steal a bag of cookies, it is wrong for a rich man to steal the bank. If it is wrong for children to cheat, steal and lie, it is wrong for adults to cheat, steal and lie. If it is wrong for a black person to kill a white person because of race, it is wrong for a white person to kill a black person because of race. If it’s wrong to persecute members of one group because of religion, it is wrong to persecute another group because of religion. If its wrong for the parishioners to commit adultery, its wrong for preachers to commit adultery. If it’s wrong for citizens to lie under oath, it’s wrong for public officials to lie under oath. If it’s wrong for the woman, it’s wrong for man. If it’s wrong for Peter. It’s wrong for Paul. If it’s wrong for Mary, its wrong for Judy. If it’s wrong for the people, it’s wrong for the leaders.

The law is the law. No man or woman is above the law. The moral law is the moral law. No man or woman is above the moral law. We must have moral absolutes.

The rightness or wrongness of certain actions should not be determined by the status, stature, power or value of the wrong doer nor should they be determined by the self-interests and power of those making the judgments. They should be based on universal standards of truth and justice, principles that hold us all accountable whomever and whatever our position in society. We could not have a society of order and discipline if men and women were allowed to make their own moral rules based on self-interest. We would have nothing but chaos and disorder. The morality of any society is the glue of that society that holds things together in that society.

We lose our moral authority and our capacity to make sound moral judgments when we apply these double standards. How can I have moral authority and credibility when I don’t apply the standards of morality to my own life? How can I accuse you, reprimand you or chide you, when I can’t be accused, reprimanded or chided for the very same behavior? Why are the rules good for you, but not good me? This is my point. This is the problem of moral relativism.

The problem of moral relativism in the case of Saul and in the case of those judging this woman is that in both cases they were lead more by self-interest rather than by a fixed standard or rule. In the case of the men wanting to stone the women, those who may have slept with her knew that they should have been condemning themselves and they knew they were not without sin so they couldn’t judge or stone her.

If we are to have true and cogent standards of truth, justice and reason in our society, we must have moral standards that do not depend on the breeze, or the tide or whoever is shaking the ocean.

The double standards of morality permeating our culture and society often lead to a moral ambiguity that undermines our capacity to really discern right from wrong and do justice notwithstanding the station, stature or status of individuals. We must have moral absolutes that say, “Wrong is still wrong even if everybody is for it and right is still right even if everybody is against it.”



Trial of Adultery
Jesus taught: “Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female . . . . and the two shall become one flesh.” When the Pharisees, with the apparent hope of eliciting some modification in favor of the husband, put the question, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and divorce her?” Jesus replied, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way . . . . whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:3-9). In perfect accord with this also is the teaching of the apostle Paul (Ephes. 5:25-33; 1 Cor. 7:1-13; 1 Tim. 3:12). It will be seen that according to the fundamental law it is adultery for the man as well as the woman to have a sexual relationship with a person other than the legal spouse. In the seventh commandment (Exodus 20:14) all manner of lewdness or unchastity in act or thought seems to be meant (Matthew 5:28).

The Roman law appears to have made the same distinction as the Hebrew between the unfaithfulness of the husband and wife, by defining adultery to be the violation of another man’s bed. The infidelity of the husband did not constitute adultery. The Greeks held substantially the same view.

Trial of Adultery. A man suspecting his wife of adultery, not having detected her in the act, or having no witness to prove her supposed guilt, brought her to the priest that she might be submitted to the ordeal prescribed in Numbers 5:11-31.

» See:  Jealousy, Offering of

When adultery ceased to be a capital crime, as it doubtless did, this trial probably fell into disuse. No instance of the ordeal being undergone is given in Scripture, and it appears to have been finally abrogated about forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem. The reason given for this is that the men were at that time so generally adulterous that God would not fulfill the imprecations of the ordeal oath upon the wife.

The Roman civil law looked upon adultery as “the violation of another man’s bed,” and thus the husband’s incontinence could not constitute the offense. The punishment was left to the husband and parents of the adulteress, who under the old law suffered death. The most usual punishment of the man was mutilation, castration, and cutting off the nose and ears. Other punishments were banishment, heavy fines, burning at the stake, and drowning. Among the Greeks and other ancient nations the adulterer might lose eye, nose, or ear. Among savage nations of the present time the punishment is generally severe. The Muslim code pronounces it a capital offense.

Spiritual. In the symbolical language of the OT adultery means idolatry and apostasy from the worship of Jehovah (Jeremiah 3:8-9; Ezekiel 16:32; Ezekiel 23:37; Rev. 2:22). This figure resulted from the sort of married relationship, the solemn engagement between Jehovah and Israel (Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 3:14; Jeremiah 13:27; Jeremiah 31:32; Hosea 8:9). Our Lord used similar language when He charged Israel with being an “adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39; Matthew 16:4; Mark 8:38), meaning a faithless and unholy generation. An “adulterous” church or city is an apostate one (cf. Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 3:6-9; Ezekiel 16:22; Ezekiel 23:7).
Ecclesiastical. The following views prevailed in the early church:

1. Under Justinian the wife was regarded as the real criminal, and her paramour as a mere accomplice. This view seems to have been held during the whole early Christian period. Gregory of Nyssa makes a distinction between fornication and adultery. A canon of Basle furnishes this definition: “We name him who cohabits with another woman (not his own wife) an adulterer.” Ambrose says: “All unchaste intercourse is adultery; what is illicit for the woman is illicit for the man.” Gregory Nazianzen argues that the man should not be left free to sin while the woman is restrained. Chrysostom says: “It is commonly called adultery when a man wrongs a married woman. I, however, affirm it of a married man who sins with the unmarried.” Jerome contends that 1 Cor. 6:16 applies equally to both sexes.

2. A convicted adulterer cannot receive orders. An adulterer or adulteress must undergo seven years’ penance. A presbyter so offending is to be excommunicated and brought to penance. The layman whose wife is guilty cannot receive orders, and if already ordained must put her away under pain of deprivation. An unchaste wife must be divorced, but not the husband, even if adulterous. The adulterer must undergo fifteen years of penitence but only seven for unchastity. Two conclusions were drawn by canonists and divines: (1) divorce, except for adultery, is adultery; (2) to retain an adulterous wife is adultery. A woman must not leave her husband for blows, waste of dower, unchastity, nor even disbelief (1 Cor. 7:16), under penalty of adultery. An offending wife is an adulteress and must be divorced, but not so the husband. The Catholic church holds that marriage is not and ought not to be dissolved by the adultery of either party (Council of Trent, sess. xxiv, can. 7).

3. The following are treated as guilty of actual adultery: a man marrying a betrothed maiden; a girl seduced marrying someone other than her seducer; consecrated virgins who sin, and their paramours; a Christian marrying a Jew or an idolater.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws (1944), pp. 163-75; L. M. Epstein, Sex Laws
—New Unger’s Bible Dictionary

Furthermore, some might ask, well if Jesus knew that they might have slept with her, why did he just not condemn them as he didn’t condemn her?  Well, he did in a way let them off the hook by asking them the question and because they could not wrongfully stone her without looking at themselves too they evaded condemnation as well. The reason may also have been that they were the ones accusing her. They were the ones who would commit an act of immorality by taking her life when they knew that they too should have been condemned and had their lives taken for the very same act.

2 responses to “The Problem of Moral Relativism”

  1. Dawan Wallace Avatar
    Dawan Wallace

    I really loved this message. Keep doing what you are doing Pastor. Blessings!

  2. Dawan Wallace Avatar
    Dawan Wallace

    This was one of my favorite sermons I have heard you preached. Right on Dr. Stewart!

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