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Conflicting Commands?

Turning the Tide

From Turning the Tide - Conflicting Commands?

Do God's commands ever conflict in such a way that it is impossible to obey one while not at the same moment disobeying another? If so then how should we act in such situations?

Much has been made of moral conflicts by situation ethics writers such as Joseph Fletcher: Is it ever right to tell a lie to preserve innocent life? Is it ever ethical to kill in order to relieve suffering? Is it right temporarily to compromise one's values in order to stay in a position of influence?

There are examples of each of these in medicine - take abortion: Should a doctor who believes abortion is wrong give false information to prevent it happening? do it anyway in some situations to relieve other people's suffering? perform some in order to get to a position where he can prevent a greater number of others?

Now it is clear biblical teaching that it is wrong to tell lies (Lv 19:11) and wrong to disobey the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-5) - yet the Bible mentions examples of godly men and women apparently acting counter to these divine directives when faced with conflicting priorities. Is deceiving an evil person justified to protect innocent lives? (Ex 1:15-20; Joshua 2:2-7; 2 Sa 17:17-22) Is disobeying the governing authorities justified if it is to honour a direct command of God? (Dan 3:13-18; 6:6-10; Acts 4:18; 5:29)


Jesus and moral conflict

Jesus must have faced moral conflicts of this kind? If we deny that he did then we are in effect denying that he was tempted in all ways as we are (Heb 4:16). But if we say that he sinned by neglecting one duty to perform another then we are in effect saying that he was not the perfect sacrifice (Heb 10:12-13). It seems then that we must accept that Jesus both faced moral conflicts and that he didn't sin in the choices he made.

On occasions he used his miraculous powers to resolve the conflict and somehow perform both duties. When faced with a choice between attending to a chronic illness near at hand or a rapidly fatal one at a distance, he healed the first patient and raised the second from the dead (Lk 8:40-56) When faced with a crowd hungry both for food and teaching he fed 5,000 people with a handful of fish and bread rather than turn them away (Jn 6:1-15).

But there were clearly other occasions when he made a choice between two apparently conflicting moral duties: He gave priority to God rather than his family (Mt 12:46-50) or the governing authorities, prayed rather than went on responding to desperate need while exhausted (Lk 5:15-16), healed (Lk 6:6-11), and relieved hunger rather than resting on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28), and offered mercy rather than insisting upon justice (Jn 8:1-11). He went to the cross because he refused to submit by lying about his identity (Lk 22:70-71) or by speaking out in defence of his innocence (Mk 15:1-5).

Jesus came in for much criticism by the authorities who believed that he had in fact broken God's law. But he himself criticised the teachers of the law and the Pharisees because they introduced an unbiblical hierarchy of moral duty (Mt 23:23), failed to obey God's real law (Mt 7:21-23; 1 Cor 12:31-13:3) and replaced it with their own oral tradition (Mt 23:3). Although they repeatedly tried to trap Jesus in situations of moral conflict (Lk 11:53-54; Mt 12:9-14; 22:15-22), they themselves made deliberate choices to obey one commandment over another in similar situations (Mt 23:1-39; Mk 7:5-13; Lk 11:37-54). Jesus exposed their hypocrisy.


A hierarchy of duties?

What can we learn from this? First that there do seem to be higher and lower moral laws. There was a range of punishments for sin in the Old Testament depending upon the severity of the offence (Ex 22:23-25). Jesus himself spoke of the 'greatest commandment' (Mt 22:38) the 'more important matters of the law' (Mt 23:23) and the 'greater sin' (Jn 19:11). This pattern is also evident in the apostles' teaching. Whereas it is never denied but rather affirmed that all wrongdoing is sin, there were nonetheless some sins that called for excommunication (Mt 18:17), some which led to or didn't lead to death (1 Jn 5:16-17) and some which were unforgivable (Mt 6:15; 12:31-32; Heb 10:26-31).

But second we must affirm that all God's laws are important. Jesus said that he had not come to abolish Old Testament Law but to fulfil it, that anyone who relaxed 'the least of the commandments' and taught others to do the same would be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:17-20). Obedience to the more important of the commandments was not an excuse for neglecting those of lesser importance (Mt 23:23).

In the mind of Christ the choice of 'the lesser of two evils' did not arise. Rather he seemed to understand the exact meaning, application and scope of every commandment.


The mind and character of Christ

It is one thing to say that the resolution of difficult moral conflicts can be extremely difficult, requiring the mind, the courage and the character of Jesus himself. But it is quite another to say that to disobey any of God's laws is ever morally right.

We need like the psalmist to pray for wisdom and grace; 'I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes'.



More from Turning the Tide: Turning the Tide

  • Knowing the Times
  • Why is ethical decision making more difficult?
  • Thinking World-Viewishly
  • Making Ethical Decisions the World's Way
  • Making Ethical Decisions God's Way
  • The Authority of the Bible
  • Authorities Outside the Bible?
  • Interpreting the Bible
  • Applying the Bible
  • Ethical Principles from the Bible
  • When Christians Disagree
  • Ends and Means
  • Conflicting Commands?
  • Imposing our morality?
  • Handling Conflict
  • Tips for ethical debates
  • Euthanasia
  • Abortion
  • The Status of the Embryo
  • Contraception
  • Animal Rights
  • Sexuality
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