The Golden Rule
Any person who professes any form of Atheism will find themselves regularly in conversations about morality. Objective ethics has become the Achilles’ heel of the position which asserts a universe without God is possible.
What I have found strikingly interesting over the years is how many non-Christians will cling to the Golden Rule rule as being a moral standard for themselves. I have heard many non-Christians quote the golden rule when discussing their own personal ethic.
Jesus’ famous words in Matthew 7:12 has become known today as “The Golden Rule.” Jesus commands us in His epic sermon,
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
The Golden Rule has become infamous around the world. Young children in public schools are often taught this rule, and few people are unfamiliar with it.
As Christians, we obviously support the Golden Rule, as it was prescribed by God to us. Because of that, we can be overjoyed when people espouse it as their own.
However, the golden rule is not the Gospel. Notice how Jesus makes this distinction in the very next verses,
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
The Gospel is metaphorically described as entering the narrow gate, something altogether distinct from the Golden Rule. Because of this, we cannot be satisfied when people claim the Golden Rule as their own. On the contrary, it should disturb us.
Non-Christian worldviews are constantly stealing from the Christian faith to try and plug the holes within their worldview. Non-Christian worldviews are not true, and therefore have major gaps and inconsistencies, thus, they must steal tools and lumber from our faith to patch things up.
Typically, this form of worldview robbery is more subtle, but in the case of the Golden Rule it is happening right in front of our eyes, and we have become accustomed to saying nothing about it all. May we never be the kind of tenets who smile and wave at the men in the masks walking out with all our stuff.
How can we effectively fight against this theft of our morality (2 Corinthians 10: 3-5)? I suggest doing this: quote the entire verse.
Jesus did not tell us, as it is commonly quoted in the KJV, to do unto others as we would have done unto us. Jesus did not leave it hanging, but instead, grounded this ethic in a standard.
“…for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Whenever you hear someone, who is not a professing believer, claim the Golden Rule, remind them that the Golden Rule is actually a general summary of the Old Testament. If you reject the Old Testament, you reject the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule does not derive its authority via pragmatism. It is liked by the world because it does happen to be very practical. If everyone truly lived this way, the world would be a better place. It is practical, but Jesus does not require it because it is practical and pragmatic. Jesus required it because the Law of God and the Prophets from God.
The expression “the Law and the Prophets” in the Bible is an expression for the entire O.T. Scriptures. In Jesus’ day, the O.T. was the Bible since the N.T. was not yet being penned. Therefore, Jesus believed the Golden Rule ought to be practiced by us because the Bible said so.
This sort of begs the question, why is the Bible authoritative? This is because Jesus had an understanding that the Old Testament Scriptures were in fact the very words of God (Matthew 22:33). Therefore, the Golden Rule is good, and the Golden Rule is binding because the Bible says so. Therefore, a person cannot take one without the other. No one gets to reject Jesus but take His Golden Rule. They do not get to reject the Old Testament, while gleaning the fruit of it.
When a person claims this, remind them that the Golden Rule finds it’s foundation, not only in Jesus, but in the O.T. Scriptures. When Jesus quoted the Golden Rule, He did so by explicitly telling us that to follow it is to obey Scripture and affirm the authority of Scripture to tell us how to behave.
I would encourage Christians to never quote the Golden Rule without quoting the entirety of verse 12. I would encourage Christians to remind everyone who adheres to this rule of it’s biblical foundation.
When you do this, what you are essentially doing is asking the famous, “By what standard?” question.
Obviously, we as Christians like the Golden Rule (when correctly interpreted and applied). However, we do so consistently with our worldview. We enjoy and apply all of God’s Laws. If someone rejects God’s authority, then the Golden Rule suddenly ceases to be what we know it to be.
It now becomes an arbitrary idea floating in the minds of people. Why does it have any authority? Why is it “good?” Why is it binding on anyone else?
These are issues that must be asked, they must be accounted for. Until then, the golden rule is just an arbitrary, subjective idea binding on no one.
An Alternative Secular Ethic
Other than the Golden Rule, another popular secular ethic is the idea of “not harming others.” More times than I can count have I heard the question, “Why can’t I do that if it doesn’t hurt anyone?” Probably the most sophisticated presentation of this ethic comes from Dan Barker. In more than one debate, he has publicly defined morality as “Causing the least amount of harm as necessary.”
What’s wrong with this secular ethic? The problem is that the Secular worldview has an issue of providing foundations and definitions.
The worldview which seeks to operate outside Scripture’s boundaries cannot give an account as to why this ought to be how morality is defined. But rather, I’d like to focus on a couple additional issues.
Whose Pain Matters?
For starters, there is an issue of defining the realm of who is involved which the secular ethic cannot do. In other words, who is included in this, and why?
Certainly, unborn babies are not included in this. After all, the secular worldview in modern America has been on crusade against the unborn. We are slaughtering them for any and all reasons. Clearly, Barker (and most in his camp) conveniently leave out unborn people from this ethic. Why?
Along with that, in every scenario there are so many people involved one wonders by which standard do we determine whose “harm” is to be considered. Take for example a somewhat common scenario of a young-man “coming out” and telling his parents he is gay and is planning on moving to the city with his boyfriend. The parents are devastated. They are heartbroken and angry. They have been emotionally harmed. Is their son’s actions sinful, then? After all, he harmed his parents.
How many secularists would preach to the parents, who were just harmed, that they should not be bothered because their son’s homosexuality isn’t harming anyone. Well, it harmed them. But apparently their harm doesn’t count.
Barker would likely remind us that his standard is not “thou shall not harm” but that “thou shall harm only in ways completely necessary.” He uses the example of heart surgery to make this point. Technically, surgery is very harmful. We are cutting open and decimating another human’s body. Were it not for anesthesia, it would be a torturous scene making a Saw movie look PG.
However, this intense harm is a necessary harm. Surgery is preventing more serious, long term pain and harm. Thus, it’s necessary. The problem is not solved however. For there are very simple methods for determining a triage of harm in a medical situation. A method is in play which makes it easy to know heart surgery is a good harm compared to living with a clogged artery and sick heart.
What’s the moral method for the scenario above? Is the brokenness of parents the heart attack or the surgery? Whose harm is the more necessary one? His worldview cannot answer that question.
What this also leads to is the issue of how we, time-bound, feeble humans, can possibly know who will be harmed by our decisions and how much. How often do we make decisions, and are completely blown away and shocked by the consequences?
The standard imposed by Barker and the worldview he represents requires omniscience. Thankfully, I am able to get my morality from Someone Who can actually claim that attribute.
The question arises going the other direction too. Not only is their arbitrariness in who is excluded, but there is arbitrariness in who is included as well. Not only are people like unborn babies and conservative parents of homosexuals not included, but one has to wonder why anyone else is.
Someone sympathetic to the reconstituting a Nazi agenda may agree with this secular ethic, but may want to limit it only to the Arian race. We should seek to minimize harm, but not for blacks and Jews. Who is to tell him otherwise? His circle of inclusion is smaller than most in the secular world, but who has the perfect circle? Who has the standard all other circles must seek to match?
What if a person decides the circle needs to be bigger than both Barker and our Nazi? What if a person thinks trees, and plants (both considered living creatures) should have the exact same moral equivalency as any human being. Who is to tell this person they are thinking too big?
Who Defines “Harm”?
Not only can the “who” not be defined, but the “what” cannot be defined either. Who is to define what is “harmful”? Take our scenario about the homosexual son above: does emotional harm count in this ethic, or just physical harm?
Equally important, this standard conveniently assumes what it needs ultimately to prove: the absence of the spiritual. When evaluating the harm of a decision, should I take into account spiritual harm?
1 Corinthians 6 states that homosexuality is a sin which prevents one from entering the kingdom of God. That makes it far more harmful than any physical damage the human body can receive. Yet, I doubt judgment in hell is a concern this sexual ethic allows into consideration.
Like above, this aspect also requires omniscience. How could we possibly know in most situations what the physical, emotional, and spiritual effects will be of our decisions?
Lastly, this ethic cannot account for how the categories of harm interact. Is there a triage among them, meaning, is physical harm worse than emotional, or social harm? Take an issue like spanking. Parents who spank do so because the believe the physical harm of spanking will prevent a greater harm, a social and emotional harm.
People against spanking think that the physical harm is inexcusable, regardless of its potential future social or emotional benefits. Does Barker get to decide between the two? Who gets to?
As should be made clear by now, whether it’s the Golden Rule, or any other moral claim, unless it is revealed by God in Scripture, it is a chaotic mess of arbitrariness, subjectivity, and complications.
Only God, through His Word, provides a meaningful ethic for man to obey.
Christian, should you treat others as you would like to be treated? Yes, you should. Why should you? It’s simple: because the Bible says so.
And no other reason is sufficient to answer that question.