Why Ethics as Worship?

I realized that I have never explained the title of my blog—“Ethics as Worship.” It is the way that I approach ethics and what I teach my students. Ethics is more than just abiding by a list of rules or obligations. It is a lifestyle. The catchphrase for this style of ethics is “ethics as worship.” The technical description is a deontological-virtue ethic.

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the person rather than the act. It emphasizes a life of excellence in light of the character of the person. Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas have given definition to the virtues, and the latter two have placed them within a Christian context. The key to virtue ethics is the development of the character of the person. This teleological (looking toward the end) approach looks past the minutiae of everyday life and seeks the end product. Virtue ethics provides a good foundation because it shows us that there is more to life than just the basic decisions we make each day. Virtue ethicists are not so blinded by the forest so as not to see the trees—they recognize that the trees make up the forest. However, the downfall of virtue ethics is that it often gives little direction on how to “build the forest.” How does one build the character of a man without knowing the basic steps of how to get there? This is where deontology comes in.

Deontological ethics focuses on the act and the duty, or obligation, fulfilled by performing (or not performing) that act. In contrast to virtue ethics, deontology focuses on the here and now—what do I do in this situation? There are some forward-looking elements of deontology, but the focus is certainly on rule-keeping. Deontology falls short in its reliance upon human reason and its inability to address the necessity of supererogatory acts. Deontology greatly assists virtue in the way of putting some concrete steps to aid the journey to the virtues. It’s easy to say, “Be a wise person.” But the steps of getting there are difficult. Deontology shows us the way by putting rules, duties, and obligations before us whose end is wisdom. Virtue gives deontology a forward-looking aspect by making one look to the character that is being built.

Let’s take a biblical example and show how this works. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best example of how this works. Jesus begins with statements such as these: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God….Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God….You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world.” That is all well and good, but how does one become poor in spirit or pure in heart or the salt and light of the earth? Well, Jesus then moves to address some of the Old Testament commandments. In some senses, he places greater restrictions upon those who seek to follow the commandments. However, I would argue that Jesus is showing his listeners that there is more to the commandments than a simple duty to keep. He is showing that a true understanding (and keeping) of the commandments leads to a virtuous life—one that is poor in spirit, pure in heart, and the salt and light of the world. Thus, the commandments give us specific duties to uphold but also point us to a virtuous life.

Now let’s consider how this relates to worship. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas develops an intriguing theme for all of theology and life. This theme has been called “exitus et reditus.” This is a Latin phrase that basically means “coming out and returning to.” For Aquinas, this meant all things come from God and, in their proper response, return to God. For us, it means that the actions we take are leading us to God if they are performed with the proper focus. We can look at it as being properly aligned with our compasses pointing due north (toward God) when we act. Otherwise, our actions are merely splendid vices.

Although the concept of ethics as worship is an enticing approach to the study of ethics, it is not without its own problems. First, this approach must define worship. While the Christian ethicist may certainly have in mind a biblical approach to worship wherein God is glorified in all things (1 Cor 10:31), worship could also be defined in numerous other ways. In essence, any approach to honoring a person, being, or object above all others would be a form of worship. Contemporary culture could be accused of worshiping man or material possessions. As a result, the ethical standards of a society may reflect such worship “practices.” For a rightly ordered concept of ethics as worship, one should first look to the Shema of Deut 6:4­­­-5, which reads, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Thus, the primary expression of worship is the complete love for the Lord from every part of the person. This is expressed in speech, behavior, and ethical mores; however, there is more to the concept of worship than mere behavior. Above all, it is an attitude of the heart and mind toward God that is expressed in ethical behavior. This attitude is also expressed in Rom 12:1, as Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Again, the emphasis is not on a particular set of behaviors for worship; instead, the focus comes on the attitude of the worshiper. Admittedly, worship is a difficult term to define, but one’s attitude of response toward God for who he is and what he has done is the foundation of worship for the Christian.

The next issue that needs to be addressed by the proponent of ethics as worship is to determine whether worship or ethics comes first. Some believe that ethics is the primary expression of worship, thus leading to the idea that ethical standards come before worship. Others argue that ethics is just one part of the expression of worship. Part of the difficulty stems from a false bifurcation of the two concepts. For a biblically aligned system of ethics, one must have both worship and ethical standards—one cannot separate the two and speak of one as if the other did not exist. Thus, proponents of the concept of ethics as worship are partially at fault for presenting a possible division between the two ideas. Even if a bifurcation of these two ideas is a false concept, one must still address the issue of which one comes first. In John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” In John 14:21, Jesus repeats this concept in a different fashion, saying, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” So, which one actually takes place first, love and worship or obedience? These verses do not offer a distinct division between the two, which should be noted for any discussion of ethics and worship. However, one can look to another biblical passage for further insight on the difference between ethics and worship. In Exodus 32, Moses had been on the mountain speaking with the Lord for an extended period of time. The people became impatient for Moses to return, so they asked Aaron to make them an idol to worship. In verse 8, the Lord informed Moses that the people had fashioned a golden calf and had worshiped and sacrificed to the idol. The people had not received a set of ethical standards from the false god and had no way to determine right and wrong based upon the “reality” of this new god; therefore, it would be difficult to say that ethics preceded worship in this circumstance. As a result, I believe that worship actually precedes ethics and that ethics is a response of worship to the one that we worship.

I believe this pattern of worship to ethics is also affirmed in the New Testament in 1 Peter 2. In verses 9-10, Peter encourages his readers, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Following this proclamation of being the people of God and the response of proclaiming God’s excellencies, Peter urges his readers to live morally upright lives “so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (v. 12). Regarding this passage, David Horner writes, “This picture, rich in ethical content, is grounded in worship from beginning to end. We are called to be a worshiping people, to glorify God, and to point to His worth. And we do that in many ways, in fact, in all that we are and do. How we live ethically is actually an expression of worship. And the result, according to Peter, is not only so that other people will want to live ethically, but also that they will worship and come to glorify God themselves.”[1] Thus, an ethical lifestyle is a part of worship, but does not comprise the entirety of worship.

With a properly defined concept of worship and a forward-looking gaze to the character of the ones we are trying to teach, we can effectively instruct those in our church with how to live in this world. We receive from God and return our actions to God in love and worship, seeking to be virtuous people for his glory, not our own. When we teach our people about ethics, we show the end as well as the means, and the focus is on loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. It is in the last two (mind and strength) that I believe we find our ethical actions, but they are informed by the former (heart and soul).

[1] David A. Horner, “Speaking Freely: Dr. David Horner on Ethics and Worship,” With All Your Mind 8 (2003), 4.