As it pertains to church discipline, how should a church evaluate moral controversies where there’s not an immediate or obvious answer? For example, should a church discipline a member who owns a payday lending business? To answer this question, churches and their leaders need to engage in ethical triage, understanding why our moral witness as local church members is essential to our credibility as Christians.

Ethical triage

Albert Mohler coined the term theological triage in 2005. As Mohler argued, Christians need to understand that belief in the bodily resurrection is essential to the Christian faith while issues like the mode of baptism or the millennium are not. First-order issues are essential; second- and third-order issues, while important, don’t place anyone beyond the pale of orthodoxy.

Similarly, Christians need to be capable of engaging in ethical triage. We need to be able to differentiate between moral principles deduced clearly from Scripture and those that are not as clear. We need to identify moral issues that are both essential for Christians to believe and practice and those that are non-essential but still nonetheless important. Ethical triage helps us determine whether hierarchical priorities separate specific moral issues (e.g., does abortion require a different moral response than sex trafficking?).

When it comes to ethical conflicts facing local churches, we need to carefully distinguish categories of “may” (permissible), “should/should not” (advisable), and “must” (obligatory). A Christian “may” go to a rock concert. A married couple “should” share a checking account. A Christian “must” not support abortion. Paul in Romans 14 invokes a similar argument. There, Paul warns those who are both “weak” and “strong” not to let either their freedom or lack of freedom become grounds for judging one another where no clear biblical injunction exists.

As a result, Christians need to allow for a diversity of opinions where diversity is allowed. One Christian may believe that attending a secular rock concert is wrong, while another believes it is permissible (we would eventually need to factor what is occurring at the concert to determine whether further judgement is needed). How does Paul conclude this argument? By admonishing the Christian to look to the needs and considerations of their fellow Christians above their own (Rom. 14:13–19).

What are some possible guidelines or questions to consider when engaging in ethical triage? Consider:

  • Does Scripture explicitly prohibit issue X?
  • How has church history understood issue X?
  • Does engaging in issue X produce personal flourishing?
  • Does issue X undermine relationships?
  • What principles from Scripture and theology inform how we should approach issue X?

Ethics and church discipline

Why does ethical triage matter for church discipline? Because churches that accommodate their morality to the culture are churches that will, in time, cease to be a church. When a church compromises its moral witness by either abandoning biblical authority or failing to hold its members accountable, it hollows itself out and undermines its credibility. Mainline Protestants have followed this practice for decades, to the point that what happens at these churches on any given Sunday is hardly recognizable as Christian.

But conservative and evangelical churches are not immune from this threat either. A Bible-believing church that turns a blind eye to a wealthy member’s adultery, or a church that buries sexual abuse in order to protect its reputation also sacrifices its credibility and witness. Church discipline is essential to the life of the local church if it hopes to retain a consistent and cohesive gospel witness in the community.

Discipline, therefore, is a particularly serious issue. When raising concerns over whether an action, thought, or desire is sinful, the body of Christ is deliberating on weighty matters that have considerable consequences on the teaching authority of a local church and its leaders. Indeed, deciphering the moral from the immoral and demanding that believers order their lives around obedience falls within the authority of the keys given to the church to bind and to loose (Matt. 16:19).

Ethical deliberation and ethical witness, then, are deeply intertwined within the life of the church since they are a measure of a church’s commitment to being Word-centered and Christ-glorifying. When a church fails to investigate serious moral matters, it risks falling into doctrinal error and compromising the whole body (Gal. 5:9). This pattern rings true throughout church history: Doctrinal compromise is inextricably bound up with moral compromise. Allowing immorality to fester will inevitably loosen the church from its doctrinal cohesion. Failing to take moral offenses seriously compromises the blood-bought sanctity of a church’s identity and mission; it acts against the gospel of Christ, which included his payment for our moral revolt.

Practical considerations

Every time I teach ethics a student asks: “Is issue X a sin?” Thankfully, they never ask about obvious matters which Scripture explicitly prohibits. Instead, they ask about issues which Scripture doesn’t explicitly address—like artificial intelligence, for example.

To understand these morally gray areas, we need to get back to basics. What is a sin? It’s a violation of a divine standard that human beings are obligated to obey (1 John 3:4). To put it another way, a sin is anything for which Christ needed to die to redeem a person.

Yet not all sins are equally clear, and this is where ethical triage becomes useful.

First-order issues

For example, the Bible doesn’t explicitly address abortion, but there is a fairly straight line between the sixth commandment and an ethical prohibition against abortion (Exo. 20:13). No fancy moral reasoning is necessary. Let’s call these kinds of issues first-order issues. They address moral “musts.” And with moral musts we can clearly designate something as a sin.

First-order issues warrant church discipline. Church discipline instructs Christians in what is ethically permissible and impermissible. The gravity of this cannot be overlooked: When it comes to disciplining and excommunicating someone who formerly was a “brother” or “sister,” the church must take stock of its ethical decision-making with utmost sobriety. When a church makes a pronouncement of this measure, it must be confident that it has identified the issue as unambiguously incompatible with Christian discipleship.

Second-order issues

But what about an issue like contraception or In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), which the Bible doesn’t explicitly address and which require a number of steps in moving from biblical texts to ethical conclusions? These issues cannot be easily resolved by quickly citing one or two verses. Yet nor are they adiaphora, that is, morally neutral matters.

Let’s call these second-order issues. They involve moral advisability—not “musts” but “shoulds” or “probably shoulds.” I think we can reason from biblical principles about the morality of issues like IVF and contraception. I’ve attempted to do so here and here. But these morally complex issues are not as simple as others like abortion. So I would counsel Christians away from IVF entirely and urge extreme caution when it comes to contraception. I’d even say they might be sin. But I’m unwilling to say they are necessarily and always sin, and I would not encourage a church to treat them as matters for church discipline.

How might these two convictions operate side-by-side in a local church? Pastors must use wisdom, intimating that such practices are morally concerning while at the same time recognizing that they cannot bind the consciences of church members in the same way they do for first-order issues.

When pastors teach on a first-order issue, they should use the language of must. “You must not get an abortion.” When they teach on second-order issues, they want to help Christians understand the moral complexity and even high stakes of the issues involved. But they should not offer such dichotomous conclusions. For instance, I would teach members of a Sunday School class that IVF is morally problematic because it severs procreation from the one-flesh union. It thwarts God’s design for procreation. It radically reconfigures sexual acts and it blunts the very essence of the male-female design, specifically, their reproductive design. But I would not tell them that every instance of and motive for pursuing IVF is sinful. I would not tell every couple using contraception that they must immediately refrain or else succumb to the church’s discipline. Instead, I would encourage the members of the class to speak to an elder before engaging in IVF.

I would preach the same thing in a sermon, and I would express the same reservations with any couple who came to my office for counsel.

Teaching and preaching are acts of authoritative declaration. On second order issues, I do not believe that I should bind a Christian’s conscience. At the same time, I also do not think it is impossible for a church to reach settled judgment on a controversial issue and have this judgment reflected in its teaching authority. This would need to be done through deep, deliberative processes where a church’s elders and the congregation arrive at settled conclusions.

Third-order issues

Finally, some the ethical issues are more firmly located in the domain of Christian freedom, which we can call third-order issues. These are the moral mays, as in, “You may or may not do this.” For instance, should Christians send their children to public schools, private schools, or home schools? In any given school district with any given child, I believe parents can reason their way to better or worse answers to that question. And sometimes pastors can help parents to do so. But in these kinds of third-order issues pastors should use the lightest touch, letting parents know that they are not apostles who come bearing a “word from the Lord” on the matter.

Churches need to understand the ethical demands of the gospel, which means carefully triaging ethical essentials from non-essentials. This might seem overly technical, but the witness of the gospel is at stake. A burdensome local church that treats every ethical issue as patently obvious—for example, don’t go to the movie theater!—can easily lead to an ethical legalism that straps believers down with more law than gospel, thus exchanging joyful obedience for fearful rule-following.

Editors’ note: This article was originally published at 9Marks.