Situation Ethics

By Weldon E. Warnock

Ethics means “a series of rules and laws and principles by which we act and which tell us what to do.” But “situation ethics” is not geared to rules and regulations. This system of ethics refuses to be circumscribed by rules and laws. It says there is nothing right or wrong. Moral behavior is relative, not absolute. Decisions depend on the situation at hand, rather than law. It is also called the “new morality,” “contexualism,” “ethical individualism,” “casuistry,” as well as some others. But regardless what one calls it, it does not make the system anymore respectable.

Joseph Fletcher’s Views

Joseph Fletcher, a professor of Social Ethics, an Episcopalian and a well known proponent of “situation ethics,” stated: “As we shall see, Christian situation ethers has only one norm or principle or law (call it what you will) that is binding and unexceptionable, always good and right regardless of the circumstances. That is `love’ – the agape of the summary commandment to love God and the neighbor” (Situation Ethics, p. 30).

Fletcher further wrote, “For the situationist there are no rules – none at all” (p. 55); ” . . . `circumstances alter rules and principles”‘ (p. 29); ” . . . all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love in any situation . . . . the Christian chooses what he believes to be the demands of love in the present situation” (pp. 30, 55). “The new morality, situation ethics declares that anything and everything is right or wrong, according to the situation” (p. 124).

There are three approaches to follow in making moral decisions according to Fletcher (pp. 18-26):

(1) Legalistic. He says, “With this approach one enters into every decision making situation encumbered with a whole apparatus of prefabricated rules and regulations.

(2) Antinomianism. “Over against legalism, as a sort of polar opposite, we can put antinomianism. This is the approach with which one enters into the decision making situation armed with no principles or maxims whatsoever, to say nothing of rules.

(3) Situationism. “A third approach, in between legalism and antinomianism unprincipledness, is situation ethics . . . . The situationist enters into every decision making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so . . . . The situationist follows a moral law or violates it according to love’s need.”

Fletcher allows stealing, lying, adultery, and anything else that the law of God prohibits. His thinking is shown in the following statement: “But situation ethics has good reason to hold it as a duty in some situations to break them, any or all of them. We would be better advised and better off to drop the legalist’s love of law, and accept only the law of love” (p. 74).

On pages 164-165 of Fletcher’s book, Fletcher captures the attention of the readers about a German woman separated from her husband at the Battle of the Bulge, and was imprisoned in the Ukraine. While in prison she learned that her husband, also a prisoner of war, had been released from another camp and had located their two children in Berlin.

There were two reasons why the Russians would release a prisoner: (1) For severe medical treatment or (2) pregnancy. She persuaded a Russian soldier to impregnate her in order to be released. Following her pregnancy she was released and joyfully united with her family. All loved her and the child born out of adultery. Fletcher lauds this as a loving act, the law against adultery being superseded by the situation at hand.

From what Fletcher said, we can readily see where situationism is coming from. It is a philosophy of liberalism, pragmatism, relativism and individualism that arrays itself against the Word of God and makes a mockery out of the Bible.

Jesus and Situation Ethics

In his book, The Christian New Morality, O. Sydney Barr stated that “The new morality is biblical morality. Behind it lies the authority of Jesus Christ himself” (p. 6). Situationists use for proof (?) Jesus’ defense of his disciples of the charge brought against them by the Pharaisees of eating grain on the Sabbath (Matt., 12:1-8). The Pharisees considered the plucking of the grain and the rubbing it in their hands to separate the grain from the chaff, work, thereby violating the Sabbath.

Jesus vindicated His disciples, according to situationists, by His approval of David breaking the law of God in eating the forbidden showbread (1 Sam. 21:6; Lev. 24:9). They tell us that human welfare has preference over the laws of God. By sanctioning David’s action, Jesus in turn justified His disciples, and established a precedent for all time to come, they reason.

But Jesus never approved or encouraged the violation of God’s law under any circumstances. Eating on the Sabbath was not a violation of God’s law. Sin is a transgression of law (1 Jn. 3:4). Jesus never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Hence, He never violated a law of God. Neither did He encourage His followers to sin or try to justify their sins.

Jesus said, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). From this passage we can see clearly what Jesus thinks of lawbreakers. Adherence to God’s laws is emphasized over and over in the Bible.

J.W. McGarvey, commenting on Matt. 12:3-5, stated: “Jesus expressly admits that what David did was unlawful; and some have supposed that he here intends to justify it on the ground of necessity, and then to argue that his disciples, though guilty of violating the law of the Sabbath, are justifiable on the same ground. There is no doubt that on this ground David excused himself for eating the showbread, and that the Pharisees did the same for him. But it can not be that he who refused to turn stones into bread when tortured by a forty days’ fast . . . would approve such a violation of law as David was guilty of. Neither can it be that he allowed his own disciples while under the law to break the Sabbath. If Christians may violate law when its observance would involve hardship or suffering, then there is an end of suffering for the name of Christ, and an end even of self-denial.

“But it is clear that by the Pharisees David’s act was thought excusable; otherwise they could have retorted on Jesus thus: Out of your own mouth we condemn you: you class your act with David’s; but David sinned, and so do you. Now the real argument of Jesus is this: David, when hungry, ate the show-bread, which it was confessedly unlawful for him to eat, yet you justify him: my disciples pluck grain and eat it on the Sabbath, an act which the law does not forbid, and yet you condemn them” (The New Testament Commentary, pp. 103-104).

In regard to the priests profaning the Sabbath by their religious services in the temple (v. 5), McGarvey says, “Having silenced his opponents by the argument ad hominem, he next proves by the law itself that some work may be done on the Sabbath day. The priests in the temple were required to offer sacrifice, trim the golden lamps, and burn incense on the Sabbath, and these acts required manual labor. In this case, the general law against labor on the Sabbath was modified by the specific law concerning the temple service. The term “profane” is used, not because it was a real profanation, but because, being labor, it had the appearance of profanation. The example proves that the prohibition of labor on the Sabbath was not universal, and as it was not, it might not include what the disciples had just done” (Ibid., p. 104).

Opposition to Fletcher’s Ethics

Peter Wagner, writing in Eternity Magazine, Feb. 1967, said:

(1) “He (Fletcher) says that love is the only norm of ethics. But what is love? How is its context determined? . . . . We need the rest of the Bible to guide us as to just what the law of love expects from us.

(2) “Love, for Fletcher, is neighbor love. But this is only the second table of the law. The first is love of God . . . . It is impossible for us to love our neighbor properly without first loving God, and we in turn show our love to God by obeying his commandments.

(3) “. . . be impossible for him to define with any preciseness a `situation’ . . . . To be able to predict all involved in a moral decision in every case, especially in a crisis of life, is too much to expect even of an ethics professor to say nothing of the man in the street.

(4) “. . . (Fletcher) bases his law of love on revelation. But he does not tell us what criterion he has used to select this particular fragment of revelation and reject the rest. There must be some norm which tells him he ought to believe revelation when it speaks about love, but he need not believe it when it speaks about lying, fornication, or stealing.”

Wagner, as you can see, gets right to the heart of the problem and forcefully destroys the very foundation on which Fletcher builds his theory.

James M. Gustafson, professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University, wrote in Christian Century, May 12, 1966, the following:

“. . .he (Fletcher) states that the situation is determinative. However, he is never very careful to designate what constitutes a `situation’ . . . . If one says that the situation plus love makes for the right action without being clear about what love is and is not, one-has a simple formula, a radical ethic in both substance and method.”

Henlee H. Barnette, professor of Christian Ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, as quoted in The Situation Ethics Debate, p. 136, “Love alone, or situation ethics, is characterized by a one-sided methodology in arriving at moral decisions. It is a misplaced emphasis, a false polarization in Christian ethics.”

John Macquarrie wrote in his book, “Three Issues in Ethics, pp. 33-35, the following:

“One of the most telling objections against situationism is that is a fundamentally and incurably individualistic type of ethic. Paul Ramsey is correct in his warning that `no social morality ever was founded or ever will be founded, upon a situational ethic.’

‘ . . . As well as suffering from individualism, radical situational ethics suffers from the allied vice of subjectivism. The situationist seems to be compelled by the theories to assume on extraordinary degree of moral sensitivity and perceptiveness in those who are expected to read the demands of the situation .

“. . . The situationist is less than realistic in the extent to which he is willing to recognize the weakness of human nature and the fact that even our conscience can be distorted.”

William Barclay stated, “If we insist that in every situation every man must make his own decision, then first of all we must make man morally and lovingly fit to take that decision; otherwise we need the compulsion of law to make him do it” (Ethics in a Permissive Society, p. 81).

Ladies and gentlemen, there is no way that a Bible believer can embrace situation ethics and remain true to the Bible. The Bible and situation ethics are on different planes and operate on different channels. Situation ethics or the new morality sets aside the Bible whenever man wants to and injects his own judgement in its place.

Consequences of Situation Ethics

There are several adverse consequences of the situation ethics philosophy.

(1) Destroys respect for the Bible. The Bible claims for itself to be an all-sufficient guide (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3). It saves us (Jas. 1:18), and by it we will be judged (Jn. 12:48). The situationists tell us we need not be too concerned about what the Bible teaches, but just let love have its way.

(2) Makes love and law exclusive. For the situationist it is either love or law. For the Christian, it is both law and love. Jesus said, “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15, ASV).

(3) Deifies man. It makes man his own god. Man decides what to do and when to do it. He becomes his own standard. Jeremiah tells us that it is not in man to direct his own steps (10:23). God knows what is good for man and, therefore, we shall follow him (Duet. 6:24).

(4) Obscures right and wrong. The system implies that each one is to do his own thing as he interprets the problem or issue in a particular situation. There is nothing inherently right or wrong, they say, but it must be judged in context on the spur of the moment.

(5) Presumes each act will turn out well. What if the woman in the concentration camp who got herself impregnated in order to be released had been resented by her husband and children? Things like this are always the possible consequences of the arbitrary and subjective acts in situation ethics.

(6) It encourages permissiveness. At least, Fletcher’s approach encourages permissiveness. Listen to him: “Does any girl who has `relations’ . . . outside marriage automatically become a prostitute? Is it always, regardless of what she accomplishes for herself or others – is it always wrong? Is extramarital sex inherently evil, or can it be a good thing in some situations” (Ibid., pp. 17-18)? To Fletcher, extramarital sex may at times have intrinsic value. A man decides for himself when this is true.


Actually, situation ethics is not something new. Catholics have had for centuries their form of situation ethics, called “mental reservation,” enabling them to lie whenever they deem it necessary. Protestants have always practiced situation ethics in setting aside God’s command of baptism for the man on his death bed or the man in the desert.

But faithful Christians have always obeyed God in all things (Acts 5:29). Christians wait for the way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13), pray, often for strength and guidance (Jas. 5:16; Phil. 1:9-10), and study the Bible regularly to know God’s way (Psa. 119:11). With rapturous acclaim, they say with the Psalmist, “O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day” (Psa. 119:97).


  1. Define “ethics”.
  2. Define “situation ethics”.
  3. What is the one universal moral law admitted by situationists?
  4. Is there any contradictions in this statement, “There are absolutely no universal rules in ethics.”
  5. Explain these different ethical approaches: Legalistic, antinomian, situationism.
  6. Discuss Jesus’ usage of David eating shewbread in Matt. 12:1-8.
  7. How is “love” used by a situation etheist?
  8. List several consequences of accepting situation ethics.
  9. List several denominational doctrines which use “situation ethics” type of justification. before us.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 20, pp. 327-330
May 17, 1979