Situation Ethics

By Wayne T. Galloway

There is a plague that sometimes goes undetected in Christianity although we look at it, examine it, preach against it and understand that it will destroy. It not only destroys all Christianity, but is like a cancer constantly eating away at our morals. What is this plague? It is diagnosed by several names: situationism, the new morality, contextualism, occasionalism, circumstantialism and principled relativism to name a few.

Perhaps the most well known advocator of situation ethics is Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher has written two publications relating to the subject of situationism, Situation Ethics – The New Morality and Moral Responsibility: Situation Ethics at Work. In the first of these he points out three approaches to decision making. Let us examine these approaches noticing Fletcher’s definition for each. The first is “legalism”.

“With this approach one enters into every decision-making situation encumbered with a whole apparatus of prefabricated rules and regulations. Not just the spirit but the letter of the law reigns. Its principles, codified in rules, are not merely guidelines or maxims to illuminate the situation; they are directives to be followed. Solutions are preset, and you can “look them up” in a book – a Bible or a confessor’s manual.”(1)

The second approach is “antinomianism.” In defining antinomianism Fletcher says,

“Over against legalism, as a sort of polar opposite, we can put antinominianism. 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. In every “existential moment” or “unique” situation, it declares one must rely upon the situation of itself, there and then, to provide its ethical solution.”(2)

The last approach, the one Fletcher advocates is “situationism.”

“. . . in between legalism and antinomian 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.”(3)

The Christian is indeed faced with three approaches to decision making, but which does the Bible teach, which does the immoralist teach and which does Joseph Fletcher teach? It is easy for any follower of Christ to understand that he must enter his decision making with the Bible (the law of God) in mind, so that eliminates “antinomianism” (literally -against law). According to Fletcher we should approach a situation with the Bible in mind but be able to disregard or compromise it if we find the Biblical way in contradiction to the most loving thing to do. In other words we can disregard the laws of God if we think it wiser or more loving to do something else. Joseph Fletcher and anyone who believes in situation ethics, please consider what the writer of Proverbs said in 16:25, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” The God of the Bible is all knowing; can we question His wisdom as He lays down laws for us to obey and at the same time realize our own ignorance? 2 Tim. 3:16-17 says, “Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness; that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work (emphasis mine, wtg).”

The approach to decision making that the Christian must use is the legalist approach. God has all knowledge and says that every scripture inspired by Him is able to make the man of God complete, furnished completely unto every good work. Any decisions made contradicting the commands of scripture are not good works.

To bring situation ethics a little closer home to those of us who already understand that we must follow the Bible and not our own wisdom, let us consider some ways in which we practice situationism without realizing it. How often have you found yourself late to an appointment (perhaps even the worship of the church) and therefore justify breaking certain traffic laws to gain time? Do you ever justify lying so that you can protect someone from some kind of information you feel may hurt them? Do you ever forsake the assemblies of the church and stay home with your mate so you do not discourage him or her from becoming a Christian? Of course these are only a few ways that we allow this plague to afflict us. The terrible thing is that we feel justified in our disobedience. In a short time we may even digress to the point of ignoring God’s laws altogether. We must be careful that we are not lead astray by something that looks good. The fish is lead astray and then caught by good looking bait. We must remember to use the Bible as God’s “hook detector.”


1. Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics – The New Morality (The Westminister Press, 1974), p. 18.


3. Fletcher, p. 26.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 41, pp. 665-666
October 18, 1979