N.T. Wright’s Take on Christian Ethics and Values

What is the right thing to do? What is the appropriate Christian response to difficult moral dilemmas, interpersonal interactions, personal behavior, and societal injustices?

These are important questions to me, in part, because of the strong polarization in contemporary American Christianity. The reality is that the vast majority of American denominations have sorted themselves into liberal and conservative theological and cultural camps over the last century along with the rest of American society. When thinking of what is ethical and moral, conservative Christians lead with individual obedience to divine rules and commandments while liberal Christians lead with the work to bring about social justice and fight structural oppressions. This makes sense, as political ideologies and religious theologies are not as dissimilar as we often would like to think. Also, there is a lot of evidence that Americans more often interpret their religious values through the lens of their political identities than they interpret their political values through their religious identities.

Given that, is there a uniquely Christian answer to the question of ethics and morality that can be disentangled from our political and societal worldviews? What does it mean for me to try to develop and live a Christian ethic that isn’t simply my preferred political ideology dressed up with some Christian labels and concepts?

N.T. Wright does his best to answer this question in After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. His central argument is that the key goal for Christians in this life is to develop the character and virtues that are needed to enable their eschatological vocation: to act as “priests and rulers, summing up the praises of all creation and exercising authority on behalf of God and the Lamb” in the New Jerusalem of the Life to Come.

People tend to go in one of two directions when they think of how to behave. You can live by rules, by a sense of duty, by an obligation imposed on you whether you feel like doing it or not. Or you can declare that you are free from all that sort of thing and able to be yourself, to discover your true identity, to go with your heart, to be authentic and spontaneous.

What are we here for in the first place? The fundamental answer we shall explore in this book is that what we’re “here for” is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other; and that we do this not least by “following Jesus.” The way this works out is that it produces, through the work of the Holy Spirit, a transformation of character. This transformation will mean that we do indeed “keep the rules”—though not out of a sense of externally imposed “duty,” but out of the character that has been formed within us. And it will mean that we do indeed “follow our hearts” and live “authentically”—but only when, with that transformed character fully operative…the hard work up front bears fruit in spontaneous decisions and actions that reflect what has been formed deep within.

Here, Wright identifies two key strands of ethical thinking in the contemporary West: conservative deference to societal authority and liberal deference to individuality and freedom. In contrast to these, Wright instead argues for a third set of characteristics that should be the ultimate goal for Christians: faith, hope, and love.

And what is love? Wright refers us to 1 Corinthians 13 (MSG translation shown; Wright uses his own translation):

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

Wright also refers us to Galatians 5 and the “works of the flesh” vs. “fruits of the spirit.” (MSG translation shown; Wright uses his own translation.)

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. …

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

The point, according to Wright, is that these are the characteristics and virtues that we’ll need to serve as rulers, kings, and priests to God in the Life to Come. Our task, then, is to start practicing these virtues as best we can in our contexts. (There’s a LOT more in the book, this is what I focused on.)

The next step, for me, is to spend some time thinking hard about what it means to live with an ethic of faith, hope, and love on a day-to-day basis, what are the different frameworks and definitions of faith, hope, and love, and how to apply them in both interpersonal, societal, professional, religious, and secular contexts.

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