To Steal Or Not to Steal?

The media considered it front page news when a leading churchman recently argued that, given today’s economic climate, theft is justifiable under certain circumstances. Even editors and columnists seemed to have difficulty understanding how a “man of the cloth” could have found biblical support for such a position. The decalogue did not state: “You shall not steal—unless of course you feel justified in doing so.” Paul simply did not instruct: “Let him who steals steal no longer—unless circumstances demand it” (Ephesians 4:28). We are accustomed to hearing God-rejecting materialists argue that ethics is “autonomous” and “situational”; this, of course, is to be expected from those who regard man as the end-product of blind, evolutionary processes. It is evident that: “[a]n ethical system that bases its premises on absolute pronouncements will not usually be acceptable to those who view human nature by evolutionary criteria” (Motulsky, 1974, 185:654). So, to find believers in God denying ethical absolutism came as a surprise to many people.

Certainly the spirit of our age is the spirit of compromise, and since the 1960s an increasing number of theologians have embraced the view that biblical laws are only true provisionally or generally. For example, in his very influential book, Situation Ethics: The New Morality, Joseph Fletcher argued against the “legalistic” approach to making ethical decisions in which “one enters into every decision-making situation encumbered with a whole apparatus of prefabricated rules and regulations” (1966, p. 18). Thus, biblical injunctions simply are encumbrances! Fletcher argued that if the demands of “love” are better fulfilled by breaking the divine law in a given set of circumstances, then actions like lying, stealing, and yes, even murder, are justifiable under those circumstances. Quite simply, Fletcher argued that there are no absolute “rights” or “wrongs”; instead each moral decision must be made in light of the specific situation in view.

In response to “believers” like Fletcher, we must point out that the basic concern of Christian ethics is with the relationship of man to the One Who created and sustains him. God Himself is the unchanging standard of moral law. His perfectly holy nature is the ground or basis upon which “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad” are determined. The Divine will—expressive of the very nature of God—constitutes the ultimate ground of moral obligation. Why are we to pursue holiness? Because God is Holy (Leviticus 19:1-2; 1 Peter 1:16). Why are we not to lie, cheat, or steal (Colossians 3:9)? Because God’s nature is such that He cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). Since God’s nature is unchanging, it follows that moral law, which reflects the divine nature, is equally immutable.

When ideas of “social justice,” “world betterment,” or “equality” replace God as the basis of decision-making, Christian ethics loses its power and distinctiveness. Of course we are to be concerned about social justice (cf. Amos and James). Of course it is wrong for the needy to be trampled upon by the wealthy or the powerful. But Jesus did not come as a social reformer preaching existentialism, values clarification, or humanism. Rather, He came to reveal the nature and character of God to man (1 John 1:18), i.e., a God Who cannot condone evil under any circumstances (Habakkuk 1:13). Let us be content to “pursue…sanctification” (Hebrews 12:14) and to manifest in our lives something of His holiness, righteousness, and justice.


Fletcher, Joseph (1966), Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster).

Motulsky, Arno S. (1974), “Brave New World?,” Science, 185:654. As quoted in Henry M. Morris (1974), The Troubled Waters of Evolution (San Diego, CA: Creation-Life Publishers), p. 34.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Rex Banks preaches for the Church of Christ in Hamilton, New Zealand.]


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