Christian Ethics and the Church: Ecclesial Foundations for Moral Thought and Practice (Baker Academic, 2015)

[1] The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is a retired but clearly still active veteran of the conflicts within the Episcopal Church U.S.A. Though he does not write about those rifts with any specificity in this rich and constructive book, that discord echoes through the pages of Christian Ethics and the Church. It seems reasonable to surmise that he has sought in these pages to share what wisdom and insight a dedicated churchman and scholar has been able to wrest from experience both within the church and at the interface of church and secular culture.

[2] This is a book about foundations, and I commend it highly for that reason. Turner develops two arguments. The dominant argument is that the Christian church must change in light of new circumstances and that “the key to significant change lies in religion rather than morality” (268). The “new circumstances” are not identified as rebellion against authority (though a good deal is said about the importance of authority and obedience in Christian communities) and intractable conflicts within denominations; rather, the “new circumstances” have to do with the fact that the church now occupies a position of social weakness rather than social strength, together with the fact that “thick construals of Christian belief and practice have been sucked into the bath of pluralist culture and diluted so as to fit the minimalist dogmatic pattern of civil religion” (xvi). Dissolving slowly into “theological and ethical vacuity” (xvi), North American Christian denominations “are in search of identity” (xix); accordingly, constructive change requires new attention to “the nature and calling of the Christian church” (xiv).

[3] The second argument, which actually occupies more pages of the text, is that the proper focus (or, less often, “originating locus”) of Christian ethics is the church. Here Turner’s case rests on a close reading of Ephesians that issues in a condemnation of “those desires and behaviors that breed disunity” and an exhortation to a “way of walking [that] can be summed up by the word ‘love’” (102). The coordination of the dominant and subdominant arguments, which seems so obvious to Turner as to require little comment, actually requires more attention than he gives to it. In any case, in the introduction he frames it thus: “It is my conviction that Christian identity is the question for this time” and “Christian ethics, as an aspect of the interior life of the church, plays a central role in forging that identity” (xx).

[4] Let us turn, then, to his discussion of the foundations of Christian ethics. He is trying here, as he has done in some earlier work, to shift the focus of ethics from isolated individual agents to the inter-relationships of persons in community. This is extremely valuable work, and I wish that his remarks about H. Richard Niebuhr in the introduction had acknowledged that in this regard Niebuhr is an important precursor. The argument concerning Christian ethics has three major components: (1) what initially looks like a typology of kinds of Christian ethics, (2) the derivation of the matter of ethics from Scripture, and (3) the consolidation of “an Ecclesial Ethic” in relation both to church life and to civil and political society. Even in this overlong review, I will be able to give careful attention to only the first two—this is, indeed, a very rich book.

[5] The first component, contained in Part 1, “The Focus of Christian Ethics: Three Accounts,” contrasts the work of the admittedly very different writers John Cassian, Walter Rauschenbusch, and John Howard Yoder. (It has to be noted that Yoder is perhaps an unfortunate choice since quite a number of women have come forward to attest that his distressing behavior toward them was in no way exemplary of the way Christians ought to live with one another.) A table is the most economic way of conveying the differences among these “options.”

Although this looks like a typology, it is not. Turner is a hierarchical thinker, and as his argument develops, it becomes clear that his purpose is to show that concern for the inner life and concern for social relationships other than those within the church are legitimate but should be “subservient to” concern for social interactions within the community of Christians. If Christians work out their internal ethics on a properly theological basis, that will entail its own program for the interior life of the soul and the Christian’s relationship with others outside the Christian community. Absent that theological basis, concern for the soul and concern for the social and political order will be distorted in pernicious ways. So the contrasting approaches function both as bêtes noires (in their bad forms) and as appropriate objects of Christian moral concern (in their good forms).

[6] In the second component of the argument concerning ethics Turner unfolds the New Testament foundations for a Christian ethics. Part 2 of the book offers two chapters devoted to Ephesians, and Part 3, a chapter reflecting on the Gospel according to Matthew and a chapter reflecting on the Gospel according to Luke and the Revelation to John. The author of Ephesians, Turner’s “Prismatic Case” (that is, the prism through which the New Testament treatment of ethics becomes clear), “was most certainly a Jew” who “thought like a Jew” in conceiving of unity “‘politically’ rather than ‘metaphysically’” (69‑70). However Jewish he may have been, he nevertheless, in Turner’s view, “bases his focus on unity in the life of the Holy Trinity,” though Turner grants that “it is anachronistic to say so” (74). Turner contends that this Trinitarian and ecclesial “focus of life in Christ . . . is found throughout the New Testament writings” (107). Yet the author grants that in Matthew we find an ethic more compatible with Cassian’s emphasis, and in Luke we find an ethics more like that of Rauschenbusch. Turner treats these books as “possible exceptions” best understood in light of the later letter. It does seem faintly circular to choose a New Testament letter written to a church community to defend the claim that the best and proper focus of Christian ethics is the church community.

[7] Be that as it may, the reading Turner offers of Ephesians is a compelling one that serves to remind us all of what the children of God are called to—and of how dismally we fail in our calling. “The ekklēsia,” Turner writes, “is the place on earth where the life to which God calls its peoples is to be found” (77). Turner structures his exegesis around three questions that are first articulated in the introduction (xvii) and bear much of the weight of both arguments throughout:

[8] What is the goal of life in Christ? (Chapter 4) The “most basic goal of Christian ethics is the glorification of God” (67), and thus, “the primary focus of Christian ethics. . . is the common life of the church as it is lived to glorify God” (69). To glorify God is to further the purposes of God, and the author of Ephesians, articulating what Turner takes to be the “thread that ties together the entire biblical narrative” (69), identifies God’s central purpose as the restoration of the unity of all things in Christ. Turner derives a strong ethical imperative from this understanding of the goal of life: Christians must “make ‘every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’” (66).

[9] What is the basis of life in Christ? (Chapter 4) Although the ultimate basis of life in Christ is unity as the eternal purpose of God, the penultimate basis is “Christ’s sacrificial death,” for by his conquest, believers are freed from bondage to principalities and powers and forgiven their sins (70). The tertiary basis for life in Christ is to be found in the gifts of the spirit (the graces or virtues) distributed by Christ to equip the saints, even now, “to participate in God’s work of unity” (71). Christ thus establishes “residence (through faith) in the center of human agency—the heart—and with a new ground for their life—namely love” (72).

[10] What is the character or shape of life in Christ? (Chapter 5) Or, reformulated on page 78 as the “key question”: What is the shape or form of this worthy life? In summary: Love—not as a disposition or attitude, but as a set of identifiable behaviors among Christians that the author of Ephesians is at pains to identify: “humility of mind, gentleness in correcting others, patience, forbearance, eagerness to maintain unity, sympathy, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness” (83), to which Turner later importantly adds truth and righteousness (93‑94). These “agapic practices” are all forms of “giving themselves up one for another as Christ gave himself up for the church” (89). The capacity for these agapic practices is given by the Spirit to the community of believers; thus, this worthy way of life is located first in “the common life of the church” (83), and thus, the life of the church is the “originating locus” (xv) of Christian ethics.

[11] For the most part, this will not seem particularly startling. It is notable, however, for the extraordinary emphasis placed on peace and unity. Just as he contrasts his ecclesial ethics with two other inferior options, he also contrasts his development of this imperative to work for unity with two other inferior options. On the one hand, there are the postlapsarians with their conviction that intractable divisions are our lot, and that realism suggests that making the divisions “amicable” is “the best that can be achieved within the limits of a fallen world” (68). On the other hand, there are the postmodern pluralists who construe the divisions within the house as “adding to the richness of Christian belief and practice” (68). Either of these is, in Turner’s view, a “compromising settlement” contrary to “the biblical narrative as a whole” (68). His judgment on both is harsh: “one must conclude that a willingness to accept the division of the churches as a necessary and acceptable adjustment to human weakness and sin or as a positive step toward a rich pluralism of religious expression constitutes either a serious misunderstanding of what God is up to or a form of self-justification that at best indicates an unwillingness to face the true status of the divided churches before God” (74).

[12] What, then, is to be said of all the very obvious intractable conflicts among Christians who quite sincerely believe themselves, whatever “side” they may be on, to have ascertained the purposes of God and who are all trying both to be faithful and to preserve the common life of the Christian community? By way of acknowledgment, the immaturity of some believers, the failure of the churches to give adequate attention to church polity and church governance, “false and crafty teachers” (82), and the church’s own “defections from God’s will and purpose” (xxii) are all touched upon. But the overwhelming cause is to be found in “the spiritual forces that oppose God’s rule of the creation,” to which the church at Ephesus is not immune and against which it is urged to arm itself with weapons of the spirit (91). According to Turner, the battle of light against darkness is too often construed as the church against the world, whereas it is actually internal. For this reason, “conflict is the chief characteristic of life together in Christ” (98), as darkness or “futility” of mind, hardness of heart, disruptive affections, insensitivity, gross intemperance, unruly emotions, bitterness, and malice continually well up within individuals and within the church body. The contrast of “once you were” against “now you are” does not, Turner suggests, signify a clearly divided before and after; rather, it signifies the difference between being wholly at the mercy of these forces (before) and having (now) the spiritual resources to contend against them. In a really intriguing twist of argument, Turner thus interprets the author of the letter to be calling the community to remember (100) first that precisely because they are no longer under the sole jurisdiction of these forces, they are called into conflict against them—in their own hearts, in their own house, and more broadly in the civil and political orders. But the Christian church is also called “now” to remember that because no strength of their own can stand against these powers, they “must again and again avail themselves of weapons provided by God” (101)—weapons that do not look like weapons at all.

[13] The third component of the ethical argument, comprising the last four chapters of the book, then explores the way in which this ecclesial ethics (summed up in chapter 8) (1) gives rise to a right understanding of individual virtue and the state of the individual soul (chapter 9) and (2) changes our view of “Life in Civil Society” and “Life within Political Society” (chapters 10‑12). He thus returns to the options against which he first contrasted his approach, exploring the healthy and acceptable forms that they take when properly grounded in a biblically secured theology.

[14] How does this help the church rediscover its identity in what Turner takes to be a new social location (at least for the Mainline Protestant denominations that once “serve[d] as the chaplain to society” [xxii])? Or, to return to my own question, how are the two arguments related? In one sense, the two arguments become so blurred together in the core of the book that it seems sometimes as if Turner believes they are one and the same argument. Yet Turner himself surprises us in the Afterword by admitting, “I remain unclear about how to return the ethical focus of the church to its proper object of attention—the common life of the faithful church” (267) and also by asserting that “the key to significant change [in the church] lies in religion rather than morality” (268). He is right, of course, that the “nature and calling of the Christian church” is essentially a religious question and that attempts to frame it morally distort it. At the same time, the argument that the focus of Christian ethics must be the common life of the Christian church also has the potential to distort. To say that the early church was the “originating locus” of a quite distinctive set of ethical prescriptions about how social cooperation is to be achieved and how destructive conflict is to be averted is not to say that the life of the church is point or focus of this ethics. That it is as difficult to walk according to this ethics within the churches as it is anywhere else only seems to underline this truth. What it seems that we might more accurately say is that the early church gave rise to an ethics of agapic practices that transcended and continues to transcend its own necessarily conflictual reality. This ethics is unsustainable apart from the distinctively theological convictions of the Christian community, but at the same time, the churches have forgotten and desperately need to live back into this ethics. We must, as it were, remember our own truth. I take it that Turner would say that such memory is the only site of hope.

Diane (D.M.) Yeager

After retiring from teaching ethics and philosophical theology in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Diane Yeager is now delighting in a totally new phase of learning as a docent at the Smithsonian's  National Museum of Asian Art.