Ethics and Scripture Factsheet
Scripture: 2 Peter 1:1-8
Parents are right to be concerned over the future of scripture classes being taught in NSW public schools. The NSW Government is conducting a trial of non-Christian, non-religious ethics classes as an alternative to scripture classes. Ethics is the study of how we behave, how we develop our personal morality, the basis of judgements we make on right and wrong, our understanding of justice and virtue in the context of how we live. Ethics is fundamental to every major religion and every sacred scripture.
I majored in philosophy in University including honours in Ethics. I have taught ethics to undergraduate students at Wesley Institute, taught graduate students at Emmanuel School of Religion in Tennessee as Adjunct Professor for the past 22 years, and lived the ethics I have taught.
For seventeen years I also taught scripture in two state High schools covering every grade of every year every week. At the same time my wife taught scripture in Primary schools. So, we have been concerned both for scripture and for ethics.
The ethics I taught were based on the Christian scriptures. The NSW Government is proposing teaching children right from wrong, how to behave, justice and virtue without any referenced to the Christian ethics. What will be the basis of this behaviour without any given norms as found in scripture? Which of the Ten Commandments do parents not want their children to follow?
And who will be the teachers of these ethical standards? In scripture classes children are taught the Christian standards by accredited Christian teachers. Parents know this even if their own ethical standards have been less than what they were taught.
The new curriculum is not based on scripture, does not refer to religious teaching of good and bad, right and wrong, and will be given by unknown people in what they are calling a “values-free” environment.
This is not a trial based on ethical standards. It is secular humanist attempt to replace Christian values taught in scripture classes.
Tens of thousands of people have signed a Petition asking for the ethics class to be available to all students and not conducted at the same time as Scripture forcing parents to choose between the two. They have signed and forwarded the petitions to me and other Parliamentarians and we have presented them to the Parliament. The Government, in an election year, should listen to the strong voice of the people.
Christian ethics has long been seen to be the best basis of human virtue and behaviour. The last time such public interest in ethics was expressed was in the mid-1990’s with a book that caused a great deal of discussion among educationalists, academics and parents. It was written by Bill Bennett, who was Education Secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He was also responsible also for his nation’s war on drugs.
His book “The Book of Virtues” has struck a remarkable bipartisan nerve in the US. It enjoyed 48 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, with 1.8 million copies in print.
Bill Bennett recognises that in the US, parents are on a desperate search for morality, values, and ethics. People recognise that somewhere in religious faith, is the ethical, moral and value system needed by the coming generation. This could be matched by the mood among Australian parents today.
He argues the teaching of ten great virtues: Self-discipline, Compassion, Responsibility, Friendship, Work, Courage, Perseverance, Honesty, Loyalty and Faith. Incidentally, the Federal Government made up its own very similar list of virtues to be taught in public schools.
Dr Victor Storm, a leading Sydney child and adolescent psychiatrist, said he wasn’t surprised at the success of the book in the US, and suggests concern about values was also strong here. “Values are still very important to people. We want to live in a more co-operative and cohesive way and hold values consistent with supporting that.”
Bill Bennett believes virtues need a revival. His line is that if parents read their kids more great stories – the kind with characters who are virtuous and full of integrity, courage and good character then we would not have kids on the streets running out of control.
Instead, we have a constant stream of television and video programs, and video games that demonstrate immorality, aggression, violence and self gain as mental food for an entire generation. If education isn’t teaching positive values, then how can we expect a generation that has not been taught to know any better?
Two and a half thousand years ago, the great Greek Philosopher Plato wrote in “The Republic”, the same message. Plato could be writing today when he writes: “Shall we just allow children to hear casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds for ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up? We cannot. Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales that the young first hear be models of virtuous thoughts.”
Bennett and Plato both agree that if we want our children to possess the traits of character we most admire, we must teach them what these traits are and why they deserve both admiration and allegiance. Bennett writes: “Children must learn to identify the forms and content of those traits. They must achieve at least a minimal level of moral literacy that will enable them to make sense of what they see in life, and help them live it well.”
Yet critics say that while Bennett’s book has chapters on virtues such as friendship, loyalty and self-discipline, he avoids many of the “hot” moral issues that cause so much division and will be of importance to teenagers. Not a word on abortion, AIDS, euthanasia or nuclear war. However, is not that just the point?
How can we expect young people to make correct decisions about these hot moral issues when they have never been taught the great positive virtues of life?
Forming character in young people must come before finalising difficult ethical questions of the day. The basics must come first. The morally literate person will be best equipped to deal with the controversial issues.
The release of “The Book of Virtues” in Australia comes at a time when concerns with the “values” being taught in schools are again being raised. The Centre for Independent Studies, the Sydney policy think-tank, entered the fray with the publication of a new series of essays entitled “Shaping the Social Virtues”. Barry Maley has serious concerns: “Not only are the schools now playing a larger role in the inculcation of values, the content of what is being conveyed is less and less in conformity with what parents would wish. Yet parents are in substantial ignorance of what is happening.”
Maley is particularly critical of a value-laden view of culture depicted through public schools, and is concerned about what he sees as “highly biased” interpretations of concepts like equity, equality and social justice. The Department of School Education still struggles under the perception that it either doesn’t teach values seriously or that it is value-free.
Dr Terry Burke, former Deputy Director-General of teaching and learning in the Department of School Education, was emphatic that there is strong moral education in public schools today. “There is more to it than the old single lesson each week on morals. We use examples but we need to ensure we practise what we preach in all areas of school life. If you just focus on examples, it becomes a bit unrealistic for kids,” he says.
Dr Terry Burke maintains the department has been at the forefront of promoting policies on anti-racism and non-sexism, and has placed a priority on teaching against discriminatory practices: all keys to good citizenship. It is interesting that after years of such teaching racist remarks are the centre point of dispute over Rugby Leagues’ Coaching vocabulary.
However, Burke admits that private schools have an easier job of convincing parents they take moral education seriously because it is seen as part of the church’s value system to which the school belongs. A secular public education, by its nature, cannot.
That is why it is essential that we support those Christian teachers who remain in the public system, because they, at least, are modelling Christian virtues. The flight from state schools to private schools by Christian teachers makes it essential that those Christian teachers who remain in the State system receive our encouragement and support. Those Christian teachers in the secular system are one of the few answers to these problems.
For there is the sign of a desperate search for morality, values, ethic. People recognise that somewhere in religion faith, is the ethical moral and values system needed by the coming generation. Private schools continue to recruit extensively among parents who are discontented with what they see as the lack of appropriate values teaching in government schools – and the concerns are not limited to those holding strong religious beliefs.
The core complaint appears to be that in attempting to build a more tolerant and accepting society, schools are no longer dogmatically asserting that there are certain behaviours and aspects of character that are unacceptable.
In the past two decades the number of secondary students in State run public schools has declined by 250,000, representing approximately 300 high schools closing. In the same period, some 250,000 new enrolments have been made in church run private schools, representing approximately 300 additional church high schools.
Despite the availability of free education at government schools, having to pay at private schools up to $100,000 just for tuition fees for six years secondary schooling, and larger student/staff ratios at private secondary schools, 43% of full-time secondary school students chose to study at private schools.
As a result, the number of non-Catholic private schools has almost doubled in 20 years from 415 to 805. The major reason advanced by parents for this swing towards private and mostly church-run education, is a desire for their children to be taught in a moral and ethical environment.
The Anglican Church has establishing 14 new schools in growth areas of the State. More than 60 per cent of those who said they would send their children to one of the new schools were not regular churchgoers. They were particularly supportive of the values they saw that would be taught in the Anglican schools in contrast to government schools. This was in spite of the fact that many journalists in articles have run almost a crusade of criticism against the Anglican Church.
While it would seem obvious that parents should be imparting moral education to their children, in many areas, including sex education, schools have been called on to reinforce teaching from home, or to play the primary role when parents have abrogated their responsibilities.
Throughout this year, we have been looking as aspects of family life in Australia, and supporting families in their task. On this last of 22 such studies, I will suggest our own list of Christian virtues that families should be teaching the young, that Christian teachers should be modelling in a secular system, that in my lectures to mature students in both Australia and USA, students should embody as they graduate having been taught character, not just knowledge.
We take the words of St Peter: (2 Peter 1:3-8) “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence; and to excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love, for if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In this passage Peter says that we must bind all our energies “to equip” ourselves with a series of great qualities and virtues. The word he uses is epichoregein. This is a Greek word with a vivid and pictorial background. The verb epichoregein comes from the noun meaning the leader of a chorus. The Greeks gave to us, great plays and dramas of writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. All these plays need large choruses and are expensive to produce.
In the great days of Athens there were public-spirited citizens who voluntarily and willingly took on the duty, at their own expense, of collecting, maintaining, training and equipping such choruses. So, Peter urges his people to equip their lives with every virtue; and that equipment must not be the provision of a kind of necessary minimum, but lavish and generous equipment. The very word is an incitement to be content with nothing less than the loveliest and the most splendid life.
Peter says we must add virtue to virtue, until the whole culminates in Christian love. Behind this there is a Stoic idea; the Stoics insisted that in life there must continuously be what they called prokope which is moral progress. In the Christian life there must be this steady moral advance.
Many modern Christians do not evidence any spiritual growth in their lives. They commit their lives to Christ in a moment of enthusiasm, but fail to grow in Christian virtue. The Christian life must not be an initial spasm followed by a chronic inertia. Let us then look at the list of the virtues which have to be added one to another. In a world in which books were not common, Peter gives an easily memorised list that the young Christian could easily memorise.
1. ADD TO YOUR FAITH….
It begins with faith; everything goes back to that. For Peter faith is the conviction that what Jesus Christ says is true, the utter certainty that we can commit ourselves to His promises and launch ourselves on His demands. It is the unquestioning certainty that the way to happiness, peace and strength on earth and in heaven is to accept Jesus as Lord.
2. ADD TO YOUR FAITH, EXCELLENCE;
To faith, add excellence. This has a double meaning of efficiency, and courage. In other words, faith must be seen in active and qualitative service to God and man. Your faith must have the best of skills to make it efficient and competent, but also your faith must have courage in its outworking and in its witness to the name of Jesus.
This concept of “add to your faith excellence” is seen in our training children, youth and adults for quality in their performances. It was this verse that was cast in bronze of the plaque that I unveiled on one side of the arch over the Wesley Institute front doors, balancing the foundation stone for the original opening of the school.
It was saying: We expect our members, staff and students to have efficiency and courage in their witness to Christ. All of this is included in the virtue list: “add to your faith excellence”
3. ADD TO EXCELLENCE, KNOWLEDGE.
The word gnoses means practical knowledge. It is the knowledge what to do in any given situation. It is that knowledge which enables a person to decide rightly and to act honourably and efficiently. So to faith there must be added excellence that is both efficient and courageous with the practical wisdom to deal with life.
The emphasis upon knowledge is the reason why during my time as Superintendent of Wesley Mission we had over 3000 people a week in classes learning scripture, management, work skills and scores of subjects.
4. ADD TO KNOWLEDGE, SELFCONTROL.
To this practical knowledge there must be added self-control, or self-mastery. This egkrateia is one of the great Christian virtues which, when neglected, leads to scandal and ridicule heaped upon the church. This is the virtue neglected by those television evangelists who committed immorality and theft while calling people to be filled with the Spirit.
This is the virtue denied by some nurse who steals from a sick patient’s locker; the virtue denied by some man who claims he is a Christian but who gropes female staff; the virtue denied by some student who steals books or CD’s from the Library.
We can support none of these practises! The person who claims to have faith, excellence, and knowledge but does not exhibit self-control cannot continue without radical change.
The Christian ethic is realistic and practical. The people who are vulnerable, who are in our care, who watch our every move, who will be led to faith by us, must see in our lives self-control.
5. ADD TO SELF-CONTROL, PERSEVERANCE.
Every one of us is expected to possess perseverance, steadfastness, and Christian toughness. There are too many Christian wimps who renege at the sign of difficulty, who escape into sickness rather than face a challenge, who flee to bed rather that work hard, who will not accept and endure.
Jesus never promised that Christian life would be a cup of tea. He spoke about taking up your Cross and following Him. Some Christians merely want to take up a pillow! Persevere! Endure! Our Lord Jesus, (Hebrews 12:2) “the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” That is perseverance! Christian steadfastness must be added to your other virtues. We expect you to be brave and courageous and accept everything that life can throw at you, transforming even the worst situation into another step on the upward way.
6. ADD TO PERSEVERANCE, GODLINESS.
To this perseverance must be added godliness – eusebeia. This Christian always worships God but also always serves others. This is the Christian who is in a right relationship both with God and with others. This godliness is a practical piety. It is word, deed and spirit both vertically towards God and horizontally towards other people.
We have little time for useless Churches, who spend their time and money on themselves, and do nothing for the poor.
7. ADD TO GODLINESS, BROTHERLY KINDNESS.
This virtue is philadelphia, which literally means brotherly love. Peter is saying that there is something wrong with the religion which at any time finds the claims and the demands of personal relationships a nuisance and an interruption. Like brothers we must love each other, but like brothers be honest in helping each other.
8. ADD TO BROTHERLY KINDNESS, LOVE.
The whole ladder of Christian virtues must end in Christian love. Not even a family affection is enough. Christians must grow with a love which is as wide and inclusive as that love of God. Christians must show to all men the love which God has shown to them.
Let me summarise. There is a new demand by the community to see being taught to the next generation, ethics, morality and positive virtues. In an amoral community, where secular humanism and selfish hedonism are the values being expressed, Christians must present an alternate way.
This is the way forward for Australian families. Christian teachers in both secular and Christian educational systems have a responsibility to teach these virtues. Christian teachers in both secular and Christian educational systems have a responsibility to teach these virtues. But further, Christians are expected to model these virtues in their personal lives.
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence; and to excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Why not make a commitment to adding each of those virtues to your lifestyle. You have the Bible, the Christian “Book Of Virtues”. You can make a contribution to “Shaping the Social Virtues.” What is required is committed Christian lives demonstrating the way forward by modelling the virtues seen in the life of Jesus.
REV THE HON. DR. GORDON MOYES, A.C., M.LC.