Paul here denied believing this doctrine, but many people today do believe it, or they reason as though they do. The idea is that we evaluate the goal or end result that we hope to achieve, and if the goal seems honorable or upright, then we conclude that whatever means or methods we might use to achieve that goal would also be honorable or upright.
The idea has several names: "Situation Ethics," "Moral Relativity," "end justifies the means," "practicality," and other terms. One man called it "using the devil's tools to do God's work."
Many people use this reasoning to justify their conduct: government officials, businessmen, family members, educators, and church members. It is frequently applied by entertainers, even in supposedly wholesome books, programs, or movies.
We want to consider the Bible teaching about the concept then we will look at specific applications in society.
Paul did not believe that we should do evil that good may come (Romans 3:8). Those who so accused him were slandering him.
What passage of Scripture would teach that the end justifies the means? Surely we ought to be able to find the idea taught in Scripture if it is correct? Where is it taught?
The problem with this idea is that is simply one way to justify doing things differently from what God said to do.
Matthew 15:9,13 - We must not serve God according to human doctrine. Such practices make worship vain; they are plants God did not plant and will be rooted up.
But note that a doctrine is human if it differs in any way from what God, whether in the end or the means. If God tells us what work to do and we do a different work, we are following human teaching. Likewise, if God tells us what means to use to do the work but we use a different means, we are still following human teaching.
Galatians 1:8,9 - If we preach a different gospel we are accursed. But if what we justify using a different means from what God's word says to use, we are teaching differently from what the gospel says, just the same as if we pursue a different goal from what He said.
2 John 9 - People who do not abide in Jesus' teaching, do not have God. To have the Father and Son we must abide in Jesus' teaching. But if Jesus' teaching specifies what means we should use as well as what end we should pursue, then to pursue a different end or a different means is to fail to abide in His teaching.
Colossians 3:17 - Whatever we do in word or deed must be done in Jesus' name - by His authority. But "whatever we do" would include the means as well as the ends we pursue. All must fit what He instructs in His word.
[2 Tim. 3:16,17; Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12; 3:5,6; Revelation 22:18,19; 1 Timothy 1:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; John 5:43]
Acts 3:22,23 - We must hearken to Jesus in all things He teaches or be destroyed. When God's teaching specifies the means to a goal, we have no right to change what He said. We must obey what He says both about the goal and about the means to the goal. [Matthew 28:20]
We have a name for this. We call it "general authority."
Genesis 6:14 - God told Noah to make an ark but gave no specifics about how to haul the wood or how to cut it to the proper size. So had Noah used a saw to cut the wood or a cart to haul it, he would have been doing right. The end would authorize the means since God did not specify the means.
But this is not what people mean when they talk about "the end justifies the means."
This is the problem with Situation Ethics or "the end justifies the means": People seek to use some admirable goal to justify doing some act differently from what God has commanded.
Genesis 6:14 - God told Noah to make the ark of gopher wood. God specified, not just the end (the ark), but also the material to use. Had Noah used a different substance, He would have disobeyed God. "The end justifies the means" would argue it makes no difference what material is used as long as it accomplished the goal of making an ark to spare the people and animals.
Genesis 6:22 - Noah did according to all that God commanded Him: that would include the means and the end. Noah not only built an ark, he also used the material God commanded.
So when God teaches us an end to achieve and a means to use to achieve it, obedience requires us to respect both the means and the end.
Consider some people in the Bible who had to learn that pursuing what they thought were good ends did not justify using means that differed from what God had instructed.
Leviticus 10:1,2 - Nadab and Abihu offered incense to God using fire that God had not commanded them to use. Their goal was good: offering incense to worship God. But God had told them what fire to use and they disregarded the means He specified. God killed them. They learned too late that the end did not justify using a different means.
1 Samuel 15:3,10-23 - God told Saul to destroy all the Amalekites and their flocks, but Saul kept the best animals to offer sacrifice to God. Offering sacrifice to God was "a good work," but it did not justify disregarding God's command. God said Saul "has not performed my commandments" (v11) and rejected him as king. "To obey is better than sacrifice" (v22). The end did not justify a different means from what God had specified.
1 Chronicles 13:6,7,9,10 - David and Israel thought it was "good" to bring the ark of the covenant back among them (vv 2,4). The end or goal was "good." But while transporting it by ox cart, Uzzah touched it to keep it from falling. God killed him.
Note 1 Chronicles 15:2,12-15 - God had appointed that the ark should be carried on poles by priests and Levites. No one else could touch it [Num. 4:15-20]. God killed Uzzah because they "did not consult Him about the proper order." Moving the ark was good, but God had specified the "proper order" to use. The end did not justify using a means different from what God said.
2 Kings 5:9-14 - Elishah told Naaman to dip seven times in the Jordan and he would be cleansed of leprosy. Being healed was a good end, but Naaman was furious because he wanted a different means to accomplish the healing. He wanted Elishah to wave his hand over the place (v11), or he wanted to dip in a different river (v12). As long as he rejected the means God specified, he remained a leper. He was cleansed only when he sought the end according to God's means. The end did not justify using a different means.
[1 Samuel 13:8-14]
Matthew 7:21-23 - Many think they please the Lord because they do "many wonderful works" in His name. Their goals may be good. But He will say, "Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness," because they are not doing the will of the Father. Even when the end is good, we must still respect everything else God specified.
Romans 10:1-3 - The Jews had a zeal for God but not according to knowledge. These people served the true God and did so zealously. Surely that is a good goal. But they set aside God's way of being righteous and pursued their own way of being right. Paul said they needed to be saved. The end did not justify the means.
These examples illustrate the principle we have learned: God requires complete obedience to all that He has said. Not only must we pursue the goals that God teaches, but we must also do it in the way He has said to do it.
Consider many specific areas in which people today are often guilty of disregarding God's word on the grounds that "the end justifies the means."
Most people agree murder is wrong. But society is in turmoil over certain situations.
Many reason that it is not good for people to suffer, so they justify killing an unborn baby if it might be born handicapped or into poverty or if it was conceived out of wedlock, etc.
Others justify killing an elderly or seriously ill person - or helping them kill themselves - if it helps them escape suffering and avoid being a burden to others.
Germany justified the holocaust on the grounds that certain people did not deserve to live.
Revelation 21:8; 22:15 - But God's word says those who commit murder will be in the lake of fire, not in heaven. He nowhere grants an exception for people who are elderly, sick, or unborn. Instead, He tells us to have mercy on such people and help them through their hardships.
To justify killing such people is to argue that the end justifies disobedience to God's word.
Most people will agree that it is best to reserve the sexual union for marriage. But society is in turmoil about specific situations.
Many justify young people having sexual relations or even living together before marriage as long as they really "love" one another or so they can learn whether or not they are compatible. "Don't you think love is good? Don't you want young people to get along in marriage?"
Others say that "love" justifies sexual relations and even marriage between two people of the same gender. "What can be wrong if they really love one another?"
Genesis 2:24; Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 - But God's word says the sexual union is for a man and a woman who are married to one another. Any other relationship is fornication or adultery; and fornicators and homosexuals cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Others say that a couple can get a divorce if they are really unhappy together. Some church members justify staying in unscriptural remarriages if separating would work a severe hardship.
Matthew 19:9 - Jesus said the only Scriptural grounds to divorce ones spouse is for the cause of fornication, and those who divorce for any other reason and remarry commit adultery.
Happiness and love are admirable goals, but they do not justify disobeying God's teaching about marriage and sexual purity.
Many people will justify gambling if its "for a good cause." Bingo and raffles are acceptable for a charity or even a "church." States operate or license lotteries, horse race betting, and even casinos saying the money will be used for education.
1 Timothy 6:8-10; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 - But gambling is still fundamentally greed (covetousness), which will keep people out of the kingdom of God. It is based on a desire to get something for nothing instead of Scriptural means of obtaining possessions (purchase, labor, or a gift of generosity). Its basic appeal is love of money, which the Bible says it the root of all kinds of evil.
Whether for "a good cause" or not, gambling still violates the teaching of God's word.
Most people agree that people ought to tell the truth.
But many justify telling "white lies" to achieve a good result (making somebody feel better or avoid someone getting hurt).
Revelation 21:8,27; 22:14,15 - But God's word says "all liars" (not just some of them) will have their part in the lake of fire, not in the eternal reward of heaven.
Men have justified every kind of evil on the grounds that it was done for "a good cause." But all such rationalizing is based on the false concept that the end justifies the means.
People try to justify instrumental music and special singing groups in various ways, but usually the "bottom line" is the "good" they think it does. People enjoy it, so it can be used to lead young people and indifferent people to enjoy worship. It makes people feel more spiritual, so they want to attend church meetings, etc.
Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16 - But God's word still simply says to sing in New Testament worship. And God repeatedly warns us (as already shown) not to change what He commands to follow our human wisdom and desires.
The fundamental motivation behind instrumental music and similar activities is that the end justifies the means: it's acceptable because of the effects it produces. But God says "to obey is better than sacrifice." Remember what happened to Nadab and Abihu for changing God's revealed order of worship.
Denominations justify all kinds of fund-raising schemes (bingo, rummages, etc.) on the grounds that the church needs the money.
1 Corinthians 16:1,2 - But God instructs New Testament congregations to obtain the funds they need just by taking up a collection each first day of the week. He provided no other means.
If what we do in worship doesn't matter as long as the end result is good, why not rob a bank and donate the loot to the church? "Oh, that would violate the law." Exactly. So it isn't enough just to have a good end result. We must obey the law - especially God's law - about everything. But God's word specifies, not just the goal that He wants us to worship Him, but also the ways we should use to worship Him. To change His pattern in these areas is to disobey His law.
Denominations appoint people to all kinds of offices and central organizations that are nowhere found in Scripture. When questioned, they often say these things help organize their work and promote unity. So, the end justifies the means.
1 Peter 5:1-3; Acts 20:28 - Scripture teaches that the church the means we should use to organize the work and promote unity. Each local church should be overseen by qualified elders who oversee just the flock among them. For the directors of some man-made organization to oversee the work or to centralize the work of many churches under a central organization differs from what God's word says.
Now many non-instrumental "churches of Christ" have established human institutions and sponsoring churches to support works of benevolence or evangelism. If we object, people say, "Look at the good being done: we're supporting preachers and helping the needy." So, we are supposed to overlook the fact the organizations are not Scriptural because someone has decided the final result is "a good work": "the end justifies the means."
The reasoning is as wrong when "churches of Christ" use it as it is when denominations use it. David learned that it was wrong to do a work without first "consulting God about the proper order." People today need to learn the same lesson. Good goals do not justify disobeying God's order of church organization.
Many denominations use parties, carnivals, clowns, sports, and entertainment of all kinds to draw crowds. They support colleges, hospitals, and the whole Social Gospel smorgasbord of works. When questioned about their methods, they point to the large crowds that are being drawn and young people who have been attracted, etc. "The end justifies the means."
Many non-instrumental "churches of Christ" are involved in many of these same works: parties, sports, using their buildings for banquets and meals and "activities" for the young people. If you ask for Bible authority they say, "Look at all the good we're doing" and "We've got to do something to keep the young people." "The end justifies the means." Such reasoning is just as wrong when "churches of Christ" do it as when denominations do it.
1 Thessalonians 1:8; Acts 11:26; Romans 1:16; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 - God has told local churches what work they should do, and that work is primarily spiritual: to spread the gospel and worship God so the lost can be saved and the saved can grow in Christ. The method we use is gospel teaching, not carnal appeals to people's fleshly desires. First-century churches followed God's word and grew by telling people about Christ. [Philippians 4:14-18; 1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 4:15,16]
I've known people who say, "I would rather do good, even in a wrong way, than to not do it at all." But do we have only two choices: do it a wrong way or don't do it at all? God is not pleased by either choice.
David, Saul, and Naaman learned that it was wrong to do a work without first "consulting God about the proper order." People today need to learn the same lesson. Good goals do not justify disobeying God's order of church work.
Matthew 28:20 - The saved should be taught to observe all things that Jesus commands, not just part of it (Acts 3:22,23). Jesus' teaching often includes, not just general goals, but specific information about what to do to achieve those goals. We must observe "all" that He commands, including the means as well as the end.
Nadab and Abihu, King Saul, David, Naaman, and a host of other Bible characters testify by their example that God wants us to do good works, but He wants us to consult him about "the proper order." We must not neglect God's work, but neither should we neglect His instructions about how to do His work.
Likewise, the gospel often teaches how important it is for lost souls to be saved from their sins. But the gospel also instructs us how we can be saved. Some people have changed the teaching about how to be saved, but this too displeases God. God says:
Mark 16:15,16 - He who believes and is baptized will be saved.
Acts 2:38 - Repent and be baptized for remission of sins.
If you have not received salvation in the way God has ordained, you still need to be saved. If you need to become a Christian or need to be restored to God's service, why not obey today?
Copyright 2009, David E. Pratte
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Authority vs. Human Authority
Morality and Ethics
The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
Tradition as Religious Authority
Is One Interpretation as Good as Another?
False Teaching & Religious Error
Worship and the Church
The Proper Day for the Lord's Supper
Church Organization, Government, & Work
Instrumental Music in Worship
Free audio Bible
Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.