Is Your Pastor a Humanist?

“There are only two options on the shelf, pleasing God or pleasing self.” I was introduced to this little phrase about a decade ago while doing a pastoral internship. This phrase has had a deep impact on my life and my ministry. In fact, if you listen to many of my sermons you will soon encounter this phrase. It is a good reminder that in every moral dilemma and in every choice that faces us we have the opportunity to please God or to please self. This phrase simplifies what many perceive as complex moral decisions but in reality, obedience is simple and disobedience is very complicated. 

This phrase doesn’t just simplify moral dilemmas by bringing our mind back to obedience to God, it also speaks to our religious and moral allegiance. We are either going to be allegiant to God or we are going to be allegiant to self. If we choose to be allegiant to self, we are ultimately affirming humanism in that moment. When we choose to please our self over pleasing God, we make a human (yourself) out to be the moral arbiter of our moral decisions, and that is humanism. 

There are two different ways a person could rightly be called or claim the title of humanist and they are 1) Someone who always makes moral decisions based on a human moral arbiter 2) Someone who ascribes to a moral or ethical system that places a human as the ultimate moral arbiter. The first person is one who practices humanism regardless of their ethical system, so they are in practice a humanist. The second person ascribes to an ethical system that is inherently humanist, so they are a humanist in practice and belief. 

It is difficult, and at times can even be impossible, to convince someone who practices humanism but claims a non-humanist ethical system that they are in fact a humanist. For this reason, I will be dealing with those who hold to a humanist ethical system. I do want to be clear, our actions prove what part of our doctrinal statement we actually believe; for this reason I maintain that those who predominately practice humanism are humanists, even if they ascribe to a Christian ethic. 

This brings us to the question presented in the title of this article, is your pastor a humanist? You may be asking; how can a pastor be a humanist? Let us look at man who was ordained and taught for several decades in seminaries and yet was clearly a humanist, Joseph Fletcher. Joseph Fletcher lived from 1905-1991. For 26 years he taught Christian ethics at Harvard Divinity School and Episcopal Divinity School (affiliated with Union Theological Seminary), in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1974, Fletcher was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and in 1983 Humanist Laureate by the Academy of Humanism. 

Joseph Fletcher

It seems strange that a man who is a decorated humanist would teach Christian ethics at various seminaries, but that is exactly what happened. Fletcher’s greatest influence came in 1966 when his book Situation Ethics: The New Morality was published. The introduction of situation ethics into the Christian culture has created a humanist ethical system in a very unlikely place. Through situation ethics many who claim the name of Christ have become unknowing humanists by ascribing to a system that makes a human (self) the ultimate moral arbiter. Situation ethics is built upon four presuppositions and six ascribed fundamental principles. They are:

(The Four Presuppositions of Situation Ethics)

  • Pragmatism: The ends justify the means 
  • Relativism: The only absolute is love
  • Positivism: Love is the moral axiom in place of natural or moral law
  • Personalism: Treats people as ends and not as means 

(The Six Fundamental Principles) 

  • Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely, love: nothing else.
  • The ultimate norm of Christian decisions is love: nothing else.
  • Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed. 
  • Love wills the neighbor’s good whether we like him or not.
  • Only the end justifies the means: Nothing else. 
  • Decisions ought to be made situationally not prescriptively. 

This moral system places an individual’s perceived view of love in every situation as the ultimate moral arbiter. This becomes distinctively humanist when we consider it is love undefined and divorced from God’s law. Fletcher wasn’t shy about the fact that situationism was in opposition to God’s law: 

Situationism results in such characteristic propositions as that we ought to live by the law of love and never by any love of law. It holds that love ethics is infinitely superior to law ethics, so that chastity and not virginity, for example, is the Christian norm, and unmarried love is infinitely superior to married love.[1]

When faced with a moral dilemma the situationist doesn’t ask, “what does God say about the issue at hand?” The situationist asks, “what do I think is most loving?” With this being understood, we can see how the system or process is centered around a subjective opinion of man as opposed to an objective moral law from God. 

While considering situationism it is imperative to address, what I am sure is an elephant in the room, and that is the question “what is wrong with love?” Simply put, nothing is wrong with love as long as it is defined by God. Scripture gives us a couple of quick hitting and important insights into how love is defined. 

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The first is in John 14:15 where Jesus says, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” The second is found in 2 John 6 where it says, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments.” Biblical love is attached to and defined by the commands (law) of God. We cannot rightly love Jesus without keeping God’s prescribed commands and we cannot rightly love others without walking in God’s commands. We could sum this idea up by saying, “there are only two options on the shelf, pleasing God or pleasing self.” When we take the law (God’s commands) out of our moral framework we become humanists, because we are taking God’s opinion out of our moral decision making. 

Fletcher became a humanist when he pitted love against God’s law. Today, many pastors and religious teachers do this by teaching that love (undefined by the law) is the means we are to consider in our moral decision making. This is humanism. Pastors who teach this moral framework are humanists, no matter how well intended they are. Don’t get me wrong, we should be compassionate and full of love, but this love must be defined by God’s law or it is illegitimate and devastating towards others. We also need to understand that our feelings do not change our moral obligation, no matter how we feel about the situation we ought to please God. 

We can see the fruit of this in our church culture as many have softened their pro-life stance and justify allegiance to those who do not value life in the womb. We can also see this in the surrender of the fight for biblical marriage and a lesser value on the nuclear family. Humanism always erodes God’s institutions and makes churchmen apathetic towards holiness. 

If your pastor often encourages you to be loving towards others but does not define that love with the immutable and eternal law of God, he most likely is a humanist by way of his ascribed moral system.  When considering the popularity of situationism you should not stop with simply asking if your pastor is a humanist, you should look in the mirror and consider if you are a humanist. After all, “there are only two options on the shelf, pleasing God or pleasing self.” 


[1] Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: Is it Right or Wrong? Pg. 24

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