Does the End Justify the Means?

“And why not say, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? – as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say.  Their condemnation is just.”  (Romans 3:8)

Doing evil that good may come could more commonly be called situation ethics.  The AHD defines situation ethics as “a system of ethics that evaluates acts in light of their situational context rather than by the application of moral absolutes.”  Situation ethics teaches that there is no absolute moral law that is binding in all circumstances.  The philosophy of situation ethics would not call evil the doing of something that violates moral principles if doing it produces good.  In an article on situation ethics, the Encyclopedia Britannica describes such a result as one that maximizes harmony, reduces discord, and enriches human existence.

Who gets to define what is good and what is evil?  Certainly not us.  God has the inherent right and ability to do that, and He has given in the Bible all we need to discern good and evil.  For something to be good, it must first be lawful.  And that which is evil is unlawful.

In Romans 3:8, Paul put forward the idea of doing evil that good may come, and identified it as an idea to be condemned.  Paul taught against the idea that “the end justifies the means”; he taught against situation ethics.  To do what is evil or unlawful (the means) in order to try to achieve what would be considered a good result (the end) is condemned.

This truth has application personally as well as to collective action by the church. 

Personally, have you ever found yourself justifying what you have done because of the good result it achieved, even when what you did was unlawful?  It reminds me of the question someone once asked:  “Is it ok to speed to worship Sunday morning so that you’re there on time?”  I enjoyed watching the Andy Griffith Show in younger years, but one thing that always bothered me was the way lying was cast as a good thing when someone was “protected” or “helped” in some way by it.  Like Paul, we should ask whether doing evil so that good may come is ok.  The answer is the same now as then:  No.  It is just and right to condemn such action.

Just as it is wrong personally to do evil that good may come, so it is for the church.

When God has specified the means or the method to use in accomplishing a result, then we do not have the right to use a different means, even if the result appears to be good.  This would be doing evil – that which is unlawful – so that good may come.

For example, consider the preaching of the gospel.   The New Testament shows us examples approved by God of a church sending a preacher to preach the gospel (Acts 13:3), as well as churches sending support or wages to a preacher to preach the gospel (2 Corinthians 11:8; Philippians 1:5, 4:15-16).  And you will find approved examples of churches caring for their own needy and even collecting funds from their own to send to another congregation who is unable to relieve their own needy saints (Acts 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8:13-14, 9:12).  But you will not find in the New Testament a statement, a command, an approved example, or a necessary inference or conclusion that the church engaged in benevolence to anyone other than the saved.  And just the same, there is no authority found in the New Testament for the church to engage in benevolence for the lost in order to create an opportunity and a forum to preach the gospel.  “Medical missions” to the lost are an example of this.  Some may say that it is in order to accomplish a good end – teaching the lost.  But that which is unlawful has been done to try to achieve the result!  The church has done evil that good may come.  The church is not authorized to use its funds to relieve the needy of the world; that responsibility belongs in the realm of the individual (James 1:27).

Some may consider such teaching too rigid.  But let us be just so rigid as to allow God to define for us what is good and what is evil.  And then let us be committed to do things His way, that is, by His authorized means, and let us trust that He will bless the end, the results, as He sees it.

  • Larry Jones