Book Review: Pastoral Ethics, by W. Ross Hastings
W. Ross Hastings, Pastoral Ethics: Moral Formation as Life in the Trinity. Lexham Press, 2022. 352 pages.
A man in your church comes to you struggling with his sexual identity. A woman comes to you seeking to escape her addiction to work. And a teen in your church is caught impersonating someone else to bully fellow students online. All this sounds like a normal day in the life of a pastor.
Pastoring has never been easy, but it is particularly challenging in times of ethical upheaval. Our generation is not the first to experience such a moment (think Augustine’s Rome), but ours is truly a fractured and ethically confused culture.
Added to our cultural moment is the significant lack of moral formation in the training of pastors. Simply put, pastors aren’t often trained to live well, think well, or help others do the same regarding the challenging decisions of life. W. Ross Hastings recognizes these problems (3–8) and has written an excellent book to help remedy them.
Pastors are in his debt. As a theological ethicist, Pastoral Ethics is the book I wish I had written for pastors.
In chapter 1, Hastings argues that Christians don’t simply need to be ethical; they need to understand, cultivate, and utilize theological ethics—decision-making informed by theology. In this, he follows in the tradition of Jacques Ellul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Stanley Hauerwas.
Theological ethics does not first ask how we might solve ethical problems. Rather, it starts with a dedication to understand the character of God and obey his Word. In other words, to achieve something important like peace (in the home, on the block, or in our community), we first need to understand the peace God has achieved on our behalf through Christ and the fact that all humans are created in God’s image, among many more truths. The better we know God and his Word, the more we will be prepared to live well in the world that God has made.
Hastings goes on in Chapter 2 to argue why theological ethics needs to be trinitarian. In short, God has revealed himself and carried out his acts in history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, the nature and actions of God should shape the way we live our lives. As Hastings explains, “The ethical life can only be a product of divine reconciliation in the Son and redemption by the Spirit . . . ethics understood within participation in the life of God becomes not a burden, but a gift, indeed, a delight” (61). The benefit to this way of approaching ethics is that it encapsulates all ethical theories (command, utilitarian, and virtue) and transcends them (39–40).
Hastings would also have us remember that deliberation and formation belong to a life freed by God through the gospel and that such a life is to be lived in the context of the church. We do not become ethical by becoming legalists or trying to live life all by ourselves. It is as we live rather ordinary lives alongside fellow church members that we come to understand how we ought to live in God’s world, both by means of positive and negative examples. Church membership, then, is an adventure in learning how to live rightly in God’s world. We learn as we participate in worship, discipleship, service, etc.
Hastings takes most of the book to consider what it looks like to live as a Christian using the Ten Commandments as broad categories (Chapters 5–12). Under the New Covenant, these commands should be understood as more of a “get to,” not a “have to,” way of life for God’s people (96). Each chapter is helpful in that it touches a broad range of ethical situations that fall under the commandment(s). Hastings focuses on the pastoral implications of the commands, leading the pastor to consider his motives as much as his actions—and the way he lives as much as how he helps others live.
For the sake of space, I will focus on Chapter 8, considering the pastoral implications of the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill.” In the space of 44 pages, Hastings does an admirable job surveying the profound ethical challenges of abortion, capital punishment, just war, genetic testing, euthanasia, palliative care, and suicide. As in other chapters focusing on the commands, he is not exhaustive, but instructive.
Those looking for answers to every situation may be dissatisfied, but they are given something far more important, namely, a good, informative, fair, and relentlessly Christian consideration of the various sides of issues. For example, though he finally voices positive support for capital punishment, he is careful to bring up significant challenges to the act. As one who does not fully agree with Hastings, I was encouraged by his presentation.
The vast scope of ethics prevents certain things from being addressed. For example, he does a good job dealing with the complications of abortion, giving sound advice, arguing for the protection of children, and promoting the idea of adoption and legitimate concern for women, but unfortunately having little to say about the need to keep men accountable and resourcing them to be fathers. But no ethics book can do everything, and this is one of the best I have read for pastors. One of the most helpful aspects of the book is Hastings’s practice of citing good materials for further research.
I would highly recommend this book to pastors. The ethical challenges we face are not going to decrease in the years to come, and we need help in becoming thoughtful leaders of God’s people, especially when dealing with the challenging aspects of life. This book is a gift to pastors and one I hope you will take up and read, along with any and all others in your congregation who are interested in ethics.