Skip to main content

I’ve sometimes heard Christians say, “The end doesn’t justify the means.” Is that really true?

This question usually arises when we consider using undesirable actions or approaches to work toward noble or legitimate ends. 

On one hand, we can easily think of examples where the end certainly does not justify just any means. Someone may be rightly and adamantly opposed to abortion, but that does not justify attacking an abortion clinic. Someone may desperately and understandably desire to have a child, but that does not justify having a one-night stand to get pregnant. We might be passionately concerned about a cause for social justice, but that does not justify circulating fake or misleading information in support of that cause.

On the other hand, we can also think of examples where the weight of an important end does appear to justify actions that we would usually avoid or reject. Ordinarily parents try to help their kids avoid experiences of anguish, but sometimes we choose not to intervene because we judge that they will benefit from learning a painful lesson. Ordinarily we think that violence should be avoided, but we sometimes approve of acts of warfare in defense against significant aggression. Ordinarily we condemn stealing, but we might judge it less harshly if it's an act of genuine desperation intended to feed a starving family.

Some approaches to Christian ethics emphasize principles or rules that we are duty-bound to follow. Others focus on ends or goals that need to be accomplished, with means being secondary in importance. Still others highlight virtues, viewing character and habits as more significant than isolated actions or principles.

In reality, we’re usually juggling aspects of all of these considerations as we navigate the moral life as Christians in our fractured, sinful world. We recognize various principles as having a claim on us but sometimes wrestle with tensions between them. We know that even legitimate goals don’t allow us to do just anything in pursuit of them. However, on some rare occasions we may sense that the dire importance of an end does require us to use troubling and lamentable means. In those moments of moral complexity, faithful habits of mind and heart will be more important than ever.


We Are Counting on You

The Banner is more than a magazine; it’s a ministry that impacts lives and connects us all. Your gift helps provide this important denominational gathering space for every person and family in the CRC.

Give Now