“Greater good” theology. We often talk about the “greater good” in ethics. We defend God’s use and allowance of evil, understanding that so long as there is a “greater good” which can be expected, evil is justified. Joseph tells his brothers after they sold him into slavery out of jealousy, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good” (Gen. 50:20).

Though I am not too comfortable once we, as fallen, ill-informed humans, began to incorporate a “greater-good” theology into our lives, practically speaking it seems anything can be justified when the door is open for us to find a “greater good” that might come from any particular unrighteous action. Of course, it is not always cut-and-dry. Often, when people seek my advice on these matters, I want to hide. Some things are just too hard to give advice on. Take marital issues, for example:

1. A wife comes to you and says that her marriage is falling apart. She and her husband have tried and tried, but their marriage is, according to her, beyond hope. They fight continually in front of the kids. They bring out the worst in each other. The marriage has changed both of them into bitter, unhappy people. Their kids are suffering greatly due to their unhappiness and seeing a terrible example of marriage.

It is a sin to get a divorce. However, the attitudes that they continually bring out in each other are terribly sinful as well. Not to mention that they are hurting the kids. Which is the greater evil? Which is the greater good?

2. A wife comes to you and says that her husband is crazy. Although he has never cheated on her, he is completely controlling. He tells her she has to stay at home all day and be a “good housewife.” He does not allow her to have any friends. She cannot decorate her home. He has a private eye watching her to make sure she is obedient when he is not around. He has a gun and has threatened her with it before. The kids are exposed to all of this.

It is a sin to get a divorce. But she wonders what kind of effect her husband’s life and attitude is having on the kids. She does not want them to grow up to be like him. Which is the greater evil? Staying with him, or leaving? Which is the greater good? Staying with him and enduring, or leaving and protecting herself and her children?

This is real-life stuff. Both of these examples are true (slightly modified). Both women approached me for advice. Obviously, the second one is much more difficult than the first.

Is it legitimate to seek a greater good? Is it biblical? If so, how do we draw the line? Can’t we always justify things by finding some “greater good”?

Some people believe that God, through example, implicity demonstrates a greater good approach many times in Scripture. For example, Samuel was supposed to anoint David as king. But if he did, Saul would kill him. He asks for the Lord’s advice and the Lord tells him to say he is going to go sacrifice (i.e., leave out the part about anointing a new king). Here is the account:

1 Samuel 16:1-2
The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” 2 But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” The LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’

Was it a greater good to lie so that a new king could be crowned? Would the greater evil have been to tell the truth?

Then there is God’s implicit approval of the Hebrew midwives who lied about giving birth to Hebrew sons (Ex. 1:17). It even says that they lied because “they feared God”! Rahab is also honored for lying about the presence of Israelites in her apartment (Josh. 2:4). Rahab even made it into the great “hall of faith” for her lie (Heb. 11:31).

Are these examples where “greater-good” morality is not only approved but prescribed? If so, doesn’t this open Pandora’s box? How can such morality be regulated? Who determines what the greater good actually is? Sure, there are easier and “harmless” examples, like speeding to the hospital when someone is injured. But most are not so easy.

BTW: On the second example of the two women, I advised the woman to do everything she could to “remain faithful to the Lord,” trusting him for the outcome. She did. Then she killed herself about a year later.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    26 replies to "Does God Approve of “Greater-Good” Theology?"

    • I am very uncomfortable with the greater-good approach to morality, but I have to ask in the two cases you mentioned particularly the latter whether there might not be in such instances some alternative between full blown divorce and simply enduring the situation. Whether some sort of intervention, separation, even calling in the police might be called for. Something short of actual divorce, but that would still protect the rest of the family until the man could if possible be brought to see his proper moral obligations. This would be hard but less hard than simply staying and enduring.

    • bethyada

      My take on graded absolutism is that when you have 2 conflicting moral precepts and you choose the more important one then the breaking of the lesser is not actually a sin. So I don’t see Rahab or the midwives sinning at all in what they did.

    • tornadojr.

      I wonder if some of the “greater good” ethic problems come from our view of God’s law. Could it be that in the example of Rahab that she was doing the right thing (and apparently she was) and that lying in that case was not viewed as wrong? If we look at Christ’s example: is it wrong to work on the Sabbath (also one of the 10 Commandments like lying)? In that case as well, we see that it apparently is not considered sin. It is constantly pushed in scripture (I believe) that we are not to be legalistic about God’s law to follow to the letter but to be rather obedient to the Spirit of the Law (for us I guess that would be the intention of the law) through the Holy Spirit. Just some initial thoughts, but I will keep thinking on it…

    • Zachariah

      “Then she killed herself about a year later.”

      Wow. =/

    • X

      I would ahve told wife #2 to leave her husband. Not divorce but leave w/ kids if possible until he got some mental help. Have some of the church elders go speak w/ him. Sorry but to say your wife cant have friends, having a PI follow her, and the threat of using a gun is way too spooky.

    • C Michael Patton

      There was some separation that took place, but the continual attempts to work it out broke her down mentally.

    • David Zook

      On the second case … I might have gone down this road: suggested that she is permitted to divorce based on the fact that her spouse has deserted her and separated from her (1 Corinthians 7:15).

    • John from Down Under

      Michael I know you’re not looking for sympathy but that 2nd example is a heavy load to carry on anyone’s shoulders. Not the kind of thing any ‘professional’ would want on their CV. From the limited information you provided, I would say that you gave a reasonable advice in the circumstances, on the grounds of good faith and clear conscience to God.

      It’s not always as black-n-white as ‘stay or leave’. There are other issues involved that have to be weighed carefully. Billy Graham once mentioned that in a fallen world some situations are like scrambled eggs and you just can’t unscramble scrambled eggs. It’s a case of ‘doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t’. The lesser of two evils is the only option.

      In every case context always matters (i.e. Matt 12:3-4) and as far as the ‘greater good’, John 11:50 would seem to suggest that it may play a part.

    • Stan G

      I am with tornadojr on this one. If my intentions are selfish and I am seeking to justify my sin in some way then I am not following the “Spirit of the Law”. Who doesn’t know a couple that is “toxic” together? Yet, this toxicity may last only a season or maybe a few seasons. We can’t possibly know.
      This whole question is really making me think. God can not lie but yet we can to meet some goal or avoid some persecution. Intersting…very interesting..

    • Donnie

      Great post on a complex subject. I’m sorry for the way things turned out in the 2nd case – the difficulties of these situations, both Biblical and practical, are potentially overwhelming.

      I think there may be a bit much in the statement that “evil is justified”; I do believe God is always working for a greater good, but it goes too far to suggest that he approves of evil along the way.

      The brothers’ actions were used, not sanctioned.

      Samuel was told to offer a sacrifice, which he did. No lie is commissioned; if anything, God ignores Samuel’s protest and tells him how to get on with doing the thing he protested.

      With the midwives and Rahab, I wouldn’t focus on their lies. That’s not the only, or even primary, expression of their faith. Rahab received the spies and sent them out – *that* is why she’s commended, not for lying. And as you rightly point out, the midwives feared God, causing them to disobey Pharaoh. The lie is secondary.

      Thanks for prompting the…

    • george57

      yes, its the lesser of 2 evils, we will on this earth never get it right all the time ,and if we did then we can take a seat near the the throne -room of god,my time in south africa, the baptist church i went too ,the blacks started to get saved, and join the church, but at that time the some whites did not like it one bit, one senior elder was causing lots of trouble,, spliting the church on two sides, so i went and had a meeting in my prayer time with my god, in my garden for 2 hours i walked and talked with my god, at the end i asked my lord to please help, before the church falls apart, boy does he solve the problem, at 5,30 in the morning this elder had a large heart-attack and died and was taken home,, by our lord, ,,,problem solved,,, god bless from scotland.,,

    • John B

      It is odd that God chose to lie (it was His suggestion to Samuel) rather then just alter the decisions of those involved. Why not just change Saul’s mind and make him not want to kill Samuel? Why teach us that sometimes it is ok to lie to avoid the consequences of difficult decisions? It also bugs me that God repeatedly tells people in the bible to repent and obey the Gospel, yet He knows they do not have the ability to do so. It is also odd that time and time again He gets furiouis with Israel for disobedience -lack of faith, yet they are only doing what the nature He gave them is making them do. Why lie? Why not just tell the non-elect that they do not have a choice. Why tease them with the idea that they can choose His seemingly gracious offer of salvation? Why pretend to weep when they don’t respond? After all it it was He who decided they would be born incapable of response? The whole moral landscpe of the Bible confuses me.

      • Renee

        It confuses me too, but I think the answer is because the entire premise of Christian faith is that our salvation depends on it being constantly tested and demonstrated. In our confusion, we persevere in the faith in God’s plan. It’s in the defiance of logic (a limited human concept) that we denounce man as capable of being all-knowing and we defer to God. So we follow the Bible as best we can, seek guidance of religious leaders, but ultimately, we are each individually compelled to take the leap of faith.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Jesus healing folks on the Sabbath was a greater good than following Pharasaic Laws.

    • Joseph

      I think we have to remember that the Pharasees would not lift a finger to help their friends and family if it meant breaking God’s Law. They did not walk in faith, but turned everyone who would come to them into “twice the sons of Hell.” What is the greatest commandment? “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” The next is like it, “love your neighbor as yourself.” In the second instance, I would have suggested police action or to have her and her children hidden from him. A divorce was not nessesary, but a separation clearly was. This man sounds very dangerous. Now mom is gone. How will her children be raised? I will not fault you, Michael. It’s easier to see from the outside when you are not in the situation and in hind site. I may have made the same decision for all I know. But, I agree with a greater good theology that is consistent with God’s will for us to love, walking in faith that Christ who did miracles on the sabbath day – normally a sin if…

    • Joseph

      you go by the Law – wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves as well. “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:12-14 The “greater good” theology is really the theology of love; love for God, love for Christ, love for the world. We are the examples of that love. When we break the Law in order to do good we need to have faith that the Lord will not hold us accountable for doing what He Himself has done and shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    • Joseph

      John B, God did not lie” He did give Samuel an answer to his dilemma though, and so Samuel didn’t lie either. He made the sacrifice. Read 1 Samuel 16. It was a process. Command, question, answer/command, and execution. As a military member, I see this almost daily. It happens at your work or school, if you are a student.

      You sound like you have deep questions and you are looking for answers. How can we help?

    • nimrod4jesus

      These are very troubling thoughts. For someone with weak faith these thoughts might cause them to redefine God or discount their faith as imaginary. One thing CMP has said that struck me as articulate, is in that illustration of Gods true righteousness in TTP that we can not know it fully now, someday we will see it and say “Oh, so that is righteous!”. We cant explain away all things that seem inconsitant, nor can we justify them by twisting Scripture. We must have faith that God is right, we cant ALWAYS understand, and He will accomplish what He wills.

    • Pastor EJA

      Well…I’m sorry, Michael. As a pastor I hold back tears thinking about what that lady eventually did and what you probably had to face after that.
      Anyway…I think we should remember that it’s God who works all things together for the good of those who love Him.
      It’s not up to us to do that. We dont have the power or the wisdom to do that.
      Also, Romans 8:28 doesn’t state God works all things together for the ‘greater’ good.
      It says for ‘the good’.
      The same in Gen 50:20. No ‘greater good’ or ‘lesser evil’.
      It’s just good and evil.
      Our choosing of what we define as a ‘lesser evil’ for what we perceive is the ‘greater good’ is very well in and of itself evil. As Paul writes in Romans 3:8
      ‘And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.’

    • Brian Feaster

      I think that it is further proof that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still needed today. Especially the gift of wisdom working within the context of pastoral counseling for both the married couples and individuals since these are complex issues working simultaneously. The first 2 example doesn’t have an answer that can be given to solve the problems that are presented. They’re more like issues that can only be worked through step by step through prayer, with the assistance of church authority’s wise counsel, and the support of friends who are patient and full of God’s wisdom.

      Furthermore, this greater good theology should only be practiced according to Scripture, since only God is able to judge on matters of morality; just as the prophet Samuel did. When we put aside his counsel we open ourselves up to a world of opinions based upon our own flawed sense of morality.

    • Brian Feaster

      And just because we do what God desires of us doesn’t mean that we’ll like the outcome. Remember the life of the prophet Jeremiah. But if we abide in him, then he will abide in us and give us the strength to endure hard times. This is the faith that God has given us 1Peter 1:23-25. Faith to endure hardness, suffering, danger, fear, confusion, and spiritual darkness. Without it, we’re left in the dark on these difficult issues doing our best to fend for ourselves. And that’s no good. God has given us something much greater than our own wisdom. He’s given us his Holy Spirit to guide us through these difficult times out of our darkness and into his light of truth and clarity. James 1:2-8 – 1John 2:20, 27 – John 14:15-17, 26.

      Satan wants the church to feel unarmed and ill equipped to represent Christ in this world. But its a battle which he’s doomed to fail when we abide in Christ. So put on the whole amour of God (Ephesians 6:10-18), which is one and the same as abiding…

    • JoelB

      @ John B

      I can totally sympathize with your frustration over such theology. It’s like holding a rock in your hand, commanding it not to fall to the ground, letting go of it, and then condemning it to hell for disobeying you. It couldn’t do anything different than that! However, let me remind you that that is only one theology regarding man’s relation to sin.

      While it is certainly true that humans have conditioned themselves to live for self-gratification (sin), it is not true that we have lost our ability to submit to God’s righteousness. Ezekiel 18:14 – “if, however, he begets a son who sees all the sins which his father has done, and CONSIDERS it but does not do likewise…” Ez 18:31, “cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed…” Genesis 4:7, “if you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door and its desire is for you, but YOU SHOULD RULE OVER IT.” All people have the ability to choose God. Not all…

    • Richard Lubbers

      “She killed herself a year later.” But at least she didn’t sin by getting a divorce, right?

      That is awful reasoning, and your advice to her was lethal! How dare you publish this as though you gave her sound advice. Women should NEVER stay with dangerous, mean, controlling and abusive men. NEVER!

      This story breaks my heart.

      I

    • C Michael Patton

      I think you missed the point of the post. I was not approving of this.

    • Francis

      I think that, sometimes it’s not at all about “greater good” morality. Sometimes it’s about knowing oneself, and knowing that, even when we sin, having tried, God will forgive our trespasses. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

      I think that the advice to the 2nd woman was sound, but perhaps one might have pointed out that, when one’s life or faith is on the line, there is a way out? Then again, it might be easier for someone like me to say this, than for some others.

      Of course it’s going to open up another can of worms. There will be those who use it as an excuse to sin; and there will be those who condemn it as heresy. But I think we should leave it to the individual to decide: to die for our faith? or to live under God’s mercy and grace?

    • Laura

      Divorce and getting married is all immoral materialism , playing part of spiritual allignment. How come when one does not know precisely what humans meant to do in life for one self before undergoing a whole contract on a another species they have no idea what it’s about. Bollox sounded nice at first but what are u doing wrong when u made wrong choices in partners for wrong reasons under he law of god who should be soulfully guiding and mentoring schools to educat a real life practical way of directing your main priorites

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