The Golden Rule

Many people will appeal to the so-called Golden Rule as their guide as to how they conduct their lives – or how they think they conduct their lives. It is found in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘So, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets’ (Matt.7:12). It is not uncommon to find this appealed to in the debate about homosexual marriage, meaning that Christians should support it because other people support it. This is even contrasted to what is called ‘the bully pulpit’ where the pastor is more directive on the issue since he believes God is quite explicit. The soft approach, to put it mildly, is an odd argument, and could be used to justify almost anything.

The verse begins with the word ‘so’ (NIV, ESV) or ‘therefore’ (NKJV), which seems to connect it with what has gone before. Calvin rejects this, and says that the Greek word here really means nothing; but that seems rather lame. According to Don Carson, Jesus is connecting verse 12 with all that has gone before, even going back to Matthew 5:17-20, on the law. It is probably more convincing to say that Jesus is connecting verse 12 with verses 7-11. The connection seems to be this: in verses 7-11 Jesus speaks of God’s goodness to His people; and verse 12 is the application of this: we are to be good to others.

Whatever the case, the Golden Rule is not the centre of the gospel; it is not even the centre of the law, which can be more accurately found in the two great commandments in Matthew 22:34-40. In a real sense, Jesus says nothing in the Golden Rule that is startlingly new. In the Old Testament the covenant people of God were told: ‘You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt’ (Ex.22:21). Empathy is commended in our dealings with all people, especially those struggling in difficult and painful circumstances. We can find similar ideas, either in the negative or positive form, in pagan writers in ancient Greece, and in rabbinic writings, and in Confucius from China in the sixth century B.C. So Jesus is only pressing home something which was grasped at before, albeit in a rather frail way.

It is most important to recognise that a non-Christian will misuse verse 12. J. Gresham Machen pointed out that a drunk would interpret it to mean that he should buy his friend another drink because that is what he would want his friend to do for him. This omits, of course, the framework of the law of God. Scripture warns us many times against drunkenness, and even says that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor.6:10). Those people who profess to follow Christ and who think that the Golden Rule enables them to vote in favour of same-sex marriage are providing another example of what Machen was warning against.

When the devil sought to deflect Jesus from His divine mission, he cited Psalm 91 in order to encourage our Lord to throw Himself down from the temple. The angels would save Him, lest He strike His foot against a stone (Matt.4:5-6; see Ps.91:11-12). Jesus was unmoved: ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’ (Matt.4:7; citing Deut.6:16). The point is that we do not become automatically godly simply by citing Scripture. The devil cited Scripture.

In the Golden Rule Jesus is speaking to His disciples. We are told to put ourselves in the other person’s situation. We do not like being neglected, so do not neglect others. We do not like being scorned and mocked, so do not scorn and mock others. We appreciate kindness shown to us, so be kind to others. We do not like people borrowing from us and not paying back, so do not do that to others. A thoughtless appeal to the Golden Rule only takes us to a variation of the philosophy of Jerry Rubin the hippy: ‘If it feels good, do it.’ The variation becomes: ‘If you think they feel good, let them do it.’ The Golden Rule needs to remain golden, and not yellow.

With warmest regards in Christ,
Peter Barnes