On Monday the National Football League handed down a 4 game suspension for Tom Brady of the New England Patriots for his part in deflating footballs before a playoff game this past year. The team was also penalized $1 million and 2 future draft picks. If you turn on ESPN this week you will see all kinds of debate in response. Is this fair? What really happened? Is the evidence strong enough to warrant this response? What will happen in the appeal? Tom Brady has frustrated many as he has not really admitted or denied the accusations. This will certainly be a news story for many weeks to come.
Everybody is sharing opinions on the matter on social media and in conversation, but I will not be sharing mine. Instead, I want to point out 4 ways that the discussion on ESPN and in the news is distinct from the way Christians should approach ethical discussions. I am not arguing that the debate should be done from a Christian perspective in those contexts. I think, however, that Christians need to think critically about the differences.
- God cares about means and ends. The excuse has been made that since the Patriots beat the Colts so soundly the ball pressure did not influence the outcome and so the ball pressure does not matter. This is a popular argument—to say that if you do something unethical for a good reason or if you do something unethical that does not result in a problem that it is acceptable. This is not a Christian argument. God cares about what you do and the results that you have. Remember that Jesus even cares about what happens in your mind before you even take action. (Mt 5:28)
- God sees and cares about who you are and what you do when no one is looking. Christian ethics are not about not getting caught or about definitive proof. Christian ethics are based on doing the right thing no matter who else sees or catches you because God is always with you and sees what you do in secret. (Mt 6:4, 6, 18) The question is not, “What can I get away with?” The question for Christians is, “How can I be more Christ-like in every area of my life?”
- Christian ethics care about truth and confession. One of the key truths of Christianity is that the truth will set us free. (Jn 8:23) There is also something freeing about confessing the truth. If you did something wrong then say so. If you did not do anything wrong then say so. Or, as James encourages, we should let our yes be yes and our no be no. (Jm 5:12) I don’t know what Brady did or did not do, but I wish he would be very clear about it publically. Honesty goes a long way in Christian ethics.
- Christian ethics are not ultimately based on human fairness. This is the big question of this story—is the penalty fair? When the world says that, they are talking about human opinion. When Christians evaluate behavior we do so based on the righteousness of God’s own character and not on what people think is fair. And even then we don’t get what we deserve, because Christ takes the punishment we deserve. There are still consequences for sin, even under grace. We feel the results of our sin just as we set up laws and punishments to keep society in order. God even does this in the Old Testament. My point is that the ultimate evaluation for Christian ethics is not a human understanding of fairness but the righteousness of God’s character. The criteria for Christians is higher.
I do not expect that the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell, ESPN, or even Tom Brady and the New England Patriots ought to be living or talking about Christian ethics. My worry is that Christians will not think critically about the distinctions between the world’s ethics and God’s ethics and will bring the world’s ethics into the church. For us, the standards and the discussions are different. Confusing them can be dangerous for the church.