Co-operation and Compromise

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Our subject this morning is co-operation and compromise. Let me begin by posing a problem. I realise it is rather near the bone considering the 2004 tragedy near Penrith when four railway workmen were killed by a runaway repair trolley and also considering the shootings by the deranged Derrick Bird this past summer in Cumbria. But this is a widely discussed problem. Imagine a runaway railway repair trolley in whose path are 5 people tied to the railway track by some deranged person. But you are on a bridge where there is a points switching mechanism such that you can direct the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately one person is tied to this branch track. Should you switch the switch?

Then imagine a similar situation but with no branch line and five people still tied to the track. However, sitting on the bridge is a sumo wrestler. You know that if you pushed him off the bridge, the trolley would stop but kill him. Should you push him off the bridge to save the five? These extreme cases pose the question of “compromise”. For you have two principles that clash. On the one hand there is the duty to save life. On the other hand there is the duty not to take life. Interestingly, using this problem evidence is being produced that seems to support the biblical teaching of Romans 1 and 2 about a universal moral law whose …

“… requirements [are] written on … hearts, [with] consciences also bearing witness” (Rom 2.15).

From Harvard University there’s been a survey of thousands of people, of various religions and ages and from different social backgrounds and with no variance between men and women. It found that 89 percent of people think you should switch the switch so that one man dies rather than five. But they think it would be wrong to push the big man off the bridge. However, when it comes to justifications there are great differences with many having no reasons at all.
Be that as it may, the Bible is clear. There is a fundamental moral law. There are basic principles of right and wrong. So Christians knowing these principals from the Bible have a duty to underline them for others who know them less clearly from their consciences. As not all is relative, compromise is a reality. There are absolutes that can clash.

The Ten Commandments, of course, form one list of these basic principles. By contrast the utilitarian non-believer says today (as was said in previous generations) that nothing in principle is wrong. It all depends on motives and outcomes. A good intention and a good result justifies doing what is commonly considered wrong. But for the Christian and for those not stifling their consciences, compromise is an issue. So, too, is co-operation an issue.

For co-operation will happen when you go into the world as Christ expects and wants you to go. He prays for his disciples - John 17.15:

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.

But when you are involved in the world, you are to avoid its temptations. And there will be conflict. What then are the main temptations? Remember Jesus’ temptations in Matthew 4. The first was to ignore God and his word. The second was to be a fanatic. But the third, and relevant for this morning, is to be tempted to compromise in ways you should not. You let the end justify the means. You get the kingdoms of this world by bowing down to Satan. This is the temptation for people to say as in Romans 3.8:

“Let us do evil that good may result”.

But the apostle Paul says,

“Their condemnation is deserved.”

Well, so much by way of introduction

I now have three headings to help us think about God’s Word on Today’s Concerns – our title for this series or sermons. And they are:



This is where compromise is clearly wrong. Let me give you three examples.

First, there’s Abraham, a great man of faith. But he was a great compromiser. He wanted a quiet life. So he put his own interests before doing what was right. He compromised by letting his wife on one occasion commit adultery. On a second occasion he let Abimelech, the king of Gerar nearly sleep with his wife. In Gen 20.12-11 we read…

“Abimelech asked Abraham, ‘What was your reason for doing this?’ Abraham replied, ‘I said to myself, “There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, “This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’”’

This is classic. Abraham wanted to co-operate with Abimelech and find land for himself and the people around him to pasture their sheep. He may have said he had a duty of care for them. So he traded that off for his wife’s sexual integrity. On this occasion Abimelech had taken Abraham’s wife into his household but had not yet slept with her. That was no thanks to Abraham. But this involved basic deception, gross selfishness and the likelihood of actual adultery. So here is a case of compromise where you disobey clear moral demands and then use clever arguments to justify what you do. You have this, secondly, in the New Testament with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law in Mark 7.9-13 where Jesus …

… said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."

And, thirdly, the Corinthians were in danger of this sort of compromise. Some of the Christians, we read in 1 Corinthians 6, seem to have been sleeping around and saying, "everything is permissible.” They must have misunderstood Paul’s teaching on justification (or getting right with God) and that it is by faith and not by works or good moral deed. So they were then saying, if faith is all you need, we can now live as we like, for “Everything is permissible”. And they were saying this also with regard to idolatry.

In 1 Corinthians 10 we read how they were trying to justify attendance at idolatrous festivals and worship. So Paul says in 1 Cor 10.19-20:

Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.

However, Paul realized that you have to distinguish direct from indirect involvements in things like idol worship. Therefore, in verse 25 he says:

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake.

This and similar teaching, you need to note, has given rise to what Christian ethicists for some centuries have called on the one hand, “principles of co-operation”, and, on the other hand, the “principle of double effect”. These are not biblical principles as such, but thoughtful Christians have found them helpful and argue that they are the implication of biblical teaching. Divine wisdom and understanding, we are told in Ephesians 3.18, is achieved, not on our own but “with all the saints”. That is why we need to consider the ideas of other Christians and not only of contemporary Christians but also those from centuries ago. Well, the principles of co-operation say this.

First, co-operation is problematic when the person you are asked to co-operate with is doing something morally wrong. Then, secondly, co-operation can be of four sorts – formal, material, immediate and mediate. Let me explain, by reference to a major modern problem - abortion.

Here the surgeon and the patient wanting the abortion are formally involved. But the Christian nurse thinking that abortion is very wrong but who, nevertheless, gives the surgeon a scalpel and other instruments is materially [not formally because she disagrees with the operation, but materially] involved. But what about the man at the station kiosk who provides the surgeon everyday with a packet of sandwiches for his lunch? He, too, is opposed to abortion. But he is only mediately involved, unlike the nurse who is immediately involved. He doesn’t approve and his job is really selling sandwiches and nothing to do with abortion. So his co-operation is only mediate material co-operation – with no direct involvement in what is wrong.

The principles of co-operation say that all formal and all immediate co-operation whether formal or not is wrong. That fits in with saying eating at a public idol feast is wrong, but eating meat at a private meal and not asking questions is not.

Then there is co-operation involving “double effect” when you can’t be responsible for the secondary effect. This is where you do something good but there can be negative side effects. But you are not intending any harm. This happens in giving medicine to terminally ill patients to relieve severe pain. But a secondary and unintended effect may be to shorten life a little. Quite wrongly some people are now saying this justifies intentional euthanasia. It does nothing of the kind. There is no intention of death at all. Let’s move on …


This is where there is right co-operation.

The classic biblical cases are those of Joseph in the court of Pharaoh and the Jews exiled to Babylon among whom, we are told, was Daniel. Daniel and his friends were selected as high-fliers for special education and training to enter the Babylonian Civil Service. Did Daniel then compromise wrongly? No! We read that right at the start he set out his stall, so to speak. That is not a bad tactic. People then knew where he stood. Daniel 1.8 says:

“Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.”

And to prove that this wouldn’t make them any less healthy, he said, verses 12-15:

“’Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days. At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.”

Daniel reminds us that when you are not compromising and in a minority, it is important to have good arguments and evidence for what you are doing. And after this incident Daniel (and his friends’ story) is one of co-operation but not wrong compromise. Their desire to obey God was such that Daniel’s were thrown into and then saved from a fiery furnace.

And when Daniel was forbidden by the new Persian king’s edict not to pray, he, as the New Testament apostles taught, obeyed God rather than man. This was such a primary issue. For that he was thrown into a den of Lions. But the Lord saved him, too. Yes, there are primary and secondary issues. Jesus taught in Matthew 25.23:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

The less important principles are to be obeyed, but not in a legalistic nit-picking way. But in regard to the more important matters of the law you cannot in any way compromise. So Jesus kept the Sabbath but not at the legalistic level of the Pharisees. He was not compromising but fulfilling God’s creation purpose for the Sabbath which was human well-being - Mark 2.23-28:

“One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath’ He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’”


We have had, first, wrong compromising; and, secondly, no compromising but which sometimes is called “compromising” by ultra-legalists. We now come to where compromise is required. Perhaps it is better to call this “prudence”. When Paul went to Athens – you read about this in Acts 17 – he found the city utterly pluralistic with all sorts of religions and philosophies. And he was “greatly distressed” at the idolatry.

So what did Paul do? Well, nothing. He did not overturn any of the altars. In fact he studied them. And when addressing the Athenian leaders, he was tactful in his criticism. He quoted from their poets to engage with them. His style was generous, but there was no down-playing of the primary issues regarding final Judgment and the Resurrection of Jesus. And there was a challenge to repentance – Acts 17.30:

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

Paul was in the equivalent of Parliament at Athens. When operating at that political level, prudence is very important. But so is definiteness and clarity.

Jesus was prudent regarding the issue of slavery. It wasn’t the right time, however, to denounce slavery with perhaps one third of the population of Rome being slaves and there having already been slave uprisings. But Jesus’ teaching would eventually lead to the eradication of slavery thanks to the prudence of William Wilberforce and his circle. For to win the battle in Parliament they decided not to go for the outright abolition of slavery, but to go first for the abolition of the slave trade. When that was achieved then they went for the abolition of slavery itself. Yes, Prime Minister calls this “salami tactics” – slice by slice.

That is often the way of prudence in politics; and Christians in politics are not exempt from the need to be prudent.

I must conclude. The real issue of co-operation and compromise is often not the problem of knowing what to do?

Rarely, however, are you confronted with a railway trolley situation. Yes, in war, there are more problems and Christians can disagree. So you get Rahab lying to protect the Hebrew spies in Joshua 2 and Corrie ten Boom in 1944 lying to the Nazis in order to save Jews hiding in her home. The great early theologian Augustine would say lying always corrupts. All these are rare problems.

The problem is obeying. But if you have trusted Christ, the Saviour and living Lord, there is a wonderful promise to rely on as you seek to obey. It is in the first part of 1 Corinthians 10. And with this I close – 1 Corinthians 10.12-13:

“if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

And if you do fail, like Peter did at Jesus’ trial, there is always forgiveness. You then try to work, in the Holy Spirit’s strength, at not repeating that mistake again.

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