Knowing the difference between immoral, unethical & illegal

In, what I think, is a very important article, Becky Castle Miller illustrates the differences between immoral, unethical and illegal acts and how organisations and specifically churches should respond to each one. The case in point relates to sex but it could (with care) be applied to other areas too and especially the use and misuse of power.

The view that all sins are equivalent is called sin-leveling. It’s a problematic perspective because it only considers God’s moral law, not the damage on another person nor the breaking of civil laws. Applied to sex, sin-leveling sees rape as no different from premarital fooling around. The sin is between the person and God, God is the only one who needs to give a response, and if the sinner repents to God, he is forgiven, and the sin is forgotten.

But there are more possible wrongs to sex acts than just immorality. There are also sex acts that are unethical and sex acts that are illegal. The consequences for each are different.

I think this is an important point. Sin is first against God, but sin is not only against God.  Here’s a short summary of her understanding of each case.


This relates to consensual sex that takes place outside of marriage. This is (for a Christian) immoral. It’s sin.

a sin in the eyes of his church and himself, and confession and repentance would have been appropriate results and consequences.


Here the sex may be consensual but because one party is a pastor and the other is seeking care then it is not only immoral but also unethical. This requires repentance but should probably cost someone their job.

Care providers have an ethical obligation not to take advantage of people in their care. Most care professions have ethical standards, and licensed professionals can be stripped of their professional qualifications for violating them.


Here the sex lacks real consent (complying does not equal consent) or perhaps breaks a law with regards to age.  This is immoral, unethical and illegal. This requires repentance, should cost someone their job and probably result in their facing the criminal justice system.

Too often churches only respond to the immoral but not adequately to the unethical or the illegal. As Castle Miller says with regards to this case:

[He] only addressed the immorality of his actions. He has not acknowledged that abusing his position as a clergy person was unethical. He has not acknowledged the illegality of sex without consent.

She concludes that

Christians still have much to learn about:

  • Consent
  • Power differentials in sexual relationships
  • Clergy sexual abuse
  • Criminal penalties for criminal offenses
  • The differences between the immoral, illegal, and unethical aspects of sexual crimes

It’s worth reading and thinking through the whole thing and where necessary making sure adequate policies & procedures are in place.

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