NOTE: The gifted T. B. Larimore (1843-1929) once delivered a discourse titled “The Iron, Silver, and Golden Rules” (see Srygley 1949, 190-207). That presentation furnished the seed thoughts for this article.
Jesus had been teaching in Galilee, the northern region of Palestine. Great throngs followed him and doubtless he was weary. Accordingly, he took his disciples and ascended a mountain in the vicinity of Capernaum—traditionally, Kurn Hattin, rising 1,200 feet just west of the shimmering Sea of Galilee. It was on this occasion that Christ taught that cluster of exalted truths that has come to be known as “the sermon on the mount” (Matthew 5-7).
Within that presentation is this memorable declaration:
“All things therefore whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, even so do you also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
This saying has been given a metallic designation; it is called the “golden rule.” And that appellation has given rise to two other philosophical canons of human conduct, known as the “silver rule” and the “iron rule.”
Every rational individual, to a greater or lesser degree, will adopt one of these maxims as a guiding principle for his or her conduct. Let us reflect upon how these schools of thought relate to human activity.
The Iron Rule
The iron rule is the rule of power and force. Its motto is: “Might makes right.” One can do what he is big enough to do.
The iron rule principle is alluded to in the book of Habakkuk. God had promised that he would raise up the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to punish the southern kingdom of Judah for her grievous sins. This pagan force was a suitable tool in the providential arsenal of Jehovah to accomplish this mission because its disposition was: “My god is my might” (Habakkuk 1:11). It is an egregious mistake to deify one’s physical prowess!
Advocates of the iron rule have been legion throughout history. Cain, who murdered Abel because his evil works were in stark contrast to his brother’s (1 John 3:12), and because he had the strength to do it, was the first practitioner of this nefarious rule.
Military leaders have found the iron rule quite convenient. Alexander the Great, known as the greatest military leader of all time, is a prime example. In the short span of twelve years, he conquered the antique world from Macedon to India.
An example of his disposition may be seen in his capture of the city of Gaza in southwest Palestine. He took the governor, Betis, bored holes through his heels and, by chariot, dragged him around the city until he was dead (Abbott 1876, 176).
The military exploits of Julius Caesar are too well known to need elaboration. His inscription, given after the defeat of Pharnaces II in Pontus, says it all: “Veni, vidi, vici”—“I came, I saw, I conquered.”
Charles Darwin gave scientific respectability to the iron rule with the publication of The Origin of Species (1859). The full title was The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.
Natural selection was Darwin’s tooth-and-claw law of the jungle. Species survive, thrive, and develop by destroying their weaker competitors. In a companion volume, The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin vigorously argued the point:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man (130).
Adolf Hitler, in a political way, implemented Darwin’s iron-rule policies before and during World War II. In his ambitious scheme to develop a master race, the mad Führer slaughtered millions of Jews, as well as those who were mentally or physically handicapped.
America adopted the iron rule as official policy in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, determined that a woman has the right to destroy her unborn child in order to facilitate her own interests. Since that time, millions of innocent, defenseless children have been systematically executed in the abortion clinics of this nation.
Each lock on every door and window throughout the world is testimony to the iron rule. The penal institutions of the various nations are monuments to the rule of force. Every corrupt political official who manipulates his power for personal advantage lives by this system. Bully husbands and fathers who abuse their families are iron-rule devotees. Even those within the church, like Diotrephes (3 John 9-10), who bludgeon others into submission, are apostles of this system of intimidation.
Few have the effrontery to openly advocate this brutish ideology; but there are legions who practice it to one degree or another.
The Silver Rule
The silver rule has sometimes been described as the golden rule in a negative form. It is the golden rule without the gold.
“What you do not wish done to you, do not do to others.”
In this mode it has found expression in the literature of many different cultures.
For example, among the Greeks, Isocrates and Epictetus taught the silver rule. The latter condemned slavery on the ground that one should not do to others what generates anger in himself. William Barclay, the famous scholar so long affiliated with the University of Glasgow, has chronicled a number of these cases in his commentary, The Gospel of Matthew (1958, 276-281).
The renowned Jewish rabbi Hillel said: “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other.” Some have described this concept as a reflection of selfish egoism that withholds injury for personal reasons (see Lenski 1961, 295).
In the apocryphal book of Tobit there is a passage in which Tobias says to his son: “What you yourself hate, do to no man” (4:16).
Confucius (551-479 B.C.), a Chinese philosopher, also taught the silver rule. Tuan-mu Tz’u inquired of him: “Is there one word that will keep us on the path to the end of our days?”
The teacher replied: “Yes. Reciprocity! What you do not wish yourself, do not unto others” (Ware 1958, 24).
The unifying feature of all these sayings is that they are negative in emphasis. They forbid much; they enjoin nothing.
The silver rule would forbid you to steal your neighbor’s purse—because such is hateful to you. On the other hand, if one finds a purse containing $200 in the mall parking lot, the silver rule is mute. It, in effect, leaves you with the option, “finders keepers, losers weepers.”
In 1964, there was a case that shook this country at its very foundation. Catherine Genovese was returning from a night job to her apartment in the respectable Kew Gardens area of New York City. As she approached her home in the early hours of that April morning, she was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant. He stabbed her repeatedly, fleeing the bloody scene as she screamed for help, only to return—when no one responded to her cries—stabbing her again and again, until she died.
The subsequent police investigation revealed that thirty-eight residents of the neighborhood admitted that they witnessed at least a part of the attack. No one went to her aid; not a soul telephoned the police—until after she was dead!
The nation was incensed. A United States senator from Georgia read the New York Times’ account of the incident into the Congressional Record. Everyone wanted to know, “How could this have happened?”
The answer is not difficult to deduce. Many people live by the principle of the silver rule: “It’s not my problem”; “It’s no skin off my nose”; “Mind your own business”; and “Take care of ‘numero uno’.”
Following the Genovese tragedy, two professors from Harvard University wrote an article analyzing this episode. They alleged that their essay was not “intended to defend, certainly not to excuse” the conduct of the Kew Gardens neighbors. On the other hand, they argued:
“We cannot justly condemn all the Kew Gardens residents in the light of a horrible outcome which only the most perspicacious could have foreseen” (Milgram and Hollander 1964, 602-604).
With typical academic confusion, the professors reasoned:
- Big cities are “organized on a different principle.” Friendships are not based upon “nearness”; those who might have helped the unfortunate woman were simply not nearby.
- It must be borne in mind that these neighbors did not commit the crime; one must focus upon the murderer, not other people.
- It is difficult to know what any of us would have done in a similar circumstance.
- Hindsight is always better than foresight.
- People hesitate to enter a violent situation alone; but organization takes time, and there wasn’t enough time that night.
- No one knows “the quality” of the relationship that Miss Genovese had with the community.
- A “collective paralysis” may have seized the neighbors.
- People in the city are hardened to street life; the “street” is often symbolic of the vulgar.
- Heroic efforts frequently backfire. A young man named Arnold Schuster, while riding the subway, recognized the notorious bank-robber, Willie Sutton. He reported this to the police, and the criminal was arrested. Before a month passed, Sutton made arrangements to have Schuster killed.
- There are “practical limitations” to initiating the “Samaritan impulse,” and if one acted upon every “altruistic impulse” he could scarcely keep his own affairs in order, etc.
We have detailed the foregoing list of rationalizations because they illustrate a sterling example of silver-rule logic!
The Golden Rule
Finally, there is the golden rule—so designated in the English-speaking world since the mid-sixteenth century.
Though some argue that there is little, if any, significant difference between the silver rule and the golden rule, and that the contrast has been “exaggerated” (Hendriksen 1973, 364), most scholars contend that the golden rule marks “a distinct advance upon the negative form” (Tasker 1906, 654).
D.A. Carson has noted:
[The positive form is] certainly more telling than its negative counterpart, for it speaks against sins of omission as well as sins of commission. The goats in [Matthew] 25:31-46 would be acquitted under the negative form of the rule, but not under the form attributed to Jesus (1984, 187).
A.B. Bruce writes:
“The negative confines us to the region of justice; the positive takes us into the region of generosity or grace” (1956, 132).
Elements of the Golden Rule
Let us consider several elements of this famous principle.
When all facts are considered, the golden rule represents, in a succinct and formalized fashion, a unique approach to human conduct. Jesus’ statement captured the very essence of “the law and the prophets.”
While some contend that others (e.g., Confucius) came close to expressing the sentiment of the golden rule (see Legg 1958, 239), most investigators argue that Jesus was the first to state it in its purest form. Barclay asserts:
This is something which had never been said before. It is new teaching, and a new view of life and of life’s obligations. . . . there is no parallel to the positive form in which Jesus put it (1958, 277,278; emphasis in original).
The golden rule is grounded in divine revelation, and so provides valid motivation for its implementation. Jesus said: “[T]his is the law and the prophets.” His statement suggests that the golden rule is a summary of everything the Old Testament attempted to teach in terms of ethical conduct (cf. Matthew 22:36-40).
Carson made this important observation:
The rule is not arbitrary, without rational support, as in radical humanism; in Jesus’ mind its rationale (“for”) lies in its connection with revealed truth recorded in “the Law and the Prophets” (1984, 188).
In other words, it is founded on belief in God, and the intrinsic worth of man which issues from that premise (cf. Genesis 9:6). Just where is the logical/moral motivation for noble human conduct apart from evidentially-supported divine revelation? It simply does not exist. We have argued this case more extensively elsewhere (Jackson n.d., 136ff.).
Additionally, some see the conjunction
oun (“therefore”) as connecting the golden rule to what had just been said. In particular, “we ought to imitate the Divine goodness, mentioned in ver. 11” (Bengel 1877, 204).
The golden rule is universal, applying to every segment of life. Jesus said: "All things, therefore, whatsoever . . . " If legislators enacted all laws premised upon the Lord’s instruction, society would be wonderfully altered. If homes operated on this principle, would there be marital infidelity, divorce, or child abuse? If our schools were allowed to teach the golden rule, with its theological base (which the modern judiciary has forbidden), would not the academic environment be remarkably enhanced?
The golden rule requires action. It does not countenance passivity, but says “do you unto them.”
The golden rule commends itself to reason. It assumes that an honest person, properly informed concerning principles of truth and fairness, would have a reasonable idea of what is right for himself. Therefore, he should render the same to others (see Clarke n.d., 96). Remember, Jesus is teaching disciples—not someone who has no sense of moral responsibility. The rule contains the presumption of some moral sensitivity.
Finally, we must not neglect to mention that the golden rule is very special in that it is consistent with the other components of Christ’s teaching as revealed in the Gospel accounts (e.g., Matthew 22:37-40). Moreover, the personal character of Jesus himself was (and remains) a living commentary on the rule in action.
Some, like Dan Barker (a former Pentecostal preacher who converted to atheism), have suggested that the golden rule should be characterized as “bronze,” since it is vastly inferior to the silver rule. Barker argued that if one were a masochist, the golden rule would justify his beating up on someone else (1992, 347-348). His argument assumes that it is rational to be a masochist!
Others, not quite so much of the fringe element, have suggested that the golden rule might at least be improved: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Such a view, however, is fatally flawed, and even someone who is as ethically confused as Joseph Fletcher (the famed situation ethicist) has acknowledged such (1962, 117). The weak may want you to supply them with drugs, or indulge them with illicit sex, etc., but such a response would not be the right thing to do. If I am thinking sensibly, I do not want others to accommodate my ignorance and weakness.
Suppose a man is apprehended in the act of robbing the local market. A citizen detains the thief and starts to telephone the police, at which point the law-breaker says: “If you were in my place, you would want me to release you. Therefore, if you believe in the golden rule, you will let me go.” Is the thief’s logic valid? It is not. For if one’s thinking is consistent with principles of truth, he would realize that the best thing for him, ultimately, would be that he not be allowed to get away with his crime, that he not be granted a license to flaunt the laws of orderly society. The rule works when properly applied by those who have some semblance of rational morality.
Even some of the enemies of Christianity have done obeisance to the value of the golden rule. John Stuart Mill wrote: “To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” Thomas Paine declared: “The duty of man . . . is plain and simple, and consists of but two points: his duty to God, which every man must feel, and with respect to his neighbor, to do as he would be done by” (as quoted in Mead 1965, 192,193).
In his discourse on the three rules of human conduct, T.B. Larimore observed that Christ’s parable of the good Samaritan forcefully illustrates each of these philosophies of life (Luke 10:30ff).
A certain Hebrew man was traveling the twenty-mile-long road that led through a barren region of crags and ravines from Jerusalem to Jericho. As he journeyed, he fell victim to robbers who tore off his clothes, beat him, and left him half-dead by the roadside. The bandits’ reasoning was: “We are several; you are one. We are strong; you are weak. You have possessions; we want them. Case closed.” Theirs was the clenched-fist rule of iron.
As the man lay wounded, unable to help himself, presently a Jewish priest came by, and then later, a Levite (one who served the priests in temple ceremonies). Both, likely horrified by the bloody scene, crossed to the opposite side of the road, and hastened their steps. Their respective thinking doubtless was: “This tragedy was not my fault. It’s none of my affair, etc.” They did not kick the afflicted Jew; they did not rifle his pockets. They simply passed on. They were silver-rule men.
Finally, a Samaritan (normally, a dedicated enemy of the Jews—see John 4:9) came by. He saw a fellow human in need and was moved with compassion. He tended the injured man’s wounds, set him on his own donkey, and conveyed him to a nearby inn where, amazingly, he paid for more than three weeks of lodging (Jeremias 1972, 205)—and pledged even more! The Samaritan’s code of ethics was this: “But for the grace of God, I could be writhing in agony by the roadside. What would I desire on my behalf if our respective circumstances were reversed?” It did not take him long to find the answer, for his compassionate heart was bathed in the golden glow of divine love.
The golden rule is a thrilling challenge to contemplate. None of us observes it perfectly, but let us never criticize it. Rather, let us applaud it, and strive for its lofty heights.