Peanuts, Utilitarianism, and the Gopsel

A few weeks ago we at Redeemer faced a concern with our new building (we face a new, or a bunch of concerns, issues, problems each week-but still thankful to have a building!): fellowship time snacks had peanuts. We have several kids who have severe peanut allergies, so it took our session no time to make Redeemer a peanut-free zone from here on out. Pretty much a no-brainer as there really wasn’t anything to talk about.

But the ethos behind the decision is something worth another look.

A few hundred years ago a philosophy developed in England called Utilitarianism. Attributed in large part by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, it’s not too much more than just using common sense: do what provides the most good for the greatest number of people. It is also called “the greatest happiness principle.” That sounds like a good idea at first. Get the most bang for your buck.

But the problem is that common sense is very often antithetical to the gospel. Utilitarianism says, “We 200 people can enjoy the peanut snacks and you 2 kids can stay away.” Those are good odds and lead to lots of happy people stuffing their faces with delectable peanut filled snacks. By keeping the peanuts, we’d have more happy people. Potentially. But that’s not applying the gospel.

Jesus talks about leaving the 99 for the 1 sheep who is lost (Matthew 18). Jesus talks about taking care of “the least of these,” not the “most of these (Matthew 25).” The strong in the faith (probably in the majority) need to keep in mind the weak in the faith (probably in the minority-I Cor 8). Those with families (clearly in the majority) were to invite foreigners and those without family (clearly in the minority) to certain feasts (Deut 16). The Christian ethic is just not a utilitarian ethic.

Now with this case of peanuts, it’s pretty simple. We don’t want to physically hurt kids. Or anyone for that matter! But what about cases where it is not a life and death matter? I’m talking about legitimate needs, not preferences by the way. Do you function according to a utilitarian ethic or a gospel centered ethic always looking to the needs of the few instead of the happiness of the most?

Another example was shared to me by my closest friend some years ago. The group wanted to go to a certain beach while on a camping trip. One member of the group couldn’t make it to the desired area because of a disability. Some grumbled that, “Everyone else would enjoy this beach better.” My friend held fast to his decision of NO. They went to a different beach that wouldn’t single out the disabled lad. The majority would serve the minority. That’s a gospel ethic as opposed to the utilitarian ethic.

There will be other instances where you will as a parent or leader have to make decisions in areas not as cut and dry as peanut allergies. Most Christians tend to be more utilitarian than gospel-centered without realizing it. But it shows. Believe the gospel, apply it, and know that God is honored when the least of these are loved.


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