Christianity: Protestant

Law and Ethics

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Canon Law

Canon law refers to the body of religious laws or protocols that govern the church community and its members. Such laws generally focus on matters strictly relating to the church rather than personal or civil matters. Topics may include organisational structure, teaching and missionary activities, worship practices, and administration. Some denominations of Protestantism have a body of law (e.g. Anglican, Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist), while others do not. 

Guiding Ethical Principles

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are believed to be divine laws that establish the foundation of ethical and worship practices. The Ten Commandments institute ethical rules relating to: respecting God and other authority figures (such as parents); honouring the holy day of rest (Sabbath); and a prohibition on killing other human beings, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and coveting. Failure to follow the Ten Commandments is generally understood to be a sin. Many Protestants try to follow the ethical guidelines established in the Ten Commandments. However, different denominations and individual Protestants may have differing interpretations and application of moral principles.

Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Christ was an address to a large crowd of listeners, instructing them on how to live a life based on love (Matthew 5-7). One of the fundamental principles in Christian ethics is known as the ‘golden rule’, which states “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).


Sin refers to the breach or violation of religious law or ethical norm through omission or commission. It is a common ethical concept in Christianity. Some denominations may conceptualise sin as having various categories. For example, original sin refers to the inherently sinful nature of humanity due to the actions of the two original humans. It is thought that sin has completely destroyed humans’ capacity to contribute to their salvation. Most Protestant denominations consider God’s grace (and faith in God) as the salvation from sin rather than human action.

Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce

Ethical matters relating to sexual and reproductive activity do not necessarily break down along denominational lines but rather on a spectrum of conservative or liberal. For example, conservatives from any denomination may have a more similar ethical viewpoint with their conservative counterparts from another church as opposed to a liberal from their own denomination. Thus, there is a great variety of views toward sexual and reproductive activity. Moreover, an official position of the church does not necessarily correlate to the opinions of individual practices and perspectives.


Sexual acts are generally considered acceptable if they occur within the context of a marriage between a man and woman. According to the Ten Commandments, adultery and coveting someone’s spouse is prohibited. Many Christians believe that this commandment indicates God’s wish for humanity to exercise chastity before marriage and sexual fidelity within marriage. Many recognise that people often enter into sexual relationships prior to marriage, but consider it as not an ideal situation. Generally, Protestant churches accept the use of birth control.

Some Protestant denominations hold conservative views towards homosexuality and consider morally acceptable sexual acts to occur within the context of marriage between a man and woman only. Meanwhile, liberal churches may be more accepting towards those who identify as homosexual, but not necessarily homosexual acts. Such liberal churches may perform same-sex marriages and may allow people who identify as homosexual to occupy positions of authority.


Protestant traditions understand marriage as a special rite celebrated in the church, typically between a man and a woman. Marriage is broadly understood as a covenant or promise before God which takes place in the presence of family and friends who act as witnesses. Some denominations of Protestantism allow for civil partnerships or same-sex marriage, though it may be perceived as different to a religious marriage between a man and woman. Additionally, some denominations consider cohabitation acceptable but may still advocate for marriage as the ideal.


In most Protestant traditions, divorce and remarriage is acceptable under certain or any circumstances (depending on the denomination). In conservative churches, divorce is strongly opposed.

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