Law of Unintended Consequences

by Steven Chan
9 November 2008

As a result of the financial panic enveloping the financial markets of the developed economies, the Governments in many countries decided to allay the concern of the public as to whether their deposits in the banks are safe by providing the guarantee of the Government for all these deposits which are placed with the banks.

Many applauded this pro-active effort by the Governments. However, after the initial euphoria, in some countries, more particularly in Australia, the guarantee actually precipitated a panic and run on institutions whose deposits are not covered by the guarantees. Those who had funds deposited with local branches of foreign banks, mortgage funds, property trusts or cash management accounts, realised that their funds would not be guaranteed by the Australian Government and huge amounts flowed from the latter institutions to the safe refuge of financial institutions whose deposits were guaranteed by the Australian Government.  Given the huge rush to withdraw funds from the non-guaranteed institutions, many of them decided to close their windows and froze redemption payments to ensure the continued viability of the funds. As a result, many have not been able to withdraw their money and as a consequence many have suffered hardships. It appears that the Government had not anticipated the panic and large outflow of funds from other funds into the guaranteed financial institutions.

Since then, there have been a lot of discussions in the local Australian news media about the merits or otherwise of the action taken by the Australian Government.

Some contend that the Australian Government ought to have foreseen the potential outflow of funds from institutions which would not enjoy the guarantee of the Government. They argue that although the extent of the negative consequences may have been unintended, they should certainly have been foreseen.

It is not the intention of this article to discuss the merits or otherwise of the action taken by the Governments. The episode however, highlights a very important point which has equally important application to how we apply Bible principles to our teachings and practices.

This has to do with the law of unintended consequences which was apparently first coined by American sociologist Professor Robert K Merton in his paper published in 1936 in American Sociological Review titled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”


As applied to our religious faith and practice, there are some who would seek to loosen some interpretative principles or principles for ascertaining Bible authority, without realizing the unintended consequences or floodgates that is opened up as a result of such loosening. For instance, some would contend that so long as the Bible does not explicitly condemn or expressly forbid a religious practice then it would be okay to include such practices in our religious services. But they failed to realize that, that would mean that since the Bible does not expressly exclude or forbid many so-called religious practices it would mean that almost anything can be practised in religious matters. So since the use of mechanical instrumental music in worship is not expressly prohibited, one is authorised to use it in our worship services. But if mechanical instrumental music in worship can be used in worship then one can, on the same basis, have dancing, burning of incense, yoga, bead counting, transcendal meditation, etc… in our worship as well, as they are also not expressly excluded. If not, why not? Remember the law of unintended consequences – although it is likely that the proponents of the use of instrumental music in worship do not intend to also agree to have dancing, burning of incense, yoga, bead counting, etc… in worship, they ought to have foreseen that it would necessarily lead to such unintended consequences.

The Bible is clear about this point. In 1 Sam 15:3, God said to King Saul: “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them.” Note what King Saul actually did and how the law of unintended consequences applied to him. In 1 Sam 15:13-16, Saul said to Samuel, “Blessed are you of the LORD! I have performed the commandment of the LORD.” But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” And Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.”

Did Saul intend to disobey God? No, as he declared to Samuel, ‘I have performed the commandment of the Lord’. So it would appear that he did not intend to disobey God. But that did not change the consequence, albeit unintended. In 1 Sam 15:15, Saul said, “They have brought them (the best of the spoils) from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.” In fact Saul’s intention was comparable to many of our religious brethren – they wanted to sacrifice to the Lord! Why are the rest of us so judgemental on their good intentions? Why can’t we be more gracious? After all, God did not say that they could not spare the best of the spoils for sacrifice to God? In the absence of any explicit or express command forbidding them to do that, one would have thought that their noble intention to spare the best for sacrifice should be lauded.

But listen to what Samuel said to Saul in 1 Sam 15:16, 18-21: “Be quiet! And I will tell you what the LORD said to me last night.” …Now the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ “Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the LORD?” And Saul said to Samuel, “But I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.”

Listen to how Samuel ascertained Bible authority in 1 Sam 15:22-23:  ‘Then Samuel said: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.” One cannot justify an action merely on the basis of wanting to sacrifice to God when it is not consistent with God’s expressed will. As Jesus said in Luke 6:46: “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?”

Saul had a faulty approach to understanding the will of God. He incorrectly inferred that so long as he had done the “gist or core elements or bull’s eye” of the command or will of God, the matter of sparing the best of the spoils for the sacrifice to God was a small and relatively inconsequential matter that one ought not to quibble about. He did not intend to disobey God but that did not change the fact that God said that he had disobeyed, rebelled and exhibited stubbornness in doing God’s will. The law of intended consequences meant that Saul suffered rejection by God as king of Israel. We would do well to remember this principle today.