return to religion-online

Christian Ethics by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published in 1957 by Abingdon Press. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 4: Ethical Perspectives of the Early Church


Before surveying the principal elements in the ethics of Jesus, we looked at the underlying notes in the Old Testament. These are important both for the permanent wisdom they yield, as part of our Christian Scriptures, and for the light they throw on the framework of Jewish life and thought in the midst of which Jesus lived and did the work of his earthly ministry. Comparably, there is a forward movement from Jesus, of which the New Testament tells us much if we read it with discernment. It is recorded by implication in the epistles, the Gospels, and Revelation, and explicitly in the book of Acts. This period also we must examine, both for its permanent contributions to Christian morals and for light as to what the Church in its earliest

beginnings did with the Good News that had come to men in Jesus As before, no attempt shall be made to cover the entire field. The most crucial issues are those of the relations of the law and the gospel the relations of the Christian community to its concept of the Kingdom, and the attitudes of these first Christians to social institutions. These problems, though in very different circumstances, are still our problems. The answers then accepted need not in every respect be our answers, but neither can they be disregarded, for these issues are deeply embedded both in the Bible and in the demands of Christian moral decision.

These three issues, as will presently become evident, are closely interrelated. Yet we must attempt to look at them in sequence.

1. The law and the gospel

The problem of the relations of the law and the gospel is essentially that of two kinds of authority: code morality or externally given or authoritarian morality versus the loving, faith-filled response of the Christian to the grace of God in Christ. To see more clearly what this means, we must look at two major issues: the relation of Christianity to the moral obligations resting upon Israel, and the more difficult and important problem of the relation of the gospel of salvation through Christ to the law of love.

On the first of these issues enough has already been said to note the attitude of Jesus, and thus to get directives for ourselves. The moral law of Israel, as obedience to the will of the God who required of men justice, mercy, and faith, Jesus never set aside, though by his acts and his words he put deeper and wider content into these terms than any before him had done. The ceremonial law, as a good Jew, he apparently retained except where it conflicted with service to human need, and this was often. Then he did not hesitate to disregard it.

When Paul speaks as he does at length about "the law," he does not draw the distinction made in the previous paragraph between the moral and the ceremonial law. It would have saved much confusion for later generations of Christians if he had, but he had no idea that he was writing for later generations. As a Jew trained in the Pharisaic tradition, the law meant to Paul simply the law of his fathers. A basic question of the early Church was what to do about it.

With regard to the ceremonial law, the answer was clear enough, and it is familiar. It came to Peter in the vision of common and unclean animals let down from heaven, and the voice which said to him, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" (Acts 11:9). It came in the dispute in the Jerusalem church over whether to require circumcision of Gentile Christians and the compromise proposed by James — a compromise in which one of four prohibited elements is a moral issue still relevant to Christians while the other three have ceased to have significance (Acts 15:1-21). It came to Paul in the conviction that the law was our schoolmaster (R.S.V. custodian) until Christ came, but that being justified by faith we are no longer under it (Gal. 3:23-26).

Was Paul antinomian? That is, did he reject the law as binding upon Christians? It depends on what aspect of the law is meant. ‘When Paul illustrates the law, he usually cites circumcision, and thereby typifies the basic structure of Jewish ceremonialism.1 He is as clear in his repudiation of this as the source of salvation as he is in his repeated assertions that it is through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through works of the law, that a man is justified. Yet if the moral law means moral obligation ordained of God, Paul did not repudiate it as binding upon Christians or regard it as irrelevant. Unmistakable pointers in the opposite direction are found not only in his repeated moral injunctions, epitomized in Rom. 12 and Gal. 5, but in the express statements that "love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:10) and "the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’" (Gal. 5:14).

But is love a command? And how is it related to the good news of justification by faith? And how are both related to the person and work of Christ? And if "love is the fulfilling of the law," does this establish or abrogate a moral legalism? The mere posing of these questions indicates that the problem of what Paul and the early Church did with the law is by no means settled by the fact that they set aside the ceremonial requirements of Judaism and retained a sense of God-given moral obligation.

To begin with the first of these questions, it must be recalled that in the Bible it is agape, not philia or eros, that is a divine demand. Agape is unmotivated love — in the human setting, concern for a neighbor’s need regardless of whether the neighbor is likable, or worthy of it, or likely to reciprocate it. Philia is the emotional response of one personality to another; eros is the recognition of and quest for value, whether in another person or the total situation, and hence it is always "motivated" love. Agape is the word most often used for love in Paul’s letters as well as in the Gospels. It is agape which is "patient and kind; . . . not jealous or boastful;. . . not arrogant or rude . . . does not insist on its own way; . . . is not irritable or resentful; . . . does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right" (I Cor. 13:4-6). Such love is for the Christian an unconditional demand.

Yet this demand does not rest on any "natural," that is, ordinary human, basis. Agape is required of us because agape has been given to us by the free, uncalculating, unmotivated love of God. This agape of God has come to men through God acting in Christ, and is mediated through the Holy Spirit. The heart of Paul’s understanding of the gospel is found in the words, "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8), and "God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Rom. 5:5). As to Paul the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Christ are terms used interchangeably, so for most purposes and in most contexts the agape and the charis (grace) of God are identical, and both represent the love of God coming to us in Christ. It is this which is the ground of the Christian’s faith and hope, and the source of his obligation to love his neighbor.

Thus it appears that pistis (faith) is very intimately connected with love, and it is "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6) that sums up the Christian’s moral obligation. The follower of Christ surrenders himself in gratitude and faith to Christ, lives in Christ, finds himself released from bondage to sin, and affirms with utter confidence, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death."

As a result, Paul is the great exponent of the "liberty of the Christian man." The letter to the Galatians makes this its main theme; it is implied throughout Paul’s writing. There is arresting tautology — but more than that — in the exclamation, "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5:1), for Paul repeatedly stresses the need to be free from the bondage of sin in order to live freely as the bond servant of Christ. In the new freedom thus won there are obligations to be met; liberty does not mean license. Yet the man who has "put on Christ" is no longer chained to the law.

So far, the message of deliverance from sin through the grace of God in Christ, with the consequent duty of the Christian to live in faith and love, is unequivocal. It does not attempt to analyze the infinite mystery of God’s grace, on the one hand, or on the other, to tell Christians precisely and legalistically what to do in all the events of life. Yet its focus and base are self-consistent, and set forth the union of faith and love in obedience to Christ which are primary and indispensable notes in Christian living. We owe Paul an incalculable debt for thus formulating the foundations of Christian life and thought.

But what about post-conversion sin? Here Paul is much less clear and less helpful. It is a question we cannot avoid, for it is an empirical fact that Christians continue to sin after being converted by the grace of God in Christ. The problems of Christian ethical decision would be greatly simplified if the sole requirement were to accept the gift of salvation through Christ, and then feel full assurance that all we did after that was approved of God! Christians have again and again tried to maintain this view but the fruits of such a doctrine of "entire sanctification" have not been such as to convince others of its validity. The Roman Catholic confessional is built upon the realization of continuing sin, and the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith, though rightly stressing the lifting of the burden of sin by God’s act, still is forced to recognize the sinning of the redeemed.

There is no doubt that Paul himself upon his conversion experienced an "about-face" that gave him not only a new center of loyalty in Christ, but a moral dedication which was broader in its range, more sensitive in its insights into the nature of the "fruit of the Spirit," than before. Yet this does not mean that Paul never sinned thereafter. In fact, he expressly disclaims the notion that he is "already perfect" (Phil. 3:12-16). Yet elsewhere, in his eagerness to declare the difference Christ makes, he seems to say that it is impossible for the Christian who is under grace and not under the law to sin. At the beginning of Rom. 6, where the question is raised as to whether we are to continue in sin that grace may abound, he answers emphatically, "How can we who died to sin still live in it?" and that this means not only that we ought not, but cannot, continue to sin is implied throughout the rest of the chapter. In fact, this is expressly stated in the words, "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).

In practice, Paul assumed that Christians though under grace still sinned; yet he gave no theoretical basis for this assumption. This was ; a serious omission. What is needed and not stated is a doctrine of the need of continuing repentance correlative with God’s continuing grace and forgiveness. The Church, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, found it necessary to supply it; but as any good concordance will indicate, the word "repentance" appears scarcely at all in Paul’s writings.

That this omission had consequences in the life of the Church is apparent from the diversity of doctrines — not all of which can possibly be true — that have been drawn from Paul’s words. At one extreme is the doctrine of the entire sanctification of the redeemed. At the other, in protest against the self-righteous "perfectionism" thus implied, is the current neo-orthodox tendency to stress the continuance of sin in the most saintly Christians, with reluctance to grant any significant moral achievement as the result of redemption lest it savor of human presumption. Yet both of these are mistaken views, for no Christian is sinless and no real Christian fails to find some moral victory over sin. A Christian ought to — and manifestly often does — "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (II Pet. 3:18), and to grow in grace is also to grow in the works of love.

Both these perversions stem from a common source, which has haunted the history of the Church. This is the tendency to think of being "in sin" and "under grace" as states of existence, not as moral attitudes directed to particular moral choices. Jesus, we saw, stressed continually the necessity of right inner attitudes but never in dissociation from the concrete decisions men must make in daily life. Paul did this also, when he was giving moral advice to the churches. But when he was writing theology, he seemed to assume that sin could be "put off" and Christ "put on" with one cataclysmic change. As a result, he failed to give guidance to the point of the need of continuing, repeated acts of repentance, and opened the door to an "unmoralizing" of Christian conversion which is the antithesis of what Jesus taught and Paul doubtless intended.

That this did not have more serious consequences in the early Church is due to the fact that, in general, its moral insights were not greatly at variance with those of Jesus. Paul did not know Jesus personally, but the memory of Jesus’ words and deeds was still fresh in Christian circles. The ethical content of "faith working through love" must thus have been considerably influenced. In spite of a certain parochialism in the primitive Church, the general trend of its moral standards shows far more agreement with the spirit of Jesus than departure from it. This makes it possible, unless one is so slavishly literalistic as to overlook all the situation-conditioned elements, to find a common pattern of Christian morality in the New Testament. This has long been a part of the Christian message and ought still to be.

To return to the positive notes in the message of Paul, it is of prime significance that in both Jesus and Paul it is the love of God that calls forth the human response of faith, of hope for this life and the life to come, and the requirement and possibility of agape love for one’s neighbor in need. It cannot be too strongly stressed, in contrast to a secular moralism which finds its base in social adjustment, or a balancing of human values, or a natural law of morality, that the center of New Testament ethics lies in the love requirement which in turn stems from the free gift of God’s love to the undeserving. It is because "a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:16) that faith working through love becomes not only a source of emancipation from the law, but the supreme moral obligation.

But is there no goodness outside the circle of those redeemed by Christ? The sharpness of Paul’s condemnation of those who try to save themselves by the works of the law, and the vividness of his description of "this body of death" before the power of sin is broken by Christ, have traditionally been made to bear the weight of a doctrine of total depravity in the natural man. It is possible that Paul never fully

faced or resolved this question, but he seems nevertheless to have recognized some measure of moral discernment outside of both Judaism and Christianity:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:14-16.)

The significance of this passage is great for a secular world which tries to "do by nature" what social expectation, or civil law, or conscientious impulses dictate, with resulting accusations and excuses. The trouble with such morality is not its immorality; it is its inadequacy. And its inadequacy stems from its failure to be rooted in a God-centered faith and love which are the fruit of a Christ-filled life. Paul makes it abundantly clear that for this, there is no substitute.

In short, for Paul no legalism, Judaic or Gentile, would suffice. Nor should it for us. This is not to say that the Christian is entitled to cast aside the moral law of Israel, or the law "written on the hearts" of men through a long moral heritage in which God has been endeavoring to educate the human race. Yet in the conflict of opinions which daily confronts us, only one law is either adequate or mandatory. This is to trust, obey, and love supremely the God who has loved us enough to give us Christ, and living in Christ to love our neighbor as the fulfilling of the law.

2. The Kingdom and the Christian community

This absolute demand of the gospel, when stated as a generalization, is seldom questioned by Christians, though no Christian if he is honest with himself will claim that he has met it. But one must attempt to meet it within a particular time and place. And in this attempt, prevailing patterns of thought are bound to affect one’s outlook. So it was in the early Church. The early Christian community, partly from prevalent Jewish apocalyptic ideas and partly from the words of Jesus, was eschatological in its frame of reference. Hence, problems of eschatology and ethics are basic to much of the record.

In the preceding chapters it was insisted that Jesus had an eschatological outlook, though not so otherworldly and nonethical an outlook as some premillenarians, adventists, and contemporary dialectical theologians have ascribed to him, and that he probably anticipated an end of the existing regime in the not distant future. In any case, the early Church unmistakably held to this view, as is evident not only from the writings of Paul (Rom. 13:11; I Cor. 7:29; 15:51; I Thess. 4:17) but from other passages as well (cf. Heb. 10:25; I Pet. 1:5; 4:7; Rev. 1:3; 22:6-7, 20). This did not give the Church an "interim ethic" for the relatively short remaining time in the sense made famous by Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, though it did lead to counsels of celibacy by Paul, and still more to injunctions to readiness in view of the sudden, unknown hour of the coming of the day of the Lord (I Thess. 5:1-11).

More influential, however, than the thought of the early Church about the time of the coming of the Kingdom was the way in which the Kingdom itself was conceived. For this we must look at the total setting of the New Testament kerygma, or witness to the faith, for while references to the Kingdom were constantly on the lips of Jesus, they become noticeably fewer in the rest of the New Testament. They are found occasionally in Paul’s writings and recur in the Apocalypse, but outside of the Gospels the main theme of the New Testament becomes, not the Kingdom, but Christ and redemption through his Cross.

The implicit eschatology of the Kingdom in the New Testament centers in the transformation of the old covenant into the new; in fact, the very words "New Testament" mean "New Covenant." The old covenant, so vital to the faith and life of Israel, was now transformed into something having no national boundaries. Already this had been anticipated by Jesus in his freely given healing and service to all and at least indirectly in his words (Matt. 8:11; 21:43); now the break becomes clear and explicit. The Church is the "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16); to belong to Christ is to be "Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise" (Gal. 3:29). In words strongly reminiscent of the Mosaic covenant (Exod. 19:6) the fellowship in Christ is declared to be a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people" (I Pet. 2:9). This conviction is stated repeatedly, and the words immediately following the last quotation give the reason — "that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." The words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, still heard around the world in the most sacred of Christian rites, bear witness to this conviction, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (I Cor. 11:25; Luke 22:20).

But not only had the old covenant been set aside; its promise and hope had been fulfilled in the coming of Christ. In Jesus as the Messiah, the hope had been vindicated; God’s victory over sin was manifest; his final victory over the world and the powers of evil was assured. With the coming of the Son of God the Kingdom was already at hand; with his death and resurrection the power of sin and of death was broken, and Satan vanquished. Henceforth, the followers of Christ could live as citizens of the new age — heirs of a Kingdom already established though in its fullness it was a Kingdom yet to be consummated.

There is an important difference between the eschatology of the Old Testament and that of the New. While the faith of Israel presupposed God’s continuous control over nature and history, the hope of the Kingdom was always projected into the future. In the New Testament, the Kingdom of the future is already a present possession. Not only is this duality to be found in the recorded words of Jesus, as we have noted, but with or without the use of the term "Kingdom," its presuppositions appear throughout the literature of the early Church. The Christian has been delivered by the new Adam from the legacy of the old Adam into a new kingdom of the spirit (I Cor. 15:22, 45-49); he has been delivered from the kingdom of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the Son of God (Col. 1:13); he has "tasted . . . the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5) and his commonwealth is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Nevertheless, he still awaits "the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old" (Acts 3:21) and the coming of the glorious consummation.2

This idea of the Kingdom as already present, and as yet to come, was bound to have important ethical consequences. To observe them it is necessary to note that it was not simply a telescoping of two incompatible ideas; it was an assertion of two basic truths, both so indispensable that neither one could be surrendered then, or ought to be surrendered now.

The positive moral value that emerged from this conviction was a sense of joyous confidence, that transformed the little community from a mood of passive waiting to urgency in witness, fidelity in mutual service, and at least relative steadfastness in the Christian virtues. The Church of the first century never identified its own visible structure with the kingdom of God, and both the accounts of unbrotherly strife in the churches that give realism to the records and Paul’s continuous moral injunctions give evidence that the citizens of the commonwealth of heaven still retained plenty of earthly qualities. Yet the picture as a whole shows not only remarkable courage in the spread of the evangel, but great mutual concern as they shared their daily bread and ministered to those in need (Acts 2:44-46; 6:1-6). As earlier noted, the witness to the evangel had a great democratizing influence, and before it human distinctions melted, walls of partition were broken down.

It is, of course, possible to say that this would have happened anyway through the love commandment of Jesus, regardless of eschatology. This could theoretically be true, but in actuality the obligation to love one another, to have faith in the "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," to rejoice in membership in his Kingdom, and to await in steadfastness its coming were blended into one. This is illustrated not only by the references to the future in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, but by the fact that in the most "moralistic" book of the New Testament, the epistle of James, there are warnings as to the futility of riches and the fate of exploiters in the last days (5:1-6), and injunctions to steadfastness as the brethren wait in patience for the coming of the Lord (5:7-9).

A second effect, less true to the spirit and teaching of Jesus, was the tendency to substitute the new community of the faithful for the old community of Israel, and except for the obligation to spread the gospel, to have relatively slight concern for those outside the Christian fellowship. Limited as were the opportunities for general social service in the little Christian minority, they can scarcely be charged with failure to undertake large projects of relief or reform in the world about them. At this point the Pauline injunction, "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10), probably represents the best that could be done under the circumstances. More serious, however, was the drawing of sharp lines about the Christian group as the recipients of God’s love and favor. This was in part the result of the eschatological concept of salvation that pervaded the early Church, in part the result of a too limited idea of the scope of agape.

As Israel had looked for the coming of the Messiah to establish God’s kingdom and reign in glory over the people of God, so the Christian community was convinced that the Messiah had come, and that they, the followers of Christ, were now God’s elect. Participants here and now in the Kingdom, destined to share Christ’s victory in the world to come, they could witness to this faith and live or die with joyous abandon. Yet out of this conviction of the "apartness" of the Christian community came a parochialism which in the New Testament letters and the book of Revelation contrasts sharply with the universalism of the vista of Jesus, and which has pursued the Church to the present day. If we do not feel the force of this contrast upon casual reading, this may be because we tend to read the rest of the New Testament in the light of the Synoptic Gospels. For example, it is the opinion of not a few biblical scholars that the love commandments in the Fourth Gospel and the epistles of John, so often quoted to stress the universality of the Christian ethic, were originally understood as applying only within the Christian community, and as in the Old Testament "Love your neighbor" meant "Love your fellow Israelite," so the corresponding "new commandment" was taken to mean, "Love your fellow Christian."3

The effect of this restriction appears today if we ask the question, "Who is a son of God?" To some Christians the answer is self-evident — all men are. To others this appears as a "liberal" perversion of biblical truth, for it is contended that according to the Bible only the followers of Christ are sons of God and hence with Christ heirs of salvation. We shall in all probability align ourselves on one side or the other according to what part of the Bible we regard as definitive.

Eschatology and ethics meet in this basic issue, for it involves not only the scope of God’s love and favor and of our responsibility but the question of eternal destiny. When Jesus said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven," he immediately followed these words with a statement of the universality of God’s love and care (Matt. 5:44-45). Though he did not explicitly use the words so familiar in our time, the "fatherhood of God" and the "brotherhood of man," these implications are clear in what we know of his words and deeds. There is no suggestion in the Sermon on the Mount that in the prayer to "our Father," God is to be regarded as the Father of Christians only. The phrases "your Father" and "your brother" were often on his lips.4 Paul by stressing the acquisition of sonship by acceptance of Christ, and circumscribing this still further by a doctrine of divine election (Rom. 8), introduced a note which has had far-reaching consequences. It marks today a line of division between those Christians who are committed to a social gospel because of the many-sided obligation to love and serve all men as sons of God, and those others who see the primary, if not the sole, Christian obligation as winning others to become sons of God and hence heirs of eternal life.

To grasp the full significance of this distinction, it is necessary to recapture something of the eschatological mood of the first century. Who were to be "heirs of the promise" (Heb. 6:17; Gal. 3:29) sharing the glories of Christ’s victory in the Kingdom that was to come? Obviously, God’s elect, those "faithful unto death" to whom "the crown of life" was promised (Rev. 2:10). Fidelity in witness, steadfastness in faith, were constantly enjoined, but the moral requirement of service to "the least of these my brethren" so vividly set forth by Jesus as the criterion of a place in the Kingdom was largely overlooked if not forgotten. The fruits of this too limited view of the divine fatherhood, of our sonship, and of what it means to "accept Christ" are with us still.

3. The gospel and social institutions

We must conclude this chapter with a look at what changes came upon the early Church, through its conviction of salvation through the Cross of Christ, in relation to the social environment. Though citizens of heaven, free from the Jewish law, these Christians were still subjects of the Roman state living for the most part in families and supporting themselves by mundane labor. What, then, of the relation of the gospel to the "orders" of earthly society?

For several reasons this question is important. In the first place, we who are Christians today, like those of the early Church, must live in two worlds at once. These worlds, traditionally referred to as the "order of creation" and the "order of redemption," converge at the point of trying to be a Christian within the daily demands of the family, the job, the community around us, and the larger community of the state and the world of nations. Even the Church, as an ecclesiastical institution, is itself an "order" subject to the corruptions which impregnate other social institutions. If we cannot within these structures find moral guidance from the law of love and moral stability from faith in God as he comes to us in Christ, not even the most rapturous experience of joy and peace through the lifting of the burden of sin will be sufficient. Neither in one’s own inner experience nor as a persuasive witness to others will the gospel be effective if its fruits are not manifest in social relations.

A second reason for looking at the fruits of the gospel in New Testament society has both a positive and a negative side. Was the world then like ours or different? The more obvious answer is, of course, that life in Eastern Mediterranean occupied territory, in a simple, leisurely, prescientific age, among a small minority having no political power, was very different from the conditions of today. Both modern conveniences and modern responsibilities were for the most part unknown. Yet from another angle, there were responsibilities to be met, temptations to sexual indulgence, acquisitiveness, factionalism, and the will to power to be overcome, rights to be defended, and duties to be undertaken in the name of Christ, which are perennial in character.

A third factor, both as asset and liability, stems from the preceding. There is much that is of permanent validity, not only in the words of Jesus but in the rest of the New Testament, as to how a Christian should act in relation to other men. Though the words "environment" and "social institution" appear nowhere in the Bible, what the words stand for as the surrounding social structure is presupposed, and often referred to as "the world." On the other hand, it becomes fatal to the discernment of the deeper notes in Christian ethics to take literally every word, such as Rom. 13:1 or I Cor. 14:34-35 or Col. 3:18, 22, or I Tim. 2:11-12, and make it mandatory for all time and all circumstances.

In general, it may be said that the fruits of the gospel in first-century society were conservative but not reactionary, revolutionary but not iconoclastic or fanatical. A few illustrations, without attempting to cover the whole ground, will make this clear.

With regard to the State, there is no evidence of insurrection against Rome. It apparently did not occur to the first Christians either to foment political dissatisfaction or to take up arms against the governing authorities, even as it did not occur to them within the compass of the New Testament to declare the unchristian character of war. Yet indirectly, the stand they took in placing the authority of God above all human powers was to bring upon them the persecutions under Nero and Domitian, and precipitate the mood of spiritual confidence in defiance of earthly "principalities and powers" that is reflected in the book of Revelation and elsewhere. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that the early Christians were pacifists, partly because military duty was not required of them by the Roman state but also because of an implicit sense of the incompatibility of war with the gospel of love.5

It is at the point of conflict with the ruling ecclesiastical authorities who tried to silence the witness of Christians to their faith that the question of fidelity to the higher authority of God became most overt. It is in this setting that we find Peter saying unequivocally, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Yet whether it was the ecclesiastical or the civil authorities that opposed them by imprisonment, ejection, scourging, or death, or as often happened, a conjunction of the two when the crowd stirred up trouble, the book of Acts gives a remarkable picture of their steadfastness under opposition and attack.6 The gospel of salvation through Christ put iron in their souls, and nothing could daunt them in their witness to it.

The picture is less clear with regard to work and the economic order, but again the gospel, moving within the established order without radical challenge, was destined to be a revolutionary force. Apparently most of the early Christians continued to work at their normal occupations, as Paul with Aquila and Priscilla, his fellow tentmakers, did for a time at Corinth (Acts 18:3). The members of the church at Thessalonica were urged to live quietly, to mind their own affairs, and to work with their hands, so that they might command the respect of outsiders and be dependent on nobody (I Thess. 4:11). Paul, reminding the same congregation of how he followed this advice himself while among them so that he might not be a burden to them, cites the stringent but sensible advice, "If any one will not work, let him not eat" (II Thess. 3:10). Whether freeman or slave, one was expected to have an occupation and to perform faithfully its duties.

So far, there is nothing revolutionary. The note of radical change in the mores appears, however, at two points. The first is the willingness of the Christian community to surrender their goods and to have "all things in common" (Acts 2:43-45). There is no evidence that this primitive communism became a general practice, but it is clear that the relief of brothers in need was felt as a Christian obligation. Faith working through love, even within the restricted limits of the Christian community, challenged forcefully the natural impulse to possess and to retain possession of worldly goods. The second major challenge was not to slavery as an institution, but to slavery and all other forms of occupational cleavage as barriers to brotherhood. One of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament is that in which Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon — not emancipated in the legal sense, but "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord" (v. 16). This spirit of Christian brotherhood, joined with Jesus’ insight into the worth of every person as a child of God, was bound to create a ferment which led eventually to the abolition of overt slavery throughout the Christian world.

Regarding family life, the picture that is presented has both lights and shadows. Sexual looseness is repeatedly condemned; husbands are urged to love their wives; marital fidelity even when "unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (K.J.V.) is counseled though warnings are given against assuming voluntarily such a relationship (I Cor. 7:10-15; II Cor. 6:14). Women as lay members apparently occupied a place of considerable importance in the church, and Phoebe is referred to as a "deaconess of the church at Cenchreae" (Rom. 16:1). It is significant that among the "saints" listed in the greetings which comprise the last chapter of Romans, mention is made of twenty men, nine women, and two families. This is a higher proportion of women than would be representative of either Israel or Rome in a comparable group during the first century A.D., and gives evidence that the equalitarian spirit of Jesus was already at work in the Christian community.

On the other side of the ledger, however, there is no evidence of full equality of the sexes either in the home or in the leadership of the churches. There could be no more forthright declaration of male superiority than is found in the words, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church" (Eph. 5:22-23), and the injunction to women to keep silent in the churches, though it may have had some legitimacy under the conditions of the time, could hardly have been given in such unqualified form if the attitudes of Jesus had been more clearly grasped. At this point, as with reference to war, a note had been introduced by the gospel which was to germinate within the Christian conscience, but which has not yet fully borne its fruit.

What shall we deduce from these observations, in which for the most part we see both conservatism and revolutionary challenge being sanctioned by the gospel?

The first point to note is that the gospel never works in a vacuum, and because of the surrounding environment with its traditionalism, emotional ties, and social pressures, neither an individual nor a group is ever completely transformed. This is not to deny the transforming power of the gospel, to which Paul gave such eloquent witness, for by the workings of divine grace radical changes do take place in individuals, and through individuals in social institutions. Insofar as these manifest wider and deeper expressions of love, we can rejoice in them, and seek as we may to further them. Yet there need be no discouragement if the changes desired do not happen all at once, or if vestiges of the "old Adam" still survive. God has patience, and we must try to have it.

The second observation is that the slowness of men to respond to Christ is no excuse for lethargy, or vacillation, or inactivity on our part. Not all of those to whom the apostles preached were won to Christ, and among those who were, not all were saints. Yet by such witness and out of such human material the Church was formed, of which we today are the inheritors. By the grace of God and by persistent, devoted effort in faith and love, miracles of spiritual, moral, and social transformation still are wrought.

The third is the commonplace but essential observation that there can be no legitimate cleavage between an individual and a social gospel. There is one gospel, applicable to the whole of life, and to truncate it at any point is to make it into something less than the good news of salvation for which the world waits. Not only did Christ die for all men; he gave his life for the whole of every man. To love and serve him faithfully with a total witness is our total moral task.

What we have been surveying was Christianity in its beginnings. What has happened within the past nineteen centuries is a large story — but a story outside the compass of this study. Yet what was germinative was bound to bear fruit, and it is bearing it today. What, then, does it mean to us now?

 

NOTES:

1. Rom. 2:25-29; 3:27-31; 4:9-12; I Cor. 7:18.19; Gal. 5:6; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11; 3:11.

2. This interpretation of New Testament eschatology, which follows closely that of John Bright in The Kingdom of God, differs from "realized eschatology" in that the latter stresses the Kingdom as a present fact inaugurated by Jesus without the counter- balancing futuristic element. Cf. Bright, p. 237.

3. Cf. Kittel, Worterbuch, op. cit., p. 58.

4. Note the words of Jesus in Matt. 5:16, 22-24, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32; also his reference to "my brethren" in Matt. 2 5:40. It requires much straining of the context to suppose that these words were intended by Jesus to apply only to Christians.

5. See C. J. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (London: Geo. Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1940); also The Early Church and the World (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1925), Part IV, ch. vi.

6. Cf. 5:17-18, 40; 6:12; 7:58; 8:1-3, 25; 12:1-5; 16:19, 24; 17:5-8; 19:23-29; 21:27-36; 24:23, 27; 25:6-12.

Viewed 665257 times.