Social Teaching and Social History: Learning from the Early Church

by Margaret M. Mitchell

Margaret M. Mitchell is assistant professor of New Testament and Hebrew Bible at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 2-9, 1989, p. 724. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The New Testament offers and explosively political vision without a political strategy.

Christians who seek answers to these burning questions recognize the New Testament as an essential resource. Champions of various viewpoints often draw upon particular texts, like the Beatitudes or Romans 13. But since the New Testament itself contains various kinds of social witness -- as its use both for and against slavery and patriarchy, for example, shows -- debate can degenerate into mere thrust and parry of proof-texts with no possibility of resolution, or of even honest concession that both sides can claim biblical warrant. Which parts of the New Testament should be appropriated for the modern Christian social-religious agenda -- and how?

Any adequate answer must begin by trying to understand the social teachings of the New Testament within the social history of early Christianity. A significant contribution-to that investigation as being made by Gerd Theissen of the University of Heidelberg, West Germany. This past spring at the Andrew C. Zenos Lecture Series at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Theissen took up four controversial topics in both early Christianity and the modern world: political revolution, benevolence, peace. and human value. He carefully situated the position or positions taken by the early church on these four topics within the historical, socioeconomic and political contexts. Theissen’s work illumines the complex world inhabited and confronted by the early church, and can stimulate important insights on our modem social dilemmas and inform appropriate Christian responses.

Consider the question, Did the Jesus movement have a revolutionary character ? Defining revolutions as "sudden changes in the struggle for distribution [of power, fortune, education and status] and legitimacy, in which the structure of distribution is changed without keeping to the rules of valid social and cultural life," Theissen distinguished between a power-revolution (which the Christians believed God would bring in God’s kingdom) and a value-revolution in which "the lower classes as well as outsiders assumed the outlooks and standards of the upper classes." In a climate of increasing separation between upper-and lower-class values in the Jewish society of first-century Palestine (witness the "pagan" lifestyle of the Herodian ruling class) , the Jesus movement called for a return to the traditional kingly values of power, wealth and education -- but now possessed by the lower classes. In order to understand fully the revolutionary character of this value shift, one must understand that the appellations "son of God," "peacemaker," "lover of enemies," "benefactor" and "wise one" in Greco-Roman antiquity belonged to the emperor or the king. The novelty of the Jesus movement’s value-revolution was not in its espoused values (which are aristocratic) as much as in who claimed them: "People who had been persecuted, and considered to be the lowest of the low, claimed to realize that which the propaganda of the rulers had always merely promised."

Yet the value-revolution which the Jesus movement called for entailed more than just a switching of chairs in the political paradigm. The Jesus movement was not, according to Theissen, a political revolution, but a charismatic movement which defined a strategy not of social reform but of cooperation with the kingdom of God, which will come of itself. In anticipation of the coming kingdom, humankind can do three things: pray, perform miracles, and engage in ethical and religious change and renewal. Here Theissen pointed to the unavoidable ambivalence of New Testament social teaching: it offers an explosively political vision without a political strategy. The enduring legacy of this ambivalence continues to be played out today in Latin America, South Africa, Poland, Northern Ireland and throughout the globe, as Christians seek to enact this revolution of values amid great conflict about appropriate Christian political strategies, focusing precisely on the contents of this prescribed "ethical and religious change and renewal."

On the matter of redistributing goods and helping others, Theissen argued that in early Christianity we find a merging and mutual correction of two different structures of social benevolence: that of the ancient Near Eastern authoritarian monarchies, in which charity and compassion are shown by the upper classes to the lower classes, and’ that of the Greco-Roman republican townships, in which philanthropia is extended between persons of equal social status. The former type of help within the socially stratified communities of early Christianity has long been recognized, but Theissen challenged the view that it is the only model for help which we find there. He rightly and ominously warned that if it were, "the Christian ethic of charity and compassion would be a morality dependent on authoritarian social structures." He uncovers in early Christianity a form of benevolence in which those who receive help in turn help others, through a work-ascetic motif" of fasting and hard work. This practice receives even greater impetus in the "moral aggressive motif" of hostility to wealth in early Christianity. Theissen does not hesitate to bring his observation to bear on the modern world: "I am convinced that we need both the responsible rich benefactor and the great social program. But we should evaluate them by the criterion of whether the recipient of help is participating in the process of help as an equal and is empowered or not.. . Early Christianity developed (together with Judaism) a form of social aid which fulfills this criterion." The insidiousness and collapse of the American welfare system, precisely because it fails to meet this criterion, graphically illustrate Theissen’s point. If we listen to the full legacy of the early church’s social aid teachings and practices, we may be redirected toward more humane and effective forms of social welfare that do not perpetuate the very political systems that occasion such inequities.

In the shadow of nuclear weapons and the fear of nuclear suicide, Theissen looked at concepts of peace in antiquity and early Christianity. He argued that there was a correlation in antiquity, a "socio-mythic parallelism," between actual military success or defeat and religious symbolism and expectation. During times of military success (such as during the Maccabean period) , one finds a militarized religious imagination, and during times of military defeat or impotence a corresponding demilitarized religious imagination (such as with Philo of Alexandria and Jesus of Nazareth under the all-encompassing grip of the Pax Romana, the peace of the Roman Empire)

Having shown the extent to which religious convictions are shaped by sociopolitical factors, Theissen proceeded to demonstrate the creative power of religion as it responds to challenges from the socio-political order. In particular, the early Christian concept of peace, the Pax Christi, a "social peace" that does not depend on military power, developed as a response to the military control and success of the Pax Romana. Indeed, only under the umbrella of the Pax Romana could the formulation of the Pax Christi have been achieved. The resulting early Christian social peace is a demilitarized but not depoliticized peace. This social peace refers first of all to the relations inside the Christian communities, and then to non-Christians, and finally to the Pax Romana.

Theissen concluded that for the modern world, peace must also be a concern of all, not just of the governing classes. But he emphasized that where we differ from the early church is in our motivation for peace: we seek peace out of fear, fear of nuclear, annihilation. From his analysis emerges perhaps the most important task of all for modern Christians: Christians should not only advocate peace to fend off the negative threat of nuclear war, but must articulate, espouse and live a positive vision and motivation for peace that is grounded in the biblical tradition. For American Christians this also raises the serious question of historical memory. How powerful can the image of peace be in a country where, for example, half of its schoolchildren cannot identify Adolf Hitler or Vietnam? To the extent that Theissen has shown how religious visions of peace are of necessity linked with military and political conditions, this failure of American historical memory may well ultimately destroy the power of the religious imagination and its symbols.

Finally, Theissen explored the conceptions of human worth in both philosophical humanism (exemplified especially in ancient Stoic philosophy) and biblical humanism (in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) The test case for these systems of thought is their attitude toward people at the top or fringe of the social order: emperor, slaves, aliens and barbarians, and women. Where philosophical humanism attributes intrinsic value to each human being because all have a shire of the divine wisdom or reason within them, biblical humanism attributes value to each human being because she or he is made in the image of the great Creator. It is for this reason that biblical humanism, unlike philosophical humanism, can affirm human worth not merely independent of but in contradistinction to earthly status. This difference, is ultimately rooted in their respective cosmologies: philosophical humanism sees the world order as determined (and therefore sanctioned) by the divine reason, whereas biblical humanism contains an apocalyptic vision that awaits a great cataclysm and an eschatological reversal. Both the biblical and philosophical humanisms that emerged in the first and second centuries C.E. were fostered by and responded to two enormous social changes: new discrepancies of status (the same person could occupy more than one role in a pluralistic and mobile society) , and the downward mobility of values. Because these same circumstances are prevalent in the modern world, the clash between philosophical and biblical humanisms continues in our time. In American society, I would argue, this clash can be seen in the nature of our anonymous individualism. This individualism has dismissed both the extrinsic and the intrinsic value of each human being in favor of material and professional indices of success that most people believe are due to luck as much as anything else (hence the increasing popularity of lotteries) Because the apocalyptic worldview of the early church has now been replaced with the desperate and meaningless finality of possible nuclear annihilation, eschatological expectations and hope for reversal of human fortunes have given way to a "present-only" scheme of refetence even in Christian theology. This ultimately can only evade the questions of justice and theodicy that the eschatological vision (however inadequately) answered.

Theissen’s Zenos Lectures have provided a significant paradigm for analyzing the social teachings of early Christianity within their complex and specific situations. Modern efforts to seek social justice, which recognize more and more the need for sophisticated social-economic analysis, cannot leave that insight behind when seeking guidance from the Bible. Comparing Theissen’s reconstruction of the early church’s social teachings and practices with the situations faced by modern American Christianity suggests that some of the varieties and conflicts we observe today are natural and perhaps inevitable outgrowths of the early church. This insight is both illuminating and disturbing. At the same time, we need to acknowledge points of dissimilarity between the early church’s teaching and that of the modern church, especially those that speak of peace.

In the final analysis, however, we are left with the question, of the role of these New Testament social teachings in the life of the church. As a social historian, Theissen assumes that the New Testament’s social teachings and the actual social behavior of the communities that preserved and revered these teachings coincided. Could one, however, do accurate social description of modern Christians on the basis of their proclamations?