The Ethics of the Early Church: What Can We Learn?
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the early church, especially in the manner in which Christians found their place and way in the society of their day. How did they interact with the prevailing structures and culture? What was their distinctive appeal?
This interest is not really surprising, for we are moving into a ‘post-Christian’ situation. The so-called Constantinian era, in which Christianity was the dominant religion and the chief influence on our culture, has become a thing of the past. Ongoing secularisation and de-christianisation is leaving Christianity as a minority religion in Western Europe, with all the consequences of that. In this sense, contemporary Christianity increasingly finds itself in a situation resembling that of the early church.
For us, attention to the early church is more than just of historical interest. It can help us understand how to deal with the process of secularisation of our time. The style of living of the early church must have appealed to those around, and been very attractive to many of them. The intriguing question is: what precisely was so attractive about Christian believers in that time, what was new and different – and what was not?
This leads us to more basic questions: to what extent did early Christians engage in what we call ‘ethics’? And if they did, what did these ‘ethics’ look like? These are the questions we will address in this article.
In this investigation, we must clearly distinguish three perspectives.
- To begin with, we must focus on the life of the early church, a life marked by mutual love and acts of charity. Put simply, the church did not find its origin in a new moral ideal or ethical concept: it was born in the love of Christ. He, their Redeemer and Renewer, was the Lord of their lives. In this context, any questions we may ask concerning ethical reflection in the early church are secondary. Not because these questions are unimportant, but because we can only begin to explore them if we understand that the Gospel was not a moral ideal or programme, but a new existence. This new life was lived completely within the context of the Kingdom, which had come and was to come in Christ. The eschatological character of the Christian life, and the expectation of Christ’s imminent return, meant that foundational ethical reflection was not regarded as urgent. Why should it be, when the good life was no longer to be sought in humanity and its potentials, but was experienced as a gift of Christ’s love, poured out in believers’ hearts by the Holy Spirit?
- The second perspective arises from the first. If daily life has priority, then this is what we should examine: everyday life in all its social contexts, large and small. How did Christians deal with each other: in marriage, in relationships between parents and children, servants and masters? What were their attitudes towards the civil authorities, towards state deities, the military, and so on? These questions could not be avoided; to do so would have required Christians to withdraw from the world. Encouraged by the New Testament epistles, believers found their way within existing social structures. However, this too cannot be regarded as ‘ethics’ in the true sense of the word, as a foundational moral reflection on questions of good and evil.
- It is only in the third place that ethical reflection as such comes into the picture. What was the early Christian view of ethical questions; of moral development and growth? It turns out that the early church had very little overt interest in such matters. Nevertheless, this is the key issue in this article. There is more to be said about this, as long as it is understood that for the first Christians it was always a secondary and derived question. In what follows, I will work out each of these three aspects in more detail, in order to arrive at a clearer understanding of the key issues. Having done so, we will be able to set out directions for further reflection.
Christian love and acts, of charity
The lives of early Christians, characterized by love toward God and the neighbour, can only be understood through Christ. Following Christ was to live a new life, a life that was quite different from that of the society in which Christians were born, and lived, and had to find their way. In many places, early Christian texts demonstrate that turning to God in Jesus Christ meant a clean break with the past, in every aspect of life.
The sick were cared for, prisoners were visited, the dead who had no next-of-kin were buried (Matthew 25:31-46). This was quite unusual: it set Christians apart from all others. In his study about the mission and spread of the early Christian church, Von Harnack has fittingly described this development as ‘Das Evangelium der Liebe und Hilfeleistung’ (‘The Gospel of love and charity’).1
It is important to understand that this love of and for Christ, through the Holy Spirit, drove everything. Christians did not begin by developing a theory about good and evil, or by designing a good life; they were taken captive by the love of Christ and by the power that proceeded from this love.
Social structures of the time
It would, however, be naïve romanticism to regard early Christians as some kind of unworldly commune, withdrawn from everyday society. Early Christians lived within and were part of the social structures of their day, and it was within them that they gave account of their faith. Remarkably, they did so by remaining within the place and situation they were in when the call of the Gospel came to them. This style of living was not an accommodation to the world around them. They were outspoken and unambiguous in their rejection of certain aspects of the surrounding culture: worship of state deities, popular games, warfare, etc. Christians formed a distinctively countercultural fellowship.
It is especially this distinctive character of the life of the early church that is the focus of renewed attention today. Has the time perhaps come for us to re-orient ourselves to this manner of standing in the world?
Still, whatever might be said from a moral perspective about the way in which Christians stood in their world, this is not yet ‘ethics’: a systematic reflection on questions concerning good and evil.
‘Ethics’ in its true sense
Did the early church have its own view on ethics? Meijering writes:
In the absence of ethical reflection ... precise ethical terminology and systematic treatment is also lacking. Jewish and popular Hellenistic terminology is simply taken over, without any further reflection on the extent to which new meanings are given to existing terms.2
Here, Meijering writes about the first century AD. After that, things change, but in what way? In this article, I intend to chart this development. And in doing so, I’d like to pick up on Meijering’s observation that the terminology of other streams of thought is taken over ‘without further reflection’. This raises the question: what does the New Testament have to say? Does it have its own ethical perspective, which the early church failed to discern, or might have lost sight of? Or is the New Testament’s ethical reflection – such as it is – merely incidental? To make sense of this aspect of early church history, a brief exploration of the New Testament is in order.
Ethics in the New Testament
In Philippians 3:10, Paul writes that he has but one desire:
I want to know Christ, and the power of His resurrection.
Whatever legalistic righteousness – moral credit, if you like – he may have had, he now regards as loss, as refuse, as rubbish. Those who believe in Christ are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and they expect Him, their Saviour, from heaven. Their walk of life is no longer earthly. Only a little further – in chapter 4:4-9 – Paul enjoins the church to rejoice in the Lord, in the knowledge that He is near. Then, in the same breath, and as a practical rule for life, he urges them to think about ‘whatever is excellent or praiseworthy’. The word he uses here: άρετη: ‘virtue’, is the one that defined Greek ethical thinking since the time of Aristotle.
For Paul, ethical reflection does not revolve around norms or values, nor is it determined by what is useful: what counts is the kind of person one is. Paul does not elaborate, but obviously he must have known what he was doing when he took over this key expression from Greek ethical thinking. This glimpse into Philippians is an illustration of how the early church dealt with ethical questions. The knowledge of Christ, the walk with Him, the power of His cross and resurrection – that is the key, that is what it’s all about. And if anyone might ask how this should find expression in everyday life, then the word ‘virtue’ also crops up. We will see how in succeeding generations this approach from the perspective of virtue continues.
We already referred to the ‘household codes’ for life; concrete paraenesis in relation to living within the basic structures of society: relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, servants and masters. These sets of rules – see Ephesians 6:1-9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 – do not comprehensively unfold a new social system; rather, they exhort believers to accept and live within the existing structures of society. In this, a key word is ‘submission’.
This might convey the impression that the new and renewing thrust of the Gospel had capitulated to the hard reality of this world. Actually, the reverse was true. This was no accommodation or compromise: it was a conscious ‘strategy’. What was new in the Christian faith was not found in ethical ideals or norms, but in filling the existing structures with the love of Christ. This is not in contrast with the first element – love and acts of charity; even less does this promote some kind of double standard. ‘Submission’ as a key concept in the ‘household codes’ is no evidence of servility or cringing obsequiousness; rather, it shows how the love of Christ, unique in its nature and form, finds expression and wins the neighbour for Him.3It is noteworthy that the call to ‘submission’ is always coupled to its basis: ‘in the Lord’.4
What conclusions might we draw from this survey? To begin with, that there was no categorical rejection of the ethics of the surrounding culture. Paul, for instance, points quite freely to the good that can be found in the surrounding world. Schrage points out that the church is expected to have regard for the moral judgments of outsiders (Colossians 4:5)5. Clearly, these are not unimportant. Even more strongly, in sharply condemning the brother who cohabits with his father’s wife, Paul bases his judgment on a prevailing acceptance within the wider community of what is right (1 Corinthians 5:1ff).6
As we try to enter the world of the first Christians, we quickly realize that they had little option. After all, they were learning to understand how what was new in the gospel related to the prevailing ways of thinking and living that had once been their own. The penultimate chapter of 1 Corinthians forms, as it were, the apotheosis of Paul’s whole letter. Paul places the whole of the Christian life in the radical light of the crucified and risen Lord. No ethos can stand on its own.
The second conclusion is that for early Christians ‘doctrine’ and ‘life’ were completely and self-evidently interwoven. Keck has proposed that we might perhaps start reading the New Testament differently from the way in which we are presently accustomed: not as doctrine with ethical implications, but as a reflection on the Christian ethos. 7In other words, rather than viewing the paraenesis as a development of the doctrinal, we should regard the doctrinal as theory on which the praxis is based.
Keck’s characterization of the core of New Testament fails to do justice to the unique and distinctive character of the gospel message. Still, the church – including the church of the Reformation – has not always appreciated and applied that aspect of Biblical truth that teaches that we cannot properly understand ‘doctrine’ if we neglect the ‘renewal of life’ that is so much a part of it.
Ancient philosophy: the Stoics
In the second century, the church entered a new phase. Until the middle of the century, pagan philosophers had little regard for Christianity, but this changed when Christians, in their apologetic texts, began to involve themselves in discussions about public life. This is the time of the Apologists: philosophers who, on their conversion to Christianity, began to give a public account of the interaction between the Christian faith and contemporary thinking.8
Justin Martyr (c. AD 100-165) approached ethical questions from the cosmology he had developed, in which creation, incarnation and ethics formed an integrated whole. In Justin’s thinking, God is the Creator, immanently present in His creation. Christ is seen as the logos spermatikos, working in creation. Everywhere in creation, one can find ‘seeds of divine power’, products of this logos spermatikos. It is the calling of mankind to see these divine relationships and take them into account. Christians, as Justin saw it, understand the ‘indicative’ of a reasonable creation by the logos, as well as the expectation of the judgment that is coming upon creation, as an ‘imperative’ to a moral life, a life that surpasses the imperfect moral efforts of non-Christians.9In order to render this Biblical ethos compatible for his contemporaries, Justin categorized the Old Testament laws into civil, ceremonial and moral. The Decalogue, then, is the core and the lasting manifestation of this Biblical ethos.
This – in reality reductionist – concentration on ‘moral law’ led to an emphasis on the imperative character of the Decalogue, while the understanding that the law was embedded in God’s way of redemption with Israel moved to the background. For a long time, the Gospel in the Law – as rediscovered and worked out by Calvin – was lost from view, the more so because the preamble to the Law:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, was usually left out.
Not only were the Old Testament laws chiefly seen as moral imperatives; the same was true of the New Testament, of Christ. The force of the Pauline message of faith as the justification of the godless, and in this way as a ‘new creation’, simply cannot be contained within moral categories.
During the time of the New Testament, the influence of Stoic thinking was already widespread.10A key element of this thinking was the control of the spirit over the body. You ought not let your feelings – especially not your sexual urges – drag along and determine your actions.11
Here, Stoic philosophers compared favourably to many others, in that they viewed all people equally: both men and women were expected to maintain high morals within marriage. It was to be expected, then, that Christians looked to the Stoics in matters of morality. Man was seen as a spiritual being, answerable to high standards. In regard to living a good life – especially in relation to sexuality – early Christianity and the Stoics had much in common.
In addition, the Stoics were the first to develop an ethical system that took its point of departure in the laws of nature (in its broadest, cosmic sense). In fact, ethics stood at the heart of Stoic philosophy. The man who has wisdom and understanding will be able to discern between the things beyond his control and the things he can influence. He will direct his will towards those things that he can influence, and he will ‘stoically’ accept the things he cannot. What counts is living in harmony with the laws of nature, and every person ought to be able to do so. After all, he is part of nature, and he ought to know what such a harmonious life consists of. The theoretical foundation for this view was that the logos – not just as an idea, but also something material – was seen as a rational entity and a powerful force, immanent in and active throughout the cosmos: the pneuma. The prevailing conception of moira, blind fate, was replaced by the idea of an omnipresent divinity, surrounding all mankind, steering the universe, working through laws of necessity and determining even the details of everyday life. The fact that this divinity is everywhere present and active implies that it also has a moral and universal character.
The Stoic was a cosmopolitan: his point of reference was not the laws of his own polis. Rather, his perspective transcended these local limitations: love towards all people regardless of origin, race, class or position. Epictetus (AD 50-130) emphasized the common origin of all humanity, leading men to deal with others as they would wish to be treated themselves.12This might seem to have been rather abstract, but in fact it wasn’t. This morality was concretely linked to the experience of ‘friendship’, and found expression in circles of ‘friends’. Even though early Christians may have had good reason for common ground with the Stoics, this dependence did have consequences. The great emphasis on morality per se during the early centuries led to a neglect of the roots of Christian morality: the reconciling and recreating work of God in Christ. As a result, the Gospel of the grace of God in Christ – justification and sanctification of the sinner – was kept from developing its full vindicating and liberating power.
- The manner in which the early church addressed questions of how to live shows where its heart was beating. The love of Christ was the source of its strength, and a living fellowship with Him its secret. In its existence, the power of the Holy Spirit was manifested, and that is the power of the age to come.
- The early church did not seek its identity in what was out of the ordinary, and it did not seek out the role of a ‘counterculture’; rather, it sought its new existence in Christ, and gave expression to this new life within the structures of the world in which it lived. The idea that being Christian is not found in new, extraordinary, and specially appealing rules for living, but comes to light in the ordinary relationships within society, is fully in line with New Testament teaching. The distinctiveness of the Christian faith was not found in the creation of new structures and appealing ethical paradigms, but in serving one another in love.
- Finally: whatever criticisms we may and perhaps should have of the early church, these may not be our first or predominant response. During its first centuries, the young Christian church had to find its way, under pressure from an often hostile environment. As I see it, Hauerwas and Wells point us in the right direction for a fair and productive treatment of the ethical thought of the early church:
By reading Clement, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, and Augustine, we hope to learn again how to live as Christians, that is, in a world where to be a Christian is a mark not of safety, but of danger.13