Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Moral Standards Of The Earliest Christians

Christianity is often criticized for the sins of professing Christians, and sometimes the criticisms are warranted. But other times they aren't.

In some of his posts at this blog, Jon Curry has claimed or suggested unethical behavior on the part of the early Christians. Sometimes he'll be specific, such as in criticizing Eusebius of Caesarea or Cyril of Alexandria, but other times he'll be more vague. He's made false and misleading claims about the textual record of the New Testament, although one of the sources he cited on the subject, Bart Ehrman, has stated that most Christian scribes were honest. Similarly, after being asked to document his claim that Tertullian was a "vicious" and "wicked" man, Jon eventually cited a Wikipedia article, yet that article tells us:

"He [Tertullian] was a born disputant, moved by the noblest impulses known in the Church....On the principle that we should not look at or listen to what we have no right to practise, and that polluted things, seen and touched, pollute (De spectaculis, viii., xvii.), he declared a Christian should abstain from the theater and the amphitheater. There pagan religious rites were applied and the names of pagan divinities invoked; there the precepts of modesty, purity, and humanity were ignored or set aside, and there no place was offered to the onlookers for the cultivation of the Christian graces....If Tertullian went to an unhealthy extreme in his counsels of asceticism, he is easily forgiven when one recalls his own moral vigor and his great services as an ingenuous and intrepid defender of the Christian religion, which with him, as later with Martin Luther, was first and chiefly an experience of his own heart."

Tertullian had some unbalanced ascetic tendencies, but he was "moved by the noblest impulses known in the Church" and had "moral vigor". It doesn't seem that the Wikipedia author considers Tertullian "vicious" and "wicked". Jon later cited the last paragraph of the article as justification for his charge. Read that paragraph and see if you agree.

Of course, the earliest Christians were sinners. But the assertions, insinuations, and questions raised by people like Jon Curry are often unjustified.

Though the early enemies of Christianity would often make false charges against the early Christians or rightly criticize the misbehavior of some, they also acknowledged many of the virtues of the early Christians:

"Even Pliny informed Trajan, that the Christians, whom he questioned on the rack respecting the character of their religion, had bound themselves by an oath never to commit theft, robbery, nor adultery, nor to break their word and this, too at a time when the sins of fraud, uncleanness and lasciviousness of every form abounded all around. Another heathen, Lucian, bears testimony to their benevolence and charity for their brethren in distress, while he attempts to ridicule this virtue as foolish weakness in an age of unbounded selfishness....The brotherly love expressed itself, above all, in the most self-sacrificing beneficence to the poor and sick, to widows and orphans, to strangers and prisoners, particularly to confessors in bonds. It magnifies this virtue in our view, to reflect, that the Christians at that time belonged mostly to the lower classes, and in times of persecution often lost all their possessions. Every congregation was a charitable society, and in its public worship took regular collections for its needy members. The offerings at the communion and love-feasts, first held on the evening, afterwards on the morning of the Lord’s Day, were considered a part of worship. To these were added numberless private charities, given in secret, which eternity alone will reveal. The church at Rome had under its care a great multitude of widows, orphans, blind, lame, and sick, whom the deacon Laurentius, in the Decian persecution, showed to the heathen prefect, as the most precious treasures of the church. It belonged to the idea of a Christian housewife, and was particularly the duty of the deaconesses, to visit the Lord, to clothe him, and give him meat and drink, in the persons of his needy disciples. Even such opponents of Christianity as Lucian testify to this zeal of the Christians in labors of love, though they see in it nothing but an innocent fanaticism. 'It is incredible,' says Lucian, 'to see the ardor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator [Jesus] has put into their heads that they are all brethren.'...Julian the Apostate traced the rapid spread and power of that religion [Christianity] to three causes: benevolence, care of the dead, and honesty." (Philip Schaff)

Galen, a non-Christian writing around the middle of the second century, commented:

"For their [the Christians'] contempt of death and of its sequel is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers." (cited in Robert Wilken, The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 80)

Mathetes, an ante-Nicene Christian, wrote:

"For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum up all in one word - what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and loves also the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible bodies, looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake." (Epistle To Diognetus, 5-6)

For more examples, see Chris Price's articles on Christian charity and Christian opposition to infanticide.

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