October 2021 | Service of Love

Christian Duties: Different Ethical Dimensions in the New Testament
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Christian Duties: Different Ethical Dimensions in the New Testament

Pr. Ratheesh A. P.

Self-centeredness in Christianity has grown much taller today where people think only to expand their own territory so that they can be rulers of their own Kingdom.  It is also a failure of Christians that we try to build ourselves on others' weakness. We point out the weakness of others because we want to be stronger than them. For many it is a survival quest in which they try to quench their thirst. Therefore one can say the New Testament ethics is very relevant today because it talks about the Christians’ duties in different dimensions. So it focuses on three dimensions of a person’s responsibility as a Christian. This covers three areas of life: The duties which we owe to God, the duties which we owe to our fellow-creature and the duties which we owe to ourselves.

1. The Duties Which We Owe to God 

a. Doing the will of God

The New Testament is more concerned with ethical exhortation. Its readers are being admonished to live in a way that will be pleasing to God who stands in judgment on human activity (Matt 7:24–27; 1 Thess 1:10; 3:12–4:1). The Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees for over interpreting the Law as reflecting a higher standard of obedience to God’s will than that made possible through the interpretations of the Law advocated by the scribes and Pharisees (Mark 7:1–13; 10:2–12). In some instances, such as the critique of the Pharisees for “manipulating” the Torah to adjust to human concerns rather than the will of God, Jesus’ remarks parallel those of the Essenes, who also argue that God’s judgment requires a higher standard of human obedience.

Adjusting God’s will for the human concern is always a danger for a man. It is apparent that when man tries to attempt God’s will by his efforts he has to face an utter failure in his life, not only the failure but also has to invite bitter consequences in his life. When Abraham had attempted to accomplish God’s will by taking Hagar as a detour to have a promised son, he had to face harsh results in his life. It is always a reminder from God to human beings that “fleshly attempt to do God’s will is a failure” because “man’s extremity is God’s opportunity and man’s protection is devil’s opportunity.” Jesus is vehemently criticizing the Pharisees who try to adjust God’s will for their own benefit. He calls them as “blind guides” (Matt 15:10–13), because they lead others to disobey God. Therefore God judges them. God uproots the unfaithful vine (Isa 5:1–7) or throws out the wicked vineyard tenants who hope to profit by rejecting God’s messengers (Matt 21:33–44). Divine judgment plays a role in ethical exhortation in the New Testament. Hence when man disobeys, God’s judgment has already come upon him, but when he obeys Him he will be able to find God’s will in his life.

According to Paul believers, find God’s will through their moral living. He says we are under obligation to God (Rom. 8:12). Accordingly, moral living is a matter of faith in God and faithfulness to God (Rom. 3:3-4). As Paul clarifies his perspective on eating food offered to idols, he firmly believes that one is responsible for discerning  God’s will in this matter; but then the key is whether or not one acts in accordance with what one believes to be God’s will (Rom. 14:23). God is continually renewing the minds of the faithful so that they “will be able to test and approve what God's will is-God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2). Speaking out of this perspective, Paul frequently emphasizes moral living as obedience to God's will (Rom.1:5; 2:13). The “renewal of mind” (Rom 12:2) which makes Christian ethical exhortation possible comes through God’s saving activity. Therefore one has to lead a moral life in order to find God’s will.

b. Live a life with God

The New Testament exhortation flows from a conviction that salvation has been given to humans. God’s forgiving word is prior to the moral efforts of human beings, all of whom stand in need of God’s righteousness in Christ (Rom 3:9–21). The Christian life of love and service represent a response to the love and forgiveness received in the saving encounter with God. God’s free gift of righteousness is matched by an equally free giving of oneself in service and love (Gal 5:1–14; Rom 6:1–14). There are few factors that we have to notice when we talk about God’s righteousness. 1. God’s righteousness means His faithfulness to human beings by keeping the covenant that he has promised them. 2. God’s righteousness refers to the status given by God. His righteousness enables human being to have right standing before God. 3. “Righteousness of God” might denote an activity of God which means it is the saving action of God on behalf of human beings. Therefore man is obliged to respond to his righteousness by loving and serving him alone.

c. Worship 

Another important one man’s duties owed to God is worshiping him alone. The word “worship” doesn’t actually appear in the Greek, it’s the word: “service” which means hired service, or service to God. We aren’t slaves in the sense of not having a choice, every day we have a choice to serve God and we do it because we love Him. The obligation to worship God forms the first part of the Decalogue as well as the first part of the double love command (Mark 12:28–34). For gentiles, conversion to Christianity required abandoning the gods and goddesses of family, city, trade association, and empire for the one God. Ethical life can also be characterized as obedience to Jesus, the exalted Son o f God. In addition to the obligation to worship God alone, we also find exhortations to participate in communal forms of worship (Eph 5:18–20; Phil 4:6; Col 3:16–17). In some cases tensions within the community created by social divisions of rich and poor or the “divisions” in individual endowment with spiritual gifts require affirmation that all persons in the community are equal before God. 

2. The Duties Which we Owe to Our Fellow-Creatures

Ethical exhortation in the New Testament is also concerned with the Christians’ duties towards their fellow creatures. The basic characteristics of this duties are described in terms of love, reconciliation, humility, placing the needs of another above one’s own interests (Phil 2:1–5; Col 3:5–14; Acts 4:32–37). Christians today should emphasize building up communities in which such relationships are the model. This approach emphasizes the communal concerns of New Testament ethics and the self-sacrificing character of love. John does preserve the ethical teaching of Jesus about the command to mutual love and service among members of the group (John 13:12–16, 34–35).  Christians have a great responsibility towards their fellow beings.

a. Relationships within the Community

New Testament writers spend a great deal of time addressing the problems of relationships between Christians. The gospel sayings about mutual forgiveness, reconciliation, and authority as service rather than “lording it over subordinates” already point to such concerns. Vice lists frequently point to anger, envy, malice, conceit, drunkenness, quarreling, and other sins of speech which also corrupt the love which is to exist between Christians (Rom 13:13; Gal 5:19–21). Mutual love, self-sacrifice, and harmony are the signs of the Spirit’s work in building the Christian community. The peaceable ordering of the community requires respect and even financial support for those who are its leaders (1 Thess 5:15; Gal 6:6; 1 Tim 5:17–20).

Christian leaders must also be reminded of their obligations toward others in the community. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. Each and every one of us has a function in the body of Christ. It may not be glamorous or up front – but it is important. Maybe it’s visiting the sick, or cleaning the church, or just praying for those you know. The point here is that “each member belongs to all the others.” I can’t do it without you and you can’t do it without me. And who puts this system together, us? No, its God

Humility reflects a willingness to consider others and their needs before one’s own (Phil 2:1–5; Jas 1:9). These various examples of relationships between Christians also include the material obligations of Christians to aid those who are poor and afflicted (Jas 1:27), as well as the hospitality which traveling Christians might expect from other communities (Rom 12:13; Phlm 22; Rom 16:1–2). Such actions represent the concrete shape which commands to “love one another” could take in early Christian churches.

We can see the Corinthian Church was divided into four. The first group claims that Paul is their leader because he has been called to do ministry among the Gentiles, the second group claimed that they belonged to Peter because he had been called to do ministry among the Jewish people and the third group claims Apollos as their leader, a well educated person, who was also good in debate and the last group claims Christ is the head. In fact this fourth group (Christ’s group) is the dangerous group because they think that they belonged to Christ and others are not. The danger of Christianity is not the backsliders but the people who play the blame game. They claim they are spiritual and others are not. they are always right and others are wrong. So showing concern to the others in the community is very important because each individual has his own status in the Church.

b. Sharing Wealth 

Two elements stand out from the ethos of the ancient world in connection with the collection. First, it establishes the principle that one might have material obligations to aid the poor in a community that is not connected to one’s own by any of the usual ties of kinship or ethnic origins. Second, it exemplifies the challenge which Christianity posed to the usual understanding of gift giving and exchange. Gifts to individuals created obligations which might link families together for generations. Gifts to religious cult groups, trade associations, or cities created an obligation for the group to provide appropriate honors for the donor: such as a statue, inscription, or titular honors. By insisting that gifts of wealth are really “owed” to God, the Christian community deprived its wealthy patrons of the possibility of obligating the poor members of a community in return for benefits received.

c. Love of Enemies

Love of enemies takes on an important place in early Christian exhortation because Christians frequently found themselves objects of suspicion, persecution, or mockery. Christians who were in a subordinate position to a non-Christian, such as wives or slaves, were particularly vulnerable, since they had little recourse against abusive treatment. But other Christians were also told to reject any form of legal or even verbal retaliation against enemies. Instead, the “enemy” should meet with words of blessing and even kind treatment. Those who remain enemies will suffer God’s judgment (Rom 12:19–20). Rather, kindness to an enemy may win the person over. It also demonstrates the superiority of Christians to their enemies, since they are not caught up in the anger or the hostility of the relationship (Rom 12:21). They refuse to be persons who “return evil for evil” (1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9; Rom 12:17).

3. The Duties which we Owe to Ourselves

a. Allow Jesus Christ to be holy in us

Jesus Christ, as Representative Man, lived up to God’s standard in every detail of holy living and holy speaking and holy working, and His claim is that through the Atonement He can put us in the place where we can do the same. The very nature that was in Him is put into us. It is not that God puts the life of Jesus in front of us and says, “Do your best to follow Him,” but that “the life also of Jesus” is to “be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” When “Christ is formed” in us by regeneration (Galatians 4:19), we have to see that our human nature puts on the “clothing” that is worthy of the Son of God. That is where our responsibility comes in, not in being absolutely holy, but in seeing that we allow Jesus Christ to be absolutely holy in us. 

b. Growing in Perfection

Matthew places the perfection of his community in contrast to the Jewish understanding of perfection. The Jewish understanding of perfection is attaining the Perfection by obeying the Law, but Matthew shows that Christian perfection consists of obeying Jesus. The implication is that the opponents (Jewish Leaders) claim to reach perfection but are incapable of achieving it. In doing so, he criticizes the opponents for lacking this qualification. Christians are perfect as they hold to a new ethics of higher righteousness and fulfill the Torah as Jesus interprets it for them. This understanding of the law distinguishes Matthew’s group from its scribal and pharisaic opponents. It is a strong polemical way of presenting things. So this portrayal that his group members are the perfect ones distinct from the opponents indicates that the call to perfection in Matt.5:48 is a strong indication of the Matthean Community call to be perfect. 

c. Flee from Sexual immorality

Jews frequently associated the idolatry of pagans with sexual immorality. Within this social context, both Jews and Christians insist that holiness requires a much different standard of sexual morality (Rom 1:24–27). Prohibitions against incest were more extensive than in Roman society. These prohibitions may be the reference of the general word proneia, “sexual immorality,” in the exception made to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce (Matt 5:32). The Essenes claimed that unchastity, wealth, and defiling the sanctuary were the three nets by which Satan traps humans. Unchastity includes divorcing one’s wife and marrying one’s niece, which the author argues is equivalent to the explicit prohibition against marrying one’s aunt (Lev 18:15). Other versions of the divorce prohibition circulated without the exception (1 Cor 7:10–11).

We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are to flee from the sexual immorality. The corruption and sexual immorality rate shows that many of the religious leaders are not leading their lives in an appropriate manner. When the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Gandhi he asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.” “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today,” he added.

To conclude, Christians have three dimensions of duties. The duties that we owe to God, are to do the will of God, live a life with God and worship him by serving him. And the second dimension is, the duties that we owe to our fellow creatures, are grow in relationships within the community, sharing your wealth and love your enemy. the  third dimension is, the duties that we owe to ourselves are allow Jesus Christ to be holy in us, growing in perfection, and flee from sexual immorality.  

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