Now don’t run off on me!:) I am aware that terms like “morality”, “virtues” and “ethics” seem quite dry and archaic.  But I think that some of my readers that would initially tune me out here will find this post very encouraging and invigorating.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a classical historical work by Edward Gibbon that was been a foundational authority on the Roman Empire for the past few centuries.  It is certainly not an easy read, but it is full of priceless information about the long period of time that the Empire existed.  This work is important to Christians because it is during the reign of this empire that Christ lived, died and rose again.  It was during this empire that the early church grew rapidly and thrived.  It was eventually this empire that would adopt Christianity as the state religion under Constatine.  And when this empire collapsed in the West, it was Christainity that remained as the leader of the West in its institutionalized form as well as in its pastoral role.

In one part of this great work, Gibbon addresses the phenomenon of how the Church grew so rapidly in the first several centuries.  Gibbon gives five solid reasons.  For the sake of this post we will examine one, and address the others in later posts.  The one I want to focus on in this post is that the Church grew rapidly because of “The pure and austere morals of the Church” or as he puts it later on “The virtues of the first Christians.”

Gibbon points out that the early Christians “demonstrated their faith by his virtues.”  That is to say, someone outside the Church could pick out a Christian based upon their virtues, moral and ethical behavior.  Imagine that.  In a contemporary society when pastors are divorcing their husbands or wives; ministers are having adulterous affairs or skimming off the top of ministries to buy a Rolls Royce or expensive clothing; Christians are suing Christians at the drop of a hat and so on.  Yet, these early Christians put strong emphasis on the transforming power of God to cause a change in their behavior that they committed to maintaining.

When they repented, they expected a “reformation of manners.”  Good ethical and moral behavior was expected of them.  We see this taking place even in Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth.  In the words of one of my professors, Paul was basically saying in those letters, “Stop acting like that…true Christians don’t behave that way!”  A life of vice was not acceptable.  So much so, that when the “most abandoned sinners” observed this lifestyle, many were attracted to the faith and the possibility that they too could be changed into the image of Christ.  They observed that the “driving passion” of these Christians was a “perfect life”, that is a virtuous lifestyle free from malice and vice.  In fact, they were so concerned with living holy lives, that if they were guilty of anything they were “guilty of an excess of virtue.”  Some of those early Christians would read scripture and take things very literally and at times perhaps legalistically.

The pagan world looked at that early Church and although they might not understand why there was a change in their ethical behavior, they were amazed by it and often drawn to it.  This is recognized by historians like Gibbons, who often states that he as a historian is not interested in establishing theological truths but understanding and stating history.  Yet it is also recognized by external evidence by secular officials of Rome like Pliny the Younger.  While emperor Trajan was in power, Pliny wrote to him asking how he should deal with the people known as Christians in the mid to late second century.  It is a priceless document because in it Pliny states that besides the fact that the Christians refuse to worship Caeser as a god, they are law abiding, loving, and good citizens.  He attests to their moral fortitude.  In fact, the early Christians thought it very important to be blameless citizens, unless the laws interfered with the laws of God.

Further on in the Roman Empire, Justin the Apostate came to power.  Under his reign he attempted to reestablish paganism as the state religion.  However, he admitted that he had an enormous struggle.  The struggle was that even though he had estabished a pretty efficient system of bishops and officials to oversee the practices of this pagan religion, the Christians’ moral and ethical behaviors, as well as their endless acts of charity far outweighed anything the pagans could do.

Gibbon and many other scholars point to this as one of the main reasons why Christianity grew so quickly in the Roman Empire and throughout the world.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Church today needs to return to this.  The Church needs a moral, ethical, love revival.  The Church needs to stop apologizing for its high moral standards found in scripture and tradition and begin to live it out.  Part of why we do and don’t do the things we do is because God expects us to be holy and different than the world.  There should be a contrast that is markedly different about us.  So that when it comes to issues like pre-marital sex, drunkeness, violence, gossiping, bickering, oppressing, ridiculing etc–the Church should be pure and blameless.

Many unbelievers argue that they can be moral and ethical too without Christianity.  I argue that they do not have the longevity, pure motives, and complete ability to do so.  I argue that all you have to do is walk into a mall and see just how well they live out those so called morals by the way they treat each other.  I also argue that the morals and ethics they have are not solely intrinsic but they are running on the fumes of morality taught to our culture by Judeo-Christian inheritance.  Lastly, I argue that any ability they have to give the appearance of morality is based upon what the patristic fathers saw as a mere imprint of the image of God that they were originally created in.  That is to say, that their morality is based upon an inward conviction that God has installed to warn them of what is wrong and right.

The problem today is that the world looks at the Church and doesn’t see much of a difference.  People are not dumb, they know when we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.  I argue that Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit have the ability to live moral and ethically pleasing lives before the Lord.  However, most Christians don’t even try.  We join churches (which are basically social clubs for many) take on the title of Christians, carry our Bibles, act special on Sundays and then lead worldly lives the rest of the week.  This is not good enough.  Paul would say, “That is not how Christians behave.”

 

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