« Prev § II. The Christian Life. Next »

§ II. The Christian Life.480480This subject is carefully treated by Schaff; work quoted, pp. 447-500.

Between the worship and the Christian life of the primitive Church there was a close relation. Worship was nothing else than the solemn epitome or concentration of the Christian life, while the entire life was raised to the height of true service to God. This character of sacredness, impressed upon the whole existence, is especially remarkable in the first period of the history of the first century, when the Church lived, as it were, in heaven, raised above earth by its young and ardent enthusiasm, or rather, by the all-powerful influence of the divine Spirit. It seems, for the time, as if all social and family relations were absorbed in the new relation formed among those who had received the baptism of fire; but it was according 382to the will of God that human life, with all its numerous and varied natural elements, should re-appear in the Church to be transformed by the new Spirit. Within the Church was to be realized that gradual coalescing of the human and the divine which alone gives to the plan of salvation its full and beautiful development. We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that the human element was at this period deeply defiled by heathenism. It was not possible that it should be at once brought into entire subjection to Christianity. Some spheres of action, which come not only naturally but rightly within the domain of the religion of Christ, were necessarily closed to it, so long as civilization rested upon a pagan foundation. How, for example, could a Christian exercise any magisterial function at a time when religion was so identified with politics that the most simple public act was associated with idolatry? How was it possible for Christians to cultivate any branch of art, so long as art—that great syren of Greece—was at the service of paganism; but it would be a very false conclusion that the domain of public life, or that of art, was to be permanently closed to Christians. Had there been any foundation for such an opinion the Apostles would have expressly stated as a principle the positive incongruity of religion and politics, of Christianity and the aesthetic faculties; but they make no such assertion. St. Paul recognizes the State in itself as a divine institution, necessary for moral development. "Let every soul," he says, "be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, 383 resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil. Wilt thou, then, not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."481481Ὁ ἀντιτασσόμενος τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ τῇ τοῦ Θεοῦ διαταγῇ ἀνθέστηκεν. Rom. xiii, 2-4. Paul, in this passage, rises to the ideal conception of the State. He establishes that there is no opposition between Christianity and the State in itself, but he does not teach us, as has been asserted, unreserved submission to existing authority, whatever may be its infringements of moral freedom. This question is not even touched upon by him in this passage. He has been erroneously made to advocate a doctrine which, in its abuse, does away entirely with the true conception of the State, since the State may cease to be the domain of right, and become simply that of blind and iniquitous force. The Apostle, in these words, rises from the corrupt manifestations of the civil power which are before his eyes, to its principal and fundamental idea. He acknowledges it to be a divine institution, and, consequently, an essential condition of moral development. 1 Tim. ii, 2, 2. He desires that the Christian, so far from taking a position hostile to the State, should pay to it all due submission and respect; and he enjoins as a duty the offering of prayers for kings and all in authority. As there is no necessary antagonism between Christianity and the State, the Christian will be in time called upon to fulfill his duties as an active citizen, and to contribute to the general well-being in temporal matters—to uphold, that is, the cause of justice. But, before he can enter on this career, the general conditions of ancient society 384must be changed under the influence of the new religion.

The question of the relations of Church and State could not come before the apostolic age. Those relations were then very simple; they were those of the persecuted and the persecutor. There was every thing, however, in the general principle of Christianity to set aside any idea of a formal association of the two. The close union between the Church and the State was one of the most characteristic features of pagan society, in which the individual was kept in absolute subordination to the State, his faith being no less under official control than his outward life. Christianity, the religion of the conscience, sought only free and individual adherence. Respect for the individual was born into the world with the respect for conscience. A State religion, however orthodox, will be always a partial resurrection of the pagan idea. Ancient religions were maintained only by coercion, and by the support of wealth—both forces foreign to Christianity, which conquers by none but spiritual weapons. It might well blush to grasp the sword which slays the body, since it has in its hand the sword which can pierce the soul. Its kingdom is not of this world, therefore it can assert its dominion over the whole world. Protection places it in a servile position; it is strong in its own independence. The State is not at variance with the Church—as the flesh with the spirit, the old man with the new. The State, no less than the Church, is of divine institution. The Church is called to act upon it, but only by way of influence, and the more the two spheres are kept distinct, the greater and more penetrating 385is that influence. The State is the realm of right, and, consequently, of constraint and force, but of force regulated by, and made subservient to, justice.

The Church is pre-eminently the realm of freedom, for it receives its members only by their own free adherence. To combine the two spheres is to confound things that differ, and to move both from their foundations. The union of Church and State reverses the apostolical conception of a religious society; it is a retrogression from Christianity to paganism, or at least to Judaism. But mankind was to purchase this' truth, like every other, at the price of long and bitter experience, by which it learned how much it costs the Church to mingle spiritual things with temporal.

The religion of Christ was, therefore, contented with laying down the principles by which the State was to be renovated; and it pursued the same course with reference to art. If, during the apostolic age, and the periods immediately succeeding, it held aloof from these two spheres of human activity, its influence was only the more efficacious in transforming them. In maintaining the independence of conscience in relation to the State, in sanctioning its right to resist all coercion from without, Christianity laid the foundations of all true liberty, and insured the overthrow of all despotic powers. Martyrdom is the mightiest protest against persecution; it shows material force the limit which it cannot pass. On the other hand, by the creation of a new ideal, at once divine and human, the way was prepared for truly Christian art, which should substitute for the calm; emotionless beauty of the Greek marbles, the deeper and more pathetic loveliness of those immortal forms, 386to which the great artists inspired by the Gospel have given birth.

All the reforms of Christianity have been wrought from within. The great revolution effected by it in the world had its beginning in human souls. Its first aim is to change the individual, that through him it may do its transforming work on society, and, primarily, on the family—that miniature society, source and type of the greater—upon which it has set its seal. The new religion found, in the regeneration of the individual, the lever with which to upheave the old world. It is, then, of great importance that we form a true estimate of the general principles of Christian life in the first century.

Its great principle is the imitation of Jesus Christ. To reproduce the features of his holy image, to feel as he felt, to share his humility, his self-renunciation, his tender compassion, to walk in love as he walked—such is the calling of his disciple.482482Τοὐτο γὰρ φρονείσθω ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ. Phil. ii, 5; Col. iii, 12, 13; Eph. v, 2. He finds in his Saviour a living and powerful law, which "gives what it commands," to use the beautiful expression of St. Augustine. If Jesus Christ is the ideal type of the Christian, he is, at the same time, his support; (John vi, 48, 50;) the bread of God coming down from heaven on which he feeds; every member of his mystical body derives his nourishment by prayer from Christ the Head. Eph. iv, 15, 16.

The Christian life of primitive times seems like the life of Christ continued upon earth. Its most striking characteristic is a fervor altogether apart from fanaticism, which sustains it in the ordinary conditions of 387human life. These men, full of holy zeal for truth, and daily awaiting the return of the Lord, feel themselves under no necessity to go out of the world, and to form for themselves a separate existence, like the Essenes and Therapeutics. Each remains in the position in which he was called,483483Ἑκάστον ὡς κέκληκεν ὁ Θεός, οὕτω περιπατείτω. 1 Cor. vii, 17. unless he finds it one of too great temptation. The Christian has no sanction for abandoning work under pretext of yielding himself to pious meditation. 2 Thess. iii, 1O, 13. Work itself rests upon a law of God; it is part of man's allotted task. The primitive Churches found the larger part of their members, as we know, among the poorer classes. They contained a large number of artisans, men who supported themselves by the work of their own hands.484484Ἐργάζεσθαι ταῖς ἰδίαις χερσὶν ὑμῶν. 1 Thess. iv, 1. In ennobling manual labor, Paul prepared the way for one of the most important reforms effected by Christianity. Toil had been regarded as a degradation in ancient society, which was composed only of victors and vanquished, indolents and slaves. All the conditions of pagan existence were overturned by so simple a reform. The right of conquest and the tyranny of a patrician class were virtually abolished. The Christian artisans of Corinth and of Thessalonica were thus, without knowing it, great social reformers.

This disposition to impress on the entire life a divine seal and a religious character, was blended with a certain asceticism, to which no saving virtue was attributed, but which was of importance in the discipline of the spiritual life. Paul says, that he kept under his body. 1 Cor. ix, 27. He even goes 388so far as to recommend celibacy, as a state in which it is more easy to serve God without hinderance; and there is reason to believe that this counsel, falling from such lips, was frequently followed during the first century.485485See 1 Cor. vii, passim. It is evident to us that Paul saw special reasons in the circumstances of the times in which he wrote, rendering celibacy desirable: διὰ τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην. 1 Cor. vii, 26. He thinks, however, that the state of an unmarried man, who, possessing a special gift, is not exposed to the grossest temptations, is the most favorable to piety. 1 Cor. vii, 32-35. Paul states, that on this point he does not speak a positive command from the Lord, but his own individual conviction. This private opinion of his does not prevent his maintaining intact the great principles of the new covenant. The "forbidding to marry " is set forth by him as one of the most grievous signs of heresy. 1 Tim. iv, 3. Fasting was practiced in all the Churches, especially in times of difficulty and trial, when a peculiar need was felt of near approach to God. Acts xiii, 2, 3; xiv, 23. But this asceticism was not made obligatory on any; it was not prescribed by any fixed rules. It was observed with all freedom, never approximating in any degree to oriental dualism, never being regarded as the glorious and exclusive privilege of a sacerdotal class. It is considered a means of sanctification which should not be neglected, and which might render valuable aid in the struggle against the flesh with its desires and lusts. Ever since this primitive age the Church has been carried about on this question from one extreme to the other, passing from monastic Manicheism to the complete repudiation of asceticism. In the first century it was equally removed from both extremes.

One of the most beautiful creations of primitive Christianity was the Christian family, as we see it in the Churches of those days. What the family was in 389the pagan world we know well. There was no medium for woman between the indolent and stupid captivity of the gynæceum and the part of a courtesan. Christianity raises her from this degraded position, and makes her truly a helpmeet for man. The outward union becomes the symbol of the union of life and soul, and the relation of Christ to his Church is the sublime type of the conjugal relation. Ephes. v, 23. Thus marriage is at once invested with divine purity, and an element of true devotion sanctifies the earthly love. Polygamy is absolutely, though indirectly, abolished. Paul still keeps the wife in a position of subordination to her husband; he demands from her respect and obedience, but he maintains her rights, those sacred rights of the weaker, which Christianity ever espouses before all others. On the part of the husband he requires protection and love. Ephes. v, 24, 25. Marriage thus regarded is a holy association of man and woman for the common promotion of God's glory. Priscilla and Aquila, Paul's able and efficient fellow-workers in the Gospel of Christ, and the instructors of Apollos, supply a noble type of a Christian couple in the first century. Acts xviii, 2, 26.

A delicate question arose in these young Churches, composed of converts from paganism, as to what was the right course to take when either husband or wife became a Christian. Paul decides that the conjugal bond is not to be broken. The Christian wife may win the husband, or vice versa. 1 Cor. vii, 13-16. In any case, the marriage is sanctified by the prayers of the one who is the servant of Christ. Marriage appears to have been consecrated at this time only 390by the piety and faithfulness of those thus united, for they did not have recourse to any special ceremony.486486The nuptial benediction is one of those happy innovations suggested to the Church by the Spirit of God. The right of contracting a fresh union was recognized only in the case of the death of the husband or wife, (1 Cor. vii, 39;) the only exception to this rule was that admitted by Jesus Christ in cases in which marriage had been morally violated by adultery. Second marriages were therefore tolerated, but it is easy to gather from the language of Paul that, in his view, perpetual widowhood was preferable. 1 Cor. vii, 40. This opinion resulted naturally from the principle of asceticism, which was one feature of his individuality.

The relations of parents and children, no less than of husband and wife, assume a new character under the influence of Christianity. The implacable severity of the Roman father is to be tempered by Christian love; he is to train up with all gentleness the frail being so absolutely dependent upon him; and the child, on its part, is bound to a submission the more perfect because not founded on fear. Ephes. v, 1-4. Then appears the sweet and attractive type of the Christian mother. When Paul says of the woman that "she shall be saved in child-bearing," (1 Tim. ii, 15,) he rises, according to his custom, from the particular to the general; he sees in the woman the Eve who gave birth to the blessed Seed that was to bruise the serpent's head, and who brings into the world day by day sons and servants of God, destined to carry on and complete the work of redemption. These she nourishes and cherishes by that Christian education in which she takes so direct and active a 391part. Thus the Christian family is established on its true basis.

It has been made a reproach to Christianity that it did not at once proclaim the abolition of slavery. It is forgotten by those who bring this charge, that by taking such a course Christianity would have exchanged the religious sphere for the civil, and would thus have confounded two domains, between which a careful distinction is always important, and was especially so on its first introduction to the world. It could not enter into civil matters without exposing itself to all the perils, fluctuations, and chances of external authority. It would have become a political instead of a moral power; it would have abdicated its true throne of royalty, and bartered for an uncertain and hasty revolution that eternal power of reformation, by which it is able from age to age to renew individuals and societies. Christianity no more accepted slavery than it accepted polygamy and Roman legislation as to divorce; and it brought into the world the principle which was to abolish these institutions, so profoundly hostile to the morality of the Gospel. That principle it defined with reference to slavery with so much clearness, that it did in fact morally abolish it, so far as that was possible without going beyond its own domain. For, firstly, Christianity regulates the relations of masters and servants according to the laws of justice. The one are to remember that they also have a Master in heaven, (Ephes. vi, 9,) the other to recover their dignity as men by doing their service as unto God.487487Ὡς δοῦλοι τοῦ Χριστοῦ. Ephes. vi, 6. Still further, Paul clearly declares that in Christ Jesus there is 392 "neither bond nor free," that is to say, every human being has equal rights in the sight of God. Col. iii, 11. The possession of one man by another is thus proclaimed to be immoral, an infringement of the rights of the redeemed in Christ, and incompatible with the doctrine of redemption and the equality which is its consequence. Nor was Paul content with a mere theoretical statement of these principles; he gave them practical application. His Epistle to Philemon is morally the deed of enfranchisement of the Christian slave. He sends back Onesimus to his master, as a brother in the faith, as his own son, and asks that he may be received even as himself.488488Ἐμου̂ τέκνου, ὃν ἐγέννησα, αὐτόν, τοῦτ᾽ ἔστι τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα Philemon 10, 12. Such words have done more to break the fetters of the slave than the outbursts of rebellion, and the justly indignant cry of those who are unjustly oppressed. Let us only picture to ourselves the slave, who yesterday was grinding at the mill, or serving his master like a beast of burden in the fields, without receiving one look of kindly recognition, to-day sitting with him at the table of the agapæ, breaking with him the bread of communion, and drinking the same cup of blessing. Trials and persecutions he now undergoes in common with his master; as a member of the same Church he is treated by him as a brother. Surely this is a vast social revolution, and one which cannot fail to bring in its train many results not at once, realized. We may add, that St. Paul was not satisfied with proclaiming the equality before God of men in Christ; he declared positively that it was desirable that the Christian should be enfranchised in 393fact as well as in spirit. He advised him not to neglect any opportunity that might offer to be made free.489489Εἰ καὶ δύνασαι ἐλεύθερος γενέσθαι, μᾶλλον χρῆσαι. 1 Cor. vii, 21. This advice is very significant, especially if we consider what moderation of language was necessary on a question so delicate, which by one imprudent word might be made to trench on social and political problems.

Christianity accepts the natural affections of man's heart, those at least which are normal, and purifying and penetrating them with a supernatural and divine element, it assimilates them to the highest love. The essence of this pure and devoted love is the spirit of sacrifice, and it has received its name, as it received its character, from the Gospel. It is called charity.490490Ἀγαπη. 1 Cor. xiii, 1. This word had quite another meaning prior to Christianity. We have observed its first manifestation in the inner circle of the family, but it is not confined within these limits. It embraces all men in its arms of compassion, and while the national spirit among the ancients raised high barriers between different peoples, who were to each other as strangers and barbarians, the Christian knows no such exclusive distinctions. To him it is plain that God has made of one blood all nations of men;491491Ἐποίησέ τε ἐξ ἑνὸς πᾶν ἔθνος ἀνθρώπων. Acts xvii, 26. and if Tacitus brings against him the charge of hating the human race, it is only because the Christian is erroneously confounded by him with the narrow and prejudiced Jew. The contact into which Jews were brought with converted Gentiles in the Churches founded by St. Paul, contributed effectually to the expansion of heart and 394 mind. By exalting the idea of humanity above that of nationality, Christianity gradually transformed the fierce patriotism of the old world into a nobler feeling. But it is pre-eminently in the Church that Christian affection finds its sphere. A spiritual bond, close and tender, is formed between those who are partakers of the same faith. In token that they form but one family in Christ, they call each other brethren, (Rom. viii, 12; xiv, 1O; 1 Cor. vi, 6; Eph. vi, 10; Phil. i, 14; 1 Peter ii, 17,) they "salute one another with a holy kiss," (Rom. xvi, 16; 1 Cor. xvi, 20; 2 Cor. xiii, 12; 1 Thess. v, 26; 1 Peter v, 14,) they are of one heart and one soul. So strange a spectacle constrains both Jews and Gentiles to exclaim, "Behold how they love one another!" When a Christian stranger arrives in a city he is received as the representative of his Church. It is esteemed a privilege to give him lodging; pious widows wash his feet, according to oriental custom, and he receives every token of brotherly affection. The care of the poor and the afflicted becomes, as is natural, one of the chief concerns of Christian love. We know how high a place of honor is given to the poor in the Church of Christ. Poverty has preserved a reflected ray of the glory of Him who humbled himself and became poor; and the poor are lifted up because Christ has identified them with himself. It is not necessary to enumerate here the various offices created especially with a view to succor the poor. The example of Dorcas shows us how large was the love of the first Christians for the poor and needy, even when they acted only in their private capacity. Acts ix, 36. Large and regular collections were also made to provide for the wants of 395the Churches which were unable to support themselves.

The relations of Christians with the world were regulated by Paul with much wisdom. He was far from desiring that by an extreme and impracticable exclusiveness they should avoid all contact with men not yet converted. 1 Cor. v, 10. He did not blame them for sitting at the table of the heathen. 1 Cor. x, 27. He desired only that they should make no compact with evil and idolatry.

Two opposite tendencies had manifested themselves among the Christians of that time. Some, narrow and timorous, scrupled to eat of meats which had been sacrificed to idols; others, of a broader spirit, and maintaining that an idol is in truth nothing at all, felt themselves justified in eating any thing that was sold in the market. Paul holds the justness of the latter principle; (1 Cor. x, 23, 24;) but he demands from those who espoused it the largest consideration and respect for the conscience of weaker brethren, and urges on them the exercise of that elevated and delicate charity which can sacrifice a right rather than wound a weak brother, and which will not peril the soul of another for the sake of meat. 1 Cor. viii, 10-13.

Surrounded by all the seductions of paganism, the Churches were to use constant watchfulness. The letters of Paul give glimpses of strange revivals of old pagan corruption among these young Christians; and a dangerous readiness to fall back into the mire of licentiousness is evidenced by his frequent warnings against the sins of the flesh. 1 Cor. vi, 15-20; Col. iii, 5-9. Many other blemishes appear in the 396picture of Christianity drawn by the Apostle. We have not disguised these in sketching the history of the various Churches. Schisms, heresies, the pride of wealth, the tendency to self-indulgence, all these aberrations which we have pointed out, show us that the Churches of the first century were not, any more than those of any other age, pure Churches. But in spite of these imperfections—upon which their founders and directors felt bound to speak more strongly than in commendation of the piety of the faithful—the Christianity of that age has all the beauty of a new creation of God, which had not had time to be vitiated by man. "The world," says Bossuet, "believed in holiness as it saw holy men." And what examples of holiness was it not permitted to witness in this period of the apostolic age? The form of St. Paul—severe, earnest, burning with zeal for God, bearing the honorable scars of persecution—stands forth as if to manifest to all eyes what power and moral beauty human nature gains by union with Christ. The great Apostle was pre-eminently a great saint, and it may even be added, (taking the word in its best sense,) a great mystic in the depth of his piety and the fervor of his love to Christ. In the domain of the Christian life, as in that of missionary activity—in the teaching as in the guidance of the Church—he has left traces more profound than any other, and being the last of the Apostles, he is indeed first. Let us hear his own confession made in the holy boldness of humility, of all that he had suffered for Christ: "Are they ministers of Christ?" he says, speaking of the false teachers at Corinth, "(I speak as a fool,) I am more; in labors more abundant, in 397stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the Churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities."2 Cor. xi, 23-30.

Such was an apostle and a saint in the first century. It is not surprising that no power in the world could withstand the influence of lives like this.

398399
« Prev § II. The Christian Life. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |