Conformity to Jesus as the Paradigm for Christian Ethics 3
January 4, 2016
Conformity to Christ Through Vocation
In his second essay on the imitation of Christ Herman Bavinck wrestles with a very old problem. He points out that the New Testament was written by and for Christians who came from the underside of society - the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. As a result, its emphasis falls on the virtues and practices that are appropriate for people in such circumstances, such as patience, forgiveness, and obedience. The question is, how are Christians to work out the imitation of Christ in contexts of power, authority, and influence? If the New Testament's version of a Christian ethic is a classic example of an "ethics from below," how are we to implement it when we need an "ethics from above"? Here Bavinck points to the fact that the New Testament itself contains the principles for such an ethic, and suggests that Christians must get to the hard work of using those principles to translate the way of Christ into a way of life appropriate for our own circumstances.
I believe Bavinck is correct to the extent that the New Testament emphasizes an ethic that is easiest to apply in contexts where Christians are not in control. I also agree that Christians need to work to apply that ethic to contexts in which we have power and influence, while ensuring that we are following the New Testament's basic principles.
I worry, however, that we are often all too willing to assume that the hard parts of the New Testament's ethic - the parts about being willing to suffer, to share our possessions, and to serve - must necessarily be translated so as to be amenable to contexts in which we are comfortable resisting evil, growing our wealth, advancing our ambitions, and preserving our rights. I also think that Christians have consistently underestimated the moral and spiritual compromises entailed in using power just like the world does. There is much in the history of Christendom of which we should be critical. To give just one example, why were the early Reformed, including Calvin, so willing to defend the use of the sword to punish heretics? Did they not find it too easy to abandon the example of Jesus and the early church in favor of Israel, at least on this issue?
The flip side of this concern consists in my sense that the New Testament's ethic is intended to be much more universal - and is less context-determined - than Bavinck sometimes implies, and than Christians have often assumed. The New Testament speaks to a wide range of circumstances in which early Christians found themselves, including being single or married, children or parents, young or old, women or men, wives or husbands, poor or rich, slaves or masters, students or teachers, Gentiles or Jews, those under authority or those in authority. The primary group not addressed - and here Bavinck is absolutely correct that we need to do the hard work of translation - is that of those individuals who hold political power.
What I want to emphasize here is that not only are all of these groups explicitly addressed in the New Testament, but in virtually every case the instruction they receive is stated in terms of the believer's union with Christ. Yes, there are also appeals to the law, or to nature, but it is always the believer's union with Christ, and the call to submit to and follow Christ, that is determinative.
Take, for instance, Paul's "household codes" in Ephesians. The entire discussion is framed by the call to believers to be "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). But Paul's instructions do not simply come to those without power, those on the underside of the social status quo. Rather, he addresses both sides of the equation as they were present in the church. Wives are to submit to their husbands "as to the Lord" (5:22). Husbands are to love their wives "as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (5:25). Children are to obey their parents "in the Lord" (6:1). Parents are to bring up their children "in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (6:4). Slaves are to obey their earthly masters "as you would Christ ... as servants of Christ" (6:5-6). And masters are to "do the same to them ... knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven" (6:9).
Note that it is precisely those who are in positions of power - heads of households - who are called to sacrifice themselves for those under their charge after the example of Christ. Paul states this explicitly with regard to the relationship between husbands and wives, but there can be no doubt that he thinks the same is true for fathers with respect to their children, masters with respect to their slaves, or, need we say it, rulers with respect to those they govern. As Martin Luther put it, the Christian prince "should picture Christ to himself, and say, 'Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me ... I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs.'" We may wrestle with what it means to imitate Christ's loving self-sacrifice in such circumstances (Luther thought a genuinely Christian prince was exceedingly rare), but we ought not question that it is to this model of loving self-sacrifice that we are called to conform.
Of course, there is a problem here, and we, like Bavinck, are quick to point it out. Most obviously, Paul seems to assume the legitimacy of slavery, and even of relationships between wives and husbands in which all the power falls on one side. And we are right to point out that here Paul's instruction is clearly informed by cultural constraints. Paul himself is aware of that, and I don't think we should assume, as is often done, that he thought slavery was just fine. In 1 Corinthians he tells slaves to obtain their freedom if possible, "For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human beings" (1 Corinthians 7:23). Clearly Paul believed the Gospel had social implications that undermined the institution of slavery. Likewise we know that Paul emphasized greater equality and accountability between women and men than was common for his day. He did not idealize traditional marriage relationships; he thought some believers - whether female or male - could serve Christ's kingdom more faithfully by remaining unmarried. In short, Paul did not simply accept the status quo of social relationships as he found them; he called Christians to the sort of sacrificial service that would inevitably see those relationships transformed.
What is important from these examples is not whether or not the social circumstances and structures of the first century AD are normative, therefore, but the way in which Christians are to act in the circumstances and structures in which they find themselves. Whether you are in a position of power or not, the New Testament makes clear, your obligation is to act in a manner that is not only obedient to Christ, but that reflects what Christ has accomplished in the Gospel. In short, Christians are consistently called to act in light of their identity in Christ and after the example of Christ. When they do so they draw attention to the love of God that is revealed in the Gospel.
Nowhere is this clearer than in 1 Peter, where Peter explicitly acknowledges that slaves and women often find themselves in abusive relationships, while pointing them to the example of Christ, who was righteous even in the way that he himself suffered abuse. Here Peter, like Paul, echoes Jesus' formative call to all believers to take up their cross and follow him. In some cases this means we submit to the suffering inflicted on us by an oppressor, as did Jesus. In other cases it means we sacrifice our selves - and our own authority - for the good of another, as did Jesus. Either way, it is Jesus who shows us most perfectly what it means to be a new creation, a new human being living a new life toward God and toward one another.
Why does this matter? Why is it so important to emphasize, as the Heidelberg Catechism does, and as the New Testament does, a Christocentric ethic? Because our primary calling is not to show the world that we are very moral people - very good people - zealous for the glory of God. Our primary calling is not to show that we have kept the law as well as can be humanly expected and that we expect others to do the same. Our primary calling is to reflect Jesus Christ and the work he has done and is doing, in love, for sinful people such as ourselves.
If we merely emphasize the moral law as the form of the Christian life, we entirely miss this dynamic, and it is this dynamic that makes Christian ethics Christian. To be sure, following Christ means that we fulfill the law, but it means so much more than that. It means we reflect the Gospel. The law doesn't have a lot to say about the sort of compassion that is expressed in forgiveness, mercy, and the inclusion of sinners, but this is what walking after the example of Christ is all about. The law doesn't have a lot to say about the sort of self-sacrifice that puts the good of an undeserving other ahead of our own rights, but such self-sacrifice lies at the heart of what it means to be conformed to Christ.
Bavinck was right that conformity to, and the imitation of, Christ, cannot be a wooden, literalistic enslavement to particular habits and practices. He was right that the New Testament ethic requires translation into our own time and circumstances. But the Heidelberg Catechism suggests, and the New Testament teaches, that our primary calling is to do this in a way that preserves our fundamental obligation to be conformed to Christ. No matter how much cultural power or influence we have, it cannot match that which Christ had when, though he was in the form of God, he came down incarnate as a human being, and took up the form of a servant, even to the point of the cross. Like him, no matter how much circumstances may put us in a place of cultural power, from which we might be tempted to devote ourselves to compelling everyone else to go down the proper path (doing ethics from above), we are called to walk in the way of a suffering servant, in justice, in mercy, and in faithfulness (doing ethics from below).
Matthew J. Tuininga teaches politics and core studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was recently appointed assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at matthewtuininga.wordpress.com
 Martin Luther, "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed," in Oliver O'Donovan and Joan Lockwood O'Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 594.