Weekly Edgework #75 - December 5, 2005

Ethical Trajectories

It is natural to feel Christ’s liberation reaching into every kind of bondage, and to want to act in accordance with that radical shift. But precisely because of Christ we shall not impose that shift violently upon the social order beyond the confines of the church. (The Politics of Jesus, John H. Yoder, p.185)

There is a line of argument in Christian circles with relation to biblical ethics on the domestic front that goes something like this: “Jesus came to this earth to die for our sins and proclaim that he would return soon after having ascended to the Father. Jesus’ purpose for coming had little to do with transforming social patterns of relationships for his followers whose main occupation was awaiting his return. Thus, when in fact Christ did not return as promptly as expected, Christians living in the interim had to rely on status quo expectations to order their domestic relationships. This meant leaning heavily on ethical directives from the Jewish and/or Greek cultures of the day. Thus the Apostles simply took a “common sense” approach, in line with the cultural milieu of the time, in giving direction to early Christians on how to conduct their domestic affairs.”

This story line has been repeated ad infinitum in the context of church history. And at first blush it does seem to be plausible. Why would first generation Christians, whose primary thought was to leave this world behind concern themselves with transforming domestic patterns of relationships for what they considered to be a very short, interim period of time? And if in fact Christ had not given any directives relating to domestic relationships, where should the apostles go for a definitive word on how Christians should live – except to the forms and practices they saw around them.

Following this line of thinking, there is no transformative word within the biblical text with respect to the institution of slavery, for example. Nor for the world of male-female relationships. By implication, the mandate was simply to fall in line with the status quo practices of the time since the apocalyptic Christ had chosen not to concern himself with providing any new directions for such earthly concerns.

From my point of view this line of thinking does injustice to the biblical record. Of course if you approach the Bible from within this mindset you will not be aware of the fallacy of its approach. And you will remain with a formula that will continue to perpetuate social injustices throughout Christian history. And you have the anomaly of Christians whose God has withheld moral guidance for life on the domestic front. It is within this frame of reference that many fundamentalists have declared that the Sermon on the Mount, for example, has no application for contemporary Christians.

John H. Yoder has helped many of us see the flaws in this line of thinking. He argues that the ethic Jesus brought with him was indeed revolutionary, upsetting “common sense” norms in both biblical and contemporary times. Take slavery, for example. It is true that Jesus did not begin an uprising against the practice of slavery of his day. Does that mean that slavery is affirmed by Jesus as the natural order of things – one race subjugating another for their own benefit? Bible-thumping preachers in the American South in the mid-eighteenth century certainly thought so.

Yoder says no. He says that in his life and teachings, Jesus radicalized the notion of love for God and neighbor thus releasing a trajectory that would eventually find its target through the power of the Spirit, even after the last words of the biblical texts were penned. When seen in this way, the writings of the Apostles added momentum to this trajectory that would eventually abolish slavery. Paul sends the runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his master, Philemon, with a directive to submit voluntarily to him, while at the same time entreating Philemon to receive him as a brother. Both directives were revolutionary and, no doubt, led to a transformed relationship between the two.

A similar story could be told about the biblical mandate that would free women from a forced subjugation to males in their lives. It was clear that Jesus elevated the status of women in his life and ministry. It is also clear that in the first generation church, women were allowed to participate in Christian services, unheard of in Jewish tradition. A seed of liberation had been sown. Of course implementing this new freedom fully would engender problems and controversy. In fact on a few occasions apostolic writers warned against allowing women too much freedom too quickly. But far from defining the role of women as secondary to men for all time, these passages simply document the sometimes painful processes involved in moving the trajectory of freedom in Christ for women forward.

And more specifically, instead of simply affirming standard hierarchical arrangements for relationships within marriage, the apostles proclaimed a new concept of “revolutionary subordination,” to use the words of Yoder. Now subordination was not a singular mandate applying to women, but a mutual mandate applying to both men and women. According to Ephesians 5:21-33, this provided different challenges for women and men. Women were challenged to change their forced subjugation into a voluntary one, while men were challenged to love their wives as themselves. This was to be understood within the broader mandate to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The actions and teaching of Christ had started a revolutionary trajectory which the apostles were moving ahead ever so carefully in their time. And, through the help of the Holy Spirit, this trajectory is finding its target in our contemporary setting with the full emancipation of women in marriage, church and society.

Without eyes to see Spirit-guided trajectories rooted in Christ, contemporary Christians will always be locked into outmoded and anti-Christian notions of what it means to live fully according to the will of God.