NT Ethics Revisited


The following is a re-post of something I wrote in 2009 for my Beliefnet blog. It seems even more relevant today what with all sorts of unethical behavior going on in the church, including in conservative Christian churches.

A CENSUS OF THE CONSENUS: NT ETHICS—Preliminary Considerations

Even drama is too static an understanding of theological ethics. Ethics cannot be simply about rehearsing and repeating the same script and story over and over again, albeit on a fresh stage with new players…The Bible is not so much a script that the church learns and performs as it is a training school that shapes the habits and practices of a community.—Samuel Wells

Ethics is theological: Ethics is not about using power, restoring former glory, or fulfilling individual freedom: it is about imitating God, following Christ, being formed by the Spirit to become friends with God. — Samuel Wells


It is sad but true to say that NT ethics has been the step-child of NT studies throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. There are a variety of reasons for this in the scholarly world. One is the disparaging remarks made about NT ethics by various highly influential NT scholars. When you complain that what we have in large portions of the NT is ‘bourgeois’ ethics (e.g. in the Pastoral Epistles), or an ethical miscellany cobbled together from Greco-Roman and Jewish ethics, or a baptizing of various forms of the status quo, the contempt for what is being urged in the NT is not far beneath the surface of the discourse.
But there is another reason why NT ethics has suffered both abuse and neglect and it is theological. In some forms of Reformed theology, ethics is frankly an after-thought. Reformed theology is all about God’s sovereignty, and grace and divine salvation, and there is an allergic reaction to the notion that the ethics of the NT might have something to do with theology, might have something to do with human salvation, because of course ethics is almost exclusively about human behavior, not God’s behavior. Even when a Reformed scholar emphasizes ethics as an essential act of gratitude in response to grace, he has failed to do justice to the inherent and necessary connection between theology and ethics in the NT. For example, salvation has to do with both theology and ethics in the NT. And there is a crucial epistemological issue to consider—how exactly can you ‘know’ a truth in the Biblical sense without living into and out of that truth? In the Bible, understanding often comes from doing or experiencing. Belief and behavior are not meant to be separated from one another into hermetically sealed off containers. The obedience which flows from faith is also the obedience which reassures, strengths and more fully forms faith.

And there is a third issue as well. Modern Christian scholars are overwhelmingly non-Jewish in background—whether we are talking about Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox scholars. As such, they do not reflect the orientation and ethos of early Judaism, unlike the way most NT writers do. By this I mean that early Judaism was primarily about orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. It was overwhelmingly about behavior—whether ritualized or simply moral behavior. It was seeking to answer the question—How may we live faithfully and appropriately in response to God? It is of course true that the NT is more theological in character than many other early Jewish documents, but it is not true that ethics is just an after-thought in this NT literature. Indeed, it is often at the heart of what is going on in many if not most of the NT documents.

For example, as theological in character as Galatians is, the function of all the verbage is to prevent a certain kind of behavior the audience is considering— namely getting oneself circumcised and keeping the Mosaic Law. Or to take another example, the sermon called Hebrews has long exhortation sections interspersed between the textual exposition sections of the discourse, the exposition leading to the punch line of exhortation. The author is trying to prevent the audience from going AWOL, or committing apostasy. This is also the agenda of several other NT documents including 1 John and Revelation. Had we been paying more attention to the imperatives in the NT all along we would have realized that ethics is just the logical implication, and real life working out of the theology in a person’s or community’s life.

And this brings us to another crucial preliminary observation. It is not merely that the imperative is built or based on the indicative, though that is true. It is that the imperative presupposes the work of the living God within the very inner being of the community and its individuals, such that God is commanding what he is already enabling by the divine saving action in the audience’s midst.
Ethics is not merely the response of a grateful heart to what God has done for someone or for a community. Ethics is the necessary outworking of what God has worked in the community and its individual members. Ethics is not an optional added extra if one wishes to be saved to the uttermost. Neither is ethics is not an optional added extra if one wishes to please God. Nor is ethics merely the fruit that a good tree bears. Christian Ethics does indeed have to do with human behavior, the chosen behavior of a person saved and empowered by grace to respond to God’s commands and emulate the behavior of exemplars like Christ and his apostles. There is then a middle term between the action of God and the ethical response of God’s child or community, and that is the experience of God’s action within the community and its individuals, an experience wrought by the Holy Spirit. We will say more about this as the chapter develops.


The Bible is replete with reminders that “without vision the people perish”, and this is especially the case when it comes to ethical or moral vision. Believing, in the sense of notional assent to a set of ideas, somehow seems to come much easier than behaving, or understanding how one ought to behave. And just so we are clear about the order of things when it comes to theology and ethics, it is of course true that the NT writers believe that “obedience is a consequence [and gift] of salvation, not its condition. The Holy Spirit is not a theological abstraction but the manifestation of God’s presence in the community, making everything new. Those who respond to the Gospel have entered the sphere of the Spirit’s power, where they find themselves changed and empowered for obedience.” Indeed one can say that the Spirit is characterized as a sort of GPS device, giving guidance and direction on the fly, such that even a figure like James can say “it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 15). The Spirit not merely empowers, energized, enables the believer, the Spirit leads the believer into all truth, and into ‘the paths of righteousness for his name sake’.

What is too seldom noted about the shared moral vision of the NT writers (and note that I do not say visions) is t
hat it is grounded in the first instance in story and experience— the story of Christ himself, and the experience of Christ by means of the work of the Spirit. The construction of a Christian ethic is not an abstract intellectual exercise, it is rather a response to the work of God in the midst of God’s people. And what they are most responding to is Christ and his story as it has impacted them. Let’s take an example.

Consider for example what is going on in Romans 12.9-21 and 13.8-10. Scholars have often noted echoes of the Sermon on the Mount in this material, including echoes of the Beatitudes. Paul has imbibed and embodied this teaching and has made it his own, and is prepared to reapply it to a different situation. And we note his stress on how love is the fulfilling of the Law, even of various of the ten commandments. This of course is not an independent reflection on the OT Law but one that reflects a variety of things Jesus said, including about what was the greatest of the commandments. What is especially interesting however is the phrase ‘the other law’ in Rom. 13.8. What other law? This seems likely to be a reference to the Law of Christ, which Paul elsewhere refers to in 1 Cor. 9 and Gal. 6, a law which, as it turns out is composed of three elements: 1) emulating the pattern of Christ’s life; 2) the obedience of faith which includes obeying Christ’s teachings (including his reaffirmation of some OT teachings) as reapplied to the Christian community, and 3) obeying the new apostolic teaching which amplifies and expands upon the example and teaching of Christ. Now all of this presupposes and is grounded in the story of Christ. It presupposes the audience is already well familiar with that story and with the essential teachings of Jesus as well such that even with a new audience which Paul has not addressed before, as is the case with the audience in Rome, Paul does not have to engage in the hard sell even when commanding non-violence and no retaliation, two of the stand out or distinctive planks in the ethical platform of the historical Jesus. This is remarkable and it shows what we have already stressed.

The early Christian community was a small, rather closely knit and socially linked community across the Empire. It shared a considerable amount of common teaching of both an ethical and theological sort. This is part of what made a Christian community in any given locale recognizably different from other faith communities. The unity of the ethics in the NT is not a contrived unity, something modern scholars produce miraculously like pulling a rabbit out of a hat by demonstrating the compatibility and coherence of the NT ethics as a modern exercise. On the contrary, the unity arises out of the coherence of these communities when it comes to the shared ideological and narratological framework in which they did their theologizing and ethicizing.

There was much these communities had in common and indeed took largely for granted, so great was the impact crater of the Christ event (person, works and teachings) on so many of them. We honestly do not absolutely need focal images to unite NT ethics, though they can be helpful to some degree. There is a focal person behind it all as both the exemplar and provider of examples, as both the teacher and the teaching. At the end of the day NT ethics is about the imitation of Christ, in various of the possible meanings of that phrase.

This is why the metaphor of walking is so crucial not just in early Jewish ethics in general but in the NT in particular. Walking presupposes one is going somewhere. Walking presupposes one has a sense of direction, a roadmap, a guide. Walking assumes that there is a plot or plan or a course to follow. And when the Christian begins walking, he is supposed to be following in the footsteps of Christ—taking up his own cross, denying himself, and following Jesus. This is the heart of the matter, and the rest is an amplification and commentary on that journey.
Now a journey of course involves drama, but a journey is no play or play acting. It involves not only following the map and directions provided, it often involves improvisation, upon which more will be said later. The life of Jesus is seen as the map, and the Law of Christ the directions as to how to follow it. There are many things in the day to day walk not shown on the map, and many things not referred to in the directions which a person is given. Life is more detailed and involved than a map or set of directions can show or account for. Unlike a drama which has a climax perhaps and an end, a journey has a goal, and that goal as is clearly stated by both Jesus, Paul and other NT figures is not heaven but the Kingdom of God here on earth.

Inheriting, entering, obtaining that Dominion is the goal. It is what Jesus taught us to pray for, and what we seek to obtain in due course. Indeed, it is said to be the inheritance of Christ’s followers, not surprisingly since they are children of a King who will rule there forever. John Updike put it this way— “This kingdom is the hope and pain of Christianity; it is attained against the grain through the denial of instinct and social wisdom and through faith in the unseen [see Heb. 11]. Using natural metaphors as effortlessly as an author quoting his own works, Jesus disclaims Nature and its rules of survival. Nature’s way, obvious and broad, leads to death; this other way is narrow and difficult: ‘Come in by the narrow gate….’ Christ’s preaching threatens men, the virtuous even more than the wicked, with a radical transformation of values whereby the rich and pious are damned and harlots and tax collectors are rather more acceptable…Two worlds are colliding, amazement prevails.”

Jesus set out a vision of this journey’s end called Kingdom in his beatitudes, a vision expounded on in many ways in the NT, and most beautifully in the end of the book of Revelation where we are told about how the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, with the vision of the descending heavenly city and the merger of heaven and earth when Christ returns, the dead are raised, justice is done, and everlasting peace and salvation is established upon the earth in the new creation.

The beatitudes are eschatological blessings for believers, which is to say things that will apply when one reaches the kingdom goal and the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven. And here’s the good news—the Dominion will be theirs, they will inherit the earth, they will be comforted, they will be filled with righteousness, they will be shown mercy, and most of all—they will see God and be called children of God, being like Him (cf. 1 Cor. 13.12; Rev. 21). Their present condition however seems to be the opposite of all this. They are poor in spirit, they are mourning, meek, persecuted, and yet they are in a blessed moral condition because they are pure in heart, merciful, indeed even peacemakers. As Mt 5.12 suggests while the reward will be great in the Kingdom, the travail on the journey may be great. It will be a rough ride into the Kingdom, and not like a roller coaster where the course is pre-ordained and one is strapped into the seat so that reaching the goal is inevitable. Why not? Because the human behavior of the disciples affects the outcome for them of course. Ethics is not just about attitude or gratitude, as it turns out, it is about a necessary walking in the right direction, having heard the clarion call of Jesus to “walk this way”. And of course, the clearer the image we have of Jesus and his character in our mind’s eye, the more clearly we may be able to discern how to emulate his character and behavior.

It is likely that Jesus’ own moral vision of how one must be and behave in order to enter the Dominion is derived from his own call narrative of sorts—the one he exegetes his own ministry in the light of— I
saiah 61.1-4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. H sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of the vengeance of God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. …Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance.”

Jesus’ ministry was the inauguration of the Kingdom on earth, the divine saving reign of God upon the earth, where God’s will is at last done for one and all. But as the beatitudes make very clear as for entering, obtaining or inheriting all that is promised, that lies still in the future. So the disciples of Jesus live between the times. They live between the beginning and the consummation of the Dominion of God upon the earth. The journey has begun, but it is nowhere near done.
But there is a further element to Jesus’ recitation of Isaiah 61, and his proclamation that it was being fulfilled in the audience’s hearing, that requires notice and reflection. This text alludes to what will happen in the year of Jubilee, the year that debts are forgiven, the year that land is allowed to go fallow, the year that slaves were set free or allowed to return to their point or family of origin. In other words, it was a season when the usual rules of the road, indeed the very laws of Moses, did not apply in various cases. It is not a surprise that Jesus would use such language to characterize the inbreaking of the divine saving reign or Dominion of God if he wanted to stress the element of newness and discontinuity with the way things had previously been done so far as behavior and praxis was concerned. Jesus’ ministry inaugurates the eschatological ‘year of Jubilee’.

Let us reflect on Lev. 25 for a moment. Basically this is a text proclaiming a sabbatical year for the land and for the people of the land. The land itself is keeping a sort of Sabbath in the Jubilee year, and this was meant as a reminder to God’s people that they did not own the land, but rather it belonged to God whilst they were actually just sojourners and foreigners in the land, however long they may have lived there. The Jubilee year was the fiftieth year after seven cycles of seven years. It was however not just a year of rest for the land, it was a year of redemption or emancipation for slaves as well as for houses (people could get their homes back after they had been sold out from under them), and emancipation for all sorts of people from debts as well. Redemption and pardon characterized this year. This script of Jubilee is in part the source of Jesus’ moral vision, as Luke 4 tells the tale. Among other things it explains: 1) why Jesus thought healing was especially appropriate on the Sabbath—it was the right day to give people ‘rest’ from what ails them; 2) it explains why as well Jesus pronounced the remission of debts and forgiveness of sins; 3) it explains why Jesus went about setting captives free, for example the demon possessed; 4) even more interesting is the close analogy between the celebration of the feast of Pentecost and the Jubilee celebration, because Pentecost was the celebration after seven weeks of harvest.

Suddenly we can see a connection between Jesus’ inaugural sermon and what happened in Acts 2 and the inaugural sermon there by Peter. In Luke 4 Jesus says that the Spirit has fallen on him and empowered and inspired him to proclaim the year of Jubilee and to begin to enact it. In Acts 2, Peter proclaims that the Spirit has now fallen on the whole community of Jesus’ followers and they must now go forth and continue and emulate the ministry of Christ. The pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh is seen as the clearest sign that the eschatological age is now in full swing. And the ethical import of this can hardly be missed. Now the disciples are empowered not only for mission but for obedience to God, for walking in a holy way that is pleasing to the Lord for they are filled with God’s Holy Spirit. The ethics of the Kingdom now becomes a live possibility for them, not just a utopian dream that only Jesus could live out. They are pilgrims empowered to pray, praise, proclaim, and walk as Jesus walked heading for the Kingdom goal.

When Paul wants to talk about what is needed for the journey into the Dominion, having exhorted them about fulfilling the new law by means of loving, he says “And do this understanding the present time…so let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, [not in nighttime behavior] Rather clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not thing about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Rom. 13.11-14). I submit that in order to be able to exhort a congregation you have never visited to “clothe yourself with the Lord” they must already know what that looks like, they must know what that means. The author and the audience must share the same road map and set of directions when it comes to walking in the light and reaching the Kingdom goal and Paul must be counting on the Holy Spirit to illumine and empower such a venture. In short, they must already share the same moral vision.

If we ask who cast this new moral vision focused on a Kingdom goal, the answer is of course Jesus, from the very beginning of his ministry when he spoke about the Kingdom being at hand (Mk. 1.15). The King has come, but his followers still await the consummation of his kingdom. In the meantime they are not on a crusade, but rather on a pilgrimage to the holy city, sharing with those they meet along the way about what is coming and what has already come of the Christ events. Failure to walk in the light, failure to put on one’s protective under armor before traveling can lead to not reaching the goal.

Reading a moral map, and understanding and following directions carefully of course requires moral discernment. Indeed it requires having the mind of Christ and thinking as he thought, and bearing in mind his own pilgrimage. This is why Paul first says “have this mind in yourself that was also in Christ Jesus” and then proceeds to retell the story of the V pattern of Christ’s career in Phil. 2.5-11. He does this in order to encourage the audience to also take a self-sacrificial approach to life. Always before the audience is held up an image of self-sacrificial love and its rewards and benefits.

Jesus of course insisted on close listening with two good ears to understand his moral teaching, but Paul insists that the renewal of the mind is also necessary “so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2).

You might well say, but we have a huge quantity of commandments already in God’s Word, why do we need a process of moral discernment? Isn’t it just about obeying the script of the Scripture? Well actually no, NT ethics is not just about that, not least because so many of the decisions a Christian must make along the journey do not have a direct analog in the directions in the New Testament. Indeed, most of life’s mundane decisions are not scripted or ordered in the New Testament. This is why improvisation is necessary, and moral discernment is required in many situations in life, even in the case of the most sheltered of Christian lives.

It needs to be said at this time that one’s assessment of the moral vision of the NT is certainly affected by how one views the relationship of the NT to the OT, or more particularly the relationship of the new covenant to all previous Biblical covenants. Frankly, it is perfectly
clear from a close reading of the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical teachings of Paul that the new covenant is certainly not just a renewal of one or more old covenants, not even the Mosaic one. Indeed, there are various provisions of the NT, such as the call for no oaths, the eschewing of violence altogether, the practice of non-resistance, the loving of enemies, the declaring obsolete of the notion that one can be defiled by some food that enters one’s mouth, and so on, that make impossible the notion that the new covenant is just the new and improved version of an older covenant. When the eschatological kingdom comes, we cease to study war any more, and there are other things which fall into abeyance as well. A Christian approach to war cannot appeal to the various pieces of legislation or moral examples found in the Old Testament, unless one or another of them is found renewed or reaffirmed by some NT writer or Jesus.
Thus NT ethics, on a variety of subjects will overlap with OT ethics, in some cases will dismiss or intensify some provision of OT ethics, and in some cases will simply replace it with a very different ethic an OT ethical principle or practice. Some allowable oaths are replaced by no oaths at all. Some forms of food laws are replaced by no required food laws per se. Some Sabbath requirements are replaced by no Sabbath observance being required of any Christian. Some use of violence is replaced by no use of violence by Christians to resolve their problems. The new covenant is just that—a new covenant, not just the old covenant part deux. And no, it is not just certain ritual practices that are said to be obsolete or replaced, it’s also some of the ethical principles which are replaced and seen as outmoded, now that the Kingdom is coming with observation. Jesus was a moral vision caster, and some of the vision he cast was indeed something new altogether.


Unfortunately, besides the neglect or disparagement of NT ethics, one of the other negative things that has happened to NT ethical material is the de-contexualizing of the material and the failure to see its usual ad hoc nature. All too often it has been treated rather flatly or uniformly. These things ought not to be. NT ethics is just as much a word on target for certain Christian audiences as the theologizing we find in these same documents. And in fact, when we have material that is repeated in more than one document, for example like the household codes, we begin to discover that there are trajectories of change in some of this material, just as there are levels of discourse. Let me explain what I mean by these two concepts (levels of discourse and trajectories of change) as they are in fact intertwined.
If a person has any sensibility about wanting to make an effective communication with a particular audience and persuade them of something, especially if the issue here is exhortation and application, then that person must: 1) understand the nature of the relationship between the author and the audience; 2) be able to gauge the level and character of his communication so it will be not merely understood but received as persuasive, and 3) speak to the place that the conversation has been able to develop thus far. For example, if we were to compare what Paul says in Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon about slavery a reasonably clear trajectory of change can be mapped out which not incidentally or accidentally parallels the level of discourse Paul is offering in the given document.

Colossians, not unlike Romans, is what can be called first order discourse, and that effects the ethical remarks in these letters just as much as their theologizing. First order discourse is what one is able and willing to say to an audience the first time one addresses them and begins the dialogue. An effective rhetorician will start with the audience where they are, and in the course of a dialogue and discussion try and move the audience to where the speaker thinks they ought to be. Not everything can be and should be attempted or discussed in one’s opening salvo, and this is particularly the case when one wants an audience to change their long accepted and deeply ingrained behavior patterns.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written to a congregation that Paul did not convert, and apparently had not yet even visited. It appears to have been one of Paul’s co-workers who planted the church in Colossae.

Paul addresses his audience knowing that there already exists in Colossae, and amongst the church members there, a patriarchal cultural structure and also a domination system called slavery. His interest is in household management within Christian homes, particularly as it affects Christian congregations, not in general. In his opening salvo, Paul starts with the household structure in which women, slaves and minors are in a decidedly inferior and subordinate position in the household compared to the male head of the household, and he begins to bring to bear Christian ethical concerns to these pre-existing relationships, thus ameliorating already at the outset some of the harsher dimensions of those fallen relationships. Paul is bold, but he is not stupid. He doesn’t try to push the conversation further than the traffic will bear in an opening conversation.

Thus in Col. 3-4 Paul talks about household relationships being lived out in ways that are more pleasing to the Lord or fitting in the Lord. When Paul turns to exhorting the head of the household, which is unusual in ancient discussions of household management, Paul restricts the power and way of relating to the subordinate members of the family—the husband must love the wife and not be harsh with them, he must not embitter his children so that they get discouraged, and most of all he must treat his slaves as persons, giving them what is right and fair (even though in Roman law slaves were ‘living property’, by which I mean they really had no rights). Herein we see only the beginning of the process of putting the leaven of the Gospel into these fallen situations.

The next level of discourse, second order moral discourse, can be seen in Ephesians, a circular homily that went to the church in Ephesus, and probably to the Colossians and other nearby Pauline churches. Here Paul is able to push the envelope a bit further than we find in Colossians. For example, at the introduction to the household code in Ephesians, at Ephes. 5.21 Paul exhorts all Christians to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.

Suddenly, it is not just the normally subordinate persons in that society who are doing the submitting—wives, children, and slaves. Now even the men are submitting as well to their fellow Christians and serving them. This self-sacrificial and serving ethic is of course something Jesus himself enunciated—he did not come to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for the many (Mk. 10.44-45). Paul takes up this theme in Phil. 2.5-11 by showing how the very coming of the Son into the world was an example of stripping himself of prerogatives and taking on the very form and approach of a slave—serving others. Instead of domineering and causing others to submit, Jesus stepped down and served others, setting his followers an example of freely chosen submission and service of others.

But it is not just in the introduction to the household code in Ephes. 5-6 that we find that the trajectory of change has moved on further from Colossians. It is also in other remarks. The husband is not merely to love the wife, he is to love her in the same self-sacrificial way Christ loved the church and gave up his very life for her. In regard to the husband’s relationship with his children he is charged with the task of bringing them up in the Christian faith and ethical practices. This task is not left for the wife to do in Ephesians. Most remarkable Paul in Ephes. 6.9 says to the slave owne
r “treat your slaves in the same manner”. In the same manner as what? In the same manner as the slaves are to serve their masters, wholeheartedly, serving as though they were serving the Lord himself. In other words, the master must serve and treat with respect his servants and do it whole-heartedly! And then we also have the warning not to threaten or abuse the slaves backed with the sanction that the masters themselves have a Master in heaven who is all seeing and all knowing. Most remarkably, Paul spends more time exhorting the head of the household than the rest of the household combined, attenuating his power, Christianizing his thinking, restricting his privileges, calling him to love and self-sacrificially serve. This goes well beyond Greco-Roman household management advice.

Finally if we turn to Philemon, here we have what can be called third order moral discourse—the sort of discourse one could and would have with an intimate. Here one no longer needs to hold anything in reserve—one can speak frankly, and Paul does. He calls for Philemon to: 1) manumit his wayward runaway slave rather than punishing him; 2) he insists that he treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother in Christ”; and 3) he urges he must treat and receive him as he would treat the apostle himself!

And just in case Philemon had not figured out that Paul was as serious as a heart attack about what he was urging, he reminds Philemon that he owes him his very spiritual life, and that he hopes to come to him soon (to make sure he follows through on what Paul is now persuading him to do). Here indeed we see how far the ethical discussion of slavery could and would go in an early Christian Pauline context. Paul is not afraid of implying that treating someone as a brother is incompatible with having someone as a slave. This comports with what Paul says in 1 Cor. 7 where he suggests that if a slave is offered his freedom he should take it. As the levels of moral discourse progress from initial discussion to talking with an intimate you can see the trajectory of change enunciated over time when the same person is treating the same subject with some portion of the same audience (Philemon was part of the church in Colossae it appears). It is unfortunate we do not have more examples of all three levels of discourse offered on the same or a similar subject to the same audience at various points in their relationship.
But what this example tells us is something important—especially with ethical remarks we need to ask not merely about the position taken but also about the direction of the remarks. Where are these remarks heading? Do they stand out from the usual advice of that social world, and if so, in what way? In what way can they be seen as examples, if they can, of attempts to bring about change in the status quo? The same sort of question can be asked when one compares the teaching of Jesus to other early Jewish teachers in a variety of subjects. When you do so, you discover that while Jesus is conventional in some regards, clearly enough in various of his ethical teachings he is moving well beyond and challenging the existing status quo. But one will only see and know this if one does his homework and studies Jesus in his proper social context. These are the sorts of questions we need to ask of the ethical texts found in the NT.


Leaving aside for a moment the obvious direct commandments of the NT which order behavior in both general and specific ways, there are many indications that we also have help in forming the Christian conscience and faculty of moral discernment so that one can make moral judgments for oneself or so that a community can collectively make such judgments, particularly in matters for which there is no specific teaching or commandment in the NT. Let us consider for a moment the discussion in a couple of Pauline texts—Rom. 14.5-6 and 1 Cor. 8-10.

Rom. 14.5-6 is remarkable on any showing as a pronouncement for a former Pharisee. Formerly a strict Sabbitarian and follower of ritual purity codes (see Phil. 3.6), now Paul says “some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike. Each one should be persuaded in their own minds. Those who regard one day as special do so to the Lord. Those who eat meat do so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and those who abstain do so to the Lord and give thanks to God.” This discussion of course should be compared to the more lengthy one in 1 Cor. 8-10 about eating meat sacrificed to idols and going to Temple feasts. But here the context is about the divisions between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome over such issues as the Sabbath and food. Paul says to them all, that about such things “each should be persuaded in their own minds”.

As we might say, it is a matter of individual conscience, and as Paul was to more clearly stress in 1 Cor. 8-10 whatever a person cannot do in good conscience is sin, at least for them—a violation of their faith and conscience. Clearly enough, Paul does not think that keeping the food laws, or keeping the Sabbath is required of the followers of Jesus any more. The eschatological age has broken in, and new occasions teach new duties. What is also remarkable about this discussion in both these Pauline texts is that while Paul largely agrees with the Gentiles that observing such food laws and Sabbatarian practice is no longer required of the followers of Jesus, even the Jewish ones, he nonetheless seeks to protect those whom he calls the weaker (in conscience) brothers and sisters—those who in his view have too many scruples about food and Sabbath and the like.

In 1 Cor. 8-10 Paul is trying to raise the consciousness of the self-centered more elite Gentile Christians in Corinth that they have an obligation not to cause their Jewish brothers and sisters with more scruples to stumble about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The conscience of the other, however overly scrupulous it might be, must not be violated by trying to cajole them into eating something they do not feel comfortable eating. Paul views the overly scrupulous conscience as a weaker conscience, not a stronger one, but out of love he does not want the weaker in faith to be led into sin.

In this circumstance, what is and isn’t Christian ethical behavior, depends on how sensitive one’s own conscience is about such matters. And one gets the sense that there are many such matters Paul would consider ‘things indifferent’ or adiaphora, in themselves—what one wears, eats, when one observes a holy day. They become ethically charged matters when questions like the following are asked: 1) If I do X, will it cause my brother or sister to stumble?; 2) Am I standing on my own rights and conscience without discerning the effects of my actions on those who are not equally convinced about this form of behavior?; 3) What sort of behavior in this matter builds up the body of Christ and what sort rips it asunder? In other words, in these kinds of matters the ethic of love for the other, especially within the body of Christ, and the need to do good to and honor the other becomes the principle guide as to what is and is not ethical behavior in such situations where a difference of opinion and conscience exists over a matter that is actually ‘adiaphora’, now that the Dominion is breaking into the human sphere.

At the very heart of the ethic of Jesus, and of his followers who wrote NT books was of course the ethic of love—whole-hearted love of God, and love of neighbor as self, but also love of enemy as well. Love, according to Rom. 13.8, is the one debt constantly owed by the believer to others. Now what is interesting about all the emphasis on love in so many places in the NT (cf. Mt. 5-7; John 3; Rom. 12-13; 1 John 4-5 etc.) is that love has a concrete face, and it is fleshed out by quite s
pecific enjoinders and commandments of various sorts. Love is not just allowed to be some sort of fuzzy guiding principle that each person is allowed to define on their own terms.

While there is plenty of room for moral discernment in the Christian ethic, there are in fact so many imperatives in the NT that make clear what love ought to look like, even tough love with the recalcitrant (see 1 Cor. 5) that we do not hear the modern refrain in the NT—“what is the loving thing to do?”, as if this question could be asked while ignoring things like the vice list in 1 Cor. 6.9-10 which tells us what sort of behaviors, if persisted in, will keep even Christians out of the Kingdom, or while ignoring the commandments from the Big Ten that are reiterated in Rom. 13.9-10. As Paul says in that context, the essence of the Ten Commandments so far as it involves interpersonal behavior is that “love does no wrong to the neighbor” and the ten commandments show more specifically what sort of things count as wrongs.

What we should discern from all of this is that there are both ethical principles and ethical practices, and forms of behavior that are considered right or wrong in all situations, and then there are other forms of behavior that become right or wrong depending on their effect on the neighbor or the fellow member of the body of Christ. One cannot simply look at the map or re-read the directions in all cases. One needs an indwelling GPS device, a sense of moral direction in the many instances where there is no commandment specified in the new covenant. And this calls for a sense of and a knack for proper and holy ethical improvisation, which requires more explanation at this juncture.

Mention improvisation and most people will think of something like spontaneous free-form musical experimentation such as one finds in jazz, or the like. This is clearly not what Samuel Wells has in mind in his recent book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. As Wells says, ethics presupposes a context and an understanding of context presupposes narrative. Whose story are we supposed to be living out of and into? We have already seen in our last section of this discussion that it is clear enough that Paul is encouraging his converts to do some improvising so that the weaker brother or sister does not have their conscience violated and so that the building up of the community and the love of the other is the goal of all actions.

Wells reasons that the Christian story is drama, and therefore that ethics is a form of performance of the drama. In this he sounds remarkably like Kevin Vanhoozer, only Vanhoozer is speaking about doctrine. The problem I have with both of them, is that drama is the wrong analogy and so performance is not what behaving ethically is all about. It’s all about pilgrimage not performance, odyssey or journey not a drama. It’s more like Pilgrim’s Progress, than Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. The Christian life is not a play, and we are not performing a pre-ordained part or script.

Wells recognizes some of the problems with this model of ethics as performance of a script. He lists the following problems: 1) a script might be assumed to provide a comprehensive version of life in which all questions and eventualities are covered. Clearly enough, this is not what we have in the NT when it comes to ethics, as anyone who has argued about the issue of abortion on the basis of NT principles rather than specific commandments has to admit; 2) the notion of performance of a script gives the impression that the Bible includes or encompasses the whole of the church’s story and how it should be lived out. If it only were true! But in fact as Acts 28 reminds us, we have been plopped down in the city of humankind with no resolution to the story yet in sight. We are all still waiting on Godot, or in this case Jesus to come back and resolve various matters. It is for this very reason that I have used the analogy with the roadmap (or even treasure map) and its directions when thinking of the NT and ethics.

A roadmap even with attendant directions is not like a full script of a drama where every entrance and exit, every speech and action is pre-scripted. Wells also rightly points out that a script suggests that there was a time when God’s people did get it right, a golden age so to speak, and we should simply retrace their steps. This ignores the many tales of failure, sin, loss, tragedy that we have in the Bible, and more to the point often such tales are told about people who in their better moments are ethical paradigms—for example in the case of Peter. Then too a script and performance model of Christian ethics risks the danger of no genuine engagement with the world, no clear response in the present to unexpected twists and turns in life. To this I would add that the drama/script /performance model has a sense of artificiality to it. A play, is after all about acting, not so much about being. But Christian ethics is certainly not about acting or pretending to be something or someone one is not. It is rather about walking, walking as yourself with your own name, in a particular direction, following the map, the directions, and yes the internal GPS device.

And this brings us to Wells’ helpful concept of improvisation. ‘When improvisers are trained to work in the theater, they are schooled in a tradition so thoroughly that they learn to act from habit in ways that are appropriate to the circumstance. This is exactly the goal of theological ethics.” So then we are talking about the ingrained habits of the heart, providing a natural tracking device or guidance system when the road forward is covered with underbrush or it is not clear which turn to take. Wells goes on to ward off misconceptions of his term improvisation. “One misapprehension is that improvisation is about being original.” No– improvisation presumes a detailed knowledge of the situation and the circumstances and an ability to react to the unexpected in an appropriate manner—or to use a drama term, to act in character rather than out of character.

Now it is interesting that the author of Hebrews who uses the pilgrimage model at length when describing the Christian life and provides a long list of examples of folks in the hall of faith in Heb.11 that one should consider and reflect on, nonetheless finishes that hall by telling the audience that Jesus is the pioneer and perfector or trailblazer and finisher of faith, and therefore the Christian is said to be one who must be “looking to Jesus” and following him and the trail he blazed into glory. He is finally the ultimate paradigm of what faith and faithfulness looks like, and he, as the lead runner, is the one we should be trotting along behind, and on the same right track as well.

This model of Christian ethics is something rather different than the drama/script/performance model. The improvisation that Wells is rightly talking about does not involve being original, or clever, or witty, necessarily, it involves faithfully reacting to situations and circumstance that while unexpected are actually not uncommon, and calls for improvisation within the parameters of good Christian character. Think for the moment of the analogy of a runner running a long distance race with a crowded field of runners. He is constantly bumped and jostled, knocked off balance or slightly off course by the regular jockeying for position, the attempts to pass slower runners and so on. Thus, the runner must develop coping skills to keep his balance, to avoid stepping on someone else’s foot and so turn an ankle, to avoid falling, or running outside the lines. The Christian ethical journey or race is much the same and fortunately many have gone before showing us the way, particularly the ultimate trailblazer Jesus. Improv in a race is to a great extent watchi
ng others successfully navigate around obstacles and following their examples.

It is not an accident that Paul tells his Corinthian converts that no temptation has overcome them that is not common to humanity, and that with such trials God can provide an adequate means of escape. Their journey is no more arduous than that of the wilderness wandering generation, but also no less perilous (1 Cor. 10). Improvisation is not merely for the elite who are clever, it is for every Christian, if they would but embrace it. When the map and the directions do not specify—what does one do? The answer is faithful and in character improvisation. As cliché as it might sound, it involves asking WWJD–What would Jesus do, for we are indeed living out of and emulating his story, his journey, his pilgrimage from gall to glory, from disgrace to grace, from death to resurrection. I short, NT ethics involves living out of the very heart of the NT thought world—the narrative of and about Jesus, which of course includes his words as well as his deeds.

Wells is also right that the sort of improvisation he is talking about is not the isolated performance of a gifted individual—say a Robin Williams type improvising in spontaneous stream of consciousness. It is more like the ensemble playing of a group of jazz musicians who inwardly know where the boundaries are, when to rise and fall, when to speed up and slow down, when to play sharps and when flats, when to be loud and when soft, and they know this because of years of inter-active playing with other improvisers. One is not creating a response to life de novo, or by oneself, but in community as a fellow traveler with all the other travelers singing the pilgrimage songs, the songs of Zion with one another and in harmony. Harmonizing requires listening intently to the other improvisers and fitting in. It requires restraint of one’s own natural individualistic self expression and creativity. It requires channeling one’s efforts and energies in the same direction the others are going.

What I would add to Wells’ reflections is that what allows one to successfully improvise in unexpected situations such that the improvisation can be called in accord with Christian ethics is that one has first internalized deeply the Scriptures, especially the story of Jesus, such that the almost instinctive reaction will flow right out of and in accord with the story one has internalized and seeks to live by, the map and directions one has memorized and seeks to follow.

But alas, true improvisation becomes difficult and dangerous, and not for beginners if they are Biblically illiterate. If you have not carefully studied the map, learned its contours, looked at the examples of those who have traveled this way before you, including especially Jesus, and read and re-read the directions so that you don’t need to keep looking them up, then you are not ready for prime time, you are not ready for ‘Night at the Improv’. You are not prepared for the unexpected crisis that comes along the way. In short, especially younger Christians need the community of faith to model how to do the improvisation. Let me illustrate what I mean.

9-11-01 caused a lot of people to come unglued, including many Christians, and indeed even many ministers. One minister out on the West Coast really came out with a tirade the following Sunday. He got into the pulpit and said words to the effect of “I am an American first, and a Christian second, bomb them back into the stone age”. When he was called on this by more than one parishioner after the fact, he did not listen, but suggested they were perhaps not patriotic enough. Now what is most interesting about this is: 1) this minister certainly never paused to ask “What would Jesus do in this situation?” My hunch is that he would be right there at Ground Zero running into buildings and rescuing people, binding up the wounds, and helping the healing process, not figuring out the co-ordinates and trajectories involved in a successful retaliation; 2) a crisis will reveal what your real values are, what your real internal GPS tracking device is, what your real default mode is. For this minister it wasn’t Christianity which he had most deeply internalized, it was nationalism; 3) accordingly, his ethical advice that he gave his congregation, besides being a direct violation of texts like Rom. 12.17-20, was in fact unethical. Love had given way to hate, unrighteous anger had fueled his response, and he sounded nothing like Jesus in the pulpit on that day. Indeed, he had simply revealed his own idolatry. His problem in all likelihood was not that he did not know what the NT says about revenge. It is that he had not embodied and internalized it and let it change his natural inclinations. So when he sought to improvise on the spot of a crisis, his improvisation was un-Christian unfortunately. We will have more to say about good and bad improvisation later.

It is time at this juncture to stop the ground clearing exercises and get down to cases. The point I wish to make as we conclude this particular chapter is simply this– NT ethics is not a mundane subject, and the ethics we find in the NT are not a mere rehashing of conventional ethics whether Jewish or Greco-Roman. Borrowing there is, and influences can be detected, but there is no influence more dominating in the NT than that of Jesus and his own ethic, and we can see this in witnesses as diverse as the reflections on suffering love in 1 Peter or the reflections on how to live in community wisely in James or the ethic of love enunciated by Paul or the elder in 1 John at length.

Just as Jesus’ teaching needed to be considered when one discusses NT theology, so too Jesus’ teaching needs to be considered when discussing NT ethics. At least four writers, the four Evangelists, all thought that the ethics of Jesus was relevant to the Christians they addressed. As it turns out, they were not alone—the other NT writers thought so as well to one degree or another. Even a remarkable work like Revelation, which has so much to say about future judgment and Christ’s role in it, uses all its thunder and lightning as a way of reinforcing that his Christian audiences need to be prepared not to retaliate, need to be prepared for martyrdom, need to get back to their first love, need to leave justice and vindication in the hands of the One who can unseal the seals.

Read more at http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/bibleandculture/2009/01/tales-from-frostbite-falls-part-2.html#ms2QGw1XLh7Gg52U.99