As I have loved you: Christ’s other example to the churches

In the post Was Jesus tempted in every way? I examined Jesus’ example as it pertained to the temptations and trials faced by early Christians. I asked: In what ways was Jesus’ sinless triumph over temptation relevant to the New Testament writers and their readers?

I argued that just as Jesus was tempted to repudiate his dreadful messianic mission by what he suffered at the hands of evildoers, so too were the first Christians enticed to compromise their testimony in order to avoid persecution and acquire honor in the pagan and/or Jewish social hierarchy. Though some of the churches seem to have succumbed to this temptation (cf. Revelation 2-3, Letter of Jude, Letters of John), Jesus valiantly resisted it to the point of death. Though he was ostracized, tortured, and ultimately executed, he did not deny his prophetic mission; he did not relieve himself of his sufferings by abandoning his confession (cf. 1 Timothy 6:13). Jesus was thus “without sin” in reference to these particular conditions.

I concluded then that in as much as early Christians imitated Jesus’ willingness to suffer for the word of God—to be persecuted “as the prophets were persecuted” (Matthew 5:11)—they were being conformed to the “image” of Christ. In as much as they suffered fearlessly for their message, the first followers of Jesus were emboldened imitators of the sinless one (cf. Hebrews 12:1-4).

The early Christian struggle with sin was therefore intimately tied with the threat of persecution: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Sin was the outcome of successful persecution.

Love each other as I have loved you

It seems to me now that this thesis is incomplete. While the forces pressing early Christians to sin, that is, to deny their faith, were predominantly conceived as external (i.e. persecution, marginalization, etc.) rather than internal (i.e. fleshly desires), appeals to the example of Jesus were not limited to his example under duress. There was another sense in which the early Christians imitated their master, a sense less directly related to persecution and the demands of the imperial cult.

Believers invoked Jesus’ example not just in times of persecution (cf. 1 Peter 2:21), but also in times of ecclesiastical strife brought on by the desires of the flesh. When life together became difficult, early Christians were called upon to love each other as Jesus had loved them.

To explain, consider again the situation of the early churches.

The first Christian communities existed on the margins of a hostile pagan society. Apart from committing idolatry and its related sins, Christians had no choice but to order their lives around the church and their fellow believers. Having been exiled from the Greco-Roman family, believers were forced to rely on Christ’s family to sustain their lives. The church family was all they had.

To make matters even more difficult, the constituents of these churches shared no single ethnic or social background. Tensions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, rich and poor, Roman and barbarian, would have been explosive in such tight and fragile social quarters. The desires of the flesh, arrogance, prejudice, and the lust for power, would have constantly poked holes in an already sinking ship. The potential for total dissolution would have seemed overwhelming.

In this context the example of Jesus as servant to his disciples became critically important. In the midst of a world that wanted to tear their communities apart, believers responded with brotherly affection, with total humility and singleness of mind. As the churches strove to maintain a compelling eschatological witness within a perishing pagan order, they fostered unity in the face of chaos.

In order to accomplish this herculean feat, the early Christians remembered Jesus, the one who exhibited the greatest possible love for his friends. Just as Jesus was the example par excellence of faithfulness to God under duress, so too was he the example par excellence of brotherly love.

Here are a few examples.

  • As the son of man came to serve and die as a ransom for many, so too must the disciples serve one another as slaves (Mark 10:42-44). Those disciples who are greater must serve those disciples who are lesser just as Jesus did among his friends (Luke 22:27).
  • Believers must adopt “Christ’s mind,” looking toward each other’s interests rather than their own (Philippians 2:1-18). They must likewise obey “Christ’s law” by “carrying each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). They must accept one another and forgive one another just as the Lord accepted and forgave them (Romans 15:7, Colossians 3:13).
  • Christians must “love one another” just as Jesus loved his friends (John 13:12-20; 34-35, 15:12-13; 17, cf. Ephesians 5:2). They must walk as Jesus walked by loving a brother or sister (1 John 2:3-11, 4:17-21).

If properly practiced, such instruction ensured that the churches would endure the coming tribulations and the close of the present evil age. If they maintained a unified front, loving one another to the point of death, as a community they would outlast their pagan persecutors.

Yet if they rejected this instruction by giving in to the desires of the flesh, taking the path of self-aggrandizement, in-fighting, and betrayal, the church communities would surely collapse under the weight exerted by the pagan world (Galatians 5:15).

footVirtue and vice lists

This close connection between the desires of the flesh and the dissolution of community (and vice versa) is most clearly exemplified in Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia.

More than in any other letter, in Galatians Paul contrasts the life led by the spirit and the life led by the flesh. In fact, Paul gives us a list of fleshly outcomes, “the works of the flesh,” as well as a list of spiritual outcomes, “the fruit of the spirit.” What becomes readily apparent from these lists is that the vices and virtues contained therein were not arrived at philosophically or even theologically (cf. Seven Deadly Sins); rather, they make sense at a more practical level. They represent those behaviors that either break down or build up communities from the inside; behaviors that either hindered or helped the ancient churches faithfully confront the classical pagan world. Consider the somewhat surprising content of these lists.

  • Ten of the fifteen “works of the flesh” represent the disintegration of communal cohesion that follows unconstrained narcissism: “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing” (Galatians 5:19-21). Paul has packed his list with what are essentially social symptoms of egotism. The other five (fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery) for the most part represent concessions that ex-pagan Christians might have made to pagan society. 
  • Virtually all of the fruit of the spirit are communal in scope. In order to combat dissension and its byproduct, dissolution, love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, and self-control were essential. Such virtues placed the good of the community ahead of the good of the individual.

I would argue then that these are not generalized or universalized lists of vices and virtues; they are historically contingent, prioritizing those behaviors that make or break communal life and witness from the edges of a hostile pagan social order. Within this landscape the churches clung to Jesus’ example of selfless brotherly love.