The unity of the Christian faith depends upon a commitment to maintain this unity. Part of this is the ability to set aside those distinctives which may be arrived at through different but still legitimate interpretations.
I’ve had the pleasure, the honor if you will, of coming up in Conservative Baptist, Mennonite Brethren, and Evangelical Free. Add to these a dash of Calvinistic influence on the side. It’s an interesting mix. From my Baptist friends I’ve come to really appreciate their evangelistic fervor; from the Mennonites, to be peaceable; from E Free, to teach and be taught; from the Calvinists, to trust God’s sovereignty. But I dare say that these are matters that many besides me have enjoyed. Moving between churches provides perspective and teaches a certain amount of humility.
There is something about these distinctives that makes for a good study. In ethics there are a number of ways through which ethical behavior can be understood. (At this point I’m going to make some generalizations. These are not rules that apply to all but instead communicate a point that I think you’ll understand.) I’ve found that my Baptist friends often respond with a sense of duty. Duty is a class of ethical behavior. (We’ll leave the technical definition for the academics.)
As a Christian we have the duty to participate in the fellowship of believers, to live a Godly life, we participate in the activities of the church, to serve our country, maybe to teach Sunday School, certainly to follow the lead of the pastor, and many more. These are, of course, all good things. A sense of duty challenges us to accomplish the things that ought to be done and need to be looked at. Without duty it is difficult or impossible to maintain a groups purpose and direction.
But there might be something else to look at besides duty.
My Anabaptist friends place a heavy emphasis on virtue ethics. They look at the Sermon on the Mount and see a Savior who brings peace into relationships. He did not resist when sent to the Cross — He didn’t call a lawyer to his defense. And following His example people like Stephen, Paul, James, Peter, and unnamed countless other believers saw their lives as Christ’s rather than as their own. Non-resistance in general, not just in persecution, was the rule of the early church.
Both of these frameworks are unarguable. But if both are true the how are we to reconcile them?
We could boil it down to a cliche or truism: There is no proper virtue outside a duty that provides scope; there is no proper duty without a virtue that gives it purpose. That covers a lot. But it still needs some explanation, some fleshing out to real life. The Sermon on the Mount can serve as a model for this. But for this point we have to go past the Beatitudes and into the meat of Jesus’ teaching. Verse 20 sets the standard:
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Surpass does not mean “other than” as though the people were being taught to substitute virtue for evils of Pharisaic rules and laws. Surpass means “exceeds” or “greater than” what the Pharisees proposed.
Of course not all that the Pharisees proposed was wrong, even with their hypocrisy. They taught against adultery (5:27). Certainly Jesus was not teaching that we should hold to some virtue other than marital fidelity. That’s absurd. What He does in this example, and you can see it in the other categories that He teaches, is to stack virtue on top of duty and mix them into a solution so that they are not the burden that the Pharisees placed on the people (11:30).
When it comes to adultery, not only are we not to commit the sin physically but we are to avoid it even in our minds. There is, of course, nothing in the Mosaic law about what is in our minds. The Law, generally speaking, judged actions rather than thoughts and intents. Our thoughts represent the virtue of our character and certainly surpass the requirements of the Law.
But Jesus goes much further. Divorce creates adultery. Verse 32 seems clear that “everyone who divorces his wife … makes her commit adultery.” I left out the dependent clause for a reason. If you go back to the days when you diagrammed sentences, the core meaning of a sentence does not change when you remove a dependent clause. Here we boil down the first part of what Jesus said to the simple principle, that if you divorce your wife then her subsequent remarriage amounts to adultery. If you divorce her then, unless she already had committed adultery, then you bear a moral responsibility for her adultery.
The next statement dovetails to personal moral responsibility, that “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” But here it is the man on whom the burden is placed. In the first part the burden is on both, one on the situation and the other on the act. In this statement the burden is on the one who marries her is also committing sin.
We might boil it down even further and say this:
Don’t do it
Keep your mind free of it
Don’t cause someone else to do it
The first part was the duty of obedience. The latter two represented two virtues — the purified heart and improved relationships. Of course there is duty in virtue and a certain virtue in duty. But what I see Jesus saying here is that we don’t take on virtue without duty any more than we are to take on duty without virtue.
Avoid the Extremes
You may know some of these teachings. You may know some people who extol the virtue of accepting and loving unconditionally but who forget the duty of character and obedience to what is right. This is a very big issue in church life today. We tolerated divorce about 30 years ago and today we’re tolerating sexual sin of all sorts. And not just in the pew but in the pulpit and seminary as well.
You may know some who teach God’s hatred of sin so much that they forget the call to repentance. They forget that He washes and cleanses as well as judges (I Cor. 6:9-11). Reconciliation of people to Him is His first goal for us.
I have not said and never intended to say that the duty-sounding language of my Baptist friends is Pharisaic. Not in the least. Rather, it represents a recognition of those duties that the Lord has given His church. Likewise I know few Anabaptists who dismiss duty in favor of virtue. (Still, should you find someone in either camp that has made the error of duty without virtue or virtue without duty then an appropriate challenge to them to clean up their theology might be in order. There’s always someone …)
Let’s remember to add to our commitment to Christ the virtue that he calls us to. II Peter 1:5