Ethics

For all of the persuasive arguments that the apologists could put forth, and proofs offered by the great writers of this period, perhaps none were so compelling as the lifestyle of the early Christians. The Christians were constantly being defamed because of the false accusations regarding their morals. The rumors that they were cannibals (on account of the reported "eating the body and blood of Christ") and partook in incestuous relationships (because of their "love for the brethren") were circulated throughout the entire empire. The apologists refuted these claims by clearly explaining the truth of these misconstrued phrases, and emphasizing the high standards of morals held by Christians. Christianity had an ethical standard that was high above the norms of Roman or Greek civilization. As a matter of fact, Justin relates how one outbreak of persecution came because, after a certain woman's conversion, her enraged husband wanted to stamp out the religion that caused his wife to abstain from the ritual orgies they were accustomed to participate in. The Roman prefect had the woman's Christian teacher executed.

Abortion

What were some of the other distinguishing characteristics in Christian ethics? Interestingly enough, one of the most unique elements in the faith was itís opposition to abortion. Even when the culture deemed certain things as "moral", the Christian community demonstrated that they followed a higher standard: that of Biblical revelation. The Epistle to Diognetus was an early letter from a man named Mathetes who was thought to be a disciple of the apostle Paul. He writes regarding the conduct of the church of his day:

As citizens, they share in all things with others, yet endure all things as if foreigners...They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring ( lit. cast away fetuses). They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They obey prescribed laws, and at the same time, surpass the law by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all...they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor.

 

Clearly, the church's opposition to abortion and infanticide is showcased as a distinguishing characteristic of the early Christians. Following are some other text dealing specifically with abortion, arranged chronologically

Epistle of Barnabas ( 90 A.D. )

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain. Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thine own soul. Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.

Athenagoras( A Plea For Christians, 177 A.D.)

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of Godís care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.

(Council of Ancyra 314 A.D. ) Canon XXI

CONCERNING women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees.

Canonical epistles of Basil of Caesarea ( 370 A.D.)

CANON II and CANON VIII

Let her that procures abortion undergo ten yearsí penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not....

He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an ax at his own wife and kills her, is guilty of willful murder; not he who throws a stone at a dog, and undesignedly kills a man, or who corrects one with a rod, or scourge, in order to reform him, or who kills a man in his own defense, when he only designed to hurt him. But the man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it die upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway, and rapparees.

(Council of Trullo, 692 A.D.) Canon XCI

THOSE who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the fetus, are subjected to the penalty of murder.

ANCIENT EPITOME OF CANON XCI

Whoever gives or receives medicine to produce abortion is a homicide...She who purposely destroys the fetus, shall suffer the punishment of murder. And we pay no attention to the subtle distinction as to whether the fetus was formed or unformed. And by this not only is justice satisfied for the child that should have been born, but also for her who prepared for herself the snares, since the women very often die who make such experiments.

The question of allowances. (ie. rape or incest, or the life of the mother) is never addressed. The question of viability, however, is addressed, and the fathers unanimously agree that "whether formed or unformed" abortion is intrinsically wrong.

Civil Rights

Christianity was also revolutionary in it's treatment of slaves and of women. In Roman culture, both of these groups were non-citizens of the empire. Many Christians did have slaves, it is true, but the Apostolic Constitutions required that the slaves be trained in the Christian faith, and in that regard, be given all of the respect of another freeman/woman. If a slave was advanced in the faith, and reached a high degree of spirituality, that slave could even become the presbyter or bishop of their church! At that point, the slave would be given a certificate of freedom, and be supported by the church as his source of income.

Women likewise, were elevated in status in Christianity. Paul writes that in Christ, there is neither "Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for you are all one." (Galatians 3:28) Women could serve as deaconesses, and there is some evidence that some post-apostolic churches permitted female presbyters, although that is still sketchy. What is clear is that for the first time in western culture, women had gained an estate above that of "chattel" or property, which was the norm of that era.

Perhaps the ethic found in the church which has permeated all of society today is the church's regard for compassion. In the days of the post-apostolic church, the world was still governed by the Spartan, "survival of the fittest" mentality. The ability to make war and to conquer were held in the highest esteem. When Christianity started showing compassion to the unwanted, the dying and the outcast, it was flying in the face of the popular culture. If a mother did not want a child, abandoning the baby in the outdoors was a sensible option. Christians invariably would rescue any child found abandoned, and raise that child. One of the first accusations against Christians was that they ate human flesh at their "agape" feasts, and the common slanderous claim was that it was the flesh of these children that they showed so much interest in saving. The world could not understand the spirit's compulsion to show compassion.

The church likewise looked after her own. We know much of how the Christians would redistribute their wealth among them to help the needy. This fact, as it became known, would sometimes attract the-less-than-honest individuals who thought that they could get a "free ride" through life with the Christians. The church had a label for such, which was "Christ-monger". It is important to point out that there is little evidence that the church maintained a "communal" lifestyle, beyond the description given in Acts for the believers in Jerusalem. Philo mentions that the sect he saw in Alexandria lived communally, but that was not the norm in the post-apostolic church.

 

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