Most people think of Paul as a theologian, and a difficult theologian at that. Even within the New Testament there are people saying that Paul’s letters were anything but easy to understand (2 Peter 3. 16). But for Paul every theological argument ended with a series of ethical imperatives. In letter after letter the theological argument, however difficult it may be, ends with an ethical section which is crystal clear. In 1 Timothy the object of the letter is to show ‘how one ought to behave in the household of God’ (1 Timothy 3. 15). The New English Bible margin translation of Titus 3.
8 runs: ‘Those who have come to believe in God should make it their business to practise virtue. ‘ Paul is every bit as great and earnest an ethical teacher as he is a theologian. In examining his very high ethical and moral standards, a good place to start it how it relates to Jesus. Paul’s ethics are based on the teachings of Jesus but he develops further the principle that Christians are representatives of Jesus. Christians must “be imitators of God” and of Jesus Christ. They should also imitate the faith and example of the great founders of Judaism, along with the example of Paul himself: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”.
For this reason Paul requires that the Church “live in harmony with one another” since disunity and discard brings dishonour to Jesus himself it sets an unworthy example. Essentially the Christian ethic is one of agape love – not a flame of passion which dies but a steady, undying determination to love others as Jesus loved them and, no matter what they do in response, always seeking their highest good. The Christian will always try to overcome evil with good and bring a new tolerance to all personal relationships. This may involve taking a stand where necessary and becoming the victim of persecution.
This is one of many areas where Paul demands high ethical and moral standards; the believer must be prepared to suffer for their actions. Following on from this, a specific example that could be examined is Paul’s teachings on marriage and sex. The Christian is expected to behave to a very high standard in this regard. Peter Brown observes that 1 Corinthians 7 is “the one chapter that determines all Christian thought on marriage and celibacy for well over a millennium. ” The beliefs and practices of the Corinthian saints seem to vary greatly when it comes to matters of sexual values and conduct.
Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for failing to exercise church discipline on a man living in an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife. Paul himself was celibate and he mentions he wishes everyone could be like that so they could dedicate more of their time to God, but he also teaches on morality within marriage. Paul’s ethic of personal relationship is always a reciprocal ethic. This is the other side of the subordination. Paul never lays down a right without assigning a duty to it. The duty of the leader to the subordinate is every bit as clearly stated as the duty of the subordinate to the leader.
The wife must be subject to her husband, but the husband must treat her with constant kindness and courtesy and consideration: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church. ” Spouses should not deprive one another from sex unless they both agree, and that it is only for a short time. The Pauline ethic is an ethic of body, soul and spirit. It is quite convinced of the importance of the body. The body can be presented as a living sacrifice to God. The body is nothing less than the temple in which the Holy Spirit can dwell (1 Corinthians 3. 16). The body can therefore neither be despised nor misused.
Homosexual relationships are condemned: “the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another. ” He calls it, “degrading passions. ” In our society this would be seen as a very high moral standard. There is an eschatological element to Paul’s ethics – the Christian should live their life always thinking about eternity. The destiny of every man is judgment: “For he that sows to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that sows to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. ” This explains why Christian standards are so high; the consequences of disobeying God are severe.
On the other hand, it could be said that Paul’s standards are reasonable, especially compared to the Sermon on the Mount which demands complete perfection. Paul was a great teacher of Christian liberty. Christian love is the control and the condition of Christian freedom. The Christian is free from the tyranny of Old Testament law, free from the obligations which governed the food and the drink of the Jew and free from a legalistic slavery. But that freedom must never be used as a licence to do anything; the believer must have some discretion. An example of this is eating meat sacrificed to idols.
What a Christian eats is not of ethical importance, but Paul warns our behaviour may be a stumbling block for weaker believers. A modern example of this could be alcohol; it is not unlawful for a Christian to drink, but if he has a history of alcohol abuse he would be best refraining from it. In this way Paul’s ethics are not as black and white as the Old Testament, there is an element of relativism. Christians are justified by faith, not works. According to the theology website BeliefNet, “Paul was perhaps Christianity’s most important early convert and the first major missionary to preach the Christian gospel to non-Jewish people. ”