Ethical ideals and moral discipline in the church

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Throughout the first five centuries, as through their successors, the records disclose a marked gulf in Christians and the Christian communities between professed ethical ideals and motivation for moral action on the one hand, and performance on the other, together with continuing efforts to close the gulf either by bringing the ideals down to a level attainable in performance or by inducing performance to conform to the ideals.

In the New Testament, the motive and basic principle of action is agape, love, love of God and love of man, inspired by the love of God, especially as seen in His self-giving in Christ and in the death of Christ for rebellious, sinful men on the cross. The Gospel is not a new law, a fresh and higher set of moral standards through obedience to which men are to find salvation and enter into life.

To be sure, in penetrating fashion Jesus laid bare the springs of action and placed the emphasis upon the governing, inward thought and motive rather than on the outward deed. He declared that the ideal was to act like God, to be "perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Here was a standard so high that it seemed impossible of attainment, and yet in it discerning souls recognized what men must be if they are to realize to the full the purpose for which God had created them. Jesus seemed to believe that it was theoretically possible for all to reach the goal, yet he also perceived clearly and frankly the evil in men, held that men must strive (the Greek word is that from which the English word "agonize"

is derived) to enter the gate to true life, and declared that only a very few find the gate and pursue the path into which it opens.

Paul recognized the impossibility of obeying entirely the moral law, the law of God, and saw in that law and the sense of moral impotence and frustration bred by its acceptance "our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ that we might be justified by faith." When confronted by the law, especially as interpreted by Jesus, sensitive spirits were brought to see how far short of it they fell. Across the centuries one of the fruits of Christianity has been the quickening and deepening of the consciences of men. Indeed, the more discerning have recognized the basic sin to be self-sufficiency, pride, and rebellion against God, have appreciated something of the depth of man's depravity as they have seen representatives of the highest religion and the noblest of man's governments nail the Son of God to the cross, and have stood in amazed awe at the wonder of God's love and forgiveness in giving His Son thus to die for man's redemption. It is men's response in humble faith and love to God's love in Christ, so the New Testament says, which should be the well-spring of Christian living. No man can perfectly attain to God's ideal for him in this life, but accepting this as a fact, Paul declared that he pressed on to lay hold on that for which he had been laid hold on by Christ Jesus, striving "toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus," In his Confessions, as he looked back over his spiritual pilgrimage, Augustine clearly recognized that, while he had been freed by the Gospel from slavery to the grosser sins of the flesh, he had not yet completely overcome man's fundamental sin, pride.

Here is not a set of commands through obedience to which men can earn anything from God. Men, so the New Testament sees, can never fully comply with God's commands, and even if they could and did they would deserve nothing from Him, but would only, like good servants, have done what it is their duty to do. The Christian Gospel is, rather, the good news of God's love and of that kingdom of God which is God's free gift to men and into which men can enter here and now by accepting that gift. Christians are to determine their actions, not by legalistic rules, but by the love of God which itself is the gift of God through His Holy Spirit and by its inevitable corollary, love for their neighbours. As the Epistle of James says, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" is the "royal law." As Paul emphatically states: "Love worketh no ill to his neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."

Yet from the outset this conviction about conduct has been confronted by two perils. On the one hand, there has been what is technically known as antinomianism, the assumption that the Christian, by being emancipated from legalism, the meticulous observance of rules, is free from all moral law and can with impunity disregard it. The other, often more subtle and in one form or another much more widely held, is the conviction that the Gospel is a new and higher law, that being a Christian primarily entails obedience to moral maxims, some of them ancient and to be found in the Old Testament and some of them new and seen in the New Testament, and that one's salvation is to be earned by that obedience. This tendency, even though only a tendency and not carried to its logical conclusion, is found in some books which were greatly prized by Christians of the first five centuries, among them the Didache, The Shepherd of Hermas, and extensive portions of the Paidagogos of Clement of Alexandria, Indeed, The Shepherd of Hermas declares that it is possible to do more than God commands and by so doing to gain more abundant glory.

Fully as serious as these two perils has been the failure of Christians even to approximate in practice to the high standards set forth in the New Testament. This is seen again and again in the pages of the New Testament, where the sins of professing Christians are frankly described and condemned. It is also apparent in such records as we have of succeeding generations of Christians. Sometimes these sins were excoriated and at other times, as in the language of the participants in the controversies which distressed the Church and which we described in the preceding chapter, were unrecognized or unacknowledged by those who were guilty of them, sad evidence of self-righteousness and lack of love even in some of those who were later revered as saints. Lapses multiplied as multitudes poured into the Church, especially after persecutions ceased and the Emperors espoused the faith.

The Church had early to face the problem of what should be done with those of its members who sinned. Baptism, we have noted, was regarded as washing away all offenses committed before it. But what of those sins committed after baptism? Some of these were held to be especially serious, or "deadly." Tertullian, as we have hinted, said that they were seven in number — idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, fornication, false-witness, and fraud. To the early Christians the most heinous of sins were the denial of the faith, murder, and gross sexual offenses. The Shepherd of Hermas allowed the possibility of one repentance after baptism, a possibility in which, as we have seen. Clement of Alexandria concurred, but Hermas held that beyond that one post-baptismal repentance no other was possible. This appears to have been the view of Clement. Clement said that if allowed continual and successive repentings for sins, Christians would differ nothing from those who never have been Christians, except only in the consciousness of having sinned. Yet he repeated approvingly a story about the Apostle John who in his old age sought and won to penitence a man who as a youth had been baptized and then, falling away, had committed many sins and had become the leader of a band of robbers. Thus he at least recognized as possible repentance for a multitude of sins committed after baptism.

In the preceding chapter we have seen that some groups broke from the Catholic Church in part or entirely in protest against what they held to be too great leniency of the latter towards moral lapses, especially apostasy. Among these were the Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists.

In this rigour, whether in the Catholic or in other Christian bodies, there was grave danger of legalism, of equating Christianity with morality, all the more so since outward acts were more readily detected than inner motives, pride, and the failure to respond with love to God's love. Moreover, while the New Testament has severe words for those who sin against the Holy Spirit or who lapse from the faith, and while, as some early Christian writers soberly recognized, even those who have long been seemingly exemplary Christians may come to moral shipwreck in their later years, it is perfectly clear that Jesus taught that no matter how often a man sins, if in genuine repentance he turns to God, God will forgive him. The issue is not God's readiness, even eagerness to forgive, but man's ability and willingness to repent. That should be obvious from the most frequently repeated of Christian prayers, the Lord's Prayer, and from assurances given again and again in the New Testament.

The Catholic Church increasingly made provision for the restoration of the genuinely penitent. Not far from the end of the second century, Tertullian described the practice of the single repentance which was permitted after baptism. The penitents were required to fast, living on plain food, to dress in mourning garb, to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to pray, to weep, to bow before the presbyters, and to kneel before the faithful and ask their prayers. How far Tertullian was describing the customary procedure and how far he was holding up an ideal which was seldom attained is not clear.

Those who had suffered for the faith as martyrs and had survived were believed to have the power to declare sins forgiven. They were besieged by penitents and, as we have noted, their leniency was a source of embarrassment to the stricter souls and to the bishops and other clergy. We have seen that early in the third century a Bishop of Rome, Cal-listus (Calixtus I), permitted the restoration of those guilty of fornication and adultery if they fulfilled the conditions for pentitents. After the Decian persecution, a synod in Carthage under Cyprian ruled that to those who had denied the faith hope of restoration must be held out to keep them from reverting to paganism, but that a long penance must be imposed on them. This stand was confirmed by a synod in Rome in 251 and by another in Carthage in 252. The severe persecutions which began with that of Diocletian early in the fourth century led to many apostasies. The Council of Nicsa found it necessary to define the conditions of the read-mission of those who had thus lapsed. None who was penitent was to be forbidden the communion on his death bed, but the others might be kept waiting for from two to ten years. For them, as for other penitents for grave offenses, there were grades through which they passed before readmission to full communion. Some were dismissed at particular points in the service — some after the sermon and the reading from the Scriptures, some after the prayers — while Others might remain through the Eucharist.

Penance and penitents were under the direction of the bishop, and restoration was usually not easy and was only with the consent of the bishop. If the sin had been publicly known, restoration must also be public. In the churches in the West, especially in Rome, a place was appointed in which penitents stood and mourned until the completion of the service. They then cast themselves prostrate on the ground with groans and lamentations. The bishop, weeping, also cast himself on the ground, and the congregation wept and groaned. The bishop then arose, offered a prayer for the penitents, and dismissed them. The penitents were also required to fast, or to abstain from bathing, or to suffer some other deprivation for a period fixed by the bishop.

In the East, after the persecution by Decius in the middle of the third century, it became customary for the bishop to designate a special priest to hear the confessions of those who had sinned, to fix the penance, and to grant absolution. Late in the fourth century, because of a scandalous incident, this office was abolished in Constantinople and the decision of whether he should partake of the communion was left to the conscience of each Christian. From Constantinople the cessation of the appointment of a priest to hear confessions spread widely, and the result was increasing laxity in maintaining moral standards among the members of the Church. Against this laxity monasticism, of which we are to read in the next chapter, was a reaction and a protest.

The growing laxity which contributed to the monastic reaction was also seen in the clergy, both high and low. Especially beginning with Constantine and the friendship of the state, self-seeking, pomp, and luxury began to appear among them. Some of the bishops, particularly in the larger sees, lived like magnates, and the priests and deacons sought wealth. Thus in the latter part of the fourth century the Bishops of Rome kept a large establishment and set a princely table, and some of the clergy fawned on wealthy women, hoping for gifts or legacies. At least one contest for the Papal throne was accompanied by brawling and bloodshed.

Easy-going though much of the Catholic Church had become in its enforcement of moral standards, in its recognition of the inexhaustible mercy and love of God to the truly penitent it was holding to a central affirmation of the primitive Christian faith. It was also doing this in preserving baptism, with its witness to the new birth, the complete transformation which is of the essence of Christian faith and experience as taught at the outset of Christianity, and in putting at the heart of Christian worship the Eucharist, with its thanksgiving for the incarnation, the sacrificial death of Christ, and the power of the new life which has issued from them. In baptism, worship, and discipline the Church was seeking to preserve and to stress what was strikingly distinctive of Jesus Christ and the teaching of the apostles. Nor did all the bishops and clergy succumb to the pomp and circumstance which accompanied their posts.

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