Christian virtues and social living, part deux


September 19, 2012 by jmar198013

Yesterday, I wrote about the church’s need to recognize that we cannot faithfully speak of Christian virtues and Christian hospitality if we mean to relegate them to the private sphere of the individual heart. These things must be lived out in the context of the church community. And they must be lived out. That requires a willing community. That is, by a church willing to be led by the Spirit to practice “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5.22-23) in all of our dealings–with each other in the church, and with the world. Otherwise, the world will never be able to understand the difference between us and them. They will have no occasion to “see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.”

I suggested that one inroad into a conversation about Christian virtues and hospitality would be Luke’s description of the church-in-formation in Acts 2.44-47 and 4.32-35.

When we tread into these waters, it is my experience that my fellow believers start to get antsy. Are you saying this church needs to go collectivist? Should we form a commune? Throw all our money into a pool? Sell all we have and give it to the poor? Impoverish ourselves to feed the starving masses? Just what are you getting at, mister?

My problem with automatically cutting to this extreme is that it shuts down what could be a robust discussion about what the practice of Christian virtues and hospitality might look like in light of these passages. To this author, it represents an attempt to shrink from any claims these texts might have on our lives. In the broader fellowship in which I find myself, we do not so shrink from claims we imagine the biblical text may be making on us (for instance, our insistence that we not use instruments during worship because it is not authorized) or which it is making on others (i.e., homosexuals). It seems to me that because texts like Acts 2 and Acts 4 challenge our assumptions about private property and ownership, we shrink back from them, and allow the dominant culture to interpret those passages for us.

After the collectivist church interpretation of Acts 2 and 4 is dispensed as purely contextual and in no way binding on Christians today, the conventional wisdom as that we need to address matters of the heart. I need to make sure I’m not stingy. You need to make sure you’re pulling your weight. And it’s true, Jesus did say that evil stuff like stinginess is a matter of the heart. My issue with this route is twofold. First, our hearts are deceitful and we will not be able to solve our heart issues with introspection and a pledge to do better from now on. Our hearts got the way they are by acculturation, by observing and participating a matrix we did not create and we cannot undo. Our hearts are only bent toward the good by Jesus working on them through his Spirit in the context of the community he has gathered around himself, the church. Our hearts have to be acculturated in a new people, with a different story, and specific norms and forms of life. Second, by relegating Christian virtues and hospitality to the sphere of private piety, I wonder if this is not more a function of our liberal secular culture that cannot distinguish between personal and private than it is of faithful striving.

In yesterday’s post, I drew upon a recent article from Mark Mitchell, where he used as his jumping off point the testimony of a second-century Christian who wrote of his fellows: “They have a common table, but not a common bed.” I used that for another possible inroad into thinking about what claims Acts 2.44-47 and 4.32-35 might have on the church as we seek to practice Christian virtues and Christian hospitality. The succinct quote Mitchell referenced can be unpacked along the following lines: the church as a robustly generous community with well-defined boundaries. Mitchell writes: “To practice hospitality is to open one’s home and thereby one’s concern to others. It is to shake off the narrow and narrowing confines of self-interest and attempt to love one’s neighbors.” A ha. There we go–a guide into how the church may faithfully embody the virtues inscribed in the passages from Acts. The idea that we can open our homes (and our tables) to others and thereby “shake off the narrow and narrowing confines of self-interest” seems to be an operating principle in those passages. And it creates space for the cultivation of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5.22-23). The Spirit fosters those virtues in the midst of our hospitality, but we must be willing. We provide the stage.

Today I want to suggest another inroad. Yesterday, Holly Taylor-Coolman offered some insight from a homily of St. John Chrysostom. Said the golden-throated saint:

It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with cold, so that they can hardly hold themselves upright. Yes, you say, he is cheating and he is only pretending to be weak and trembling. What! Do you not fear that lightning from Heaven will fall on you for this word? Indeed, forgive me, but I almost burst from anger. Only see, you are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?


Commenting on Chrysostom’s words, Taylor-Coolman observes:

The uncomfortable reality for many of us is that we have money to spare, and we make decisions in our own little economy every day … Already, I know, some of us are stiffening in our seat. After all, we have to be realistic. We have to live. Some of my best friends have foam mattress toppers. Isn’t Chrysostom just falling into extremist rhetoric here? Does he want us to give away everything? Should we just live on the street and become one of the poor ourselves?

Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is the really bad news, and, it seems to me, precisely what we really don’t want to hear. St. Chrysostom is not St. Francis. He does not, in fact, give away all that he owns—or urge his listeners to do so. That would be easier to dismiss, or at least to relegate to a-much-larger-discussion-for-which-I-don’t-have-time-right-now. (It was a conversation, after all, that consumed a lot of time for a good number of serious thinkers, as they tried to discern what to make of “apostolic poverty” or the “counsels of perfection.”) That is not, however, the conversation that Chrysostom demands of us. Chrysostom doesn’t require that Christians give everything away. He just insists, with ferocity, that Christians give away every single drop of excess. Chrysostom’s requirement is not absolute poverty, but a trickier, sometimes more elusive, ideal: enough. Like St. John the Baptist before him, he allows us our first coat; it’s only the second that must go. Christians need not go naked; we just can’t fill our closets. He even allows us a glass a wine; it’s just those drinking parties that go late into the night.

The author goes on to stress that taking seriously Chrysostom’s challenge (and the challenge of the passages in Acts) requires a community with a vocation: the church. She writes:

[W]e figure these things out best in conversation and in community … When we are left to our own devices, it is so easy to go astray. Happily, we are not left to our own devices. We are in this together, and we will do this best when we are working shoulder to shoulder, in a gentle algorithm of challenge, encouragement, and questioning.

When we want to relegate what the practice of Christian virtues and hospitality might look like to an interior or private expression–one that privileges the individual over the church–we are not able to be claimed by texts like the passages in Acts. Not fully and without reservation. We are not able to have the sorts of conversations our author describes.

The challenge of living as church as community, practicing distinctively Christian hospitality and virtues, does not have to be a call to collectivism. But it does need to be a challenge to our assumptions that we can participate in our own private economies, that we can address the sin of our own hearts, that we can on our own practice “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Luke’s portrait of the church in Acts 2 and 4 is a touchstone and a guidepost. Although I would argue that we don’t have to photocopy it, we cannot faithfully dispense its witness as purely contextually contingent.

Or, as Taylor-Coolman wrote yesterday: “The Book of Acts describes brand-new Christians who actually pooled their money and resources. Surely, we can at least talk about them.”



2 thoughts on “Christian virtues and social living, part deux

  1. Jack Hairston says:

    If the list of the “acts of the sinful nature” in Galatians 5:19-21 come from whose flesh, then the “fruits of the spirit” in verses 22-23 come from my spirit. These facts can explain how athiests can still be nice on occasion.
    Translators are sometimes over-generous with “Spirit” instead of “spirit.”

  2. jmar198013 says:

    Jack–“fruit,” not “fruits.” The singular emphasizes, to my mind, the coexistence of these virtues. I agree that translators are sometimes over-generous with translating “[Holy] Spirit” instead of “Spirit.” But in this instance, I’m sticking with Spirit. Here’s why. First, contextually, I see your point about the flesh vs. spirit dynamic, and that is a common theme in Paul. But I don’t want to push that oppositional dynamic too far. Then you end up with Manichean dualism, even some forms of gnosticism, both heresies the early church had to contend hard and long against. But also contextually, notice that Paul wraps up the movement: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” “Since we live by the Spirit” is determinative. A good parallel for Gal. 5.19ff is Rom. 1.8ff. In the midst of a similar discussion on the flesh/spirit dynamic, Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8.11). Paul’s assumption that we “live by the Spirit” in Gal. 5.25 seems to be shorthand for what he explains more fully in Rom. 8. Secondly–and I think this will resonate with you: if the fruit of the Spirit–that is, the coexistence of the virtues named by Paul in Gal. 5.22-23–is something we can attain on our own, doesn’t that easily devolve into attempting to pursue our own righteousness by merit? But if we acknowledge that even our virtues are gifts that do not originate in us, and in fact are enabled by God’s gracious sending of his Spirit into our midst, there is no trying to pursue our own righteousness by merit.

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