For most of my life I’ve tried to avoid the idea of Jesus as a moral teacher, both because of the gospel of grace and forgiveness versus moralistic self-help, and because of my awareness of C S Lewis’s famous argument in Mere Christianity:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.
But that whole vein of disclaiming Jesus as a “mere moral teacher” in fact depends on the fact that, for many centuries up to the recent past, “morality” was largely, in Western society, the morality taught by Jesus. It was agreed on all sides, even by those who failed to observe it, and significantly even by those Enlightenment types who defied the divine being behind it, yet saw the ethics themselves as self-evident and rational.
But it becomes daily more the case that what Jesus taught as “good” has not only been replaced, but deemed “evil” in our society, and in more ways than we care to notice, since it’s a process that has taken several generations. In the intellectual sphere it’s the completion of what Os Guinness predicted in his 1973 book, The Dust of Death, calling it “The Striptease of Humanism” (though I believe the phrase was originally from Sartre) – it’s the inevitable mutation of humanist ethics once it lost touch with Christ as its source, and it is now almost complete. And that’s a problem for Christians living in such a society, or ought to be.
In fact, Jesus did teach morality and ethics, and he taught them rather specifically and not just in general principles. He also taught his precepts authoritatively, expecting obedience and warning of serious divine sanctions for ignoring them.
The latter point is part and parcel of the person and work of Christ. He came as the mediator of the New Covenant promised by the prophets, which was better than the Old Covenant not because it did away with obedience to God’s moral teachings in the Law, but because it provided the means of obedience to them through a re-created heart and the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Jesus therefore came as a king, not just a mentor, calling the Jews, and indeed the whole world, to obedience to his rule in order to avoid divine judgement on their sin. Thus Jesus, in the Great Commission that ends Matthew’s gospel, makes the astonishing claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me” on a permanent basis, and that the apostles are to make disciples of every nation, “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded”. That meshes with the description of Jesus in Rev 1.5 as “the ruler of the kings of the earth”, equally (and intentionally) counter-intuitive.
Jesus also came, in his role as Saviour, to live a sinless life and not just to die. It was a sinlessness he challenged his enemies to disprove, which in our own case would need only the work of a few minutes observation of our ways. But remember that the criterion of that sinlessness, and so of the opportunity to refute it that he gave the Jews, was the moral content of the Law. The sinlessness that saves us was Jesus’s complete obedience to the Law of Moses, and not to any other moral standard. If Jesus’ moral compass was culture-bound, then so was his salvific life and death – a sobering thought.
Jesus announced the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God by calling, as John the Baptist had before him, for repentance – but this, too, was not repentance in some vague sense, but repentance from disobedience to God’s revealed will in the Law. It was specific to that Law: nobody was called upon by Christ to repent of failing to do their civic duty by sacrificing to Caesar, or of failing to offer their guests the customary Roman after-dinner prostitutes, or of causing unnecessary shame to their non-Jewish neighbours by refusing to expose unplanned infants at birth or abort them, both uniquely Jewish prohibitions at the time:
…growth in the Jewish population was not limited, as elsewhere in the ancient world, by infanticide or abortion. [Times Atlas of the Bible, p170, 1987].
So Jesus taught his morality on the basis that he was God’s prophet to return people to torah, and subsequent to his glorification that he was designated Lord of heaven and earth in perpetuity, and consequently was Lord of human morality and ethics for all men, at all times henceforth.
Now, it’s true that the morality he taught reminded people that torah was based on God’s grace first and foremost in its very provision, as well as on his ongoing mercy in forgiveness, so closely tied up with the sacrificial life and death of Jesus himself. This led directly to his teaching (by no means unique amongst the Jewish theologians), that the whole Law hangs on love of God and love of neighbour.
It is, though, plain that what Jesus taught set the bar for its performance far higher than previous expositors of the Law had done. Ones neighbour now included outcasts and even enemies. Murder encompassed not only killing, but hatred and even disdainful speech. Adultery included mental lust. Coveting could apply even to what was legally and rightfully ones own (in the case of the brothers who brought him the dispute over their inheritance). Divorce (even when we place his teaching in its local context, as in David Instone-Brewer’s excellent study) is made so much harder than any other Jewish teacher made it that even his disciples conjectured that it was better not to marry at all.
Because of its rigor, then, the upshot of Jesus’s moral teaching is that it necessarily leads beyond mere moralism to dependance on God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ, because its uncompromising call to legal righteousness is rightly seen to condemn us all. But that grace and mercy is not thereby freed from the “moral system” that Jesus taught, and that he passed on to his Church and its teachers, as the true practical application of the great Law of love in daily life for them to obey. Love may indeed be the nail on which the whole Law hangs – but the Law itself is still the picture.
For example, Jesus’s description of the outpourings of an evil heart is specific:
For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. (Mk 7.21)
We’ve already seen how murder includes unjustified anger and contempt in Christ’s teaching, and how adultery encompasses lustful desires for the other person’s spouse. But sexual immorality (porneia) is here separated from adultery, and must be defined by the Jewish context in which he spoke of it – and there it includes fornication (all sex outside marriage to the modern), marriage outside the permitted degrees (cf John’s condemnation of Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and Paul’s censure of a man who took up with his stepmother), and of course many other perversions including homosexual acts, prostitution and much that was then unmentionable in public, but is now taught to infants compulsorily as “diversity”.
Theft likewise is clearly shorthand for all those applications of the sixth commandment, from pilfering at work, through the extortion of the tax collectors like Zacchaeus, to the unjust rule of kings. And so on through the list, where the generalised nature of the terms simply shows that Jesus meant them to be understood as they were customarily applied by godly and law-keeping Jewish believers. Envy speaks both to capitalism and anti-capitalism; slander both to journalistic bias and identity politics; arrogance both to despising the poor and to the cult of celebrity, and folly to most of what passes for culture now.
This answers the charge, sometimes brought, that since Jesus didn’t specifically teach on particular topics, they are matters of indifference. Such “red letter literalism” won’t do. Jesus (or rather, the written gospels) missed out what was undisputed in the Law. It is highly significant that on one occasion Jesus affirmed what would nowadays (and perhaps even then) be regarded as a particularly harsh tenet of the Mosaic Law – the putting to death of the person who curses his father or mother – over against the current “corban” practice of the religious Jews. I’m not suggesting that Jesus would have advocated the death penalty for rebellious teenagers (I’m not dealing with the interpretation of the Law here), but the point is that, however he might have interpreted it, he regarded it as still God’s required standard even in the completely changed cultural context centuries after its composition. “Not one jot or tittle will pass away…”
Now, this specific ethical dimension to the gospel remained crucial to the early Church, and stuck out like a sore thumb in contrast, particularly, to the Roman world in which Christianity soon took root. One of the early Christian texts is the Epistle to Diognetus, which in ch5 contrasts the Christians with others largely by their moral pratice:
But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous, and confessedly contradicts expectation.
They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives.
Likewise, the Didache (probably even earlier) presents life as a choice between two ways, and the Christian way stresses a particular, and counter-cultural, moral system:
And this is the second commandment of the teaching [interpeting “Love your neighbour as yourself”]:
You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not corrupt boys, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not deal in magic, you shall do no sorcery, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born, you shall not covet your neighbour’s goods, you shall not perjure yourself, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall not cherish a grudge, you shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued; for the double tongue is a snare of death.
Your word shall not be false or empty, but fulfilled by action. You shall not be avaricious nor a plunderer nor a hypocrite nor ill-tempered nor proud. You shall not devise an evil plan against your neighbour. You shall not hate any man, but some you shall reprove, and for others you shall pray, and others you shall love more than your life. (ch2)
And so on. I think these examples are instructive, because the problem for churches now is that many people coming into services will be from just such situations in their personal or professional lives; and many other situations antithetic to Christ’s teaching, too, to which we have become even more accustomed and which it may be high time to examine afresh in the light of the Lord’s teaching, seeing how far public morality has moved. It has, for example, been for many years hard for pastors to teach Jesus’s words on divorce directly, because so many churchgoers are divorced, or are even living together outside marriage. Being welcoming is interpreted as quietly bypassing Jesus’s uncompromising teaching on such matters lest one risk offence and “hurt”.
And not only that, but we have reached the stage that teaching moral standards which contradict the new norms, centred mainly on “self-fulfilment”, may now be construed as discriminatory in law. Between these two reasons it may be understandable that preachers will skirt around teaching in relation not only to sexual morality, but to debt, drug use (that’s the root meaning of “sorcery” actually), attitudes to the poor and so on. It would be useful to examine in detail the many ways in which Christ’s teaching has been eclipsed even in Christian settings now, from attitudes to wealth to attitudes to life, but there just isn’t space here.
The reply from many could be that Christians may keep to their own individual foibles of moral behaviour, so long as they don’t impose them on others. There are major problems with this, of course, as it becomes more likely that “imposing them on others” will include “teaching them to your children” or even “allowing them to be visible”. In diversity politics, even silence is regarded as oppressive violence – one must, as in Mao’s China, enthusiastically endorese the new morality or be held guilty.
Theologically it’s decidedly self-defeating that if we really do believe Jesus to have been given all authority in heaven and on earth, as he claimed, his teaching should be regarded as a secret, even a shameful, matter.
But writings like the Didache and Epignetus remind us that keeping our morality to ourselves is in practice impossible. These works contained “Christian teaching” only because this was what Christians were taught from pulpits and in house-churches, which were open to all just as they are today. All the Christians in those churches had come to faith by hearing, publically, the teachings of Christ – particularly, at that time, in the form of “the two ways” and its variations. They had been offered the clear choice between their own society’s ways, which they were told meant death, and the demanding and counter-cultural morality of Jesus and his kingdom, which meant life. And they had chosen life, despite the alien lifestyle and monumental self-denial it required, and hence the profound changes to their behaviour it demanded as evidence of repentance, before anybody would even think of baptizing them or inviting them to the Eucharist.
Those writings were also both apologetic and evangelistic. The former meant that an enquirer like Diognetus must be well informed of what it was that Christianity actually is, so that its morality must be public knowledge if we are to be an open kingdom offering life, rather than a secret society protecting itself.
The latter, evangelism, presents something of a Catch 22 for the “private morality” argument. The gospel of Christ calls upon all men, everywhere, to repent and find free forgiveness in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But you can only see a need to repent if you know what you have to repent of. The adulter who has been taught that finding true love trumps his marriage vows sees no adultery, but only self-fulfilment after an “inauthentic relationship”. The capitalist who treats maximum profit as an axiom of market economics has no reason to emulate Zacchaeus in returning unjust gain. The person believing he is being true to his personally perceived gender identity sees no reason to treat allegiance to Christ as a higher identity. The Law, indeed, is the reason the gospel is necessary – or that’s what Jesus taught, anyway. And so Jesus’s moral teaching is part of the proclamation we are called to make if we are to be faithful to our Lord.
There is a humble winsomeness about those early Christian writings which may help us avoid harsh triumphalism in our presentation of the moral demands of Christ. These works are not strident – their main emphasis is on the existence of this peaceful counter-culture being no threat to society. But we are naive if we think that simply existing peacefully will prevent us receiving censure, even persecution, from our society, for the same documents testify how much the Christians were hated and vilified:
They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonoured, and yet they are glorified in their dishonour. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are
insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. War is waged against them as aliens by the Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility. (Ep. Diognetus, ch5)
There are also a couple of other differences from those times, though. One is that, as far as I’m aware, the Roman body politic did not prosecute churches for the morality that was taught in their meetings, or for discriminating against those who chose other ways by teaching it. Indeed, in a society where even silence (declining to endorse) is taken as violence, churches cannot even simply keep quiet. That political interference in personal belief, thought, speech and practice makes Christian political involvement legitimate.
And so does the fact that, unlike the Roman Empire, we operate in democracies in which Christians are, as a civic duty, supposed to add their voices to the decision-making on the direction of society. Calling the new morality “cherished British (or American, or Canadian) values” doesn’t make it so, and we are entitled to point that out clearly. It could even be argued that the Christian’s civic duty in this respect is greater when, as in the USA, its Declaration of Independence is justified by recourse to the ways of God; or, as in the UK, when the legitimacy of the monarchy at the head of its government is grounded in a Coronation Oath which includes these words:
Archbishop. Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
Queen. All this I promise to do.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a bit radical for the church to, you know, teach what Jesus taught.