EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT
The early Christians embraced Jesus’ teachings on purity and adultery. While those who had come to Christianity as Jews understood the importance of chastity and the family bond, not everyone lived up to the ideals. And, remember, Palestine was then under the control of the Roman Empire, with its particular cultural ideas on marriage and fidelity.
“In the time of Jesus marriage in Palestine had nearly broken down and the treatment of women was shameful indeed. It is never to be forgotten that it was against that background that Jesus made his demands for chastity. . . . It is genuinely doubtful if there ever was such a cataract of immorality in any age as in the years when Christianity first came into the world. . . . Christianity confronted that situation with an uncompromising demand for purity. Immorality and all impurity are not even to be named among Christians.” (Barclay, William: “The Ten Commandments,”1973; pg. 105)
The Greeks were notoriously indifferent to the marriage bond with regard to sex, which was considered to be acceptable and normal outside of marriage. The Romans took marriage more seriously, but after they had conquered and assimilated the Greeks, they unfortunately assimilated their moral laxity. It was said: “Rome had conquered Greece, but Greek morals had conquered Rome.” Against this backdrop, the early Christians took their stand.
“Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral and the adulterous.” (Hebrews 13:4- RSV)
There are two concepts we will here consider with regard to the early Christian community:
1) their sense of the body; and 2) their ideas about marriage, and whether or not it was appropriate for a Christian to marry at all. William Barclay offers this commentary on the body:
“We must begin with the simple, and yet far-reaching, fact that the Christian respected the body. To the Greek the body was no more than the prison-house of the soul, and from it came all the ills of life. The world at that time was deeply infected with Gnostic thought, which believed that only spirit is good and that all matter is incurably and irremediably evil. . . . The inevitable conclusion of this is that the body is evil. If the body is evil, two courses of action are possible. First a man can adopt a complete asceticism in which he denies every desire and deed of the body. Second, he can say that, because the body is evil, it does not matter what we do with it, and that therefore we can sate and glut it and it does not matter, because it is evil anyway.”
“But the Christian came with a new conception of the body. For the Christian the body is designed to be nothing less than the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 3:16). ‘Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ The Christian must, therefore, glorify God in his body
(I Cor. 6:19, 20). It is not only possible, it is an obligation, to present the body as a sacrifice and
an offering to God (Rom 12:1). Christianity came with a view of the body which was bound to revolutionize the ethics of sex for the Hellenistic world.” (Barclay, William: “The Ten Commandments,” pg. 125)
Some people, who have not studied Christian Science carefully, have likened it to the Gnostic thought mentioned above. They may assume that because we challenge the reality of matter as the true substance of Spirit’s universe, we must feel there is no reason to care what we do to the body, or with it. This is false. While we appear to be living in our human bodies, we must take care of it. If we abuse it, we are not demonstrating the unreality of sin.
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science and the author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, explains:
“Expose and denounce the claims of evil and disease in all their forms, but realize no reality in them. A sinner is not reformed merely by assuring him that he cannot be a sinner because there is no sin. To put down the claim of sin, you must detect it, remove the mask, point out the illusion, and thus get the victory over sin and so prove its unreality. The sick are not healed merely by declaring there is no sickness, but by knowing that there is none.
“A sinner is afraid to cast the first stone. He may say, as a subterfuge, that evil is unreal, but to know it, he must demonstrate his statement. To assume that there are no claims of evil and yet to indulge them, is a moral offence. Blindness and self-righteousness cling fast to iniquity. When the Publican’s wail went out to the great heart of Love, it won his humble desire. Evil which obtains in the bodily senses, but which the heart condemns, has no foundation; but if evil is uncondemned, it is undenied and nurtured. Under such circumstances, to say that there is no evil, is an evil in itself. When needed tell the truth concerning the lie. Evasion of Truth cripples integrity, and casts thee down from the pinnacle.” (S&H 447)
The great Apostle Paul gave marriage advice in his letter to the Corinthians. In it, he appears to suggest that it was good not to marry if you weren’t already married. He urged those that were married to remain faithful to each other.
“Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. . . . For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” (I Cor. 7:1-3;7-9)
In “Marriage, a History,” we read:
“What distinguished early Christianity from Judaism in its approach to marriage and family was the belief that the kingdom of God was close at hand, and people must therefore break with worldly ties to prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. In subsequent centuries this aspect was played down, but early Christianity was hostile to marital and kinship obligations to a degree unimaginable to any previous reformers aside from Plato.
“The founders of Christianity agreed with Jewish scholars that it was better to marry than to be preoccupied with lust. But their acceptance of marriage was much less enthusiastic. ‘It is better,’ Paul grudgingly conceded, ‘to marry than to burn’ (I Cor. 7:9).” (Coontz, Stephanie: “Marriage, a History,” pg. 85-86)
William Barclay believes that we find in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, written nine years after his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul’s true view of marriage, in which he appears to validate it. Paul writes:
“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.” (Ephesians 5:31)
The Apostle Peter also gave marriage advice in one of his letters. He urged the expression of those lovely qualities which could keep married Christians happy and away from the temptation of adultery. This translation is from “The Message,” by Eugene H. Peterson:
“The same goes for you wives: Be good wives to your husbands, responsive to their needs. There are husbands who, indifferent as they are to any words about God, will be captivated by your life of holy beauty. What matters is not your outer appearance – the styling of your hair, the jewelry you wear, the cut of your clothes – but your inner disposition.
“Cultivate inner beauty; the gentle, gracious kind that God delights in. The holy women of old were beautiful before God that way, and were good, loyal wives to their husbands. Sarah, for instance, taking care of Abraham, would address him as “my dear husband.” You’ll be true daughters of Sarah if you do the same, unanxious and unintimidated.
“The same goes for you husbands: Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God’s grace, you’re equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don’t run aground.” (I Peter 3:1-7) (Translation: Peterson, Eugene H.: “The Message”)
To the early Christians, chastity was just as important as marital fidelity:
“Freedom from unchastity was one of four minimum entrance requirements for aspiring candidates to Christian groups, as stated in a letter sent from the elders and apostles at Jerusalem to Antioch Christians via Judas Barsabas and Silas.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, pg 206)
We read about those four minimum entrance requirements in Acts:
“For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.”
(Acts 15:28, 29)
The choice of these four minimum requirements was reached after fierce debates by the elders regarding what they would require of the new non-Jewish converts to Christianity. Should the Gentiles be required to be circumcised, was one question, for instance. In the end, only a few rules regarding food remained, plus the one moral rule: no fornication. This is sex outside of a marriage relationship. The elders had taken Jesus’ teaching to heart, that to indulge in lust, inside or outside of marriage, was as sinful as the act of adultery.
William Barclay quotes the historian J.D. Unwin, who had studied over 80 different civilizations, and from his study Unwin discerned the following pattern:
“Every civilization is established, and consolidated by observing a strict moral code, is maintained while this strict code is kept, and decays when sexual license is allowed. . . Any human society is free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom; the evidence is that it cannot do both for more than one generation.” (Barclay, William: “The Ten Commandments,” pg. 141)
You can find numerous articles on the Internet that quote Unwin’s study, and those of other sociologists concerned with the impact of moral laxity on society. Some sources theorize that it would take several generations to see the impact of this sexual freedom.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of marriage, divorce, and sexual relations, from ancient times up to the present day, you can find detailed information in “Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage,” by Stephanie Coontz; 2005)
End of Part Two – To Be Continued