Ethics and Community -- By: Thomas L. Michaels

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 31:0 (NA 1999)
Article: Ethics and Community
Author: Thomas L. Michaels

Ethics and Community

Thomas L. Michaels

Tom Michaels (M.Div.-ATS, 1996) is pastor of Millersburg Mennonite Church in Millersburg, OH.

Christian ethics in the modern world seems to have generally taken one of two tracks. Either it has become ossified as a rigid set of rules and regulations of behavior or it has followed the world’s example and reached a point of flexibility wherein nearly any activity is permissible and acceptable in a context where individual rights supersede any other consideration. These extreme points are often used to help describe the stance of conservative and liberal Christian factions. Unfortunately neither side has maintained a Christian perspective on ethics as found in the Pauline writings of the New Testament.

John Howard Yoder has sought to describe “the connection which might relate New Testament studies with contemporary social ethics” or “how Jerusalem can relate to Athens” and that “Bethlehem has something to say about Rome.”1 This writer concurs with Yoder’s position that Jesus is relevant and necessary for normative Christian ethics.

The objective of this paper is to understand the Pauline context of Christian ethics by reviewing the historical basis for ethical behavior and then using this to discover the intentions of Paul as he instructs the churches of his time. We will close by examining our present culture from that Pauline context.

Ethical behavior in ancient times took on forms which dealt with the relationships between people. One of the earliest models is the Suzerain-vassal model on which many scholars believe the Mosaic covenant is based. According to The Anchor Bible Dictionary this covenant form “was merely a device for communicating values envisioning human relationships proceeding along some moral plan higher than coercive force.”2

This Hittle formulation has several characteristics.3

1. Idenfication of the covenant giver: Here the great and powerful king identifies himself and bestows a gracious relationship upon an inferior. The exclusivity of this relationship is understood. Turning away from this relationship by the inferior is treason and subjects the inferior to a penalty of death.

2. The historical prologue: The idea of reciprocity is inherent in this section. The great king narrates his past actions for the benefit of the vassal. The appropriate response of the vassal then becomes gratitude and obedience to the requests of the great king.

3. The stipulations: This section ...

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