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Ethical Issues in the Pauline Epistles
Ethical Issues in Paul’s Letters (Part 2)
This article is a continuation of Ethical Issues in Paul’s Letters (Part 1) which addresses such ethical issues as Jewish-Gentile Christian relations; and the behavior of believers. Here, in part 2 of the same topic, the discussion continues by considering other vital ethical aspects such as – Abuse of Christian freedom; public worship; Family codes. The Universal Church must have a clear understanding of the position of these matters in order to be the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ibid., pp. 521-2.
Abuse of Christian freedom
The Corinthians, in their letter to Paul, raised questions about the propriety of eating the flesh of an animal offered in a pagan sacrifice. According to David Lowery, the Corinthians’ questions apparently concerned: a) the acceptability of purchasing meat from pagan sacrifices sold in the market; b) the acceptability of eating meat as an invited guest in a friend’s house; c) the eligibility to participate in one of these pagan sacrifices and to enjoy the meal of celebration that followed in the temple premises.13 These issues are mainly about the freedom and rights of the Corinthians. For the more mature Corinthian Christians, as Paul explained, ‘an idol is nothing at all and there is no God but one, and as such the eating of food offered to idols was, in itself, insignificant. However, not all Corinthians agreed that an idol was nothing. The weaker brothers who were led to participate with the stronger brother have their consciences defiled. So Paul’s answer was that although the stronger brethren may be justified in exercising their freedom, yet they failed to observe a basic and fundamental principle – which is love. Although their knowledge of the idols gave them freedom to partake, yet, out of love for their weaker brother, they had to refrain from eating. Therefore, Paul advises that the example of Christ should be followed. In this situation, it will involve giving up freedom or right for the sake of the weaker brother.
Regarding public worship, three of the issues that the apostle addressed were as follows: a) The state of women in worship (I Cor. 11:2-10); the state of Christians as the Lord’s supper (11:17-34); and the state of spiritual gifts (Ch. 12-14).
a) The position of the woman in worship
The issue regarding women in the Corinthian church was about head coverings. As David Lowery observed, ‘It seems that the Corinthian slogan, everything is permissible; it was also applied to the meetings of the Church, and the Corinthian women had expressed this principle by removing their distinctive clothing. Most importantly, they seem to have rejected the concept of submission within the Church (and perhaps society) and with it any cultural symbols, e.g. a headdress), which may have been attached to it.’ From the above quote it can be seen that the issue is not simply about covering the head, but about the disobedience of women in public worship. Lowery further noted that Paul first laid out the theological basis of his counsel regarding this matter. Paul stated that for a woman to remove her veil was not an act of liberation, but degradation, and she dishonored her spiritual head, the husband. Paul argues that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. Therefore, the woman had to cover her head to honor the man.
b) The state of Christians in the Lord’s Supper
Ibid., p. 529
Ibid., p. 530.
According to Lowery, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with his disciples, the bread and the cup were part of a meal, with the bread broken perhaps near the beginning and the cup taken at the end. At the time Paul wrote, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in two stages, which consolidated the taking of the bread and the cup at the end of a communal meal. Worship with bread and cup was called Agape. However, in the Corinthian celebration, the agape meal had become an occasion not characterized by love for other Christians, but an occasion of selfish indulgence. Paul noted that an experience intended to build up the Church actually had the opposite effect – ‘your meeting does more harm than good’. The Lord’s Supper should be the remembrance of an extremely selfless act, the death of Christ on behalf of others. Instead, the Corinthians have turned this memorial into an experience of selfishness and brought division into the body. Paul made the theological importance of the Lord’s Supper very clear to the Corinthians. They were to celebrate in memory of what Christ has done for them – his death, burial and resurrection, and also in the hope of his return.
c) The state of spiritual gifts
The Corinthian believers display in their worship service the manifold gifts of the spirit. But the way believers used their gifts caused problems and brought disorder to their services. Especially the spectacular gifts, like tongues. They consider these gifts as a sign of spiritual gift.
JD Douglas rightly observed that one of the distinguishing features of Paul’s Epistles is the repetition of so-called household codes (Eph. 5:22ff., Colossians 3:18, I Tim. 2:8ff., Titus 2 :2ff.) although as Douglas said they are conservative in tone, they are clear indications that there were issues in the churches that required these codes.16 One of these household codes, dealing with the relationship between ‘masters and slaves’ , will be discussed. This particular relationship was chosen because Paul had to deal with this issue in a concrete situation between Philemon, a slave master, and Onesimus, his runaway slave.
In his commentary on the Epistle to Philemon, Edwin C. Deibler wrote: ‘Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had run away after apparently robbing his master (Phil, 18). His journey somehow brought him to Rome, where in the province of God, he came into contact with Paul. Through this contact, Paul led Onesimus to know Christ as Savior.’ Paul decided to return Onesimus to his master, but he was very worried about how Philemon would react. Thus, in his letter to Philemon, he challenged him on the basis of their relationship with Christ to accept Onesimus as a brother.
This article and its counterpart discuss some of the ethical issues raised in Paul’s letters: 1 Jewish and Gentile Christian Relations. 2. Behavior of believers. 3. Abuse of Christian freedom. 4. Public worship. 5. Household codes. The format used was as follows: first, the theological basis for Paul’s ethical teaching was examined. In this examination it was found that Paul based his teaching on the doctrine of Christ – his burial and resurrection by death, and on his example of humility and love. The basic principle in Paul’s ethical teachings is that the church or church of Christ is a new community of believers who can positively influence the world and make disciples of all nations with their enduring Christian witness.
JD Douglas, New Bible Dictionary (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), p. 354.
Edwin C. Deibler, Philemon: The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Illinois: Victor Books, 1983), p. 769.
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