In It isn’t personal I outline how the early Christians saw themselves not as a “religious organization” but as a new kind of people. The Church is the congregation of the new people of God. Israel as the old people of God had its own symbol and praxis. The Church likewise had its own traditions. They demonstrated continuity with the old but they were distinct in important ways. In this and subsequent pieces I hope to highlight how they took over and the modified the role of being members of God’s people. The first thing I wish to analyse is the important concept of the family of God.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:12-13 ESV
As I have mentioned in my previous post ethnicity was an important symbol in the Jewish worldview. Being Jewish was an essential for being a member of God’s family. As I previously explored all this changed through Jesus the Messiah.
When Christians hear the term “son of God” or “child of God” as in the scripture above they often assume this is something novel. I have stressed on the need to recognize the Jewish roots of the scriptures. “Son/child of God” is an important Old Testament designation for the children of Israel (Hosea 1:10, 11:1.) God was their father because he had chosen the nation as his own (Malachi 2:10.) John was saying in the scripture that now everyone, including Gentiles who were not the people of God, could become members of God’s family on equal footing with the Jews, through faith in Jesus.
As the beloved apostle points out, spiritual rebirth is not like biological reproduction. (I remember hearing that Islam rejects God having children because they think it involves something sexual!) Some Christians get this wrong and somehow think we have become lesser deities endowed with certain divine powers. This is often a gross misinterpretation of Psalm 82 and John 10:34. (Perhaps we shall tackle this at some length another time.) Being a child of God, like being made in the image of God, means being the chosen instruments through whom God exercises his wise magnificent rule on the earth. Psalms 8 and 82 highlight these ideas.
Being a child of God had been radically revolutionised in the Messiah. Instead of being identified by a single ethnicity this new ethnos was marked by people from diverse backgrounds all calling upon Jesus as Lord. Their common faith was their identity marker.
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours… – 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV
What gave them unity within such diversity was their commitment to live as a holy people for the Lord Jesus. Paul often contrasted how the heathen behaved with how Christians out to behave. The ethical standards of the God of Jesus Christ far outstripped those of pagan deities. This call to purity and separation from the world harks back to God’s covenant with Abraham himself.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly… And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 17:1-2, 7 ESV
YHWH wanted to be God to Abraham and his offspring. To ensure their covenant faithfulness as a people the Jews married among themselves. They did not want the corrupting influence of pagan marriages to sway them from the covenant. Abraham himself when he wanted a bride for his son Isaac went to his own people. This principle was later enshrined in the Torah as a commandment (Exodus 34:11-16.) This rule was taken so seriously that in the time of Ezra during a national revival they put away their foreign wives (Ezra 10:2-3.) Even though there were some notable exceptions to this rule the principle was that in Israelite homes only YHWH should be worshipped. The family was integral to the call of Abraham so there could be no compromises. Through the Church the family initiative continued so the Christian household had to be God-fearing.
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife… He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? – 1 Timothy 3:2-5 ESV
Forming such a family presented certain challenges since Gentile believers did not have the same ethnic heritage as the Jews. To continue the divine family agenda early Christians married among themselves.
Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? – 1 Corinthians 9:5 ESV
In the above scripture it is almost as if Paul took for granted that believers should marry believers. The early Christians as a new ethnos by faith, married among themselves like the Jews did. In Corinth, as in many Gentile cities, many became believers while they already were married. It is these kinds of people that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 7 urging them not to divorce and take believing spouses as was the custom. They might even influence their partners to become believers themselves. (Sociologist Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity mentions the effectiveness of spousal conversions.) However, if the unbelieving spouse could not tolerate their spouses new found faith and wanted a divorce that was permitted.
Paul also said that the believing spouse sanctifies the unbelieving spouse so that the children are holy. The mention of holy offspring might be a reference to Malachi 2:15 where God says the purpose of marriage is to produce godly offspring. In the light of this Old Testament reference and the Abrahamic call in Genesis 12 this puzzling passage begins to make sense. Holiness there did not mean ritual consecration. Believing parents “separated” their kids by raising them in a Christian home as opposed to a worldly home. Even though you cannot be born a Christian you can be raised according to the faith. I and countless others are a testament to this. Christian children were also entreated to obey their parents in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4.)
The Christian household had a similar ethos to the faithful Jewish family. The family is the nucleus of any society. The Christian family was founded upon their status as members of God’s family. If they viewed themselves as new race it is only natural that they practiced endogamy. Conversely you could say marrying among themselves is strong evidence of how seriously they took their new status. It was not some vague privatised “spiritual” identity but a strong cultural marker of who they were.
Christianity is called a religion (whatever that means) and is hardly ever thought of as a culture. Perhaps it is because of the diverse expressions of Christian faith. As every student who does social studies knows culture is dynamic. No culture is monolithic. There are several ways to be Ghanaian but there are common denominators. The same is true of Christianity. Sociologist Daniel Bell in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism offers some powerful insights on culture.
I use the term culture…to mean less than the anthropological catchall which defines any “patterned way of life” as a culture, and more than the aristocratic tradition which restricts culture to refinement and to the high arts. Culture, for me, is the effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential predicaments that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives… For this reason, tradition becomes essential to the vitality of a culture, for it provides the continuity of memory that teaches how one’s forebears met the same existential predicaments. (Which is why the psalmist says: “If I forget thee, o Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.”)
If we can recognise Christianity as a worldview and with its own symbolic praxis why should we not recognise Christianity as a culture with its own traditions?