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Christianity FAQ



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What does the religion teach about how members of the community should treat one another?

by Kendra Hotz

Christianity does not make a strong distinction between how Christians ought to treat members of the Christian community and how they ought to treat those of other faith traditions. Jesus said, “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt. 7:12). Christians are required not merely to refrain from harming others in ways that they would not want to be harmed, but also to seek out the good of others, to “do” for others what they would want done for themselves. This “golden rule” governs how Christians think about their obligations toward others. But the specificity of those obligations is discovered only through a deliberate process of personal and communal discernment. At least three sources inform the process through which Christians discern their obligations toward others.

First, scripture provides guidance in how Christians ought to treat others. Although the Bible does contain some specific prescriptions and proscriptions, Christians do not, on the whole, understand the Bible to be a rulebook designating precisely what one ought to do and refrain from doing. Many of the specific obligations outlined in scripture are bound to the ancient contexts in which the writings of the Bible were produced. Scripture regarding the permissibility of slaveholding, rules of inheritance, and obligations toward monarchs, for instance, all presuppose circumstances far different from modern, democratic society. As a result, the moral authority of the Bible must always be translated for different times and places.

Instead of seeking specific rules for behavior in the Bible, then, Christians seek to be faithful to the overarching moral themes found in scripture. Christians look, for example, to the life of Jesus as the preeminent example of moral perfection and self-sacrificial love. They strive to respond to particular moral dilemmas in their own time in a way consonant with the example set by Christ. Christians also look to the moral law of the Old Testament and to the Ten Commandments in particular for an outline of moral obligations toward God and other people.

The laws found within the Bible provide a framework for understanding particular moral obligations. The rule to obey one’s parents provides broad guidance about the relationships between children and parents without specifying precisely what that obedience will look like in every circumstance. The proscription on adultery sets boundaries on sexual intimacy and provides stability in marriage without specifying precise roles and obligations for spouses. Beyond these rules, moreover, one finds persistent biblical themes reinforcing the need for economic justice, for the wealthy and powerful to care for the poor and dispossessed, for honesty and integrity, and for respect for persons.

When Christians look to the example of the early church as it is described in the New Testament for moral guidance, they find that it reinforces these persistent themes of the Old Testament. The early church, for example, distinguished itself from its Greco-Roman culture by providing a network of care and welfare for the widows and poor. Christian churches still emphasize the need for charitable giving to support ministries for the poor. Many churches provide food pantries for the poor and homeless, support shelters for battered women, and send humanitarian aid to regions plagued by famine and natural disasters. Beyond these measures undertaken by particular churches, many Christians advocate for social policies in the political sphere that grow out of their Christian convictions.

Second, the tradition also provides guidance about how Christians should behave toward others. How Christians have framed and responded to moral questions throughout history exercises important influence on how contemporary Christians understand their obligations. The theologian Augustine, for example, struggled with the question of when Christians could endorse the use of military force. His theory of the justifiable use of military force continues to shape Christian thinking on this matter.

In addition to guidance on specific moral questions, Christians look to the tradition for a model of moral discernment. The Christian tradition of moral argumentation balances a high value placed on the wisdom of the community with respect for individual conscience. Modern Christians value the tradition as a source of wisdom regarding the obligations they have toward others, but they are also wary of some deeply entrenched biases of the tradition that have sometimes led Christians to endorse slavery, the subordination of women, anti-Semitism, and exploitation of the natural environment.

Natural law constitutes a third source of moral authority. Natural law does not mean something like “the law of nature,” rather it is an ethic rooted in the normative experience of humanity; that is, Christians affirm that God has implanted within each person a natural sense of good and evil, a natural sense of obligation. Having this awareness of good and evil is understood to be part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Natural law, then, means the law of human nature—human nature as God created it, that is, not as it is distorted in sin.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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