What does the religion teach about how members of the community
should treat one another?
by Kendra Hotz
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
©2006 Kendra Hotz
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).
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.