On Being a Christian Today:

The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © 1998 by Kenneth Cauthen. All rights reserved.
If we lived by the radical ethic at the heart of the New Testament, we would have homeless people living with us as long as anyone was without a place to live. Any thing less than that is a compromise. It may be a necessary compromise, and it may be a justifiable compromise. But that it is a compromise, I have no doubt.

New Testament Christians lived in the expectation that the world would end soon. Jesus said the final hour of judgment and redemption would occur in the lifetime of some presently living (Mt. 10:23, 16:27-28; Mk. 8:38-39:1, 13:30, 14:61-62). Similar expectations appear throughout the New Testament (Roms 13:12; Phil. 4:5; I Thess. 4:17; James 5:8; I John 2:18; I Peter 4:7; Rev. 1:1-3, 22:10-20). Since the End was so near, Paul urged everyone to remain in their present state, whether married or unmarried, slave or free, and noted that ordinary worldly affairs didn't matter much in view of the impending crisis (I Cor. 7:24-31). Interpreters from the beginning have tried to find ways to rescue Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament generally from this error.[1] One of the earliest was the author of II Peter who had to contend with the skeptics who taunted believers with the fact that the promised return of Jesus had not occurred, reminding them that things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation (3:3-10).

In light of the expectation that the world will end very shortly, even within the lifetime of some now living, the most urgent necessity was to get and stay prepared for the coming judgment and redemption by living now in anticipation of what was about to happen (Mk. 1:15). Preserving and reforming the institutions of secular society was of no concern, since "the form of this world is passing away" (I Cor. 7:31 RSV). In any case, by and large the earliest Christians were a small sect from the lower socio-economic classes with little power to influence the basic social order around them in the short term (Cf. I Cor. 1:26).

In addition to the apocalyptic expectation that gripped New Testament Christians, we have to deal with those "hard sayings" of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-43). Resist not one who is evil. Lend to every one who would borrow. Give to every beggar. Go the second mile. Not only are murder and adultery wrong, but so are anger, hatred, and lustful looks. We must love enemies, avoid worry about tomorrow, and, in short, be perfect, just like God (Matt. 5-6). Some have suggested that these stringent imperatives indicate how we ought to live given the fact that this world is in its last days, thus canceling ordinary rules and responsibilities. Others say that these mandates tell us what we should do when confronted by a solitary neighbor. All other people have for that moment been removed from consideration. In such a situation we are to serve that one person in absolute sacrificial devotion, completely ignoring our own needs and just claims. In real life, of course, there are always many neighbors, making it necessary to devise a theory about how to distribute our love appropriately. A standard Protestant interpretation is that the Sermon on the Mount shows that we stand condemned by the moral law, leading us to flee in repentance to grace as our only hope. Whether or not any one of these interpretations captures what Jesus had in mind, the "hard sayings" certainly are impractical for organizing daily life and carrying on the routines of commerce. Every prudent move to preserve one's own life and well-being is cast aside by the injunction that we are to be totally devoted to the service of our neighbors, heedless of our own interests. Christians have demonstrated remarkable creativity in showing that Jesus did not mean these injunctions to be taken literally, that he did not really intend for us to do what he commanded. (See my Ethics)

Finally, we cannot escape the implications of a simple principle. Jesus urged that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Luke 10:25-28; also Roms. 12:8-10; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). We seldom meditate for long on the drastic implications of that simple injunction. This commandment can be interpreted in a minimal or equalitarian sense (neighbor and self held in equal regard) or in a maximal or sacrificial sense (neighbor takes preference over self). Christian love (agape) minimally requires that we count everyone else's good equal to our own. Maximally it requires that we totally sacrifice our own interests in order to serve others (Jesus on the cross, Roms. 5:8, Matt. 5:38-43). In that sacrificial frame of mind we do not protect, even non-violently, our legitimate self-interests against the aggression of evildoers (Matt:5:38) or against those who cannot or will nor pay their debts to us (Matt. 5:42). Under either the minimal or the maximal interpretation, the love commandment, if taken seriously and literally, would mean that whenever I confront someone whose need is greater than my own, I must give to her/him and all others so situated until I am no better off than the neediest person on earth. (See my Capital Punishment or my Process Ethics, 125-94, 241-50)

I conclude that the love ethic at the center of the New Testament is incompatible with civilization. The incompatibility is nearly total when love is interpreted in the maximal or sacrificial sense but is great when love of neighbor as oneself is seen in the minimal or equalitarian sense. Total self-giving love that demands nothing from the other is irreconcilable with assigned roles, duties, division of labor, accountability, and so on. Its absolute ideals cannot without dilution be harmonized with the rules and requirements of organized life in society extended over many generations. The unqualified demands of sacrificial love require their implementation in the moment without regard for future consequences for self or others. Orderly life could not go on if no one ever insisted that others play their part, share the load, live by the rules of civilized society, and carry out their obligations. A corporation cannot forgive seventy times seven times an incompetent employee whose constant mistakes are costing thousands of dollars (Matt: 18:22). Society would be in chaos if no one restrained evildoers and prevented them from oppressing or killing the weak and innocent. Justice requires that rules of fairness be enforced, coercively if necessary. Total non-resistance to evildoers would make justice impossible. The absolute and unrestrained impulses of pure love overflow all boundaries, ignore all rules, and disregard all but the immediate need before it to which it ministers without holding anything back for another occasion or another neighbor. Unrestrained love does not save for a rainy day. It gives all here and now to whoever needs it. Civilization can not be built on such foundations.

The agape ethic at the heart of the New Testament can best be lived out in small intimate communities. However, even when face to face, personal interactions among people are possible and dominant, the love ethic requires requires adaptations and some rules. As we move into larger societies, even more drastic compromises are necessary, inevitable, and justified. When we are talking about the relationship of nations to each other, we may wonder if the requirement that we regard the other party's good equal to our own has become totally irrelevant! The notion that one nation sacrifice its welfare for the welfare of the other is not even on the agenda. Repeatedly we are told by our leaders that national self-interest is the supreme rule of foreign policy.

Of what value, then, is New Testament Christianity for today? Alfred North Whitehead has put it as well as anyone. The impractical ideals of the first century are a standard by which to measure the shortcomings of society. "So long as the Galilean images are but the dreams of an unrealized world, so long they must spread the infection of an uneasy spirit" (Adventures of Ideas). A morally serious person of faith cannot read take agape seriously and be at ease with any status quo. Reinhold Niebuhr made the same point. Agape, Christian love, is an "impossible possibility." Nevertheless, it is relevant in all situations as both judge of every present achievement and guide to further moral advance.

If there is to be an ongoing civilization organized into institutions (family, school, state, corporations) in which we assume responsibility for preserving the traditions and achievements of the past, then the agape love ethic at the core of the New Testament must be severely compromised. Our failure is not that we make the compromises that make civilization possible but that we make them long before they are necessary. After all, if enough Americans were committed to doing so, we could through governmental action and voluntary private efforts see to it that every person in this country had a place to live, food to eat, medical insurance, and enough resources to live decently. It would be costly to most of us and would require the sacrifice of advantages we now complacently enjoy. But it might save our souls.


This brief summary obscures the fact that the New Testament is a complex book with many strands, multiple themes, and contrasting theological perspectives reflecting varying circumstances in the primitive church. Not all of them can be harmonized with each other or with the perspective I have offered here. In particular, we cannot assume that every ethical passage in the New Testament is controlled by either apocalyptic fervor or by the ethics of equalitarian or sacrificial love in its most radical form. Every interpretation that yearns for unity and consistency must of necessity select certain themes as crucial and interpret everything else in that light. My only claim is that my scheme is not without defense, even if not free from difficulties. The New Testament can legitimately be interpreted in other ways, of course. I merely contend that every alternative to my interpretation of the core New Testament ethic will encounter formidable, if not equally grave, difficulties.

New Testament Christians obviously had to accommodate themselves to the world as it was while it lasted. The following examples indicate some of the ways they came to terms with the values and institutions of world they inhabited.
1. Slavery is accepted, and slaves are urged to obey their masters with a glad heart (Ephes. 6:5-6, Col. 3:22; I Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9; I Peter 2:18-19; Philemon).
2. Women are subordinated to men, and their roles limited. In particular, they are urged to be submissive to their husbands, to keep silent in the church, and forbidden to teach or have authority over men (I Cor. 11:1-12, 14:34; Ephes. 5:22-23; Col. 3:18; I Tim. 2:11-14; Titus 2:5; I Peter 3:1).
3. Obedience to the state is sometimes unconditionally and uncritically demanded (Titus 3:1; I Peter 2:13-14). Paul says that God has instituted the state to execute wrath on wrongdoers. This implies that if the ruling authorities demand it, Christians should participate in the violence the state employs while punishing evildoers (Roms. 13:1-7). This is hard to reconcile with Matt. 5:38.

These perspectives can be viewed in at least five different ways or in various combinations:
1. The interim is so short that worldly institutions and the usual arrangements of family, state, and society are of little importance, so one can simply adapt to them as needed or necessary while waiting for the end.
2. They are necessary or acceptable compromises with the current social order, since it is impossible to live literally by agape in any organized society.
3. Some ethical prescriptions reflect cultural values of that time and place. Under strict scrutiny they appear to be in conflict with what we understand the love ethic to imply and require.
4. Love, salvation, freedom, equality, and the like are inward, spiritual matters and have no necessary implications for outward, worldly relationships, institutions, and practices. In this light, e. g., Gal. 3:28 is not in conflict with I Cor. 7:21-31, 14:34 and numerous other passages in which hierarchy and subordination are approved or mandated.[2]
5. The demanding love ethic applies only within the church but not to secular society, e. g., Matt. 18:22.[3]


[1] A typical way is to refer to Mk. 13:32, where Jesus says no one, not even himself, knows the day or the hour. But that means that no one knows when within this generation it will happen, as verse 30 plainly indicates. Of course, one can always say that generation refers to this present age, but that seems unlikely in light of Mk. 9:1, 14:62, and Matt. 10:23.

[2] See Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 189-201. Karl Barth says that, of course, there is equality, but there is an order in that equality, whatever that means besides enabling him to have both Gal. 3:28 and sexual hierarchy! Some segregationists ministers in the South a half-century ago argued that love and equality were spiritual matters that had no necessary social and political implications one way or the other.

[3] As I was writing all this, my mind was flooded with the many ways Christians have come to terms with the world as they wrestled with the relationship between the high, even impossible, ideals of the New Testament and the realities, necessities, complexities, and ambiguities of actual life in sinful society. These controversies rage whether or not the end of the world is expected momentarily. Consider as a start the following: the debates between pacifists and just war proponents, between slaveholders and abolitionists, segregationists and integrationists, feminists and traditionalists, monarchists and democrats, hierarchalists and egalitarians, defenders of wealth and proponents of equal distribution, defenders of order justifying repression and proponents of justice demanding freedom, and on and on. Christian natural law theorists for centuries distinguished between an Edenic age in which freedom, equality, peace, and righteousness were the norm and the post-Adamic age in which hierarchy, the rule of some over others, the use of coercion to restrain sin, and even slavery and war are necessary, justifiable, or unavoidable. Leaving aside all the many instances in which the disputants were devising self-serving theories to defend their selfish interests rather than seeking an impartial justice, we have to admit that the problems are indeed difficult and yield no obvious solutions. Few proposals are free of shortcomings when measured by some New Testament texts or the facts of the matter. Nearly every position taken on these and all other matters could be supported by something in the Bible. Few interpreters shy away from claiming that their interpretation is the real biblical view and the one most in tune with Jesus himself. H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951) describes five positions Christians have held relating "Christ" and "culture," all of which can claim some New Testament support and have both strengths and weaknesses.

I invite your comments and responses.
My e-mail address

This is one of a series of essays in theology and ethics. For a list and links to all of them go to:
Essays in Theology and Ethics

Presently, the following essays are available:

About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

Created: Tuesday, November 17, 1998, 4:10 PM Last Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2001, 2:30 PM