In his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider makes the case that the substantial growth of Christianity from the resurrection of Christ through the 300’s was tied to the church’s emphasis on the patient ethical formation of believers. According to Kreider, there was no grand strategy of cultural influence nor any attempt to accommodate the worship service of the church to make outsiders feel more comfortable. Instead, the primary focus of church leadership was to see the habitus (habitual behavior) of Christ followers formed so they were noticeably distinct in their moods, affections, and actions from their neighbors.
He says, “The sources rarely indicate that the early Christians grew in number because they won arguments; instead they grew because their habitual behavior (rooted in patience) was distinctive and intriguing…When challenged about their ideas, Christians pointed to their actions. They believed that their habitus, their embodied behavior was eloquent. Their behavior said what they believed; it was an enactment of their message.”[i]
You will often hear our moment in history compared to the cultural climate in which the early church grew. While the early church was pre-Christendom, it seems we are rather quickly heading into a post-Christendom era. We can no longer claim to be the religious majority nor expect Christian ideas to be met with much other than scorn in the public sphere. If we are treading the same historical path as our early church brothers and sisters, perhaps we should learn from the way they walked.
Their walk was aimed at seeing those born and raised in a pagan culture—with pagan reflexes, desires, and dispositions—completely rewired to be people with Christ-like reactions, loves, and temperaments. It was not only about affirming the right points of doctrine, although one who desired baptism would typically be catechized for several years before entering the baptismal water.
Instead, the early church was so effective because they focused their time and energy on the renovation of hearts, which then bore fruit as they shone brightly in the world.
With all the problems to speak of in the current evangelical church, it is likely that this failure to cultivate a distinctly Christian way of life strikes at the heart of our witness in the world. As J. Daryl Charles put it, “In many evangelical circles, to speak of virtue, of moral formation or of social ethics is to elicit a look of bewilderment from the listener, as if he or she has been addressed in some foreign language.”[ii]
If we are to retrieve the early church emphasis on moral formation and solidify our witness in the world, I believe we need to turn our attention to two often neglected yet vitally important areas of Christian ethics.
Be Attentive to Narrative
When preaching and teaching in the local church we frequently focus our moral instruction on the clear imperatives in the New Testament. We begin, and often limit, our assessment of a given situation by asking, “Does God allow it or prohibit it?” While the commands of the New Testament give us important guidance for developing a Christian way of life, we cannot limit our ethical formation to these texts. Instead, we must be attentive to the narrative portions of the Bible and consider how these portions shape and form us in unique ways.
Narrative works on us at a deep level. As we are immersed in a story, we begin to see the world and ourselves in new ways and automatically form moral judgments based on what happens in the narrative. Author N.D. Wilson speaks to the power of stories when he says, “Even in adults, stories groom instincts, and instincts control loyalties, and loyalties shape choices.”[iii]
Why do you love what you love and despise what you despise? Why did you react to that co-worker the way you did without even stopping to think about it? Most likely it has to do with the stories that you have heard, read, and been immersed in throughout your life. Those stories have framed your view of reality in certain ways that have formed you into the person you are.
Think about how often the exodus story becomes the defining narrative for Israel’s ongoing moral life. In Exodus 19:4-6, as God formally initiates His covenant with them at Sinai, He opens by connecting their ongoing obedience to the story of His rescue of them from Egypt. In Exodus 20:1-2 God begins the Ten Commandments by reminding them of the exodus narrative. Many Psalms, including 78, 105, and 106, recount the history of Israel while exhorting them to obedience in light of the exodus.
The monumental task of re-wiring someone from the inside out requires that person not just to have been shaped by certain stories, but to situate himself or herself in a new story. Beyond our attention to the way we are formed by the individual narrative texts of Scripture, we need to zoom out even further and learn to read the Bible as a unified story.
In other words, to be formed into Christ-like people we need the discipline of Biblical Theology to help us replace the cultural narratives of the day with the true story of the world.
Be Attentive to Virtue and Vice
The effectiveness of the witness of the early church was largely tied to the formation of the habits and dispositions of its members. So much of the moral life involves reactions, emotional dispositions, and off-the-cuff decisions that require our habits to be trained in advance.
It seems we have lost this emphasis on the training of habits and dispositions in the Christian life. Thinking of our teaching on sin and holiness as falling on a spectrum will help you to see the importance and biblical nature of the emphasis on habits.[iv] On one end of the spectrum we have the doctrine of total depravity. We are born corrupted in every part of our being and are, therefore, incapable of pleasing God and prone to continue in sin. On the other end of the spectrum, we have each individual decision that we make throughout the day. Far too often we leave out the middle of this spectrum which is where our habits and reflexes fall.
Each choice we make wears grooves in our character that makes it easier or harder to make the right decision next time. Beyond decisions, these grooves make up our character qualities, or our virtues or vices.
The New Testament brims with language describing this middle way of thinking about sin and holiness. When Paul uses the word “walk” he’s calling attention to our habitual behavior. We find lists of both virtues and vices throughout the NT. The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 are grooves in one’s character that cause you to act and react in certain ways. As you put on the qualities in Paul’s list you become a more loving, peaceful, and gentle person. These virtues begin to define you and your way of moving through the world. This is why the emphasis of the early church on habitus would be so helpful to our witness today.
We live in a time of significant theological retrieval in the church and there is much we can learn from the moral instruction of the early church. Perhaps God will use the lessons from the past to form us into a distinct people in the present with an effective witness in the world.
[i] Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: the Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Baker Academic, 2016, p. 2.
[ii] Charles, J. Daryl. The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church's Moral Vision, InterVarsity Press, 2002, p. 11.
[iii] Wilson, N.D. Death by Living, Thomas Nelson, 2013, p. 13.
[iv] For this illustration, I am indebted to Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung in an interview with Ken Myers on the Mars Hill Audio Journal (Vol. 150, April 2021).