After a long summer away from this, I return with a short post offering some musings on a recent conversation I had with a colleague who teaches on the Early Church.
His thesis: the Fathers of the Early Church would have profoundly disagreed with modern Christians on two counts: sex and gluttony.
I’ve reflected on this. And whilst I don’t agree with the ascetic tendencies of some Early Church teaching, I think my colleague has a point. Early Church fathers taught a range of moral and ethical teachings on the sex lives of both unmarried and married believers, and on the approach believers ought to have to food, drink and material possessions.
Early Church Fathers taught against both sex and gluttony with particular ire. Even in marriage Christians were urged to abstain from indulging in sexual intercourse, lest anything provide a distraction between them and Christ. With regards to gluttony, indulgence and extravagance were loudly and bitterly condemned.
Tertullian, a man who often faces the charge of asceticism (among other things) spoke in ‘On the Apparel of Women’ (9) of the vice of immoderate having.
“… immoderate having; because although, perhaps, having may be permissible, still a limit is bound (to be observed).”
Here is perhaps where we could agree with the extreme Early Church teachings on these two topics.
Because the having, of either sex or of things (that one could indulge in and lead to gluttony) in their right form is not wrong. But there must be limits. And the Early Church Fathers sought to impose strict limits so that the believers to whom they wrote might not find their attention torn away from Christ. And here is the challenge to us.
Though not explicitly speaking of sex, Paul has this to say about the married man and woman in 1 Corinthians.
“But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.”
1 Corinthians 7:33-34 NIV
Paul says the interests of the married man are divided. Likewise for the married woman! See how he speaks of the unmarried and the virgin. “Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit.”
I don’t think married Christians should forsake sex. Nor do I think that Christians cannot enjoy food, or wine, or other small pleasures, in right moderation. But I do wonder if the attitudes of the Early Church, when read in this Pauline light, raise a serious challenge for the modern church.
Where is it that we have allowed ourselves to indulge or overreach in such a way as to turn our attention, even if only ever so slightly, away from Christ? The writer to the Hebrews (12:1) commands us to fix our eyes on Jesus. It’s a command to live our whole life with Him front and centre. Yet how easily do we erect idols right in front of us? How easily do we put up barriers that blot out our view of Christ? This conversation, and my reflections on it, have been a challenge for me. What is it that I try to enjoy more than Christ? Am I chasing idols that obstruct my view of Christ?
My prayer would be that this challenge, especially around sex and gluttony, would fall flat as it was met with a church that lived lives wholly for Christ. But to do that we must submit wholeheartedly to Him, humbled before His word, and prayerfully considering the things in our lives that we raise up as idols, stopping us from being fully devoted to the Lord with body and spirit.