In Baptist Bible study one Sunday Morning we stumbled across an unusual expression in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2 RSV). It is an unusual statement because Paul was of the opinion that “Christ is the end of the law”; under Christ people are justified by faith according to Paul (Rom 10:4). Did Jesus institute a law? Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that he had not come to abolish the law [the Mosaic covenant], but rather to fulfill it (Matt 5:17-18). Can that statement be read as suggesting a “Christian” law of some sort remaindered from the Mosaic Code?
According to the Baptist student quarterly, the “law of Christ” is found in a saying of Jesus in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another." The writer said: “This law of love is the rule believers are to follow.” I raised my hand to suggest that John 13:34 could not be the “law” to which Paul referred. The saying has no parallels elsewhere and the Gospel of John was written at the end of the first century, while Paul lived in the middle first century. In any case Paul knew very little about the details of Jesus’ life, apart from a very few sayings and events that had already become liturgical by his day.
Paul claimed to be “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21), which Gordon Fee describes as an informal “Christian ethical imperative.” Nevertheless, (Fee adds) that does not mean followers of Jesus now have a new law to obey. According to Fee the expression “law of Christ” is roughly equivalent to the kind of informal ethical instructions Paul gave in Romans 12 and Gal 5-6.1 Yet the use of the word “law” to describe an informal list of ethical behaviors does seem strange for a Paul who insisted that faith had replaced the law.
James also uses the word “law,” referring to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8), which he does not explain, except to say “If you really fulfill the royal law, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (RSV; Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Rom 12:8-10). In other words whatever the royal law is, the doing of it will include the loving of your neighbor. Or does James intend that the reader understand that the “royal law” is to be equated with Lev19:18? The royal law can be equated with the “perfect law,” that is to say, “the law of liberty” (Jas 1:22), under which people will be judged (Jas 2:12). The law of liberty is contrasted to the Mosaic covenant, which is a formal code (Jas 2:8-12). James is doubtless referring to this “law of liberty” when he calls for one to be a “doer of the law” (Jas 1:25). Are Paul and James referring to some kind of formal legal code in early Christianity? That is likely not the case. In spite of the fact that Paul and James use the word “law” to describe certain prescribed Christian behaviors, there does not appear to be any such formal “law” preserved in the earliest canonical Christian texts. We modern readers are therefore left to ponder the unfortunate choice of legalistic language used by Paul and James.
One of the “Apostolic Fathers,” the Didache (dated 70-150), however, begins with a formal statement of acceptable Christian behavior called “The Way of Life.” The behaviors, while specific, are not described as a “code” or “law,” however. The following is a brief summary of the first two sections of the Way of Life in the Didache.
Love God; love your neighbor as yourself; what you don’t want done to you, don’t do to another; bless those who curse you; pray for your enemies; fast for those who persecute you; love those who hate you; abstain from bodily and carnal lusts; if struck on the right cheek, turn the other; if pressed to go one mile, go two; if anyone takes your coat, give him your shirt; do not refuse what anyone will take from you; give to everyone who asks from you; let your alms sweat in your hand, until you know who you are giving them to.
You shall not:
Commit murder; commit adultery; commit fornication; use magic; use philtres [i.e., potions]; procure abortions; commit infanticide; covet your neighbor’s goods; commit perjury; bear false witness; speak evil; bear malice; be double-minded; be double-tongued; be covetous; commit extortion; be hypocritical; be malignant; be proud; make evil plans against a neighbor; hate anyone.
The Way of Life in Didache (among the earliest parts of the Didache) suggests there is an element of legalism in early Christianity: here are certain acts that Christians do and others that they do not. The list finds a ready fit with the language of Paul and James. James was very outspoken that “faith by itself, if it have not works, is dead” (Jas 2:17), and what do you suppose Paul was thinking when he said that he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21). There are some modern Christian groups for whom this information would not be a surprise, but rest assured it does not play well among Baptists.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 430.