Christian Character: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Whatever happened to Christian character?
It used to mean a great deal. With regard to individuals we might describe character as “the particular combination of qualities in a person or place that makes them different from others”. On perhaps a deeper level, character has to do with what defines a person. While character may be defined in a negative sense, here I am thinking of those attributes that define the manner in which one lives their life as a follower of Christ.
Paul seems to indicate that Christian character is the result of a process, writing that, “…We also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) We may note that the love of God is the essential catalyst for this shaping of Christian character. The author of the first epistle of John is even more blunt, writing, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Now, I am all for orthodox theology, but Christian character is built upon more than a checklist of theological propositions. Interestingly, there are few examples in the New Testament of the so-called “righteous anger” that has become such a feature of certain segments of American evangelicalism in recent years. Indeed, the writer of Ephesians counsels us to “…Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” (Ephesians 4:31) Paul, writing to Timothy, stated that, “…I desire then that in every place men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling…” Yet, despite such injunctions, the clamor of anger and argument goes on, day by day, month by month, year by year.
I have often wondered how such reckless anger is justified among believers. Additionally, the angriest seem to be the most easily offended. It seems to me that such an attitude of grievance and rage, in the end, produces a character that lies outside of what we might call “Christian” in the broadest terms. One might tick all the boxes of correct theological propositions and still lack Christian character.
Christian character, in my view, is not passive, it is active. The love that shows that we are born of God and that we know God is likewise not passive, but active. This was understood by early generations of believers.
Adolf von Harnack in writing about the mission of the early Church considered “active love” to be the very substance of the character of believers and their greatest tool in the task of evangelism. Harnack discussed no less than ten types of activities that defined and expressed this character: alms-giving in general, support of teachers, support of widows and orphans, support of the sick, infirm and disabled, care of prisoners and those banished to the mines, the care of the poor needing burial, care of slaves, care of those suffering from calamities, care of the unemployed, and hospitality to the brethren. This expression of Christian character is confirmed in the Apologia (39) of Tertullian:
“The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase, but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God….On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See’, they say, ‘how they love one another’…”
Perhaps a better testimony was uttered by the apostate EmperorJulian (c.360). He recognized that the largest obstacle to his plan to renew the pagan religions in the empire was not the political opposition of the Church, but rather the practiced character of the Christians in their day to day lives. He said that Christianity “has been advanced through the loving service they render to strangers [immigrants] and through their care for the burial of the dead… the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor, but ours as well…”
To a large extent, Christian faith may be about what we believe. Christian character, however, is about who we are, what we do and how that is shown to a watching world.