The conduct of believers, whether within the church or towards those who are not part of the Christian community, was a major preoccupation of Paul, the apostle. To embrace Jesus as Messiah, Saviour and Lord necessarily transformed a person’s behaviour. When sin no longer exercised dominion and grace was in charge, people became new creations. It showed in the way they acted towards everyone. When this transformation was absent, despite protests of allegiance to Jesus, Paul would have doubts about the genuineness of that person’s confession. In this he reflected Jesus’ emphasis. “By their fruit you will know them [his disciples],” Jesus said.
One of the terms Paul chose to describe behaviour appropriate to a believer was euschēmonōs. It occurs in adverbial form (Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 14:40; 1Thessalonians 4:12), in adjectival form (euschēmōn1 1 Corinthians 7:35; 12: 24); and in noun form (euschēmosunē 1 Corinthians 12:23). It is also possible that a verb form occurs at 1 Corinthians 13:5, where it is a variant in the late second century AD papyrus 46 for aschēmonei (be rude). The clustering of occurrences in 1 Corinthians is worth noting.
Mark’s description of Joseph of Arimathea gives us an initial insight into the semantic range of this term. Mark introduces him as a “prominent (euschēmōn) member of the council” (15:43). A similar sense is found in Luke’s description of believers in Pisidian Antioch as including “the God-fearing women of high standing (tas euschēmonas) and the leading men of the city” (Acts 13:50). Also among female believers in Berea were “a number of prominent (tōn euschēmonōn) Greek women” (Acts 17:12). The term denotes someone who has social status, i.e. part of the upper class. Associated with this is an expected demeanour of respectability. Josephus, for example, describes one of the citizen groups in the city of Tiberias as consisting of “respectable citizens (andrōn euschēmonōn).”2 As Spicq indicates, it “is used very frequently in the papyri for a special class of citizens, the most well-thought-of and well-to-do in a town or city.”3 Such people were the group from which cities would seek financial support for building public works and sponsoring public events. The notion of wealth is associated with the term.
Paul used these various cognate terms in 1 Corinthians 7-14. It is in these contexts that the connotations of good, moral, decent, appropriate behaviour gain emphasis. In Romans 13:13 Paul urges believers to “behave decently (euschēmonōs), as in the daytime” and avoid indecency, or behaviour associated with night. The kinds of behaviour inconsistent with decency (euschēmonōs) include “orgies and drunkenness,…sexual immorality and debauchery,… dissension and jealousy.” When people “clothe themselves with the Lord Jesus Christ”, their behaviour must be similarly appropriate and decent (euschēmonōs).
In Greek inscriptions and papyri before and after the time of Jesus, people were honoured because they “behaved (apestraphē) well and decently (euschēmonōs).”4 In IV Maccabees 6:2, Eleazar, the Jewish martyr is stripped of his clothes in preparation for torture but the author declares that “he remained adorned with the nobility (euschēmosunēi) that shines forth from piety.” When civic leaders do a good job of leading and administration, the results are described with this term. For example, public officials in Magnesia are congratulated because “they made even the residence beautiful and respectable (euschēmona) and worthy of both cities.”5 Proverbs 11:25 in the Greek translation declares that “an ill-tempered man is not respected (euschēmōn).”6 Bad behaviour is deemed inappropriate and demeans a person. In the Letter of Aristeas King Ptolemy asks one of the Jewish translators how a king should spend his leisure. The Jewish scholar responds by encouraging a king to attend plays “performed with propriety and to set before one’s eyes scenes from life presented with decency (met’ euschēmosunēs) and restraint….for even in such things there is some edification.”7 One further example from the first century, a papyrus whose provenance is not known, occurs in a copy of an oracle. It promises the recipient that “your livelihood will be for the better and your life will be distinguished (euschēmonōs).”8
Euschēmosunē becomes a virtue well-recognized and prized in Hellenistic society. It defines a respectable, decent, morally upright behaviour that society in general applauds and appreciates. When Paul urges the new Christians in the city of Thessalonica to act “so that your daily life may win the respect (euschēmonōs) of outsiders,” he wants their behaviour to win the praise of their non-Christian neighbours. Even though these people may not accept the religious ideas the Christians are embracing, they will have to acknowledge their moral decency and noble demeanour.
Paul used the same term to define appropriate behaviour when Christians met together to worship. He concluded his extensive discussion in 1 Corinthians 12-14 about the appropriate use of the gifts of prophecy and languages with the admonition that “all things should be done in a fitting (euschēmonōs) and orderly way.” Presumably this would contribute to God’s reputation, because the congregation would act decently and respectably. As well, it would defuse external criticism regarding Christian behaviour.
In his discussion about the followers of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 12 and his use of the body analogy, Paul employs this terminology in a slightly different way. He notes the human habit of clothing the less honourable parts of the body, which he concludes is an attempt to give them “special honour” (1 Corinthians 12:23). “The parts that are unpresentable (ta aschēmona) are treated with special modesty (euschēmosunēn), while our presentable parts (ta…euschēmona) need no special treatment” (1 Corinthians 12:23-24). The term “presentable” suggests that something has been adorned so as to be respectable and publicly decent. Paul turns the analogy in this direction in order to emphasize how God creates his body, i.e. the Church, employing diverse gifts and abilities, but He values every part and one part cannot consider itself more special to God than any other part.
Our behaviour as believers, both within the community of faith and also in general society, is extremely important. If people are to recognize Christ in us, then this requires believers to live and conduct themselves with the morale decency, the right living that characterized Jesus himself. To do any less dishonours God, disrupts the church, and harms the Gospel witness.
- Reflect carefully on 1 Thessalonians 4:11. Is it your “ambition” to conduct your life so that your behaviour “wins the respect of outsiders?” Is this currently the reality? Does anything need to change?
- Paul condemns “night life” in Romans 13:13 and urges a respectable, decent, almost noble behaviour. What would this look like in your context?
- How does your conduct within your community of faith contribute to a body life that is morally decent and well-ordered?
- 1 Also found in Mark 15:43; Acts 13:50; 17:12.
- 2 Josephus, Vita 32.
- 3 C. Spicq. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Volume II (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994):141.
- 4 Inscription at Delphi dated 150/149 BC in honour of a man named Athanadas of Rhegion. G.H.R. Horsley. New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 2 (Macquarie University, 1982):86.
- 5 G. Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume II (Grand Rapids: W.B.Eerdmans Pub.Co., 1964):771.
- 6 This is the only occurrence of the adjective in the Greek Old Testament. The noun, as we have seen, is used in IV Maccabees 6:2.
- 7 Aristeas to Philocrates (Letter of Aristeas), translated by Moses Hadas (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1974):212-213, section 284.
- 8 G.H.R. Horsley, op.cit., page 37.