What Is Christian Duty? – How Christians Ought to Conduct Themselves

What is Christian duty?

Most people never bother to ask or answer this question. They call themselves Christians, and they assume that this makes them Christian.

And if you call them out on this shallow form of belief, then they become angry and defensive.

But some people understand that to be Christian requires more than the statement of a few sentences. Then they recognize a certain duty is required.

And this brings them to the question:

What is Christian duty?

The duty of Christians is to engage in those activities which promote virtue and will improve the state of the future life. Christian duty does not treat utility as a factor. When utility and virtue are at odds with one another, a Christian must place virtue first.

This is the answer that St. Ambrose gives to the question in his work, On the Duties of Clergy.

And the explanation he gives in it is as true today as it was then. Just as the God from whom morality arises has not changed since then, neither have the criteria for knowing proper Christian duties.

Now let’s explore how Christian duty is rightly understood.

What Is Christian Duty? – How Duty Was Understood Before Christianity

The early Greek and Roman philosophers beleived that duties arose from two sources: convenience and virtue. This belief led them to develop the following method for determining one’s proper duties in a given situation.

  1. First, a person should identify the virtuous course of action.
  2. Second, they should identify the convenient course of action.
  3. Third, the person should determine the better of the two.
  4. After the better has been identified, that action becomes the actor’s duty.

These same philosophers divided the virtuous and the useful courses into four classes.

Classes of Virtuous Action

  1. Actions which preserve the continuation of life.
  2. And those which preserve its dignity.

Classes of Convenient Action

  1. Actions that are convenient.
  2. And those which enhance one’s power.

And the early philosophers expected that dutiful people would choose the best action after accounting for these four classes.

The Problem with Pagan Duty

The Problem with the Early Classes of Virtue

People Don’t Care About Life

The overwhelming majority of all the people in the world do not care about life.

They may say they do, but they’re lying in order to feel morally superior.

It feels morally superior to say, “I value human life.”

And it feels morally inferior to say, “I don’t value human life.”

So people say the former statement while the latter is true.

They lie in order to protect their image.

Why People Don’t Care About Life

People want what they don’t have, and they try to obtain it.

Yet once they get it, they begin to take it for granted.

So they stop caring about it.

And life is one of those things. People take their lives for granted because they have never been without life.

Much in the same way that a a person who has always been well-fed does not know hunger and, therefore, does not fear it, so too is a living person unafraid of death.

If you live ina highly populated area, then you observe this contempt for the continuation of life on a daily basis.

Here is a brief list of things people commonly do to show contempt for their continued existence.

  • They text/drink while driving
  • They antagonize strangers (who may very well be violent psychopaths)
  • And eat massive amounts of junk food
  • They waste their brief time on earth playing video games and watching television
  • And they engage in casual sex with strangers and contract all kinds of diseases in the process

The Formal Argument Against Life

The argument agaisnt life is a type called an argument from desire.

A man who is thirsty desires water because he lacks it.
A man who is tired desires rest because he lacks it.
And a man who is thirsty desires water because he lacks it.

Yet a man who is alive has his desire to live satiated by his living. So he no longer desires it. To desire life, then he would need to be dead, but a dead man lacks the ability to desire anything.

A similar argument was used by Thomas Aquinas to defend the existence of God.

If that’s true, then why are people afraid of dying?

Peoplea re not afraid of dying. The thing which is often identified as a fear of death is actually a fear of something else that has been misidentified.

Some people are afraid of the things which would lead to death, e.g., being buried alive.

And others fear that they will not have left enough behind at the time of their death.

“What will I pass on to my children?”

And others still are afraid of being forgotten after death.

“Please let people put flowers on my grave.”

But nobody fears death itself.

So, what does this mean for the classes of virtue?

It means that people do not act in order to preserve life. They might act in order to preserve its dignity, but this requires an understanding of what dignity is, and most people do not have that.

But most people do understand convenience and gain. They know the difference between convenient and inconvenient, and they know the difference between more and less.

Therefore, most people consider the convenient and acquisitive choice to be the “best” one.

So nearly all decisions that people make are made for the sake of convenience and gain. Virtue as the early philosophers described it is then ignored when they make their decisions.

So their decisions are usually without virtue. (Although they sometimes stumble into it.)

And this makes them look bad, which is inconvenient.

So, in order to avoid looking bad, people lie about their motives and claim that their actions were taken for virtuous reasons.

And the ethics of the early philosophers supported this behavior because the lie was convenient and deemed the “best” decision by the one who told it.

So the pre-Christian sense of duty, when followed according to its own standards, had the effect of producing people who said and did whatever was convenient or desirable and then lied about how their selfish actions were taken for noble reasons.

How could the early Christians not reject this?

What Is Christian Duty? – Christians Must Affirm Virtue

The duty of a Christian is to live a virtuous life. This is because the purpose of Christian living is to move oneself closer to God and to prepare for the life of the world to come.

Moreover, those things which are convenient and acquisitive are not only not worth pursuing, but detrimental to one’s own wellbeing.

Virtuous living is often inconvenient and requires one to maintain their principles even when doing so may cause momentary loss.

Should you steal if you think you can get away with it? The person who acts on convenience says, “Yes,” and does it. Then he makes excuses for himself. The Christian recognizes that this behavior breaks multiple commandments.

Moreover, one of the consequences of the Fall of Man, which Christians must accept, is that the world has entered a sort of corrupted state.

And many (all?) things within it cannot be cleansed by any earthly means.

So to pursue the acquisition of material goods, social roles, power, etc. is to pursue things which have been corrupted.

And to pursue them is a silly thing to do, expecially when the pursuit exists ast odds with one’s virtues.

What IS Christian Duty? – Saint Ambrose on Duty

The earliest Father of the Church to write much on the topic of Christian Duty was Saint Ambrose in On the Duties of Clergy.

He writes:

Chapter 8

The word Duty has been often used both by philosophers and in the holy Scriptures; from whence it is derived.

  • Since, therefore, the person concerned is one fit to write on the Duties, let us see whether the subject itself stands on the same ground, and whether this word is suitable only to the schools of the philosophers, or is also to be found in the sacred Scriptures. Beautifully has the Holy Spirit, as it happens, brought before us a passage in reading the Gospel today, as though He would urge us to write; whereby we are confirmed in our view, that the word officium, duty, may also be used with us. For when Zacharias the priest was struck dumb in the temple, and could not speak, it is said: And it came to pass that as soon as the days of his duty [officii] were accomplished, he departed to his own house. We read, therefore, that the word officium, duty, can be used by us.
  • And this is not inconsistent with reason, since we consider that the word officium (duty) is derived from efficere (to effect), and is formed with the change of one letter for the sake of euphony; or at any rate that you should do those things which injure [officiant] no one, but benefit all.

Chapter 9.

A duty is to be chosen from what is virtuous, and from what is useful, and also from the comparison of the two, one with the other; but nothing is recognized by Christians as virtuous or useful which is not helpful to the future life. This treatise on duty, therefore, will not be superfluous.

  • But we measure nothing at all but that which is fitting and virtuous, and that by the rule of things future rather than of things present; and we state nothing to be useful but what will help us to the blessing of eternal life; certainly not that which will help us enjoy merely the present time. Nor do we recognize any advantages in opportunities and in the wealth of earthly goods, but consider them as disadvantages if not put aside, and to be looked on as a burden, when we have them, rather than as a loss when expended.
  • This work of ours, therefore, is not superfluous, seeing that we and they regard duty in quite different ways. They reckon the advantages of this life among the good things, we reckon them among the evil things; for he who receives good things here, as the rich man in the parable, is tormented there; and Lazarus, who endured evil things here, there found comfort. Lastly, those who do not read their writings may read ours if they will — if, that is, they do not require great adornment of language or a skilfully-treated subject, but are satisfied with the simple charm of the subject itself.

Some Verses on Duty

Here is a brief collection if Bible verses pertaining to the topic of duty.

  • Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10)
  • Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up. (Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
  • Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
  • Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:11-12)
  • If you love Me, keep My commandments. (John 14:15)
  • Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)
  • Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. (Romans 16:17-18)

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

Recent Posts