Stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ saving mankind in the Cathedral of Tours, David W T Brattston

If A consents to B committing a sin, does A thereby sin also? Does A sin if A provides a gun or poison to a person intent on killing when A knows their intended purpose? Is a mere conspirator guilty as well as the actual perpetrator?

The answer is “yes” according to the Bible and its first interpreters who preserved Jesus’ interpretations of it and His oral teachings.

First and oldest is Proverbs 1.10 in the Old Testament: “if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” In the New Testament, Paul appears to consider himself in some way guilty of the death of Stephen because he consented to the execution and minimally assisted by being temporary custodian of the clothing of those who actually used the weapons (Acts 22.20). First Timothy 5.22 warns the reader not to “be partaker of other men’s sins”. The Bible applies this to seemingly minor matters: 2 John 11 forbids even wishing God’s blessing on a heretic “For he that biddeth him God’s speed is a partaker of his evil deeds”.

Christian writers of the first half of second century concurred. According to the “Sentences of Sextus”, approving or sanctioning a sin renders it unbearable. The “Sentences” were very popular and widely distributed, translated into many languages. The “Revelation of Peter”, which some would include in the Bible, describes the place and torments in hell of “murderers and those who conspired with them”. The “Traditions of Matthias” were even stricter as to the culpability of a person who in any way contributed to a given sin without actually perpetrating it:

They say in the traditions that Matthew the apostle constantly said, that “if the neighbour of an elect man sin, the elect man has sinned. For had he conducted himself as the Word prescribes, his neighbour also would have been filled with such reverence for the life he led as not to sin.”

In the AD 180s Bishop Irenaeus in southern France forbade consenting “to those who act wickedly.” Clement of Alexandria, dean of Christendom’s leading educational institution in the AD 190s, counselled praying only with people of the most sinless character “For it is a dangerous thing to take part in others’ sins.”

In late second- or early third-century Carthage, Tertullian, a former lawyer and the founder of Latin Christian literature, maintained that we must abstain not only from actual sin but also from the means by which other people can sin:

For although the fault be done by others, it makes no difference if it be by my means. In no case ought I to be necessary to another, while he is doing what to me is unlawful. Hence I ought to understand that care must be taken by me, lest what I am forbidden to do be done by my means.

Giving examples, Tertullian wrote that because fornication is forbidden to Christians, so also are keeping a brothel and pimping, and because murder is against God’s law, so is training people to kill. More succinctly, after describing evils in another book: “It is not enough that we do no such things ourselves, unless we break all connection also with those who do”.

Clement’s successor became the most outstanding Bible scholar and preacher of the first half of the third century. Origen preached that a person can be polluted not only by his own sin but also by associating with an actual malefactor, e.g. by being friend of someone who is malicious, idolatrous, adulterous, or given to rages, without personally practising the wickedness. To avoid liability for another’s sin, it is necessary to separate oneself from a seducer of wives, person who hates his brother, and the sacrilegious. In support of his position, Origen quoted Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 5.9-11 that Christians are not to eat with or otherwise associate with a Christian who is a fornicator, idolater, slanderer, drunkard, or extortionist.

Thus we come full circle, with a Bible interpreter summarizing the previous literature.

Article by David W T Brattston
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