In 1663 when Bunyan was cooped up in prison and expecting to be executed, he wrote a little conduct manual called Christian Behaviour. Though Bunyan’s fear of execution was based on a misunderstanding of the law, it was not unreasonable for him to be concerned for his well-being because the conditions in prison were horrible. If you were in the same situation, what would you write about?
The concern weighing heaviest on Bunyan’s heart was that his family and congregation would live out the Christian life in practical love. He clearly articulated this in his conclusion: “Thus have I, in few words, written to you (before I die) a word to provoke you to Faith and Holiness, because I desire that you may have the Life that is laid up for all them that believe in the Lord Jesus, and love one another when I am deceased.”Though some may want to write off Bunyan’s instructions as outdated and even oppressive, it is clear that his introduction, description of life roles (including husband, wife, parent, child, master, servant, and neighbor), and conclusion revolve around the theme of love, which is both timeless and empowering.
- Introduction: Faith Works by Love
First, Bunyan explains the relationship between faith and good works. He is adamant that works flow from faith (not vice versa), but also argues that good works are a necessary part of the Christian life. Works must flow from faith because that is what defines a good work; it is axiomatic. He explains, “Good Works must come from a good heart . . . [and] from love to the Lord Jesus . . . For Faith worketh by love, and by that means doth good, as Gal. 5. 6.”In other words, good works cannot be carried out without knowing that God loves you and forgives your sins, which is what faith reveals and uses to comfort and enliven your soul; good works live by the ongoing strength of Christ, which is communicated to the believer through faith. On the other hand, works are also necessary to prove one’s salvation to others. To support this point Bunyan repeatedly uses the biblical analogy of fruitfulness—that living plants always produce fruit. Showing his literary skill, he warns: “take heed of being painted fire, wherein is no warmth; and painted flowers, which retain no smell; and of being painted trees, whereon is no fruit.”
- The Husband’s Love
Next, Bunyan describes the specific good works to be done as a husband, wife, parent, child, master, servant, and neighbor. The husband must love by governing the family both spiritually, in order to “increase Faith”and externally, by providing for physical needs. To increase faith, he must lead his family in private worship (i.e., praying, reading Scripture, and talking about God together), lead them to public worship, and protect them from heresy. Bunyan warns husbands that when they provide for physical needs, they should not let work distract from spiritual duties: “to feed, cloath, and care for, is as much as heart can wish” since going beyond that is greed.The husband also maintains harmony in the home, not tolerating sin against God but also knowing when to humbly “pass by personal injuries” and “bury them in oblivion [since] Love covereth a multitude of sins.”If married to a believer, the husband should thank God for her, doubly love her, and carry himself to her as Christ does. Overall, their relationship is characterized by a sense of sweetness.If married to an unbeliever, the husband should think about her lost state in order to develop sympathy for her, act rightly so that she does not have occasion to imitate sin she sees at home, overcome the evil she does with goodness, patience, and meekness, try to convince her of the gospel by “speak[ing] to her very heart,” and make sure everything he does is “without rancor, or the least appearance of anger.”
- The Wife’s Love
The wife must love her husband by looking to him as head and not gossiping, wasting time on ungodly activities, or dressing immodestly. However, Bunyan clarifies, “do not think that by the subjection I have here mentioned, that I do intend women should be their husbands slaves. Women are their husbands yoak-fellows, their flesh and their bones. . . the wife is master next to her husband, and is to rule all in his absence.”Bunyan counsels the wife with an unbelieving husband to strive all the more to live a holy life and to be patient with her husband’s sin in the hopes of “win[ning] him to the love of his own Salvation.”When her husband is in a tender mood or is convicted of some sin, the wife should use that opportunity to speak respectfully and sympathetically to him about the gospel. Sharing the gospel must be accompanied by gentle behaviour so the latter becomes “an argument that thou speakest in love.”
- The Parent’s Love
Fathers and mothers must love by acting rightly before their children and bringing them up in the Lord. They can do the latter by instructing them with gentleness and words they understand, and only teaching them the truth and not fables. When correcting their children, they must first “see if fair words will win them from evil” for “this is God’s way with his Children, Jer. 25. 4, 5.” This is done by “speaking calmly and giving scriptural support for their words.”Though parents must show their dislike of naughtiness, this should “be mixed with such love, pitty and compunction of spirit, that . . . [the children] may be convinced, [their parents] dislike not their persons, but their sins.” Again, “this is God’s way, Psa. 99. 8.”
- The Child’s Love
In return, children must love by obeying and honoring their parents, considering their parents better than themselves instead of scorning them. They should be willing to help their parents since they brought them into the world, cared for them when they were helpless, and went through the painful ordeal of raising them. If one’s parents are unbelievers, one should yearn for their salvation, speak wisely, bear with their “railing and evil speaking,” and look for opportunities to share the gospel.
- The Master’s Love
Masters must love by treating their servants with respect and care like they would their own children so that they “may become [their] spiritual Son[s] in the end, Prov. 29. 21.”They should see their role as an opportunity to do good; Bunyan exhorts, “know that it is thy duty so to behave thy self to thy Servant, that thy service may not only be for thy good, but for the good of thy Servant, and that both in body and soul.”This means masters should not overwork their servants and thus turn them into slaves (which would make them more like “Israels enemies than Christian Masters”), threaten them, set a bad example for them, misrepresent the work when hiring them, or underpay them.Rather, they should behave well towards them so that their servants have nothing to complain about. In sum, masters should learn from Christ how to treat their servants, and in the end they are to perform the same good works as a servant, namely, completing their tasks “as to the Lord, and not to men.”
- The Servant’s Love
Servants must love by remembering that they are not on the same level as the master’s family but are hired to do good work for them; even if the servants are equally a part of Christ’s family as their masters are, there is still a hierarchy in the workplace. Though they work not with that which belongs to themselves but to their master, they serve God above all: the servant’s “work in [their] place and station . . . [are] as really God’s ordinance, and as acceptable to Him, in its kind, as is Preaching, or any other work for God.”
- The Neighbor’s Love
Neighbors must love by being courteous, charitable, and gracious, always ready to meet the physical needs of others (especially of the poor), talk about the gospel, and use kind language, rather than use offensive or provoking language, gossip, serve themselves, and talk about religion but never do anything to help others. Christians should also look out for other Christians and protect those who are weaker in their faith; overall, they should “comfort the feeble minded, confirm the weak, 1 Thes. 5. 14.”Neighbors should especially ward against the destructive sins of covetousness, pride, and adultery.
- Conclusion: Sin is Against Love
Recognizing that loving is a hard thing to do, Bunyan avoids discouraging his readers by pleading, “My Friends, I am here treating of Good Works, and perswading you to fly those things that are hinderances to them; wherefore bear with my plainness when I speak against Sin; I would strike it through with every word, because else it will strike us through with many sorrows, I Tim. 6. 9, 10.”
Overall, some of Bunyan’s beliefs about relationships would be rejected or adapted by Christians today,and most (if not all) of his beliefs would be rejected and ridiculed by the secular world. However, it is clear that Bunyan wrote Christian Behavior so that the people he ministered to would love each other. He proves this purpose by repeatedly giving descriptions of respect and affection in the family, workplace, and community. Bunyan’s message is clear: no matter who you are and what roles you fill—which will change in different stages of life, manifest itself in different ways depending your culture, and sometimes be in direct opposition to the world’s ways—you are called to find the loving way to act and choose it.
John Bunyan, The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan, eds. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976–1994), 3:62.
 Ibid., 3:28.
Ibid., 3:29. Bunyan contrasts this with using “unsavory and unseemly words in thy chastising of them, as railing, mis-calling, and the like,” which is “devilish.” Ibid., 3:29-30.
Ibid., 3:30–31. Lynch comments that “the importance of upholding such a distinction [between hating a person and hating the person’s sin was] a key concern in manuals of spiritual conduct” in Bunyan’s time. Beth Lynch, John Bunyan and the Language of Conviction(Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004), 91.
Ibid., 3:18, 26, 30.
Either for theological or contextual reasons.