Sunday Meditations: God Incarnate

There’s an old joke that is in every preacher’s Bag o’ Sermon Illustrations that goes something like this:

A man’s neighborhood began to flood.  Many of his neighbors had evacuated.  Others left with early rescue efforts.  But this man was a man of faith and believed God would save him, so he prayed earnestly.

Presently, some people in a long rowboat came by.  “Get in the boat!” they yelled.  “We have enough room and can get you out of here!”

“Thank you, but no,” said the man.  “I have faith that God will save me.”  And he returned to his prayers.

Over time, the waters rose.  The man had to move to the second floor of his house.  Outside, a motorboat pulled up outside his window.

“Come out the window!” they called.  “We’ll get under you and you can drop to the boat!  We’ll take you to safety.”

“No,” replied the man.  “God Himself will save me from the flood.”  And he went back to praying.

The waters rose, and the man had to climb up onto his roof.  Eventually, a helicopter flew overhead.  A man leaned out with a megaphone and said, “We’re going to drop a ladder down to you!  Climb up and we’ll take you to safety.”

The man cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “No!  God will save me!”

Eventually, the waters rose over the man’s head, and he drowned.

As he was ushered into Heaven, he made his way to God’s throne room and said, “I don’t mean to complain, but I died in a flood, and I prayed constantly for you to save me!”

“I know,” said God, “but what else did you want Me to do?  I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat, and a helicopter.”


The reason this joke plays to us is because we understand that the man in the story is expecting God’s intervention to be a dramatically supernatural affair, and because of this, he’s not only blinded to, but actively rejects, the more mundane forms of salvation that get presented to him.  Because they are mundane, he does not discern the salvation of God behind them.

When we read the Bible, we are drawn to the big fire and light shows of God’s supernatural intervention.  But the glare from those displays obscures the much more common portrayals in the biblical stories – that perfectly “natural” things occur, but God’s purposes are behind them.

When Israel goes to battle with nations far more powerful than herself, she does not expect that a giant warrior surrounded by blazing light will appear before her or that a horde of angels with fiery swords will carve a path through the enemy.  Yet, she does expect to win the battle – with swords and spears and casualties.  However, because God is with her, she expects success even in the face of overwhelming odds.

The spread and cure of disease.  The intervention of nations.  Peculiar cattle breeding results.  The kindness of strangers.  All of these perfectly “worldly” things are presented to us in the Scriptures as (potentially) manifestations of God in the world.  The Semitic concept of a miracle isn’t necessarily something that disrupts the natural order of things, but rather is a clear sign from God.  This may include the sun standing still in the sky, but it also includes the birth of a baby at an opportune moment.  A man levitating in front of his house is not a miracle because it signifies nothing, but meeting a foreigner who waters your cattle for you or receiving a child you’ve prayed for can be miracles because of what they signify.

This continues through the New Testament as well.  The sharp division we draw between “physical” and “spiritual” or “natural” and “supernatural” just does not seem to exist in the New Testament.  The upcoming war with Rome, casting out demons, the spiritual reformation of Israel, the manifestations of the Spirit, the spread of the worship of Israel’s God to the Gentile nations – these things are all part and parcel together and roll together as a narrative about what God is doing in the world.  It is we, not the Scriptures, who have filtered anything out of the narrative that reeks of the material or political.

And we do this to our detriment.

Sure, this principle can be misused.  Every time a hurricane hits, some televangelist ascribes it to the judgement of God for some perceived sin or another.  And if you and I should meet when I am experiencing tragedy in my life, you are not allowed to mention “God’s plans” to me for some time.

But these abuses do not change the fact that the narrative we receive from Scripture is that, while God is capable of doing big, supernatural, dramatic things, these are noteworthy for how unusual they are.  What is far more common are the simple mechanisms of biology, physics, politics, and the human heart operating at a level that everyone can observe, but with eyes of faith see that God is in them.  The spiritual work of God is incarnate in the dirt, spit, and blood of history, both in the larger picture of God’s people through history and our individual lives as well.

How often, for example, have we prayed and prayed to God for guidance, for internal peace about a stressful situation, or to sanctify us in a particular area and help with our struggle with a particular sin, and yet we don’t tell a single human being about any of this?

One of my favorite, wonderful, messy passages in the Bible is James 5:13-18:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

James 5:13-18 (NRSV)

I love that passage for bundling all that together.  You pray, you talk to your elders, you confess your sins to one another (as opposed to God alone), and it is through these mechanisms that you will be healed.  Healed physically?  Healed spiritually?  Forgiven?  yes, all of those things.  It’s all a ball of wax to James, and it involves other people.

Because, you see, barring some dramatic supernatural event, God will not verbally assure me that my sins are forgiven.  God will not verbally counsel me or offer me words of encouragement.  God will not physically hug me.

But a human being – created in the image of God and a temple of His Spirit – can do all those things.  The search for communion with God ought not create lives of isolation, but rather lives of community with those who carry His image into the world.  The search for His mighty works should not focus on fires from heaven or a miraculous cure of disease, but rather the spread of His love and justice in the world and the powers of death being beaten back in laboratories, hospital tents, revitalized communities, and disaster recovery centers.

And perhaps an individual whose life is on a direct course to its own destruction begins to course correct.  They have an internal prodding to be different.  They find hope, support, and guidance from others who have walked that path before them.  Perhaps a life of patterns and behaviors that have all but stripped that divine image from them begins to fracture and a new life begins to emerge.  Is that simply healthy human interaction or good psychology?

Yes.  I also call it a miracle.


Sunday Meditations: Hope of an Afterlife

I’ve been a little blog silent for a while.  The series on how ethics are pursued in the Bible (and beyond) was an intensive effort for me, and I was all meditated out.

When I was in college, I asked a guy in my Intro. to Philosophy class if he would still be a Christian even if he would still end up in Hell.  After class, he caught me on my way out and said, “Probably not.”  That kind of honesty is what spurs good spiritual growth.

The ideas around what happens to us after we die are a big part of the messaging in the evangelical world, today.  The entire story of God and His people is told in a way that orients it around what is perceived to be the key problem: sinners who die go to Hell.  This begs a solution: Jesus paid the penalty for your sins so, if you believe, you will not go to Hell and will go to Heaven, instead.  This also defines an ongoing ethic: Try to help as many people not go to Hell as possible and, along the way, make sure you are living/believing in such a manner so as not to end up in Hell, yourself.

I’ve written before about some of the weaknesses I think this story has, both from a biblical perspective and a practical one, and I don’t plan on revisiting all that.  I do want to use it to stage a question: how much of our Christian hope hangs on a specific idea of the afterlife?  It’s a worthwhile question for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that, even though the subject of what happens after death does arise in the Bible a fair amount, it’s hard to take all the biblical data and create a picture that makes all the data fit nicely and neatly.  Depending on what passages you look at, some sound like death is simply the end.  Others sound like our spirits all collect in some common place.  Some indicate an ongoing spiritual experience that can include reward or punishment.  Other passages seem to indicate a physical resurrection.  Some passages indicate that we are conscious and aware after death, while others describe the experience as being “asleep.”

Arranging the material chronologically helps some, especially as we pull in commentary and extrabiblical literature to help us out.  We begin with the idea that everyone dies and goes to a final rest that is more or less common to everyone.  The way your life continues in world history is through your descendants, hence a huge Old Testament emphasis on having lots of children that is not really picked up in the New Testament.

As we move forward, we pick up ideas like their being places of imprisonment or bliss after you die.  There are pictures of national resurrections of Israel that cause / overlap with / become a nascent hope of a physical resurrection.  By the time we get to the end of the New Testament, we have two resurrections: one of the martyrs at the time of the coming of the Son of Man, and one at the final judgement.

But even this does not give us sharp boundaries.  These historical ideas of the afterlife are not like Neapolitan ice cream with well-defined strata.  Bits and pieces of these ideas end up in places we would not expect them, going in both directions.  Diversity exists on the issue at many points in biblical history and in the church going forward.  So, today, while we might generally agree on some common eschatological elements (e.g. the Apostles’ Creed “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”), what happens to us after we die is murky and seems always to have been – for obvious reasons, I guess.

But the second reason is more practical.  I sometimes wonder if our conception of the afterlife does not become our source of trust and hope as well as our motivator for action.  In other words, it becomes an idol.

Death is a scary prospect, and the older I get, the more this specter likes to hang around.  We don’t want to die; we want to go on.  But there is a subtle, yet important, difference between saying, “I am not afraid of death because I trust that God will take care of me, even beyond death” and saying “I am not afraid of death because I know I’ll be in Heaven after I die.”  One of those commitments urges us to commit our spirits into the hands of God believing He will do the right thing.  The other commitment urges us to believe in a particular metaphysical outlook and draw our confidence from our certainty in that concept.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that trust in God for what happens to you after you die and a belief in Heaven are incompatible.  But my question is: where is your trust, really?  What if you don’t go to Heaven when you die?  What if you wink out of conscious existence until God restores you in a new earth?  Or, to really challenge ourselves, what if God had given no indicators about resurrection at all?  What if, when we died, we just stayed dead and that was that, as far as we know?

My point is this: if we take away your certainty about the afterlife, do we also take away your devotion to God?  What is the basis of your faith?  On what grounds is God worthy of worship?  Are loving God with all one’s heart and loving your neighbor as yourself worthy pursuits even if the reward of an afterlife isn’t waiting in the wings?  Is your pursuit of following Christ primarily a mechanism by which to ensure your own survival?

Like most things, this is a process.  I believe at this point in my life, I am slowly (sloooooooooowly) coming to the position of trusting God instead of my cherished outcomes, and I like to think this is a deepening of what it means to have faith – to recognize that my Self is not something I created and does not belong to me by right.  It was given.  It’s a gift.  When the time comes when I no longer have that gift, I can throw myself into God’s arms trusting that, whatever He’s going to do, it will be right.

And when we look back at those little intrusions of the hope of resurrection into the earlier parts of the Old Testament, we discover something interesting.  This forecast does not come from supernatural revelation, but from someone assuming that God will keep His promises and concluding that the grave cannot be the end.  The faith of those saints was not in a doctrine of the afterlife or a specific conception about exactly what would happen, but their trust was in the faithfulness of God.

And if God has made promises, and God is trustworthy, and God is capable of delivering on them, there is nothing that will prevent that from happening, not even death itself.  In this way, the hope of a life after death is a negotiable byproduct of first and foremost being convinced about who God is and what He is like and placing your trust in that God, both for the trajectory of this life and whatever may come afterward.

Thursday Meditations: Biblical Ethics, Pt. V – Conclusions

There are a few more case studies that would be interesting to cover.  I would have liked to have covered the laws on where to offer sacrifices – laws that changed completely three times along with Israel’s circumstances.  I would have liked to have looked at the dietary laws and their oddly selective transformation in the New Testament.  But I think we’ve looked at enough data to be able to draw some conclusions, and there are other things I’d like to get on to.  Matthew isn’t going to devotionalize itself.

The first thing I want to say isn’t a conclusion from this data so much as a frame of reference.  If you are a Christian, whatever your position is on homosexuality or gay marriage, any discussions we have about those issues must come from the standpoint that LGBTQ Christians are your brothers and sisters serving the same Lord you are.

They have the same Spirit that you do.  Their sins have been completely forgiven as yours have.  They are co-heirs of the promises as you are.  They have entered the kingdom as you have.  God is as pleased with them as He is with you.  He loves them, is delighted by their presence, protects them, and is for them – just as He is with you.  He will bring them safely through any eschatological crises, as He will you.  They confess the same Lord, share in the same baptism, and eat the same spiritual food and drink the same spiritual drink.  Any discussion involves you sitting on the same side of the table in genuine communion and fellowship and love, one with another.

If you are not there, and especially if you are unwilling to get there, then you ought to keep your Statements to yourself and work on the beam in your own eye before you help your brother or sister with theirs.  I think the whole tenor of the discussion of homosexuality in evangelicalism would be radically different if everyone actually befriended at least one gay Christian and walked the road with them of being a Christian in the world – a struggle and opportunity we all share.  Perhaps, then, these discussions would take place in an arena of genuine love and concern for each others’ welfare and not the BS “it’s loving to point out sin!” kind of “love” that is a sad veneer over disgust, ostracism, and often straight-up hatred.

As we looked at various ethical cases in the Bible, we had an eye on how ethical reasoning around that issue worked within the Bible itself and how that impacted later reasoning in the church.  What we discovered is that even the most serious and elevated of commandments were open to discussion, change, and sometimes even outright elimination.  When these things happened, it was rarely because of some new instance of divine revelation, but rather changing circumstances that confronted the people of God in new ways.

The Bible itself seems to contradict strongly the idea that a given ethical injunction is automatically a timeless truth to be rigorously and universally applied regardless of circumstance.

When we looked at the Sabbath, we saw laws that were universal in their outlook, rooted in a creational ordinance, and carried the death penalty for violation.  We saw those same laws challenged by Jesus.  We watched them morph into matters of personal preference in the Pauline epistles.  In the course of early church history, we saw the “special day” move from Saturday to Sunday.

At each of these pivot points, no new Scriptures had been written to change, say, Paul’s mind on the issue or establish Jesus’ ad hoc hierarchy for breaking the Sabbath.  Surely nothing was received that told anyone to move Saturday to Sunday.  All these things were the product of God-honoring reasoning reflecting on these laws and the current circumstances and changing landscapes in which the people of God found themselves.

Note, these are not just weird little side laws – this is the Sabbath, and the penalty for violating it is death.  To us, it’s just a matter of course that the “special day” is Sunday, and how one chooses to observe it – strictly or not – is a matter of personal devotional practices.  We cannot appreciate the gravity of these changes until we can place ourselves in the mindset of Jews who would rather let the soldiers of Antiochus Epiphanes kill them than to break the Sabbath laws given to them by God through Moses.

We looked at circumcision and found that it was the only way for Jews or Gentiles to be considered in covenant with God, and refusal to be circumcised was grounds for expulsion from the community.  When an influx of Gentiles became believers and received the Spirit, there were certainly those who, naturally, insisted they follow the laws for Gentile converts.  Because, you know, they were Gentile converts.

Yet, the church debated the issue.  Much debate, the Scriptures say, on an issue that is clearly and expressly set down in Scripture.  This council did not have the benefit of Paul’s later theological rumination, nor did Jesus say anything on the subject.  Yet, they saw fit to discuss the issue and, at the end of the discussion, decided not to require the Gentiles to be circumcised, even though the Bible told them to.

And on what grounds?  Solid exegesis?  No, the apostles just offered testimony to their experiences that the Gentiles were receiving the Spirit even though they weren’t following the Law of Moses, so what was the point in forcing them to do so?  This phenomenon is the keystone argument in Galatians.  Once again, today, circumcision is a matter of indifference, even though we have Scripture informing us that if the Galatian converts became circumcised, they would be required to keep the whole Law and Christ would be of no value to them.

When we looked at the issue of slavery, we found the principle upheld in both Old and New Testaments.  The only evolution in thought on this issue seems to be that, within the church, there was no partiality shown between masters and slaves, and they were instructed to care for one another because they both served the Lord.  But slavery as an institution is never challenged, nor the idea that a slave is property.  We looked at how slavery was and wasn’t different in the ancient world from slavery as we’ve seen it in the past few centuries, and we noted that in the American evangelical debates on slavery, the conservative, white, exegetical position was pro-slavery, accusing their opponents of theological liberalism and conforming to social pressures.  The black theologians argued, also from the Bible, against slavery, and their views were taken up by revivalists (perhaps they saw the activity of the Spirit among slaves?).

Today, almost everyone agrees slavery is wrong.  They argue that people are not property no matter how nice you are about it.  They argue this from biblical grounds, although we have forgotten this is at least one issue where white, conservative theologians exegeted wrongly where black “liberal” theologians were correct.  The appeals to the broader, more dominant themes of Scripture trumped the letter of the law in this case.

Finally, we looked at deception in the Bible and discovered that, as roundly and solidly condemned as lying is in the Scriptures, there were still situations where the letter of the Law was trumped by the particular circumstances at the time.  Higher values came into play, and we saw how the Bible lauded the moral choices of people like Rahab who lied to her government to protect spies.

One thing that often unites Christians and atheists is a craving for certainty.  We want to feel like we know what we know, and what we know is rock solid.  Ambiguity does not sit well with us and, especially for those trying to construct a moral system from theism, we especially don’t like ambiguity in our ethics.  We want to know what’s right and wrong so we can always try to do the right thing and avoid the wrong thing.

The problem is that this desire for certainty, which can be a good desire (it can also be an idol), often keeps us from seeing how the Bible actually operates.  We want it to be a manual or a textbook.  We want it to lay out plainly that this is true, that is false, this is right, and that is wrong.  Because that’s what we want, that’s what we construct.  The Bible becomes that thing whether it actually is that thing or not.

Unfortunately, the Bible is not actually a manual.  It is not an instruction book for life.  It is an anthology of writings that testify to a people’s journey with the God who created the heavens and the earth.  It’s stories, songs, governing documents, letters, and collections of wise sayings.  It is from this collection that the people of God prayerfully reason together and find it to be useful in lighting the way forward.

In the Bible itself, we have seen that even the most serious of laws are up for genuine discussion.  Nothing in the realm of the church’s ethical reasoning is ever settled simply by appeal to a proof text (or many proof texts).  And, oddly enough, not only can our understanding of laws change, our relationship to those laws can change, too.  We see this in the Scriptures.

And we certainly see it as the church moves forward from age to age.  Was it wrong, for example, for Christians who were part of the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape from their masters in light of 1 Timothy 6:1-4?  Were such people actually heroes with whom God was well pleased?  What Scripture would you point to in order to establish that?  The fact is that there is no text that says that people who help slaves escape their masters are behaving morally.  That is a conclusion the church drew from looking at her circumstances and understanding the commands in Scripture through the lens of higher principles taught in those same Scriptures.

Does this mean, then, that homosexuality is ok and gay marriage ought to be the law of all lands?

It does not necessarily mean that, but what it does mean is that the church is acting biblically when she re-examines her understanding and relationship to the commands in Scripture as her circumstances change.

The majority of the LGBTQ community are Christians.  This is something that was not on Paul’s radar.  Many of them want to express their sexuality within the confines of a monogamous covenant of marriage – the same covenant that sanctifies heterosexual relations.  This is something that definitely was not on Paul’s radar.  Wherever you stand on these issues, we need to have a better response to these dear brothers and sisters in Christ than, “Well, sorry, the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, so… I guess we’re done, here.”

We’re not done here.  The people in the Bible itself weren’t done, there.  If we want to be “biblical” about these issues, we should be creating the Nashville Question.  Agree with me, disagree with me; I hope you can see that I’ve taken pains to deal with the Bible on this topic, and from what I see, when the church is confronted with new circumstances, or even individuals confronted with extenuating circumstances, what you’re supposed to do is hear all sides and figure this out, not simply appeal to some texts and declare the issue settled.  For most Christians, this issue is settled before we even start talking, and this is not biblical.

And if we want to approach our moral reasoning like Jesus, we absolutely must see law through the lens of love.  Loving our neighbor as ourself was Jesus’ plumb line for whether or not you were interpreting and practicing the Torah correctly.  And for the record, he did not seem to think that viewing the Law through love simply meant pointing out violations of the Law; the Pharisees were happy to do that.  Satan is happy to do that.

Jesus seemed to think it meant actually showing actual love in concrete ways to actual people.  If we can decide up front that showing love in concrete ways – not legal compliance – is our goal in these discussions, then I’m optimistic that, wherever we land, it will be in a place that benefits everyone and pleases God.

Someday Meditations: Biblical Ethics, Pt. IV – Deception

We are coming to an end of our case studies.  I feel like the basic points I want to make have some grounds for discussion by now, and I’ll draw those together in a summary post of conclusions after this if I don’t make a last minute decision to look at one or two more issues.

This particular case study was an afterthought that arose in a discussion I was having with a good friend about Romans 13.  How wide should we draw the boundaries of Paul’s command to submit to the government.  One of the examples we discussed was hiding Jews from Hitler’s forces in Nazi Germany.

This seems to us like a simple moral choice.  If Jews are trying to escape with their lives and ask to hide in your house, you let them.  If Nazi soldiers show up asking if you have Jews hiding in your house, you say no.

But from a model that states that our moral decisions start and stop with the text in the Bible, that simple moral choice becomes kind of difficult to justify, because not only are violating Paul’s command to submit to the government, but you are violating the multitude of injunctions against deception in Scripture.

I’m guessing I don’t have to go through the exegetical work of establishing the point that the Bible teaches us that lying is wrong.  There are many passages about dishonesty of all kinds with all sorts of applications.  In the Old Testament, we find this in Law:

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:11-12 (NRSV)


You destroy those who speak lies;
    the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.

Psalm 5:6 (NRSV)


There are six things that the Lord hates,
    seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
    and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
    feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
    and one who sows discord in a family.

Proverbs 6:16-19 (NRSV)


The villainies of villains are evil;
    they devise wicked devices
to ruin the poor with lying words,
    even when the plea of the needy is right.

Isaiah 32:7 (NRSV)

Obviously, this is a very small sample of a rather large amount of verses that forbid deception and note it as a hallmark characteristic of the wicked.

Jesus also has this same view of deception.  Among the passages we might examine, here is one of the more dramatic ones where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being children of the devil when they seek to kill him:

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 

John 8:44-45 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

In the rest of the New Testament, we have several commands about lies and deception.  One example is Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices

Colossians 3:9 (NRSV)

And for the purposes of our discussion, it’s also interesting that Paul lists “liars” in the same list as “sodomites” and “slave traders” when it comes to disobedience:

This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

1 Timothy 1:9-11 (NRSV)

And liars are listed as those who will be consumed by the second death in John’s Apocalypse:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

Revelation 21:8 (NRSV)

So, in a complete surprise to no one, we find lying and deception condemned in every genre of biblical literature.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you pull up your favorite Bible translation online and do a search for words like “lie” or “deceit” and various forms of those words, you’ll begin to wonder if the Bible talks about anything else.

Unlike some of our previous examples, there does not appear to be a time when lying moves from a serious ethical breach to a matter of personal preference.  What may surprise some people, though, is that lying is, at various times, condoned by God, recommended by God, and lauded.

It should be noted that all of our examples will come from narrative passages.  There is no statement I’m aware of in the Bible that commends lying, although Jesus comes dangerously close in one example that we’ll look at.

Our first example comes from the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1.  Here, Pharaoh wants to control the Israelite population, so he commands the midwives to kill any male children born to the Hebrews.  The midwives respond by… not doing this, and then lying about it when questioned.

But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

Exodus 1:17-21 (NRSV)

Because the midwives refuse to kill the children and then lie to Pharaoh to throw him off the track, God deals well with them and gives them families.  This is also, I might add, not very submissive to the government.

Speaking of lying and not being submissive to the government, perhaps one of the most lauded examples comes from the story of Rahab who hid two Israelite spies who were scouting out Jericho before an invasion.

Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof.

Joshua 2:3-6 (NRSV)

Rahab extracts an oath from the spies to deal well with her and her family when they invade, they agree, and this is what happens in Joshua 6.  If that’s all we ever heard about this episode, we could just write it off as a woman who saw where the political winds were blowing and lied to save her own skin.

The New Testament, however, has a different take:

By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

Hebrews 11:31 (NRSV)

Rahab makes the Faith Hall of Fame list in Hebrews 11 along with luminaries such as Moses and Abraham.  According to the author, the reason Rahab lied to the government was not to save her own skin, but because she had the same faith that the patriarchs had – she saw the fulfillment of Israel’s promises from far off, and because she genuinely believed them, she acted accordingly, prompting this stunning statement from old, codgery James:

Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?

James 2:25 (NRSV)

Rahab is James’ example of a person who was justified by works that were a result of saving faith.  Do you know who else James uses as examples?  Abraham and… no, that’s it.  Abraham and Rahab are James’ two examples of people who had true faith that produced works by which they were justified.

And what was this great work of faith that earned Rahab such accolades?  She lied to her king about knowing the men were spies and where they went so that his soldiers would go off on some wild goose chase while she hid them in her house.

The next example I want to look at is Samuel’s anointing of a new king of Israel.  There are many (many) examples of David lying to save his bacon, but the example I want to look at is interesting because it is a command from the Lord:

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

1 Samuel 16:1-5 (NRSV)

Now, I will grant that what God tells Samuel to do is not a blatant falsehood.  Samuel does take a heifer and does invite Jesse to the sacrifice.  However, clearly the whole reason the sacrifices happens is to provide a cover story for Samuel going to anoint a new king of Israel.  He is afraid Saul will kill him, so God gives him a cover story so he can tell Saul with a straight face, “Hey, I’m here to sacrifice to God.  No big deal, right?”

It’s deceptive.  This is the kind of technicality that gets people in trouble with their spouses.  “But I -did- go out to pay Steve the $20 I owed him.  We just happened to do it at a strip club.  But I told you the truth!”

“But I did sacrifice to the Lord,” says Samuel, “I just also happened to invite a man whose son I anointed king of Israel while you were still alive.  But I told the truth!”  Only the strangest ethical calculus would say this isn’t deceptive.  The whole reason the whole thing exists is because Samuel knows Saul will kill him if he knows the truth.  This whole thing is designed to conceal the truth from Saul.

If you still think that this technically does not constitute God-sanctioned lying, let’s take a look at an example from maybe my favorite prophet – Michaiah:

Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘How?’ the Lord asked him. He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.”

1 Kings 22:19-23 (NRSV)

There is a much more entertaining version of this story in 2 Chronicles 18, but the vision above is the same in both cases.

Here, God wants to destroy Ahab, so he asks his hosts who will trick Ahab into going into battle at Ramoth-gilead, knowing that He would destroy Ahab through this mechanism.  A spirit volunteers, God asks how he plans to accomplish it, and the spirit comes up with a simple plan, “I’m going to lie to all his prophets.”  God says git ‘er done, and there we have it.

While technically God is not telling the lie, Himself, He is most definitely authorizing it.  What’s more, this lie is being passed along to prophets so that they will give false prophecies, and these false prophecies, if successful in convincing Ahab, are all designed so God can kill him in battle.

You have to admit, this is a bit tricky to square with a plain reading of the ethical injunctions in the Old Testament.  Or the New one.  I can’t imagine Paul read that story and shook his head and thought, “Well, there’s one spirit who isn’t entering the kingdom of heaven.”

By the time we get to the gospels, lying is still bad, as we saw.  Jesus does not recommend that anyone lie.  There is a tricky bit regarding Jesus and a feast:

Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.

John 7:8-10 (NRSV)

This would count as a lie if Jesus purposefully intended to deceive his brothers.  I’m not sure that’s what happened.  The text tells us that he knew “the Jews” were looking to kill him, so he wanted to lay low, and his brothers are here telling him he should parade about so everyone can see the works he’s doing.  I think it’s just as likely Jesus didn’t intend to go when he had the conversation and then changed his mind after they left.

But I’m just speculating, there.  The text just says that Jesus said he wouldn’t go, and then he went in secret, anyway.

What I wanted to draw our attention to, however, is Jesus’ words about the coming tribulation and how the disciples are going to survive it.  In more than one case, Jesus commends those who will take his disciples in and take care of them when they are being persecuted by the powers that be.

For example, in Matthew chapter 10, Jesus spends almost the entire chapter warning his disciples about the upcoming persecution they will experience in Jesus’ name.  He warns that they will be dragged before councils and synagogues, kings and governors.  They will be turned in by their own people, even their own families.  But he encourages them to have faith in God’s care and their eschatological vindication.  Then, at the end, he mentions the people who will take care of his persecuted disciples.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

Just taken by itself, this passage just seems like basic hospitality.  But it isn’t on its own; it’s part of a speech where Jesus is warning them about days of persecution by both the religious and secular authorities and the people who will betray them.

So, these people Jesus describes are not just showing hospitality in a neutral environment – they are people who are taking in and caring for Jesus’ followers even in the midst of the government and synagogue looking for their blood and everyone out to turn them in.  While it is not a command to lie to anyone directly, it most certainly involves shielding these people from the government, very much like Rahab in that way.

Perhaps one of the more difficult statements Jesus makes in this vein is in Luke chapter 16, the parable of the unrighteous manager.  The parable goes that a rich man is about to fire his manager because he believes the manager has been squandering his money.  The manager, not knowing how he’ll survive, begins to negotiate the debt of everyone who owes his master money, lowering it so that they will treat him well when he’s out on the street.  The rich man finds out about this and commends the manager for his cleverness.

Jesus sums up the moral of the story with a statement that has given commentators fits since:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Luke 16:8-9 (NRSV)

Turns out that this dishonest manager is the hero of the story, and Jesus wants his disciples to learn a thing or two from this guy – use your (dishonest) money to make friends with the people who can take care of you so that, when you have nothing, they will welcome you into their dwellings into the coming ages.

There are some dicey translation issues, here, and I don’t want to minimize them.  I sure don’t want to make Jesus say more than he’s saying.  But the one part we really can’t work our way around is that the dishonest manager who squanders his master’s money and cuts deals behind his back to save his own skin is held up as a model of cleverness for the disciples to emulate so that they, too, will survive when they have nothing.

And yet, we have the dramatic story in Acts 5 of Ananias and Sapphira who both lie about the amount of money they are sharing with the other believers, and both are struck dead by the Holy Spirit (being slain in the Spirit isn’t a good thing, folks).

So, which is it, Bible?  Is it ok to lie or not?

If I had to sum up “biblical teaching” on whether or not it is ok to lie, I’d put it like this: “No, but it also depends on the situation.”

Despite the exceptions I’ve pointed out, there is a massive torrent of injunctions against lying, both direct and indirect, from Genesis to Revelation.  There’s probably even something about lying in the maps in the back; I don’t know.

And yet, despite the overwhelmingly clear and voluminous testimony in the Scriptures that lying is forbidden, the exceptions exist.  Someone lied and God rewarded them.  Someone lied because God came up with the idea.  Someone wanted to lie and God gave His approval to the plan.  But these testimonies do not make us conclude that it must actually be all right to lie, nor do they make us conclude that lying is a matter of indifference to God.

What appears to be the testimony is that, as bad as lying is, there are extraneous circumstances – such as protecting God’s faithful from the government – where lying is actually the right thing to do as far as God is concerned.  And it is interesting that this is part of Israel’s testimony, yet it does not create a slippery slope where everyone just decides it’s ok to lie, now.  Somehow, the people of God through the ages knew that there were certain situations where God condoned lying, yet also that by far and away lies were not ok and, in fact, are often told for very selfish reasons and not to save lives, for instance.

But how were these people to know?  How were the Hebrew midwives supposed to know God approved of their deception?  Or Rahab?  Well, it appears that they didn’t have documents to consult.  They acted out of faith.  I am tempted here to draw a connection to Romans 14, but I’m afraid that might be overstating the case.

My point in this case study is not to establish precedent for sinning if you think sinning is the right thing to do.  It certainly isn’t to deny that there is black and white just because grays are present.

It is, however, to point out that even THE clearest of moral injunctions in the Bible do not become abstract authorities against which there can be no thinking.  You do not get to shut your Moral Reasoner off just because the text seems like a clear prohibition (or commandment) to you.  That is not the end of the issue, even for something as basic and obviously wrong in the Scriptures as lying.

Sunday Meditations: Biblical Ethics, Pt. III – Slavery

For this case study, I’d like to walk through the biblical data on slavery to see what sort of position we would form on the basis of that data, and then look at what has actually happened theologically in church history.

Obviously, slavery was an omnipresent reality in the ancient world, and it would be greatly anachronistic to expect any society to share modern views and values on the subject.  But that’s part of the point – are the biblical laws about slavery meant to be understood within the context of their times and culture, or are they transcendent ethical standards meant to be applied by the faithful people of God for all time?

First on our stop is also a passage about circumcision – the covenant with Abraham:

Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised.

Genesis 17:12-13 (NRSV)

This passage does not make ethical injunctions about slavery per se, but it does show us that Abraham owned slaves, and this agreement is meant to last “throughout your generations,” which seems to foresee a rather long period of time when Abraham’s descendants would own slaves.  Abraham is not asked to free the slaves as part of his covenant with God.

When we talk about slavery-related laws, there are lots of them.  There are far more laws in the Old Testament related to slaves than there are to many other things, including homosexuality.  Exodus 21 is illustrative of some of these laws, for example:

When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.

Exodus 21:2-3 (NRSV)

Here, we have instructions for what to do when you buy a Hebrew slave who is a man.  He gets a year of jubilee.  If he had a wife before you bought him, she gets to go as well.

On the one hand, given the times, this is a pretty progressive law.  Given that slavery existed everywhere in the Levant, the idea that you would release your slaves on the seventh year debt free is liberal by comparison.  Note, however, that this only applies to Hebrew slaves who are also male.  This liberality takes an unfortunate turn in the following passage:

If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

Exodus 21:4-6 (NRSV)

In this scenario, if the slave’s owner gives him another slave to be his wife, she and her children do not get released with the male slave.  The master keeps them!  But if the released male slave does not want to leave without them, he can instead pledge to be a slave forever and stay with them.

Does that make you cringe a little?  We can only imagine the kinds of things slave owners might have done to make this stick, essentially using the slave’s wife and children as leverage into perpetual servitude.  And if the master was a brute, we can only imagine what sort of man would leave his wife and children behind in such circumstances.

If you had any romantic ideas about the Old Testament laws on slavery not being that bad, I’m afraid the picture does not get much better.

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.  And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

Exodus 21:7-11 (NRSV)

Here we have a scenario where a man sells his daughter into slavery.  She does not get set free in the seventh year like the male slaves do.  The “please her master” almost assuredly means in a sexual way because the owner designates her “for himself” as opposed to designating her “for his son,” thus treating her as a daughter in law, and other laws apply “if he takes another wife to himself.”  But even if we could argue it doesn’t necessarily mean sexually, this still isn’t great.  If the master doesn’t want to keep her, he must allow someone else to buy her as long as the buyer isn’t foreign.  If he sends her to his son, he has to treat her as a daughter.  If he takes another wife, he can’t shaft the slave her fair share of food, clothing, or “marital rights.”  If he won’t do any of that, she gets to go free.

Once again, you see elements in here that would be very progressive for the ancient Levant, but it’s all under an umbrella of terrible, by our lights.  It’s like a nation promising to torture their prisoners less than other countries might.

Then we get into laws about murder and the death penalty, and here we find a light:

Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

Exodus 21:16 (NRSV)

If you kidnap someone, even (or especially) if you intend to sell them as a slave, you will be put to death.  Here is where apologists might see a condemnation of modern day slavery or slavery in America the past few centuries.

This is interesting because it implies there is something different about the slavery regulated by the Torah and slavery as we’ve seen it in the past couple of hundred years.

And this is true.  Slavery in the ancient Levant and slavery in the Roman Empire did not look in some ways like the slavery Americans are familiar with from our nation’s history.  It was largely an economic arrangement that was entered into “willingly” by the person going into slavery.  I put that in quotes because we can only use that term very loosely.  Slaves who become slaves because they are in inescapable debt, or who are captured in war by victors and want to live, or who are daughters sold by their fathers can only be called “willing” in an almost ridiculously broad usage of the term.  But it is true that the slavery the Old Testament describes is not someone kidnapping people from a specific people group to sell them to someone else, or professional slave trade as we would think of it, today.

Time to get back into not so great territory:

When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.

Exodus 21:20-21 (NRSV)

Once again, it’s very progressive for the time to mandate the death penalty if you kill a slave.  But if you beat them and don’t kill them outright, everything is ok because the slave is your property.

Let that sink in for a minute.  According to biblical law, a human being is property that you own and you can beat that human being as long as you don’t kill them.  The Bible says this.  God’s word says this.

We still have miles to go before we sleep, here, but the point I’m trying to make is this: these biblical laws are formed in and conditioned by particular historical circumstances that occur under a particular worldview.  To us, the idea that a human being is property and you can hit them because of this is horrendous.  In the ancient world, it’s a given.  Nobody in Moab would read Exodus 21 and go, “What an incredible human rights violation!  This is disgusting!”  They would read it and go, “Wait, you kill a master if he kills the slave?  Huh.  Interesting.”  The idea that a slave becomes property is inherent in the worldview at the time and the laws are conditioned with that idea and, more pertinent to our discussion, do not challenge that worldview.

You might bring up points like all mankind having a common ancestor in Adam or all humans being in the image of God.  All well and good, but where is that in Exodus 21?  Remember, this is not the law of the land that Israelites happen to find themselves in; this is their own Law – the Torah.  This is their Law in their Land, and nobody seems to find an incongruity between being in the image of God and beating your slave because that person who can feel pain and cry is your property.

Are you beginning to see how reasoning about ethics from the Bible begins to be more complicated than reading the words on the page?

Here, we might notice that some verses are coming up that limit the beating clause somewhat:

When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.

Exodus 21:26-27 (NRSV)

This is the lex talionis as applied to slaves.  If you injure them permanently, they go free.  Once again, progressive for the times.

But consider this: if you destroy the eye or knock out the tooth of a non-slave, you will lose your own eye or tooth.

Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.

Leviticus 24:19-20 (NRSV)

The other laws in the Old Testament with regard to slavery directly or the consequences for laws as they apply to slaves do not get any better, I’m afraid.  What’s interesting is that these are the laws for a people who used to be slaves in the land of Egypt.  It perhaps reminds us that, although there may be some legislative nods to trying to be more humane to slaves than the Egyptians, the core premise of slavery is completely unchallenged: slavery is completely permissible, and a slave is property.

There are those who come to the defense of the view of slavery depicted in the Bible by stating that the Bible is interested in personal salvation and not social reform.  I think this is about 90% wrong, but even were I to agree with this, that excuse doesn’t work here.  These are laws for Israel to be Israel in Israel.  Laws by Israel for Israel prohibiting slavery wouldn’t be social reform; they would be Israel defining their own behaviors as a nation.

And Israel having practices distinct from the nations around them is par for the course, not some revolutionary oddity.  It’s actually part of their identity.

For instance:

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.

Deuteronomy 18:9-14 (NRSV)

All the nations around you do these practices, but God forbids you to do them because He finds them abhorrent.  In fact, this is the very reason annexed to the laws prohibiting homosexuality in Leviticus 18:

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 18:2-5 (NRSV)

So, clearly, there is no impetus in the Law to make provisions for what everyone else is doing.  This is not simply a matter of making a legal concession to the pervasiveness of slavery in the ancient world.  There are other laws where God says, “The other nations do this practice, but I forbid it for you.”  That does not happen with slavery.

Jesus does not say anything directly about the practice of slavery, but he clearly presupposes it.  He tells parables involving slaves and, in one example, posits that ignorant slaves will only be punished a little bit by their master (Luke 12:47-48).

Certain biblical interpreters are fond of telling us that, if Jesus doesn’t specifically countermand it, we should assume he has the traditional Jewish view of things, if not stricter.  If we follow that principle (and I’m not saying we should), then those same people are basically forced to have Jesus thinking slavery is ok and beating them is ok as long as you don’t kill them or injure them permanently.  And those little girls sold into slavery by their fathers should think about pleasing their masters.

We have no direct evidence that Jesus thought differently about the Old Testament laws concerning slavery unless we appeal to broader principles espoused by Jesus, such as his instructions that those who would be greatest must become slaves of all, or that part of the greatest commandment is loving one’s neighbor as oneself, or his passion for the poor and downtrodden over and against those in power or the rich, or many other broader views and principles that would seem not to mesh well with the view of slaves and human beings we find in the OT slavery laws.

But think about what you’re doing when you do that.  You’re using the broader principles Jesus taught and demonstrated to establish that he must have thought differently than the Old Testament laws.  Is this because you don’t believe the Bible?  Is this because you want to permit sin?  Is it because you have capitulated to modern culture and sensibilities instead of accepting the God-inspired word on slavery?  No, it is because the man Jesus Christ appears to you as someone who operates under different governing principles than Exodus 21.  Keep this in mind the next time you’re talking with someone about Jesus’ views of same sex marriage.

It is here that we come to an important fork in the road compared to earlier case studies in this series.  In the case of the Sabbath, we have New Testament scriptures that countermand the Old Testament Sabbath laws, at least somewhat.  We also have New Testament scriptures that countermand the circumcision laws.  Do we have such passages to countermand slavery?

No, we do not.  We have the exact opposite, in fact.  Paul is not only fine with slavery, he issues commands about keeping it running smoothly in a godly way.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

Ephesians 6:5-8 (NRSV)

If you are a slave, Paul commands you to obey your masters with fear and trembling as if they were Jesus, himself.

Now, like the Old Testament laws, Paul does have some progressive things to say about slavery.  In the same passage mentioned above, Paul tells masters not to threaten their slaves because they both serve God and God does not distinguish between them.  This is a real step up from being property that can be lawfully beaten, but slavery is not condemned or discouraged in any way.  Instead, the slave-master relationship is actually cemented further in the New Testament.

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties. Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godlinessis conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.

1 Timothy 6:1-4 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Ok, well, that doesn’t sound good.  Not only are slaves supposed to honor and serve their masters, anyone who says otherwise does not agree with Jesus and teaches ungodliness.

Granted, there is a progressive element, here.  Slaves are not supposed to be disrespectful to their masters if their masters are believers.  This only makes sense if the church did not treat slaves and masters differently.  The idea here is that this social distinction does not exist among fellow Christians, but that’s no excuse for slaves not to respect and obey their masters.

Once again, that’s an improvement, certainly, but masters owning slaves is still a present, condoned condition.  In fact, if the early church really believed there was no distinction between masters and slaves, and slavery was wrong, we’d fully expect Paul commanding them to set their slaves free.  That’s a logical implication, right?  But, no, the institution of slavery gets to stand, and if anyone teaches that slaves do not have to serve their masters, they are disagreeing with Jesus, according to Paul.

Some have looked to other New Testament passages in an attempt to make Paul’s position more along the lines of dealing with a necessary evil.  Paul doesn’t like slavery, in other words, but it’s a present reality in the world and he’s just trying to manage it in a godly way.  For example:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)

And, indeed, it does seem that showing partiality in the church to this or that group was strongly discouraged.  However, Paul does not consider this to be a social absolute.  For example, he gives commands about men and women in the church, and this would make no sense if there were truly no longer male and female distinctions.  In fact, this would be a great argument for same-sex marriage if Paul meant that, with respect to following Christ, there was no male or female, Jew or Gentile, free or slave.

Another passage we need to look at is the letter to Philemon.  Here, Paul runs into a slave named Onesimus while he is in prison.  Onesimus converts there, and Paul sends him back to his master (the aforementioned Philemon) and says:

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Philemon 15-16 (NRSV)

In the first place, it’s actually sort of unclear if Paul intends for Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery.  Paul says in this letter he almost kept Onesimus for himself, and in 15-16, he may simply mean for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in the Lord, more than a slave, but not actually free him from his obligations.

There are some subtle digs that I enjoy in this letter, though, and they may indicate Paul intends for Philemon to set Onesimus free, such as:

but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Philemon 14 (NRSV)


Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Philemon 21 (NRSV)

and my favorite

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Philemon 22 (NRSV)

Yes, Philemon.  Thanks to your prayers, I’ll be coming around in person to see how things are going, praise God!

But even if what we are seeing here is Paul urging Philemon to free his converted slave, this is obviously an exceptional case given Paul’s instructions to Christian slaves and masters, elsewhere, and it is perhaps the exceptional nature of this letter that caused it to be circulated and achieve canonical status.

So, what have we learned about the biblical data on slavery?

Old Testament: Slaves are property that can be bought and sold.  You can also beat them as long as you don’t hurt them too badly.

Jesus: No data, but presupposes the existence of slavery.  Does not speak for or against, but espouses principles and ways of viewing people that seem incompatible with the Old Testament view of slaves as property.

New Testament: Slaves can be bought and sold are commanded to obey their masters as if their masters were Jesus Christ himself.  However, slaves and masters are equals before God and, therefore, are not allowed to treat each other badly.  If you tell a slave he doesn’t have to obey his master, you disagree with Jesus and teach ungodliness.

In both testaments, slavery is not only permitted, but slaves are commanded to obey their masters, even though varying degrees of mistreatment are implied.  There is not a single verse that addresses slavery that forbids it, overturns it, or even indicates that God doesn’t like it but is allowing it for the time being.

So, obviously, the conservative evangelical position on slavery today is that slavery is just fine, and that slaves should obey their masters, and neither slaves nor masters are allowed to mistreat each other, and in this way God is honored through how slavery is done.  Right?  I’m looking forward to the Council on Biblical Slavery and Mastery issuing a statement on the matter, because if anything else, our churches are preaching exactly what Paul told us not to.  We need someone to stand up for the biblical teaching on slavery and remind us that slaves need to be obeying and honoring their masters as unto the Lord Himself and condemning that liberal, sin-loving secularist Abraham Lincoln.

No?  No takers?

It may or may not surprise you to learn that the ridiculous situation I just described is, in fact, exactly what happened in America when the abolition issue was being debated.  My white, male, Presbyterian theological forefathers overwhelmingly defended the practice of slavery on biblical grounds and asserted that anyone who disagreed was giving in to the culture, being liberal with the Scriptures, not caring what God said in His word, etc.  The number of white theologians arguing for abolition basically defines the term “statistically insignificant.”

Every bit of “A Southern Christian View of Slavery” by James Thornwell is worth reading to get the barometer of conservative theologians on this issue.  Allow me to quote a couple of passages:

In answering this question, as a church, let it be distinctly borne in mind that the only rule of judgment is the written word of God. The church knows nothing of the intuitions of reason or the deductions of philosophy, except those reproduced in the Sacred Canon. She has a positive constitution in the Holy Scriptures and has no right to utter a single syllable upon any subject except as the Lord puts words in her mouth. She is founded, in other words, upon express revelation. Her creed is an authoritative testimony of God and not a speculation, and what she proclaims, she must proclaim with the infallible certitude of faith and not with the hesitating assent of an opinion. The question, then, is brought within a narrow compass: Do the Scriptures directly or indirectly condemn slavery as a sin? If they do not, the dispute is ended, for the church, without forfeiting her character, dares not go beyond them.

Now, we venture to assert that if men had drawn their conclusions upon this subject only from the Bible, it would no more have entered into any human head to denounce slavery as a sin than to denounce monarchy, aristocracy, or poverty. The truth is, men have listened to what they falsely considered as primitive intuitions, or as necessary deductions from primitive cognitions, and then have gone to the Bible to confirm their crotchets of their vain philosophy. They have gone there determined to find a particular result, and the consequence is that they leave with having made, instead of having interpreted, Scripture. Slavery is no new thing. It has not only existed for aged in the world but it has existed, under every dispensation of the covenant of grace, in the Church of God.

Honestly, I almost copied and pasted the whole thing.  It sounds exactly like the Nashville Statement and similar evangelical proclamations, articles, and books about homosexuality and/or same-sex marriage.

And Thornwell is not some isolated whackjob.  His sentiments were echoed time and time again by conservative white theologians in the states.  We have to turn to black theologians of the day to see counter-arguments, such as Theodore S. Wright.

We did see the banner being carried by revivalists, and it is among their number – Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley – that we begin to see respected white ministers (eventually) joining their voices to the abolitionist cause, but do you know who finally settled the arguments for the American evangelical church?

It was those great theologians Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

It is amazing to see how the church’s theology of slavery changed based on the strength of federal law in a given area.

Today, you will not find many conservative evangelicals arguing that slavery is fine as long as we do it in a biblical way – you know, in accordance with God’s perfect design.  Instead, it is “clear” to them that the Bible opposes slavery.  If they ran across slaves in another country, they would not tell them to obey their masters as if their masters were Jesus.  But two hundred years ago, it was “clear” to American evangelicals that the Bible opposed abolition.  Interesting, no?

As a side note, forty years ago, it was “clear” to American (Protestant) evangelicals that a fetus was not a person and abortion was not murder.  Dig yourself up an evangelical book on biblical ethics and check it out.  Funny what national politics does to biblical exegesis.

Nevertheless, when you ask Christians today on what grounds they think the Bible is opposed to slavery, the answers will revolve around two, main pillars.

Pillar One: the slavery described in the Bible is not the same as the slavery we’ve seen in the last few centuries.  The cultural institution and expression of slavery has changed, so we can’t understand the OT laws or Paul’s instructions as applying to slavery as we see it, today.

Pillar Two: although individual proof-texts in the Bible can be marshaled to support slavery, the overarching, dominant biblical themes of equality, liberation, and loving your neighbor as yourself have to take priority over the individual, isolated texts.

I agree with both of those pillars, and if you think carefully, you might think of another issue where those pillars might be applicable to the conversation.

Saturday Meditations, Biblical Ethics, Pt. II – Circumcision

I was originally going to knock all these case studies out once per day over the last week, but because of the events in Las Vegas, I decided I and everyone else needed some breathing room from, well, everything else.  National tragedies are not the appropriate times for broadcasting one’s theological thoughts on completely unrelated topics.

The second case study I want to look at is circumcision for Gentile converts.  While there is a lot of data on circumcision in both Scripture and midrash, there is very little about Gentile conversion.  Almost all of it comes from midrash examining the Old Testament stories of Gentile conversions.

There are, however, a couple of places where the matter is addressed directly in Scripture.  First, the institution of circumcision found in Genesis 17:

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Genesis 17:9-14 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Here, we see that the sign of circumcision is given to Abraham and his descendants, but also people who are not Abraham’s descendants who are slaves, even foreigners.  Anyone who will not be circumcised will be removed from the covenant people.

The actual law for dealing with Gentile converts, however, comes from Exodus 12, the institution of the Passover, in which a “mixed crowd” leaves Egypt with Israel (12:38):

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised; no bound or hired servant may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the animal outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. The whole congregation of Israel shall celebrate it. If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it; there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.

Exodus 12:43-49 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Here, foreigners who want to participate in Israel’s religion become circumcised, and then they are treated as native Israelites.  We know this law was written some time after the events the Exodus describes because it refers to them being “regarded as a native of the land,” which obviously means the settled Promised Land, not the Egypt of Exodus 12.

Nevertheless, the instructions from God are very clear.  As long as a foreigner is uncircumcised, they are treated as a foreigner.  To be considered as an Israelite in Israel’s religion, they had to be circumcised, and then they were considered a native Jew.  And if the Israelites purchased slaves (slavery will be a later Case Study), they were expected to be circumcised.

The sign of circumcision marked you as a faithful Israelite, even if you were a Gentile.  Outside of that sign were the outsiders and pagans, even if you were an ethnic Jew.  If you were a descendant of Abraham and were not circumcised, you would be cut off from your people.

Jesus does not address the issue other than to experience circumcision (Luke 2:21).  Some urge us that, if Jesus does not address an issue directly, we should assume he has the traditional Jewish view of the issue and, if we go that route, we would conclude that Jesus believed that circumcision was the necessary sign of the covenant, both for Jews and for faithful Gentiles who wanted to convert.

There are no Scriptures prior to the experience of the apostles later in the first century that tell us that circumcision is meant to be something temporary or only apply to Jewish people.  There are no Scriptures that tell us that circumcision becomes a matter of indifference.  In this respect, circumcision is an even stricter case than the Sabbath, because Jesus had a fair amount of things to say that mitigated strict observance of Sabbath laws.  Here, on this topic, we have none of his words.  We have no reason, from the Old Testament Scriptures or the Gospels, to believe that circumcision for both Jews and Gentiles is no longer a required act to belong to the covenant people.

Then we get to Acts and various epistles in the New Testament, and here’s where the ethics begin to take a turn.  Once again, to take the position that Gentile converts do not need to be circumcised is entirely against the Bible up to this point.  It is not a debatable issue, and both the texts and historical, orthodox practice are quite clear on the subject.

However, in Acts 15, we find that the advocates for the biblical position in verse 1 run afoul of Paul and Barnabas.  Paul and Barnabas have actually been evangelizing among the Gentiles, and they argue with the Scripture-quoters.  And on what grounds?  Other Scriptures?  Exegetical grounds?  No, as we’ll see in a moment, they argue solely from their witness of the historical circumstances of the people of God at the time.

Well, Paul, Barnabas, and various other key types head up to Jerusalem to discuss this issue, and there was much debate, according to verse 6.

Whoa, wait a second.

“Much debate?”

What is there to debate about?  There are a very small number of passages that deal with this issue and they clearly come down on a certain side of the issue.  It is interesting and informative that the Bible itself records that the church had much debate on an issue that was so clear and settled from a Scriptural point of view.  While someone at the Council might have said, “Look, the Bible clearly spells out what Gentile converts are supposed to do.  We are never told it’s ok to do anything else, or that we shouldn’t do this anymore.  It’s settled.  We’re done, here,” that’s not what those holy and inspired apostles actually did.  They debated and weighed the arguments and tried to figure out what to do with this new wrinkle in church history.

And keep in mind, Gentile converts are not new.  There were Gentile converts when the laws were written.  Gentile conversion had been around for a few thousand years and the Bible’s position on it never changed.  So, what did change?  What made an otherwise settled issue suddenly up for “much debate?”  Well, let’s hear from the apostles.

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Acts 15:7-11 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Peter has zero Scriptural or exegetical evidence in his argument.  And of course he doesn’t; what verses speak to this subject are very clear.  There is no way Peter can take those verses and somehow make circumcision for Gentiles a matter of indifference.

Peter’s argument, instead, is experiential.  He’s been ministering to the Gentiles, they believe, and they receive the Holy Spirit just like the Jews did without having to be circumcised, first.  Obviously, then, circumcision is unnecessary.  And not only unnecessary – if the Council decides to require it, they aren’t just being conservative on a matter of indifference – they are “putting God to the test.”  They are sinning, according to Peter.

Well, from an exegetical perspective, this is pretty unimpressive.  Peter is just arguing from his experience.  “I ministered to Gentiles.  God gave them the same Spirit we have.  They did have to have faith before He did, but they didn’t have to be circumcised before He did.  So, once they had faith as we did, there’s obviously no distinction between us, so circumcision is just giving God the finger in this case.”

Maybe the great theologian Paul will lay down some awesome exegetical work to help us see the Law differently.  Hit us with it, Paul!

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Acts 15:12 (NRSV)

Um… what?  Hey, can you call Romans Paul over here?  Maybe some cool fusion of argumentation from the Old Testament being fulfilled in Jesus with the truths plain in natural revelation?  Maybe something that helps us understand the Law in a different way?

No, what Paul has to offer you on this issue at this point is just the observation that, like Peter, he and Barnabas had been ministering to the Gentiles and saw the same, amazing things.

Paul and Peter know what the Bible says on this issue.  They believe the Bible.  They love the Bible.  They aren’t sin-loving liberals trying to weasel out of an inconvenient practice.  They know what the Law says to do, but they also know what they’ve experienced among the Gentiles, who through faith have been cleansed in their hearts and received the Spirit with no further steps.  They did not need circumcision, nor are they encouraged to receive circumcision after conversion as a step of faithful obedience.  In fact, they are discouraged from it (by Peter, at least).

James, then, makes the final decision, and for the first time, we see some Old Testament.  But James does not use the Old Testament to back up reasoning on circumcision; he uses the Old Testament to explain that Gentiles are being incorporated into the people of God, and this fits with Old Testament expectations.  So, what are the steps of faithful obedience James wants to hold them to?

Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.

Acts 15:19-20 (NRSV)

This is basically a summary of the Noahide Laws and, interestingly, includes dietary restrictions.  What’s more, James feels these are reasonable expectations because these Gentile converts should be familiar with the Law of Moses from the synagogues even in foreign lands.

Nothing about this fits a nice theological category, does it?  The distinction between “ceremonial” and “moral” laws doesn’t bail us out, because there are dietary laws still enforced in the decision.  The transition from an old covenant that no longer applies to a new covenant that is in force doesn’t help us out much, either, because James still enjoins some old covenant laws and nobody the whole time ever argued their position from a strictly theological perspective – certainly not an exegetical one.

But, in one swipe, the biblical laws about circumcision for Gentiles are overturned, and word spreads fast.  Instances of Gentile circumcision drop into virtual nonexistence after the first century.

I hate to keep harping on this, but remember that there is NO biblical justification for the Jerusalem Council’s decision on circumcision.  Nothing from the Old Testament.  Nothing from the words of Jesus.  No prophetic visions about, I don’t know, a tablecloth full of uncircumcised Gentiles coming out of heaven for Peter to see.  Nothing.  Simply the experiences of the people ministering among the Gentiles that, even though they do not conform to biblical law, receive the Holy Spirit and have their hearts cleansed by God, and this, in the minds of the Council, obviates the need to have them comply with the Law in this respect, but still comply with the Law in other respects.

It is interesting that, in the moral reasoning of the church, today, all the dietary laws have been done away with, fulfilled by Jesus.  Obviously, we don’t think the decision of the apostles in Acts 15 is relevant to us, which raises another issue on moral reasoning in the church.  We theologized our way right out of an apostolic commandment.  I’m not saying we were wrong to do so; I just want to bring to your attention that James and the Council he represents makes a decision that Paul and Peter also agree with that some of the dietary restrictions should be observed by new covenant Gentiles, and today, we are totally ok with ignoring that.  I eagerly await the next evangelical declaration on eating animals that have been strangled or are served with blood (watch those rare steaks, guys).

As we observe the evolution in the Bible about Gentiles becoming circumcised, we see some radical statements from Paul.  Take for instance 1 Corinthians 7:17-20:

However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

1 Corinthians 7:17-20 (NRSV)

If you were circumcised when you were converted, keep it.  If you were uncircumcised when you were converted, don’t get circumcised.  Circumcision means nothing, but obeying the commandments of God is everything.

But circumcision is a commandment of God!  Quite clearly!  And even if you want to give some wiggle room to Gentiles, surely circumcising Jewish converts is a command from God!

Paul seems to think that getting circumcised or not has nothing to do with obeying God’s commands.

My point here is this: however we might explain Paul, here, one thing is clear.  The Bible up to that point explicitly has God commanding circumcision for Jews and Gentile converts.  In this letter, Paul explicitly says that circumcision is nothing, commands the uncircumcised to remain uncircumcised, and encourages them to obey God.

Whatever else we might make of this, I hope we can agree that, even within the confines of the Bible itself, moral reasoning on what the church is supposed to do at any given point in history does not and cannot limit itself to words that were written at a given point in the church’s history.

Just as clearly, this does not give license for people to do whatever they want, and the Scriptures are useful as we figure this out.  “Useful” is Paul’s word, not mine (2 Tim. 3:16) and is commensurate with one of my favorite images of the Law from the Psalms: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)  The word is not the path; the word assists me in seeing the path.  The way is the man Jesus Christ.  But I digress.

We hear more from Paul on this subject.  The issue of Gentiles being included in the people of God while many Jews reject Jesus as Messiah occupies a great amount of his letters and is pretty much the entire topic list for Galatians and Romans.  It would take a long time to survey Paul on this, so I’ll draw our attention to one particularly inflammatory moment:

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.

Galatians 5:2 (NRSV)

This is not the most inflammatory thing Paul says in Galatians.  That honor probably goes to 5:12.  But this is a rhetorically high point in Paul’s argument.  Much like at the Jerusalem Council, Paul reminds them that they received the Spirit through faith, not by observing the Law, so why do they want to start observing the Law, now?  In this chapter, Paul also gives the statement that circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing.

In 5:2, he explicitly tells them that, if they receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to them.

This is a fairly serious statement.  If a Galatian Gentile decides to be circumcised, they place themselves under the Law which will be bondage and sin to them and ultimately condemn them.  Israel had to go through that, why should Gentiles have to go through that?

But look at how far we are from God’s covenant with Abraham or God’s instructions to those foreigners who wanted to join with Israel!  We’ve gone from, “This absolutely must be done, and anyone who won’t do it will be cut off from My people,” to, “If you do this, Christ will have no value to you.”

As we look outside the scope of the Bible, what is interesting is that circumcision has, quite without the direct help of Scripture, become a matter of indifference for Gentiles.  I am circumcised (I’m sure you were all dying to know that) because of some thoughts about circumcision and health that were going around when my parents were making such decisions.  Is Christ of no value to me?  Am I now obligated to faithfully keep the Law of Moses, which will condemn me when I fail?  We kept the “circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing” part, but we left Paul’s actual reasoning in the dust.

“Well, hold on,” you might say.  “Paul uses that rhetoric and reasoning because of the specific situation in the Galatian church.  They are looking at circumcision as necessary to be faithful to Christ, and that’s why Paul says what he says.  He’s not laying down some universal truth that, if someone removes your foreskin when you’re a baby, you’re now obligated and condemned by the Law of Moses.”

I would totally agree, but now look at what you’re doing.  You are understanding the biblical writings on an ethical issue in terms of the specific historical situation in which they were written, and that determines both validity and application.

Hold that thought.  More case studies to come.

Sunday Meditations: Biblical Ethics, Part I – The Sabbath

So, yesterday’s post was a tee up for what I have been thinking about since the Nashville Statement came out: how is ethical reasoning presented to us in the Bible?

It might be tempting to use a model like, “God says it, so people do it.”  However, this isn’t actually how Jesus, the apostles, or even biblical writings that come later in church history actually handle instructions we find in the Bible.  I admit that I bristle a little when groups like the Nashville Statement signers refer to their position as “biblical,” because if they mean, “there’s stuff in the Bible that sounds like our position,” then yes, their position is biblical.  If they mean, “Our position reflects the ethical reasoning on this issue that is employed in the Bible,” then they’re actually not very biblical at all.

I want to say at the outset that how we as a church respond to the (mostly) contemporary phenomenon of homosexual men and women genuinely wanting to express their sexuality in a manner faithful to their Lord is a complex issue as the broad range of views indicates.  I’m still working through it (although, I want to add, if I make an error, it will be on the side of loving my neighbor as myself, fyi), and it would have been helpful if the “scholars” who signed the Nashville Statement would have done something more along the lines of research or, I don’t know, actually asking gay theologians for their thoughts on being gay and Christian and how they’ve reconciled that as part of crafting a statement on what it means to be gay and Christian.  Maybe later, a bunch of evangelical men could issue a statement on abortion without consulting any women!  Ha ha… ha… uh… hrm.

Anyway, what follows is not an apologetic.  It’s a look at some test cases in biblical law and ethics and their evolution over time.  Homosexuality in the church will be my referent, but this is ultimately about how we use the Bible to determine ethics for anything.

Case 1: Abstaining from Work on Saturday

In Genesis 2, God completes creation on the seventh day and rests.  He blesses it and hallows it.  This is a part of creation before the Fall.  It is the theological justification attached to the fourth commandment of the Decalogue:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Exodus 20:8-11 (NRSV)

Yom shabbat is Saturday.  It is not “one seventh of the days” or anything like that.

Here is an elaboration where the death penalty is specified as well as the Sabbath being a permanent ordinance:

The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”

Exodus 31:12-17 (NRSV)

In the life of Israel, this commandment was (and is) taken with utmost seriousness.  Here, we read about the community executing a man who gathered sticks on Saturday:

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation. They put him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.” The whole congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Numbers 15:32-36 (NRSV)

A man is gathering sticks on Saturday and, allegedly, God commands Moses to kill him, so they all do.

In 1 Maccabees 2, we read of a group of Jews attacked by Antiochus Epiphanes’ men on the Sabbath, and the Jews do not defend themselves so as not to violate the Sabbath.

The significance of this commandment in Israel’s history is hard to overstate.  It carries the death penalty so, as you might imagine, a fair amount of midrash is spent on figuring out what you can and can’t do on Saturday.  To modern Christians, these long, detailed lists of what counts as “work” may seem like legalism, but keep in mind – you’re executed if you work on Saturday.  So, you’d probably be a little concerned about this issue as well.

Even when Israel is in the wilderness, God sends them double manna on Friday so that they will not have to gather manna on Saturday.  Keep that in mind – God Himself thinks that them picking bread up off the ground is a violation of the Sabbath.  This will be important, later.

Here are the things we’ve seen about the commandment so far:

  • It is grounded in creation and not a post-Fall development.
  • It is intended to be a perpetual observance (for Israel, at least).
  • “No work” is not exhaustively defined, but it at least includes picking up sticks or bread from the ground.
  • The penalty for violating the Sabbath is death.

Seems very straightforward, does it not?  And there is much, much more biblical data on the Sabbath than there is on homosexuality (very little) or monogamous same-sex marriages (none).

And yet, even in the confines of the Old Testament, things don’t shake out quite so clearly.

The prophets will target the Sabbath and explain that God hates the Sabbath observance of Israel because Israel has become unjust.  This shows up in Amos 5, Hosea 2, and Isaiah 1:

When you come to appear before me,
    who asked [for animal sacrifices] from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)

That’s a solid list of things God commanded Israel to do that He is sick of them doing because they have failed to do justice.  The sacrifices are how atonement is made for Israel’s sin.  The Sabbath is a perpetual ordinance; the penalty for not observing the Sabbath is death.  Yet, God hates these things and is tired of them because Israel will not pursue justice.

This introduces a new wrinkle into ethical reasoning.  Sabbath-keeping in that particular context is at the very least a matter of indifference to God if not outright offense.  Keeping the Sabbath and making atonement sacrifices is actually making God angrier.

How well do you suppose that message was received by the biblical scholars of Isaiah’s day?

An important thing we need to keep in mind as we use the Bible for ethics is that it didn’t drop out of the sky fully formed.  What we are looking at are writings that were eventually collected together, but originally were produced over time.  The original audience of Isaiah 1 does not have the benefit of New Testament commentary on the Sabbath or Thomas Aquinas’ handy division of the Law into ceremonial, civil, and moral.  To them, it’s all a ball of wax, and here comes someone telling them that their faithful observance of those commandments are offensive to God in light of their failure to love their neighbor as themselves.  In the practical, lived out experience of the faith community, nobody can turn to the book of Isaiah and go, “Oh, yeah, totally.  There it is.  Good point, Isaiah.”  There’s just some dude claiming to speak for God telling you this and the people are expected to accept that warning over and against the written code they have.  They are expected to go, “Ok, let’s stop our Sabbaths and sacrifices and repent as a nation over this other issue and institute justice, and then let’s engage in our acts of worship that will henceforth be pleasing to God.”  And why are they expected to?  Because a prophet is telling them to, not because it’s in the Bible.

Let’s fast forward to the New Testament.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8 (NRSV)

I wrote about this passage not too long ago, so it’s still fresh in my mind.

Here, Jesus and his disciples are in a grainfield, and they start picking the grain to eat.  Lest you think this doesn’t count as a Sabbath violation, let me remind you that picking up manna and gathering sticks are both considered Sabbath violations by God Himself.  In terms of the act, there is nothing different between what Jesus and his disciples are doing and an Israelite gathering manna on the Sabbath or that guy picking up some sticks.  Nor does Jesus defend himself by saying that picking grain doesn’t really count as “work.”

This is a full blown violation of Saturday.  Keep in mind that, at this point, there are no Scriptures that cast what you do on Saturday as a matter of indifference, or something that changed in the New Covenant, nor do they have the Westminster Confession of Faith to inform them that works of necessity and mercy are legal on the Sabbath.  What they have are the Old Testament scriptures and rabbinical teaching.

In other words, the Pharisees are dead on correct in their accusation.

Look at how Jesus defends himself.

First, he appeals to a story of David and his men being hungry, so they eat the Temple shewbread that only the priests should eat.  Since the shewbread is changed on the Sabbath, perhaps David ate the bread on the Sabbath, but we aren’t told.  We’re just told it was bread that had been removed from the presence of the Lord.  That adds an interesting point to this example, because what Jesus focuses on is the shewbread laws, not the Sabbath laws.  David and his men are hungry, so they break the shewbread laws (although they have to convince Ahimelech that they haven’t had sex that day, so it’s not a perfect example).

Jesus’ point is not that the need of David and his men transcends the Sabbath laws; his point is that their needs transcended the Law.  Sure, we could say David isn’t just any average Israelite, and maybe we could even work out some complex typology, here, but Jesus does not do any of that.  David and his men were hungry, so they ate bread in violation of the Torah, and God was ok with it, the high priest was ok with it, and the Pharisees accusing Jesus are ok with it.  Loving one’s neighbor as oneself took precedence over the requirement of the letter.

Second, he refers to the priests working in the Temple as breaking the Sabbath.  Technically, this is true.  If picking up sticks is breaking the Sabbath, then surely moving furniture around, killing animals, etc. is breaking the Sabbath.  Assuming Jesus is correct in his judgement, he has found a contradiction in the Law.  The Law requires all abstaining from work on Saturday.  The Law also requires the priests to perform work on Saturday.  One directive from the Law functionally overrides another directive.  You can’t keep laws X and Y if you don’t break law Z.  Keep in mind, this is Jesus’ call, here.  He is the one saying that priests break the Sabbath.  You can reason all you like about how the priestly laws are not actual violations of the Sabbath so there is no contradiction, but this is not what Jesus says.  In Jesus’ view, priests break the Sabbath.  God is ok with it, priests are ok with it, the Pharisees are ok with it.

If interested, I’d encourage you to read my post on this passage to see how the Son of Man thing fits in, but that specific part is an area of reasoning that does not really apply to anyone who is not the eschatological figure who receives the kingdom from God in Daniel.

In Mark’s version of this story, though, Jesus offers a different reason than “one greater than the Temple is here,” which is relevant for this discussion.  Mark says that Jesus says:

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”

Mark 2:27 (NRSV)

In other words, the Sabbath – creational ordinance though it is, carrying the death penalty – was made for the benefit of people.  People were not created to keep the Sabbath.  The argument, here, is that the laws about Saturday are subservient to the needs and benefit of the people.

Creation ordinance, perpetual observation, death penalty – Jesus says all of that plays second fiddle to the needs and benefit of the people.  The laws exist for their benefit, so their benefit trumps the laws.

The next Sabbath episode is also interesting:

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV)

Here, Jesus miraculously heals a man, which I grant is going to be difficult to categorize, but look at Jesus’ defense.  Jesus points out that, if you have only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, you (Jesus’ accusers) would pull it out.  If picking up a stick or a piece of bread constitutes work on Saturday, then hauling your sheep out of a pit surely constitutes work on Saturday, yet Jesus points out that anyone would do this because of the value of the sheep, so how much more ought we to work on Sunday if it helps a person?

So, once again, the very clear cut Sabbath law is violated on the grounds of helping a person (or even a sheep) in need.  According to Jesus’ Bible, there is no text that actually permits this on the Sabbath or even implies in a roundabout way that this is acceptable.  The Pharisees are specifically banking on this.  If the Old Testament permits the work Jesus is doing on the Sabbath, then they’re really wasting their time.  The whole reason this is a trap is because the Bible at the time does not permit the kinds of things Jesus is doing.

Nevertheless, Jesus does them, and his argumentation does not depend on cross-examining verses.  “True, that verse implies that no work is to be done on the Sabbath, but this verse over here says some work is ok.”  There is no other verse like that.  Instead, Jesus draws his defense from the regular instances of human need.  Those instances trump the Scriptures – the very Scriptures that Jesus obviously reveres.  Jesus says to us, “Yes, the Bible says not to pick up sticks or bread on the Sabbath, but if you have a sheep in a pit, you’d pull it out, anyway, right?  Well, I’m helping this guy.”

As we move further into the New Testament, something kind of startling occurs.  There begins to be an observation called “the Lord’s Day,” which is Sunday, not Saturday.  Keep in mind that yom shabbat is Saturday.  That’s what the phrase “the Sabbath” designates.  The Shabbat.  Saturday.  Everywhere in your English bibles you read “the Sabbath,” you could replace that text with “the Saturday” and be literally correct.

There are zero texts or first century prophetic visions or any recorded apostolic declarations that make Sunday a special day or Saturday not a special day.  Enter Paul’s advice to the Roman church:

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

Romans 14:5-6 (NRSV)

Keep in mind that Paul did not read this in the Bible, somewhere.  Rabbinically-trained super-Jew I-used-to-execute-people-for-blasphemy Paul is drawing this reasoning out from the contemporary (to him) experience of the church under the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jews in a church in Rome are getting a letter where some guy is telling them that observing the Sabbath (or the Lord’s Day, for that matter) as a special day is a matter for each person to decide for themselves, and as long as they have made their decision to honor the Lord, it’s all good.

This does not at all square with the Bible as Paul’s audience knew it.  There is NOTHING in there that even remotely suggests this and EVERYTHING in the Bible up to that point strongly countermands it.  The Gospels haven’t been written yet, either, so even speculating about a proto-canon doesn’t really help us out, here.

And yet, like Isaiah’s Israel, the faithful people of God are expected to read Paul’s letter and go, “Ok, sure.  This seems like what Jesus would want.”

The Bible says that the Sabbath was created to be holy to the Lord and to abstain from all work, even gathering food.  That is clearly what the text says, means, and historically has been practically applied.  That is orthodoxy in the first century – orthodoxy for literally millennia.  First century Jews may disagree about the Resurrection or the existence of angels, but they all agree on keeping Saturday work-free.

But Paul, going off of no Scriptural references at all, writes to the Roman church which is surely experiencing tensions over the whole Sabbath/Lord’s Day/any other day issue and says, “Hey, do whatever you think is right as long as you’re doing it to honor the Lord, and you can’t judge each other for that.”

WHAT?  You’re supposed to execute people for that.  Paul has just taken an item of covenant identity and orthodoxy and, with a stroke of a pen, made it adiaphora – a matter of indifference over which Christians can simply agree to disagree and honor each other’s efforts to serve the Lord.

To us, what Paul wrote is holy Scripture to be considered in the collection of “Sabbath data,” but to the church in Rome, it was a letter they received.  There was no New Testament.  There was no Gospel of Mark.  All the biblical data is against Paul on this, but there he goes.  So, now, the congregation has to decide what to do with this liberal theologian who clearly does not care about the authority of Scripture.  Paul is just not biblical on this point.

The interesting thing is, however, that God is actually speaking through Paul, and He wants the church to listen up.

The reason Aquinas had to invent the triparte division of the Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial is precisely to explain the multivocality we find in the Bible about ethical codes.  Some appear to never be reexamined, some get adapted to Israel’s changing circumstances, some are directly countermanded, and some become matters of indifference.

Assuming that most of the signers of the Nashville Statement neither conduct their worship services nor totally abstain from work on Saturday, they have also made a decision about this issue.

My point is this: the idea that an ethical injunction in the Bible settles the issue is not an idea that is present in the Bible.  Here, we have a law that is clearly intended to be perpetual, is part of the created order, and carries the death penalty, but by the time we get to early faith communities in the mid-first century, it’s something you do if you think it honors the Lord, but you also have to accept that others won’t and that’s ok, too.

Laws prohibiting homosexual behavior in the Bible are not the end of a discussion on how the church today should handle the issue; they are the beginnings of that discussion.  They are, as Paul himself says, “useful.”  They do not set down universally once for all how the faithful people of God are supposed to operate.  There was a group who believed that, and Jesus set himself against that group.

Does that mean that everything is up for grabs, then?  In the sense that everything is morally acceptable, no.  In the sense that everything is up for discussion and figuring it out together, yes.