- Part 0: The Jerusalem Council Statement
- Part 1: The Sabbath
- Part 2: Circumcision
- Part 3: Slavery
- Part 4: Deception
- Part 5: 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.