I misspoke in my last post with too much meaning in too few words. I said, “Let me begin by saying that if the Bible condemns something even once, that is sufficient for me to call it a sin.” That simplifies the matter so grossly as to be obviously false on its face and suggests that mapping the Bible’s morals is easy and straightforward. There are many, many actions the Bible condemns–eating pork, marrying a foreigner, refusing to give a loan–that I don’t consider a sin for me today, and an even greater number which are unclear. Let me offer a list of reasons to hesitate condemning what the Bible condemns, especially in others.
1) The Bible’s condemnation (or affirmation) may not be directed at me, but someone else. The Bible speaks to many different individuals and groups, and I may not be its intended audience. A great deal of confusion and even harm comes from ignoring this dynamic–claiming promises that are not rightfully ours: “I will give you this land”; or assuming commands that are not directed at us: “sell all that you have and give to the poor”; or condemning actions not concerning us: “do no work on the Sabbath” (which, by the way, is Saturday). The Bible directly addresses individuals (Moses, Peter), nations (Moab, Israel), groups of people (Gentiles, Pharisees) categories of people (priests, women). Most of it is not directed at humankind generically, and it is not always clear who the intended audience is and whether that particular word applies wholly or in part to the rest of humanity. I don’t quit and throw up my hands any more than I stop listening to my wife when I have trouble understanding her, but it does call us to humility, latitude, and a lessening of our dogmatism and certainty.
2) Deriving principles not directly stated in a Bible passage may be problematic. Assuming why my wife Kimberly is upset with me is a dangerous game to play, especially when I go beyond what she specifically said. I can pick up on a look or tone of voice or memory of similar events–those can raise questions, but should not answer questions. For answers, I ask. I need specific statements to validate my hunches because I can even misinterpret my own wife whom I know very well. “Whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says. Does that mean no one ever has the right to punish law-breakers? Or no one has the right to judge or hold others to account? I must not “cast the first stone,” but what does that mean? Let me suggest that I am much more responsible to decide what is wrong for me than to decide what is wrong for you in a given situation.
3) Applying truths from Scripture to specific situations can be very complex. Even when the general truth is clear, deciding that it applies to this situation and these people at this time in this way is uncertain. “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth.” Okay, but who decides what is wholesome or unwholesome? Surely it is wrong if my words damage others… but who is to decide that the fault lies with my words–maybe she took it the wrong way? And what constitutes “damage”–sometimes pain is the necessary precursor to healing. And what if my words are true… are all true words automatically wholesome? What if my motive was good even if the outcome was bad? Life is a journey and many of our moral choices are not black and white, simple and straightforward.
4) “Proof texting” or finding one or two verses to back my position is problematic. The less Scripture says about any one moral command or prohibition, the less confident I can be about my moral stance because the fewer the words, the more easily misunderstood. It seems that those truths God considered most important he repeated often in many contexts with different illustrations and ideas to be sure we did not miss his point. So many considerations can affect a message and lead to its misinterpretation. A passage can be taken out of context so that its original meaning is distorted. We can take it out of literal context (divorced from the wider text) or out of cultural or historical context (because their culture and history are different from ours). We can wrongly translate words or their nuances–think about the slight but very significant moral differences in our English synonyms “brag” vs. “praise” and “praise” vs. “worship.” Whenever there is widespread disagreement between folks who are equally committed to God and his Word, humility is the better part of wisdom.
5) Offsetting truths in the Bible make for difficult conclusions. Sometimes Scriptures place competing ideas right next to each other. Proverbs 26:4 & 5 say “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,” and then “Answer a fool according to his folly.” Jesus says, “Judge not” and “Judge with righteous judgment.” When we take the whole sweep of Scripture into consideration, it adds so much color and contrast and complexity that we would do well not to insist on our view as being the right view in condemnation of those who fight for an alternative perspective. Among those of us who love God and want to know and follow his ways, we must be especially cautious about condemning those with whom we disagree.
6) Theology is Progressive in Scripture and Christologically Centered, so certain morals have become obsolete. There are many Old Testament laws that have been set aside by Christ and the New Testament. This is quite natural since the context has so dramatically changed. The Old Testament was written in the context of a political theocracy, so that there was no distinction between religious, moral, and civil laws. Clearly, when Israel is no longer a nation and the whole world is invited into a covenant relationship with God, everything drastically changes. This is especially true regarding Jesus who not only became the supreme interpreter of the Old Testament, but its successor, setting much of it aside by his teaching (such as the food laws) and much of it by his sacrifice (the ceremonial aspects of the law). It is hotly debated among conservative scholars as to how much of the Old Testament “laws” are directly relevant to us after Christ has come, but all agree that the New Testament overrules the Old Testament. Christ is now the glasses of truth through which we understand the whole. Any moral teaching which appears only in the Old Testament carries less weight, after all, it is the Christ of the New Testament that separates Christianity from Judaism.
I have personally discovered that starting with the fundamentals of the faith–Christ and the gospel–and working out from there gives me the grounding I need to flow more naturally into living the life of the Spirit. To be honest, I often still assume that I am right and the other person is wrong, so I still have a long way to go on this road to humility, gentleness, and respect. None of us has arrived, so we will all need to be patient with one another.