Ethics

I get thoughts on occasion. Usually odd ones. Just ask my wife.

For instance, as I was reading Mark 6, something popped into my head. I’m still toying with it. See what you think. Maybe start gathering stones now.

There is a tendency in the church to regard all ethical standards as unchanging absolutes. Almost goes without saying. The idea that there could be a progressive quality to it strikes most, on first hearing, as absurd. But in Mark 6:7-11 Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel and heal the sick and gives them instructions on how they should conduct themselves. Later, in Luke 22:35-36 when he sends them out again, he gives them different instructions for when they go out. The purposes and needs have shifted. We recognize, as theologians, the progressive nature of God’s revelation to his people, but somehow imagine that this is not the case with ethics, or that progressive development ceased with the appearance of the closed biblical canon.

But perhaps a consideration of Jesus’ changing instructions to his disciples gives us a principle for the interpretation of morals and biblical injunctions: they may sometimes be more circumstantial in their implementation than we might care to think. Or be comfortable with.

Consider this: circumcision seems clearly an eternal, absolute command in the Old Testament—a moral imperative impossible to ignore or do without (just check out the wording of Genesis 17:10-14). And yet Paul dismisses it entirely in the New Testament without qualms. More than that, he actively argues against it—despite the clear-cut biblical commands to the contrary, and despite the severe criticism he faced for his position from traditional Judaism and even from many within the Christian sect (see Galatians 5:2-12, 6:12-15). Likewise, Christians (including Paul and Peter) jettisoned the kosher laws regarding what could be eaten. Peter’s vision (see Acts 10:1-19) of the animals let down in a sheet contributed to a radical shift in permissible meals, despite clear cut biblical commands to the contrary. The Jerusalem Council’s letter (as recorded in Acts 15:23-29) makes it clear that the church very early decided that the dietary regulations no longer needed to be enforced, at least upon Gentiles. But then, Paul, in his epistle to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8), told the Christians he was writing to that there was no problem with eating food that had been sacrificed to idols—this despite the fact that the Jerusalem Council’s letter, as preserved in Acts, very clearly states that Christians were forbidden to eat such food.

So, it appears that simply because some may think that certain biblical commands or injunctions are eternal truths does not necessarily mean that they actually are. That is a very uncomfortable thing for most of us to consider.

The principles of grace and love are ever important, more than the strictures of the law. Jesus repeatedly criticized the very law-abiding religious leaders. And yet, despite that, it seems we are quick to want to become the Pharisees all over again.

Jesus points out that the law comes down to just two commands: to love God and love people (Matthew 22:36-40). These remain the guiding principles in morality, rather than the detailed lists that appear within the sacred texts. Consider the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11) and Jesus’ consistent violation of Sabbath restrictions (see for instance Mark 2:23-28): mercy, love, justice take precedence over any legalistic following of the biblical laws.

No one has a problem recognizing that certain injunctions in the Bible are contextually specific, rather than universal, eternal commands. For instance when Jesus tells Peter to pay the temple tax by going fishing (Matthew 17:24-27), I know of no one who imagines that Jesus has given Peter an eternal command on how we should pay our taxes today.

Perhaps the same is true of other legalistic formulations as well?

I suspect that the Bible is not a frozen thing. It is not the law of the Medes and the Persians, or even the State of California. What are the implications of these words of Paul: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6; consider also Romans 7:6)

Of course, the temptation for some people will be to use such a realization to rationalize selfish and unloving behavior. If you imagine that now, based on the implications of what I’ve written, you can at long last take an axe to your annoying neighbor, then you’re likely missing the point. Perhaps revisiting that whole love, mercy, and grace thing would be a good idea, before you give in to considering your desire for murder. But likewise, the Bible’s central theme of love must, I believe, have a role in making sense of how we interpret, how we understand, and how we use and apply the biblical texts today.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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