Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Silence of the Scriptures Part Two: Freedom in Christ

This is a continuation of my previous post, in which I introduced the problem of "the silence of the scriptures" and how we determine God's will when the Bible doesn't seem to have anything relevant to say on a particular topic. As I stated, I think the idea of freedom in Christ has a lot to do with it, and I'll be exploring that in this post. (Our text today will be Romans 8 and Galatians 5.)

As someone who's been around this great big Internet of ours a few times, I'm familiar with a lot of the arguments back and forth about gender/sexual minorities and Christianity. Whenever it's brought up that the clearest prohibition against same-sex relationships is found in Leviticus, someone points out that Jesus explicitly said he did not abolish the law. This is correct. But did you know that the law does not apply to Christians? It's true! Paul says so clearly: "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." (Gal. 5:18, see also Rom. 7:6) So what does it mean that the law has not been abolished? The law is still in effect; moral absolutes still exist; right and wrong still have meaning and the law is there to evaluate that (Rom. 7:13). But we are explicitly told not to try to live according to the law.

The fact is that the law is incapable of saving us. The law can only condemn, because none of us are capable of following it (Gal. 3:11,21, 5:2-3, Rom. 3:20). It is the Spirit who redeems us and gives us life. Paul fiercely criticizes those who would force Christians to live under the law, and he warns the Galatians not to try to follow it. "For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse," he says (Gal. 3:10). Instead, we live with our minds set on the Spirit, and the Spirit naturally works in us to produce the Spirit's fruit. We don't focus on trying to avoid sin (Rom. 8:5). The law is negative; the Spirit is positive. The law is concerned with ritual purity, sacrifices, and legalism; the Spirit is only concerned with freedom and love. There is no law against what the Spirit produces in us (Gal. 5:22-23).

If you think I'm overstating my case, consider this: If Paul thought the law still applied to us, why didn't he say "You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, continue to follow the law" (Gal. 5:13)? Or why didn't he institute a new law, setting aside cultural rules and adding new ones applicable to the current time?

Let's take it even further: If God wanted us to follow a rigid legalistic code, if God didn't want us to trust the Spirit to guide our consciences, then why do we have a Bible that was written in several languages over hundreds of years to dozens of writers, containing, yes, some commandments--many of which are difficult to interpret or seem to be culturally bound--but also letters, poetry, proverbs, prayers, prophecy, history, and a dozen other genres? If the Bible is supposed to be our law, complete, necessary and sufficient with all the rules we need to live moral lives, what did people do before the Bible was finished or compiled--did they not need the same law we did? Let's just face it: the Bible is just not a very good code of law. In addition to the difficulties I cited in the previous post--not addressing certain topics, addressing them vaguely, or being just plain incomprehensible--the Bible is silent on some things that we seem to know, very clearly, are wrong, such as pedophilia, domestic violence, and torture in war. It even seems to condone such things as slavery and genocide (whether or not it does condone those things I'm not interested in right now--the undeniable fact is that it seems to, which is problematic in a moral code). Take your Bible some time and compare it to the US tax code. I submit that the tax code is more coherent, consistent and practical--and that's saying something!

(Please note that I am certainly not deprecating the Bible. The Bible is perfect as what God intended it to be. It is not what God did not intend it to be. It is not a history, math, science or sex ed textbook, and it is not a law code. I do not believe it is wrong of me to believe that the Bible is not good at being something it was clearly not meant to be.)

I can see a potential objection here, that Paul in particular, and other NT writers in general, did provide instructions or rules, and clearly the goal was that the readers would follow them. This is true; however, I don't think you can characterize these instructions as a law. A law is systematic, methodical, and absolute. The instructions written by the NT church leaders are spontaneous, relative and non-standardized. They are in response to specific questions and situations, and in some cases, they seem to disagree with instructions given to other churches (compare the list of qualifications for elders given to Titus and the one given to Timothy--why are they not the same?). The church leaders worked them out through prayer, discussion and reasoning (Acts 15). In a few cases they are actually stated to not be from God (1 Cor 7:12,25). In some cases they allow for disagreement (1 Cor 7-8). Yes, they are given with the expectation they will be followed, but they are more like pastoral guidance than decrees to be enforced.

Okay, so what does this have to do with the silence of the scriptures? Well, if God did want us to follow a rigid legalistic code, it follows that knowing exactly what that code is is very important. It also follows that we cannot trust our consciences--or at least the written law should be placed higher than our consciences. It follows that obeying the instructions we have as rigidly as possible will be more effective, more helpful at leading us to righteousness than would doing what we feel or reason to be right. We can avoid uncertainty by doing only what is exactly allowed and staying as far to one side of the line as possible.

There's nothing inherently wrong with staying as far to one side of the line as possible, if that is what you think is best. The problem as I see it is this: If the silence or vagueness of the scriptures is restrictive, freedom in Christ is meaningless. If we don't have the ability to trust the Spirit and trust our consciences when we can't be sure of what is right, there is no freedom, because we can only do what we are told. This leaves us vulnerable to those who would burden us with another yoke of slavery and fear (Gal. 5:1). Jesus came to free us from all that, but we put ourselves in bondage again when we let others tell us what the scripture means.

And legalism inevitably does lead to others telling us what scripture means. We can't trust ourselves; we can only trust the text, but the text is hard to understand. So we appoint experts and leaders--we have to. If we can't trust ourselves where scripture is vague, there's no way around it. The experts develop complicated hermeneutical systems to divide up commands, examples, and necessary inferences, and tell us which examples are binding and which are not. And there's nothing wrong with that either, as long as those systems are just resources to help us. The problem starts when someone else's interpretation is raised to the status of law and enforced on me.

Isn't this exactly what the Pharisees did and what we rightly criticize them for? They saw the law as inadequate, that it didn't give guidance for every possible situation, and so, with the best of intentions, they sought to add clarity through more specific rules. This doesn't work. This has never worked. It sets the experts above us, between us and God, and defeats the very purpose of the Christian religion--a close relationship with a loving and merciful God. Adding rules to clarify scripture inevitably prioritizes appearance over substance, inevitably prioritizes minor rules over conscience and principle (because the minor rules are clearer and easier to enforce), inevitably burdens people without any consideration of whether they will need help to carry those burdens.

This is not hypothetical and it's not just something that happened in the Bible. It happens right now, today. Scot McKnight explains how it can work: "Zealotry is to construct rules beyond the Bible and, in so doing, to consider oneself immune from criticism because of radical commitment. What we have learned is that such a radical commitment is actually a fearful commitment rather than a life of freedom." Here is just a quick, top-of-my-head list of some of the many non-biblical rules I was taught, implicitly or explicitly, while growing up:

  • Christians vote Republican (or Democrat)
  • Christians are patriotic
  • Christians don't date
  • Christian women are ladylike and attractive (and men are masculine and strong)
  • Christians don't listen to rap
  • Christians don't dance
  • Christians are healthy and successful
  • Christians don't get depressed or doubt
  • Christians don't use birth control
  • Christian girls don't wear bikinis or short skirts
These statements are an attempt to clarify vagueness--not a bad thing--but when we make them hard-and-fast rules happens we place ourselves under the control of other people and refuse to take responsibility for our own moral development. "Dress modestly," for instance, is a fine principle (as long as it's applied evenly to men and women) but it's not a very good rule. So at Bible camp we have counselors measuring the skirts (fingertip-length) and sleeves (three fingers' width) of teenage girls instead of teaching them to choose for themselves what to wear, how to think morally and ethically, how to use their consciences. We can say we're teaching them moral reasoning by teaching right from wrong, but that's not true. We're teaching that their moral reasoning is only accurate and adequate if it agrees with ours. That is damaging and unhealthy and it makes them unable to trust themselves.

The rules become tools to shame and control. We don't stone people anymore, but we bully and shun, and we prevent people from becoming the wonderful unique people God created them to me. It broke my heart when I read an article about reparative therapy in which gay men were told to "fix" themselves by acting tough and liking sports, and lesbian women were told they had to wear makeup. They were told than any inclination, hobby or feeling they had that did not fit our culture's restrictive gender paradigm was a temptation from Satan. I think our culture's restrictive gender paradigm is a tool of Satan! It damages us and keeps us from being free.

Under the guise of clarifying what "love one another" means, we simply create another law. And this law just gets more and more restrictive. Because we can't trust ourselves, we have to fear getting it wrong, and so we think "better be safe then sorry." So if sex outside of marriage is wrong then dating is wrong, and if dating is wrong than crushes are wrong. Children are a blessing so not wanting children is wrong, and if that's wrong then birth control must be wrong. Satan is only too happy to keep us living in this fear, keep our spirits crushed and our freedom crushed because he knows if he can keep us under law he can keep us condemning ourselves, and Christ died for nothing! Who can live under the law we've made for ourselves? Who can keep from all lustful thoughts? Who can keep from ever feeling depressed or doubting?

It is my conviction that this legalism and lawmaking is inevitable whenever we treat the Bible like a rule book, whenever we act as if God's purpose in the Bible was just to tell us what to do so we don't have to think for ourselves. And this is really what we're saying when we say the silence/vagueness of the scriptures is restrictive--that if God wanted us to be allowed to do something, the Bible would say something clearly allowing it.

Next post: Clearly I'm just trying to come up with excuses for sinning...or am I?

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