Misconceptions about Old Testament Law

A common misconception about the Old Testament is that it’s laws were meant for everyone. This is not so. The laws of the Old Testament were always handed down in the context of a covenant or treaty. The rules were always articulated in the context of a relationship. Outside of that covenant, that treaty, that relationship, they were null and void.

Now in some instances the relationship in view was that between God and the whole of humanity, as was the case when Noah and the other survivors with him made their covenant with God, but this was more the exception than the rule. More often the relationship in view was far more immediate, such as God’s relationship with the twelve tribes of Israel, or God’s relationship with the tribe of Levi, or God’s relationship with the priests from the tribe of Levi, or God’s relationship with the high priest. Such laws were NOT universal. Rules handed down to the high priest were applicable to no one other than the high priest.

This is why it is foolish to cherry pick laws out of the Old Testament and apply them indiscriminately. If you don’t know the context you can’t know who it was supposed to apply to.

Consider how, even in our society, there are different rules and responsibilities for emergency services than for the general public. Police officers are exempted from some rules in order to fulfill higher duties but have additional responsibilities placed on them for the same reason. When they err and have to front up to court they are not judged as anyone in the street would be but are judged by a higher standard as befitting of a professional. The situation here is not exactly equivalent but neither is it entirely different. According to the scriptures God had a special relationship with Israel and held Israel to a higher standard as a consequence. It was never intended that the laws of Moses be applied to non-Israelites, especially beyond the borders of Israel, unless it was specifically stated or merely reiterated a more general law already instituted elsewhere in more generalised situations.

We should be very wary, therefore, of formulating a universal ethic or public policy from an indiscriminately application of Old Testament law. We need to be a lot more discriminating about what’s a valid application of Old Testament law and what is not.

Speaking of Sin

I know a lot of left wing Christians prefer the language of injustice over the language of sin but I’m of the view that in conversations with right wing Christians we need to be framing injustices as sin a whole lot more. It’s the language they understand. We need to state boldly that sacrificing the environment to Mammon is a form of idolatry, and consequently, sinful; that animal cruelty is sinful; that spreading misinformation and slander is sinful; that oppressing the vulnerable, including the foreigner, is sinful; that not paying workers a living wage is sinful; that stealing from future generations is sinful; and that there is no love of God or of others in ignoring this. Yet we also need to be humble and admit our own sins, lest we fall into self righteousness.

Racism Is Sin

If you want to know what the Bible has to say about racism and other forms of discrimination, just search for words like “favouritism” and “partiality” and you’ll find more than enough.

Consider for instance Deuteronomy 10:17-18 which says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” There’s no room for racism here in the law of Moses. Nor is the New Testament any less insistent. In passages like Acts 10:34 and Romans 2:11 we are explicitly told that “God does not show favouritism” and cares for foreigners every bit as much as the Hebrews.

Other forms of discrimination, like classism, are also forbidden. Consider James 2:2-4 where we are told, “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” We are explicitly told this is evil.

Privileging the vulnerable

God shows a consistent concern for the welfare of the vulnerable throughout the pages of scripture. Particularly singled out are the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners living amongst the people of God (see Zechariah 7:10 for instance). God takes a dim view of those who would sin against them through passive neglect or active oppression. There is no room in God’s law for legal or economic discrimination. Quite the opposite in fact.

Christian ethics isn’t complicated

Christian ethics is as simple as this: love God, love others.

Everything else is commentary.

Love Others

Physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, verbal and mental abuse, these are all spoken against by Jesus and the prophets as they violate the command to love others. This command is pretty open ended too, extending even to enemies (see Matthew 5:43-48) and nonhuman others (see Proverbs 12:10). If, in your practice and teaching of Christian ethics, you forget to love others, you’ve missed the point.

Love God

The corollary to this is loving God. If even our enemies, who’ve done nothing to bless us, are to be treated in loving ways, how much more should we treat God, who’s the source of all blessing, with love and respect? When we misrepresent God, intentionally or otherwise, or try to turn God into a mascot to serve our own purposes, is that not a form of abuse too? Indeed it is, and quite a serious form of abuse when you think carefully about it. God is so foundational. Unfortunately that’s all too common, even amongst those who claim to love God. That’s missing the point too.

Just because

But there’s another way we can miss the point. If our motivation to love God and love others is based on what we get out of it ourselves, if it’s based on some sort of gaining idea, whether a desire for salvation, or even something as innocuous as a good feeling, we’ve missed the point again. True love is a giving orientation, not a gaining orientation. We’re already loved by God; we should love just because. In Christian ethics, rules should be understood within the context of relationship; our behaviour should be an extension of our beholding of God. Love without holding back, because love is what it is.

Moral Foundation Theory and the Bible

Moral foundations theory is a social psychological theory intended to explain variation in human moral reasoning. It was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham. In more recent times it has been used to explain the differences between progressive, conservative, and libertarian views based on the different relative weights each group gives to the different moral foundations. Below I have selected verses from the Bible that correspond to each of the 6 moral foundations.

Care vs harm

Proverbs 12:10 – The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.

Genesis 50:20 – You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Fairness vs cheating

Leviticus 19:15 – Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.

Genesis 31:7 – yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me.

Loyalty vs betrayal

1 Kings 12:20 – When all the Israelites heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David.

Proverbs 11:13 – A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.

Authority vs disrespect

Leviticus 19:3 – Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the Lord your God.

1 Timothy 6:2 – Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers.

Purity vs degradation

Titus 1:15 – To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.

Isaiah 64:6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

Liberty vs oppression

Galatians 5:1 – It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Deuteronomy 26:7 – Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression

After 9/11 we need an angry God

After 9/11 we need an angry God
By Chris Summerfield, 2011

The usual wisdom is that belief in an angry god is what caused a handful of people to get into planes and crash into skyscrapers and then caused a much larger group of people to get into many more planes and drop bombs on to people who lived in countries which were kind of close to the country where most of the first handful of people came from.

Furthermore, an often remarked criticism of the Bible is that the God of the Old Testament is full of anger but the God of the New Testament is full of love. This criticism is supposed to be a debate clinching argument because we, as a society, believe that you can’t be both full of anger and full of love and that anger is an altogether bad emotion. If you were to hear someone say “my child has anger issues” you wouldn‘t reply, “That’s great—you must be so proud”. Instead, there might be some consoling about similar issues in their own children and how that anger might have been subdued through a combination of therapy and medication.

Our ideal citizen does not have “anger issues”, our ideal citizen swims with the tide of the way the world is and learns to accept things as they are. Less than ideal citizens would include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and Jesus. All angry. Angry about the way their people had been treated by the ruling authorities. All full of anger and full of love. Key of course is that that they were angry and non-violent. And it is nonviolence that is key to understanding the gospel.

As I look around at the litany of injustices in the world I am angry and I am sure God must feel the same. I contend that God did not just pour out God‘s anger on Jesus making God satisfied and unmoved by the events of our world. Maybe instead God channelled God’s anger into an act of nonviolence. The act of becoming a human and laying down his life for others in the crucifixion. An act that would be a window into a new paradigm, a paradigm where violence loses and love wins because the grave could not hold Jesus.

God is still angry and God is calling us to follow the Jesus path of nonviolence. Our anger is to fuel loving acts of nonviolent action.

Like the terrorists on 9/11, I sense that something is unfair in the world and I want that to change. We both believe that God is angry about these injustices. The difference between us is that the anger of my God causes God to humble godself to the form of a man who would act out love and not violence even if that meant death on a cross.

Ten years on if you are angry about 9/11 or about the West’s response or that the 9/11 anniversary will receive more attention than starving millions in the horn of Africa, then join God and follow Jesus on the path of nonviolent action in a new paradigm where violence loses and love wins.

Unfit for Office

In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul lamented, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate.” Paul was referring to a case of incest within the church. His response? He instructed the community and its elders to “hand this man over to Satan”, to “not even eat with such people”, to “expel the wicked person from among you.”

Given that, how do you think Paul would have responded to a bishop who was found guilty of failing to report child abuse? Who actively covered it up, possibly out of a misguided sense of institutional loyalty? Do you think the apostle would have considered it acceptable for the man to retain his title even if he’s no longer allowed to teach? Or do you think he would have considered him no longer fit for office?