Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Between moral chaos and the law.

Sometimes arguments about society and its laws introduce a binary choice: either the unchanging mandates of biblical Christianity (or at least deference to that source of authority) are upheld or moral chaos will ensue.

This argument features in discussions about gay marriage where the suggestion is made that if we permit gay marriage then we have nothing to stop us condoning pedophilic marriages too. It’s a disgustingly simple argument which is heartbreaking for gay and lesbian people to hear over and over again. But that is just one example of the broader argument:

“Without the solid rules of the Bible as a foundation for our society then anything and everything can be permitted. Democracy must fall if the bible is forgotten. Murder would have to be tolerated. People will wear two hats. It will be lunacy and destruction.”

Now there is a lot to argue against this. Firstly, not everyone in a non-biblically influenced society has brought catastrophe to their civilization. There are plenty of extra-biblical indigenous societies which can’t be dismissed as doomed. Secondly, although numerologists began numbering we have been able to ditch numerology from schools without ditching arithmetic. We can keep public hospitals without keeping a belief in faith healing or Paul’s teaching on women’s hair in the same way. Thirdly, Biblicism has not been a very good guarantee of pro-social behaviour. The Brethren currently claim to be biblical and are a bunch of tax-dodging, family-court defying cultists. More generally the nominally Christian west has been a pillaging psycophathic coloniser which runs greedily into energy crisis after energy crisis. It’s a bit early to call its success on biblical principles.

I’m not going to spend more time in this post on those arguments however. I’ve made them before, they are pretty obvious and in my experience people over a certain age who can’t think of them are generally unwilling to believe them anyway. There are definitely Christians who know them and could make such arguments much more calmly than I to their peers as well.

What I want to ask is not whether this binary is real (it clearly isn’t) but whether Jesus himself or his early followers would have been charged with facing a similar binary. Jesus broke with many of the Jewish rules for life. He did this in a time when legalistic purity was one of the ways Jews were protecting their society from becoming Roman and essentially pagan.

In fact a good picture of the state of Jewish identity in Jesus time would be the state of Muslims in somewhere like Palestine/Israel today; occupied, vilified, under martial law and very clearly second class citizens in their own holy land. In such a context the binary I described becomes tinged with deeply wounded ethnic pride; people who don’t hold to cultural laws in all their unfashionableness are viewed as cultural collaborators with their oppressors.

What is different in our time is that cultural Christianity is in a much more dominant position than first century Judaism but is feeling its decline in status. The U.K. has dissolved its empire over the last century with Hong Kong it’s most recent concession. The U.S.A. is slowly ceding its status as superpower to its creditor nation, China. In both countries real wages are declining. Both countries are hardly defeated; it is just that the apex of their power is behind them, as is their period of strongest Christian identity. In our time, therefore, this binary of Biblicism versus chaos has the added flavour of threatening the downfall of empire and civilization. That wouldn’t have made sense in Jesus’ time where a triumphant empire and civilization was clearly an aspect of pagan Rome.

Despite these differences the culturally revolutionary Jesus movement of the first century still would have had to face the charge of bringing moral chaos to Jewish society. The early Christians were rejecting the importance of Jewish laws which were unchanged for over 600 years (if you take Deuteronomy literally then possibly up to 1200 years).  Some of that was based on the example of their crucified leader during his life (i.e. working on the Sabbath). Other laws including the requirement for male circumcision or prohibitions against eating “unclean” foods were rejected by the apostles without clear instruction from (a living) Jesus. These laws composed a covenant with an unchanging God upon which Jewish social order may be built. Breaking them would have challenged the promise of any order at all.

On top of that Jesus’ followers, as they grew in numbers, would have been seen as part of the moral chaos upon which any decline of the Roman empire could be blamed. This was in fact the basis for their persecution after the defeat of Roman forces along northern borders. Christians were even labeled atheists. They were the underminers of traditional social norms upon which Roman success had been built. (Sound familiar?)

So what did Jesus and his followers replace the law with so that they wouldn’t simply be left with moral chaos? There are two answers to this and which one you believe is a very significant division in Christianity.

  1. Jesus replaced the law with his own authority. Jesus was able to work on the Sabbath and forgive sins because he was Jesus – the Son of God. Only he could amend or alter the laws. In fact these actions are to be seen as proof of Jesus’ uniqueness and not as a license to do anything similar. The apostles and early church had an authority derived from Jesus to change some other laws or acted on clear instruction from the Holy Spirit or Jesus himself appearing in a vision after his death. In the Roman Catholic Church this restricted apostolic authority is seen as enduring.

  1. Jesus replaced the law with love. Jesus and his followers (like at least one other Jewish movement in the first century) believed that moral choices could be navigated with compassion and love. In fact they believed that they had to be. Only by reading scripture with love could it be properly understood even to the point that laws had to be changed if necessary to submit them to the directive of love. The type of love necessary was best exemplified by the relationship between a parent and a child. It was instinctual and humble – an opposite of expert authority derived from scholarship of the law.

By understanding that some Christians hold to the first position we can see why they appear to engage with moral issues in a Pharisaic manner. Their final word on any issue is a bible verse. Just like Jesus’ theological opponents during his life these Christians have their laws of God which cannot change and which must be obeyed. These Christians may try to hold to the Old Testament laws as well except where they have been explicitly amended by Jesus or the apostles. The fundamental moral organizing principle of the universe for them is AUTHORITY – God’s authority, Jesus authority, the Bible’s authority.

I am deeply grateful to have found in my partner a Christian who holds to the second position. For her the fundamental moral organizing principle of the universe is LOVE. – God’s love, Jesus’ love, our love. Neither she (nor I) can claim to have fully grasped or embraced all the implications of that notion. But because of her faith in it she has an insulation against bitterness and cynicism that I envy. She is a genuinely good person without all those judgmental strings that “goodness” can sometimes come with. I see all that recognized in everyone who knows her.

Personally I don’t have faith in any “real” central organizing principle to morality. Obliged to put something in the centre I put empathy but tentatively. I think morality is something we have invented for good or bad. We are still inventing. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) stop. But I think one of our most amazing inventions of it occurred in first century Jerusalem as understood by my partner.

I think that we have in the model of the loving parent a way of imagining morality as possible without certainty derived from a text (I for one manage to parent without certainty). I think we have found a spot that is neither complete moral chaos where might equals right nor divine authoritarianism (where might equals right as well). I think it’s amazingly profound that this answer is buried in a way amongst us. In Jesus’ time and today ethical lawyer types can overlook the tacit knowledge that guides a loving parent. For them it doesn’t seem like enough to base a society on. For them it still sounds like moral chaos.


Postscript: I am aware that I have created my own binary between a morality based on love or legalism. I think it’s justified. I think that at some point Christians in particular have to choose between the two and that their choice then infects all their other decisions. It’s a common Christian understanding that you can’t have two masters.

I know, though, that many (maybe even most) Christians struggle over this binary and straddle it. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all the “good” people live on one side of the distinction.


  1. I do agree that the law is summed up by the command to love. This is exactly what Paul says in Galatians 5:14 and when Jesus is asked in Matthew 22:35-40 about the most important law, he said "Number One is love God with everything you have, and number two is love everyone else as much as you love yourself" (paraphrase mine). He then summed it up by saying, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

    The relationship between following the law of God and following the love of God, is a great subject for study and is widely discussed in the new testament. I highly recommend reading through Galatians for Paul's debate on the issue.

    The problem is Tony, I think you HAVE created your own binary between love and legalism. I don't think God's law is EVER in conflict with God's love and so I don't see them as two masters that I have to choose between.

    Now, to clarify, I do agree that "legalism" is a bad thing, but the issue in the New Testament church in regard to legalism, wasn't whether God care about laws any more, but whether you could earn salvation or favour with God by obeying the law. That was the heart of legalism. So, in that sense, I do wholeheartedly reject legalism, but I don't replace it with love. What I mean by that is that I don't now think I earn favour with God by loving people as opposed to obeying the law - that would simply be another form of legalism.

    Now, I know that's not what you were talking about but I mention it because I think you've missed the point of the New Testament's great teaching on this subject and have created a conflict that doesn't need to exist.

    God's law is a reflection of God's character. God does not exchange following laws with just love each other when Jesus comes along. He points out that the very heart of the law is love.

    There are so many passages where Jesus upholds and supports the law, even to say things like "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-20) Your blog doesn't grapple with these passages at all.

  2. Basically Tony, you create an imaginary two sides. You say on one side there are those Christians who think Jesus replaced the law with his own authority, and on the other side there are Christians who think Jesus replaced the law with love.

    You present them as two mutually exclusive "masters" that can't both be served and Christians who try to do so are trying to "straddle" two different things.

    Naturally, you say we should follow love and express your respect for your partner who does likewise. I think you are being very unfair on her. You have created two boxes - one labelled "Jesus' Authority" and one labelled "Love" and you have asked her which box does she choose.

    My question to you is, what does the "Love" box have to say about the authority of Jesus? Does it do away with it? Does it say it doesn't actually exist? You seem to be saying that a Christian can't follow Jesus as King of the Universe and being fully loving. Why create that tension? It doesn't exist in the New Testament at least.

    Acknowledging the authority of Jesus is fundamental to being a Christian. If you do not acknowledge and respond to Jesus as your King (or Lord or Ruler or Messiah, if you don't like the term "king"), you are not relating to him as he is - the Christ. Now, if you don't believe he is the Christ, then I don't think (without some major linguistic gymnastics) you can accurately call yourself a "Christ"ian.

    Being a "Christ"ian doesn't mean that I don't love. In fact to follow Christ is to love as he loved - sacrificially, boldly, controversially and unconditionally. This is where I straddle. I aim to love like my King. I do not find them to be two masters as all.

  3. Jesus did lift the ban on foods that weren't kosher, such as pork, seafood, et cetera:

    "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:11, English Standard Version 2001)

    and here:

    "It's not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart." (Mark 7:15, New Living Translation 2007)

  4. Interesting point Kevin and I agree that’s a pretty easy reading of those verses. It seems though from Acts 10 that the apostles didn’t all share that idea until a fair bit later. Is that an argument that Mat 15:11 and Mark 7:15 are later textual additions to support this new position or is it just evidence that the apostles were a bit slow?

    If nothing else it shows how big a deal it would have been to stop caring about dietary laws. Let’s be clear those dietary laws were seen by early Christians as commands from an unchanging God just as modern ideas of God’s commands are seen by Christians. (“They will always be detestable to you. You must never eat their meat or even touch their dead bodies.” – Leviticus 11:11)

    One way of understanding what I am saying is that Matt 15:11 and Mark 7:15 are not newly true because Jesus says them but have always been true. They are in fact part of the picture of what belonging to God means that Jesus is trying to paint. The Kingdom of God is not about following a distant ruler’s law but sharing in the attitude of love from a parent, that orders the universe.

    Simon, I think Matthew 5:17-20 quite simply makes no sense in any way I try to understand it. It certainly makes no sense as a means of telling other people that they must follow the codes that Jesus breaks (and breaks with others). “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” would be Jesus gathering grain on the Sabbath. Or ignoring the clear command to stone adulteresses. It’s not a suggestion in the Old Testament, after all, it’s a very firm requirement of God’s people.

    In fact I would point to this verse based on its literal and simplest reading to say the gospels are contradictory. So if we are to avoid that thorny outcome (not thorny for me but perhaps for some Christians) then a much more inventive interpretation of that verse must be applied. Or we would have to go back to Leviticus and Deuteronomy and change how we understand those laws. Basically it seems insane to have a religion that requires following every letter of a body of law that no-one can identify. What a yoke for people’s backs eh? A lawyer’s breakfast.

    Now when I concede the next point you may consider this the end of the case in your favour. However I want to say you’re right, I didn’t contend with verses like the above, because I don’t think more and more Bible study is the way to find the second love-based Christianity at all, especially not if you stand in front of the bible as if it was authoritative. You will have already established the Authority of the Bible as something Love might have to be sacrificed to should that be required. In the second Christianity, the one I frankly admire, God is believed to want of us and to have demonstrated in Jesus that the Authority of the Bible (where it says for example to stone someone) needs to be sacrificed to Love. To get to that Christianity you have to commit to Love before you even start finding proof texts for different laws in the Bible. What the Gospels are good for is describing (broadly) that love, not extracting rules from. It might help you to see that I am not proposing a conflict or binary between Love and God here so much as Love and such a system of rules.

    Remember Bible study (where the Bible is made an authority over Love) didn’t seem to help the Pharisees in Jesus’ time to “get it”.