Don’t Obey Every Command in the Bible

Here’s question three in our series on questions from Facebook. This question actually comes from a discussion i had with a friend over lunch last week. In a nutshell her question was “How do you decide which commands to obey in the Bible?”

It’s a very good question. She had observed that there are commands in the Bible that people do not obey. In particular she pointed out the passage where parents are supposed to publicly execute violent children (Exodus 21:15). Clearly no biblical theist, whether, Christian or Jew, in North America follows this biblical command. So, if we say that we believe “the Bible has authority over those who live in relationship with Him” (Check out our “What We Believe” page for more on our beliefs.), why don’t we obey everything in the Bible?

The answer has to do with how we interpret the legal portions of the Bible. The Bible is made up of many genre’s of literature. A majority of the Bible is narrative, but there is also prophecy, poetry, epistolary, and legal literature. By legal literature, I mean the specific laws found primarily in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The Old Testament legal code can be divided into three different sub-sections; (1) moral, civil, and ritual. The moral code covers issues on morality and ethics (i.e. the Ten Commandments Exodus 20). The civil code covers how the Nation of Israel was to be run judicially (i.e. the issue regarding children cited above or provisions to care for the poor Leviticus 19:9). The ritual code covers issues of Israelite religion and worship (i.e. the ritual sacrifices found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers).

Since these three subsets of the legal code have different purposes they should be interpreted accordingly. The moral code is the simplest to interpret. Morality and ethics don’t change with culture or time. “Don’t murder” applies any where at any time. There is very little need to interpret such statements. Christian theologians and pastors believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfills the ritual code. For us, everything regarding the temple and the rituals surrounding it point to Jesus. We, therefore, do not perform these rituals anymore, but we read them and they help us better understand the necessity and efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice.

The civil code is the trickiest to navigate and the one skeptics and people overtly challenging Christianity often use as proof-texts against us. The first thing that is important to realize with regard to the civil code is that it is the laws intended to govern a specific nation, at a specific time, in a specific environment. It’s more like the United States Code, than the Constitution. It lays out how the fledgling nation of Israel will deal with criminal and civil issues. It is a time-bound code. It is not intended to be applied universally. But, the issues it raises are universal. What do you do with a criminal? What do you do with a thief? The civil code lays out how Ancient Israel was to deal with such offenders. In the 1st century a.d. both Jesus and Paul told the early Christians that it was their responsibility to follow the laws of Rome. Throughout the New Testament, there are references to Christians following the laws and obeying governmental leaders. For Christians today, we are to follow the laws of whatever nation in which God has placed us. We are called to be good citizens and do our best to support what ever government is appointed over us.

To bring this in for a landing, it is against U.S. law for me to execute my unruly child. I, however, am not obligated to permit a child committing criminal or abusive acts to continue to do so. In our country we have a host of resources to protect parents and correct extreme behavior. If my child were committing criminal acts they would have their day in court and if convicted would pay the appropriate consequence from community service to juvenile detention.

So no, I don’t obey every command literally in the Bible. I do, however, do my best to live out the spirit of every command as modeled and taught by Jesus.

PS
If you’re interested, there’s a really good book by A. J. Jacobs about his year trying to live literally every command in the Bible including an entertaining anecdote of him stoning a confessed adulterer, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

Can’t Avoid Death or Taxes

This is a continuation of a series we started last week answering questions I solicited from friends on Facebook. This week’s question: Why do people die?

Celtic Graveyard

I think it’s important to remember, we weren’t created to die. We were created to live forever in a perfect relationship with God, the earth, and each other. The issue of death is closely related to the issue of choice that we discussed last week.

The first humans were living in a pure relationship with God, the earth, and each other. God gave them the gift of free choice. In the middle of the Garden of Eden the symbol of that choice was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God gave the people the fruit of every tree in the garden for food. The only prohibition God had placed on them was that they could not eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The penalty for choosing to eat from that tree was death.

I know, that seems harsh, right?

It seems really harsh to me, anyway. It helps, however, to understand what the Bible says the nature of death is and why that choice merited such a penalty according to the Bible.

Death at it’s core is separation. That’s what makes it so painful isn’t it? When someone we love dies we feel that separation deeply. We feel loss. While the feelings are different because the stakes are different we feel loss and grieve anytime we loose something. When a pet dies, a dream dies, or a relationship dies, we feel loss. We feel pain.

When the first people at that fruit they died. Immediately they were separated from God, the earth, and each other. The first thing they did after they ate was hide from each other. They made clothes to hide their nakedness from each other. In the very next scene we find them hiding from God.

This all resulted from the choice they made to eat that fruit. Why did they eat that fruit? Life was good. All their needs were provided for. They were content. Then someone deceived them. They were told that something was missing in life. They were told that God was holding out on them. They were convinced that life wasn’t as good as it could be. They were told they could “be like God knowing good and evil.”

It wasn’t a lie. God knew the difference between good and evil. He had experienced it firsthand when one of his closest friends, the angel Lucifer, betrayed him. After eating the fruit, the first humans knew the difference too. They had first-hand experience of evil. They betrayed the God who loved him and suddenly, they knew evil. And they died. They were separated from God, the earth, and each other.

According to the Bible God is the source of life. He created life. He breathed the “breath of life” into the first human. The ultimate fulfillment of our separation from God, the source of life, is physical death.

That’s a very truncated answer. There’s a lot more that can be said and I’m happy to converse more with you about this in the comments if you’re interested. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add one more thing. Physical death isn’t necessarily the end. The story of Jesus is that he conquered death. By conquering death for himself, he conquered it for all of us. The Bible says that through Jesus our relationships with God, the earth, and each other can all be restored and we can receive what the Bible refers to as eternal life.

I Respect Your Choice

A few weeks ago, I sent a message to many of my Facebook friends asking them, to share one question they would like a pastor to answer about faith or Jesus. I received several great responses. Over the next several weeks I’m going to attempt to answer those questions. I will be as honest and thorough as I can. Due the fact, however, that this is a blog, I’m going to be brief. I want this to be as readable as possible. I will have to leave a lot out. The advantage to this being a blog, though, is that you can interact with us right here. If you want to engage more regarding any of these questions, please jump in. We’d love to talk to you. Also if you have a question you’d like us to address, post it here or contact us through this website. With that said let’s dive in.

One of the most intriguing questions I was asked had to do with why Christians don’t seem to respect the faith choices of others. It made me very sad to read the stories of rejection experienced from people calling themselves Christ-followers. That is completely antithetical to the teachings and actions of Jesus.

Choice is one of the greatest gifts God gave us. It’s central to the story of the Bible and God’s relationship with us. At the very beginning God created humans. God provided everything they needed. He put them in a lush garden that provided all the food they needed. He created two people so that they would have companionship. He gave them meaningful work so that they would have a sense of purpose in life. At that time, in that environment, people had an amazing connection with God. The Bible describes it as that they walked with God in the cool of the day.

I love that imagery. It reminds me of the walks my wife and I used to take in the evening when our daughter was a baby; or walking with my daughter to and from school through the woods, now that she’s older. At those times we have the most amazing conversations. That’s what it was like for the first humans with God.

Now back to choice. Those first humans were given the amazing gift of choice. Most importantly, they had the choice to maintain that relationship with God or to go their own way. Essentially the choice was to let God be their god or choose to make themselves god.

This choice was symbolized by a tree in the center of the garden. It was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (different, by the way, from a Tree of Knowledge which is not found anywhere in the Bible; all due respect to Steve Jobs). The only prohibition God placed on the first humans was not to eat the fruit from that tree.

They chose to disobey God. There’s a lot more to the story. But, the result is the same. They used the gift God gave them to choose and they chose themselves over God. One of the lessons of this story is that while the gift of choice is good, not all choices are good. And let’s face it, ever since then the human race has had a propensity to make bad choices haven’t we?

The result of that first bad choice was disconnection. The Bible says that the choice to disobey God caused us to be disconnected from God, from the earth, and each other. The results of that choice were devastating. I don’t think we fully appreciate the effects of that choice because we never experienced the world before that choice.

Anyway, here’s where the Christian perspective on choice comes in. Orthodox Christianity teaches us that God was distraught about the position in which we found ourselves. God loves us and wants a relationship with us like he had with the first people. But ever since then, we’ve rejected him in favor of ourselves.

This is where Jesus comes in. God sent Jesus to restore the relationships that were broken because of that first choice. Jesus came to teach us how to live lives where our relationships with God, the earth, and each other are restored. Then he willingly died on our behalf restoring those relationships and his resurrection is the evidence that he accomplished what he came to do.

Now for a moment, suppose the biblical story is true. Suppose that God really created people. Suppose God loves us and desperately wants a relationship with us. Suppose that the bad choices we make prevent that and all of our relationships. Suppose that Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again to restore those relationships. Suppose that following Jesus with your whole life would allow you to experience those restored relationships. Wouldn’t that be pretty cool? If that were true, wouldn’t you want to experience that? If that were true, wouldn’t you want everyone you know and love to experience that?

Those of us who call ourselves Christians, Christ-followers, Jesus-freaks, or whatever other Facebook moniker is in vogue today believe that this whole story is true. Speaking for myself; I’ve experienced it. I believe with all that I am that this story is true. Because I’ve experienced this, I want everyone to experience it. I think following Jesus (or choosing not to) is the most important choice in life.

Now back to the misguided judgmental Christians that prompted these questions and indirectly this blog post. It is wrong to look down on other people because they don’t choose to follow Jesus. It is wrong to look down on other people because the choose to follow Jesus differently. It is wrong to look down on people because of the choices they make. It’s even wrong to look down on people because they choose to be Buckeye fans. (That joke makes more sense if you live in Ann Arbor.) At the same time, it’s a very human act to look down on people who choose differently from us. We look down on people who choose different political parties than us. We look down on people who choose to drive different cars than us. We look down on people who support different sports teams than us. We look down on people who make different faith choices than us. It’s not OK. It’s not right. But it is true.

It is also very human to overcome our human limitations. I think that’s why I like the Olympics so much. I get to see people overcoming human limitations to do something extraordinary. Oscar Pistroius from South Africa is a perfect example of this. A double amputee overcame not just physical limitations but cultural limitations of bigotry and mistrust and ran in the Olympics. He is one of my heroes.

In a less spectacular way there are Christians overcoming our human limitations and learning not to look down on people who choose differently than us. Agape Ann Arbor is a community of people trying to do that. We are a group of people that are trying to truly live the way that Jesus lives and love the way that Jesus loves.

As I close this incredibly long-winded post, I’d like to say one more thing. Remember, Christians believe that choosing to follow Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. While many people do a poor job communicating this out, encouraging someone to follow Jesus is truly an act of love. If you believed Christianity were true, wouldn’t you want other people to experience it too?

I believe the story of Jesus is true. I believe that following Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. I would love for you to choose to follow Jesus. But ultimately, I respect your choice.