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Perspectives on Paul 09.30.2020

Perspectives on Paul 09.30.2020

Law Through Scripture – I

Here is the video (via YouTube) and the PowerPoint slides for my study of September 30, 2020. I am taking a look at the law through scripture and looking at how that impacts Paul and his message.

First, the PowerPoint:

And for those, especially on mobile devices, who may have trouble viewing the PowerPoint, here it is as a PDF.

And the video:

If you want to participate in the study, you can view it live on the Facebook page my wife and I share, Henry and Jody Neufeld.

Psalm 19 for Sunday School

Psalm 19 for Sunday School

I’m teaching Sunday School this coming week, and the class uses the Daily Bible Study from Cokesbury. The first scripture for the week is Pslam 19:1-6.

The lesson focuses on creation, so it’s not surprising that only the first six verses are used. Some scholars believe that Psalm 19 is two separate compositions. These first six verses talk about the glories of God’s creation, yet the purpose of the Psalm is not simply to assert God’s glory as seen through what God has made.

In fact, I would suggest that the key to the purpose of the Psalm is found in verse 13, ending with being innocent of the “great transgression” or “grave offence” (REB). Dahood (and others, see Anchor Bible on this passage) maintain that this is the sin of idolatry. At the same time, Dahood suggests the first part of the Psalm is adapted from a hymn to the sun. If so, it was adapted rather vigorously and with malice toward its intended purpose.

The heavens declare the glory of YHWH, and it is made clear that YHWH sets the course of the sun. The sun, often seen as a god of justice in the ancient near east, is placed subordinate to the Creator. Similarly, the law is shown as subordinate to the lawgiver, who can give this law because He is the one who created all and put the sun on its course.

There is some tendency amongst Christians to see the Hebrew Scriptures as presenting a legalistic approach to righteousness, which is negated and replaced with grace in the New Testament. So here, in verse seven, we have the law “converting the soul” (KJV) or “reviving the soul” (REB). One might contrast this with Paul’s view of the law in Romans 6 & 7, but I don’t think this is accurate.

In fact, worship of the law would also be idolatry as would worship of the sun. That is the parallel between the first six verses and the remainder of the Psalm. Verses 12 & 13 remind us who is the one who can keep us from wrong.

I’m reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of idolatry as treating something that is not ultimate as our ultimate concern. The law is important and so is the sun, but neither replace the one who gave the law or created the sun. As an instrument of God’s work in us, the law has a place (thus Matthew 5:17). Yet when we replace God and God’s power with anything less, we head into failure.

Psalm 19 is a reminder that God gives (grace) before he legislates (law), i.e., grace comes before law. Law can, in fact, be good news, in that it not only shows God’s requirements (which we cannot accomplish), but shows the glory of the purpose God has for us. God intends to make each of us something that we cannot even imagine. When we try to accomplish this through a reading of the law or through our own efforts to fulfill its requirements, we choose to take something less and make it ultimate.

It is because it takes our concern away from the ultimate that idolatry is so dangerous. Good things can be idols. If I do mission work in order to earn God’s favor or in order to be seen by others as a good person, then I’m settling for less than the ultimate. It has to be God working in me or it’s leading me down the wrong path. The wrong path leaves me short of the glorious purpose God has for me.

Psalm 19 also talks about God’s revelation, which is part of God’s grace given to us. God’s grace is shown by the gift of the sun to give light. Yet if we say that this is sufficient, and grab hold of that alone, we will fall short of God’s purpose for us. Similarly if we take our conception and understanding of the law, it will always be less than what God demands, but in the same way that God’s law is demanding, so it is a sign of the glory planned for us.

We can see this in God’s creation, in studying God’s actions. This is sometimes called general revelation, God’s Word without words. But we also have God’s instruction, which is God’s Word in words.

To many, the general revelation is less important. I would suggest that it is rather important in different ways. Through science we can study God in action. We have the danger of thinking we have somehow eliminated the need for God because we understand God’s creation so well. That is considered the weakness. We can misunderstand it, and use it to replace God.

But the same problem exists for God’s Word in words; for God’s law or instruction. We can try to let us replace God, not with God’s real law, but with our limited and limiting understanding of it. It is God alone who can keep our sins from ruling over us, and it is God alone who can sanctify us, and even glorify us, but God is the one with the glory; the real glory.

Lawyers and Politicians

Lawyers and Politicians

We like to hate lawyers, but the real problem with our laws is that they are written by politicians.

The Complexity and Imperfection of Solutions

The Complexity and Imperfection of Solutions

According to an NPR story, the clearance rate for murder, meaning the percentage of cases in which someone is arrested (or identified), is 64.1% nationally. This will vary by community. That means that a lot of murderers have not been identified and have been running around the country while being murderers.

If that shocks you, color yourself naive. Yes, the clearance rate has dropped badly, while at the same time the rate of violent crime has dropped, yet even at 90% clearance, a significant number of murderers got away with it. Certainly, enough got away with it to convince arrogant potential murderers to think they might be the one that gets away. A key factor in preventing any activity that’s criminal or disapproved is the extent to which the criminal expects to get caught. For a summary, see Deterrence in Criminal Justice. (I’d prefer to cite other sources, but they are behind a pay wall, and this article cites those sources.)

My point here is not criminal deterrence, but rather the fact that the things we do to achieve a result are not necessarily going to achieve the result we expect. For many people the way to eliminate an undesirable activity is to make it illegal. If you make a law, you’ll fix the problem. But we live regularly with problems that have not been fixed by the laws created for that purpose. Politicians know how to play on expectations when they name laws. The Affordable Care Act does not necessarily provide affordable care and the Violent Crime Control Act may not actually control violent crime. Even when things go well the cause may not be the one seen as obvious.

There is a common saying that you can’t legislate morality. In one sense that’s nonsense, in that you can write any law you want. You can even declare the Bible to be your basic law. I’d love to see the hermeneutic used. Personally, I would want Matthew 7:1 to be absolutely and universally applicable, but then I have a bit of the anarchist in me. You can write a law telling people not to be selfish, but enforcement might be a problem. So yes, you can write a law saying anything, but that law might not be effective. So in another sense, it’s good sense, in that you have to legislate behavior, not morality, and laws vary in how well they can control behavior. In yet another sense, even a law that successfully alters behavior will not necessarily make those who follow it more moral, and in that sense you really can’t legislate morality.

Most of us want to do so, however. We want to make laws that really fix problems, and we expect that, having made the law, the problem will be fixed. This leads to a great deal of very bad law. I use a rule of thumb. If you hear words like “epidemic,” “national tragedy,” or other similar words, assume that the resulting legislation will be a mess, often causing more problems than it solves and ruining many people’s lives in the interest of solving perceived problems. As in the case of immigration and refugees, often these laws are written to solve problems that don’t really exist.

Watch out as well for “even one ____ is intolerable.” You’re not going to eliminate all instances of a behavior that anyone perceives as desirable. Someone is going to do it. We hear this with topics such as child abuse, murder, terrorism, or sexual crimes. “Not one case!” yells the politician, sounding so virtuous and determined. But at  a minimum, there’s one lie there. Nothing that politician does will eliminate all cases. The law cannot make you perfectly safe. As you hear about solving the “opioid epidemic,” be aware that government agents will be ruining the lives of people who are genuinely trying to live with pain, all in the name of preventing addictions by someone else somewhere else.

I find it totally amazing that people who advocate limited government in some ways are quite determined to get the government more involved elsewhere and somehow assume that the government’s actions will be effective. The same issues that make regulatory agencies subject to stupidity and chicanery apply to every other aspect of government as well. Your local police or the FBI can be a bureaucracy as much as the EPA.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a law. It just means that we need to shed our naivete about how making laws will fix things. Here are some key points:

  1. Correctly identify the problem. I have no idea how many people want to solve an epidemic of violent crime while violent crime is actually in decline. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to do some work. I believe we do. But we need to look at what the actual cause is.
  2. Look at solutions that will actually improve the situation. If the likelihood of getting caught is, indeed, more critical than the severity of sentence (see citation above), then what we need is better enforcement, not longer sentences (or some combination). You might need to increase the size and training budget of your police force rather than changing the criminal laws themselves, for example.
  3. Do not expect any solution to make you perfectly safe. The world will still have murderers, rapists, terrorists, and other evildoers in it. Trying to make the law accomplish more than it can is wasteful and increases the negative effects.
  4. Once legislation is in place, test it. Find out what has happened and do your best to determine what the cause was. Review the law and its results.
  5. Be ready to hear about revision. Fear of what may happen if we change often prevents reform efforts. For example, for those who believe that there should be a welfare safety net, the idea of welfare reform is frightening. Fear prevents progress. It can also prevent deterioration, but that’s not at all guaranteed!
  6. Don’t believe the labels. The name of a law doesn’t mean the law does what it says. Politicians are veteran label manipulators.

In this information age, there is a great deal of data available to you. Read it instead of the anecdotes (many of them false), shared on your Facebook feed.

When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

I might have said collide, as sometimes seems to be the case, but let’s start with tangle. Here’s Paul in Romans 2:

12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:12-16, NRSV, courtesy of

What definition of “law” can you use that will actually make sense of everything Paul is saying. Those who have sinned “apart from the law” also perish “apart from the law.” First inclination is to think those without Torah perish without Torah. Of course we might compare Romans 7:7 and ask just where is sin without a law. To get out of Pauline literature, we might note that 1 John 3:4 identifies sin as the transgression of the law (or lawlessness), while (back to Paul again) “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Pardon me for jumping about, but I’m illustrating the problem of definitions here.

Then we have verse 13, where the “doers of the law” will be justified, except that we can refer to Galatians 2:16 (another book, but still Paul), where we are informed that nobody will be justified by the works of the law. So is Paul referring to the same law in Galatians 2:16? I’m not going to resolve all this here. I’m just suggesting the serious need to look at definitions. I’ve heard these various passages put together, and I myself have quoted 1 John 3:4 as though it came from Paul, just because I have it squirreled away in my brain along with Paul-talk.

But just with Paul’s discussion we may be looking at some tangles, as verse 14 suggests that Gentiles, not possessing the law, might instinctively do what the law requires. Now doubtless this doesn’t refer to the Gentiles instinctively knowing to practice Leviticus 6, which provides detailed instructions for a trespass offering. Not to mention any number of chapters around it. So there’s something other than the details of Torah that Paul has in mind here. From verse 15, “what the law requires is written on their hearts” suggests the same thing, and apparently God will judge them according to the law that they have.

My own though here and throughout the writings of Paul is that he sees an overall law of God which is then instantiated for those God is working with. The law (as you have it) reflects the law (as God desires it), and expectations are laid on you accordingly. The closest reflection of living by God’s law would be when our acts proceed from faith (Romans 14:23). I’m not really trying to fill out this thesis here. Rather, I’m suggesting that a great deal of confusion in reading Paul would be eased if one were as flexible in understanding the word “law” and connected phrases as Paul is in using the term.

Which leads me to the term “will.” What is God’s will? What is God’s plan? Some people are wonderfully comforted with the idea that God has a plan for their lives. Others are not that happy that they don’t really have a choice. Sometimes these ideas clash even when they are used by people who would both (or all) say that they want to live “in God’s will.”

But what do we mean by that?

I would suggest that we, in the modern church, are even more flexible in our use of “will” than Paul is in his use of “law.” I would suggest that God’s will is actually a very flexible thing. God’s plan for your life is that you make the best use of your gifts and talents according to the principles of God’s law. Just what has God decided and what is left to you? Listen, think, act, and enjoy.

God is flexible enough to deal with it!

(Featured Image credit:

That Law Doesn’t Apply to You

That Law Doesn’t Apply to You


Jody and I are teaching Sunday School tomorrow, and the starting point is the Adult Bible Studies Uniform Series, Winter 2015-2016. Thus we start the Advent season by studying the 4th commandment (the Sabbath command; some count these differently) and related texts. If you know me, you’ll probably know that I’m not a fan of the Adult Bible Studies series. In fact, I’m not really that much of a fan of Sunday School curriculum. The problem I have with it is not bad content, but rather homogenized content, as the series is edited to be used in many contexts. It’s a hazard of producing material that can be used generally.

If I could have my own way, I’d strongly suggest that such material only be used at the starting level, and that more challenging material follow, eventually leading to Sunday School classes going straight to sources and bringing in a variety of views. But they should bring this variety in through studying serious examples of material from various streams, not by watering down the material.

That said, I also want to emphasize that I’m not trying to critique the author of these lessons. In fact, I’ve added his book The Bible’s Foundation: An Introduction to the Pentateuch to my planned reading list. I’m not trying to critique the editors either. It’s simply that when something is written for this broad of an audience, the edges get knocked off before it’s finished, and I think the people in our pews can benefit from experiencing those edges. It was the misfortune of this lesson to sand down (in my view) one of the edges that I think very important.

Note to those who like short posts: This won’t be short. I’m planning to refer my Sunday School class to it if they want more. For the same reason I won’t be quoting much from the lesson, because I expect the primary readers to be people who are holding this lesson in their hands.

First, I’m going to look at the topic and where I see difficulties. Then I’m going to follow up with some of my own take on that material. I will also talk about the issue of space. Priorities are always hard to work out when you have limited space in which to express your view. I’m also writing against that constraint.

Two passages take pride of place in the discussion, both from Exodus. The first is Exodus 20:8-11, the Sabbath command itself, and how that might work out in modern times. In this discussion we go from the Sabbath command itself, which specifies that no work is to be performed on the seventh day of the week, and roots this in the creation account (“in six days YHWH God made heaven and earth”). This passage brings discomfort in a couple of different ways, as generally mainline Christians worship on Sunday (if they show up at all), and do not believe in a literal six day creation week.

In addressing the second point, the lesson gives us one of the best parts of the lesson, noting that the story in Genesis 1, and rooting the Sabbath in creation in the commandment as well, is the faith assertion of the writing that the Sabbath was “embedded within the very structure of the universe” (p. 7). Then he also shows us how a single event can take more than one meaning by referring to the reiteration of this command in Deuteronomy. So this command can have multiple meanings, one more universal (creation) and one more specific to Israel (the Exodus), though considering the way the Exodus motif is drawn into Christianity in the gospels, the second is somewhat universal as well.

The one thing I would add is that if one looks at the two stories of creation in Genesis, 1:1-2:4a and 2:4bff, one can see that at least the final redactor was not all that concerned with the physical structure or chronological history of creation, but rather had theological issues in mind. Genesis 1:1-2:4a is a liturgical passage. Worship in ancient near eastern temples reflected in some ways the people’s view of cosmology, and so liturgy was (and in my view, is) to reflect reality. Genesis 1 then places the Sabbath command into the heart of the liturgy as a weekly reminder of who is in charge. It’s difficult to be certain precisely how much of that liturgy was thought by author, redactor, or early reader to reflect reality. I suspect that if our concern is science, we should be more interested in the difference in cosmology (waters below, earth, firmament, waters above) than in the chronology, as the latter is liturgical. We do not maintain that Jesus was raised precisely on the date of Easter because we celebrate at that time, and we do not hold that Jesus is somehow raised once a year every year. Similarly, we don’t maintain that the ministry of Jesus was a week-long affair because we commemorate the resurrection through gathering for worship each Sunday. These are liturgical remembrances. The Israelites were capable of designing good liturgy, and embedding God as creator in a central way laid that foundation.

Thus I don’t think that creationism, whether old or young age, really needs to come into this. I accept the theory of evolution and would have no problem with commemorating creation on a weekly basis on the seventh day of the week. I can even imagine that this liturgical role might have been in the mind of the writer of Genesis 1 at the time, though it’s entirely possible that he thought this literally happened in a literal seven day week. That bothers me no more than his cosmology does, which is not at all. God must speak to people as they are. Imagine Genesis 1 starting with an explanation of the physics of a singularity.

But having moved past that we ask how do Christians keep the Sabbath today. There are two lines drawn between a text and modern practice in this lesson. I’m pretty sure the way the lines function is pretty much by accident. But I do think this is what classes are likely to get out of the material. On page 8 we are told that for us the Sabbath has become Sunday because we celebrate the resurrection, and we carry out Sabbath-keeping by attending Sunday School and church and participating in the life of the church. This paragraph looks like a kind of direct connection. We do obey this law and we do it in this particular way.

My problem here is that while I can draw a connection between commemorating the resurrection and commemorating creation, and I think a rather good one, that connection is not made explicit. On the other hand I cannot draw a very good connection between the command to rest and give rest to your entire household and those (even animals) that depend on you and going to Sunday School and church. I can find plenty of Old Testament warrant for participating in community education and worship life, but it’s not what the Sabbath command talks about. So here we travel fairly directly down the road from Old Testament law to modern application, yet I see a chasm in the road that isn’t bridged.

Before I did deeper into how I might handle the Sabbath command, however, I want to look at the other passage, Exodus 31:12-16. which calls for the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath. The lesson draws a very different line here. Citing 1 John 4:18, we are told that “… we cannot reconcile a loving God who demands death for working on the sabbath. We cannot affirm the death penalty for sabbath violation” (p. 7). And yet, we have Leviticus 19:18 “love your neighbor” on the one hand, and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) as death penalty counter-examples. We have a canon-within-the-canon disjunction, but only by assertion.

One of the tests of a hermeneutic is to ask whether it can be applied consistently. Now I will note that I know of consistent approaches that would deal with all these texts, but they are simply not expressed. That is my key issue here, and it has been my key issue with many United Methodist materials since I first joined a UM congregation. Way too much is presented by assertion. A scholar asserts, so we assume that is what we should believe. Then another scholar asserts something different, and the more thoughtful members wonder what’s wrong. A good illustration is the long-time church member who came to me wondering how she could ever learn to study her Bible. She kept reading the study notes and couldn’t see how the text said what she was seeing. She was shocked when I said, “How do you know the people who wrote the study notes are right?”

It’s hard to show people how we got to the conclusion as well as the conclusion itself, but if I were to make a choice, it would be for us to present less conclusions and show our work. Teach the members to study by our examples, and they can go form more conclusions for themselves.

So let’s go back to these two texts. How would I approach them? Here’s the first point:

Unless you are a Jew, the letter of these two laws does not apply to you.

How do I know this? Simple. They are addressed to the children of Israel. Read the beginning of Exodus 20. Ask yourself, “Who is the audience?” You’ll get it. I’m appalled at movements to put Ten Commandments monuments on courthouse lawns. The tables are very much an expression of the letter, especially when extracted from the story in which they are presented. We have no intention of keeping most of them. We can start with the one in question in this week’s lesson. We do not keep the Sabbath according to the letter of the Sabbath command and we don’t intend to. We don’t keep the one about graven images either, and we don’t intend to, not according to the letter of the law. We would at least claim that we ought to keep the one about coveting, but doubtless we won’t. So why put the text of those laws up on courthouse lawns? That isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the law that the court is enforcing. When we see people bow down in front of those tables of the law it gets even worse. No, the text isn’t a graven image (according to the letter), but bowing down in front of it and making it a central issue starts pushing the boundaries.

The boundaries of what, you ask? Well, the boundaries of the principles that are expressed in these commands. Those principles are expressed in a variety of ways, and they are modified in a variety of ways. They come from the story as well as from the command itself. One of the things to note about Bible stories is that many things are told in a very sparse way without commentary. People often cite the she-bears in 2 Kings 2:23-25 as an example of divine violence in the Old Testament, but there are two things one should note: 1) The story doesn’t comment one way or the other as to whether it was a good idea for Elisha to curse the boys and 2) it doesn’t even say that God sent the she-bears, just that they showed up. I think it’s likely that the writer thinks God sent the she-bears and at least didn’t disapprove of Elisha’s behavior. But the story doesn’t actually say that. (See a homily I wrote about Elisha and the She-Bears here.)

So we start from the point of view that we are not commanded to do any of these things. I can say this at least for my Sunday School class as we are all gentiles! But nonetheless this is scripture for us, and we see God in action. So using this approach let me tell you some of the principles I find in the Sabbath command.

  1. I agree fully with our lesson that God is in charge of time.
  2. God as the creator is made central to our lives, our ethics, and our worship.
  3. Care for one another and care even for creation is embedded at this same place, as the Sabbath command is to apply to all within our gates. We aren’t even to make slaves work. All get to rest.
  4. There is a need to specifically set aside time for rest. I’d suggest that if we don’t do it specifically, the rest time will never happen. I can certainly testify to that in my own life. This fourth point is the place where I violate the principles of the Sabbath command most regularly and directly!

Considering these principles, does going to church on Sunday fulfil the Sabbath command, not in letter (which would mean truly resting every Saturday all day)? In terms of the first element, I think it does. The shift to the resurrection is not nearly as radical as it seems, as the resurrection is itself a reaffirmation of God as creator. This shift also goes along with another Christian shift, expressed especially well in the book of Hebrews, and that is the shift from the Torah (in its narrower sense as the Pentateuch) as the center of our faith and understanding of God to the person of Jesus. That principle is carried out.

By keeping this celebration weekly, we also meet in some sense the second principle. Unfortunately, I think we fail to affirm adequately why we are in church each Sunday. It just sort of happens, as it did in our lesson. There we are for no better reason than that it’s what we do. It’s our habit. I don’t want to knock having church attendance a habit. That helps you through the difficult times. But it needs to be much more than that as often as possible.

But as for time for rest, and giving rest to others, I would suggest our Sunday worship pretty much fails. I’d note the number of work related e-mails I receive on Sunday afternoon from pastors. My point here, however, is not that these pastors shouldn’t send me e-mails on Sunday afternoon. Rather it is that there needs to be explicit times for the rest that we need, and that this rest needs to be extended to others as well. For pastors, Sunday is pretty much a day of work. They need to find themselves a day off. Their Sabbath is likely to come in two parts at least: Their worship with their congregation, which may actually be debilitating, and their time for their own rest that will need to come later in the week. Congregations should be aware that Sunday doesn’t work as a Sabbath for their pastor or generally for their church staff. They should positively participate in finding the appropriate rest time for those who serve them.

Finally, I go back to point #3, and note that often our worship on a Sunday morning is about us. That is also a failure to apply the principles of the Sabbath command. The rest we need is to be extended to others. It is an inclusive rest, and it applies to all of creation.

You’ll note here that while I say that the written command does not apply, from its principles I find a great deal that we should consider imperative in our lives. I could easily get all of this wrong. Realizing that the letter does not apply should lead us to a process of discernment and asking just what it is that God would have us to learn from a particular passage. I’m laying out what I see here. What do you see? If you disagree, can we discuss it? Perhaps we’ll all learn together. In applying principles we will get to practice the sort of community that results from us all being part of God’s creation, and in turn all being part of God’s redemption. The law grows! In us, it is alive!

And then we turn to Exodus 31:12-16, which seems to be the more difficult passage. As I have already said, this law does not apply to me and it does not apply to you. I am not commanded to carry out the death penalty on Sabbath breakers. But can I reconcile the death penalty for Sabbath breaking with a loving God? That’s a more difficult question. I think it needs to be met with a counter-question: Do I have to reconcile it?

Just as I believe God could not start his discussion with Israel about God’s role as creator by explaining a singularity and the big bang (and is that really the answer or will we look back and laugh at it in another few decades or centuries?), so God could not simply change everything about people in one act. In this case, I’ll only go so far as to say that applying the death penalty to the Sabbath command simply puts it into that most serious category of crimes. Should I support the death penalty for it now? I don’t think this passage answers that question or even points to an answer. I would agree that I could not now affirm the death penalty for this command as the act of a loving God, but I think it’s much harder to discern its role for the Israelites in their very earliest history.

So the question that I ask instead is what would make Sabbath breaking an offense of the most dire nature. Here I think we must go back first to the fact that these commands are addressed to Israel at Mt. Sinai following the Exodus. There is no death penalty, for example, in Genesis 2:1-4a. There’s just a blessing. Why is there one here? And I see as a good answer that the Sabbath was a marker of identity. It identified Israelites to others as Israelites. It identified them as YHWH’s people. Violation was seen in these passages as tantamount to treason, to a rejection of that identity. That the death penalty applied I would suggest is an example of a thing not changed, rather than an indication of God’s eternal will.

We often imagine how God might have changed everyone in a moment, but I suspect those of us who have tried to change the ethos of a group of people are much less certain that this result can be obtained quickly. People don’t change all that easily. When God interacts with people we will see not only God but the people he interacts with. If you’re thinking that I’m wrong, just consider how quick we are to want others killed today, whether it is as part of our judicial system or in war. We resort to “kill them” awfully quickly. Perhaps we haven’t moved as much from the world of Exodus 31:12-16 as we’d like to think.

Fortunately, we have other passages that tend to work on us in those areas as well. We as Christians struggle with identity. We are in the world but we are supposed to be different. Where is our identity to be found now? John 13:35 might suggest something: “If you love one another.” We don’t have the death penalty for this one, but perhaps we ought to consider that this definition of identity should have the highest respect that we can give anything in our church and community.

Now, having laid out how I see these texts, I want to ask how you do. I’ll be listening to my Sunday School class, and I’ll be happy to listen to (or read!) comments here. My main hope here is that by laying out our thinking we can learn to help one another grow, always looking back to scripture and to those around us to see what principles we should be applying in our lives.



What Makes a Person Great?

What Makes a Person Great?

3. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights act...
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Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man.

Said today, that is a rather unremarkable statement. Back in 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, it would have sparked intense, even violent, debate. To some he was a troublemaker. To others, evil. To yet others, he was a danger to society. And to certain parts of our society, to many broader structures that many felt were essential, he was a danger.

In 1968, when I first heard of him, what I heard was not generally favorable. Nobody told me he was a great man. Our family had just returned from Mexico, where we had been for four years. I was just old enough to start thinking a bit about politics. What I first heard wasn’t good.

Time has changed all that. Death and time makes people reevaluate their viewpoints. Time has seen the opinions of many shift so that many things for which Dr. King hoped do not seem so remarkable. We are still far from “free at last” but we have made some progress. I’ve read quite a number of favorable blog posts regarding this man today.

I have to wonder whether he would be so well received if he were alive today. In fact, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be. And that troubles me.

The cause of integration was right back in the 50s and 60s, yet many didn’t recognize it. How can we recognize something that is right now, rather than waiting for people to die for it.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about as I can today. How can I get on board for the right movement today?

I want to add one quote and link, because I hear so many Christians claim that just because something is the law, it must necessarily be obeyed. The following is from Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

So the argument here is that a law that fosters injustice must be resisted.

(HT: The Agitator)

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Is Sunday my Sabbath?

Is Sunday my Sabbath?

As an ex-Seventh-day Adventist I get this question frequently. This fine Sunday morning while I’m playing with my computer, let me answer both yes and no!

There are several ways in which ex-SDAs deal with the Sabbath. The first is to accept the Sunday as the Sabbath in accordance with the letter of the commandment, with the day changed by authority of Jesus or the apostles. I find this change unsubstantiated. The second is to apply the Sabbath command in some other way, but nonetheless explicitly, such as to the command to “rest in Christ.” I take neither of these approaches, though I think the second of them has some merit.

For me, Jesus presented the ideal that all commands were to be taken in spirit and from the heart rather than in terms of simply following the letter. In fact, the letter could get in the way of living right if one didn’t find a way to soften it from time to time. The difference would be between an employer giving one employee a list of work rules, while telling another employee to work as he pleased, but to make sure to get certain tasks done.

Thus for me the fourth commandment simply provides a guideline. That was how sacred time was delineated for a specific time, place, and group of people. I do not live at that time, nor in that place, nor am I part of that group to whom the specific command was specifically addressed. (However you read this, don’t assume I think I’m better than that group of people. Just different.)

So in answer to the immediate follow-up question: Do you discard the rest of the commandments? Yes and no, and in the same sense. The ten commandments were part of Jewish law. They express principles that would be part of any divine law, but they do not apply as letter to all of us.

Sunday is time I set aside to spend with God, along with many other specific times during the week, but it’s not a fulfillment of the letter of the commandment. Rather, it’s the application of the principle of time set aside for God as I believe it applies to my life, my place, and my time.