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During the counter-culture years in the late 1960s an angry man bluntly accused me of turning my back on the church. That’s how he interpreted my beard and long hair. I explained how all this hair might help me relate better to young people struggling with their faith. He became as gracious as he had been blunt. “Keep struggling,” he shouted enthusiastically. He was a very conservative man with a sense of spirituality in context.
Conflicts about tradition usually take longer to resolve and are often focused on biblical authority. In my denomination’s struggle with the role of women in the church, people who saw official authority as a male prerogative and based this on Scripture often regarded their interpretation of the Bible as unassailable. To challenge them was to challenge Scripture itself. Their position was revealed, ordained by God. Since, in their view, God does not change, their position as ordained in God’s Word must stand for the ages.
Recent history shows that, in spite of changing perceptions of God’s guidance, we have nevertheless come through such struggles with our respect for biblical authority unscathed. Many who argued against women in ecclesiastical authority were comfortable with divorced people in their church, with their own practice of birth control, and with the abolition of slavery. Yet these positions, now accepted as biblical, were perceived as a threat to biblical authority by their parents or grandparents, who read the Bible as clearly teaching that Jesus rejected divorce, that we must be fruitful and multiply, and that slaves must be obedient. But the people uncomfortable with women in ecclesiastical authority, though at ease with changes of which their parents had disapproved, tended to say that this time things were different. This time Scripture was clear. They perceived, it seems, no lessons in their recent past.
People who more readily favor change often affirm their allegiance to an authoritative Bible. They tend to demonstrate their sincerity by showing that the Bible supports abolishing slavery, concern about overpopulation, and acceptance of divorced people. Usually, however, their energies are focused on the issue at hand: divorce in the past, women’s roles just recently, homosexuality today. They too, in my experience, do not usually try to develop a broader and more lasting perspective on biblical authority and historical change.
Why do major changes in understanding Scripture’s guidance so predictably lead to a crisis around biblical authority? Is there no long-term lesson we can learn from the survival of respect for Scripture through a history of changing views and behaviors? In this article I want to propose a spirituality oriented to a view of biblical authority that calls us to be prepared to change and to adopt a life in Christ, so that we remain historically alive and mobile.
The Knowledge of Good and Evil
We need change to keep good things good. We all know the misery of traffic gridlock on major expressways. Our problem here is not our abandonment of century-old rules requiring people waving flags to walk ahead of oncoming motor vehicles. Increasing car density, powerful engines, road rage, or environmental concerns require updated safety laws. And we know that new legislation does not undermine public authority.
Churches also change rules. Earlier Christians did not dance, go to movies, or play cards. Churches prohibited such behavior as undermining good Christian living. Today it’s different. Some denominations once did not sing hymns but only Psalms, others required attendance at two services a Sunday. We all sing hymns now and many of us attend only once.
But maybe the Bible is free from such change? No it isn’t. Already in the Old Testament, Isaiah 56 prophesies that God’s law prohibiting eunuchs and foreigners from entering the temple (Deut. 23:1-3) must change. Much earlier a wise woman from Tekoa nudged King David to disregard God’s legislation regarding murderers in order to show love to his son Absalom, an exiled assassin (2 Sam. 14).
Our perceptions and identifications of good and evil change continually, because we cannot know good and evil apart from specific actions or concrete events that change. Evil, by and in itself, is unknowable; so is good. We recognize rape as evil and know that forgiving poor countries their debt is good. But we do not know unembodied evil or good. Good and evil cling to our deeds.
Though good and evil can only be known in deeds, these deeds are not good or evil in and of themselves. Is eating human flesh evil? People have survived a plane crash by eating the flesh of the perished. They did no evil. Spiritual discernment requires us to understand the context in which deeds are good or evil. We also need an a bility to understand the meanings that make concrete actions what they are. Is it good to feed the hungry? Feeding them solid food when they can take only intravenous fluid would be evil. The deed as such does not create the good or the evil. One hundred years ago a car traveling at thirty miles per hour would have transgressed the law by going too fast. Today that car would violate the law by going too slow. Changing circumstances, historical development, and the emergence of new realities require that we continually update our recognition of good and evil and adjust our rules.
God gave Israel an entire body of directions, all very specific, to show what it meant for them to walk with God. In following these, Israel would be walking with God and would be God’s people. Still, Israel could go through the motions and, while doing God’s commanded deeds, neglect to walk with God. In doing as they were directed, Israel was expected to experience God’s walking with them and their walking with God. But the directions as such did not guarantee a walk with God. Jeremiah said that God gave Israel no commandments about burnt offerings but asked them to walk with their God (Jer. 7:22-23). We know that God did give commandments about burnt offerings. So what did Jeremiah mean? Jeremiah meant that these commandments were not about burnt offerings but about what would embody people’s walk with God.
New Wine in New Skins
Spiritual discernment requires us to understand the context in which deeds are good or evil. We ever condemned poverty as the price of sloth. Today we view it as the price the many pay for the riches of a few. In the Bible authority was a male prerogative. When women’s rights became recognized, the new context called for a new vision. Confining women to the kitchen was no longer an obvious good for all.
We also need an ability to understand the meanings that make concrete actions what they are. A man may do all the things done by a loving husband, but his wife may know he does not love her. Or he may fail to show his love in recognizable deeds, and yet she may know his love. Love is not the same as going through a set of motions.
The Bible acknowledges the interrelation between historical change and the connection of good or evil with our deeds. Jesus himself clarified the need for such change. The “law” of Christ is language for those who think in terms of law. This “law,” however, abolishes the law of commandments. The only “law” there is now asks us to bear the burden of the law-breaker. Discussing how his disciples do things differently from the scribes and Pharisees, he said that “new wine needs new wineskins.” As the one who embodies walking with God, he points out that different deeds are needed to make this new walk visible in Israel (Luke 5:33-39). Similarly, Paul counseled Christians–in light of the different time–to remain single, even though Genesis urged people to be in fruitful relationships.
In the age of Christ, Scripture has no large body of specific rules for living. The New Testament is written by and for people who live in the Spirit and have entered into maturity. Of course they had rules. But those we know are few and not intended for all times or all people. New Testament rules about obedience of slaves or wives need not be kept to help us be obedient in our times. Sensitively evaluating rules as vehicles for life in Christ is pervasive in the New Testament. Let us examine this theme as it appears in the writings of Luke and Paul.
At Jesus’ baptism Luke records Simeon’s vision of God’s revelation to the Gentiles as leading to the “fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:31-34). Indeed, at Jesus’ first appearance after he has received the Spirit and withstood temptation, his vision of God’s favor to Gentiles leads to rejection by his people (Luke 4:28-30). In Acts 2 Luke describes full restoration of spiritual responsibility, as Joel had promised: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Acts 2:17).
As in our own times, new situations breed controversy. In Acts this opposition becomes apparent when some believers do not accept the full consequences of the new responsibility. “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses'” (Acts 15:5).
Luke prepares us for resolving this kind of conflict by telling us of two occasions on which the Spirit introduces deep change in the life of Jesus’ followers. Just as in his Gospel Simeon’s vision at Jesus’ baptism was inspired by Isaiah (42:6 and 49:6), Luke’s two stories of change in Acts (8:26-40 and 10) are also inspired by Isaiah, by his vision of the inclusion of strangers and eunuchs who honored the covenant (Isa. 56:3-8). The first story is of the Spirit’s guiding Philip to baptize a eunuch who is also a stranger. The second tells of Peter’s trusting the Spirit’s revelation that God’s law regarding the unclean was no longer in force and that therefore Peter could go visit a stranger to baptize him and his family. These two stories prepare us for a very radical change in how we are to perceive of walking with God.
The radical change comes in Acts 15, which tells us how the apostles and elders dealt with Greek Christians who did not observe the law of Moses. They concluded that the outpouring of the Spirit had ushered in a new situation. Belonging to God in Christ no longer required observing God’s law as given to Moses. In Christ people are free, with the exception of a few Jewish laws that still seemed essential (Acts 15:29), to find their own way with the Spirit. Even these few essentials were received in the spirit of freedom, as Paul’s flexible discussions in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 show. Walking with God still requires rules, but not rules already spelled out in Scripture.
Luke, in both his Gospel and in Acts, shows the scope of the law interpreted as pointing to our walk with God. Understandably, it is he who tells us the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), which gives us the key to understanding the law and the prophets as shaping our lives in the Spirit. The law and the prophets reveal Jesus, who shows the depth of the law as a word of renewal from God, a life-giving directive of the Spirit.
Paul echoes Jeremiah’s speech on burnt offerings and walking with God: real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal (Rom. 2:29). In 2 Corinthians he spells this out more fully: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Codes remain, but they are no longer cast in concrete. They are “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3). This is, for Paul, a matter of life and death: “the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.” And the Spirit here is the Spirit of the Lord, a Spirit who gives freedom (2 Cor. 3:17). The Word Incarnate obviously moves–and, according to the apostles, intends us to move–beyond the Word in Scripture.
No wonder that in another passage about this issue–Galatians 5–Paul uses language of the strongest possible kind: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). We sometimes say that change or freedom is not for change or freedom’s sake. Paul disagrees. We are set free for freedom. Just as the apostles went beyond the Old Testament in ways that fulfilled it, the church today is called upon to read beyond the New Testament. If people of faith trust that “rule” enough to live by it–that’s what it is to have faith–God’s peace and mercy will be theirs. If freedom is in Christ, the Spirit will bring forth fruits against which there can be no law. Christ speaks of his burden as light, and his burden is the cross! What does that allow us to do? It allows us to be followers of the mercy brought to us in the cross: “Bear one another’s burdens [sins], and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). The “law” of Christ is language for those who think in terms of law. This “law,” however, abolishes the law of commandments. The only “law” there is now asks us to bear the burden of the law-breaker.
The difference between Old and New Testament “law” is that the “law of Christ” is not a new set of “commandments and ordinances” but a spirit, a new torah, a new direction written on human hearts (Jer. 31:33), a new way to walk in life. Paul calls this a “new creation,” which is the new rule (Gal. 6:15-16). Or as he says it in Romans 14:17, the kingdom of God is not dietary laws (“food and drink”) but a new heart of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. …” From this new heart flow the actions (love, joy, and many more) against which there is no “law” (Gal. 5:23).
Paul takes this newness in Christ very far (Gal. 3:23-29). In Christ all of us have again become what Jesus already was: sons and daughters of God, heirs with Jesus. As the first Adam was son of God (Luke 3:38), but lost that link through disobedience, so those whose burden is the cross regain, in the second Adam, their birthright again: sons and daughters of God–Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, males, and females–not as “immature followers,” but as real heirs (Gal. 4:1-7). The benefit of being born of God is that we no longer need to observe “special days, and months, and seasons, and years” (Gal. 4:10). In Christ we are no longer mere followers of codes; standing fast is no longer standing under the burden of a law that never changes. In Christ we never again submit to a yoke of slavery, that is, to a law written on tablets of stone for those who were only slaves and not yet fully adopted children and heirs (Gal. 5:1).
So the new law, the new way or torah, the rule of the new creation is being in Christ. The Bible’s fundamental message here is that God’s people in all relationships to God, neighbor, and creation are to be in Christ. “In Christ,” says the Bible, we are brought near to God. In Christ we are redeemed, reconciled, sanctified, and justified; we receive truth, grace, love, hope, and faith; we are wise, guides, a new creation, free, and one; we give thanks, live, and die; and we are empowered to do all we do.
What happens to us and in us in Christ is the work of God through the Spirit. This relationship is so intense, full, and reciprocal that our being in Christ and God and the Spirit also means that they are in us. People in Christ, God, and the Spirit are their body, temple, heirs, and children. In all of this, the Scriptures (Moses and the prophets) play a role, but not by providing us with our actual and concrete norm or rule. Scripture’s role is to testify to and support what happens or should happen in Christ and to provide continuity with the past. New Testament people are simply called to be in Christ.
Since the Scriptures available to New Testament writers are Old Testament writings, being in Christ is not spelled out in them. They are more readily seen as being fulfilled in Christ or testifying to him. Remember Jesus’ own references to his presence in the Old Testament in John 5:39 (the Scriptures testify of him) and in Luke 24:27 (he showed the men of Emmaus how the Scriptures spoke of him). Still, being in Christ is a whole new dimension that the Old Testament can only point to. Hence, in Christ not only are important barriers broken, such as between master and slave, Jew and Greek, male and female, but the Old Testament law itself is fulfilled by Christ and by being in Christ.
In Christ we find our way, know the Spirit’s guidance, and receive God’s will in a manner portrayed as shedding a cloth that was over our eyes and receiving the full light of day rather than the weak flame of a candle. If we read Scripture in Christ and the literal text appears to block our living in Christ, we are responsible to find new meaning in Christ. Any rule, commandment, or law in the New Testament remains valid for us only if obeying it clearly leads to actions that are in Christ. The church rightly moved beyond even Jesus’ explicit teaching on divorce. Taking such responsibility is part of the New Testament church’s task.
Maturity in Christ
I already noted that the theme of the difference between slavishly following the letter of the law and being in Christ is central in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There, the law is a provisional arrangement until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:24). Once Christ has come, those who are in Christ are, like Christ, sons and daughters of God. By contrasting “sons” with children, Paul makes clear he means a relationship of maturity, responsibility, and privilege. In Christ our relationship to God is one with standing (Gal. 4:1-7). How radically Paul meant all of this becomes apparent in the concluding summary of the letter. Matters of law and Scripture, such as circumcision, are not the core on which our lives are focused. Rather, there is now a new “rule.” That rule is not really a rule, however; instead, the new thing is that people in Christ are a new creation, restored to full responsibility. Just as the apostles went beyond the Old Testament in ways that fulfilled it, the church today is called upon to read beyond the New Testament. If people of faith trust that “rule” enough to live by it–that’s what it is to have faith–God’s peace and mercy will be theirs (Gal. 6:15-16).
The Bible is a reliable resource for and witness to living in Christ. But the responsibility for unfolding what this means today is ours entirely, in Christ. The rest of the New Testament supports this reading forcefully, as the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 shows. The validity of any New Testament rule dissolves when we cannot fulfill the law of Christ by obeying that rule.
How did the apostles interpret this concretely in terms of their own lives and in dealing with norms? Paul provides a clear example. His advice about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 shows that he is authorized to speak on his own: “I say this (I, not the Lord),” and “my rule” (1 Cor. 7:12, 17). He does this in the confidence that he has the Spirit (1 Cor. 7:40). His advice is not to marry, thereby the better to focus on following Christ (1 Cor. 7:32-35). In the Spirit, Paul sees himself as qualified to write about marriage in a way that departs radically from Genesis 2: the command to leave parents and cling to one another appears to be no longer in force. Paul’s times call for a different embodiment of being in Christ.
Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Council makes it clear that, in moving to a new situation, those who now live within the old barriers will be upset with people who change rules in order to be and remain in Christ. Nevertheless, their criticism must not prevent the spreading of the good news (Acts 11:3, 18). Maintaining the tradition in its present form may be testing God and burdening his people (Acts 15:10).
The church must take responsibility for interpreting God’s orientation in its own time. In the ever-changing circumstances of history, the normative embodiment of God’s guidance remains a task we must undertake again and again, in continuity with appeals to Scripture and the tradition of the church. But Scripture and tradition do not necessarily provide specific rules of conduct for today, if and when changing times require adjustments.