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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Relationship Status with the Rules in the Bible: It’s Complicated

rules in the Bible

Jared Byas, M.A.

As a former teaching pastor and professor of philosophy and biblical studies, he speaks regularly on the Bible, truth, creativity, wisdom, and the Christian faith. Tweets at @jbyas

I find so many Christians who have a complicated and inconsistent relationship with moral rules. I have found that’s partly because we also have a complicated and inconsistent relationship with the rules and laws we find in the Bible.

When we assume that God wants us to follow rules in the Bible in the same way that they were followed in ancient Israel, we back ourselves into a lot of corners. The question on the table is, in what ways are we supposed to do what the Bible says? Of course, entire books have been written on this but here are a few things to consider:

Genre

The first hurdle we run into, which shouldn’t be controversial at all, is that a large part of our Bible is story. How do we draw definitive moral conclusions from a story? And not only is it a story, but it’s not even a story that’s explicitly trying to give us a moral lesson, like say Aesop’s Fables. Samuel and Kings, for instance, are a retelling of historical events through a theological framework. There are no moral lessons at the end that tell us exactly what we’re supposed to do with it. It’s not like “Arrested Development” where we have J. Walter Weatherman coming into the scene to say “And that’s why you always leave a note” or “And that’s why you don’t teach your father a lesson.” One of our problems is that when we go to those parts of the Bible to find out what we should do today, morally, we are going to an ancient theologically-informed history book for modern-day morality. That’s genre confusion. That’s not knocking the Bible, it’s knocking a poor way of reading it. We wouldn’t blame a cookbook for not giving us insights into how much Tylenol to give to our kids.

So, one reason why we have a hard time figuring out how to do what the Bible tells us to do is that we have a hard time acknowledging that the Bible has large portions where it’s not trying to tell us to do anything.

That’s not to say we can’t glean wisdom by sifting through the stories and figuring out how it’s helpful and meaningful in our context. But it is necessary to admit that when we do that, we are choosing to do that to the text. The text isn’t demanding that we do it. We are now having to use our own wisdom to glean wisdom, we are not “just reading the Bible and doing what it says.”

Context

The second hurdle we find is when we look at the passages that do seem to be giving a moral framework, like the law or instruction passages of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It’s quite clear that for social and cultural reasons no Christian follows those laws exactly. Some of them would be impossible to follow and some are so irrelevant that they wouldn’t ever come up in our lives (unless, of course, it’s common for you to have to intervene in a fight your husband is in by grabbing the other guy’s testicles, see Deut 25:11-12). So, we now have the question of: How do we update these laws and instructions? And that’s leaving aside the question of whether we should even be trying to update them – but that’s for another day.

When are we supposed to just do it as it’s written? For example, “Do not steal” (Lev 19:11) seems pretty translatable into our current context so we often just bring it right over into our day and say it still applies to us. And when are we supposed to find the principle behind the rule and follow the principle and not the rule itself? For example, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field…leave them for the poor and foreigner” (Lev 19:9-10) isn’t literally relatable since most of us don’t harvest land. But it’s pretty simple to draw a principle out that can be relatable: don’t take everything you can but give some of what you’ve earned to the poor and foreigner. The problem here is the Bible doesn’t tell us, in the 21st century, when to do one versus when to do the other. Some might read Leviticus 19:9-10 and conclude that it’s not applicable to them because they don’t harvest fields. Others might conclude that it is applicable because the principle behind it is applicable. Who is right? The Bible doesn’t say.

Authority

This leads us to the final challenge: since none of us follow the rules in the Bible exactly as written, we are forced to pick and choose. And once we are forced to pick and choose, we are now looking outside the Bible for an authority on how to pick and choose.

So the question then becomes, what criteria are we using to pick and choose and why that criteria rather than another? Or in other words: who is the authority? This is a very important and historically tricky question. How do we pick criteria that the Bible itself doesn’t seem to respect?

For a lot of Christians they have decided on three categories of law:

Ceremonial Law: These instructions dictated purity and holiness and were related to governing the religious system of the day. It would include the proper way to sacrifice. These are like the rituals and traditions of some churches.

Civil Law: Like a court of law, these were laws that governed ancient Israel from a judicial standpoint. These are like our traffic laws.

Moral: These would be all other laws and what most Protestants would argue to have “abiding significance for Christians” because they seem to reflect the “very nature of God.”

The problem, of course, is that these are artificial distinctions that the Bible does not acknowledge. In Leviticus 19, which is where we pulled our other examples, we have all three of these in the same section of laws with no indication that we should be separating them out:

28 “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.”

29 “Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness.”

30 “Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.”

31 “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.”

32 “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.”

It’s a convenient framework but it’s a circular argument and is unaware that it is imposing a cultural context (ours) on the Bible.

All that to say, when we ignore these challenges of genre, context, and authority, we wield the Bible in very problematic and hypocritical ways. We need to wrestle with these and struggle with them together, rather than calling our own assumptions the truth of the Bible and then excluding people on that basis.

How do we do that? What do we do? That’s for another post. But I’ll give you some hints:

1. Look for how Jesus interpreted the Bible. If we have to pick and choose, why not look for how Jesus did it?

2. Develop a personal ethic within diverse community: finding diversity not only in culture, race, gender, and sexual orientation, but also from experts in ethics, a local church community, and yes, the Bible (based on #1 above).

3. Be open to change as we learn more. For some reason, we think of ethics like its God: unchanging and unmovable. Rather, ethics should be viewed more like science: always learning and open to improvement.

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