Tuesday, November 29, 2011

...More Like Guidelines...

Truss shadows by paynehollow
Truss shadows, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

I've been in several conversations in several places of late that have had a common theme that I think may be boiled down to: What is the role of rules as found in the Bible.

It has been suggested to me that the bible is a Book of Rules. I objected to that characterization. In my estimation, it would be more apt to say that the Bible is a book of Grace, or a Book of Truth (with the Truth being ultimately about Love and Grace), or a Book of God's Love for humanity, something along those lines. But "a book of rules..."?

That seems, to me, to be missing the point.

Are there rules found in the Bible? Yes, of course there are. There are rules specifically given to the Israeli people thousands of years ago. There were rules of how to "do" church in the first century AD. There are rules that can be considered universal in nature and there are rules that are obviously to a specific time and place and people.

But to call the Bible a rule book seems to be wildly missing the point.

It seems to this reader that a large part of the Bible's story of God's grace is dealing specifically with this topic. In the Old Testament, we see people hewing to the rules of sacrifice and religion and God stops them, telling them bluntly, "I desire MERCY, not Sacrifice."

They missed the point.

We see Jesus doing this repeatedly with the Pharisees, those wonderfully moral and righteous men who seemed to repeatedly miss the point, holding fastidiously, harshly fast to rules (with demands that others also hold fast to their long list of rules), but being lacking in love and grace.

I have oft-repeated what I learned growing up about understanding the Bible: We ought to interpret the whole Bible through the lens of Jesus' teachings. One of the pivotal snippets of teaching that I find in Jesus' teaching is this simple line...

The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.

I find this to be a pivotal, KEY teaching to understanding our relationship to rules, whether found in the Bible or elsewhere.

Consider the Sabbath rule, as found in Exodus 34...

“These are the things the LORD has commanded you to do: For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day [Saturday] shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.”

Or, as directly quoted from Exodus 20 (ie, the Ten Commandments...)

“Remember the Sabbath day [Saturday] by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns..."

The rule is fairly clear and unequivocal. On SIX DAYS, we should do all our work. But on the SEVENTH DAY (Saturday), we should rest. We should NOT work on Saturday, nor should our family or people who work for us.

Clear. Easy enough to understand (although, reasonably one might question "what constitutes 'Work'?" - still, pretty clear). Straightforward.

But Jesus' helped CLARIFY the "command" for us...

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath."

We travel down the path of Pharisees when we hang fastidiously to a rule without considering the context. When we condemn others for a "sin" but we're only considering the rule in a woodenly literal way and we're not considering that rule through the eyes of love, mercy and grace, we run the risk of condemning as sin, what is NOT sin.

Jesus' followers were guilty of transgressing a sin, IF we took that law woodenly literal. But that would have been missing the point. The Sabbath was made FOR US. The rules are there FOR US. for OUR sake. TO HELP.

In one of these conversations I've had lately, someone accused me of treating these COMMANDS, "more like guidelines..." (cleverly invoking the Pirates of the Caribbean running gag... "You're pirates. Hang the code, and hang the rules. They're more like guidelines anyway..."). He intended it as a slight, but yeah, maybe I DO treat them more like guidelines.

Certainly that seems to be the message of Jesus on the Sabbath rule. "You're condemning them for doing something good - eating. That 'thou shalt not work on the sabbath...' that's more like a guideline. The POINT is, that the rule is there FOR YOU, for YOUR GOOD."

THE Rule, as repeatedly summarized in the Bible (and indeed, by our own hearts) is Love God, Love your Neighbor, do Good, embrace Grace. THAT is THE HARD AND FAST RULE that we are to hold to.

The "rules" (lowercase "rule"), they're more like guidelines. They are there for our benefit, to help guide us in the paths of Love and Grace.

Yes, prostitution is not good for the oppressed prostitute or the needy/oppressive john. That is the guideline. BUT, in the Bible, we see the story of Tamar, who USED prostitution to take a stand against Injustice and for Good, for Love, for Grace. Thus, she "broke" the "rule"/guideline in an effort to hold close to THE Rule - Love, Grace.

We see this in David and the disciples "working on the Sabbath." Breaking the "rule" to hold fast to the "RULE."

We see this in Jesus healing on the Sabbath, breaking the "rule" to hold fast to the "RULE."

We see the pharisees MISSING the point in their heaping of rules upon rules on the shoulders of their followers, but missing out on grace.

We see the Israelis missing the point in their adherance to giving sacrifice, but their lacking in mercy.

The "rules" are there FOR OUR SAKE, to help us walk in the RULE of Grace, of Love, of Mercy and Justice.

And, for that reason, it seems to me that we too often have made the Bible into a mere rulebook and missed the point of the Story: Living into Grace.


Alan said...

Is this a repost from outkube.com?

John Farrier said...

So as long as you don't use the Bible as a public policy manual, this will be just fine with me.

Bubba said...


"Yes, prostitution is not good for the oppressed prostitute or the needy/oppressive john. That is the guideline. BUT, in the Bible, we see the story of Tamar, who USED prostitution to take a stand against Injustice and for Good, for Love, for Grace. Thus, she 'broke' the 'rule'/guideline in an effort to hold close to THE Rule - Love, Grace."

A provocative suggestion, that Tamar in Genesis 38 was in the right to have "used" prostitution. It's just as provocative -- and in the entirely opposite direction -- as a "wonderfully challenging sermon" that Dan excerpted sometime back, in which his "dear friend" condemned Joseph's actions in Genesis 47, which he said were based on a vision that "uproots - and turns into a nightmare for others."

It makes me wonder about Genesis 22, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham obeys, stopped at the last minute by God's own intervention.

The Bible claims that God directly commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:2). Nowhere does the Bible even hint that God commanded Tamar to sell herself.

The New Testament subsequently praises Abraham for obeying God, in that great roll call of the champions of faith (Heb 11:17). Nowhere does the Bible even hint that what Tamar did was commendable: Scripture merely reports without commentary.


Would the general prohibition of taking life be a lowercase "rule" or guideline that can be broken in order to hold fast to "the RULE of Grace, of Love, of Mercy and Justice"?

Or is it not enough that God directly commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and that the New Testament explicitly praises him for obeying?

I think I know Dan's answer to the question, but it'd be nice to see it written out.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

An alternative, perhaps: "The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all. . .

"Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, o things, and of himself. . . . The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin. . . .

"The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp.17-18.

Marshall Art said...

Yet, Paul tells us the the Law is of value to us for the purpose of distinguishing between good and bad behaviors. I'll go with Paul over Bonhoeffer any day.

What Dan misses as well, is that neither God with "I desire mercy." or Jesus and the Pharisees, is that in neither case was the Law thrown out. Only improper understanding. As we can see in the former, God was lamenting the fact that the people thought sacrifices covered their unwillingness to really overcome their sinfulness, much as some people today think they're cool with God because they go to church.

Another example would be confession. Does God want us to confess our sins? I think He'd much prefer that we not have sins to confess. This parallels the "I want mercy." passage. But to not have sins requires that we live as He taught us to live in Scripture. That means rules. Some of us understand why some "rules" do not apply and others pretend there is confusion so that loopholes for personal desires can be exploited to serve the self over God.

Dan Trabue said...


Would the general prohibition of taking life be a lowercase "rule" or guideline that can be broken in order to hold fast to "the RULE of Grace, of Love, of Mercy and Justice"?

I'm not sure what you're asking. The rule against shedding innocent blood IS a Rule of Grace, Love, Mercy and Justice. Wouldn't you say?

As to your comments about Tamar, fair enough, the act is not specifically praised. And yet, her motivation WAS justice, she was seeking a moral Good. Thus, "The Rule" at least SEEMS TO have overridden "the rule." (ie, the Justice and Love of her act appears to have overridden the sinful nature of the act.)

Beyond that, not only is Tamar specifically listed in Jesus' ancestry in Matthew, so is Rahab, who was a "common whore." And she was praised at least twice in the New Testament, in addition to being a woman listed in Jesus' genealogy.

My point would be that the "sex sins" found in the Bible are not as rigid as we moderns tend to think, or at least the argument could be made and motivation has a lot to do with what is and isn't wrong, when we measure things by grace, as opposed to rigid rule-keeping.