WHO'S SPEAKING, GOD OR ME?
We’re tempted to read Romans 1:18-32 and think every Gentile in world history was a villain and a reprobate. That certainly wasn’t Paul’s view or point because in Romans 2:14-15 he insists that there were Gentiles whose moral lives were to be commended. Then in chapters 2 & 3 he paints the nation of Israel in the gloomiest colours. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one…there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one” (3:10-12). This is a generalized description of the history of the nation as a corporate entity and doesn’t describe Hannah, Samuel, Ruth, Habakkuk and a host of righteous individuals. Every accountable person sins, of course, but that’s not what Romans 1:18—3:20 is about; it speaks in general terms of humanity’s faithless response to God whether Jews or Gentiles as a contrast to God’s gracious faithfulness (3:20-28). “There is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one” is not a description of Ruth and “all have turned aside [and] become worthless” is no description of Hannah or her righteous son Samuel.
This tendency to ignore a text’s purpose and apply it to every specific case under heaven leads us to say silly things and very often in a heartless fashion we bind burdens on people, burdens of extraordinary weight (compare Matthew 23:4). When that’s our way of thinking there are no “exceptional” cases or “extenuating circumstances”. With a handful of laws and a string of verses all ready for use our approach is, “The Law’s the Law!” and non-believers who know better than that become even more sceptical of the Bible we church-goers are representing. [“Does their Bible really teach that way? If so…”] It’s bad enough that they take offence at plain biblical truth; it’s worse when they are needlessly confronted with pseudo-scandals.
With our “paint them all the same” mentality Jean Valjean’s stealing a loaf to feed his starving sister and her kids is treated the same as the act of a career-thief, the abortion of a baby with horrific defects is treated the same as the act of the famous tennis-player aborting a very well developed human so she could play a couple more seasons of tennis, the 14 year old boy who went to the hospital and shot to death the older brother he idolized who in agony had begged him to put him out of his misery is morally condemned as surely as the callous assassin who kills humans as he would a cockroach and an elected government taking the life of an impenitent serial killer is regarded as vengeful and barbaric as the killer. We don’t have to approve of any of these acts but to lump them all together with a glib, “They’re all the same!” is ethical and biblical nonsense that results in heartless treatment of fellow-strugglers and promotes the despising of law that we think we’re honouring.
It doesn’t matter that it might be “easier” if all “crimes” were treated as if they were equally reprehensible. It doesn’t matter that we’re afraid of opening a door that we might later wish we had kept shut. We have no right to be more rigid than God and we have no right to grab verses to “prove” our case which in fact have no immediate relevance to our case. When we do that we’re false witnesses for God, which is what Job called his friends at one point and told them that God would hold them accountable for it.
Right or wrong, I am personally opposed to the case for “mercy killings” but it has nothing to do with “You shall not kill!” in Exodus 20:13 because Exodus 20:13 has nothing to do with an elderly man who has adored his sweet wife for sixty-five years and can’t bear to see her suffer any more and gives her medicine she begs for that hastens her death. I don’t say he has done the right thing but I’ll be hanged if I’ll agree that he comes under the judgment of breaking Exodus 20:13.
Though it’s often more complex than it looks the problem doesn’t lie so much in the areas where God speaks “plainly”—it lies in our wish to “cover all the bases”. He condemns “murder” so we logic our way to a condemnation of every conceivable taking of life under every conceivable circumstance and we insist that these are embraced in the command, “You shall not murder!” God clearly condemns adultery and homosexuality [sometimes under the cover-all word “porneia”] and we logic our way to a condemnation of everything that even looks like “sexual immorality” or that could lead to it.
Someone recently defined the right kind of kiss for me. It had to be “a peck” that didn’t sexually stimulate because the Song of Solomon warns against doing anything that sexually stimulates. For some it isn’t just a specific act that’s wrong; the wrong includes being in a place where an act of arousal could take place. So from the truth that God sees full sexual fulfilment as the experience between a husband and wife and their commitment of fidelity exclusively one to another we logic our way down to what kind of kisses, glances, hand-holding, touching and how closely chaperoned unmarried people should be.
I once listened to a shepherd in an assembly argue that since they were to shepherd people’s souls they should know everyone’s income and out-goings that they could wisely instruct them on how much they should give. The logic was impressive. I asked if he thought they should enquire after the sexual comings and goings between husbands and wives so that they might wisely instruct them in that as well. From God’s call to leaders to be shepherds of his people we were “logic-ing” our way to a blueprint for living handed down by concerned leaders.
This is a very complex area because we’re in need of wise, courageous and compassionate leaders—especially in our areas of known weakness—but no one is God but God. Our wisdom may be real and undoubted in some areas but we all have our limits and where we don’t have a plain word from God that is manifestly an absolute and universal we need to be careful when we claim we’re speaking for him. There’s no point in denying that there are wise and compassionate Christians whose guidance we should consider very seriously. These people are gifts to us (Ephesians 4:8, 11-16) to God’s glory and for the blessing of humanity.
Still, we must be careful how we handle scripture and we should be careful about making our wise advice into God’s commands. My specific moral weaknesses may mean that a specific piece of advice or warning is important—even critically important for my welfare while for someone else it may be redundant or even counter-productive. To urge some of us to avoid certain places or certain companions may be the kindest thing that can be done for us. To tell Jesus (or a devoted servant of his) to avoid a certain class of people would be absurd or a denial of their calling and giftedness.
Some years ago a friend and I were debating the issue of the Christian and dancing. He thought that all dancing was sinful (except school cheer-leading which sometimes looks like lap-dancers are at work). Somewhere around midnight his boy came in all sweaty and rumpled looking; he and his girlfriend had been out for a drive and he had just left her home. The dance debate stalled. So where should we go? From all dancing is sinful to no dancing is sinful? It doesn’t settle anything to point to some of the dancing that goes on in the movie and music videos and say that’s the same as line-dancing or folk dancing or the heavily costumed national dances or even a well-conducted prom dance. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the setting and the purpose of the dance may well make a difference to the dance but there are only a few strange ones among us who think that folk dancing is voluptuous. But for fear of being thought “soft on sin” or setting someone on “the slippery slope” we’re tempted to be “consistent” and brand all dancing as sinful. Of course we have to start with a verse so we go hunting for one that’ll fit and, “Avoid every appearance of evil” is a good text to prove any case you favour if you can’t find one that’s specific enough.
But it matters in the end who's speaking: God or me?