Sunday, May 20, 2012

Controversies in the church: The moral authority of the Bible (part 1 of 2)

The controversy: The moral authority of the Bible

In this controversy, both sides desire to please God and to live good lives. There is agreement on many specifics, from not lying and not stealing to showing kindness to our neighbors. The main differences are over abortion, homosexuality, and women exercising leadership over men. For some, the controversy also involves premarital sex.

Some of these specific differences were already discussed separately, but they are part of a larger question about the moral authority of the Bible. The controversy over the Bible’s moral authority seems to have developed among Christians because the moral authority of the Bible is one of the more common arguments for the conservative position, and for many it is not only persuasive but decisive.

In this controversy, more than any other so far, the different sides see themselves as nearly part of different conversations, even though they argue over the same ground. The conservatives see the controversy as being largely about promoting healthy families and decent, happy, productive lives; they see themselves as pro-family. The liberals see many of the teachings in the Bible as outdated; they see change as progress and see themselves as progressives.

Due to the length of time involved in developing this material, it has been split into two parts. This first part covers the "pro-family" view; the second part covers the "progressive" view. Both are complete at this point and were scheduled to post in advance.

Pro-Family:  The conservative or "pro-family" groups believe that the Bible's moral guidance is still valid today. In particular, they see the laws about responsible sexual behavior and self-control as eternal laws that are vital to a healthy society.

Internal diversity: Few if any Christian groups believe that all of the Old Testament applies to Christians. Some groups hold to more of the Torah than others. For instance, it is considered unusual to strictly observe a Sabbath of rest on the seventh day. More typical is the view that only certain laws and principles from the Torah apply to us; beyond that, the teachings of Christ and his apostles are considered binding on Christians, but not the laws of Moses. This is based on a meeting of the apostles to discuss the topic, recorded in the Bible in Acts 15 to discuss the extent to which the Laws of Moses and Jewish customs should apply in the Gentile church. While some of those considerations discussed in Acts 15 were dietary, the one that has the most bearing to our current discussion is the one about abstaining from sexual immorality, which has the support not only of the council recorded in Acts 15, but also the separately recorded teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

Strong points: The Bible's morality seems good and right to a vast number of people. In particular the parts that are commonly challenged in our culture, forbidding promiscuity, forbidding homosexuality, encouraging marriage and commitment to marriage, seem simply the necessary building blocks of stable relationships, happier lives, more prosperous families, and children with better mental health and education.

External criticisms: Much of the organized opposition to the Bible's moral authority, when it comes from Christians, has the goal of normalizing women's leadership on the one hand or normalizing homosexuality on the other hand. The arguments used, however, typically revolve around slavery, dietary laws, clothing laws, execution of witches, or the morally questionable actions during the conquest of Canaan in the ancient history of Israel. These are brought up, not to change the subject, but as examples of moral questions where both sides already agree to some extent that there are things accepted in the Bible that no one accepts any longer. The way some laws are accepted and others are not is seen, if not as hypocrisy, then at least as inconsistency.

Response to criticism: The highly-questioned laws of the Old Testament were already set aside by the early church in the Council of Jerusalem, which took place so early in church history that it was attended and decided by people who had known Jesus directly and recorded in the Bible. That does not mean that every ancient teaching in the Bible is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus, but it does mean that Christians are not bound by the Sinai covenant, which is where we find the laws to which people object. Since the apostles discussed whether the ancients laws of the Jews applied to Christians and decided they did not -- and this is recorded for us in the Book of Acts -- questions like "Why do you not keep the dietary laws?" are often seen not as clever and telling arguments, but as demonstrating that the critic isn't familiar with the Bible or the history of the church –that the critic may not have done his homework.

The slippery slope: Why don't you keep the dietary laws of the Old Testament? Do you believe in the death penalty for witchcraft, adultery, and various other sins? If the Bible is morally pure, why did it accept slavery? If you oppose female leadership in family and the church, does that apply to the business world or the political arena as well?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: This group often sees the other side as being anti-family or anti-morality. Sometimes the accusation is made that the other side only argues in order to justify their own sexually immoral lifestyles.

Charitable moments: The pro-family side may recognize that Jesus himself questions some of the ancient laws, such as "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", or Moses' divorce law. In light of that, we can't assume that every law recorded in the Torah was the ultimate expression of God’s will; it may have been a temporary measure “because of our hardness of heart”, as Jesus said about divorce (Matthew 19:8). Since the Bible's letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus is greater than Moses and the New Covenant is greater than the Old Covenant, Christians need to make sure that we're not holding to principles from a pre-Christian time.

Fair questions: Do you believe that Moses taught with an authority equal to Jesus? What about Paul -- did he teach with an authority equal to Jesus? Do you believe that Jesus ever considered Moses' laws to be less than perfect? Back at the first Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) when the apostles discussed what laws of the Old Testament would still apply to the Gentile Christians, they said to abstain from the meat of animals that have been strangled; does that apply today? If not, then is the Council of Jerusalem the last word about what applies from the Old Testament? Do any passages of the Old Testament bother you or seem morally questionable to you?

A link to Part 2 will be added here after part 2 is published. 

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

A good summary. I'm looking forward to part 2.