Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Complexity of Biblical Ethics

I am preaching from 1 Peter 2:19-25 this Sunday. The main idea of this passage of scripture is pretty straightforward. Peter began his letter to these congregations by reminding them of who they are and then in 2:11 he begins the ethical exhortation to his audience based on what he has said up to that point. This is a pretty typical move in the New Testament Epistles and is often referred to as the move from the indicative (you are this) to the imperative (so do this). So having reminded his audience that they are the chosen people of God, Peter goes on to address what that means in their present situation. Peter is addressing a group of congregations that seem to be experiencing some forms of injustice and mistreatment. In addressing this injustice, Peter holds up Christ as an example for his congregations to follow because Christ also endured injustice and suffering and did not retaliate. Therefore, Peter urges his audience to also endure the injustice they face and trust that God is the ultimate judge who will vindicate them in the end.

This idea of holding up Christ as a moral example to live by is one of the most basic ideas in Christianity. One of the very first things you learn if you grow up in Sunday School as a child is that we should be like Jesus. The whole idea was made even more popular for a while by the WWJD bracelet craze. So in some ways this passage is Biblical Ethics 101. However, it also points to the complexity and contextual nature of an ethic that is based on Scripture. This is the case because 1 Peter 2:18 says "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable."

Now most Christians today, at least the ones that I know, are not in much danger of owning any slaves. In fact, every Christian I have ever met (as far as I know) finds slavery to be a dispicable, un-Christ like practice. Furthermore, if we were to encounter any form of slavery today and recognized it as such we would quickly condemn it and call for its annihilation as an inhumane, unjust, and therefore, un-Christlike practice. Most importantly for the discussion of biblical ethics, the Christians who have called for the end of slavery in the past and the ones who continue to oppose more subtle forms of enslavement today do not do so because they believe the Bible is an old, outdated book, itself enslaved by cultural norms. In fact, Christians call for the end of all slavery because we believe that the Bible demands that we do so. Yet Peter does not advise the slaves that he knows to rebel and bring an end to their slavery and he does not call upon the rest of the congregation to help the slave escape slavery. He does just the opposite. He tells them they must endure their unjust suffering and trust that God is in control. How can Christian call for action that is the opposite of what the Bible commands and still call their stance biblical?

In my opinion, this reality points to the fact that a good biblical ethic must be more than a list of the things that the Bible says to do or not to do. In reality, I think all Christians know this at some level. After all, I don't know too many Christians who refuse to wear clothing made of two different materials or who continue animal sacrifice as commanded in the Old Testament. But it is not just a matter of the Old Covenant and New Convenant either, although the revelation of Christ certainly does change the way we see the Old Testament Law. There are ethical exhortations in the New Testament that most of us do not follow as well; such as the command that women not speak and that they have their head covered and, of course, the issue of slavery already mentioned. Despite the fact that most Christians know this when it comes to issues like the ones just mentioned, often we seem to forget the very same principle when it comes to addressing the controversial and important ethical issues in our own day. Too often we take one verse here or there and use it to support the conclusion to which we have already come apart from our reading of scripture and then we point to that verse as irrevocable evidence that the Bible supports our position and we therefore must be right.

This passage in 1 Peter reminds us that a true biblical ethic must always be more complete and more nuanced than that. Instead of a better list of what to do and what not to do, we need a better vision of who Jesus is and therefore, who we are as the Church. This is, in fact, what Peter does in this passage. His ethical exhortation is not a simple recitation of scripture. It is an exhortation that arises out of who Peter knew Jesus to be and what he believed that meant for his congregations in their present situation. We must realize that being a disciple of Jesus might require very different actions in very different situations. We must encounter the difficult ethical issues of our own day (the unjust distribution of wealth around the world, homosexual civil unions, abortion, and clmate change to name a few) less with a list of absolutes that are more defined by political parties than by scripture and more like Paul and Peter did; creatively applying what they knew to be true in Jesus Christ to a situation which Christ or the Old Testament said little or nothing about. We too must be must honest and vulnerable about the fact that we may not have an unassailable word from God on contemporary ethical issues while also unashamedly witnessing to the kingdom through the ethical stances we do take.

Of course, this apprach to ethics is much more difficult and more complex than simply having a list of absolutes in hand. Such an approach to ethics will require that we actually know the Bible and not just a few verses that support our cause. It will require that we actually know Jesus and have some understanding of what his kingdom proclamation was about. It even points to the importance of things like worship and spiritual disciplines because an ethic like this one requires that we not only know what is ethical and what is not, it requires that we be shaped into ethical people who respond out of the character that has been formed in us rather than from an ethical checklist that is external to us.

The word translated as "example" (upogrammon) in 1 Peter 2:21 is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. However, in secular Greek literature of the time period this word was used to refer to a writing template or pattern that served as an instrument in teaching children to write. Of course, it would have been foolish for any child to think that he or she did not have to learn to write if they just carried this pattern around with them. The whole point of the tool was to help the child learn to form the letters himself. Perhaps our approach to biblical ethics should be the same: it would be foolish for us to carry the Bible around with us thinking that it has already solved our ethical problems; the whole point of the Bible is for the Holy Spirit to work through it in such a way that we are shaped into a people who can be Christ-like ourselves. God does not want to give us the letters already written. He wants to teach us to form the letters ourselves.

1 comment:

Christy Gunter Leppert said...

First comment: And I thought I was long-winded. :)