Friday, May 27, 2011

All or Nothing

All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” (Galatians 3.10-11)

The Slippery Slope

If find yourself in our fair city of Chicago, here are a few tidbits to stay clear of strict police officers steeped in civil code. Don’t dine in a burning building. Avoid sharing your whiskey with dogs. It’s OK to ride a giraffe as long as you refrain from fishing while doing so. Leave your kite at home; flying kites is illegal in Chicago. If you’re in the Pullman neighborhood, whatever you do, don’t sit on a curb and drink beer from a bucket. Go ahead and rip off all your clothes to protest whatever vexes you in front of City Hall—provided you’re 17 or younger and secure a permit. If you’re of age or haven’t filed the paperwork, nude protests aren’t such a good idea. Of course, you’re free to do any of these things and run for the border when the cops show up. But should you cross into the suburb of Cicero and it’s a Sunday, contain your glee at eluding arrest. Sunday humming on Cicero streets buys a ticket to the hoosegow.

I undertook my search for arcane Chicago edicts facetiously, thinking it might be a fun way to introduce today’s clobber text: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18.22) Yet given what I found, I confess a double-edged discomfort. First, some of the city’s blue laws are just too silly; comparing them to the goofier Mosaic ordinances (of which there are many) would demean Scripture, which is unacceptable. Additionally, a few ordinances raise concerns about my civic duty, as none of the crazy-law lists provides rationale for their enactment. Without this information, I’m uncertain of how to interpret them and my responsibility to assist in their enforcement.

For instance, I have a neighbor who, before driving with her dogs, spikes their water with a little beer to sedate them. Otherwise, she says, they jump around, endangering her and other motorists. Assuming the ban on serving dogs whiskey is a humane ordinance, does it strictly mean distilled liquor or all alcoholic beverages? Does it also apply to other pets? Should I warn her she’s headed for trouble if she keeps it up? We live across from Lake Michigan, where a warm day rarely passes without happy children flying kites. Obviously, they think it’s okay, and many would argue it’s natural for kids to fly kites. But the city forbids it. Am I careless to observe their lawlessness from my window without crossing the street to tell them they’re doing wrong? I know several adults who plan to protest global dependency on oil by joining the Chicago Naked Bike Ride two weeks from now. As with similar events around the world, the route is kept under wraps until the day-of. While the city promises not to interfere, shouldn’t they know they risk arrest if they cycle past City Hall?

Preferring not to upset well-meaning people with evidence they’ve gone astray, should I just ignore it and let the chips fall where they may? Perhaps I should alert proper authorities and let them deal with it. Yet that feels cowardly and dishonest. Maybe the best way to “help”—as a dutiful Chicago citizen—would be mounting or joining a campaign to raise awareness of overlooked laws. Once people hear these laws exist and read them for themselves, compliance is on their heads. More important, I can’t be blamed if they suffer the consequences of scoffing at them. Best of all, I don’t even have to worry with why the city put these laws on its books. The law is the law and must be kept—all of it. The minute we start choosing which ones we think are valid is the minute we slide down the slippery slope. Before you know it, we’ll have drunk dogs, kite flyers, and nude protesters everywhere. Who knows where it will end?

Achievers or Believers?

I’ve made my point—up to a point, that is, since comparing civil law with Biblical law only works up to a point. Proper integration of Old Testament wisdom with New Testament doctrine raises the concern level substantially higher than how we assess applicability of specific edicts, or our duty to obey and uphold them. When discussing Mosaic Law, the slippery slope’s gate opens much sooner than we think. Long before we slide into defending and disputing this law or that, how we define ourselves determines our course and positions we take. Based on Paul’s instruction in Galatians, we have a choice. Are we law-abiding or faith-drivenachievers or believers? Either we’re convinced it’s in our power and best interest to abide by the whole Law and conform to its demands, or we’re confident it’s in God’s power and best interest to free us from Law and reconcile us to God’s purpose. Paul says it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. And we’re foolish to imagine it’s not, because a law-abiding, achieving life shares nothing in common with a faith-driven, believing one.

The law-abiding life scrutinizes behavior and trusts what it sees. The faith-driven life looks beyond behavior to trust what it can’t see. The law-abiding life places primary importance on human achievement as proof of belief. The faith-driven life believes God achieves what we can’t when divine grace intersects with human frailty. The two ways of life could not be more opposite—so much so that Paul describes one as… Well, let’s let him say it: “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’” (Galatians 3.10-11) In a nutshell—with humble regrets to those who don’t agree with Paul and won’t like hearing this—achievers are cursed, believers justified.

The New Promise

Alluding to humanity’s struggles before God’s grace is revealed in Christ—i.e., life under the Law—Titus 3.3-6 explains: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” God’s kindness and love, our rebirth and renewal are not obtainable by achievement. (Not by righteous things we had done, but because of God’s mercy…) We must believe.

As the Law evolved over centuries, piling up commands and remedies for every imaginable religious, social, and cultural dilemma, its vastness became a recipe for failure—which the Titus correspondent depicts as foolishness, disobedience, deception, and enslavement that became endemic to life, setting off malicious, envious conflicts among God’s people. Relying on their power of achievement set them on a collision course with self-defeating sin. Paul succinctly explains it like this: “The sting of death is sin, and power of sin is the law.” Before his readers give up, admitting they can’t possibly meet all of the Law’s demands, he hastens to add, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15.56-57) These texts—and innumerable ones like them—form the cornerstone of Christian doctrine. They’re essential to the New Testament, the new promise that supersedes the Old Testament by reorienting our understanding of how we please God from what we achieve to Whom we believe. And ironically—though not unintentionally—freedom from the Law through faith in Christ ultimately frees the Law from the deadly, sin-inducing force it became. Therefore, to read, respect, respond or relent to its edicts as de facto commands is to revert to a cursed, grace-free existence, because obedience to one law presumes submission to all the Law expects.

An Inconvenient Obligation

This all-or-nothing perspective isn’t a freewheeling, liberal rationale to discredit conservative "Old Testament" values. Nor is it opinion Paul invents to neutralize legalism’s encroachment on Early Church doctrine. It’s the Law, explicitly decreed in Deuteronomy 27.26: “Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” (Emphasis added.) And that’s where law-abiding Christians who conveniently pull out Leviticus 18.22 crash into an inconvenient obligation—one I daresay no sane person could possibly consider keeping. The buck doesn’t stop with citing one sentence to prove God detests gay people. That little sentence in chapter 18 is inextricably linked to a literal sentence in Leviticus 20.13: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

By law, Christians who clobber gays with Leviticus 18.22 are obliged to execute them! While a few may fantasize about it, no sincere Christian would willingly kill for this cause—simply because murder is the ultimate Christian taboo. When the buck stops at execution, the flimsiness of Leviticus’s anti-gay edict gives way. More than that, the curse of the law-abiding achiever’s life becomes self-evident. It’s a troubled existence plagued by half-truths and irreconcilable contradictions. Sadly, it saddles many good-hearted, earnest, sorely misled Christians to the Titus profile: “foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures, [living] in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” It’s no way to live—certainly not how we want to live and, above all, not how Christ calls us to live. Through Christ, we place full trust in what we believe, giving no credence to human behavior as a reliable indicator of righteousness. In John 7.24, Jesus conclusively ends a legal debate with advice every Christian should bear in mind: “Stop judging by mere appearances, judge correctly.” (v24) Jesus says faith cannot be visibly observed, assessed, or confirmed. Hence, it can’t be legally proven. Case closed.

Jesus surrendered His life and triumphantly waged our war with sin and death so we might be free from sin’s mortal sting and the Law’s power. The resurrection and new life it brings cancel any need to revive decrepit statutes. There’s no reason to defend Calvary’s singular achievement against those who refute it with doctrine that reflects their fears and naïveté. Partial adherence to the Law negates the entire Law. No response we offer could speak more persuasively to the error of their ways than that. Leviticus fans need no help exposing their folly. Which is why they need our compassion and prayers.

By its own decree, Old Testament Law is not available for slicing and dicing to suit our purposes. Either we live by all of it—including its inconvenient obligations—or we escape its curse by faith through Christ.

Postscript: We’re Not Done Yet

With Leviticus 18.22 rapidly becoming the favorite sound bite opposing same-sex orientation, it’s not only important we understand why Mosaic Law is unavailable for use by anyone who doesn’t abide by its totality. It’s equally important we’re clear on what the Law says and whom it targets with purportedly anti-gay statutes. So we’re not done yet. A follow-up post will examine Levitical texts as a whole, as well as verses many (most unknowingly) abuse.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sodom and Gibeah: A Tale of Two Cities

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Matthew 10:14-15)

Body of Work

When coming attractions of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading (2008) hit theaters, I couldn’t wait for it to open. Primed by the preview for a maniacally funny political farce, I stumbled out of the picture in a daze. The clips shrewdly strung together to market the film turned up in its subplot, yet the primary story involved a woman’s desperation to get a face-lift. With not a glimpse of this in the preview, I left the picture uncertain about what the Coens wanted me to see and what they meant to say. Being a veteran film student, I fell back on a discipline I learned long ago: auteurism, which holds a filmmaker’s body of work reveals perennial themes that surface in every film. The most reliable means of understanding Burn After Reading’s moral would entail comparing it with other Coen films: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou? etc. There it was, plain as day: vain ambition turns nice people into morons.

Oddly enough, the auteur theory also works remarkably well in identifying the morals of deceptively marketed Biblical texts. Approaching Scripture as a “body of work” is fundamental to our belief it’s the divinely inspired medium through which God speaks to us. Recurrent themes, perspectives, and motifs become prominent fixtures. While we may note variations in style and tone, the voice and message we hear are astonishingly consistent. Thus, when texts leave us befuddled, rather than project onto them or read into them what we want to see and hear, we’re wise to survey the entire body of work. If our skew doesn’t square with Scripture’s portrayal of God’s nature and message, we’re confused.

More Far-Reaching and Disturbing

If the God of Scripture doesn’t suit our agenda, we may splice together previews that prime others to view tales and texts our way. The most egregious example of this, hands down, is the account of Sodom’s destruction. The coming attractions promise a lurid tale of perversion—which figures into the story (though not as advertised)—with not a glimpse of the primary story line. Those unfamiliar with Scripture’s recurrent themes, perspectives, and motifs are apt to leave the story seeing only what they’re told to find. But the sensational gays-gone-wild promos don’t fool believers sufficiently versed in Biblical imperatives. They know what the story’s really about long before the posse pounds on Lot’s door, demanding he release his angelic houseguests into its mean hands. They’ve already connected it to a nearly identical episode in Judges 19, what God says about Sodom in Isaiah and Ezekiel, and how Jesus characterizes the city. And (surprise!) these texts define Sodom’s sin as more far-reaching and disturbing than same-sex attraction. In fact, not one scriptural reference to Sodom explicitly mentions homosexuality; those alluding to the city’s depravity describe it as “perversion” vis-à-vis the posse’s violent intentions to wield sex as a weapon.

The astute Bible reader easily recognizes what we see in Sodom is no different than what we see in Abu Ghraib and observe in prisons: intent to commit dehumanizing gang rape that defies orientation and gender. The previews may prime us for oversexed gay men prowling for fresh flesh. But the story isn’t about sexual gratification, gay or straight. It’s about extreme violence fueled by paranoid fear of strangers. How can we assert this with any degree of certainty? Judges 19’s story of the Levite’s concubine replicates Sodom’s circumstances and reveals exactly what the hostile crowd had in mind for Lot’s visitors. Then God and Jesus explain what Sodom means.

Lasting Harm

Scripture at large detests hostility toward strangers (passive or aggressive) as gross sin. We note this consistently in Old Testament texts and Jesus’s teaching. That’s the moral crisis portrayed in the stories of Sodom and Gibeah, a village in Judges that carries out Sodom’s intentions to their gruesome extreme. For brevity’s sake, we’ll stick to the key events. Yet I urge reading the two texts (Genesis 19; Judges 19) in tandem to discover their many eerie similarities. A Levite travels home after visiting his concubine’s father. Seeking a place where he, she, and a servant can stay the night, he follows the custom of his day. They enter Gibeah and sit in the village square, waiting for someone to offer them shelter. But they’re ignored—a bad omen, especially since he’s a Levite, a born priest. Finally, a local takes them in. Wicked men surround the house, shouting, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.” (v22) The owner pleads, “Don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing.” (v23) As Lot does, the host offers them his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine; like the men of Sodom, the Gibeah posse has no use for the women. (True to their time, they regard women as replaceable property.) The men seek to do lasting harm to the Levite’s person. The two cities’ tales diverge due to the nature of the guests. Lot’s visitors are angels; they blind the men of Sodom and the city is razed. No such supernatural intervention occurs in Gibeah.

The Levite surrenders his concubine. Judges 19.25-26: “They raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.” The Levite finds her corpse clutching the threshold. Enraged, no doubt stricken with guilty regret, he dismembers her body into 12 pieces, sending one to every tribe in Israel. The national outcry indicates the horror of Gibeah’s sin: “Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!” (v30)

The men of Gibeah carry out what would have transpired in Sodom had Lot’s guests been mortal. They violently act out their fear of people whom they believe threaten their security and way of life. Their hostility is primal, embedded in human fight-or-flight response to fear. Like all rapes, it employs sexual aggression to express perverse desire to dominate another, physically and psychologically. Sodom and Gibeah are all about leveraging power—not pandering to libido. Both brutally violate God’s command to welcome strangers and treat them respectfully and compassionately. (As Jesus defines it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”) Israel’s reaction to the Gibeah atrocity says it all. It’s unthinkable, intolerable, and must be dealt with.

Sodom’s Lesson

How is it, then, that Sodom (and its ally, Gomorrah) gets all the attention—in Scripture and pop culture—while Gibeah goes missing? We answer that with a modern parallel. Why do we talk about 9/11, yet seldom mention the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Both sprang from identical motives. Both cost innocent lives. But 9/11’s epic destruction eclipses 1993’s collateral damage. If we told both stories in tandem, the villainy of a tiny terrorist cell would be so obvious vilification of Muslims we've witnessed since 9/11 would be utter nonsense. Nine-eleven, 1993, Oklahoma City, and other terrorist attacks would be seen for what they are: mass violence perpetrated by wicked lunatics. Like 9/11, Sodom’s spectacular demise makes better copy. Unfortunately, also like 9/11, ignoring Gibeah invites homophobic believers to cast a wide net demonizing an entire community rather than dealing with the real lesson Sodom teaches. Exploiting the tale to excuse LGBT prejudice and exclusion merely proves how woefully they abuse the text. For are they not perverting Scripture to promote the very sin that destroyed Sodom?

The true nature of Sodom’s lesson cannot be questioned because Scripture authoritatively seals it from alternative readings. In Ezekiel 16.49, God declares, “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” In Isaiah 1, God scandalizes Israel’s disobedience by calling its people “rulers of Sodom” (v10), reviling their hollow piety and unequivocally demanding they repent: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (v16-17) Jesus confirms this message in Matthew 10.14-15, when He tells the disciples to leave any home or town where they’re not welcomed and “shake the dust off your feet.” (In Luke 10.10-11, He instructs them to “go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you.’”) The warning: “Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” The Gibeah parallel notwithstanding, these texts clearly define Sodom’s sin and its consequences.

To hijack the narrative as rationale for LGBT condemnation and exclusion not only replicates Sodom’s wickedness, it brazenly contradicts what God and Jesus say about it in no uncertain terms. There is no Scriptural basis for this reading. Instead of being troubled by people who’ve been seduced by this wickedly naïve distortion of Scripture, we pray God opens their eyes and speaks to their hearts. Whether or not they realize it, they’ve got extremely urgent, spiritually crucial, and intensely personal conflicts with God and God’s Word they must resolve. They need our compassion and prayers.

To interpret the Sodom story as a gays-gone-wild tale is to misread it entirely—and to disregard all that Scripture, God, and Jesus say about it.

Postscript: Facts to Know

As we test the contextual and theological legitimacy of anti-LGBT clobber texts, there are a few enlightening facts to know about homosexuality and Scripture:

  • No words or phrases that strictly translate as “heterosexual,” “lesbian,” or “homosexual” appear in Scripture. None exists in ancient Hebrew and Greek, as “straight” and “gay” categories didn’t exist in pre-modern cultures. The terms—and identification of people by sexual preference—are recent phenomena, having been coined and instituted by 19th-century psychologists.
  • The number of scriptures that mention same-gender sex (which is not the same as same-sex orientation) totals 15. Those calling for compassion, justice, equality, and hospitality exceed 3,000.
  • No unified sex ethic exists in Scripture, let alone one that sanctions heterosexual orientation to the exclusion of all others.
  • Dozens of sexual practices ordered by Biblical edict are now universally banned in Christian circles, outlawed in most nations, and socially regarded as dangerous taboos. (We’ll review several of them in an upcoming postscript.)

Monday, May 23, 2011


The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. (Romans 14.3)

Today’s post runs twice the usual length to cover essentials we’ll need as the next post commences our study of “clobber texts” used to alienate LGBT and other Christians. I trust you’ll overlook the wordiness and hang with me. Upcoming posts will return to the typical length.

Personal Ethics

My medical ethics professor was a soft-spoken woman who gently guided our debates on hot topics like reproductive rights, life support, and assisted suicide, seeing each opinion received equal weight and respect. Near term’s end, the syllabus noted a session on “dietary ethics” with no assigned reading. “In-class film” was all it said. The half-hour film graphically documented grossly inhumane methods of industrial husbandry and slaughter. When the film ended, it was clear our professor had drastically departed from her trademark style. We heard a 15-minute tirade on the evils of meat consumption, followed by a stilted exchange in which she shut down any objection before it was fully tendered. The class dried up. Finally, a brave young woman asked, “Is this a test?” The instructor asked what she meant. “You don’t seem to want us to discuss this objectively,” she observed. “It’s more about your personal ethics, which you’re obviously passionate about. But, unless this is an exercise in approaching someone with set opinions, I don’t get the point. Isn’t this issue like the rest? It also has many aspects: medical, cultural, moral, pragmatic—“

The professor stopped her. “My point is some issues leave no room for debate because no morally legitimate exceptions exist.” The class exploded. What about vitamin deficiency? That’s what supplements are for. What about leather? She pointed to her rubber shoes and fake leather belt. Then someone asked if she had pets. “Three cats,” she said. Were we to assume she never fed them meat? After an uncomfortable pause, she replied, “Almost never.” Why would she ever give her cats meat? She explained, “If they go too long without it, they start to shed, and get listless and grumpy.” (As was the case then; vegetarian friends tell me nutritional quality of meatless pet food has greatly improved.) “So,” the student asked, “is it safe to say, for the sake of their health and happiness, no moral alternative to meat consumption exists?” She smiled with relief. “You could say that.” Another pause. “I should give this more thought,” she said.

Meat and Vegetables

Although time has stolen the professor’s name and much of what she taught, my memory of the “dietary ethics” session remains vivid, thanks to regularly revisiting Paul’s treatise on faith ethics in Romans 14. In part, it’s because he discusses the same issue: morality of an omnivorous diet versus vegetarianism. But, more than that, it’s because his conclusion verifies what ultimately came of the class discussion: absolutes are only helpful in firmly defined contexts. Under different circumstances, they may not hold up as soundly—or we may have to admit the complete opposite is the correct position. Many times, our disagreements escalate so quickly—we come out swinging—we don’t consider the possibility we’re confusing absolutes with personal ethics and/or personal ethics with what philosophers call situational ethics, flexible application of absolutes that set aside personal misgiving to serve higher principle. (Basically, it’s trying to do the right thing in any given situation.) As one might expect, many refute situational ethics out-of-hand as unscriptural and inconsistent with God’s immutable nature. They’re convinced right is right, wrong is wrong, and no gray area exists between. Yet how can this be, when Scripture teaches we’re incorrect to assess others’ faith by rigid standards, since no two believers’ circumstances are alike? That’s the crux of Paul’s instruction. He deliberately cites the meat-and-vegetables issue, as it’s one of the most inflammatory problems the Romans grapple with.

A little background helps us grasp the topic’s gravity. (Examining the text without it is close to useless, since the matter looks trivial in our eyes.) The question isn’t as simple as whether Christians eat meat or confine their diet to vegetables. Meat is a rare commodity in Rome, the known world’s largest metropolis. It’s too costly for average households and very difficult to procure. The best sources for fresh meat are pagan temples, where leftovers from animal sacrifices are served in affordable portions or distributed for sale in public bazaars.

Therefore, meat consumption is theologically questionable for Gentile converts, as many presume it’s tainted with paganism. (Contrary to popular myth, animal sacrifice is nothing like a Texas barbecue, with the entire beast sprawled atop a sacred slab. Priests slaughter and eviscerate the animal and bring its vital organs to the altar, where they’re burned. The carcass is butchered and eaten.) For Jewish converts, the issue is twice complicated. Beyond pagan contamination, Judaic law forbids anyone other than the presiding priest and his sons from consuming sacrificial meat; and they’re to eat it inside the Temple, as it isn’t to be publically consumed.

Trusting Each Other

What happens in the Roman congregation is what always happens when faith communities attempt to mandate inflexible standards based on religious ideology and outmoded edicts. One group dismisses the issue as irrelevant. They believe if eaten with thanksgiving, meat is harmless. The other group isn’t so sure. To be on the safe side, they endorse restricting diet to vegetables—since one can never say with certainty where marketed meat originates. “Live and let live” is just too hard a concept to abide. It puts the onus for assessing and complying with Scripture on the individual. For many, that’s a surefire road to ruin. Someone’s got to be in charge, lest the whole thing falls apart. One group must be declared “right” at the expense of the other being declared “wrong.” Naturally, both believe they’re right and since neither can definitively prove it’s correct, each tries to prove the other is not.

Thus begins the Roman diet drama, with meat-eaters looking down on vegetarians, accusing them of being too spineless to bear responsibility for freedom in Christ. Vegetarians condemn omnivores for trampling sacred principle in pursuit of self-indulgence. Before we cluck at both for rushing to judgment, we should note two things. Their stubborn fervor is born of earnest desire to please God. And much is at stake in how they resolve this, as it will decide to what degree (if any) the Roman church and Roman society overlap. How much of the “outside world” is too much? How little isn’t enough? These are defining questions with no definitive answers. Which is why Paul tells them to quit pretending they know what God thinks, says, and expects and prove their trust in God by trusting each other.

God Can and Does

Paul calls off the meat-and-vegetables debate in four quick verses (Romans 14.1-4). How he characterizes the drama is a revelation all by itself: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Let’s walk through this. Step One: Our obligation is to embrace weaker believers. “Quarreling over disputable matters”—i.e., beefs over valid faith and practices—harms those who lack strength and experience to accept how we practice our faith. It’s a fruitless endeavor that sullies our witness. Step Two: The more seasoned and sure our faith, the more we can digest. Freedom isn’t free; it requires great courage and confidence. Those not strong enough to exercise freedom in Christ seek stability in restrictions. Strong believers must not criticize weaker ones for relying on hard boundaries and fast rules. Yet withholding criticism does not amount to concession that restrictive lifestyles are exclusively “right.” Weak believers who find definition and assurance in restrictions must not overstep and vilify believers who live more freely.

Step Three: God’s acceptance of those who defy limits and stereotypes is a fact. Step Four: Strong or weak, we have no right to judge, because all our service—in its many shapes and expressions—belongs to God. We may not agree with, understand, or be like one another. But condemning or expressing doubt in each other assumes status we don’t possess. When I say you’re wrong, I kick God off the throne so I can have a seat. It’s a foolish, perilous assumption we can’t afford. Step Five: Like it or not, we all serve the same God. Honor God receives from our faith rests entirely in God’s power to raise us in righteousness. How this happens confounds human understanding. It makes no earthly sense that God ensures we stand equally as worthy vessels and reflections, when all we see are contradictions. Yet God can and does.

Causes for Concern

Shouldn’t we be marginally concerned our need to prove we’re right only arises when we’re compelled to prove another wrong? Doesn’t the phrase—“need to prove we’re right”—reveal causes for concern about the strength of our faith? If we’re truly confident our beliefs are founded on Scriptural truth and please God, why the need to prove it at all? Shouldn’t it trouble us just a little that judging or challenging another’s faith gives lie to our confidence in God? Attacking anyone whose faith ethics and practices don’t align with ours locks us in the perilous and (dare I say it?) pathetic position of misappropriating God’s role as Master. We ignore the principle of inherent equality for all believers by supposing we’re more righteous or knowledgeable than our peers. We forget faith is logic’s opposite. Trust creates certainty. Submission grants authority. Humility brings respect. When stronger Christians contemptuously regard weaker ones as ignorant and arrogant, and weaker ones accuse stronger ones of sin and arrogance, both groups err by imposing logic on faith—and both reveal they have no idea what they’re doing. If they did, they wouldn’t do it.

Finally, if we’re aware we’ve overreached, yet continue on, lack of concern about our hubris and damage our beefs inflict is a grave concern. In John 13.16, Jesus draws a clear, indelible line between God and us: “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” We must be very wary about eagerness to speak for God; it takes all of a second to cross the line and start talking like we are God. That’s the falsehood cleverly disguised in the credo “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” Both “sinner” and “sin” are baldly prejudicial terms based on insight and authority we don’t have. Who are we to judge? Worse still, who are we to justify scriptural abuse with a patently unscriptural premise? Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves—attaching no right to qualify our love based on their attitudes or behavior. He answers the “sin” question by teaching us how to pray: Forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We need to hear “against us” loud and clear. We respond to personal offenses with mercy. Nowhere does Scripture authorize us to mount a preemptive strike against “sin.” Again, challenging those whose beliefs and practices don’t align with ours—or answering their challenges in kind—only shows we don’t know what we’re doing.

Close examination of exclusionary “clobber texts” starting in the next post by no means intends to arm us with materiel to settle beefs with fellow believers. We must be very clear about that. Value from our studies will emerge when informed understanding of clobber passages shields us from scriptural abuse and unprovoked attacks. Accurate knowledge of what God’s Word says enables faithful obedience to Christ: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.44-45)

Paul calls off Rome’s meat-and-vegetables debate, telling both sides judgment and condescension exceed their authority. There is one God, one Master, and God ensures we all will stand as equally worthy servants.