The sword and centrist Methodism

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:25-29, NIV)

In the document A Way Forward being offered as a path out of our denominational crisis over sexual ethics, the following words are offered as describing the scriptural debate over sexual intercourse between those of the same sex.

One side believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality are like scriptures related to the subordination of women, violence or the acceptance and regulation of slavery, reflecting the values of the times in which the scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.

Having just read Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible, the second sentence echoes with his arguments on this topic. But I wonder if this is a fair description of the argument. I’m primarily wondering about the reference to violence.

Do all people who argue that the Bible is wrong about same-sex sex also believe that the Old Testament is wrong when it describes God as sanctioning violence?

I know this is a side issue, but it is one that has caused me a fair amount of consternation in recent months. The Old Testament contains dozens — if not hundreds — of references to God sanctioning and even commanding violence against his own chosen people and others.

The quote at the top of this post comes from the response of God to the Golden Calf. Reading this text brings to mind the words of Jesus in Matthew 10 that Jesus would be a sword dividing fathers from sons, mothers from daughters, and neighbors from neighbors.

So, is this a case in which violence commanded by God is at odds with or violates the revelation of God in Jesus Christ?

Is this a case in which Moses — or the writer of Exodus — was lying about what God desired?

I don’t think my questions here relate directly to our debates about sex, but I do think they relate tangentially because there is a stance toward the Bible in our debates about sex that continues to expand into more and more areas of interpretation. Once we establish the principle that we cannot trust what the Bible says about God — notice that the violence issue is not an issue about natural science but about the moral character of God — then we find there is nothing that the Bible says about God that cannot be easily set aside by the same intellectualism.

If being a centrist or progressive means I need to rip out pages from the Bible, then I don’t understand why I should be a Christian at all. As I’ve noted before, I was a fairly nice guy who loved people before I became a Christian. I did not need the Bible to tell me that love is a good thing. However, I do need the Bible to tell me the truth about God that is not obvious just because I am a nice guy who lives in America in 2014.

And, curiously, the witness of Scripture is that violence on behalf of the people of God was necessary and was God’s will. That seems outrageous to us. We want to reject it as out of character with our times. We want to say that Jesus reveals a different God than the Old Testament. I don’t see it.

Jesus told us to put down the sword and turn the other cheek. But nothing in the New Testament witness — certainly not Jesus’ own words — disowns anything written in the Old. The kingdom of God was taken by violence. Thanks be to God, Jesus has changed that as he changed everything in the entire creation. But he did not invalidate what Israel did or what God required of his people.

At least, I don’ t see any coherent way to argue otherwise.

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4 thoughts on “The sword and centrist Methodism

  1. John, I have trouble with the line concerning an admission that “we cannot trust what the Bible says about God” vis-a-vis His character. I suppose this brings me back to my fundamentalist days, when any question about the Bible was tantamount to flushing it down the toilet. I think there are serious questions about God’s nature and character to wrestle with in the Bible – in particular, some of the arguments by pacifist Christians strike me as borderline supercessionist – but I think the questions do not detract from the authority of the Bible. Moreover, I think one can accept – as most Christian teaching has historically – that some violence may be justified with Scripture but not without limitations, most of which would exclude the kind sanctioned by God in the OT.

    I suppose, most of all, I don’t think that being a centrist means I have to tear pages out of the Bible. We all end up with a canon within the canon, so all of us will ignore or marginalize some pages to the exclusion of others.

    1. Thanks, Drew.

      I hear the point about a canon within the canon. I’m mindful of the old way of talking about the “analogy of faith” that is used to guide our reading of the whole corpus.

      Coming from outside the faith to inside it, my instincts might run in the opposite direction of one who is coming away from fundamentalism. I lived the first half of my life in the world that did not regard the Bible as anything more than a collection of myths and fables drawn up by pre-modern people who were not lucky enough to be as smart as we are. Anytime I feel that attitude creeping into discussions of the Bible, it sets off my defenses. I’ve been there. For me, at least, it is not a path to God.

      Grace and peace.

  2. Starting from the premise men are dead in their trespass, all have fallen short and original sin tainted all of humanity and then considering the accounts of the big destructions the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah I see mercy, patience and grace.

    God waited until the last men and women worth saving where standing. Had God waited any longer there would have been no one left to save. Abraham questions God. God sends angel to take a look around .That is patience.
    It is recorded God says he will not pronounce judgment for the sake of the elect. That is mercy.
    Genesis 18:22-33

    War, rape, murder, theft, sacrifice of children, the exposure of children, the abduction of children, stoning, mutilation of millions, and a host of other offences all of which man can and does commit paints a picture of how bad things can get. Those offences are happening today and they where happening then. We do not have enough books to hold all the reports of the atrocities committed and reported on the nightly news in the Age of enlightenment. Reading them in condensed form as we do in the Bible is a little unsettling.
    It seems to me man wants to strip God of the power to judge.
    Judgment is a right man wants to keep for themselves.

  3. I’ve approached cases of OT violence with different kinds of ethics in mind. Where there might be slaughter and genocide, these are descriptive of the cultural norms of the time. Likewise, Christ’s teachings are explicitly normative and binding for our lives.
    I do have some trouble when, like in this Exodus story and Joshua, it seems as though pillaging and violence are depicted as “what God wants”, creeping into the normative realm. Part of me is uncomfortable to dismiss Moses as acting out of deceit and manipulation. Something I wrestle with…

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