Monday, June 18, 2007

Gray Is Not Black; Gray Is Not White

I've seen something floating around in the world of blogs, and I want to address it. It's this: when someone advocates a certain moral or social principle that is not explicitly commanded in Scripture, that person is acting legalistically, and is thus filling the role of the Pharisee, the New Testament group known for their ruthless, gospel-squelching legalism. Though Christians certainly can act legalistically, I have observed a number of instances in which the charge has been made on improper grounds.

It is Pharisaical to create an extra-biblical code of righteousness by which men achieve salvation. That, in a clearly biblical sense, is Pharisaism. The Pharisees concocted a list of over 600 regulations outside of the Bible that their followers were to abide by in order to know God and achieve salvation. Right from the start, then, one can see that Christians discussing moral matters simply for the purpose of conformity to Christ are on different grounds than the Pharisees. The Pharisees thought they were earning salvation by their extra-biblical works; true Christians, however much they may disagree on certain ideas, are not doing so, but are rather trying to live well and faithfully in the world. So before we call someone a Pharisee, or suggest that their behavior is indeed Pharisaical, we must make sure that we are making this charge accurately. Most of us, I think, are not.

Of course, one could also say that it is wrong (Pharisaical) for Christians to call things sin that the Bible does not explicitly say are sinful--or, to be clearer, to label sin what the Bible does not say anything about. This is commonly done. It may be right. When we say something is a sin that is not explicitly called a sin in the Bible, it may be that we are being legalistic, and that we are wrong to do so. However, we must also remember that there are many things in the Bible that are not called sin that are in fact wrong. The Bible was written thousands of years ago in ancient societies. It thus does not touch on the modern world. This means that there are a ton of things that are not called sin in the Bible that are in fact sinful. Cheating on your income taxes, looking at Internet pornography, conducting savings-and-loan scams--none of these behaviors are explicitly called sin in the Bible. Yet they are all sinful. We may say that these things are called wrong in principle in the Scripture, but if our standard is to only call sin what the Bible calls sin, well, I think we can quickly see that we have a major problem on our hands. The Bible knows nothing of the modern world and its particular manifestations of sin. I think it is apparent, then, that we back ourselves into a hermeneutic (interpretational) corner if we hold to the view that only what the Bible explicitly calls sin is sin.

I will expand on the following idea tomorrow, but I'll say it quickly today: it is not wrong to construct codes of conduct for ourselves that are not explicit statements of Scripture, it is right. It is a good and wise thing to take biblical wisdom and principles and apply them to our present-day situation. We should be careful about blasting off about what is sin and what is not, and it is best, I think, whenever possible to speak in terms of preference, wisdom, and that sort of thing. My series on women athletes falls in this category. I wasn't saying (and did not say) that women in contact sports were sinning, but rather that it was best in my opinion to not encourage girls to be so involved. It could be that such activity is sinful; I'm not exactly sure. But I do know what I would encourage, and so I stated that. In doing so, I was not speaking Pharisaically. I was doing what we all must do--I was seeking to apply biblical principles to our modern situation. In truth, all of do this, whether we know it or not. We should be careful, then, about labeling others opinions "Pharisaical." Perhaps in doing so, we ourselves fit their role and fill their place.


Blogger G. F. McDowell said...

Would you care to move this discussion out of the realm of the purely theoretical? Most folks are against legalism until one of their own personal shibboleths is in the crosshairs. For the longest time, it was voting, period for me. I called it sin when Christians didn't vote in elections. My former roommate slowly corrected me of that mistaken notion, and even though I think it is very important for Christians to vote, and it still is a bit frustrating to talk to some who do not, the tenor of my conversing on that particular area is much less ignorant on my part, and ironically, I am able to be more persuasive, having decided the issue was less important. Thanks for the post, Owen.

5:07 AM  
Blogger melancholic optimist said...

I think what you (meaning everyone, myself included) have to be careful of is making a blanket statement such as "it is wrong for women to be involved in contact sports" or on the other hand maybe "it is wrong for men to sew" as encouraging the blurring of gender roles... (this is just one simple example, there could be a million others) because it is different for every person. I'm not trying to be relativistic, I'm just saying that what might be a problem for me might not be for you.

To get completely away from gender issues, I might struggle with anger, and for me being involved in a contact sport might feed that unhealthily, but you might not have any problem with it. I might struggle with security about my identity, and therefore I take up sewing as a way of fitting in, which is just medicating my insecurity, and that could be sinful for me, whereas you might be able to take up sewing just because you enjoy it and it wouldn't be a problem for you at all. I think rather than looking at particular behaviors and making moral statements about them which blanket entire groups of people, it is probably better to encourage particular principles or attitudes, heart conditions, actual relationship and interaction with God, and give pointers as to how those things can be applied to decisions in life, so that a person has tools to make a decision about a particular issue with sound principles, their own condition and their personal relationship with God all in mind.

Feel free to respond if you have any thoughts on that.

5:22 PM  

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