Category Archives: Law

Do the “Jots and Tittles” Matter?

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This blog post is my response to some thoughts my dad shared:

“Okay so here is a jump into the law/no law debate….there seems to me to be two threads running in the Old Covenant scriptures…one thread is the redemption thread….ie animal sacrifice etc…and the civil thread….ie common law for Israel which includes the ten commandments. It would seem to me that the first thread is tied off on Calvary while the second thread is ongoing, especially if you are Jewish. The Jerusalem Council statement in Acts that frees Gentiles from the second thread, allows a volitional obedience to the civil law by Gentiles…thus Jesus’ words about not one jot or tittle of the law passing away until all is fulfilled come into play…lots to discuss here…have fun”

There are a thousand different angles I could take in my response to these ideas, but I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Of course, I think that when Paul says we are free from the law of sin and death, he means what he says. Paul does not draw a distinction between ceremonial law or civil law, so why should we?

Over and over again throughout Paul’s letters—especially in Romans—Paul makes it abundantly clear that by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ freed us from the law, and we are no longer bound by its statutes, whether they be civil or ceremonial. I compiled a list of some of these key passages here, so I won’t delve any further into Paul’s treatment of this debate.

Another point raised is that in the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, the early Christians established that Gentiles were obligated to follow only certain parts of the law that they deemed essential: abstaining from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, eating the meat of strangled animals, and drinking blood.

This does not correspond with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 whatsoever—four laws out of hundreds hardly qualifies as “every jot and tittle”! So why these laws? I am no expert on the Torah or first century Judaism, but I would wager a guess that these laws were especially important to James and the other members of the Jerusalem Council, and that violating them would have been deemed particularly offensive to the Jews.

So I don’t think this was about obedience to the Law at all, but rather a matter of James mirroring what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 about becoming “all things to all people” for the sake of the Gospel. I think James is asking the Gentiles to become as Jews, and honor the Law not for the sake of the Law, but because honoring it is a sign of respect for the Jews and their way of life.

This would explain why Paul seems to completely reject the decision that the Jerusalem Council established about the law of circumcision being binding on Gentiles—a decision that he even supplemented with eye witness testimony of Gentile converts! Just one chapter later, Paul circumcises Timothy:

 “Paul went first to Derbe and then to Lystra, where there was a young disciple named Timothy. His mother was a Jewish believer, but his father was a Greek. Timothy was well thought of by the believers[a] in Lystra and Iconium, so Paul wanted him to join them on their journey. In deference to the Jews of the area, he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised before they left, for everyone knew that his father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:1-3)

Therefore, the Jerusalem Council was not about rejecting the law of circumcision. If that were so, Paul would not have circumcised Timothy. The text says that he did so “in deference to the Jews  of the area” in order to preserve the peace and unity of the body of Christ. Sometimes, people aren’t ready for the radical, life-giving freedom that Jesus gifted us with, and honoring the Law even when it has no intrinsic value is the best way we can emulate the life Jesus has called us to live.

Speaking of Jesus, the last point my dad brought up was to pull a quote from Matthew 5 as justification for the “civil law” being binding on believers today. Jesus says:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19, NRSV)

I have a couple thoughts on this passage. The first is that there must be more to this passage than the surface level reading. After all, our righteousness is not measured by our diligence to the letter of the Law. If that were the case, Jesus would have praised the Pharisees instead of chastising them. Over and over again, in his parables and teachings, Jesus rejects strict adherence to the letter of the Law in favor of a more compassionate approach to obeying God that requires a faithful heart and not just faithful actions.

So I did a little poking around online, and I came across an informative article that breaks down the passage in question and addresses the meaning of each verse. With regard to verses 19-20, this article states that most Christians interpret these verses one way:

 “Many understand Jesus was contrasting the “old” and “new”, i.e., comparing the “Law of Moses” with the “Law of Christ”, which would govern His kingdom. This in essence has Jesus teaching that the “Old Law” only condemned the outward actions but that the “New Law” introduced by Jesus condemned the inner conditions which lead to the outer actions.”

That makes sense to me. But then, this writer continued to offer another alternative that I found to be even more compelling:

“However, I understand the contrast to be different. It was a contrast between the “traditional interpretation and application” of the Law [and] the “righteousness of the kingdom” Jesus would require of His disciples. In fact, Jesus demonstrated that the righteousness of the kingdom was not only contrary to the manner many had interpreted and applied the Law but was in harmony with the original spirit of the Law as given to Moses and the Israelites.”

This makes so much more sense, and dovetails perfectly with Paul’s radical statements about how New Covenant believers are free from the Law. Particularly, in Philippians 3:8-9, Paul’s words reflect the above interpretation of Matthew 5:19-20 perfectly.  Jesus came to complete and fulfill the old covenant, in which the veil is intact and obedience to the letter of the Law is equated with righteousness, with the new covenant, in which the spirit of the Law dictates how we apply it to our lives—i.e., the Golden Rule is our standard.

This is why Jesus would say he desires mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13), and why men were stoned for carrying sticks on the Sabbath under the Old Covenant (Numbers 15:32-36), yet Jesus defended his disciples for picking grain under the New Covenant (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus brought a new way of living in relation to God. It is not a relationship which allows believers to ignore the Law entirely, but rather to view it with a spirit that is covered in a blanket of grace, in which the Father’s love for us drives us to righteousness. We are not concerned with legalism, or even the jots and the tittles, but as we more deeply understand the nature of the Creator of the Law, and as we walk daily in the love of the Father, something tells me the jots and the tittles fall into place anyway.

Why I Believe God Blesses Same-Sex Relationships: Part 2

This is the second essay in a two part series. For part one, click here.

Introduction

Over the past year, I have studied the topic of homosexuality and the Bible extensively. I have read the relevant scriptures in context many times, and I have carefully weighed both affirming and condemning commentaries about the Bible and its treatment of homosexuality. Through these studies, I have found that each position requires an overarching framework by which the reader interprets biblical texts and assesses their applicability in our modern society. And I have also found that the framework offered by the affirming argument aligns with the overarching narrative of scripture in a way that is holistic, compelling, and doctrinally sound.

The purpose of this essay is to outline this framework and assess how it applies to homosexuality. I will be separating this argument under several different headings, each of which addresses a different angle of what I believe about homosexuality and scripture. In this respect, it will be very different from my first essay, which methodically assessed a series of passages that are traditionally used to condemn gay relationships as sinful. In this essay, I am much more concerned with the larger, overarching themes of scripture, especially the New Testament.

I will be honest and say up-front that there are no Bible verses that directly and explicitly affirm homosexuality. However, I believe that the reason for this is the same reason why there are no explicitly clear scriptures that condemn slavery or misogyny, or afford women equality in the church and in marriage. Every part of the Bible was written by individuals constricted by their cultures to people constricted by the same cultures. This does not mean the Bible does not contain timeless truths, and it does not mean the Bible was not divinely inspired. Rather, I think the Bible contains a complex blend of timeless truth and ideas limited to particular times and ways in which the Holy Spirit infused writers to write words relevant for a particular people, but not always for all people in all times.

Therefore, discussing an affirming view of this issue can be quite a challenge because our culture is so different from the varying cultures in which the manuscripts that now make up the Bible were written. It is the exact same problem that abolitionists of the mid 19th century faced when told that challenging slavery was the equivalent of denying God’s Word. In that day, the pro-slavery camp actually had much more explicit evidence by way of particular verses than the abolitionists did (much in the same way conservative Christians today have more explicit evidence concerning homosexuality). See this blog post for more thoughts on that, and how this point connects to my discussion below.

The Nature of Sin: Origination in the Heart

One clincher for me in the debate about the sinfulness of homosexuality was what the Bible says about the nature of sin. Specifically, in Mark 7 we read a story about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees. The Pharisees get upset with Jesus because his disciples are eating food without washing their hands—which they considered to be a ritually unclean act. Jesus chastises them, then later in private discusses the encounter with his disciples:

 ““Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”” (Mark 7: 18:23)

Jesus is telling us here that sin is not external—i.e., committed by forgetting to wash your hands, but rather internal. Sin is a matter of the heart, and letting your own flesh win the day. All the sins he lists—sexual immorality, theft, murder, etc., stem from a deeper place that abandons love for the other in favor of some form of selfish indulgence. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples that sin has nothing to do with violating the letter of the law and everything to do with letting your own flesh reign.

Paul describes a similar concept in his letter to the Romans. As a human being who struggles constantly with sin, his words are full of frustration and angst:

 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:21-24)

We see here that sin is as deeply saturated within the spirit of Paul. It is within his very nature, and holds a place of internal conflict within his heart. Such is the nature of sin; it originates inside and then is manifested in selfish acts.

Now, what does all this talk of sin have to do with homosexuality? As we have established, sin originates with the heart. Every evil action stems out of evil desire. Therefore, to claim that homosexual relationships are sinful, but heterosexual relationships are by nature wholesome, you would have to concede that there is something innately sinful and corrupt about loving someone of the same gender. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot come up with a reason having to do with the heart why this would be so.

The New Covenant Means Freedom from the Law

For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of life as a believer under the New Covenant is freedom from the Law. But let me be clear. This does not reduce the Law to pointless and arbitrary rules. Rather, as Paul states in Romans 7:7-10, the purpose of the law is to reveal the sinfulness of our own hearts. He uses the example of coveting; because the law forbade it, Paul realized how often he desired to covet.

But as New Covenant believers who are infused with the Holy Spirit, we are utterly free from the restrictions of the Law. Paul makes this abundantly clear over and over again throughout the New Testament; he reminds us that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Galatians 5:18b). And in Romans 10:4 Paul tells us again, “Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.” Galatians 3:19-25 and Ephesians 2:14-16 offer similar exhortations about freedom in Christ from the burden of the Law.

And so, under the New Covenant, we are free to walk in direct community with the Father through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. There is no set of written codes that is sufficient to guide us; the Holy Spirit itself provides the guidance we follow. And to the extent that we produce love, joy, peace, patience and all the other fruits of that Spirit, we are walking in obedience to the Father, and no code or law of morality or righteous practice is necessary. Therefore, when we see our gay brothers and sisters—whether single or in covenant relationships—exhibiting such fruit, what right have we to impose a moral code upon them? What right have we to say that their lives run contrary to the very real truth in scripture which says that against such things as the fruit of the Spirit, there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23)?

Before I move to the next section, I would like to expound on the preceding paragraph by offering a few more examples in scripture. For it is all well and good for me to say that the witness of fellow believers is sufficient to embrace the wholesomeness of their relationships. But unless I can back it up with biblical passages, these are just my words.

So let’s have a look at Acts 15:1-21. In these verses, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are having a contentious debate about the newly converted Gentiles, and whether they ought to be bound by the law of circumcision. After several Jews insist they must, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas stand up and offer their arguments. Peter begins by reminding the council that God alone decides who is accepted: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (v. 8-9). Then, he chastises them for insisting that the Gentiles bear a yoke the Jews themselves have not been able to bear (v. 10). Paul and Barnabas enthusiastically reinforce Peter’s points by describing the signs and wonders God has performed through the Gentiles (v. 12).

In the end, James resolves the issue. He suggests a compromise: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (v. 19-20). In other words, the testimony of good works brought by Peter and Barnabas, and Paul’s insistence that God alone decides the condition of the heart, are sufficient; the Gentiles are not bound by the law but free to pursue the will of God without conforming to Jewish law.

I would suggest to you that the debate that the Jewish council had about the Gentiles is the very same debate we Christians have about the gay community. We exclude them from the possibility that they are walking in obedience to the Father because their lives do not conform to the standards that we understand to be established as law by God. To the Jews of that day, it was inconceivable that God could accept those who have chosen so blatantly to deny his law. And to many Christians today, it is inconceivable that God would accept and work His will within the hearts of gay people, simply because they have the capacity to fall in love with the same gender instead of the opposite gender.

The Exhortation to Love Fulfills the Law

Here we come to the very linchpin of the pro-gay biblical argument. For me, Romans 13:8-10 is one of the most important passages in all of scripture. It sums up everything we could possibly need in order to walk faithfully in the will of God. This beautiful passage reads:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

The extraordinariness of Paul’s claim is overwhelming; it is saying that love itself fulfills the law, and no other commandments are necessary! Not only this, but as Justin Lee informs us in his essay on homosexuality (which you can find here), this passage is essentially the crescendo of all the arguments Paul has been building in Romans to this point:

“Incidentally, this passage in Romans 13 isn’t just some random, obscure passage. Paul spends almost the entire book of Romans building an argument about law, grace, and sin, trying to explain what the Christian gospel is all about. Paul uses the word ‘law’ 74 times in twelve chapters! The passage I just quoted from Romans 13 is the conclusion of Paul’s grand argument; it’s the last time ‘law’ is mentioned for the rest of the book.”

This is the same point we see again and again in scripture, spoken by Jesus himself as well as the other New Testament writers (see Matthew 22:37-40, John 13:35, Galatians 5:14, 1 John 4:7). Every commandment God has ever given us is simply an extension of the commandment to love. Therefore, if we love, we automatically live in submission and fulfillment of God’s commands; this is Paul’s point. And so when a man loves a man with the same compassion selflessness, and strength of spirit that a woman loves a man, why would that first sort of love violate Romans 13:8-10 when the second sort wouldn’t? Therefore, to call gay relationships sinful reduces God’s law to an arbitrary command that is divorced from the standard of love and renders the Romans passage void.

There is just one other Bible passage connected to love that I find to be very enlightening for this discussion. In Matthew 12, we read an account of Jesus’ confrontation with some Pharisees. They have caught his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, and they demand that Jesus chastise his followers for violating the law. Instead, Jesus turns the tables on them completely:

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice; you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7-8)

Here Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, in which the prophet Hosea is rebuking the Jewish people for being aloof of the suffering around them. Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, co-authors of The Children Are Free, offer this commentary on Jesus’ words:

“Amos, who prophesied around the time of Hosea, talked about how people of the time were attending places of worship, offering sacrifices, and then going home to cheat the poor and foster injustice. Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing the same thing; they were more concerned with rule keeping than with human hunger. Jesus’ point is clear: Human need is more important than rules—even rules found in the Bible.”

Again and again, throughout the Scriptures, Jesus ignores the pull of legalism in favor of compassion. He recognizes human need, whether it is physical or emotional, and meets those needs. This sort of compassion—this sort of love—is not the sort that thrives on obedience to laws but rather keeps an open heart toward the suffering of those around it and engages that suffering. This is the love we are called to demonstrate again and again throughout scripture, and it is exemplified in the love of a same-gendered partnership no less fully than an opposite-gendered one.

Conclusion

The very purpose of the Gospel is to free us from the law of sin and death. We are no longer under the yoke of the Law, but rather we are free to pursue the heart of the Father and walk daily in his commandment to love. And perhaps, if nothing else, we should remember that our lives should reflect the fruit of love that God is sowing in us. For as Jesus says in Matthew 17:16-20,

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

I have seen such good fruit produced among Christians in the LGBT community. I see devotion to the Word, loving-kindness for those around them, and compassion demonstrated where often none is deserved. I see love demonstrated in all of its beautiful forms, both romantic and otherwise. There is no corrupted heart, no sinful indulgence in the way these Christians interact with others, no veil of sin between them and God because they are in same-sex relationships.

And so I ask you. Who are we to deny that witness?

We Are Free in Christ

I’ve been told that the Law is binding upon those of us who have come after the death and resurrection of Jesus, after the Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit within the heart of every believer. I’ve been told the letter of the Law still matters, and that love for God can only be understood and pursued within the context of adherence to the commandments of God as laid out in the Bible from beginning to end.

Whoever told me that is wrong.

We are not slaves to the Law. We are not bound by it, we are not required to obey its every letter to walk in obedience to God.

Don’t believe me? Have a look.

“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” ~ Galatians 5:16-18

“So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.” ~ Romans 7:4-6

“For ignoring the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking instead to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.” ~ Romans 10:3-4

“According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.” ~ Philippians 3:6b-9

“Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until the arrival of the descendant to whom the promise had been made. It was administered through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary is not for one party alone, but God is one. Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise could be given—because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—to those who believe. Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” ~ Galatians 3:19-25

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. ” ~ Romans 13:8-10

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight—the only thing that matters is faith working through love.”  ~ Galatians 5:1-6

“For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.” ~ Ephesians 2:14-16