Friday, February 25, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: How Do You Read It? (1)

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

We’ve done maybe seventy of these exchanges now on various subjects, Immanuel Can. But what we’ve never done is a post on commonly misunderstood scriptures. Everybody does those. I’m feeling left out.

So why don’t we just do it like the Lord Jesus did with the lawyer and ask the questions, “What is written? How do you read it?” That’s a pretty solid precedent to work from.

Tom: I’ll start. Let me lob you a softball here, IC.

Letters of Recommendation

On the basis of this question from the apostle Paul to the Corinthians:

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?”

some folks have made a practice of taking letters with them when they travel in order to be admitted to gatherings of God’s people in other cities and countries, and others have made a practice of only receiving people into their church meetings who come with such letters in hand (unless of course they are new Christians).

So how do you read that one, IC?

Immanuel Can: Well, for a start, perhaps we should ask if Paul is telling us to do something, or that it is not necessary (for him) to do something.

Tom: Agreed. There is nothing prescriptive here. Paul does not say, “You should carry letters and receive letters of commendation.” But still, some would argue that being a Christian is not simply a matter of following direct commands from Jesus and the apostles. Rather, the person who is really seeking to follow Christ should look for examples to follow that are not explicit commands: a “pattern”, if you like.

IC: Yes, there is no command here, nor any hint of one. Secondly, perhaps we should ask if Paul is speaking of a practice that was good, or one that was bad. Was he speaking of what good people were practicing, or what some people were doing that was actually wrong?

Tom: I think I’d look at it more as “necessary” vs. “unnecessary”, as opposed to “good” vs. “wrong”. He says, “Do we need, as some do …” There is no indication whether that was merely a felt need, or whether it was an attempt to address a specific problem in some churches where wolves were sneaking in and doing damage. It’s possible, I think, that in certain local situations for a period of time such a practice might develop because of abuses, but because there is no command or apostolic precedent established, it cannot possibly have been intended to be binding on all churches at all times. He doesn’t say, “Do we need, as everywhere else …”

In any case, Paul is saying that even if there is such a practice, he and Timothy ought to be exempted from it. It is truly legalistic and downright silly to ask for further confirmation of the character of people you already know; people who were responsible for establishing you in the faith in the first place.

Can we say this: in the absence of any clear direction to do this in all the churches at all times, the real danger is not in neglecting to practice the custom, but of manufacturing a commandment out of a passing reference to the practice of some churches in the first century. The danger is legalism.

IC: Yes, legalism, of course. But we’re overlooking something. Consider 2 Cor. 10:12. There “commending” is equivalent to “seeking illegitimate approval from men”, a thing that Paul clearly considered proud and disgraceful, and to which he actually contrasted his own conduct — with dripping ironic contempt, I might add (see also Gal. 1:10). So we must ask, is Paul telling us about a protective practice used in some churches, or is he referring to false teachers who loved to go around collecting “commendations” from mere men? I think the answer, from the context, is quite clear: there’s no practice being spoken of here that we should wish to emulate, save the apostle’s choice not to do such things.

Tom: Okay, fair enough. But let me ask you this: what should the local church do about people who show up out of the blue from who-knows-where?

IC: Ah, this is the inevitable rejoinder people offer: If we don’t do “commendations”, what will happen when a stranger shows up? It’s not a scriptural worry, note, but a human idea. The biblical answer is simple: we go with what they “confess with their mouth” plus what they exemplify with their actions. To do otherwise is to substitute for that: (a) the presupposition of guilt — that they are unworthy until proven otherwise; plus (b) a na├»ve reliance on whatever reputation they can gain from men — in practice, often from mostly unknown men, as well.

Tom: Good answer. Have you got one for me?

All Things Work Together For Good

IC: Oh yeah ... I’ve got a couple, for sure. Here’s one:

“All things work together for good to those who love God.”

What do you think of that one, Tom?

Tom: Ooh. Low blow. Okay.

The first problem I see here is with the definition of “good”. Some people read this verse backwards and sideways to mean something like this: “We can tell if people love God by whether the present circumstances of their lives seem favorable.” To them, “good” means a life that is pleasant, peaceful, fulfilled, free of tragedy, provided-for or even affluent. This is what some say God grants to those who love him. And so of course anyone in difficult circumstances is thus condemned as having somehow failed to love God sufficiently. Joel Osteen would probably concur.

Does that about sum up the sort of misreading you’ve encountered?

IC: That’s certainly one kind of problem. The other involves the defining of “all things”. Most times people ignore the context completely, and imagine that it is promising that there is literally nothing that can happen to a Christian that isn’t “good”. So cancer, war, injury, divorce, the loss of a child, bipolar disorder, and presumably genocide are all “working together for good” for the individual — that is, if these people are right.

Tom: Ugh. Nope, hadn’t heard that. Well, I don’t think we can ignore the context, and in it Paul is talking about suffering and, through suffering, becoming conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ. So this is not about Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks dealing with his crushing Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. This is not about losing making you a better football player or cancer making you a better human being. The truth is, the “good” that God is working toward through “all things” in your life and mine may not be realized in this lifetime at all.

IC: Well, and what are the “all things”? In the context, they are particularly, first and foremost, the work of the Spirit in indwelling, revitalizing the mind, leading, freeing and confirming, helping us to endure in hope, empowering us and interceding for us, such that the Father’s purposes, from our justification to our sanctification to our eventual full redemption are sure to be realized — not because our suffering is good, but because in spite of our suffering we have all this, the expression of the hand of God “for us”. Now, there’s no hint here that the circumstances themselves are wonderful. In fact, it’s the opposite: a suffering so great we groan and long for the full redemption we have been promised.

God is wonderful. His work in us by the Spirit is wonderful. But the practical circumstances of suffering in our world are deplorable. We need to keep the two separate in our thinking, and not misread that verse as if it were telling us that cancer is wonderful, or the loss of loved ones is wonderful, or that people who suffer are unspiritual, and just don’t understand that their misery is for their good.

Tom: Very good. I get that.

Yesterday and Today and Forever

How about this one?

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Does that mean he always works in exactly the same way? Does it mean that he dealt with Adam or Noah or Abraham in exactly the same way he deals with you or me?

IC: I guess the first question might be, is that a statement about particular actions, or identity, or character, or purposes, or what? What would you say, Tom?

Tom: Well, the verse falls between two statements. The first is “Remember your leaders. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Then comes our verse. In that context, it tells me that if the Lord Jesus rewarded those who came before me, he can be relied upon to reward me if I pursue the same goals in the same spirit.

The second statement is “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” That suggests to me that there is a broad stream of Bible teaching that is consistent with the established character of Jesus Christ. If we stick to what is known about him instead of pursuing novelty, we are on the safe path.

Either way, it suggests to me that character is the main issue here.

IC: Right. I’m with you. So now, if that’s the right reading, then how do you see people prone to misapply that verse?

Tom: Well, there are Christians who are convinced that if God expected different things from a Jew in the days of Moses than he does of you or me today, that would be a huge violation of his character. So they insist he has treated everyone exactly the same all through history, and has exactly the same expectations of all. Thus Christians are expected to follow certain aspects of the Law of Moses (though people who believe this are usually somewhat selective and randomly omit things like animal sacrifices and so on).

But God has not behaved this way, and it’s no inconsistency or slur on his character to note that. Picture children growing up. I treated each of my children differently from the other children, and I did not treat any of them exactly the same at age 3 as I did at age 16. It was necessary to change my methods in order to produce the final result that was important to me. But that didn’t change me in any way. I was still the same person, with the same goals and desires for them. My character did not change at all, but my methods did.

IC: Well, and it happened because the circumstances and needs of your children had changed, not per se because you had. Your attitude and ultimate goals were consistent; it was only your choice of proximate actions that varied with the necessities of the moment. I see that.

Okay, Tom: let’s recap. What do we learn from reading these verses more carefully?

Tom: That lobbing proof texts at one another without examining the statements in their original contexts is a recipe for misunderstanding scripture?

IC: Yes, I think so. And just because people quote a verse often, or with passion and enthusiasm, and you’ve always heard it used for certain purposes, it does not necessarily mean the people have got it right. We have to decide, I think, whether we care more about believing what other people tell us, or about actually understanding the mind of God. If we care about the latter we sometimes have to be willing to raise a skeptical eyebrow to the former, and to take a second look at some of our “well-known” passages.

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