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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "Times Have Changed"

Why do Christians rudely declare that other people's behavior is wrong because the Bible says so when Christians don't obey it themselves? For example, many Christians say that it is wrong for a man to have sex with a man or a woman with a woman because the Bible says so. But those same Christians eat pork and wear cotton-polyester blend shirts; they trim their beards and don't have tassels dangling from the hem of their coats.

It sure looks like Christians pick and choose from the Bible what is wrong and what is not. And on what basis? It must be hatred, many think: "This behavior is wrong" must mean, "I hate you who are disposed to do it."

Some Christians take this criticism to heart. They look at rules in the Bible that Christians don't follow and wonder why.

It must be, they think, because times have changed.

The Bible may be inspired by God, they think, but it was written to a different culture. Maybe whenever we see something in the Bible that contradicts what makes sense to us today, it doesn't apply to us because it was just for their culture, not ours.

Or maybe the Bible has a lot of outmoded human ideas of right and wrong intermingled with God's truth. Maybe the Bible is not totally reliable, so we have to use our reason to purify it by ignoring the bad ideas and elevating the good ones. (See previous post.) After all, it goes without saying that we know better than people who lived long ago; I mean, come on—we have electric cars and smartphones and cat memes and stuff.

So if times have changed, they reason, maybe that applies to hot-button issues like sexuality and gender too. People in the past didn't see the contradiction between their godly principles of love and justice and their harsh rules. We can see their hypocrisy clearly, so we should avoid moral guidelines based on ignorance and hate. If what the Bible says keeps up with the times, we obey it, and if not, we don't.

I say that Christians who claim that times have changed are exactly right. That is precisely why we strictly obey some biblical commands but not others (or so it appears).

The problem is that they badly misidentify what exactly has changed over time, which makes all the difference in the world.

In this post and the two that follow are three principles about what has changed, what hasn't, and why it matters.

Jesus Christ is the big change

Two thousand years ago, when the Son of God became human, was crucified, was raised to life, sat down at the right side of the God the Father, and sent the Holy Spirit to those who claimed that he is Lord, the times changed. I mean this in the most radical sense: a new time, a new era, the age of the royal government of God on this planet, began at that point. Ever since, the old age has been fighting a desperate, losing battle to hang on. We live in the overlap between the new age's beginning and the old age's end.

The significance of this cannot possibly be overstated. This is far and away the biggest reason that Christians handle the Bible as they do.

To summarize what I've explained elsewhere, Jesus' teaching radically relocated ethics from the outward, visible realm of the body's actions to the inward, invisible realm of the mind's thoughts, which go public in the mouth's words.

That shift hugely intensified some moral rules—for example, with sexuality. Now it's not enough not to have sex with someone's wife; now you mustn't even imagine it. This powerfully reinforces the old rule against adultery, because if you refuse even to think about it, you certainly aren't going to do it.

The shift made other rules irrelevant for physical behavior—for example, with food. What does it mean not to ingest unclean matter in the mind? It means to drive out unclean thoughts. If that is what true cleanness is, then what you ingest in the body is irrelevant. Rather, all food is clean because all was created by God.

Israel's laws constituted a centuries-long training in how holy God is, what it means to be a holy (set-apart) people belonging to him, and how humans are hopelessly unfaithful to that standard no matter how much help they get. But now the reality, which all the training was meant to set up, is here.

Jesus' death made Jesus' teaching real, because it replaced the stipulations of God's old covenant with his people with a new one. Jesus' ascension made Jesus' teaching livable, because it allowed him to put his Holy Spirit in and on people to make them holy on the inside, which no food, clothes, or circumcision had been able to reach.

This is the big change. This is why, only a few years after Jesus' ascension, his apostles, who were born-and-bred observant Jews, began ignoring food laws and eating with non-Jewish Jesus-followers. It wasn't because the Bible's food laws were old-fashioned—just about every Jew in the world was keeping kosher at that time; it was totally current. It was because the times had changed in Jesus, the Messiah.

Devout Christians don't actually ignore what the Bible says about food and clothing and such; rather, we apply those standards of holiness to our hearts and minds. We don't apply them to our bodies only because of Jesus Christ, not because we happen to live in the twenty-first century. If it were not for what Jesus did, we would live as ultra-Orthodox Jews today.

But surely something else has changed, right? What about how different our culture is from the culture of the people in the Bible? What about their outmoded, pre-scientific understanding of the world?

We'll tackle those issues in the next two posts.

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