To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Ancient Hebrew manuscript showing extract from Exodus with the words superimposed: To my egalitarian friends: please don't hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Photo credit: Tanner Mardis via Unsplash

In fairness, no one has actually come to my blog and ranted about the Old Testament laws. So, this post probably isn’t aimed directly at you.

That said, I want to get more and more into writing about them and I could easily imagine many egalitarian Christians looking at me baffled and asking why I would bother at all. That in itself is not so much a problem; it’s great when people ask genuine questions. The difficulty I want to avoid is people saying things up front like, “Yeah, but we’re under grace now,” or “Moses was a misogynist.”

I have no problem sharing a high-five with anyone who believes women are equally as capable of leading as men are; I have no problem sitting with someone who believes that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law. But I don’t think egalitarians need to disregard the Old Testament, or the Torah (or those deeply uncomfortable Deuteronomy laws) in order to make their case.

Instead, I think the egalitarian standpoint (that’s the idea men and women might be different but are still equally capable of leadership) is stronger when it has an integrated understanding of the Old Testament, its stories and its laws. This is why I want to write about them.

So my ask is this: if you’re one of my allies, and you agree with what I have to say about consent etc, please don’t pile on with how the Old Testament is irrelevant or perverse.

To those deconstructing from patriarchal churches or cults

The fact that you’re deconstructing is a big deal.

I’m guessing your old churches won’t just have blamed Bathsheba for David’s actions, they won’t just have said that wives owe their husbands sex, they won’t just have said that women are more easily deceived and shouldn’t lead … they will also have said that pretty much everything Moses did was above reproach. (Well, apart from those times when he questioned God – therefore be ye WARNED and NEVER QUESTION!)

Meanwhile, I’m guessing everything you heard said about Moses will have the backdrop of other Old Testament events like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canaanite genocide and David’s slaughter of the Philistines — all of which will have been taught as something you should just accept.

And with that backdrop of violence, would any woman in a patriarchal church dare to question the Old Testament laws about what to do with women when they have sex outside marriage? Not likely.

So if you are a woman who began to discover that your consent for sex does matter, that you can discern the truth of scripture, that you can lead with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit — if your concepts of God have started to fill up with “Let he who is without sin…” and “Love one another as I have loved you…” then sure, I can see why you may want to simply forget everything you were ever told about Moses.

And in many ways, I respect that. I think a vital stage of growing in faith is to question what we’ve been told. It’s important to become at least open to the possibility that many of the things we were taught aren’t actually true. It’s a terrifying stage of faith, but that doesn’t mean you’re heading in the wrong direction.

So I respect you if you’re at that stage of questioning the Old Testament and pretty much everything you were told about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re also asking whether Paul was a remotely nice person. You might even be questioning whether Jesus really existed or whether he really was God.

If so, I guess I’d like you to understand that I’m not in that place. I’ve searched out those questions and I’ve come to a point where I seriously value the Old Testament. I don’t want you to be surprised if I quote Leviticus with the same enthusiasm as I might quote Jesus. It doesn’t mean I’m patriarchal. It doesn’t mean I’m going to shout at you with the ‘clobber passages.’

However, it does mean that I don’t enjoy hearing people hate on the OT law. So, y’know, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.

Or at least, not here.

To those who believe we are saved by grace alone through faith alone

I am not suggesting that justification is earned.

Seriously, I’m not looking to undo the last 500 years of Protestant thought.

Well… maybe a little bit. But I’m not suggesting that we’re saved through our works, OK?

However, I do want to be frank about what Luther said.

Martin Luther lived from 1483 to 1546. Having trained as a lawyer, he later became an Augustinian monk. Unlike many of his day, he read the biblical texts in their original languages. In doing so, he began to unpick some of the mistranslations that had made their way into the (Latin) Vulgate translation, which had been widely used in Roman Catholic Churches.

Armed with this, he began to re-evaluate a lot of the things that were being taught by the Catholic Church and started to see that they had no biblical basis. Of particular offence to Luther was the idea of ‘indulgences.’

At the time, the Roman Catholic Church taught that Christians went to purgatory after they died, where they were ‘purged’ of any sin that hadn’t been ‘satisfied’ through some form of penance. However, time in purgatory could be reduced by purchasing ‘indulgences’.

In other words, if you were rich and gave money to the right people in the church, you could buy your way into heaven. (And God have mercy on your soul if you’re poor.)

Luther had issue with all of this, and rightly so. Then, in 1517 he published his 95 theses, challenging the Catholic Church. And then there was the Reformation.

So, I want to be very clear that Luther said many good things, achieved many good things, and made many good challenges to the church of his day. And, insofar as we’re talking about ‘justification by grace through faith’ I don’t have issue with Luther.

But.

Luther was an anti-Semite.

Yes, I know he started off saying the church had mistreated Jews, that Christians should show kindness, and that if a Jew looked at the church, they would hardly be inclined to convert. But he also said that God was totally done with the Jews (Against the Sabbatarians in 1538) and had been punishing them as a people for 1,500 years.

Then in 1543 he published On the Jews and Their Lies. Bear in mind, this is a 65,000-word tract in which Luther slanders the Jewish people and encourages civil authorities to burn down synagogues, destroy Jewish homes, confiscate Talmudic writings, and then some.[1]

His words had a lasting effect on the Lutheran church in Germany. Don’t underestimate this. When the Nazis planned Kristallnacht in 1938 (as in, the night when the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes and property and burned down synagogues) they timed it to coincide with Luther’s birthday: 10th November. Martin Sasse, a bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thuringia, also a leading member of the Nazi German Christians, applauded Luther as the greatest anti-Semite of his time.[2]

Has a chill gone down your spine yet?

OK, let’s wrap up with where this hits home in terms of egalitarianism, how I interpret the Old Testament law, and what I post on this blog.

Luther argued that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone. Fine.

He also said that the Old Testament Mosaic law has been replaced by the ‘gospel of grace’ in the New Testament. Not fine.

Now, I appreciate that for many Protestant Christians that is exactly how they reconcile the transition between the Old and New Testaments. It’s how they make sense of Paul’s writings (particularly Galatians), it’s the context in which they frame Jesus’s debates with the Pharisees, and it’s also how they shake off really nasty fears that stem from legalism.

But you know what? Just because Luther was right about some things, that doesn’t mean he was right about everything. Luther did not understand Judaism, first century Pharisaism, or Paul’s mindset as a Jew — yet Luther’s ideas about these heavily influence how many Protestants today interpret New Testament writings.

I think that’s a mistake. In fact, I think we are on really shaky ground if we understand certain Jewish concepts and debates through the lens of arguments we learned from a staunch anti-Semite.

Now I’m not about to say that Christians should adopt all of the laws in the Torah (for one thing, many Jewish people would be pretty insulted if we tried). But I have issue with the classic understanding that the Old Testament is legalistic, works-based, and lacking in faith and mercy.

Instead I’m convinced that there is no need to pit Moses against Jesus, law against grace, or faith against works. So… please don’t?

Or at least, not here.

Concluding thoughts

I imagine that this post will have raised questions in people’s minds about what kind of egalitarian Christian I am.

How can I say that the Old Testament is good, but that patriarchy is bad – especially if the laws of the Old Testament undergird patriarchal structures? If I don’t believe the law is legalistic, then what do I make of the debates Jesus had with the Pharisees? How exactly do I understand the continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments?

I hope to answer some of these questions in future posts – or at least begin to answer them.

Meanwhile, it’s important to highlight that although anti-Semitism might not be the same as anti-Judaism, Christians would do well to be more mindful about how we talk about Jewish culture and particularly first Century Judaism. For example, the word ‘Pharisee’ is often used in derogatory, inaccurate and unhelpful ways. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote brilliantly about this on Twitter — you can read an unrolled version of her thread here.

We might not be Jewish and we might not agree with all the tenets of the Jewish faith, but however we talk about the Old Testament, we have to reckon with the fact that anti-Semitism is far from a thing of the past and is totally not OK! (Again, see another thread of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s, or better still, her piece for the Washington Post.) We should therefore take especial care that we don’t leapfrog over anti-Semitic and/or anti-Judaistic language to get to a nice neat egalitarian conclusion.

And if you’re worried that my stance might somehow compromise the integrity of Paul’s arguments or New Testament writings — well… if I am, then I’m not alone. And I know that isn’t a defence in itself, but bear in mind I get a lot of my understanding from the works of Bishop Tom Wright (aka NT Wright). He is a heavyweight when it comes to biblical scholarship and has translated the whole of New Testament (it’s the ‘New Testament for Everyone’ translation).

I guess what I’m saying is that to question some of Luther’s arguments and conclusions is not a fringe position — in fact there is a broad consensus amongst academics that Luther’s concepts of first Century rabbinic legalism are unsupportable. EP Sanders first put this challenge forward in the 1970s, and it’s a part of what gets called the ‘New Perspective on Paul’.

You don’t have to agree with me, but you should appreciate that this is where I’m coming from. Yes, Tom Wright and the New Perspective on Paul have their critics (John Piper being not the least of them) and it’s not that Wright or I or anyone else has got it all figured out just yet.

But — and this is all I’m really trying to say here — you don’t have to hate on the Old Testament law, or have a strongly anti-Judaistic interpretation of the New Testament, in order to be an egalitarian.

Instead, I think egalitarianism will be stronger if we can reckon with the Old Testament soberly, reverently, and with the insights of both Christian and Jewish scholarship.

At least, that’s what I’ll try to do here.

 


As you might have gathered, this post is paving the way for other posts that I want to write in the future, so I’ve only a limited volume of related reading. That said, if you liked this, other things that might interest you include:

 


[1] Harvey, Richard; Luther and the Jews: Putting right the lies, p84 (2017: Cascade books)

[2] Harvey, p27

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