Faithfulness and Law, Then and Now

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Scripture: Galatians 3: 23-29.

Text: Galatians 3:25

Among followers of Jesus in the decades after his crucifixion, there were many disagreements and divisions. But there was one issue that overshadowed all the rest. This was the relation of Gentile believers to the Jewish law.

To some Jewish followers of Jesus, it was obvious that Jesus was a Jew whose message was directed to Jews. They were open to Gentiles becoming Jews, but that meant that they would obey the Jewish law.

However, the leaders among the Jewish followers of Jesus were impressed by the response of Gentiles to their message. They saw that Jesus had a more universal character, and they did not want to make it too difficult for Gentiles to join the movement. They were prepared to simplify the law. The most impressive expression of this was at what is reported in Acts as the Council of Jerusalem. The leading apostles there agreed to reduce the requirement on Gentiles vastly. As Luke reports the event, James, the leader of the Jerusalem community, required only that Gentile converts “should abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.”

From our point of view, this is a strange list. We would have expected that James say that they should be required only to follow the Ten Commandments. But for Jews of that time, the dietary laws, though absent from the Ten Commandments, were extremely important.

In any case, the most important point in Luke’s account of the Council was that circumcision was not to be required. This opened the door for many Gentiles to become full members of the new movement.

Now we might think that this compromise should have settled the issue. But it did not. On the one hand, Jewish Christians continued to be troubled by Paul’s teaching and practice. And although Luke implies that the decision of the Council gave Paul the freedom to move ahead with his Gentile mission, Paul’s letters never mention this Council. His interest was not in how simple or difficult obedience to the law would be but in the role of law in relation to pistis. For him the one who has pistis is free from the law.

I use the Greek word here because, for those of us who speak and think in English, much of our understanding of Paul depends on how we translate it. In general it has been translated “faith”. This is certainly not wrong, since pistis includes most of the connotations of that word in English. It includes belief, trust, and assurance. But it includes more than that, and the exclusion of this more by this standard translation has led to theoretical and practical problems in the church. The narrow understanding of pistis led to problems already in Paul’s day.

The major problem is that “faith” seems to refer only to interior attitudes. This leads immediately to the question of behavior. How is “faith” related to “works”? Surely the latter are important. But people hear Paul as saying that they are not, because he says the one who has pistis is free from the law. That seems to mean that anything goes. As long as one has the right beliefs, one may act as one pleases. One will be saved if one believes rightly, however one acts. Many Jewish followers of Jesus were appalled by Paul’s rejection of obedience to the law as a requisite of the Christian life.

I have said that for Paul pistis involves more than what is suggested by “faith”. It is a whole way of being in the world. Many New Testament scholars today assert that it is often translated better as “faithfulness”.

In your Bibles you will find that pistis has always been translated that way in some cases. Paul speaks of the pistis of God. Translators have not wanted to attribute faith to God; so they have spoken of God’s faithfulness. But when applied to human beings, they have insisted on “faith”.

I hope you will see that there can be no human faithfulness without faith, but also that the connotations of faithfulness go beyond those of faith. To be faithful requires not only an inner disposition of belief and trust and personal commitment but also a life that expresses these. Whereas we have often contrasted faith and works as if faith might exist without behavioral expressions, we can hardly treat faithfulness in that way. If one is faithful to the Republican party, this has as much to do with how one acts as with how one feels and thinks. The same is true if one is faithful to the Roman Catholic Church or to the United States of America.

Of course, Paul was calling for faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to God as God was revealed in Jesus. Everything depends on that to which or to whom one is faithful. It was this faithfulness to Jesus that, in Paul’s view, overcame the need for the law.

Paul’s point was not that the requirements of the law were bad. His point was that obedience to law is a different way of living from faithfulness to God. The aim of the law was to spell out the elements that make for righteousness. Faithfulness to God fulfills the purpose of the law without attending to the particular formulations or individual laws.

Paul thought that efforts to attain righteousness by obeying rules were counterproductive. That does not mean that the rules are bad rules. They may well spell out truly good practices. But the effort to obey them does not work. His example is taken from the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet.” Paul in no way disagrees that coveting is a bad thing or that it is far better not to covet. But he says that trying to live by this rule does not work. It does not prevent us from coveting. It only adds guilt to the coveting. We can escape this vicious circle only by pistis directed to God.

Although Paul won his battle, so that the vast majority of Christians have not felt themselves bound by the Jewish law, still, at a deeper level the question of pistis and law recurs generation after generation. People look to their religious leaders for guidance as to how to live, and in the West this always seems to mean that they expect rules of some kind. They have great difficulty hearing the Pauline message that pistis fulfills the law and overcomes any need for it, that the lifestyle of obedience to rules neglects the revelation of God’s righteousness in Jesus.

The church has been all too ready to respond to this desire for rules of behavior. Indeed, in generation after generation children have grown up thinking of the church as the place where rules are taught and pressure is brought on them for obedience. Sometimes the pressure is subtle, simply generating feelings of guilt when the rules are broken.  Sometimes it includes the threat of excommunication or of hellfire.

For those who understand the Christian life as involving obedience to God’s laws, there is always the question of what those laws are. A few call for obedience to the whole Jewish law, but that is rare. Still fewer take the Council of Jerusalem as decisive. More identify the Ten Commandments as their law. Some understand Jesus to have taught a new, and much more demanding, law, and they seek to obey that. Others proclaim that there is a natural law to which we are led by reason. Practically speaking the “law” to which obedience is required is usually whatever the church to which one belongs teaches at the time.

Through most of Christian history, much of the law has dealt with sexual matters. This is strikingly different from the Bible. Of course, there are laws about sexual behavior in the Bible. In the Ten Commandments we are told not to commit adultery. Jesus tells us men not to look at a woman with lustful feelings. In the simplification of the Jewish law at the Council of Jerusalem, we are told to avoid fornication. But the great majority of Jewish laws, and the great majority of Jesus’ teachings, deal with other matters, whereas today, for many people, “morality”, and especially “Christian morality”, immediately connote sexual morality. Our relation to money is far more important in the Bible than our sexual actions, but most of our churches offer no rules about this.

I am preaching on this subject this morning because so many of our Protestant denominations, including our beloved United Methodist Church, are being torn apart today. I think at the deepest level the issue is whether Christianity inherently includes the demand for obedience to moral rules or whether it is a matter of faithfulness to God, as we know God in Jesus. I have suggested that in Paul’s day many believers could not imagine any way of relating rightly to God, other than obeying God’s law. I have suggested that despite Paul’s relative success in proposing another way, the same must be said about many Christians in every generation. Many want to be told what rules to follow and what the allowable limits may be. Many want to impose the rules they adopt for themselves on others as well.

Today many are drawing a line in the sand over the issue of same-sex relations. I have tried to understand why this is so. Most of these people have been flexible on many other issues dealing with sexual morality. Most of them now recognize that the church was wrong in treating sex as something unclean and sexual enjoyment as something to be avoided. Most of them now accept divorce as preferable to the continuation of some marriages. Many, at least de facto, accept some heterosexual experimentation before marriage and recognize that few couples now come to marriage as virgins.

I believe these changes express the faithfulness to which we are called. Of course, we who emphasize faithfulness are always in danger of being antinomian, that is, of implying that anything goes. The shift from opposing sexual enjoyment to affirming it as great gift of God seems to underlie these deep changes in the practical sexual teaching of the church. That is surely an expression of faithfulness. Faithfulness in the new situation expresses itself by faithfulness to partners, recognized and treated as equals, and the subordination of one’s quest for personal enjoyment to the needs of the community and of the world. But for those who are trying to live by rules, the abandonment of old rules with no clear new ones to replace them, seems to entail that anything goes.

The new understanding of sexuality would seem to support the idea that those who are attracted to members of the same sex would also be affirmed in finding socially responsible ways to express this attraction. And, of course, many thoughtful Christians support this further development of the implications of the recognition of sexuality as God’s good gift. But many, indeed more, now appeal on this one point to rigid law. Homosexual acts, they say, violate God’s law. Like the Council of Jerusalem, they are willing to simplify the law, modifying many traditional rules. But among the few that they regard as incorrigible, this one stands out. Why, when so many patterns of heterosexual activity are now accepted that were once legalistically forbidden, does the legalistic prohibition remain so strong here? I suggest that there may be three reasons.

First, those who take this position often claim that it is simply their commitment to biblical teaching that leads them to do so. Certainly they are correct that the attitudes of the biblical writers toward homosexuality, although peripheral to their thought, are consistently unfavorable. But the same people ignore other biblical teachings that are at least equally clear. They do not advocate, for example, that we refuse to ordain people because they are rich. Most of them do not now advocate that we refuse to ordain them, or remarry them, because they are divorced.

Paul’s negative reference to homosexuality in Romans has been used many times to justify the church’s rejection of all same-sex acts. Paul thought that homosexuality was a social consequence of idolatry, that is, of directing collective allegiance to something less than God. In his account, he did not, therefore, morally blame individual homosexuals, or establish rules against such practice. Instead, he went on to issue severe condemnation against those who judge others.

Those who believe that his theory about the cause of homosexuality was erroneous will certainly not participate in the judging that Paul condemned. If we followed Paul closely, we would be more likely to refuse ordination to those who condemn homosexuals than to homosexuals themselves. It is hard to believe that biblical teaching alone explains the hard line on this point.

Second, precisely the long history of modification of sexual rules has greatly reduced the difference between church teaching and social practice. This worries those who believe that the lives of Christians should be different from others, and that this difference should be specifiable in terms of the rules that are followed. They feel that if we yield to progressive secular thinking on this rule also, we will have given up our claim to higher standards. Hence, the line in the sand.

There is, I think, a third factor. Much of the Jewish law was based on the idea that some things are unclean. One effect of reflection on Jesus’ revelation and the experience of the Jesus movement was to counter this idea in many respects. However, the simplified law proposed by the Council of Jerusalem still assumed that meat sacrificed to idols was thereby made unclean. Blood was also felt to be unclean. Unlike Jews, Christians ceased associating uncleanness with particular foods, but they felt strongly that sexuality is inherently unclean. We still talk about dirty jokes. Even though, in the last few generations, we have largely overcome this feeling about heterosexual activity in general, to many people same-sex sex continues to seem unclean.  In the whole biblical corpus, only Paul clearly taught us that nothing is unclean in itself.

This is a lesson that Christians have still not digested. Paul still calls us on to more radical thought. Only as we dare to let go of our legalistic crutches and of our sense of uncleanness, can we discover the full meaning of what Paul called pistis, and what we can name as faithfulness. This is not an easy or relaxed life of self-enjoyment. Paul calls us to participate in the faithfulness of Jesus. That faithfulness led Jesus to the cross. For most of us, faithfulness has no such dire consequences, but it often requires that we stand against popular opinion and popular morality. Nothing is forbidden, but the faithful judge all possible courses of action by whether they are means of working with God toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes. In the area of sexuality, as in every other area, whether one is heterosexual or homosexual, that may require great sacrifices. To be faithful, as Jesus was faithful, frees us from the law because it fulfills the deeper purpose of the law and goes beyond that in the fullness of giving ourselves lovingly to others.

May more and more of those who follow Jesus, come to share in Jesus’ faithfulness and know the joy and love of that kind of life.