by John McLarty  |  17 November 2021  |

Of course, as believers, we would prefer to say this differently. We would say that doing right is the truest, purest interpretation of God’s words. If obeying God’s words leads someone to mistreat people, we would argue that the perpetrator has misunderstood God and that God’s words didn’t really mean what they thought. 

But I put it the other way, because sometimes we are so sure we know what God meant by what he said that our consciences are anesthetized. When Christian parents administer severe spankings, they imagine they are carrying out God’s will as expressed in the adage “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” inspired by Proverbs 13:24. When Charlie Fuqua, an Arkansas Republican, proposed legislation that would allow parents to seek the death penalty for an incorrigible child, he was attempting to be faithful to his understanding of the words of the Bible. 

It is not enough to ask, “What did God say?” Sometimes a better question is: “What is right?” 

Adventists are champions of God’s Law. We see the divine law as an explication of eternal principles that are so universal, so noble and exalted, that God himself is not free to violate it. Obviously, if God is bound by that eternal law of love and justice, we mere mortals are not free to violate it even if the Bible orders us to do so.

If our consciences—feeble and scarred as they are—warn us against an injustice, courageous leaders among God’s people will join Abraham and speak up, even if there are words in Scripture that can be cited in support of the injustice. We will not allow traditional understandings of the explicit words of God to seduce or coerce us into complicity with institutional or societal injustice. We will refuse to be seduced into imagining that our cooperation in injustice is the will of God.

In the Bible, one criterion shows up repeatedly for countermanding the words of God: mercy. Abraham argued to save Sodom on this basis. It failed. Sodom was destroyed. Moses saved Israel as a raw expression of mercy. Joshua faced two legally binding claims regarding the Gibeonites: God’s verdict of destruction and his oath of protection. It is mercy that gives Joshua’s oath priority over the verdict of God.

Example No. 5: Jesus and the Sidonian Woman

When the pagan woman from near the city of Sidon (Matt. 15:21-22) asked for Jesus’ help, he ignored her. When this did not dissuade her, Jesus announced that helping her would violate his God-given mission. Then Jesus compared her to a dog, which meant the gospel was not to be preached to her (see Matt. 7:6). Jesus could hardly have been more explicit about her place outside of God’s favor. But instead of yielding to Jesus’ words, the woman turned them back against him: even dogs get crumbs. Finally, Jesus capitulated. Jesus (God) bent to the insistence of this mother who demanded mercy for her tormented daughter. To dramatize the divine capitulation, Jesus said to the woman, “May it be for you as you wish” (Matt. 15:28, NRSV). His words were not “as I wish.” Not “as God wishes.” But “as you wish!”

We believe Jesus’ words expressing exclusion were a dramatic setup for his gracious response to this mother. We believe his initial rejection was “apparent” for the purpose of demonstrating all the more powerfully the universality of the kingdom of heaven. God was speaking through the mother when she rejected the explicit words of Jesus and demanded mercy. Her words, not the words of Jesus, were the truest expression of the purpose of God. (Of course, Jesus was deliberately eliciting her words.) Which brings us back to the truth captured in Jesus’ twice-repeated quotation from Hosea 6:6: “You would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices’” (Matt. 12:7, NLT).

Some Real-Life Applications

Devout, conservative Christians occasionally talk to me about their quandary regarding their homosexual friends and children. They read the Bible’s explicit condemnations of homosexual acts. On the other hand, they have a gut sense that our condemnation of all homosexual unions is wrong. What to do? How can it be righteous to set aside the explicit words of the Bible to accommodate this virtually unalterable human condition?

We might look for our answer in the story of Joshua and the Gibeonites. Yes, like Joshua’s soldiers and King Saul, we can quote words of God to justify condemning the class of people we call homosexuals. But those who see in Joshua a type of Christ will devote themselves to protecting and welcoming these vulnerable people who seek sanctuary among us.

Some acquaintances of mine vehemently oppose ordaining women to ministry. They claim that their zeal for keeping women “in their place” is rooted solely in the words of the Bible. They cite the curse of Genesis 3 and some statements by Paul. Then they ask, “Is there any Bible passage that explicitly commands us to honor women with the rite and status of ordination?” But they are asking the wrong question. When we ask if there are any words in the Bible that can be used to justify excluding people, we are acting like Jesus’ disciples who wanted Jesus to send the petitioning mother away. We are acting like Joshua’s soldiers who wanted to be God’s enforcers. The Bible is crystal clear that it was Joshua and Jesus who did right, not the soldiers and disciples. We are called to follow the example of Joshua and Jesus. Godly leaders will cooperate with God by honoring the women he calls into public ministry.

Our treatment of homosexuals and women cannot be separated from the lessons of Christian history in regard to slavery. The Bible explicitly condones and regulates slavery. For centuries, Christians used these words of the Bible to justify the status quo of slavery. We now know they were tragically wrong. No matter what Deuteronomy or Ephesians says about the legitimacy of slavery, Christians now decry its immorality. Even though there is no explicit warrant in the Bible for abolition, Christians now agree that this non-Biblical stance is right. What was explicitly allowed by the words of the Bible is now universally condemned as immoral.

Something similar has happened in regard to the death penalty. The Bible prescribes death by stoning for Sabbath-breakers, adulterers, rebellious sons, homosexuals, women unable to prove their virginity at their wedding, blasphemers, witches, and rape victims if the rape occurred within the city limits. The people of God rightly insist that any attempt to impose these Bible commandments in our day would be barbaric and immoral.

We fail to cooperate with God when we use the words of the Bible as weapons for defending the privileges of the privileged or as cudgels for keeping less-privileged people in their place.

We partner with God when we use the Bible as an instrument of mercy or as a device for opening prison gates. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read these words as his mission statement:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord
(Luke 4:18-19, NKJV).

When the people fully realized what Jesus was saying, they rushed to throw him off a cliff. I pray we will not be equally offended by the radical mercy of God but will, instead, rush to join him.


John McLarty is retired from being senior pastor at Green Lake Church in Seattle. He is a host of Talking Rocks Tours. He is author of Damn My Son, available for $1 on the Amazon Kindle.

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