By Stephen Ferguson, 05/16/2017
Is being left-handed a sin? I suspect with so many other issues today, this isn’t one you’ve given a whole lot of thought to. Yet, left-handedness goes to the core of what it means to be “normal”.
The Australian charity Beyond Blue has produced an excellent advertisement called “#StopThinkRespect”, which explores this very issue. The clip can be viewed on YouTube and other online forums, and you may wish to watch it before continuing.
Assuming you’ve now watched the video, I think we could all agree left-handed dominance is unusual, in the sense of being a minority condition affecting about 10% of the world’s population.(1) There are also a variety of even rarer conditions on the handedness spectrum, including mixed-handedness, ambidextrousness and dysgraphia, but let’s not overly complicate things.
Even if we admit left-handedness is unusual, irregular or aberrant, from a Christian perspective, is left-handedness a sin? Before we look at left-handedness in particular, we probably need to ask ourselves a more basic question, ‘What is sin?’ Is it behaviour, a state of being, or both? I think you’ll find it is harder to define than you might imagine.
Sin as behaviour – three broad approaches
A simple definition of sin is transgression of God’s Law: ‘Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.’ (1 John 3:4). The problem is, the word “law” (Gk. nomos) is used inconsistently in the Bible. Sometimes nomos refers to the entire Old Testament (Rom. 3:19; Gal 5:3); sometimes just the first five books of the Bible or Torah (Rom. 3:21); sometimes the Ten Commandments (Rom. 7:7); and sometimes legalism (Col. 2:14).
The Bible demands a whole range of actions and omissions with regard to our behaviour. The Old Testament (“OT”) directs we wear blue tassels (Num. 15:38), not cut the corners of our heads (Lev. 19:27), and avoid mixed fabrics (Lev. 19:19). The New Testament (“NT”) asks slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5), to return runaway slaves (Phil. 1:12), be aware of dogs (Philip. 3:2), not get married (1 Cor. 7:27), hate your family (Luke 14:26), give away your possessions (Luke 14:33), keep women silent (1 Cor. 14:34), forbids divorcees from remarrying (Matt. 19:9, except for adultery) and to great each other with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16). Yet I don’t see many Christians keeping these commands.
The creedal approach
Christians have been grappling with this issue for a few thousand years. The most common solution is the creedal approach, as reflected in the historic creeds of major denominations.(2) This suggests the moral components of the Law, as found in the Ten Commandments, continue to have some continued relevance or application, while ceremonial or civil aspects no longer apply in the modern age.(3) The problem is, a number of scholars say such a division is the artificial work of theologians – not found in scripture itself.(4)
The Ten Commandments are also, by their nature, very broad. For example, the same God who commanded ‘thou shalt not kill’ told the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites (Deut. 20:17). The same God who commanded ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ told a man to engage in what essentially seems an extra-marital affair, by sleeping with his brother’s widow (Deut. 25:5-6). While we Adventists convincingly say we should keep the seventh day holy, there are a variety of views as to what specific activities are appropriate on the day itself.
Thus, almost all Christians agree breaking the Ten Commandments is sin. However, we do not agree what particular behaviours amount to breaking a commandment.
The dispensationalist-reverse approach
A second “dispensationalist-reverse” approach says all OT commandments are abolished unless reaffirmed in the NT. The problem with that view is the NT is silent on a whole range of behaviours.(5)
For example, there is no categorical NT command affirming the OT prohibition against making fun of deaf people (Lev. 19:14). While the OT condemns bestiality (Lev. 18:23) there is no mention of this in the NT. And while almost all denominations uphold the OT principle of tithing, the NT is largely silent on the issue.(6)
The natural law approach
A third “natural law” approach suggests morality is instinctively ingrained in all of us (even atheists) by God, as explained by the Apostle Paul: ‘When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.’ (Rom. 2:14-15).
Natural law was further defined by Martin Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) to mean: ‘common judgment to which all men alike assent, and therefore one which God has inscribed upon the soul of each man.’(7) Yet applying natural law is difficult.
To take a biblical example, the Apostle Paul says it is natural for men to have short hair and natural for women to have long hair, which is why women should wear veils: ‘Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.’ (1 Corinthians 11:14-15).
While we might say a woman with a beard is “unnatural”, there is nothing intrinsic in human anatomy, history or philosophy to suggest ‘all men alike’ agree on a correlation between hair length and gender. Consider the Sikhs of India, the Ming Chinese, 17th century European gentlemen, as well as the biblical figure of Samson.
I think John Calvin was right when he said natural law was at best a flawed guide, as our consciences have been ‘suppressed and distorted in uprightness’.(8) This of course is why the Law was given in the first place: ‘I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”’ (Rom. 7:7)
Be careful of judging others
Sin undoubtedly involves actions and omissions with moral consequences. Nevertheless, determining which behaviours constitute sin is much harder than simply picking our favourite proof text and rationalising all the others away. Unless you men are greeting each other with kisses rather than handshakes, you women are keeping quiet whilst wearing Muslim-like veils, and both men and women divorcees are being disfellowshipped as the SDA Church Manual demands (9), then I’d be cautious of making judgments on the behaviour of others.
Sin as state – Sin with a capital “S”
T. Wright, arguably today’s greatest Christian apologist since C. S. Lewis, in commentating on the Apostle Paul’s explanation of sin and the Law in the book of Romans, says we have perhaps been looking at sin too narrowly:
‘The result is “Sin” – sin with a capital S – personified. “Sin” in this sense is more than simply individual “sins”.’(10)
I think Wright is right. For example, when my pet cat catches and tortures a bird to death before eating it, is my cat “sinning”? Probably not in terms of being personally morally culpable – the cat is only doing what comes “naturally” to him. And yet, I am always struck by the “wrongness” of the cat’s actions. It seems irrefutable evidence that my cat is part of the “Sin-system” of this broken world.
We all long for a new earth without predation, suffering and death, where the wolf and lamb can lie down together (Is. 11:6-9). All of creation, from you and me to the whole environment around us, groans to be freed from Sin (Rom. 8:18-22).
I prefer this Sin-system approach because it recognises the inherent flaw in all of us, but with much less personal judgment.(11) When I look at my own greying hair and expanding waistline, I recognise I too am no different. These things are all but inevitable, “natural” consequences in an aging and dying world, despite my wife buying hair dye at the grocery store and me embarking on several failed attempts at dieting. Yet I think I’d live a happier life if I learn to just live with and accept my flawed, aging body, even as I retain hope of a perfect body in the age to come.
What does the Bible say about being left-handed?
So returning to our original question, ‘Is being left-handed a sin?’ If we are honest we’d say scripture is at best ambiguous. The Bible mentions:
- a consistent preference for the right over the left (Gen. 48:13-18; Ex. 15:6; Ps. 118:16; Gal. 2:9 etc.);
- Ehud, a left-handed assassin is called by God, but it isn’t clear whether Ehud is akin to Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar, that is, a flawed man being used by God for godly aims (Judges 3:12-29);
- the Benjaminites had 700 hand-picked lefties (Judges 20:16), but this is within the context of the tribe supporting a bunch of rapist murderers, who were practically annihilated by the other Israelites;
- on the Day of Judgment the righteous sheep will be on His right, while the sinful goats on His left (Matt. 25:33); and
- Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33).
Left-handedness, the Fall and science
At the very least, the Bible appears to portray left-handedness in a negative light. It may not be sin (lowercase “s”) as action, but quite possibly reflects Sin (capital “S”) as a system. Although we are not explicitly told by scripture, we might speculate that left-handedness is a consequence of the Fall, connected with God’s curse about birth (Gen. 3:16).
Science possibly supports this theory. For example, one major study by the Center for Disease Control found that exposing male foetuses in utero to higher levels of oestrogen resulted in a prevalence of left-handedness.(12) Other studies pointed to low weight and complications at birth as relevant.(13)
But can’t lefties pray their left-handedness away?
So if scripture speaks so negatively of left-handedness, and science suggests it might be some deficiency in foetal development, do we expect left-handed people to change? When we quote Jesus’ famous line, ‘Go and sin no more’ (John 8:11), why don’t we apply that to a left-handed lifestyle?
If God is a god of miracles, can’t He cure the left-handed condition? Can’t lefties ask God and pray their left-handedness away?
If you think I’m being ridiculous, consider that until relatively recent times left-handed children in most Western countries were physically forced to write with their right hand. Now we see it as cruel. Why?
Right-handedness as an “ideal”
So what is the answer? I think the most that could be said scripturally, scientifically, historically and culturally, is that right-handedness is an “ideal”. There is nothing wrong with the Church preaching biblical ideals. We might say that the Bradys and the Cunninghams represent ideal families worth emulating, but we also need to realise that not everybody can live like that.(14)
In Jesus’ own words, some behaviours such as celibacy are preferred, but too hard for most people (Matt. 19:11-12). Likewise, if the Apostle Paul says elders and deacons must be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2), the corollary includes lay members not living up to that.
Therefore, as a more nuanced approach, I think lefties should be accepted into membership. If we waited until people were perfect first, we’d never baptise anyone. It means we approach left-handed people with compassion, not condemnation. All of us are justified if we accept Christ’s sacrifice, so we need to stop treating some sins as “unpardonable”. None of us is yet perfect, because sanctification is the work of a lifetime.(15) As to arguments left-handed people might be different because they aren’t trying hard enough, everyone is blatantly “living in sin”, as we all continue to do things we deliberately know are sinful – over and over and over again (Rom. 7:14-25).
Open sinners in Church leadership
Nonetheless, I equally accept that people who openly adopt a “left-handed lifestyle” perhaps should not be put into high Church office – especially in roles requiring ordination. Contrary to popular perception, while we are all sinners God doesn’t treat all sinners alike, because He expects a higher standard from leaders (Jam. 3:1).
I realise some lefties might be offended by this too. Yet God still calls sinners, even those openly living “in sin”, to carry out some form of ministerial role! For example, in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus acknowledged she was living in a de facto relationship, although He did not press the point any further. But Jesus still used her for an “apostolic” function, sending her back to her own people where, ‘Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony’ (John 4:39).
Conclusion – mercy trumps judgment
You will probably realize by now that the point of this isn’t just left-handedness. At one time, left-handers were indeed discriminated against. We now now better. No, our point here is to note that we must be careful about showing prejudice against people for things that merely reflect the complexity of the human condition. This in turn requires a nuanced response – a nuance many Christians might have trouble recognising. It is important because whether we like it or not, these issues are not going away. And in implementing this nuanced approach, let us err on the side of grace: ‘Mercy trumps over judgment’ (Jam. 2:13)
(1) Technically, 88-92% of people are right-handed dominant. See M. K. Holder, “Why are more people right-handed?”, Scientific American Inc. (1997).
(2) And largely endorsed by Adventist scholars too. See Roy Gane, The Role of God’s Moral Law, Including Sabbath, in the New Covenant (Michigan: Andrews University, 2003), 7, published on the General Conference Biblical Research Institute website.
(3) See the Reformed-Calvinist Westminster Confession of Faith (1643 at [19.1]-[19.5]), Aquinas’s Catholic Summa Theologica (1274 at q.100), and Anglican (Episcopalian) Thirty-Nine Articles (1570 at VII).
(4) Frederick Mueller, “Differentiating Between Ceremonial, Civil, and Moral Laws”, Presented at Lake Superior Pastoral Conference, Salem Lutheran Church, Escanaba, MI, April 15-16, 1980.
(5) For example, notable Lutheran scholar Douglas Moo explains, ‘While my Reformed colleague might argue that we are bound to whatever in the Mosaic law has not been clearly overturned by the New Testament teaching, I argue that we are bound only to that which is clearly repeated within New Testament teaching’: Douglas Moo, Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zonervan, 1999), 376.
(6) The Assemblies of God (the largest Pentecostal-Evangelical denomination) is most honest about this when they admit: ‘It is true there is no direct commandment in the New Testament saying, You must tithe to God one-tenth of your income; but there is also no statement declaring the Old Testament plan as no longer valid’: Tithing, AG Assemblies of God.
(7) Cited in Christopher John Donato Ed., Perspectives on the Sabbath: 4 Views (Nashville: B&H Pub., 2011), 265.
(8) Cited in Greg L. Bahnsen, Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zonervan, 1999), 124.
(9) See “Church’s Position on Divorce and Remarriage”, Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (2010: 151-154).
(10) N.T. Wright, When the Revolution Began (2016), Kindle Ed. Loc., 4465 at 60%
(11) See also James Boyce, ‘How original sin led to a western obsessions with self-help’, The Guardian (24 Jul 14).
(12) L. Titus-Ernstoff, “Psychosexual Characteristics of Men and Women Exposed to Diethylstilbestrol”, CDC (2003).
(13) Alvin Powell, “A Lefty’s Lament”, Harvard Gazette, Jan 30, 2015.
(14) The Bradys from The Brady Bunch have become a cultural symbol of the perfect family. So much so, they became a satirical representation of a boring, traditional family, in modern movie remakes of the same name. However, the Bradys were in fact, and quite ironically, a blended family, comprising a widow with three daughters who married a widower with three sons. This in itself reflects a change in cultural norms. As for the Cunninghams from Happy Days, one of their most striking features of this straight-laced, 1950s family, was how they virtually adopted high school dropout, biker and suave “ladies man” Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. There might be a lesson in that too!
(15) Ellen White, Selected Messages, Book 1, 317.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise is in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy, and has a one child, William. Stephen is a member of the Livingston SDA Church.