by Stephen Ferguson | 14 May 2021 |
There is a dangerous idea held within most corners of Protestant Christianity today, from Seventh-day Adventists to Presbyterians. This idea, in my respectful view, is a major cause underpinning many of our culture-war debates. This dangerous idea is the misconception that God treats everyone and all behaviors equally.
When things are not black-and-white
To be clear, all sin causes spiritual death, requiring God’s grace through Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, not every activity, even if less-than-beneficial to us, is sin. Conversely, not everything that is permitted is ideal. As the Apostle Paul said:
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Cor. 6:13)
As C.S. Lewis likewise observed, rarely do people realize it is not a matter of right or wrong. Rather, it is a messier question of “good, better, and best, or bad, worse and worst.”
For example, it was black-and-white that Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat the forbidden fruit. By contrast, Eve added her own additional rule by telling the serpent she was forbidden to even touch it, when God commanded no such thing (Gen. 2:17 vs Gen. 3:3). While it was certainly not ideal for Adam and Eve to touch the fruit, touching was an ambiguous grey area.
Apart from the greyness of what we do, there can also be some fuzziness about who does something. Contrary to the myth that God treats everyone the same, the Bible actually says God judges some more strictly than others:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (Jam. 3:1)
If you are a Protestant, and that includes if you are a Seventh-day Adventist, I suspect you might struggle with this God-of-grey. If I had to diagnose the cause of this aversion, I think it lies in our historical rejection of the doctrine of “supererogation.”
Supererogation and God’s triple standard
If you have never heard of supererogation, the Oxford Dictionary helpfully defines it as:
“the performance of more work than duty requires. In Roman Catholicism, actions believed to form a reserve fund of merit that can be drawn on by prayer in favor of sinners.”
In layman’s terms, supererogation means “going beyond the call of duty.” The term entered the English language from the Latin Bible’s description of the Good Samaritan, who went super (lit. “beyond”) erograre (lit. “to pay out”) by not only rescuing the wounded man, but paying the innkeeper any extra expenses (Luke 10:35).
Christian philosophers often discuss supererogation within the context of a threefold framework for moral actions:
- Wrongs in breach of our duties: What we might narrowly call “sins” (plural with lower case “s”). On a fundamental level, almost every culture in every time in every place has something akin to the Decalogue’s commandments against murder, adultery, lying or stealing. To paraphrase Paul, there are “natural laws” all humans everywhere recognize as matters of conscience (Rom. 1:20; 2:14-15).
- Supererogatory ideals beyond duties: In a biblical context I think the best example of supererogation is the tax collector Zacchaeus, who paid restitution from those he had stolen in the amount of 400% penalty interest (Luke 19:8). Even though the Torah only required 20% (Num. 5:5-7). Zacchaeus was clearly motivated by genuine remorse to do more than the Law’s minimum. Yet Zacchaeus would not have been sinning if his conscience dictated he pay 200% or just 20%.
- Permissible actions: These are actions that are neither ideals nor wrongs. A good example is the thorny issue of killing in wartime or State-sanctioned executions. Although God told the Children of Israel that “Thou shalt not kill,” He also made them take up arms to kill their enemies (Deut. 20:16-17). We might see any form of warfare as inherently immoral. War as “Sin” (singular with capital “S”), a consequence of that malignant-state pervading a fallen world. Yet we might commend an individual soldier as being righteous for fighting to liberate imprisoned Jews from a Nazi concentration camp, or rescuing captured sex-slaves from an ISIS stronghold.
Supererogation, indulgences and the Protestant Reformation
Weirdly, most of us have probably never heard of supererogation and this threefold framework. However, a number of historic Protestant creeds, including Lutheran (Article XXVII), Anglican-Episcopalian (Article XIV) and Methodist (Article XI), do explicitly mention supererogation only to reject it. Why?
The major Protestant concern with supererogation is the second part of that Oxford Dictionary definition. That is, Catholics taught extra good deeds could be stored up for later and offset future wrongdoing. Like some cosmic savings account.
Catholic supererogation in turn formed the theological basis behind medieval indulgences. Those little pieces of paper where one could buy forgiveness in advance of a sin being committed. Indulgences rightly outraged a German monk named Martin Luther, who set off the whole Protestant Reformation.
Protestant concerns with doing the minimum
Another legitimate Protestant concern with supererogation is that believers might try to get away with doing the bare minimum. In affirming a priesthood of all believers, Protestants want all believers – not just cloistered monastics – to shoot for those higher ethics extolled by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet that equally risks creating a perfectionist soteriology, confusing ideals for duties, wrongly treating everyone in every circumstance the same, and imposing crushing burdens on ordinary people.
An example of this was the Pharisees’ attempt to mandate ritual handwashing on all Jews (Mark 7:1-5). Jesus rightly opposed this as an unbiblical tradition (v 8) not connected with salvation (vs 20-21). Jesus no doubt understood washing one’s hands before eating was hygienically a sensible idea, but it was not salvational. It became bad when the Pharisees made it a universal moral requirement, when the Torah only applied this as ritual practice for Levitical priests connected with Temple worship (Num. 18:20-22).
In trying to address a theological abuse, we Protestants have fallen into a trap of erroneously seeing every biblical issue in overly binary terms. If you are still a little confused two further examples might help.
#1. Marriage (including celibacy, adultery, concubines and polygamy)
In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, like many Christian communities, we explicitly promote life-long and monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. However, even if we were to say monogamous-heterosexual marriage was ideal, Jesus and Paul both make clear celibacy is a greater ideal.
Far from the horrid way we sometimes treat Adventist singles as social lepers, those who don’t marry may be living a better way (Matt. 19:10; 1 Cor. 7:8). Some of you may try to argue with me. But to the question “is it better not to marry,” Jesus was clear in replying, “The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matt. 19:12).
Nevertheless, while celibacy was an ideal there is no sin in getting married. Paul likewise promoted celibacy, but went on to explain that those who feel the need to marry should marry, and there is no sin in doing so (1 Cor. 7:9).
At the other end of the spectrum, in the clear category of “wrong,” is adultery. I think we would all understand, believer and non-believer alike, that an extra-marital affair is immoral.
We all know it was wrong for Charles and Camilla to have a relationship while Charles was still married to Diana, or for David to sleep with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Weirdly, I find it is often religious people who try to excuse such conduct.
Outside these boundary-marks of “ideals” and “wrongs” there is a host of “permissible” marriage-like relationships. For example, the Bible accepts, on some level, everything ranging from concubines (what we today might consider de facto relationships) to Levirate marriage (which entailed having sex with a dead brother’s wife).
I likewise think many questions about LGBTQI relationships are ambiguous. Therefore, my strong advice is to avoid rushing to judgment.
Perhaps the best example of a hard-to-define issue is polygamy (a man having more than one wife). Is polygamy a sin? Even if less-than-ideal, the Old Testament patriarchs practiced it seemingly with God’s blessing.
Moreover, the Law actually condemns some kinds of polygamy, such as marrying two sisters at the same time (Lev. 18:18), a practice also prohibited for Gentiles (Lev. 18:26). Nevertheless, forbidding only certain types of polygamy makes no sense if all types of polygamy were sinful.
Even into the New Testament period, Paul instructs elders and deacons to be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6). The implication, being, some congregants did not have just one wife. Otherwise, Paul would have just directed his command towards all believers, not just church leaders.
The Bible illustrates sex and marriage is a bit complicated. Okay, very complicated. Certainly more complicated than the Victorian platitudes or homophobic abstinence lessons many of us grew up hearing in from church pulpits or in Adventist education.
#2. Food (including ethical slaughter and vegetarianism)
Another good example of this triple moral framework is food. There is a strong case that the supererogatory ideal, grounded upon our original pre-Fall diet and post-Advent future, is vegetarianism – if not veganism. Such a diet is better for us, better for animals and better for the environment. I am proud we Adventists were promoting vegetarianism before it became the fashion of hipster Hollywood celebrities.
On the other end of the spectrum as a wrong is eating animals slaughtered inhumanely, such as by strangulation. Both the OT and NT prohibit Gentiles (not just Jews) from cruel butchering (Lev. 17:10-16; Acts 15:19-21).
In the permissible middle is eating animals slaughtered ethically. There is also some uncertainty about the issue of clean versus unclean animals, although a case can be made that the Bible’s clean animals broadly correspond to herbivores and domesticated animals bred specifically for consumption. Yet I find it odd some vegetarian Adventists will have no qualms about eating caged eggs from battery hens.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that eating meat isn’t necessarily a sin, and being vegetarianism isn’t compulsory. Like celibacy, this is another issue I routinely find Adventists want to argue about. But the Bible seems clear. Jesus ate meat in His resurrected form (Luke 24:41-43). Paul also couldn’t be stronger when he notes it was only overly sensitive believers “with a sensitive conscience [who] will eat only vegetables” (Rom. 14:2).
Vegetarianism is only a supererogation ideal.
So will only celibate vegetarians go to heaven?
I hope I have convinced you only a religious fanatic would think heaven is limited to celibate vegetarians. With some prescience, the Apostle Paul foresaw such a teaching as an end-time heresy (1 Tim. 4:1-4).
Does that mean celibacy and vegetarian are bad? Of course not. If celibacy and vegetarianism can work for you, then you should be praised for embracing them.
Please just don’t treat your marital status, your vegetarianism, or any other lifestyle as some sort of superiority complex to lord over the rest of us. And please don’t treat it as a modern-day indulgence, thinking these commendable behaviors are a reservoir of holiness that allows you to act like a nasty, pompous jerk.
Recognize there is nuance here. We are at different stages of a spiritual journey. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Harper Collins Pub., 1952), 108
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.