Last week, I suggested that people who are going to church to find a basis for ethics are often disappointed when they find churches do not agree on fundamental laws. In fact, the seekers often believe some of the laws they hear are immoral. The churches seem to reflect the many different stories in a democratic society. Because I received such interesting responses, I would like to expand my points in the next few weeks.
When decades ago I was asked by my synod to do an in-depth study of Pentecostals, I was surprised to find an ironic characteristic. Although they taught that Christians needed a personal relationship with Jesus, even claiming they spoke directly with him, they continually reduced everything to very impersonal teachings. Sometimes Pentecostal preachers would become very academic, claiming God responded to prayers only when you used proper names they found in the Old Testament.
Sometimes, Pentecostals described their personal relationships as laws of creation. Some of last week’s respondents referred to Joel Osteen. At first, Osteen’s message seems very personal, but then you find it reduces Christianity to automated laws leading to personal success. He is fond of defining faith as expectation, claiming expectation gets God’s attention. He and others condition God’s action on very specific behaviors, saying for instance God can not open his hand unless we open ours. Perhaps the worst is Kenneth Copeland’s explanation for his father remaining poor even though he tithed. He maintains his father did not know the techniques for drawing from his bank account in heaven.
Perhaps another irony is the claim that this is biblical teaching, pointing to the Mosaic covenant that says we shall be blessed if we follow the law. They make this an automatic, mechanical transaction while the biblical setting is a personal relationship in which the blessing is based on God’s promise. There is nothing automatic about this. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, God changes his mind. And sometimes, people, such as Abraham (Genesis 18: 17-33) and Moses (Exodus 32: 7- 14) support this by arguing that God should be more compassionate.
A more dangerous problem in basing our faith on laws of creation is that it ignores the new covenant Jesus establishes. Grace is based on blessings God gives freely, not on what we do. John had it right when he included only one law in his whole gospel, love your neighbor. Paul had it right when he described love as based on personal relationships rather than laws.
In addition, the biblical teaching is never confined to an individual and God. It always deals with a relationship that includes God, me and others. Jesus’ law always includes love of God and love of our neighbors. At least in our day, the laws of creation are presented as individuals getting what they want.
Having said all this we are left with questions such as 1) Does our concept of God allow for God’s change? 2) Does our concept of love allow for adjustment to meet the needs of different situations? And 3) Are there any laws of creation that apply everywhere at all times?