On the Fatal Flaw of Christian Arguments for Non-violence

In his blog post on non-violence Preston Sprinkle ends with the following great statement. A statement which, while excellent, also reveals the fatal flaw of his argument for non-violence.

Faithfulness, folks. Jesus calls us to faithfulness, not perceived effectiveness. When I face my Savior, I want him to know that I tried my hardest to live a faithful life which sought to replicate his own life on earth.

I read that paragraph and wanted to cheer, because it confronts the pagan philosophy of pragmatism with a biblical call to the pursuit of principled action.

“A person who is a Christian is called of God to live by biblical principles.” – R.C. Sproul

The problem with Sprinkle’s quote is in the last phrase, “…which sought to replicate his own life on earth” (emphasis mine). You see, we need to imitate Christ, indeed we are commanded to do so in Ephesians 5:1, but we are not to imitate just his life on earth, which was an example of applying the character of God in a specific time, place and culture, but to imitate His character as understood by the demonstration of that character across the pages of Scripture: from Genesis to Revelation.

All Christian arguments for non-violence that I am familiar with rest upon seeing a dichotomy between the actions of God in the Old Testament and the words and actions of Jesus in the New Testament. The problem is that Jesus was God-incarnate, and there will be no disparity between His character as displayed in the Old Testament and His character as displayed in the New Testament. Any attempt to interpret Scripture in a manner that does not maintain the general continuity of the Old and New Testaments is fatally flawed because the character of God is immutable (as the entire Church throughout all of history has everywhere and always maintained).

This is another post, but I believe in the necessity of a general continuity with a specific discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, or between Judaism and Christianity. In other words, while proper interpretation requires a general continuity, there is a specific discontinuity which sent the 12 Apostles across the world and to their deaths in the grip of this newly revealed and life-altering truth of the Mystery of the Gospel and the Name of Messiah.

Religion or Relationship?

Many today attack religion thinking Christianity is a relationship, and it certainly is! But this is like saying government is bad because our government is bad, but government is a gift of God. The same is true of religion. To say, “Jesus trumps religion,” uses the word “religion” differently than does the New Testament. All other religions disappoint because they are idolatrous and twist the worshipper into the shape of the created rather than the Creator.

James 1:26-27 mentions both vain and true religion. We ought to oppose vain religion, and embrace true religion. Only the life-encompassing pattern of worship prescribed by God will fulfill.

The religion vs. relationship choice, just as the love vs. law choice, is false because all relationships require structure. True religion is the prescribed form of a relationship with God, and an essential part of His plan for the transformation of sin-sickened souls. True religion is not self-defined, but follows a pattern outlined by Scripture.

Imagine, for example, attempting to sustain your marriage without submitting to its form(s). “Honey, it’s okay that I’m going out to dinner with this other lady, because I don’t actually have a relationship with her; it’s you I love.” Well, you won’t have a relationship for long! It’s the same way with God. “God, I’m going to approach you with yoga and marijuana; I’m sure you’ll be okay with it, because it’s still you I’m pursuing.” Sorry, that’s the ways and means of idolatrous worship.

The habits of a religion reveal and affirm what we believe and whom we serve. It is “the binding tendency in every man to dedicate himself with his whole heart to the true God or an idol” (F. Nigel Lee). Religion inaugurates, declares, represents, and rehearses covenantal bonds. We submit to or cooperate with the terms of a religion in our way of life—consciously or unconsciously—because we cannot escape having been made in the image of God: created to worship and serve. We will therefore, either worship God according to the pattern of His character, or worship any number of alternatives (including ourselves) according to the pattern of their emphases.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religare which means “to bind” or “to tie.” The root of the word is lig-, from which we get our words “ligament” and “ligature.” Though light and easy there is a yoke for Christ followers: a binding tie which serves to guide us. There is a reason we are servants; we are not free but a doulos (bondservant). We are not our own; we were bought with a price.

The relationship we have with Christ is founded upon a covenantal/judicial word-act (not incidentally compared to marriage in Eph 5:31-32), and as a covenant it comes with terms. Terms we cannot satisfy on our own, therefore they were satisfied for us, in order that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Assuredly, Christianity is a relationship with Christ. But there is no relationship with Christ outside of his covenant promises and action. A covenant is, by definition, a relationship established upon certain bonds, and each covenantal relationship has behaviors that are required for participants. Our covenant with God depends upon His faithfulness alone, but our covenantal obligations are in no way thus diminished. We now pursue them with freedom rather than condemnation, but our release from condemnation does not remove the goodness of the way prescribed by our Suzerain (see http://www.fivesolas.com/suzerain.htm).

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” indicates that in the worship of Jesus one gets true religion: a container for your worship, attitudes, thoughts, and practices that will produce blessing if it is followed and cursing if it is thwarted. Even though it is good for image-bearers to follow this religion, they cannot thus earn their salvation. However, on the other side of having been justified, the religion of the Jesus Way (described from Genesis to Revelation) is a good and perfect gift that we embrace to our benefit, and as a necessary part of the abundant life God has designed and described. Grace is opposed to earning but not to effort and the variety of efforts God prescribes to us as containing life is true religion: the only one that will satisfy.

There are only two religions: Christianity or Paganism. Paganism comes in many forms, but they all boil down to a rejection of the Sovereign Authority of God and a rejection of His religion: a covenantal tie to Him that acknowledges His all-encompassing Rule, and enjoins upon us a way of relating to and serving Him. To reject religion as bad is to deny one of God’s gifts, and to inescapably embrace a syncretistic blend of His way and our preferences: a new gnosticism which inevitably devolves into idolatry.

Singing within Worship

In a recent conversation about Colossians 2:16-17 I used an illustration of how to properly understand the passage that brought to mind another topic: worship and singing within it.

I cannot over emphasize the effectiveness and importance of spreading the singing portion of corporate worship across the worship service, rather than 4 – 6 songs blocked together. This is not to say that a large block of songs is never appropriate; there are times when it is very much so—celebrations come to mind. Spread throughout the worship gathering, however, songs take on a context and significance that is immediate and evident, while it is almost impossible for them to carry a similar import when used together in a single set.

Furthermore, human nature is far more capable of lending kavannah (the intentional directing of one’s heart) to a single song, and then to something different, back to a song, etc. then to a large mass of songs. When used as a long set, the singing almost irresistibly becomes the pursuit of an emotion rather than an aid to uniting one’s mind/body/spirit on a truth. Similarly, in a culture of constant concerts it is difficult to resist becoming a consumer rather than an offerer when music is used as a single, lengthy set in an environment so reminiscent of a concert rather than of the Temple.

Music by its nature connects the mind with the emotions, and especially in our culture where music is so ubiquitous and over-utilized, it is enormously healthy to add the context of place, purpose and content to the musical offerings within the arc of a worship service.

P.S.

Here is the illustration I used regarding understanding Colossians 2:16-17.

… imagine if I wrote a letter to churches today saying, “let no one judge you in regard to worship.” It would be obvious from our context (and from biblical instruction) that I was referring to worship styles, and was not saying, “don’t let anyone judge you if you decide not to practice worship.” The idea is preposterous, and the misreading of Col 2:16-17 should be equally preposterous to us if we simply read it in the context of history and Scripture.

Considering Tassels

Abstract: Wearing culturally-developed tzitzit on one’s belt loops is a valid manner of honoring the command of Num. 15:38 and Deut. 22:12, but is not a literal fulfillment of the commandment. All things considered, for Gentile believers it is likely not the most well-advised manner of honoring this instruction. Additional reflection may yield a more advantageous and multiple-commandment-balancing approach.
 

Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.” Numbers 15:38

You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself” Deuteronomy 22:12

The command regarding tassels ought to instruct all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile. The question of how it ought to instruct may depend upon on one’s ethnicity, time or place.

I would assert, for example, that a Jewish man (or woman, potentially) wearing a tallit kitan or using a tallit gadol with tzitzit attached is a valid keeping of this command, and that a Gentile doing so may be a valid keeping of this command.

I would also posit that a Gentile wearing culturally-developed tzitzit on one’s belt loops is a valid manner of honoring the command, but not a literal fulfillment (or keeping). All things considered, I would also suggest it is likely not the most well-advised manner of honoring this instruction due to reasons of potential misunderstanding, misapplication, and offense.

Nevertheless, we see from the text that God considered it important for His people and we might observe that the principle behind this case law related to: remembrance, identity, and witness. Furthermore, that the keeping of the command assisted the Israelites in the practice of walking in godliness, and promoted a sense of belonging and community. Could anyone argue that today’s Gentile believers don’t also need this?! Additional reflection may yield a more advantageous and multiple-commandment-balancing approach to honoring this instruction.

I am, therefore, seeking an application of the command regarding tassels that is: 1) consistent with God’s original intent, 2) consistent with the significance of the command in the milieu of the original implementation, 3) inoffensive to as many parties as possible, 4) consistent with a professional image (be in the world but not of the world), and 5) feasible for wide-scale adoption across the people of God in the United States (our milieu).

Historically speaking, it is of great interest to note that at the time when God gave this commandment, everyone in the ANE (Ancient Near East) wore tassels on their garments—Israelite and non-Israelite. The fringe functioned as one’s signature (pressing the fringe into clay in the same manner as signet rings came to be used), as a sign of your prestige, and were a method of identification or sign of belonging (to a class, family, or tribe). The Israelites’ fringes were to be a distinctive application of a normative cultural expectation.

If one were to argue that wearing tassels on one’s belt loops is a direct fulfillment of the command and that this is necessary, I would ask, “Where is the parapet around your roof?” (Deuteronomy 22:8)
 
Similarly, wrapping teffilin is a valid method of honoring, or helpful symbolic application in the interest of keeping the commands of Deut. 6:8; 11:18, but it does not—in and of itself—fulfill the commandment. How can we prove this? Because we are also told in the same language that the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the redemption of the first born “shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes” (Ex 13:9, 16).
 
In my personal edition of the Morning Prayers I attempted to capture the heart of these commands in the following manner: “Today, Father, may your words be always in front of my eyes; may my hands be engaged in the practice of your commands.” There is a wide variety of ways in which to keep this injunction; observing Unleavened Bread is among them, and the phrasing of the commandment to let this observance be a sign on your hand and memorial between your eyes speaks more to observing the festival with intention than with a physical practice of writing the date of Unleavened Bread on our hand or something similar.
 
So long as one recognizes that wrapping tefillin is not the actual keeping of the commandment, it remains a helpful spiritual discipline, but once one begins to think that in the practice of wrapping tefillin you have satisfied the intent of the commandment, problems develop.
 
Given that 1) specifically knotted tzitzit have become an ethnic identity marker for the Jewish people, 2) that unless I wear a cornered garment I cannot literally fulfill this commandment anyway, and 3) that the commandment was given in the context of a distinctive application of a cultural norm, I think it is beyond well-advised to practice the command in a manner that does not potentially lay a stumbling block in the path of my brother the Jew (saved or unsaved: one thinks of the reaction of UMJC types to Gentiles wearing tzitzit in general and specifically to wearing them on the belt loops) or the misinformed Gentile Christian, who perceives it as coming back under the law.
 
For the last couple of years I have worn a blue and white bracelet as my manner of honoring the tzitzit (and tefillin) command. I am not entirely satisfied (theologically nor practically) with a tzitzit bracelet, but it was a healthy step in the right direction (in response to having become a stumbling block to my Synagogue President neighbor, even though wearing tzitzit “properly” on a tallit kitan).
 
I am entertaining ideas like embroidering 3 white and one blue line on the sleeves of my shirts, or attaching a fringe that is clearly different from the traditional Jewish tying of the tzitzit to the corners created by the vents of a camp-style shirt. I don’t always wear un-tucked, vented shirts, however, so I lean toward the embroidery idea, as this is non-offensive and within the bounds of normative cultural expectation (one thinks of logos on shirt sleeves) that is nevertheless distinctive.
 
Imagine if every man in our congregations wore shirts with the “tzitzit logo” on the edges/wings (canaphim, c.f. Malachi 4:2 & Numbers 15:38) of their sleeves! Think of the identity-lending power, and the community-belonging power of this! Invest that practice with the significance of fulfilling Deut. 6:8 and one is keeping the commandment in a way that is faithful to God’s intent while also conscious of the commands, “You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the LORD” (Lev 19:14), and “Build up, build up, prepare the way, Remove every obstacle out of the way of My people” (Is 57:14).
 
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this sleeve logo idea is probably the application most consistent with the spirit of the command regarding tzitzit. Think about it: our culture is familiar with all football jerseys being the same and yet having distinct identification markings, both in color and logo. Logos have become ubiquitous on a variety of culturally normative clothing styles. To put a distinct arrangement of white and blue threads on the sleeves of a shirt (sleeves being the closest thing to “wings/corners” we have on contemporary clothing) references a familiarity with the most recently common observance of the command (rabbinically defined tzitzit), honors the commandment, offends no one, and yet retains the reminding, identifying, community-building power of the original command in its Bronze Age context.
 
How shall today’s believing Laplander apply this command? I don’t know, but they ought to be asking that question. And the eventual result will be a culturally diverse, yet commandment-honoring keeping of God’s law that testifies both to the “house of prayer for all nations” reality of God’s people, but also to the coalescing power and identity-giving nature of being “imitators of God therefore like dearly beloved children.”
 
P.S. It occurs to me that I have elsewhere expressed some of what undergirds the above in a very succinct manner:

If love emphasizes people and law emphasizes principle, without the dynamic interplay of both aspects of God’s character, we get an unhealthy (i.e., sinful) imbalance. Therefore, if it is lawful, “so far as it depends on you,” to “live peaceably with all,” then it seems it would be loving to use language [or halacha] that puts, “no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”

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Background on fringes as normative ANE dress:
  • “… The tassels, according to ancient Near East parallels, were threads of the embroidery and could be decorated with a flower head or bell. The more ornate the hem, the greater the social status and wealth of a person (Milgrom 1983: 61–65).” from Douglas R. Edwards, “Dress and Ornamentation,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 233.
  • “fringes (tassels, borders, hems), a common decoration on Near Eastern garments.” from Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 323.
  • “Fringes,” in J. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 68-70.
  • Stephen Bertman, “Tassled Garments in the Ancient East Mediterranean”, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1961), pp. 119-128.
  • http://rzim.org/a-slice-of-infinity/from-the-fringes
  • J. Milgrom, “Of hems and tassels: Rank, authority and holiness were expressed in antiquity by fringes on garments,” Biblical Archaeology Review, v. IX, # 3, May/June 1983, pp. 61-65.
  • J. Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary, Volume 4 – NUMBERS, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1989 – 1996, p. 410-412
  • W. Gunther Plaut, et al. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. N.Y., Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, p. 1123