How would we know how to be obedient if there were no doctrine? In researching this question in the Bible, I was surprised to discover that the New Testament has more to say about obedience than the Old. Paul was particularly prolific on the topic, but his focus was on obedience to faith.
Here are some examples from Scripture:
Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart,… (1 Peter 1:22)
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; … (Romans 16:25-27)
For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)
Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)
In our discussions of such topics, we often tend to focus on ideal solutions rather than practical solutions. For instance, we all agree (a) that we are required to try to emulate God, and (b) that God is a God of eternal love and grace. But on a day-to-day basis, where the rubber meets the road, we know we are incapable of maintaining obedience to this requirement. In our ideal (pre-Fall) state we might have been capable, but not in our Fallen state. Nevertheless, in our Fallen state we seem to need even more structure, more order, around us.
The earliest known legal code was the Code of the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu, written in 2050 BC. One of its 32 surviving rules established a 10-shekel fine for cutting off a person’s foot.
Without such laws, we seem incapable of maintaining order in society. But is it enough? The Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:20) followed all the rules of his day but Jesus told him it was not enough to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. For that, he had to give all his worldly wealth to the poor. It seems that obedience to the law is necessary for the functioning of society, but is not enough for entry to the kingdom of heaven. How do we reconcile obedience to law (doctrine) that is shaped by culture with obedience to the divine law of God?
Donald: Society was once close knit. It grew from family, to clan, to tribe, to nation, to the Internet-enabled global village. We reach internal agreement on our doctrines so that we can lead settled lives. But then, we seek to impose our doctrines on others. This is humanly driven, not divinely driven, but we often claim divine authority. It was not a problem when it was all internal, but when we seek to expand through evangelism, problems arise.
David: The Code of Ur-Nammu must have existed in someone’s head before it was written down. Pre-writing oral cultures still had to have rules to keep their societies in order. Ants have them. Law/doctrine is established for good order within a community, a church, a nation, an ants’ nest; not for good order within the heart of the individual. It seems to me that individual, internal, divinely inspired self rule was what Jesus was getting at when He told the adulteress He saved from stoning to “go and sin no more.” He did not say “go and obey the law.” That’s what a Pharisee would have said. Jesus knew that she knew what was right and what was wrong, without needing a law to tell her.
It is also what He was getting at when He told the rich young ruler that just obeying the law was not enough. The young man was saddened, but did not seem surprised, at the instruction to give his all to the poor. He was not surprised because he already knew it; he was saddened because he knew he couldn’t do it. We all have a conscience, an inner light that tells us what we ought to do. We suppress or ignore it to varying degrees, but we know that it is there.
Jay: Do the law and conscience overlap? How do we know what is divinely driven, and how can we agree on it? It seems that one is based upon the other. Rules of society seem generally to be for the peace and safety of others.
Donald: Bible college provides answers. University provides questions. We seem to be talking about something that sits on the border between them. Is my conscience the same as somebody else’s half-way around the world—someone whose cultural context is completely different?
Jay: Our typical programming in conscience is that it is not culturally dependent—that it might be divine in origin, it might be the Holy Spirit, the inner light.
Donald: Notions such as property rights can be completely different in different cultures. My conscience tells me I am stealing if I take someone’s property without asking, but it will not feel like stealing to a person in a culture that views property as communal.
KB: It seems that Jesus expected the adulteress to know how to behave. He did not have to spell it out for her. Our Creator put this knowledge into us. We are born with it, regardless of what culture and religion we are born into. But there is overlap. Societies with or without a religion all made laws and demanded obedience. God is patient. He planted the seed of obedience in all of us, but He does not force it to grow. He waits for us to accept and nurture it. We produce so many excuses for not doing so. There should be overlap. It should be easy—it should come natural to us since we are born with and God expects us to do what is natural to us.
Mikiko: Today, many people listen only to their intellect. But Scripture says:
Jesus, in turn, answered them and said: “What I teach is not mine, but belongs to him who sent me. If anyone desires to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or I speak of my own originality.” (John 7:16-17; New World Translation)
In answer Peter and the other apostles said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29; New World Translation)
Many people today think only with their own minds.
David: That Scripture supports the argument that we know what is right and wrong. There is overlap, certainly. It arises because the ability to distinguish right from wrong has been in us since the Fall. Once we developed the cultural artifact of writing, we tried to capture and codify that knowledge in writing. But other cultural artifacts influence what we write and how we write it, so it becomes corrupted.
The Code of Hammurabi is the first known written record of the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you). It must have been in the Babylonian people’s hearts and minds before it was written into the Code. A millennium and a half later, Jesus essentially repeated this, in telling us that the most important rule is to love our neighbor. Two millennia after Jesus, we explicitly acknowledged the supremacy of this over any written law in the Nuremberg Trials, which (in effect, though not in these words) established that the defense of “superior orders” was not acceptable in cases of violation of the Golden Rule. Implicitly, Nuremberg recognized the supremacy of a higher power: The conscience. The overlap exists and is OK until we try to put our written law above the unwritten divine law.
Donald: The problem is in thinking that we know what God wants and then evangelizing. How can we tell other people what God wants? The world’s religions each have their take on what God wants.
David: I am with the majority of scholars who (according to Wikipedia) believe that verses 9–20 in Mark were not part of the original text but were added later. I do not believe that Jesus would ever have said:
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:15-18)
Or, as Matthew has it:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
I believe that the true teachings of Jesus are contained in such stories as the stoning of the adulteress, where His message is personal: “You go and sin no more.” He did not add: “…and tell your sisters not to sin, either” because He knew that her sisters knew it anyway.
Dr. Singh: Jesus appointed preachers, pastors, and elders. He said: “Treat the flock of God and stand firmly in faith.” That is our responsibility. Society may try to convince us that faith is personal and should not influence our political decisions, but it is our responsibility as appointed preachers and elders to speak out.
Jay: The Great Commission calls upon us to go out and baptize everybody—to get people to follow the principles I follow, to think the things I think. To Christians, that does not seem to be a problem, but it may be a problem to those who think very differently.
Robin: God said:
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, … but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6)
…and Jesus said:
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)
It’s easy to be obedient for the big things, but not if someone says something to hurt me. I end up having to pray every day about my disobedience to the little things. We are all different. Some people are more emotional while others are more logical, and that affects obedience. We are at war with ourselves; our emotion sometimes overcoming our logic and making us do things we know we ought not to do.
Donald: We can say things to one another, in this class, that we might not say to (or be willing to hear from) people outside of it, because we have established relationships among ourselves. We have formed a community of mutual respect without needing a thicket of principles to maintain it. But if we leave things to our conscience, I don’t see how it can work, since everybody’s conscience is different.
Jay: It seems that the older we get, the less certain we become about what in youth we thought of as absolutes. We treat “divine” and “truth” and “conscience” as absolutes, which implies that they are a commonality, a universal, among all people. If we could find a Golden Rule we could all live by, then our ephemeral cultural artifacts would not matter. The problem is that we seem to think that we need to compromise in order to achieve commonality.
David: Indeed we compromise when we establish common law. People do differ in conscience, as Jesus taught in the parable of the soil and the seed. Some of us are fertile soil for the Word of God—our inner light—while others are stony and just can’t nurture the seed so well. But the seed is there, and all God wants (!) is that we turn to it. The common law is an OK substitute up to a point, but is not the ultimate authority in life.
Donald: Up to what point?
David: Up to the point where the inner light takes over—if we let it.
Donald: I think most of us would agree that we take the norms of our society to be synonymous with what should be the norms of the world. As the Internet spread knowledge of differing social norms around the entire world, people were shocked at other people’s norms. No wonder we are so divided, when what is normal in one culture is utterly abnormal in another. They are worlds apart.
David: They are worlds apart in terms of their codes of law. They are not worlds apart in terms of loving one another, loving their children, showing mercy at the individual level, and so on. This love is identical in all of us. Our various cultures may have a corrupting influence on love—people kill because a doctrine tells them to.
Donald: Doctrine defines churches.
Jay: We will continue the discussion next week.