Sundry Thoughts (largely on the Bible’s Ethical Teaching) in Response to my Cousin

This post is a response to a lengthy comment left by my cousin on my previous post. I’m afraid it may not make much sense, unless you read his comments. But it was just too long to include among the comments for that other post. 🙂

KC’s Response:
The section of my “Cornelius” post to which you have pointed is something of an intentional weak spot in the over all argument. I had sort of hoped that my young friend would notice it and bring up points like yours.

First of all, I do not mean to say that all soldiers everywhere are guilty of the sorts of things that John seems to know of the soldiers he addressed. (Yet it might be profitable to explore the extent to which soldiering through the centuries has coincided with such abuses of people. The crusades certainly come to mind as do some of the alleged abuses by some US soldiers in Viet Nam.)

A full treatment of the Luke 3 passage was neither what I meant to do nor what I have time for now. My point in bringing it up was to say that I thought it a better place for my friend’s question than the Cornelius story. But since I did bring it up, I thought I should offer at least a preliminary answer to the question.

Thinking about it a bit further, the question of the identity of the soldiers comes more sharply into focus. Who are these guys? I took a quick look at a couple of commentaries on Luke that I have here at home.
S. MacLean Gilmour says:

“The Romans farmed out the right to collect various taxes in Palestine to petty Jewish contractors. The tax collectors of the gospels were their deputies. They were heartily disliked and despised by their countrymen, partly because Roman taxes were regarded as an unwarranted imposition by a foreign overlord, and partly because the method of collecting the levies lent itself to extortion all down the line. Jews were not enrolled in Roman legions, but presumably native soldiers could be recruited by Herod Antipas for his own personal service. No doubt they were often able to supplement their wages by intimidating civilians.”

And Leon Morris has this to say:

“Luke does not say whether the soldiers were Jewish or Roman. Most agree that they were probably Jewish and some think they may have been associated with the tax collectors in providing the backing which enabled them to do their work. Either way they were in a privileged position over against the general public. Citizens could have little redress when troops used violence or false charges to rob them…. John told the soldiers not to presume on their position but ‘be content with your wages,’ an injunction with wide application. Note that John does not call either group to leave their jobs. Rather he wants them to act uprightly in them.”

These scholars more or less confirm my understanding of the text. The tax collectors are the slimy extortionists who work for Rome, and the soldiers most likely are local thugs in uniform who just may be the muscle who enforce the whole program by breaking people’s thumbs, etc.

My suggestion—which admittedly goes beyond the clear wording of the text—merely posits that John may have known that he was removing nine tenths of the motivation for their career choice by insisting on above board ethics. I did not mean this to be an argument against military service by Christians in America today.

One must use caution in making suggestions about trajectories of meaning which go beyond the text of Scripture; but that does not mean we should not do so. I would say we need to understand and communicate to others that that is, in fact what we are doing. “Leading the reader to infer a conclusion that is not stated” is exactly what the Scripture intends to do much of the time. This is a big part of biblical exegesis. Without it, we would not have a theology of the Trinity, for example.

You say, “It is without question that John did bless the act of tax collecting by issuing the guidelines…” I disagree. This is the whole point of what I’m saying here. I think there is great cause to question just exactly what John (and Jesus and the apostles after him) was doing in his seeming “approval” of such practices.

I think we are asking less than the best question when we begin our ethical thinking about vocation like this: “Is it okay for a Christian to do_______________?” That is, at best, a backhanded way to approach the subject. But for the moment, let us take that tack.

Is it “okay” for a Christian to be a lawyer? Not if it means working for injustice (e.g. getting a guilty client off). Can a Christian be a salesman? Not if it means tricking people into making poor choices with their money. And so on and so on. What is important to realize here is that many Christians have been in careers which, on the surface, would seem to be well within the realm of “okay,” but have found that as they really pursue the Lord Jesus and His kingdom, they have had to leave those careers.

My Dad, at one point in the early 90s, used to sell high-end vacuums. But he struggled with the idea that, to do well, he had to finagle young couples with low incomes into buying a $500 machine when a $50 Hoover from K-Mart would have sufficed. I believe this played a significant role in the fact that he ultimately did not “succeed” in that job. My brother sold used cars for a while and angered practically everyone he worked with, because he would not pull any of the slick garbage that their bottom line depended on. Again, ultimately, he was to find himself leaving that work and feeling a great sense of moral relief when he did. Can a Christian sell expensive vacuums or used cars? Is that “okay”? Of course! After all, the New Testament is “silent” on the subject. But then again…

It is, as you put it regarding the issue of slave-holding, “within our judgment” to do it or “to abstain from the act as well.” Do you think that that means that God is really indifferent to the matter? Is He just curious to see what we’ll do given the freedom to choose, without any concern that we actually make the right choice? I would be inclined to say something very much like that about a myriad little decisions in our day-to-day lives. But slavery, polygamy, tax-collecting, military service, and other career choices are not such ethically neutral decisions.

If “biblical principles” (very problematic language in itself) had been used in the American practice of slavery, it is doubtful that the institution would have survived a single year, let alone a century and a half. But even better–never mind biblical “principles;” follow the line of biblical teaching, and there is no question that enslavement of a fellow human being is out of the question. In fact, so is any kind of social oppression, ranging from Jim Crow laws to unspoken but widely practiced means of keeping “those people” from advancing in society.

Finally, in response to the last part of your response: I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood what I was saying about the choice of Cornelius. I did not see it as “a strategic evangelistic move.” I was suggesting that it was not that. Nor was my comment about “the mighty Roman Empire” meant to convey what you seem to think it was conveying. I was merely suggesting God’s choice of a Roman officer might be His way of laughing at the “importance” of the world’s high and mighty.

The point is not that the empire would, as you put it, “be over run by the gospel of peace,” but that it would be invaded by it. God has no interest in claiming the Roman Empire for Himself in the sense of making use of its power and prestige. (That kind of thinking was the mistake that the church made about three centuries later in the age of Constantine.) God’s kingdom does not work that way. It will, instead, subvert the empire with the likes of the poor and widows and orphans. And using a simple country fisherman to convert a high level Roman officer is a way to begin.

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9 thoughts on “Sundry Thoughts (largely on the Bible’s Ethical Teaching) in Response to my Cousin

  1. I have a difficult time grouping military service with slavery, polygamy, or unethical professions. The culture of our country definitely glorifies the profession of arms, but that is a historical trend we have seen since the creation man. I will be the first to admit that I have been influenced by this, but I also believe it is a more complicated issue. It seems to me that what really matters in the instances we see in the Bible is the heart. Jesus calls us to be like himself, and at face value that makes soldiering look out of the question. But if you look at the heart of an honorable soldier, I think you find many of the qualities that Christ calls us to have, and it is no coincidence that there are analogies throughout the Bible comparing the christian walk with soldiering.

    As far as christians in the military, soldiers live a very unique and removed life from the rest of society. Their life experiences and perspective are radically different than the average joe on mainstreet. Their understanding of life, and its fragility make their hearts fertile ground for the gospel and the love of Jesus Christ. I would say that I admire the “soldier’s heart”, not the violence they commit or are subject to. I also cannot help but encourage and pray for them, because what mighty warriors for the LORD they could be.

    • Very good points, Zach!

      I understand that you and my good friend Pete and other friends of mine who have served or are serving in the armed forces have a closer look than I can have at the real life of a soldier. Along with what I said in my previous post about loving and respecting you, I should also add that I recognize the validity of your 1st-hand perspective.

      You know, it’s funny… You and my friends Pete (inactive Marine) and Will (Army, currently in Afghanistan) are military men, but you show such an admirable ability to listen carefully, consider humbly, reflect deeply and discuss openly on this issue. The more negative energy seems to come from those who have not served but think I’m crazy–or at least mistaken–in believing in Christian non-violence. 😉

      I did not mean to say that military service is exactly the same as polygamy or slavery. The point, of course, was merely to show that the Scriptures can lead us to be for or against something without having to put the matter in clear, black and white terms.

      But this makes me realize once again the great potential for misunderstanding that goes with such discussions as this. That’s why I want to keep being careful to affirm the man you are and my high regard for you.

      Your reminder about the heart being what matters is a very welcome and needed one. Thank you. Though I have reached the conclusion that our Lord calls us to follow Him in peace, I know quite well that there is still MUCH I have to learn about this and practically every other issue in life. And I consider you and others like you to be invaluable aids to help me, not only understand better, but also become a better man.

      I too pray for those who are in the armed forces, though I confess I do not do so as much as I should. But I have prayed for you every day since last Thursday and will continue to keep you always in my heart and my prayers.

      Shalom, my brother! 🙂

  2. Casey,

    I understand your point. I am realitively sure that not all soldiers or tax collectors were corupt back then. I do see where the pontential to be so causes a problem. Do you think Mathew was one of those Tax Collectors abusing his authority? Also not all soldiers back then had a choice or not in wether to be so. That was a way for some people to gain citizenship in Rome to avoid the persecution of that empire. I concur with you on we need to be careful about the choices we make for professions. I see slavery as wrong period. Polygamy is just a headache I never would want to deal with ;).

    On the non-violence thing: I would consider Jesus throwing the tables in the temple when they were selling wares there to be a violent act and a righteous one. Jesus also said what man would not defend his house against a robber. I just see that there are reasons to protect by violence if nessesary and that is never a black and white issue for me. I would not let someone harm one of your little ones if I could prevent it even through violence if need be. So in that case I would be doing a wrongful act out of Love. I would hope and pray that the Lord would forgive me and I know he would know the reasons in my heart. The problem here goes how far is to far and I read that on one of the post on here earlier.

    I am thankful to you for stimulating these thoughts for me. I hope that I gain growth through them. I love ya Bro!

  3. Hello Brothers,
    I must say that this is a discussion that I do find enticing. Thank you. First, and foremost Zach you took the words right out of my mouth! It is very pleasing to hear a young soldier like yourself following Christ Jesus above all, and serving as a soldier. I too was frustrated with the comparisons made previously. Many soldiers from my time in service were peace loving men above all else. In short, you are lucidly correct. God looks on the heart and sees Cornelius doing his work in the corrupt Roman army. Not every one can be a teacher or pastor. In my estimation Zach has cut to the chase, and cleared the air for all of us. If any body has an argument that shows Zach to be mistaken, or misguided-let it be told! If we are not to be soldiering, then by the same “logic” we need to also dismantle the police force immediately to be adherent to scripture.
    ~Tim

    • Silly Timmy… 😉
      Look again at your last sentence and note the leap from A to Z without touching anything from B to Y. I agree that there are some definite “logic” problems afoot. 😉
      Who said anything about dismantling anything? And who is the “we” who would “need” to do this dismantling? Certainly not Christians! We are called to live in due subordination to the civil authorities, including both the military and the police. While the subordination that Paul teaches in Romans 13 is not the same thing as blind obedience–or even silent or spoken approval–it obviously precludes any attempt to “dismantle” such things.
      Love you, man! 🙂

  4. Thanks Brother Pete, and Todd for your thoughtful comments as well. Your last post Pete was very good. A band of brothers for good, for the glory of God in our Lord Jesus’ name. Thanks.

  5. Of course! That is obvious to me. What is not obvious is my lack of time to put into my response. I am sure this void would not appear to be there if I was on the phone or in person. As Zach might say, it is obvious that we are placed in positions by our Lord, and it is our obligation to obey Him, and carry out His will with a joyful heart unless of course we are disobeying scripture in job expectations or duties. Example: being a salesman who lies about his product attributes to increase his sales production. If the love of our Lord Jesus is perfectly pre-dominant in all that we do then we would perform all jobs and things pleasing to the Lord. Of course we do not. It is arrogant for us to presume that we know the state of a given soldiers heart, and wether or not his life is honoring to God. We can discuss it with love in our hearts for that individual, but his life belongs to the Ultimate Judge. Now it is clear that soldiering or some thing may not be for you, and with your God given freedom of conscience you can choose only to serve as a professor or teacher, you are accountable to God. In Paul’s writings we see an accountability to our brothers in the example to eat or not to eat meat given to idols. What might be okay for one man may not be okay for another where scripture leaves out the commandment. God judges the heart is clear in summation.

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