by Cecil Hook
Someone has observed that God has not called us to be lawyers, but lovers.
We in the Church of Christ have developed some strange concepts of Christ’s law. We seem to conceive of a system of law half revealed and half concealed in biography, historical accounts, treatises, personal letters, and prophecy. Clues to the laws are scattered through these writings to be discovered, pieced together, and interpreted by studious lawyers of the Word. We must not trust anyone else for this, we are cautioned, though his talents, training, and dedication may be much greater than ours. We must become lawyers ourselves. Lack of literacy or academic training is no excuse.
It is like a child’s puzzle — a maze. If you are astute enough, you can be among the spiritually elite who are able to work their way through the maze. But if you make a wrong turn, which most religious people presumably have done, then you will find yourself in the dead end of eternal punishment. That is the verdict, at least, the lawyers of the Word render as they put on their robes and sit in judgment of all others. The majority of the most learned, sincere, and devoted students of the Word are lost in the interpretive maze, while lots of us simple folk breeze right on through to eternal glory.
Such an approach to interpretation as I have described has been drilled into us for most of this century. How appalling! How sad!
Most of the disciples of Jesus through the centuries did not even have a Bible to study, and they could not have read it if they had owned one. They could not have become lawyers. They had to depend upon the public reading and explanations. Surely, they did not understand it all, and they did not all understand it alike. But this was not necessary unless their justification was dependent upon keeping the details of a legal code. This is where we have made the wrong turn in our maze and have dead-ended short of the goal.
Legalistic interpretation has made our stress on Bible study a farce. The Sunday morning auditorium class is filled with persons who have been “studying” for years and years. Yet they give the most simplistic, and often incorrect, answers, and they still disagree on many of the issues listed in Chapter One.
In this lesson we shall consider three ways that we have gone astray in our approach to interpretation of the message.
The Legal Approach
Let me illustrate our legal approach to interpretation by this description of a disciple of Christ:
A disciple of Christ must be a man of faith and conviction. He must love his wife and children and rear his children in the faith. He must provide for his family. He must pay his debts. He must deal fairly with his employees. He must love his enemies. He must read and study his Bible. He must assemble regularly and lay by in store each week. His speech must be becoming of a disciple, etc.
Other than this being an incomplete description of a disciple of Christ, you probably pick no flaw with anything in the paragraph.
But how wrong can you be! There are one or more flaws in each sentence! A disciple of Christ does not have to be a man; it can be a girl. A wife and children are not necessary; an unmarried person can be a disciple. He does not need a family to provide for to qualify. Neither must he or she have debts, nor pay debts if that person is destitute or disabled. Enemies are unnecessary to qualify. He or she need not be literate or scholarly, or attend services if bedfast, etc. Yet, each of these qualities was listed as a must.
Each sentence contains one or more flaws if you consider the paragraph to be giving lawful specifications. But you understood it properly when you interpreted it as a general description of a disciple. What a difference a legalistic approach to interpretation makes! Legalism misses the general concept and emphasizes the details as arbitrary, escalating them to life-and-death issues. It results in endless controversy and hair-splitting. It is a built-in system for dividing people.
Now, with this in mind, please read Paul’s description of an elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. Do you not see the description in a different light? Now you can see that Paul was only directing the selection of men of spiritual maturity, reputation, and ability to teach and minister to the welfare of the congregation. He is not giving a checklist of legal details.
When a move is made within a congregation to appoint elders, what is the first thing we all look for? We look for men who have two baptized children. In more daring congregations they settle for one child instead of two. Now, think of this: we are in need of men of spiritual maturity, good reputation and ability to teach and lead, and we ask who has a baptized child or two. That’s really good thinking, isn’t it! In numerous cases we have passed over the most qualified men in the church because they were not blessed with a child. The Lord only knows how the church has suffered because of our legalistic hang-up.
Timothy was at Ephesus when Paul wrote describing the kind of men who should be appointed as bishops. If Timothy went ahead and appointed men according to Paul’s qualifications, did he necessarily appoint men with believing children? Certainly not! He had no such instructions from Paul. Paul had written, “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4). Nothing is said about believing children.
You may wish to remind me that Paul stipulated to Titus that “his children are believers” (Titus 1:6). That is true, but Timothy did not have that letter. Evidently, the letters to Timothy and Titus were written about the same time. Timothy was at Ephesus, and Titus was on the island of Crete. Timothy would have no reason to, and could not, call Titus on the phone to compare the descriptions. He could not compile the two descriptions. He had no need to. He was no legalist.
The two descriptions are not synoptic like the biographies of Jesus; neither were the lists lawful specifications, else both lists would necessarily be identical. Try matching the details in two columns side by side and see how diverse they are. Yet Timothy and Titus could recognize the general kind of person that Paul was characterizing.
Surely, if a man had children who were disobedient or rebellious, that would disqualify him. Because he had two obedient teenagers, however, who lived under his parental training and authority since their first breaths, that would not mean that he knew how to oversee a congregation of many adults. We could make a better case for his need of being successful in business. A man’s household evidently included his servants. That was his business operation. Managing his business/household well would show his ability to deal with people effectively.
“It is too risky to appoint a man who has no children,” someone warns. Do you think Timothy would have considered it a risk to use Paul’s instructions to him? It is risky to pass over the person who can lead the congregation effectively in favor of an inept leader who has two children. The church has suffered enough from such unbalanced priorities based on legal interpretation.
Another interpretative weakness is our lack of consistency in applying the same rules and principles to similar cases. I remember the “bobbed hair” controversy when I was a teenager. Women had begun to cut their hair, and they were brazen enough to worship God unveiled — that is, without a hat on. Outside of our fellowship, women would lead in services publicly and teach and preach. In the Church of Christ women had begun to teach in classes.
Many discussions were had by devout people who wanted to be right with God above all else. In time, we came to accept an interpretation of First Corinthians 11 on the basis of custom. Considering the culture of Corinth with its prostitute priestesses serving the great pagan temple, we could understand why Paul would forbid their removing their veils and cutting their hair like the priestesses. Now circumstance and custom have changed and there is no significance attached to headdress or hairstyle. We understand that customs of dress are not binding for all ages and localities. That is a sensible interpretation. It does not bind arbitrary details.
When we come to First Corinthians 14, however, we quickly abandon that approach to interpretation. The silence of women becomes an unchanging, universal, arbitrary specific of law, even though Paul gave women the prerogative of praying and prophesying (teaching) publicly in Chapter 11. The city, people, circumstance, and custom are the same. The only difference is that one relates to headdress and the other relates to the abuse of the privilege of teaching publicly. Paul appeals to the loftiest of principles on which to base his binding the veil and the prohibition of teaching. Can we say that we have been consistent in applying the same rule in like circumstances?
Our instruction to greet one another with a holy kiss is rather plain, being repeated five times (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thes. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14). We feel at ease in substituting a method which conveys the meaning of what we are instructed to do. So we shake hands instead of kissing. Can we do this consistently while refusing to allow an alteration of the method by which baptism is expressed?
Our burial with Christ is figurative. “We are buried with him” (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). It is likely that you visualize that Jesus is symbolically buried in the baptistry with the candidate, but Jesus is not buried with us; it is we with Him. Jesus was buried, not in water, but in a rock-hewn tomb. In baptism, symbolically, one is transported back through time and space and buried with Christ where atonement was made. So the burial is in the tomb. The action of baptism symbolizes that. To millions of persons the ritual of dipping, pouring, or sprinkling of water symbolizes this action.
These points about baptism are made, not to convince you of the validity of dipping the head, pouring, or sprinkling for baptism, but to make you less dogmatic against one who is convinced that these forms are acceptable expressions. It makes us uncomfortable to face our inconsistency.
Through the early centuries, the Catholic church, claiming church authority, added many practices without Scriptural foundation. The reformers later pressed for Scriptural authority for all practices. So a form of defense called scholasticism was employed. This scholasticism was an effort to prove by the Bible what had already been accepted and practiced traditionally.
This device is widely used, allowing one to “search the Scriptures,” grasping passages, and making them accommodate the need. Proof-texts are taken from their context and made to support something that the writer did not have in mind. Texts are made to prove too much.
We in the Church of Christ have denounced others for this practice while blind to the fact that we were among the chief offenders. I shall use only one illustration of this interpretative flaw used by the lawyers of the Word.
From the secular writers of the early centuries, it seems evident that the very early disciples began to use the first day of the week as a special day for assembly and devotion. This was such an accepted practice that, at the end of the persecutions in the fourth century, Constantine declared Sunday to be a holiday (holy day) for the benefit of Christians. From that time the first day of the week has been a holiday for worship in Christian countries. We accepted it also, defining it to the point of declaring it to be the only day on which one could give money or commune acceptably. Sunday assemblies became more necessary than those on weekdays. Many made a kind of Sabbath out of it, forbidding any work or recreation on Sunday. It has become such an accepted special day that few among us would dare question that it is clearly defined and stipulated in the Scriptures.
When it is questioned, what evidences are offered for its support? Jesus arose on the first day and the church began on the first day. That is interesting, but it is not proof, and no inspired writer gave that as a reason why we must emphasize the first day. Well, the disciples came together to break bread at Troas on the first day (Acts 20:7). We dealt with this point in Chapter Two. It does not indicate that they were commanded to do that, that they had been doing it previously, or that they continued to meet on the first day thereafter. The only thing Acts 20:7 proves on the subject is that it is permissible to meet on Sunday.
Then there is 1 Corinthians 16:2: “Upon the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that contributions need not be made when I come.” That says nothing about an assembly; it calls for individual action. While it may seem reasonable that Paul chose the first day of the week for storing because they assembled then, that is not the stated case. It is equally reasonable to conclude that this time was chosen because a person received his wages at the end of the week and would be urged to a systematic storing up at home at that time.
These two passages are the only mention of the first day in connection with activity of the disciples.
There is nothing to identify “the day” (Heb. 10:25) and “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) as the first day of the week. Really, if the Lord had intended that the first day of the week be a special day for worship, don’t you think He would have told us? He would not have obscured such a vital demand in vague inference for lawyers to find.
Our people have berated others for observing special days like Christmas and Easter, being naively unaware that we are the ones who “esteem one day as better than another” (Rom. 14:5). Approach to God in worship and service is limited “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21) nor on certain days.
Admittedly, the recognition of this traditional day of worship by governments of Western nations has been a great blessing to those serving Christ.
Why do we make such a defense for the first day of the week? It is a part of our tendency to define lawful requirements so we can fulfill them. It is a part of legalism. When we determine the purposes to be accomplished by assemblies, we can also see that these purposes can be fulfilled on any day of the week. We do not meet because it is the first day and we are required to do so; we meet to fulfill the purposes to be accomplished in assemblies.
As lawyers of the Word, we have interpreted the Scriptures as a legal system; we have been inconsistent in our application of principles of interpretation, and we have supported our traditional practices by scholasticism. These practices are much more inclusive than the few examples in this lesson.
There is much more flexibility and adaptability, and much less pattern, than we who are conditioned by legalism can recognize or accept with ease. But this awareness and acceptance is a part of the happiness that comes by being free in Christ.
When we look upon the Scriptures as a code of laws and begin trying to interpret them as such, we become lawyers. Then we become judges of those who do not accept our interpretations. In so doing, we miss the spirit of the message.