As a follower of Jesus it is my ambition to live in a Jesus-shaped way. In seeking to do this the Bible is one my key resources. Yet understanding how it applies to me can be difficult, for while I have grown up believing that what the Bible says, God says, it is clear that there are things the Bible commands or permits that are not what God says to me today – eg the permission to take a wife as part of the bounty of war; the requirement to return land to its original owners every fifty years; the permission to keep slaves; and the encouragement to wives to call their husbands ‘lord’ and be fully submissive and obedient to them.
I have found it helpful to recognise that the Bible speak to our ethics in two ways:
First, by painting a picture of the world as it should be and one day will be. The movement of both history and Scripture is towards a time all creation will be brought fully under God’s reign. It is a time of shalom, which Christopher Marshall summarises like this
The positive presence of harmony and wholeness, of health and prosperity, of integration and balance. It is a state of soundless or flourishing in all dimensions of existence – in our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, our relationship with nature, and our relationship with ourselves. Shalom is when when everything is as it ought to be. In this sense, Shalom encapsulates God’s basic intention for humanity – that people live in a condition of “all rightness” in every department of life.
(Chris Marshall, Little Book of Biblical Justice, pages 12-13).
Biblical ethics fills me with this vision of the world as it will be and calls me to live out its values in the present. This is what gives Christianity its reformist tendencies. The vision of the reign of God causes us to be discontent with cultural, political, economic, and social systems that impede the experience of shalom.
Second, the Scriptures show us how people worked out their faith in the world as it was. At the same time that the vision of the future creates a reformist streak within us, the reality is that we live within the world as it is, a world that falls far short of the vision of the future. In the Bible this sets up a delicate interplay between seeking to live out the values of the world as it will be and the realities of the world as it was. No-one can escape the cultural, economic, political and religious systems within which they live, so biblical ethics always consisted of an attempt to determine how the values and vision of the world as it will be could be lived out in the world as it was.
At times this worked itself out as resistance – seen for example in the refusal of Christians to worship any God other than the God revealed in Jesus and in the determination to defy social conventions that divided people on grounds of ethnicity, gender, or social status and instead embrace one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
On other occasions we see an effort to infuse the values of the future into social, cultural and political systems that fell far short of the vision of the future. The household codes of the New Testament are a good example of this. They recognised that first century Christians lived in societies in which the household was organised along patriarchal lines – with a male at the head of the household and wife/wives, slaves and children subservant and subordinate to the male head. Held up against the vision of the world to come this was an ugly structure that diminished people and left them exposed to abuse. Yet it was also the reality in which people lived. The strategy of the household codes was to urge people to infuse the system with love, grace, compassion and kindness. As an ethic for all time it is clearly compromised and inadequate, but it was an ethic that moved first century Christians closer toward the biblical vision. Similarly, the permission given to the Israelites to take wives as part of the bounty of war seems designed not to offer approval of the practise, but, knowing it will happen, to regulate it so as to minimise the harm.
Recognising this pattern in the Bible has helped me move beyond a simple equation of biblical commands with the will of God for all people and all times, or the assumption that some biblical instructions are culturally shaped while others transcend culture. It encourages me to see that “being biblical” does not mean replicating the life of the first Christians, but following the pattern of the Scriptures which is to allow the vision and values of the future reign of God, so vividly and profoundly incarnated in Christ, to shape the way I live in my place and time.