It has been a long time since my last post on this site. Some heating problems in our apartment building spiralled out of control, leading to a sudden move just before Christmas and a resulting long disconnection from phone and internet. This post is from this week’s Wascana Fellowship service. The others leading up to this week will be posted in random order as I have time.
I owe a great deal to Randy Olds for putting N.T. Wright’s website on his blogroll and reacquainting me with this Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar’s work. He has done a lot of original work reconstructing the world of the Apostle Paul and helping readers understand Paul’s motivation (both prior and after conversion) as well as getting a grip on Paul’s teaching vis-à-vis law and grace. The technical details about what follows on this post are available for reference on Wright’s web page about Romans 2.
Romans 2:9-29 follows a chapter that highlights how nobody in the world can escape God’s judgment, whether Jew or Gentile. All are berated for not following God’s will and instructions. In v. 9-11 Paul talks about how Jew and Gentile are ultimately judged by their actions, whether good or evil. Verses 12 & 13 go on to make a distinction between Jews, who are judged by Torah, and Gentiles, who are judged apart from Torah. The ones who are righteous or justified are the doers, not the hearers of the law. (It turns out that at the time, there were pretty much no doers, just a lot of hearers.)
Somehow, in v. 14-16, there seem to be some Gentiles who in some undefined way are keeping Torah, and whose consciences seem to be confirming their need to “demonstrate” its “work” (v. 15) as if it is written in their hearts. In some way, their conscience agrees with the law, yet there is an ambivalent feeling about whether they will be justified or condemned by the law when Jesus returns.
Wright suggests that these are Christian Gentiles, rather than non-Christian Gentiles who just happen to instinctively obey the law by being good people. In many places Paul indicates that he expects Christians to obey what the law says. (See Wright’s paper for details, though he offers Rom. 13:8 and 1 Cor. 7:19 as examples.)
Perhaps the best way to see these Christian Gentiles as “keeping” the law is to note what Torah was intended to accomplish. For instance, in Deut. 4:5-8 obedience to Torah was intended to show God’s wisdom and grace to “the nations.” It would have identified the Israelites as a people with two wonderful and awesome things on their side:
1) An unusual wisdom and discernment of the right things to do – and how to do them right – in a world that had lost its way.
2) An amazing closeness to a God who would hear and answer them – a God who keeps His promises and His covenant with them.
The intended effect is that Israel would draw Gentiles to God as a light to the nations because of the wisdom and graciousness of His own special people.
It becomes likely that, for Paul, the witness of Christians about the Lordship of Jesus in repentance, baptism and the forgiveness of sins – coupled with a completely regenerated lifestyle (holiness directly from the Holy Spirit as lived out in a gracious and sin-overcoming way of life) – was the way that Gentile Christians were accomplishing the intended effect of Torah. They were drawing “the nations” to Jesus as Lord the way Israel was supposed to have been drawing them to Yahweh.
In other words, Gentile Christians (along with their Jewish brethren, of course) were faithful to the vocation of the Covenant People. They were “keeping” the law by giving God the fruit that the law was intended to provide – Gentile converts.
This general sketch brought out many comments about the ambivalent feelings about Torah observance as our former denomination changed its ways. We had never felt the need to circumcise our males, and were therefore never Torah-observant in the sense that that Paul spoke against.
[As an aside, Once members of our group realized that we had never been Torah-observant in the first place, we agreed among ourselves that appearing Jewish/Hebrew was not a faith-requirement. On the other hand, our new understanding did not logically require us to abandon every custom that appeared to be based in the Old Testament, either. It is this latter understanding that ended up creating the differences that led to our leaving our former denomination. Being required to hide our meeting times of Saturdays and Old Testament Festivals from the general public because the denomination wanted to make a show of freeing itself from OT law did not strike us as the healthiest way for the church to go forward in “freedom.”]
Like the Christian Gentiles Dr. Wright speaks of, we at Wascana Fellowship hold the Torah in high regard. Unlike them, many of us observe portions of it that are generally regarded as Jewish boundary-markers. Many of us avoid pork products and many of us keep sabbath from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Some of us do not do either of those things, but prefer to meet on Saturday because of Jesus’ example (he was Jewish, after all). Either way, it’s not about how well we keep the law, but rather how well we serve one another.
The key for people like us is to remember that the intended “work of the law” is the harvest of followers of Jesus Christ. It is one thing to be counter cultural, but another thing entirely to be so sour about the culture about you that you cannot bring people to Jesus. The key is not to set up “the law” as a set of restrictions. Many denominations have managed to set up their own versions of church law (often based on fanatically narrow interpretations of the 10 Commandments) as standards of membership. They can suck the life out of the believer by joylessly regulating every aspect of life (such as the original WCG’s strict law-keeping police: the pastorate).
Most members of our group tried not to offend family and friends regarding their beliefs during their days in WCG. They recall the most avid purveyors of the attitude of “letting them have it” were in fact their ministers. I suggested that the ministry may have been taught that attitude in order to keep members separate from their families and friends. Most Wascana members were more charitable about this than me. Some think that was because they were called so young into ministry and never had a chance to mature. They have a point. It does seem to be younger people who get caught up in idealism about the purity of their beliefs. Some may well still have been young and immature enough to have pushed through well-meaning (though frequently ill-conceived) reforms in ways that alienated current members.
Most of us in Wascana Fellowship find that our own family and friends respect our slightly out-of-the-ordinary customs. We are learning to speak of them in ways that convey God’s love rather than our own coercion or guilt-tripping. In speaking of them at seminary I was pleasantly surprised to find two fellow students who love the Old Testament festivals and observe them with groups of Torah-observant Jewish Christians in two different Canadian communities. There seems to be increasing respect for ancient modalities of worship in the society around us. We need neither to be ashamed nor haughty about worshipping in various Old Testament modes.
If the Holy Spirit has written the law in our hearts, why should we be ashamed of its spoken/written version? We suspect that Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, should instead have a warm place in our hearts for the Old Testament, its stories, and its laws. These are testimonies and stories that stand at the heart of our faith in Jesus Christ, the one and only Son of God, our Lord and Saviour. We may need to remember that He is the promised Jewish Messiah who saves both Jew and Gentile as promised to Abraham, the father of the faithful. Paul makes all of these points in this Letter to the Romans, in ways intended to keep both Jewish and Gentile believers on their best behaviour with one another. Maybe we can learn something from that, too, while we are trying to learn Paul’s theology.