By Geoff Patterson … Reading the Bible can sometimes be a startling experience for those with a strong sense of 21st Century morality. For example, Abraham’s nephew Lot finds two strangers in the town square and, as the morality of the day required, invited and urged them not to stay in the town square but instead to lodge with him and his family. Unfortunately, later that night the immoral men of the town came to Lot’s door and demanded he send out to them the men he was hosting that they might have sexual relations with them, a demand to which Lot replied: “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Genesis 19:7-8).
In the context of his time, Lot was acting “morally,” for it seems morality demanded that to take someone into your house was to commit yourself to their safety and well-being at all costs. Yet I think it clear enough to you and me that his offer wasn’t just immoral, it was appalling.
Abraham’s failings seem tame in comparison but was it really moral to allow Abimelech to believe Sarah was Abraham’s sister, thus putting his wife in danger of being sexually assaulted simply for the sake of his own safety (Genesis 20). In addition, according to later writings, Abraham was out of line for even marrying his half-sister in the first place (Leviticus 18:9). And was Jacob acting “morally” when he married two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and then, likely without consent, took their servant girls as concubines? Perhaps it was a result of these unfortunate decisions that the counsel we find in Leviticus 18:18 was written.
So, what do we do? Should we cancel Lot, and Abraham, and Jacob, given the obvious immorality they display? Or should we censor the book of Genesis because it lacks trigger warnings and fails to take a strong stand against such blatant immorality?
We do ourselves a disservice when we attempt to hold Old Testament characters to 21st Century morality. But we also do ourselves a disservice when we attempt to hold 21st Century citizens to what serves as Old Testament morality. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem: morality changes. Which leads me to suggest, if we would remain moral in our day, so must we.
Let me give an example from my own lifetime. I will be 57 this year, which makes me no longer young, but not exactly old either. Yet, in my lifetime, I have seen some very significant shifts in “morality”. For example, when I was a child, interracial marriage was considered by much of society and the church to be immoral. In fact, in many places, it was illegal (for example, see Loving v. Virginia, April 10, 1967, eight days after my second birthday). Yet today, anyone taking this position would be viewed as holding immoral views centered in racism, so much so that after George W. Bush visited Bob Jones University in the year 2000, he felt compelled to issue an apology for “failing to criticize the school’s anti-Catholic views and racial policies during his visit to the Greenville, S.C., campus.” (See: Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2000)
Bob Jones University would soon after drop its “no interracial dating” policy: what had once been established as morality was now being dropped as immoral. Yet in the Bible, such moratoriums were well supported. The Bible reports that Nehemiah, when he found that the some of the men had taken foreign wives, confronted them, cursed them, beat them, and pulled out their hair, among other things (Nehemiah 13).
And earlier, before Nehemiah’s time, Ezra had counseled that morality demanded the men of Israel “put away” all the foreign wives and their children, an act that we today would consider the height of immorality (Ezra 10).
Let me go on record with this: I do believe there is such a thing as Truth with a capital “T,” meaning an ultimate, unassailable reality known and established by God. I also believe there is ultimate Right (with a capital “R”) and Wrong (with a capital “W”). Plus, I believe that morality, in every age, is based on these immutable realities. But all too often, if the examples I’ve stated above are a fair indication, it seems morality as manifest in each age, is little more than Truth and Right and Wrong viewed through the lens of current culture.
The good news is that we aren’t expected by God to be “moral” Old Testament believers. And we aren’t expected by Him to be “moral” 1880s believers or 1950s believers. Yet we are expected to be “moral” 2022 believers.
But what does that mean? What is morality for our time? How many of the ancient and not-so-ancient morals have themselves become immoral? And how much of the “new morality” will one day cause horror to those who come after us? How should we, as 21st Century Seventh-day Adventist Christians, live? Is there just one morality for our time? Who gets to decide?
How much room for diversity of thought and even morality should there be within the church? Can the “Black Lives Matter” activist and the “Make America Great Again” proponent live alongside one another in Christian love and respect? Clearly, the “morality” driving both groups is not the same. Are the differences greater than the professions that might hold us together (righteousness by faith, the Creator God, the soon return of Jesus)? Can we live together in peace without a singular morality?
If our moralities are the result of Truth filtered through our culture and experience, does this explain, in large part, why we end up with such different morals? And are the capital “T” Truths big enough to hold us together? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Does “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” still hold, regardless of BLM or MAGA status?
We all know we are supposed to be moral. The problem is, what does that mean right now?
Perhaps there is wisdom to help us in Ecclesiastes 3:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; … a time to kill, and a time to heal; …
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; …
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; …
a time to love, and a time to hate; …
a time for war, and a time for peace.
In this list of actions, we find dichotomous behaviors that might be considered moral or immoral, depending upon the situation. This suggests that when the morality we have chosen traps us on only one side of these dichotomies, we will likely fail to fulfill the duties of our day, and thus fail to be moral 21st Century Christians. There are times when war is moral, but also times when it is not. There are times when speaking up is moral, and times when it is not. There are times when killing is moral, and times when it is not. Are there also times when the drive behind BLM is right, and times when MAGA is the way?
Perfect adherence to any list of rules, no matter who made the list, will never be enough to guarantee we are living moral lives. Moral living takes continual effort of heart, mind, and spirit, and is only achieved through trial and error and a willingness to learn. As the author of Hebrews says: “… solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14)
There is no perfectly complete list of the moral rules for our day. There never has been a perfectly complete list, even in the days of Israel. Yet we know God calls us to live moral lives. If we would be the church God has appointed for this day, we must always be seeking, learning, and testing ourselves against the convictions of one another. It is the blessing of God, not the curse, that puts us in community with others who see a very different morality.
Let’s be mature believers, like the men of Issachar in the days of David, “… men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do …”
(1 Chronicles 12:32). We are 2022 Seventh-day Adventist Christians. May God grant us the ability to know and do our moral duty.
–Geoff Patterson is senior pastor at Boulder Adventist Church, Boulder, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]