Beyond the law
“’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.” — 1 Corinthians 6:12
“You have heard the Commandment … but I say to you …” — Matthew 5. 21-48
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” — 1 Corinthians 3.16
"Without a consideration of the freedom of others, the exercise of my own liberty is tyranny, pure and simple.” Stanley B. Marrow, Paul, His Letters and His Theology (1986)
We Christians live beyond the law. Laws are set against murder and theft and adultery. No law can be written against love and giving and fidelity. Our problem in America is we are so focused upon enforcing our “rights” under the law that we fail in our responsibility as human beings to love one another.
The Apostle Paul understood this difference. In Corinth in Paul’s time, it was legal and accepted to discard an unwanted child upon the trash pile. Prostitution was lawful and common. Divorce was normal and easy (at least for men.) Prejudice against the outsider — the barbarian, the Jew, the Cretan — was universal. Corinth was famous in the Roman world for the extent of its decadence and dishonesty.
Some early Christians in the church argued they could participate in these lawful behaviors and still follow Christ. One of Paul’s most forceful letters was a great cry against such ideas. “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.”
Following Paul’s leadership, the early Christians began setting themselves apart. They went out to save babies left in the refuse. They remained chaste, refusing to use the prostitutes for empty and demeaning pleasure. They honored their wives. They fed the hungry and the poor. They welcomed all — Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female — as children of God to be loved.
At the same time, Paul admonished his followers to pray for the authorities, even the Roman emperors who persecuted and murdered them. The authority of the law would be respected, but they were called to live beyond the law.
Throughout history Christians have, in their closest following of Jesus’ calling, continued this practice of living beyond the law, especially by working to change it. William Wilberforce dedicated his life to ending slavery in the British Empire. The vast majority of abolitionists were Christians who abhorred the law of slavery in the United States and worked ceaselessly against it. Dr. Martin Luther King marched to end the Jim Crow laws that denied the humanity of the black man and woman.
Today in America we face a crisis of law. In demanding our “rights” we have enslaved ourselves to law and ceased to see one another through God’s eyes. We have created the very environment of “factions” that the founders feared. We strive to seize power by election or by force. The “other” is the enemy. We do not listen to one another or learn to value each other as persons made in God’s image. Instead, we seek power over each other in a constant war of factions which never ceases — day to day and year to year.
What did Jesus have to say about such things? In Matthew, we hear his words which call us to live beyond the law. “You have heard the Commandment … but I say to you…” In every instance Jesus cites, he does not deny the validity of the law, but calls us to a greater life walking more closely with the intent of our Father’s will.
Consider, for example, Christ’s word on adultery. “You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ What I say to you is: anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts.” (Matthew 5. 27-28) How does today’s focus upon law compare?
There are complex laws regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. These reflect the Christian value — unrecognized today — that the human being is not an object of lust to be used and discarded, but one worthy of honor and respect. Yet today’s toxic sex-infused environment ignores the nature of man, who is subject to temptation and who falls constantly. One brief failure of will, one indiscretion, even one comment could cost him his livelihood, his reputation and possibly bring him into a court of law.
How does the Christian look upon sexual harassment and sexual temptation in the workplace? Billy Graham — a giant saintly man in our time — recognized his own weakness and left no room for temptation. He made certain that he was never alone with a woman other than his wife Ruth. Therein he showed the greatest love and respect for all who worked for him, men and women.
What of murder? It is the ultimate disregard for the value of another person. What did Jesus say about murder? “You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall not kill, and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5: 21, 22)
We sit in the pride of our own judgment against the murderer while verbally killing each other every day on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. What is “the hell of fire” but the deep divisions of culture we have created with the pure hatred we spew upon others? It sears our souls and hardens us until we lose our love.
Our hardened and closed hearts fester until we can no longer contain our own hatred. Thus the riots, destruction, chaos and murder are a witness to the vitriol and hate engendered by our obsessive focus upon our own righteousness.
Do not be deceived. The destruction we are witnessing is a carefully planned and funded campaign of anarchy designed to tear at the very fabric of our family, community and nation. But the seeds for the frustration and hatred that fueled this fire have been germinating within those who fall to the temptation to scream and destroy rather than listen and love.
The law will quell this unrest in the end, but it will not heal our divisions. No law can do that. Law cannot heal hate. We must return to the grace of listening to one another, of seeing one another as children of God and of knowing the value that every single person holds in God’s eyes. How much more grace filled we become when we live the love of respect for others. Only through God’s grace can we find the way to truly love one another.
Joseph Stringer writes and speaks on Christian issues in culture in the hope that we may realize transformation in our lives. Watch for his upcoming book, “God Came Down.” He prays that all who hear him or read his works might see through them to the One who has chosen us for life. Check out his blog at www.chosen4life.org