Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why Did God Forbid Blending Threads?

Mark Driscoll has attempted to briefly answer a very pressing and important question that should be on the radar screen of each and every Christian. The post is titled "Does God hate cotton blend T-shirts?" and deals with the prohibition against mixed threads in Deuteronomy 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19.
Deuteronomy 22:11: “You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.”
Leviticus 19:19: Nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.”
Driscoll, in his post, deals very superficially with the above question and basically ends up appealing to the classic three-fold division of the law: civil, ceremonial, and moral and says, "These laws are no longer binding on us because Jesus is our priest, temple, sacrifice, cleanser, and so forth." Period. End of discussion. Now, for my own part, I agree with Driscoll's conclusion. The ceremonial law was done away with in the coming of Christ (WCF 19.3). However, readers of his post will still not be any closer to understanding the prohibition under discussion than when they first began.

Just as with Driscoll, my own interest in this prohibition relates to a renewed contemporary (albeit superficial) fascination in these prohibitions by skeptics. One skeptic, for example, says "There is nothing in the Christian bible to suggest that this portion of Leviticus is any less serious than the part about homosexuality. And yet, the inescapable conclusion is that wearing clothing made of linen-wool blends is wrong in the same way homosexuality is wrong." Richard Dawkins, similarly, alludes to this prohibition as he mocks the sort of minutiae often found detailed in the Pentateuch.

It is not only atheists and skeptics who think texts like Lev. 19:19 and Deut. 22:11 are some sort of linchpin to show the inconsistency of Christian ethics. More than ever, with the push in our society to normalize homosexual behavior, these texts are increasingly being leaned on, even within supposed Christian circles.

I wonder how much people really understand the prohibition, however. I know that in my own studies, looking for discussion of these verses in any helpful way was about as difficult as finding a sensible statement in YouTube's comments section. That is to say, these verses are often spoken of generally, even in the best commentaries (with a few exceptions).

There are several possible approaches to these passages. For the sake of simplicity, I will deal primarily with the prohibition as it appears in Deut. 22:11.

1. Spiritualize It
Some commentaries, from Reformed theologians I've consulted, say that the prohibition against mixed threads is to picture Israel's own holiness. It is a way of showing that Israel's holiness is to be untainted by the nations around. One OT scholar, whom I highly respect, says that the command is literal, but that it pictures that "God has created things to act according to their natures, and they are to stay in their proper spheres." Nevertheless, the advocates of this view which I have read discuss the larger ethical message of these commandments more than the commandments themselves. They also tend not to deal with the fact that God actually commands his priests to have this same mixed fabric in their garb in Exodus 28:6, 15 and in Exodus 39:29. The priest wore a belt of mixed threads. Furthermore, Exodus 26:1-2, 7-8 commands that the curtain of the tabernacle be made from this same "forbidden" mixture of wool and linen. In my own opinion, and based on my own research, the "spiritualized" interpretation of the passage does not wrestle sufficiently with the apparent conflict between the prescribed priestly garb and these prohibitions.

Carmichael also holds to what might be called a metaphorical view. Essentially, he sees this passage specifically dealing with intermarriage of Israelites and Canaanites by way of euphemism.

2. Reject It
Some commentators, coming from a more liberal perspective than myself, follow the JEDP documentary view of the construction of the Pentateuch and say that the prohibitions of Deut. 22:11 and Lev. 19:19 are leftover vestiges of an earlier editor before the Pentateuch was finalized. They call this editor the Deuteronomist. Crediting these passages to the Deuteronomist, they say he was “unready to throw off this primitive concept” of refusing to mix unlike things. Unable to resist the urge to teach modern readers a lesson, they continue: “Unless religion does cast off such encumbrances from the dead past, progress is stifled. Ancient Egyptian religion kept its primitiveness and so was unable to achieve spiritual monotheism.” Some readers may find this line of thought compelling, but as someone who believes in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, I find this approach far less than compelling. It fails to understand the Old Testament as a coherent whole.

3. Embrace It as Rejecting Prostitute Garb
Those to whom Moses is delivering these laws are only a generation removed from life in Egypt. Carmichael, in his discussion of this law, says that clothing of mixed fabrics was suggestive of Egyptian cultic prostitution which, of course, Israel was to have not even the least bit to do with. If Lambdin’s is right that these verses use an Egyptian loan word (šaʿaṭnēz), then it may just be that the word in question is referring to a way that the Israelites would have either dressed themselves, or seen their Egyptians masters dress, or might have seen cult prostitutes in Egypt dress. In this scenario, God’s command in Deut. 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19 is a polemical command intended to separate Israel from the nation that they have just left behind. The greatest problem with this view is that it does not adequately account for the legislation that requires the priests to make their garments from these same mixed threads.

4. Embrace It as Rejection of Priestly Garb for the Laity
This view says that the passage is not prohibiting mixed threads because it was the clothing of prostitutes. Nor is this prohibition merely meant to be a picture of holiness and Israel's distinction from among the nations. Rather, this prohibition had a very practical purpose. Numbers 16:1-40 records an incident when the laity sought to take priestly duties for themselves. In this view Deut. 22:11 (and Lev. 19:19) actually address a real and pressing issue: namely the temptation for the laity to resent or break down the distinction between priests and laity among the Israelites. Given this understanding of the prohibition of mixed threads, we see that God is placing barriers between the people and the Levites to keep such events as the rebellion of Korah from taking place. It is also easy to explain to the skeptic why Christians no longer observe this prohibition. Since the New Testament no longer distinguishes elders from the laity by clothing this command regarding mixed threads is no longer relevant except perhaps in terms of a persistent recognition that the Church still has leaders and elders whom the members are to submit to (Hebrews 13:17). Although there is nothing wrong with appealing to the threefold division of the law, it is often hard for skeptics to grasp (or they are unwilling to grasp) the fact that this distinction is not simply a convenient "out" for the defensive believer. If it is possible to answer the challenge without invoking the threefold division, I think it is best to do so from an apologetic (or at least from a didactic) perspective.

Just to put my cards on the table, this is the view which I find to be most compelling for several reasons:

a) It has ancient pedigree.
Jeffrey Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy points out that Josephus, while recognizing that the passage is difficult and not always understood, believed that "the prohibition applies to the laity, because the priests, when they officiate, do wear garments made of such mixtures" (Ant. 4.208). According to Josephus, this view of the passage goes back before his own time. And so it can safely be said that this view goes back at least a couple of millennia.

b) It accounts for the previous command for the priests to wear mixed threads.
As I mentioned earlier, the commands of Exodus 28:6, 15; 39:29 need to be reckoned with by anyone who wants to understand this command. Because God does command the mixing of threads elsewhere, we should reject the idea that God is prohibiting mixed threads in all situations in Deut. 22:11.

c) It allows for harmonization within the Pentateuch rather than disharmony.
God speaks with one voice in Scripture. He does not speak out of both sides of His mouth. We need to understand all of God's commands in relation to one another.

Christians, once they have a firm understanding of passages like these, will be ready to quickly, with clarity, and simplicity, answer skeptics. More and more the environment in which we live demands sound-bite answers. As soon as someone says that Christians are ethically inconsistent and bring up their polyester/cotton T-Shirt, the Christian can offer their own soundbite: "That passage in Deuteronomy is not a blanket prohibition of mixing threads all the time. Rather, it is prohibiting the average Israelite to dress like the priests. Since we don't have priests anymore and because there is no biblical command to differentiate pastors from the laity by clothing, we no longer obey this particular commandment." We obviously do still have regard for the difference between civil, ceremonial, and moral laws in the Old Testament, but in this particular case, the command is far less ridiculous or humorous than the skeptic thinks.

Monday, September 23, 2013

We Could Do With a Good Dose of Disillusionment

We love stories - it's a part of our nature. And we like stories with happy endings. A few nights ago, my wife and I watched the series finale of House. It's amazing to realize just how angry my wife, and so many other viewers would have been if the show did not conclude with a happy ending. Myself, I'm the type to enjoy a realistic ending that might have a bit of dreary, realistic humanity attached to it. To give you an idea where my tastes are, I thought the ending of Revolutionary Road was perfect.

In the same way, Christians love conversion stories. We love to hear about how God took a sinner and changed his heart and drew that person to Himself. What's not to love about it? You have what once was dead brought to life. It's beautiful, it glorifies God, and it's Biblical, to boot! The Apostle Paul spoke frequently of his own past (1 Tim. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13). But how often do we reflect that our own story becomes shockingly unsexy once the dust has actually settled? I'm not saying there is not a happy ending for the saints of God, but for some it is often very long in the making.

After coming to Seminary, I made friends with a great guy who has an extraordinary conversion story (or so I'm told). My wife and I had him over for dinner one night and after some time he looked at me and said that if I was okay with it he'd rather not tell his conversion story. He explained that he had told it to so many people and that he didn't think it was good for himself or those he told it to. He'd become so saturated by his own story that those he told didn't look at him as a saint of God. They saw him as a notorious sinner first, and perhaps as a redeemed saint a distant second. And this is at a Reformed seminary where the grace of God is proclaimed weekly from the chapel pulpit and in every class. People weren't ready for the reality of this guy's old life.

Protestants, generally speaking, have a problem with the grit and the dirt and the messy reality of life. I hear all sorts of theories of why that is, but at the end of the day I think we really enjoy the world as it will be, and we want to escape from the world as it actually exists in the here and now. This sentiment may have something to do with the co-emergence of premillenial dispensationalism in the 19th century alongside of an entertainment-saturated culture of unprecedented proportions. If you compare the sort of  fiction books produced in protestant religious circles with those coming out of catholic or even humanistic ones, what one finds is a protestantism preoccupied with seeing the good in life and seeing the good that will eventually come out of life and a perspective on the other side that is either completely diversionary or else hyper-gritty in terms of the realistic approach to portraying life.

One need only compare The Lord of the Rings with the Song of Ice and Fire books that are written by George R.R. Martin (an agnostic). Protestants like The Lord of the Rings for lots of reasons relating to the high quality of the books, to be sure, but also, I think, because they are filled with people who are well-intended and who want to see good defeat evil. The Song of Ice and Fire books, on the other hand, are filled with what seems like irredeemably bad people, some (most?) of whom the reader is able to sympathize with in spite of it because of the dirt between their toes and the hunger in their bellies. Tolkien's enemies are faceless minions without names and without souls. With a couple of exceptions (one thinks of Smeagol or Denethor) the evil in LORT is kept at a safe distance while the SOIF books force the reader into the minds of the sorts of people we like to think that we are not. Why is it that we as Christians have such a problem with facing the harsher or dirtier side of reality (or if we do, we dare not tell others)? Isn't it time that we gave ourselves permission to admit that all is not roses and butterflies followed by rapturous moments of delight?

Christians are leaving the church. This is no secret. I live in my own little corner of the evangelical world where I am a conservative Westminster Standard-loving Reformed Christian whose (almost) entire base of friends "back home" are the emergent sorts who think Rachel Held Evans really "gets" them. Almost all of them at one time or another express either publicly or privately in conversations with me, just how unhappy they are with the church. But why? What is happening that is causing such frustration or disappointment? I suspect it's nothing more than the average boring stuff of life, the sin and frustrations involved in living in community with other people who have yet to experience the complete renewal of their persons.

When you go to church on a Sunday morning, you enter this room with other people in it. You often know what their shortcomings are. Or you notice that they sing off-key. Or you maybe heard the song-leader yelling at his son in the parking lot a few minutes before the service. Or maybe you saw an elder's eye wander someplace that it shouldn't during greeting time. Maybe you went into the bathroom before the service and you saw the pastor leave without washing his hands first. Maybe you went to get coffee but the creamer was all out... the sunday school teacher took the last of it. These are the sorts of raw, boring "little things" that, taken on their own are nothing, but collectively, when we think about it later, can shatter our illusions that the church is a sort of utopia. The imperfections and flaws of our neighbors and churches become apparent over time. The seams start to show.

Or maybe your problems are bigger. Maybe you think the church isn't "getting it right" on some social issue or maybe you think the church should talk about this or that a little bit less. Everybody sees things that those around them just aren't "getting right," whether it's at work, at a family reunion, or even at church.

What the church needs is not a good dose of correction on these points. Instead, it's the complainers who need something. What the complainers need is a nice, healthy inoculation delivered intravenously, the way I take my Starbucks in the morning. What we need is to experience the inevitable (if we're in the church for long enough) disillusionment, to deal with it, and then to remember that this is still Christ's bride. Stephen Nichols, in his book Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life, touches on precisely this need. Echoing the thoughts of Bonhoeffer's book Life Together, Nichols says that Christians have this tendency to approach the church with a sort of utopian dream wherein we idealize the body of Christ and see her as what she ought to be rather than as what she is. This is what Bonhoeffer refers to as a "wish dream." Says Nichols,
because of this wish dream "innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down."... God in his grace shatters our illusions and dreams of peace and harmony...The sooner we come face-to-face with the disillusionment with others and the disillusionment with ourselves, Bonhoeffer adds, the better off we and the church are. There is a realism here that we should appreciate, and a realism that, once grasped, goes a long way in sustaining true and genuine community in the church. We come to grips with all of our own limitations and weaknesses and besetting sins. And we come to grips with the same in others - even in our leaders and heroes. Then we live in real and not ideal communities. Church is not a wish dream. We also need to jettison our misplaced zeal to see the Christian life as a wish-dream life. The Christian life, like the church, is lived in the real world. (Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life, p. 68-69)
The band Metric has a song called "Breathing Underwater," where the lead singer Emily Haines says, "They were right when they said/ We should never meet our heroes." It's a glimpse inside the mind of a person who wants to live in the "wish dream." I'm not immune to this desire to preserve the wish-dream. Earlier this year I was at The Gospel Coalition and I saw D.A. Carson and Tim Keller sitting in a pair of facing chairs in the hotel, talking. I chose not to go up to them or say anything. Why? Because I'd rather not meet two of my heroes. The conversation wouldn't go well, maybe I'd embarrass myself. Maybe they wouldn't be friendly. Maybe I was afraid of having an illusion shattered. I wish I had gone over to them, spoken to them and had the mystique dispelled just a bit. It would have been good for me.

In the same way, it was told, Shelby Foote and Walker Percy once went to visit William Faulkner in Oxford, MS. When they got to his house Percy wouldn't leave the car. He didn't want to have his wish dream shattered by actually meeting the man.

Someone needs to give Christians permission to live in the real world, not in the ideal wish-dream world that so many inhabit. I think that Bonhoeffer's notion that the wish-dream has broken down whole Christian communities might actually lie at the core of why the church sees so many critics and defectors today. The church has a new world in which it does its work in some ways, sure. But human nature is still the same. We still have the same feet of clay that we've always had. We often preach a church triumphant, but that is not what people usually see or sense. Usually people see the little failures that make up the average Christian's life. The message of grace that comes out of our pulpits, out of our seminaries, and out of our family worship times needs to be one by which our audiences are able to make sense of the pains, difficulties, muck, frustrations and realities of life without losing their understanding that a church can be triumphant without always seeming like it is.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Even the U.N. Gets It

Carl Trueman has evidently stepped into something this past week. He made some statements on Reformation 21 a few days ago that sounded an awful lot like two kingdoms theology. Admittedly, he eschewed the title in light of the fact that he hasn’t done much reading in the area. On Facebook, Anthony Bradley weighed in on the discussion.
Friends, if you ever wonder why Presbyterians turned a blind eye to black suffering during slavery and sat on the sidelines during the Civil-Rights movement, it's the position stated above. This sounds great on paper but if the church has no social witness history demonstrates that "individual Christians" will simply remain individualistic, at least in the American experience by those holding to this view circa 1776-1965ish. Admittedly, I was raised in the black church tradition so we would see this an untenable position. BTW, for the record, I don't believe the church should be involved in government or vice-versa.
I don’t think that Anthony Bradley intends the statement above to be an en toto argument against Trueman’s view, but it is extremely common for opponents of most forms of ‘Two Kingdoms’ to argue consequentially. The suggestion is that if this vaguely defined version of 2K has the field, nobody will ever have a reason to be good in public again.

But it is worth asking the question... does Christianity have something unique to offer in the area of politics or public life that human beings do not already know, by nature? When it comes to slavery or segregation, is there something we know that your average non-Christian doesn’t also know?

I know very few people (who aren’t abject cowards) who, if seeing a child being beaten in the street, would not do something to help him or her. Even if they couldn’t do something themselves, they would call the police or look for someone who could help. Why? Is it because they went to church and heard the Gospel, and something unique about the Gospel impels them to act? Certainly not in all circumstances.
Cicero: "Nature produces a special love of offspring...and to live according to nature is the supreme good."
The American Indians: "The killing of the women and more especially of the young boys and girls who are to go to make up the future strength of the people, is the saddest part...and we feel it very sorely."
Ancient Chinese: "The Master said, Respect the young."
Hinduism: "Children, the old, the poor, etc., should be considered lords of the atmosphere."*
All human beings are born with a sense of right and wrong. This is natural to all human beings by God’s doing. It is the law of God written on the heart (Rom. 1:20) that condemns all men everywhere. This law is insufficient to save; it cannot bring salvation or forgiveness of sins, but it does bring guilt and an awareness of sin, and when God’s restraining hand is gracious in a society, the hearts of men are held in check by this conscience and society is certainly benefited by it.

Having said all of this, however, one need only read a non-Christian document such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to see that opposition to slavery or segregation is far from being a uniquely Christian notion.
Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. 
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of persons. 
Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. 
Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. 
Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
The point here is that just as it is written on the consciences of all human beings that they should assist a helpless child being hurt, it is also imprinted on the hearts of all people everywhere (though they might suppress it, as they do other aspects of God’s law) that slavery and segregation because of skin color is morally wrong. Christianity has nothing unique to bring to the table in this particular area (although the Gospel brings internal transformation, which gives one a delight in God's law and a consequent outward conformity to that law). To say that this particular aspect of justice is not the mission of the Church is not a condemnation of Christianity or of the Church, but rather a recognition that the Church quo Church has been given the “modest” task of saving souls and holding the spiritual keys to the Kingdom.

*From C.S. Lewis' Appendix in The Abolition of Man