Justice and Literalism

This article was published in “The Christian Ministry” May-June 1995, in a section titled “From the Pulpit”. I am assuming that copyright issues no longer apply since the magazine is no longer published.  If I am wrong, some one will let me know.

This was written when I was the pastor of the United Methodist Church of Sitka in Sitka, Alaska. The sermon had been preached at both East Anchorage UMC and the UMC of Sitka.


Several Christmases ago, I played the game “Believe It or Not.” It works like this: A player draws a fact card and reads it. Or the player draws a card that tells him or her to make something up. The other players must guess whether what is read is fact or fiction.

When it comes to playing “Believe It or Not” with the Bible, some people take everything as fact. Let’s do a quick survey of some Old Testament writings. What would change if we took these biblical judgments literally? First, we would not work on the Sabbath. Numbers 15:32 tells about a poor unnamed soul who was sentenced to death by stoning for gathering some sticks on the Sabbath. The laws of the Hebrews were rigid. Furthermore, the law allowed a person to carry a burden on the Sabbath, but only for a few feet. What about Sunday afternoon football? If you took the law literally, you couldn’t carry the football for long gains. (Update 2014: bad news for the World Champion Seattle Seahawks.)

The law didn’t allow people to write more than two letters of the alphabet with either hand on the Sabbath, nor use two different languages or two colors of ink. And we know from the story of Jesus that healing on the Sabbath was forbidden.

If we took the dietary laws of the Old Testament seriously, we couldn’t eat pork (Deut. 14:8); in fact, we couldn’t eat anything from the sea that is without fins or scales. Salmon? Yes. Razor clams? No. Crab? No. The northern coastal people of Alaska would have to quit eating whales.

In Nehemiah 13:27, we are informed that international marriages are wrong. Perhaps more relevant to many of us, the Bible forbids anyone to divorce or remarry. Some people believe that birth control is morally wrong because of Genesis 38:9, where a man is killed because he interrupts sexual intercourse and spills his semen on the ground.

One law fascinates me: it’s OK to eat your neighbor’s grapes, just don’t take a bucket with you. I don’t like that law. I have lived in places where I had only a few raspberries and would not have appreciated my neighbors’ coming over and eating them. But biblically they would have been in the right as long as they didn’t bring along a pan or a bucket (Deut. 23:24).

These rules had important purposes. For example, in Bible times, eating pork could make one seriously ill. Now that is less likely, but many Jews continue to keep that law as an act of obedience. But most Christians, even those who say the Bible must be taken literally, do not observe that law.

This is how I approach the scriptures. I take the Bible very seriously, but not always literally. In the video series “Faces on Faith,” Madeleine L’Engle quoted Karl Barth: “I take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally.” I like that! I think it is more important to follow the principles that are revealed in the Bible than to get hung up on nitty-gritty details. I believe in progressive revelation: God makes new knowledge available to us. It may be based upon biblical principles but not touched on specifically in the Bible.

Because of the principles of the Bible, I believe that birth control is morally right. God calls us to have concern for the welfare of women and children, so birth control and concern for population growth are moral.

Taking food and drink in moderation is a morally neutral act. The Bible says it is what comes out of our mouths that profanes us, not what goes in. I do believe that it’s important to eat right. I believe the Bible teaches that. Many churches affirm this by letting weight-loss support groups and Alcoholics Anonymous meet in their buildings.

Another theme that I affirm is the importance of acknowledging God as the creator of all things. “God is the ruler yet.” says the hymn “This Is My Father’s World.” I also believe in justice: this principle permeates the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Justice should guide us today. God was very critical of both Old and New Testament religious leaders who forgot about justice.

Once I conducted a funeral for a man who had committed suicide. When I walked into the house, a neighbor who came to give sympathy to the widow was saying, “I’m so sorry that you are not going to be in heaven with your husband, because people who commit suicide don’t go to heaven.”

I was kind of dumb then. I did confront the woman and challenged her viewpoint, but I was basing it on instinct, not knowledge.  In response, I spent three days studying the Bible on the subject of suicide. I read encyclopedias and commentaries. I interviewed other clergy.

What did I learn? Mostly, the Bible is silent on the subject. The strongest biblical basis for the folk tale that persons who commit suicide don’t go to heaven is that suicide breaks one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” This makes no sense whatsoever. I don’t know about you, but I stole something once, and thus broke one of the Ten Commandments. Does that mean I am not going to be in heaven? No, it does not.

A woman came to ask me to officiate at her wedding. She was divorced from her husband and had several children. She first asked her pastor to perform her second wedding. He refused, saying, “I believe in the Bible literally and it says that if you remarry you’re committing adultery, and I’m not going to do that to you. Call John Shaffer, he’ll do it.” (See Footnote)

When she asked me to perform the ceremony, she also asked, “Why will you do this for me, when it is biblically clear that you shouldn’t?”

I didn’t know why. I hadn’t done much study to support my conviction not to condemn people for past problems. So I dug.

What did I learn? That in Jesus’ day, women had no rights whatsoever. They were property. But Jesus messed up this system. Jesus gave women the same rights as men. He healed on the Sabbath, too. He didn’t have any respect for the scriptures, according to his critics.

But Jesus did respect justice and mercy. He respected the principles of the faith that he had learned from the Hebrew Bible.

The next time I met with this woman for marriage counseling, I said, “I believe in a God of justice. and it isn’t just for you at age 35, in love with a wonderful man, to feel guilty about remarriage. It isn’t just, and Jesus preached justice.”

I will preach justice. I might even be willing to suffer for it as lots of people in the world have done. And I think God calls us to study what justice is so that we too might be willing to suffer for it. What if all of us lived for justice?

(Footnote: the preacher who would not officiate at the wedding did babysit the children during the honeymoon and he and his wife sponsored a reception for them at their church.  The woman’s former husband had been the pastor of this same church and the divorce had come about because of some form of abuse. He was unable to compromise his belief system to officiate at the wedding, but in his heart of hearts, he knew that this remarriage was a good thing. He did the right thing. He sent them to me.)



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