Love is Obedience

Sometimes it’s so strange to listen to my co-workers freely talk about drinking alcoholic beverages. Half of our conversations seem to be which drinks I’ve never drunk or the fact that I’ve never been drunk. At most, I’ve been able to have a sip or two of various kids of drinks – but I could never bring myself to drink more than that. Even when an opportunity presented itself to go out drinking; I passed it up. I always do.

I remember listening to a young believer talk about the Bible’s prohibition against the evils of drinking; she could quote any negative verse on the subject. But she wasn’t quite sure what to make of the verses that were neutral or mentioned that people should drink under specific circumstances; it was almost as if she didn’t even know that they were there. Indeed; in the era of the Bible, not drinking was not an option – the water wasn’t always the safest thing to drink and that’s why Paul advised Timothy drink a little wine to help him feel better. Drinking was okay and even necessary; drinking to excess and drunkenness was to be avoided.

Even though that I know that much of the rules against alcohol is a result of a human tendency to make rules out of everything; I still find it a hard one to break. For many, drinking is just a good time – letting loose and hanging out with trusted friends. But I don’t know what sort of drunk I’d be and truthfully, I don’t have people I’d trust when I’m in a drunken state and lack self-control or any sense of inhibition. So for me, I’m afraid that I’d say or do something that would ruin a perfectly decent relationship or at the very least be awkward.

Jesus had this reputation of being a drunken party-goer yet he has this entire denomination of followers that’s anything but. That same young believer who was against drinking talked about how she couldn’t stand parties as they were too loud and the music was so unchristian. She was so uncomfortable – as if she knew that if God caught her there, he might send her to Hell for being somewhere sin was so prevalent. Being raised in that mindset is extremely hard to overcome.

These rules may not be in God’s word, but they are made from God’s word. Disobeying God’s word is a sure-fire ticket to an eternity in an extremely hot environment. Your salvation is at stake. What did Pastor Sproul say? “Sometimes, after we have studied the background of a text thoroughly, we are still not sure whether it is giving us a principle or a custom. But it is better to treat a custom as a principle than a principle as a custom. If we think a custom is a principle, we are only guilty of being overtly scrupulous. However, in disregarding what is really a principle because we say it is a custom, we disobey God. When faced with unclarity, treat the biblical teaching as if it is a principle. “ Erring on the side of caution in an attempt to be better safe than sorry seems to have made rules that go beyond what is written; adding to the word extra commandments.

It’s something we have done of old, it’s something we still do even now, and will continue to do as the future stretches before us – until the very end of the last second of all the time that there will ever be. A concept like modesty is a prime example: we have varying and conflicting rules about what is modest and what isn’t. Now the Bible doesn’t say in so many words that a particular item is immodest; but so long as something causes a weaker brother to stumble by inciting lust – that breaks the rule and is added to the list of forbidden items and by now we have a pretty big list.

Those are just those “thou shalt not” rules – don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t curse, don’t dance, don’t be immodest; but there are also “thou shalt” rules as well; ways of living that are according to a biblically-informed way of life. It’s that erring on the side of caution thing I mentioned; because if it’s bad to do something the Bible says not to do; it’s even worse not doing something the Bible says ought to be done. But I can’t help but wonder, is it really the Bible that says this is how I ought to live; or some interpretation or teaching based on the word of a person who is fearful and overly scrupulous who has made commandments where none are to be found and who is trying to bind my conscious to something that was never meant to be? Does God only want me to pass the test of being obedient to unwritten rules?

Everyone talks about how if God really wanted obedience, he could have made Adam and Eve as robots and hard-wired them to obey him. But that’s not what he was after. He gave them free will – a choice. Does he want us to choose to obey? Is having free will a means to an end? Why bother giving people free will if the test of Christianity is to give it up and just obey? And yet – how is it today that obedience and submission seem to be the end-all and be-all of Christianity? Are we misreading God’s Word?

It seems to be a darned if you don’t and a darned if you do situation; somebody reads the Bible and makes a teaching that’s accepted enough to become a custom or at least a principle. At which point it must be obeyed because it’s from God’s Word. It gets added to as people flesh it out in the day-to-day living. If you don’t, then you’re being disobedient and that proves you don’t believe in God and aren’t saved. If you do, then at worst you might be overly scrupulous, but you’re certain to go to heaven – and you must obey everything without exception or question because it’s in the Bible somehow or other. Because that’s how you prove you love God and are saved.

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. – Jesus, John 14:23-24

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Deconstructing Modesty

Like many Biblical teachings that cannot be directly carried out, we have a tendency to distill from them enduring principles that we insist fulfill the spirit of the law. One such teaching is that of modesty. Trying to find a simple explanation of modesty that is somewhat universally agreed upon was somewhat difficult – but I think this best sums it up: Modesty is the code (a set of conventions governing behavior or activity in a particular sphere) that women are to follow (obey) for the sake of (benefit of) men.

Biblically speaking, there’s only a modest amount of information upon which to define the modesty teachings:

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, – 1 Tim. 2:9

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. – 1 Peter 3:3

These two verses most directly address what ought and ought not be worn, in both verses there is no direct connection with: wear modest clothing in keeping with purity. In context, 1 Tim. 2:9 is discussing instructions for worship. In context, 1 Peter 3:3 is talking about how wives ought behave when their husbands are non-believers. Neither one really set up for or explain the purity concept that modesty is known for today, but both connect modesty with inexpensive fashions and normal hair-styles.

The purity code tells women that men are visual and can’t help but look. So it is the duty of women to not give them anything to look at by covering up their skin and hiding their figure as much as humanly possible. To help young girls learn what is and what isn’t modest, there’s any number of tests one can try to see how modest an outfit is – look in the mirror to see how much an outfit covers, then sit down in a chair to see if the outfit uncovers too much, bend down forward or backward, bend down to the left or right, ask yourself: “What am I trying to achieve? What am I trying to convey? Am I “advertising”? Will it lead other minds to wander into sin?” and if all else fails, ask your brother or father if it passes the thought test. Granted, you have to ask them to think things outside of the boundary of modesty, but they’re related to you so it’s okay and it doesn’t count as being immodest particularly if they tell you to change into something else before you leave the house.

The purity code also tells us that anything that causes men to think about sinning or act upon the sin they were thinking about is immodest, therefore only men may define what is modest and what isn’t. That’s why there’s a long list of rules that comes with the teaching: (the shameful rules of Modesty – a great post with excellent comments!) Not only that, but the modesty teachings are flexible from one church to the next – something that would have been seen as modest might suddenly become immodest; or something you grew up knowing as immodesty might be modest in another church. Even clothing styles and fashions that doesn’t exist yet can always be branded as immodest for failing to fall within these ever-changing rules.

I couldn’t tell you which Bible verse says that men are visual and that women must dress in such a way as to prevent sins. I couldn’t find one. Part of the Sermon on the Mount is this:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” – Matthew 5:27-30

I’ve heard it said that Jesus isn’t literally instructing men to blind themselves or cut off their hands, but to take responsibility for their own actions and thoughts. Jesus was not saying: “You have heard it said, “do not look at a woman lustfully because that’s committing adultery in your heart.” But I tell you, the woman is at fault for wearing immodest clothing, yes, she caused you to sin by her poor wardrobe choices. It is better for her to wear modest clothing so that you do not go to Hell.” The Bible Study for this verse says that “Christians must not only avoid the act of adultery (“hand”), but also those things that would lead to a lustful attitude (“eye”).” But it fails to note that Jesus was stating that the sinner was responsible for his own thoughts and actions that lead to his sins. It was never the duty of the other party to prevent him from sinning in thought or deed.

Jesus had more to say about the source of sins: Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” … “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” – Mark 7

That is what the core issue with modesty is – it denies Jesus’ teachings in favor of a code or rules that place a burden on women who are obliged to obey them. It blames women for the evils in the heart of men. It shames women and hurts men, too. It doesn’t give men the chance to learn better, to rise above, and to prove the teachings wrong. Modesty isn’t what we think it means.