Legality versus Morality: what’s ‘Christianity’s’ role in modern-day democracies?

“But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.”–1 Peter 4:15

“Christians, from mistaken zeal, under the plea of faithfulness, might readily step out of their own calling and make themselves judges of the acts of unbelievers. Literally, ‘a bishop in what is (not his own, but) another’s’ province; an allusion to the existing bishops or overseers of the Church; a self-constituted bishop in others’ concerns”. (See Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary)

 In the wake of the recent Section 53 ruling, many Belizeans who are either devout members of a particular christian denomination or simply disgusted by the homosexual lifestyle have come out swinging at the Chief Justice and  the members of the gay community. Fundamentally, I understand what has some members of the church community so up in arms. They’ve been consistently fed a doctrine that one of their principle missions in life is to speak out against sin, and there’s been some who have been fed from a school of thought that suggests that God is prone to send calamity upon a nation where such sin exists. The latter, of course, stems from Old Testament teachings, with examples such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah reigning as one of the most prominent cases.

I know what these members of the church feel, because for four years of the sixteen years I’ve been a Follower of The Way (more commonly known as a “Christianity”) I was one of these people. I rebuked; I demanded that people abstain from “every appearance of evil”, even if the receiver of said message was NOT a christian; I instructed people NOT to listen to ANY type of music IF it wasn’t clearly labelled GOSPEL music; in my super-spiritual epoch I refused to even hold women’s hands, regardless IF we were in a prayer circle because I must remain PURE.

By age 16 I had already read the entire Bible (save a few chapters in Psalms). I remember my pious self spending one summer vacation (probably at age 16/17) fervently conducting a research to prove that the consumption of any form of alcohol (any fermented wine, beer,etc) was a sin! I ventured into both Classical Hebrew and Greek languages, the original languages of the Old and News Testament, respectively, to try and PROVE this beyond a shadow of doubt.

Of course, those few Catholics drinking fermented wine in their Eucharist were also in my sights. Why not? After all, many of us evangelicals believed and had come to think that Catholics and other “big-church people” may not even really be “saved”, especially since their stance against sin is not always as ardent as ours. I held these positions for years, and actively tried to CONVERT Methodist, Anglicans, Adventist, etcetera from their folly. So, you could imagine what I had to say to a homosexual in my earlier years.

 

Look, there was even an episode where some folks abstained from going to certain Asian restaurants that had images of Buddha in the establishment, because they felt the image of Buddha in the restaurant was a type of idolatry.

 

From zealot to temperance? 

 

I forget the precise age; however, it was shortly after my “wine research”–the findings of which were inclusive by the way–that I wanted to, again, PROVE definitely from scripture that getting a tattoo was SINFUL, and that a CHRISTIAN man or woman should never get such a thing!!!

 

I remember coming up to my pastor, the late Ensford Maskall, for support on this. Surely he will agree with me! I could remember it like it was yesterday: This young zealot expected his pastor to declare tattooing a grave sin, after all Leviticus 19:28 speaks to this. Instead, he looked at me and said: “Well, I’d only really want to know what is their intention or motive for getting it”.

Shocked! That was me for a time. Where was the call for repentance, the detailed explanation of why it’s such a terrible sin, where was the righteous anger? There was none to be found. That’s when I started to truly understand that this man was very down-to-Earth.

 

What are the persons’ “intentions” for getting it? Why was this all he had to say? With the help of my study Bible and its footnotes and commentaries, I then began to understand that  one cannot read the Bible just at the face value: there is a historical and linguistic context that carries significant value. When one studies the Bible with scholarly commentaries such as that from Clarke’s Bible Commentary, you benefit from insights that would otherwise be lost to us who live outside that time in history and the relevant culture(s).

Let’s take Leviticus 19:28, for instance. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” Surely this is evidence for the sin of getting a ‘tattoo’ right? However, when one looks at a commentary such as the Clarke’s Bible Commentary, for instance, you learn the following:
“It was a very ancient and a very general custom to carry marks on the body in honor of the object of their worship. All the castes of the Hindoos bear on their foreheads or elsewhere what are called the sectarian marks, which distinguish them, not only in a civil but also in a religious point of view, from each other. Most of the barbarous nations lately discovered have their faces, arms, breasts, etc., curiously carved or tattooed, probably for superstitious purposes. Ancient writers abound with accounts of marks made on the face, arms, etc., in honor of different idols”.

This, like the jewellery prohibition to the Jews, was closely related to a warning against any behaviours linked to idolatry,especially given the customs of prevalent in those days. It, therefore, cleared up for me why the last four words of Leviticus 19:28 came where they did: “I am the LORD”. God was warning His people against idolatry.

However, thousands of years later this young zealot would have interpreted His word to mean that I should condemn and JUDGE anyone who gets a tattoo, especially if that person was a Christian. I was then able to understand my pastor’s relaxed position on this issue. He knew better. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still don’t encourage tattoos, but that’s more health-based admonitions as opposed to any spiritual reasoning. And, like Pastor Maskall, I would question the motive; that is, if I’m invited to opine on the matter by whomever wishes to get one.

Biggest Mistake: forgetting the great commission

Of course, this understanding was not the complete cure for my over zealousness for dictating to people in and outside the church as to how they should live. No, I would have many more such missteps playing Judge and Jury.

One, however, that stands out palpably occurred when I was a student (possibly 17 or 18) at St. John’s College Junior College (SJC-JC). In my first year I would join and become the vice-president of the Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), and, in my second year, its president.

I could recall–again like it was yesterday–walking past this classroom en route to IVCF meetings, and in so doing also frequently IGNORING this young man who sat alone in the classroom adjacent to where our meetings were held. More importantly, I repeatedly ignored that Little Voice inside that said to me: “kindly stop and at least say ‘hi” to this young man; talk to him; see if you can be a friend; and, if you can, tell Him about Christ”.

Of course, I knew that was the Spirit of God reminding me of the Great Commission, every Christian’s true calling. But I’ve seen this young man around the campus before; he seemed “strange”. Honestly, I had what I believed to be sufficient evidence to lead me to conclude that he was a homosexual. He even got the lofty disapproving head shake a couple times.

Therefore, being in a hurry to make it to my IVCF meetings as early as possible, I never listened to that voice. I graduated from SJC-JC as the president of the IVCF, and roughly a year or so later the local news reported that this same young man, whom I never spoken to or shared Christ’s Gospel with, killed himself. Yes, he committed suicide, and, while I know everyone is responsible for his or her personal choices, I am left with this question: what would have happened if I had simply obeyed my God’s instruction at least once?

That question haunts, but what hurts is the answer to why I never heeded that Voice: I was in too much of a hurry to get to an all-christian group meeting to share and discuss the Word of God with people who already knew Jesus Christ, and were of like mind. They were safe! Most of these people were already attending a Bible-believing church and were well secured in their beliefs, and while I enjoyed their company, I overlooked someone whom God was also concerned about. But, he seemed weird. It was enough for me to simply judge his ostensibly effeminate tendencies from afar. Talk about failing to truly emulate Christ, Who made it a point to interact with those who needed His Gospel the most.

And now what?

There were many such experiences, but I think you get the idea. I shared the above to simply paint a picture of why my approach to spreading God’s Gospel has changed so drastically over the last eleven to twelve years. If my job as a Follower of  THE WAY is to invite people to join the path to the Kingdom of Heaven, it appears that my earlier approach was doing just the opposite.

Maybe that’s why Apostle Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:15 resonates with me on such a profound level. When one looks at this scripture, especially when one analyses what Peter meant by the word that was weakly translated as “busybody or meddler in other men’s affairs”, he’d learn that the apostle–who walked with Christ for several years–discouraged Followers of The Way of Christ (later pejoratively dubbed “Christians”) from interfering in the lives of those outside the Faith.

“But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.”–1 Peter 4:15

Peter, so bothered about this, went as far to coin an original word, allotriepiskopos (click to see Strong’s Definition) which Strong’s Concordance defines as “one who meddles in things alien to his calling”. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon goes on to write:

“‘[O]ne who takes the supervision of affairs pertaining to others and in no wise to himself (a meddler in other men’s matters)’: ‘1 Peter 4:15 (the writer seems to refer to those who, with holy but intemperate zeal, meddle with the affairs of the Gentiles — whether public or private, civil or sacred — in order to make them conform to the Christian standard)'”.

Peter made it clear that that’s not our duty to try and force unbelievers or those outside The Way to comply with our beliefs. As some Christian scholars expertly point out, he literally lumped this action with the three preceding crimes.

Consequently, one has to ask: how should the modern church read this scripture and others that express this same position? How do we, via the scripture, justify the call for a law that says someone should spend time in prison for what they do in private? How do we justify any thought about trying to legislate morality and criminalise people for not following our beliefs? How does this help in the spreading the Gospel?

To this end, I encourage that one reviews Peter’s positions and the context in which he spoke. The opening quote to this article makes reference to this line of thought: 

“Christians, from mistaken zeal, under the plea of faithfulness, might readily step out of their own calling and make themselves judges of the acts of unbelievers.”

Jesus Loves the Outcast

Jesus Loves the Outcast

Is this not what this entire Section 53 issue comes down to: Christians making themselves literal judges of the acts of those who do not believe as we do?

Is homosexuality a sin? YES!!! But the fundamental fact is simply this: we are not called to criminalise acts that we, the Followers of The Way (aka Christians), hold as sins. Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers,  speaking on the same scripture, puts it this way:
“Others, through excess of zeal, declaimed aloud against the pagans, and cast their vices in their teeth. … It denotes those prying and self-important people who fancy they can set everything to rights, and that everybody they come across is under their personal jurisdiction. Such persons would tend to make Christianity unpopular among the unbelievers, and, in case of persecution, would be the first to ‘suffer’ … and while flattering themselves for the boldness with which they had spoken out, they would incur St. Peter’s censure, and their martyrdom would be reckoned no martyrdom by the Church.”
In the End

It is my firm belief that every Bible-believing Christian believes that homosexuality is a sin. Nobody is debating the Christians’ view on this. The lingering question is how do we say this: ‘because it is a sin, it also stay on the books as a crime, even if it’s between consenting adults’ What do you thing Apostle Peter, Paul and Christ–especially looking at His example in the time He walked among us–would say?

 

In the end, The Followers of The Way are called to reach out and invite all men to become disciples of Christ and His teachings. If that is so, I believe our actions should be those that increase the opportunity for those outside The Way to wish to hear our message, just as Christ was able to dine with those the Pharisees and Sadducee felt were not worthy of “righteous” company.

A lingering problem, however, is that many would feel that being around people “outside” The Way equals compromising. If that was true, then Christ must be the King of Compromise. Having graduated from SJC-JC, I went straight to University of Belize to continue my studies. There, I made friends with men and women whose lifestyle are quite relevant as it pertains to Section 53.

They knew my my stance on the Word of God, yet they would invite me to socialise with them. They always respected my personal convictions, while they openly expressed their disdain for what they called “Church People”.

I could recall one time asking them outright: “Why is it that you all who say that you hate ‘Church People’ welcome me around you. I still talk about God and you know my stance on how you live”. One of my friends looked at me and said: “We like you around, because even though you talk about Jesus and your Bible, you don’t judge us”. We had discussions, not sermons.

What’s the take away? I don’t believe people HATE our GOD; they hate the judgemental look and actions of those of us who supposedly represent Him.

So, yes, I find resonance with what Apostle Peter meant by his instruction for us to not suffer as an “allotriepiskopos” and the reasoning behind his words as explained in not only Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers , but also by other biblical scholars cited in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, and more.

 

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