Friday, June 14, 2019

The better way

We've been reading through the Pentateuch for the last couple years on Wednesday nights: we started with Exodus a few years ago, and are now in Deuteronomy 32. So our reading of the Pentateuch is coming to a close.

Something I've heard over and over since I was a kid in Sunday School is that the Law is the best way to live in this world. They used to tell us, for example, that the strictures against eating pork were because pigs carry all sorts of diseases and parasites, and it was healthier not to eat pork.

I've heard that sort of reasoning given as we read through the Pentateuch this time as well. For example, someone commented on Deuteronomy 22:9 that crops are more productive if they aren't sown together.

But... that's not actually true. All the reading I've done on the subject says crops are much more productive when they are mixed. Mixed fields are more resistant to disease, and the soil is healthier with diverse plants. My understanding – which is far from perfect – is that we plant large fields uniformly because it makes the harvest easier to automate, not because the crops grow better.

This was brought home to me most clearly in the commandments regarding lending. The children of Israel were to forgive all debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1–2). So the maximum term of a loan under the Law is seven years. But they were specifically forbidden from considering how far away the seventh year is (Deuteronomy 15:9). So if it's the sixth year, and a poor fellow Israelite asks for a loan, you're specifically forbidden from taking into consideration that you must forgive the loan in less than one year. And if someone asks for a loan, you're not allowed to take his ability to pay it back into consideration (Deuteronomy 15:7–8). In fact, if someone poor asks for a loan, you're to return the collateral of the loan by sundown (Deuteronomy 24:12–13).

Those rules can only be described as "non-sustainable". You are expected to give loans without interest, which must be forgiven every seven years. You can take collateral for a loan, but you can't keep it overnight. You're not allowed to consider the borrower's ability to repay a loan, nor are you allowed to consider how close the mandatory loan forgiveness is when you're asked for a loan. It's madness.

I've come to the conclusion that many times, the Law specifies doing things in worse, not better ways. It's not because pork is unhealthy that eating it is forbidden. It's not because crops grow better separately they were commanded to keep them separate. It's not because it's good financial sense to lend to someone without thought for their ability to repay the loan that they were commanded to do so. It seems to me like the very opposite.

The idea that the Law prescribes "best practices" for our health and well-being entirely misses the point. These weren't strictures against practices that don't work. These are strictures against things our experience shows work very well. So why does God give rules that seem counter-productive?

Deuteronomy 11:8–15 establishes the principle of Deuteronomy: the rules are different in God's land. In Egypt, if you want your crops to grow, you need to irrigate the land (Deuteronomy 11:10). But in Canaan, if you want your crops to grow, you need to pray for rain (Deuteronomy 11:13–14). The principle of living in the land is immediate, direct dependence on God.

So laws about lending that forbid taking the most elementary precautions to protect your money aren't supposed to work better. That's not the point. They're designed to make you depend on God. The promise is, if you do things the way I tell you, then I will ensure your success (Deuteronomy 15:10). You won't succeed because you're following better rules, you'll succeed because God will directly intervene to bless.

And this, I think, is the point we all miss, all the time. We see Scripture as a sort of a guide for how to live in this creation. But that's not at all what Scripture is. It's a guide for how to live in an entirely different creation, a creation where your best ideas and hardest efforts will entirely fail. In the new creation, the only rule for success is to be close to Christ (John 15:4–5).

I wish I could get my arms around this! I wish I could really see this and live it out! I wish I could finally learn that one lesson: that my hardest efforts and my wisest decisions and my most clever plans and my most intelligent ideas are all bound to fail in the new creation. I wish I could see – consistently – that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. I wish I could finally be convinced that the only key to success in the Christian life is proximity to Christ. It seems like no matter how many times I'm brought face-to-face with that one truth, I manage to put it out of my mind, and go back to thinking I've got a better way.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

"Publicly and in every house"

There's been some discussion here about what constitutes an "assembly meeting". I've seen a lot of these discussions over the last twenty years, and I've come to dislike them intensely.

In my experience, when someone questions whether something is an "assembly meeting," the question behind the question is, "must we obey 1 Corinthians 14:26–40?" Literally every time I've heard someone question whether something is an "assembly meeting," the actual question is whether women should be speaking in the meeting. I can't recall a single instance when that wasn't the issue.

I can't find where scripture discusses "assembly meetings". I just can't find those verses. It seems to me we get into the weeds when we start building theologies on terminology that's not in scripture. If we really want to be biblical Christians, it seems to me the best place to start is by using biblical terms to describe biblical ideas.

So, if "assembly meeting" isn't a scriptural term, is it at least a scriptural idea? I suppose the actual question is whether there is the concept of a non "assembly meeting." It seems to me there are two questions we need to consider. First, is there the concept in scripture that Christians might gather, but not as the assembly? Second, is it possible that the assembly gathers, but it's not an "assembly meeting?"

In practical terms, the second question is really the one people are asking. I don't know anyone who questions whether it is "the assembly" when I have other Christians over for dinner. I'm sure there is someone, somewhere who holds that view, but it's not something I've come across.

I think the closest thing we get to a scriptural answer is in Acts 20:20. There, Paul says he taught the Ephesian elders "publicly and in every house." If there is a more relevant verse, I haven't found it.

So Paul appears to classify his teaching into two categories:

  1. public
  2. and private (in every house).
This has the advantage of being a simple and clear distinction, but there isn't really a lot of nuance to it. If someone has a Bible study in their home, then it would fall under "in every house." If the assembly has a Bible study on a weeknight, then it would fall under "publicly."

Again, I realize this isn't really nuanced, but it's all I really see in Scripture.

The small meeting here has a Wednesday night meeting. We spend about 45 minutes praying, then we spend another 45 minutes in a Bible reading. I've been told that the first 45 minutes is an "assembly meeting," while the next 45 minutes is "not an assembly meeting." That's certainly nuanced, but it also seems a bit ridiculous.

What I haven't personally seen – what I'd like to see – is an assembly taking the position that we only do what scripture clearly teaches. If we have to build a theology to explain "not assembly meeting" and "assembly meeting," then perhaps we've already gone down the wrong path. Perhaps we've already filled our schedules with things scripture doesn't actually command. Perhaps we're already doing too much.

"brethren" like to refer to Acts 2:42 as a sort of a charter for the assembly. There we read about four activities in the early church:

  1. the teaching of the apostles
  2. fellowship
  3. breaking of bread
  4. prayers.
It seems to my "brethren" read way too much into that verse. It's not a command for us, it's a description of what the early Christians did. And it certainly isn't giving us a list of meetings that we ought to be attending, although I've known plenty of folks who seem to think it is.

But let's just take those four elements as a sort of a basic description of four things an assembly should be doing. Let's be clear that adding more things isn't necessarily an improvement: the Ephesians appear to have been involved in all sorts of activities, but were still missing the point (Revelation 2:2–4). But let's get back to the four in Acts 2:42. If those comprise a list of activities the assembly should be doing, then perhaps we could generate a list of things the assembly shouldn't be doing.

In the end, I'm not actually advocating for cancelling all the meetings, nor even reducing the count to four or fewer. What I am advocating is that we test what we're doing against Scripture. If a meeting doesn't seem to work unless we declare it to be a "non-assembly meeting," then maybe we should just cancel it. And certainly, if there's no real exercise before the Lord about a meeting, we should pray about dropping it. Having a meeting just because "we've always done it" is a step down the path to Ephesus (Revelation 2:2–4).