Situation Ethics—Extended Version
Human beings throughout history have been susceptible to a desire to be freed from the dictates of higher authority. Most people wish to be free to do whatever they desire to do. This attitude runs rampant among the baby boomers whose formative years occurred during the 1960s. Expressions that were commonplace at the time included “Do your own thing” and “Let it all hang out.” These simple slogans offer profound insight into what really was driving the countercultural forces at that time. Underneath the stated objectives of love, peace, and brotherhood were the actual motives of self-indulgence and freedom from restrictions. This ethical, moral, and spiritual perspective has proliferated, and now dominates the American moral landscape.
The Israelites at Mt. Sinai provide a good case study of this. Their unbridled lust manifested itself when they cast aside restraint. Awaiting the return of Moses, they “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6)—“play” being used euphemistically to refer to sex play (cf. Genesis 26:8) [Harris, et al., 1980, 2:763; Clarke, n.d., 1:464]. The drinking and dancing (vs. 9) apparently included lewd, even nude, party-like revelry, with the people being “naked” (KJV), “broken loose” (ASV), “unrestrained” (NKJV), or “out of control” (NASV—vs. 25). The “prodigal son” was gripped by this same “party on” mentality. He went to the far country to party, to live it up, and to “get down.” There he indulged himself in riotous, loose living—totally free and unrestrained in whatever his fleshly appetites urged him to do (Luke 15:13).
Despite all of their high and holy insistence that their actions are divinely approved, and the result of a deep desire to do Christ’s will and save souls, could it possibly be that those within Christendom who seek to relax doctrinal rigidity are, in reality, implementing their own agenda of change simply to relieve themselves of Bible restrictions? Is it purely coincidental that the permissive preachers have been both willing and eager to accommodate the clamor for “no negative, all positive” preaching? Is it completely accidental and unrelated that many voices are minimizing strict obedience under the guise of “legalism,” “we’re under grace, not law,” “we’re in the grip of grace” (Lucado, 1996), and that we are “free to change” (e.g., Hook, 1990)?
No, these circumstances are neither coincidental nor unrelated. They are calculated and conspiratorial. Those who have aversion to law have breathed in the same spirit that has led secular society’s psychological profession to view guilt as destructive, while unselfish, personal responsibility is labeled “co-dependency.” They have embraced the same subjective, self-centered rationale that secular society offers for rejecting the plain requirements of Scripture in order to do whatever they desire to do: “God wants me to be happy!” and “It meets my needs!” The spirit of liberalism has indeed taken deep root, both in the country and in the Christian religion (see Chesser, 2001).
In the mid-1960s, Joseph Fletcher published the book, Situation Ethics, thereby securing for himself the dubious distinction “the Father of Situation Ethics” (1966). Of course, Fletcher was by no means the first to advance the ideals of situationism. Men like Emil Brunner (The Divine Imperative), Reinhold Niebuhr (Moral Man and Immoral Society), Harvey Cox (The Secular City), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Ethics), and John A.T. Robinson (Honest to God) promoted ethical relativism before Fletcher’s popular expression of the same. Existentialist philosophers like Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger promulgated this same subjectivism. Though Fletcher at first attempted to deny this tie to existential philosophy (1967, p. 75), he ended up admitting it (pp. 77,234). However, we need not think that situation ethics is a twenty-first-century phenomenon that was invented by modern theologians and social scientists. Situationism goes all the way back to Eden when Satan posed to Eve circumstances that he alleged would justify setting aside God’s law (Genesis 3:4-6).
Fletcher summarized his ideas in terms of six propositions that he came to identify as “the fundamentals of Christian conscience” (1967, pp. 13-27). This ethical theory stresses “freedom from prefabricated decisions and prescriptive rules” in exchange for “the relative or nonabsolute and variant or nonuniversal nature of the situational approach” (p. 7). “Right and wrong depend upon the situation” (p. 14). The “situation” is defined as “the relative weight of the ends and means and motives and consequences all taken together, as weighed by love” (p. 23). The situation ethicist feels free to “tinker with Scripture” and to form “a coalition with the utilitarian principle of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’” (pp. 18-19; cf. p. 56).
Situationism is simply ethical relativism, in that it moves “away from code ethics, from stern and ironbound do’s and don’ts, from prescribed conduct and legalistic morality” (p. 24). Situationism bears close affinity with existentialism (pp. 26,77,234). “Imitative practice,” uniformity and conformity, and “metaphysical morals” are all disdained (pp. 26,106,240). Objective principles and abstract rules are repudiated, in exchange for “freedom and openness” (pp. 72,76,233,235). Concrete absolutes are viewed unfavorably as “authoritarianism” and “rules-bound thinking” (p. 240).
In contrast, situationism calls for “creative” moral conduct, accommodation to “pluralism,” “freedom,” and “openness,” as well as “spontaneity and variety in moral decision-making” (pp. 78,123-124,235,241). Constant emphasis is placed on “love” as the only intrinsic good, with the loving thing to do depending on each situation that arises. Since “love” is the only inherent, intrinsic value, the moral quality or value of every thing or action is extrinsic and contingent—depending upon the situation (pp. 14,26,34,38,55,76,123-124).
Though Fletcher offered formal expression to these concepts several decades ago, it would not be an exaggeration to state that situationism has “gone to seed” in American society and now constitutes the prevailing approach to making ethical decisions. As pollster guru George Barna remarked in a 2003 survey of American moral behavior:
This is reflective of a nation where morality is generally defined according to one’s feelings. In a postmodern society, where people do not acknowledge any moral absolutes, if a person feels justified in engaging in a specific behavior then they do not make a connection with the immoral nature of that action…. Until people recognize that there are moral absolutes and attempt to live in harmony with them, we are likely to see a continued decay of our moral foundations (2003, emp. added).
FLAWS IN SITUATIONAL THINKING
At least two foundational errors cause Fletcher’s theory of situationism to be irreparably flawed. The first is the failure to grasp the Bible’s identification of the central concern of human beings: to love, honor, glorify, and obey God (Ecclesiastes 12:13; Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:37; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 2 Corinthians 5:9; 10:5; 1 Peter 4:11). Fletcher is virtually silent on this dimension of human responsibility. Instead, he focuses his entire theory on love for fellowman. While love for fellowman is certainly crucial to Christian ethics and absolutely mandatory for the Christian (e.g., Luke 10:25-37) it must be viewed in its rightful position, subsumed beneath the greater, higher responsibility of loving God. One cannot love God without loving one’s neighbor (e.g., 1 John 4:20-21). But, theoretically, one could love another person without loving God. Consequently, love for fellowman must be viewed in the larger framework of focusing one’s life on pleasing God first and foremost.
Since this must be the singular all-consuming passion of human beings, God’s Word must be consulted in order to determine how to love God and fellow man. In other words, to comply with the number one responsibility in life, one must consult the absolute, prefabricated, prescriptive, ironbound do’s and don’ts of Scripture! This, by definition, is love for God (1 John 5:3; John 14:15). It follows, then, that Fletcher is incorrect in identifying the only intrinsic good as “love” for fellow man (1967, p. 14). According to the Bible, intrinsic good includes fraternal love. But superceding even this love is filial love, i.e., love for God (Matthew 22:36-37; cf. Warren, 1972, pp. 87ff.). Consequently, God defines what love entails in man’s treatment of both God and fellow man. But those definitions are found in the Bible in the form of prescriptive rules, regulations, and ironbound do’s and don’ts.
The second fundamental flaw of Fletcher’s brand of situationism is the subtle redefinition of “love.” While Fletcher was correct when he identified love as an active determination of the will rather than an emotion (pp. 20-21), his idea of “love” is materialistic and secular, rather than scriptural or spiritual. “Love,” to Fletcher, is what human beings decide is “good” or “best” in a given situation. This humanistic approach allows man and his circumstances to become the criteria for defining morality, rather than allowing God to define the parameters of moral behavior: “The metaphysical moralist with his intrinsic values and laws says, ‘Do what is right and let the chips fall where they may.’ The situational moralist says, ‘Whether what you do is right or not depends precisely upon where the chips fall!’” (1967, p. 26).
But the Bible simply does not place law and love in contradistinction to each other. In fact, according to the Bible, one cannot love either God or fellow man without law. The only way for an individual to know how to love is to go to the Bible and discern there the specifics of loving behavior. When Paul declared, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:19), he did not mean that it is possible to love one’s neighbor while dispensing with the law (see Fletcher, 1967, p. 70; Hook, 1984, p. 31). Rather, he meant that when you conduct yourself in a genuinely loving manner, you are automatically acting in harmony with the law (i.e., you are not killing, stealing, coveting, bearing false witness, etc.). God, in His laws, defined and pinpointed how to love. To treat any of God’s laws as optional, flexible, or occasional is to undermine the very foundations of love.
In situationism, human beings become the standard of morality. The human mind, with its subjective perceptions of the surrounding moral environment, becomes the authority, in direct conflict with the words of an inspired prophet: “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). The psalmist certainly could be accused of being a “metaphysical moralist with his intrinsic values and laws.” In his great psalm on the law of the Lord (Psalm 119), the writer conveyed his conviction that objective, prescriptive rules and prefabricated principles were indispensable to his survival. Observe closely a small portion of his unrelenting extolment of divine laws: “You have commanded us to keep Your precepts diligently” (vs. 4); “I would not be ashamed, when I look into all Your commandments” (vs. 6); “Behold, I long for Your precepts” (vs. 40); “I will delight myself in Your commandments, which I love” (vs. 47); “I will never forget Your precepts, for by them You have given me life” (vs. 93); “Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (vs. 104); “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (vs. 160); “My soul keeps Your testimonies, and I love them exceedingly. I keep Your precepts and Your testimonies, for all my ways are before You” (vss. 167-168).
To Fletcher, “love” directed toward one’s fellowman is a materialistically defined love that he calls “personalism.” “Personalism” is “the ethical view that the highest good, the summum bonum or first-order value, is human welfare and happiness” (1967, p. 33). Fletcher’s ethical humanism is “a personalist devotion to people, not to things or abstractions such as ‘laws’ or general principles. Personal interests come first, before the natural or Scriptural or theoretical or general or logical or anything else” (p. 34, emp. added). What such assertions really mean in practical, behavioral terms is that, ultimately, human beings may do whatever they deem “good” or “best.” A glance at Fletcher’s illustrations shows that the most “loving” decisions are those that ease physical pain, alleviate hardship, lessen emotional suffering, or accommodate human desire and personal preference. For Fletcher, “evil” is physical imprisonment, separation from family, the hardship of unjust labor, an unpleasant marriage, or lack of commitment to a person (e.g., pp. 32,39). “Human happiness” is, by definition, what human beings think will make them happy—not what God says actually will bring true happiness—even in the midst of, and while enduring, unjust or unpleasant circumstances.
Sin, in situationism, is not “transgression of God’s law” (1 John 3:4). Rather, “sin is the exploitation or use of persons” (p. 37). It is withholding what a person perceives to be the means to personal happiness. But this understanding of sin is a radical redefinition of love and happiness in comparison to the Bible. In contrast, Scripture makes clear that “intrinsic evil on the purely physical level does not exist” and “neither pain nor suffering is intrinsically evil” (Warren, 1972, pp. 93,40). Since sin (i.e., violation of God’s law) is the only intrinsic evil, “evil” and “good” exist only in relation to the will of God (pp. 39,41).
By Fletcher’s definitions, many people in Bible history were not sinners as previously supposed, but were, in fact, mature, responsible individuals who acted lovingly: Eve (Genesis 3:1-6); Cain (Genesis 4:3); Lot and Lot’s wife (Genesis 13:12; 19:16,26); Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3); the Israelites (Numbers 21:4-6); Balaam (Numbers 22-24); Saul (1 Samuel 13:9; 15:9,21); and Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6ff.). On the other hand, if situationism is correct, many persons in the Bible were not righteous, as is claimed, but were slaves to abstract rules and principles, and were unloving in their conduct toward their fellow man including: Noah (Genesis 6; 2 Peter 2:5); Joseph (Genesis 39:7-12); Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:6-9); Phinehas (Numbers 25:6-9); Joshua (Joshua 7:24-25); and John the baptizer (Mark 6:18-19). Here were people who set aside the preferences of their fellow man, ignoring their contemporaries’ desire for “happiness” and “self-fulfillment,” and instead followed divine prescriptions—even though those precepts were considered to be contrary to the consensus view.
Taking into account the components of “the situation” as Fletcher recommends—“the end, means, motive, and foreseeable consequences” (1967, p. 25)—Uzzah would have to receive Fletcher’s sanction as a loving, moral person (2 Samuel 6:1-7). His motive was unquestionably good, since he wanted to avoid the unpleasant end and foreseeable consequences of the Ark of the Covenant toppling from its precarious resting place. The means that Uzzah used were the only ones available to him at that particular moment in time. His only mistake, which resulted in his immediate execution by God, was his failure to give heed to the prefabricated, prescriptive, abstract, legalistic, absolute, metaphysical, ironbound “don’t” of Numbers 4:15 [For a useful treatment of situation ethics, especially for young people, see Ridenour, 1969].
The true nature of any false philosophy or ethical system is often apparent in the concrete examples that advocates set forth as illustrative of their position. Fletcher is no exception in this regard. He approves of divorce “if the emotional and spiritual welfare of both parents and children in a particular family can be served best” (1967, p. 23, emp. in orig.). He would approve of the suicide of a captured soldier under torture to avoid betraying comrades to the enemy (p. 15). Two additional instances are seen in the following comments. Fletcher said that he knew of
a case, in which committing adultery foreseeably brought about the release of a whole family from a very unjust but entirely legal exploitation of their labor on a small farm which was both their pride and their prison. Still another situation could be cited in which a German mother gained her release from a Soviet prison farm and reunion with her family by means of an adulterous pregnancy. These actions would have the situationist’s solemn but ready approval (p. 32).
Additional examples of situation ethics at work are seen in the statements: “Lying could be more Christian than telling the truth. Stealing could be better than respecting private property” (p. 34). Fletcher asks: “Is the girl who gives her chastity for her country’s sake any less approvable than the boy who gives his leg or his life? No!” (p. 39). Further,
a couple who cannot marry legally or permanently but live together faithfully and honorably and responsibly, are living in virtue—in Christian love. In this kind of Christian sex ethic the essential ingredients are caring and commitment.… There is nothing against extramarital sex as such, in this ethic, and in some cases it is good (pp. 39-40, emp. in orig.).
Consider the situation ethicist’s view of abortion:
When anybody “sticks to the rules,” even though people suffer as a consequence, that is immoral. Even if we grant, for example, that generally or commonly it is wrong or bad or undesirable to interrupt a pregnancy, it would nevertheless be right to do so to a conceptus following rape or incest, at least if the victim wanted an abortion” (p. 36; cf. Hook, 1984, p. 34).
When one abandons the objective standard conveyed by the eternal God from Whom flows infinite goodness, the means for assessing human behavior is “up for grabs” and pitched into the subjective realm of human opinion in which “everyone does what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Such a person will inevitably begin misrepresenting the biblical treatment of Christian liberty and freedom, and will maintain that “freedom in Christ” means being relieved of the “burden” of a “legal code.”
FREEDOM IN THE BIBLE: JOHN 8:12-59
The Bible certainly speaks of the wonderful freedom that one may enjoy in Christ. But biblical freedom is a far cry from the release from restriction, restraint, and deserved guilt touted by the antinomian agents of change (cf. Hook, 1984, pp. 43ff.). The Bible does not speak of the “flexibility and elasticity” of God’s laws (pp. 29-31). Rather, with sweeping and precise terminology, Jesus articulated the sum and substance of what it means to be “free in Christ.” In a specific context in which He defended the validity of His own testimony (John 8:12-59), He declared the only basis upon which an individual may be His disciple. To be Christ’s disciple, one must “continue” in His word (vs. 31). That is, one must live a life of obedience to the will of Christ (Warren, 1986, pp. 33-37). Genuine discipleship is gauged by one’s persistent and meticulous compliance with the words of Jesus.
Freedom in Christ is integrally and inseparably linked to this emphasis upon obeying God. While it is ultimately God and Christ Who bestow freedom from condemnation upon people, they do so strictly through the medium of the written words of inspiration (vs. 32). The “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) is the law that gives liberty to those who are “doers of the word” (James 1:22). These same words will function as judge at the end of time (John 12:47-48).
It thus becomes extremely essential for people to “know the truth” in order for the truth to make them free (vs. 32). What did Jesus mean by “the truth?” “The truth” is synonymous with: (1) the Gospel (Galatians 2:14; Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5-6—genitive of apposition or identification); (2) the Word (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 4:2); (3) the Faith (Acts 14:21-22; Ephesians 4:5); and (4) sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10-11). In other words, “the truth” is the content of the Christian religion. It is the New Testament—the doctrines of the one true religion (cf. James 5:19). For a person to “know” the truth, he or she must both understand it and submit to it. Christ’s teachings must become the supreme law of daily life. The servant must both know his master’s will, and act in accordance with that will (Luke 12:47).
The freedom that Jesus offers through obedience to His truth is noted in His interchange with the Jews over slavery. Those who sin (i.e., transgress God’s will—1 John 3:4) are slaves who may be set free only by permitting Christ’s teachings to have free course within them (vs. 34-37). This kind of freedom is the only true freedom. Genuine freedom is achieved by means of “obedience to righteousness” (Romans 6:16). Freedom from sin and spiritual death is possible only by obedience to God’s words (vs. 51).
Nevertheless, these Jews—though they were believers (vs. 30-31)—were unwilling to obey Christ’s will, and to function in a faithful manner as Abraham had (vs. 39). Consequently, Jesus labeled them children of the devil (vs. 44). They were not “of God” because they were unwilling to “hear” God’s words, i.e., comply with them (vs. 47). Though they believed, they would not obey the truth. “Indignation and wrath” await those who will not “obey the truth” (Romans 2:8). J.W. McGarvey summarized the interpenetration of freedom, obedience, and knowing the truth: “Freedom consists in conformity to that which, in the realm of intellect, is called truth, and in the realm of morality, law. The only way in which we know truth is to obey it, and God’s truth gives freedom from sin and death” (n.d., p. 457).
SITUATIONIST PROOF TEXTS: THE ADULTEROUS WOMAN
Another way to grasp the substance of a false philosophy is to assess the way in which the Scriptures are given treatment to support the philosophy. The remainder of this article will confine itself to examining several favorite proof texts frequently marshaled in an effort to defend situationism.
“What about the woman taken in adultery? Didn’t Jesus free her from the rigid restrictions of the Law?” One of the most misused, mishandled, and misapplied passages in the Bible is the narrative of the woman caught in adultery, recorded in John 8:1-11. [For a discussion of the technical aspects of this passage as a textual variant, see Metzger, 1968, pp. 223-224; 1971, pp. 219-222; McGarvey, 1974 reprint, p. 16; Woods, 1989, p. 162.] This passage has been used by situation ethicists (e.g., Fletcher, 1967, pp. 83,133), libertines, and liberals to insist that God is not “technical” when it comes to requiring close adherence to His laws. The bulk of Christendom has abetted this notion by decontextualizing and applying indiscriminately the remark of Jesus: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (vs. 7). The average individual, therefore, has come to think that Jesus was tolerant and forgiving to the extent that He released the woman from the strictures of God’s law that called for her execution. They believe that Jesus simply “waved aside” her sin, and thereby granted her unconditional freedom and forgiveness—though the Law called for her death (Leviticus 20:10). After all, isn’t it true that Jesus places people “in the grip of grace” (Lucado, 1996)?
Those who challenge conclusions such as these are derided as “traditionalists” who lack “compassion,” and who are just like the “legalistic” scribes and Pharisees who cruelly accused the woman and wanted her handled in strict accordance with Mosaic Law. Did Jesus set aside the clear requirements of Mosaic legislation in order to demonstrate mercy, grace, and forgiveness? A careful study of John 8:1-11 yields at least three insights that clarify the confusion and misconception inherent in the popular imagination.
First, Mosaic regulations stated that a person could be executed only if there were two or more witnesses to the crime (Deuteronomy 19:15). One witness was insufficient to invoke the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:6). The woman in question was reportedly caught in the “very act” (vs. 4), but nothing is mentioned about the identity of the witness or witnesses. There may have been only one, thereby making execution illegal.
Second, even if there were two or more witnesses present to verify the woman’s sin, the Old Testament was equally explicit concerning the fact that both the woman and the man were to be executed (Deuteronomy 22:22). Where was the man? The accusing mob completely sidestepped this critical feature of God’s Law, demonstrating that this trumped-up situation obviously did not fit the Mosaic preconditions for invoking capital punishment. Obedience to the Law of Moses in this instance actually meant letting the woman go!
A third consideration that often is overlooked concerning this passage is the precise meaning of the phrase “He who is without sin among you…” (vs. 7). If this statement were to be taken as a blanket prohibition against accusing, disciplining, or punishing the erring, impenitent Christian, then this passage flatly contradicts a host of other passages (e.g., Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14; Titus 3:10; 2 John 9-11). Jesus not only frequently passed judgment on a variety of individuals during His tenure on Earth (e.g., Matthew 15:14; 23; John 8:44,55; 9:41; et al.), but also enjoined upon His followers the necessity of doing the same thing (e.g., John 7:24). Peter could be very direct in assessing people’s spiritual status (e.g., Acts 8:23). Paul rebuked the Corinthians’ inaction concerning their fornicating brother: “Do you not judge those who are inside? …Therefore put away from yourselves that wicked person” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13, emp. added). Obviously, Paul demanded that Christians must judge (i.e., make an accurate evaluation of) a fellow Christian’s moral condition. Even the familiar proof text so often marshaled to promote laxity (i.e., “Judge not, that you be not judged”—Matthew 7:1) records Jesus admonishing disciples: “…then you will see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye” (vs. 5). The current culture-wide celebration of being nonjudgmental (cf. “I’m OK, You’re OK”) is clearly out of harmony with Bible teaching.
So Jesus could not have been offering a blanket prohibition against taking appropriate action with regard to the sins of our fellows. Then what did His words mean? What else could possibly be going on in this setting so as to completely deflate, undermine, and terminate the boisterous determination of the woman’s accusers to attack Him, by using the woman as a pretext? What was it in Christ’s words that had such power to stop them in their tracks—so much so that their clamor faded to silence and they departed “one by one, beginning with the oldest” (vs. 9)?
Most commentators suggest that He shamed them by forcing them to realize that “nobody is perfect and we all sin.” But this motley crew—with their notorious and repeatedly documented hard-heartedness—would not have been deterred if Jesus simply had conveyed the idea that, “Hey, give the poor woman a break, none of us is perfect,” or “We’ve all done things were not proud of.” These heartless scribes and Pharisees were brazen enough to divert her case from the proper judicial proceedings and to humiliate her by forcibly hauling her into the presence of Jesus, thereby making her a public spectacle of her. Apparently accompanied by a group of complicit supporters, they cruelly subjected her to the wider audience of “all the people” (vs. 2) who had come to hear Jesus’ teaching. They hardly would have been discouraged from their objective by such a simple utterance from Jesus that “nobody’s perfect.”
So what is the answer to this puzzling circumstance? Jesus was striking at precisely the same point that Paul drove home to hard-hearted, hypocritical Jews in Rome: “Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things” (Romans 2:1, emp. added). Paul was especially specific on the very point with which Jesus dealt: “You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery?” (vs. 22). In other words, no person is qualified to call attention to another’s sin when that individual is in the ongoing practice of the same sin. Again, as Jesus previously declared, “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). After all, it is the “spiritual” brother or sister who is in the proper position to restore the wayward (Galatians 6:1).
Consequently, in the context under consideration, it may well be that Jesus knew that the woman’s accusers were guilty of the very thing for which they were willing to condemn her. (It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the fellow with whom the woman had committed adultery was in league with the accusers.) Jesus was able to prick them with their guilt by causing them to realize that He knew that they, too, were guilty. The old law made clear that the witnesses to the crime were to cast the first stones (Deuteronomy 17:7). The death penalty could not be invoked legally if the eyewitnesses were unavailable or ineligible. Jesus was striking directly at the fact that these witnesses were unqualified to fulfill this role since they were guilty of the same sin, and thus deserved to be brought up on similar charges. They were intimidated into silence and retreat by their realization that Jesus was privy to their own indiscretions—and possibly on the verge of divulging them publicly.
Observe carefully that at the withdrawal of the accusers, Jesus put forth a technical legal question when he asked to: “Woman, where are they? Did no man condemn thee?” (ASV), or “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?” (vs. 10, KJV). The reason for Jesus to verify the absence of the accusers who had brought the charges against the woman was that the Law of Moses mandated the presence of eyewitnesses to the crime before guilt could be established and sentence passed. The woman confirmed, “No man, Lord” (vs. 11). Jesus then affirmed: “Neither do I condemn you….” The meaning of this pronouncement was that if two or more witnesses to her sin were not able or willing to document the crime, then she could not be held legally liable, since neither was Jesus, Himself, qualified to serve as an eyewitness to her action. The usual interpretation of “neither do I condemn you” is that Jesus was flexible, tolerant, and unwilling to be judgmental toward others or to condemn their sinful actions. Ridiculous! The Bible repudiates such thinking on nearly every page. Jesus was declaring the fact that the woman managed to slip out from under judicial condemnation on the basis of one or more legal technicalities. But, He said (to use modern-day vernacular), “You had better stop it! You were fortunate this time, but you must cease your sinful behavior!”
Incredible! These scribes and Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus in a trap. Yet Jesus, as was so often the case (e.g., Matthew 21:23-27), “turned the tables” on His accusers and caught them in a trap instead! At the same time, He demonstrated a deep and abiding respect for the governing beauty and power of law—the law that He and His Father had authored. Jesus was the only person Who ever complied with Mosaic legislation perfectly (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15). He never sought to excuse human violation of law, nor to minimize the binding and authoritative application of law to people. Any interpretation of any passage that depicts Jesus as violating God’s law in order to forgive or accommodate man is a false interpretation, as is any interpretation that relegates law to a status of secondary importance (cf. Deuteronomy 6:24; 10:13; Psalms 19:7-11; Romans 7:12). Jesus was not in sympathy with the permissive mindset of today’s doctrinally lax thinkers who soften doctrine and the binding nature of law in the name of “grace,” “freedom,” or “compassion.”
SITUATIONIST PROOF TEXTS: THE SPIRIT AND LETTER OF THE LAW
“But doesn’t the Bible make a legitimate distinction between the ‘letter of the law’ and the ‘spirit of the law’?” It is argued that sometimes it is necessary, even mandatory, to violate the “letter of the law” in order to act in harmony with the “spirit of the law.” According to this line of thinking, those who insist that obedience to the law of God is always required without exception are “hung up on the letter of the law” instead of being led by the “spirit of the law” (cf. Hook, 1984, p. 42).
This perspective naturally breeds and nurtures a relaxed attitude toward obedience. It militates against a desire to be precise and careful in conformity to biblical teaching. One individual explained how his feelings of devotion to Jesus made him feel that as long as he maintained a close “sense of nearness” to Christ, he did not have to fret over “nit picky” concerns, like whether Christians should be meticulous in their obedience to the laws of the land. Another person avowed that she did not “sweat the small stuff” since she was living her life in recognition of God’s grace, and felt certain that Jesus would “cut her some slack.” The “small stuff” to which she referred included such things as whether God would accept instrumental music in worship to Him, whether God would approve of unscriptural divorce and remarriage, and whether sprinkling may pass for New Testament baptism.
The primary passage in the New Testament marshaled in an effort to support the “spirit vs. letter” antithesis is Paul’s remarks to the church of Christ in Corinth (2 Corinthians 3:4-18). I urge the reader to pause and read the third chapter of Second Corinthians before reading the analysis that follows. Two phrases are typically excised from the context and used as proof texts to support a notion contrary to the chapter: “not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (vs. 6), and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (vs. 17). These phrases are set forth by some as proof that Christians ought not to be too meticulous in conforming strictly to various New Testament directives. Those who suggest such assume that “letter” refers to the commands of God—the written statements of Scripture that specify and regulate human behavior. They also assume that “spirit” refers to one’s attitude or feelings. Hence, if the individual feels devoted, concerned, and sincere, he or she is deemed in line with “the spirit of the law.” On the other hand, the individual who appears inflexible and rigid, or overly concerned with strict obedience, is perceived to lack “compassion” and “sensitivity,” and too concerned with “the letter of the law.”
However, if a person takes the time to study God’s Word and refrain from mishandling its intended meaning (Acts 17:11; 2 Corinthians 4:2; 1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 2:15), he or she will see that neither Paul nor any other inspired writer agreed with such thinking. In a pericope dealing with his apostolic ministry, Paul crafted a beautiful allegory—what D.R. Dungan called “the most perfect antithesis to be found in the whole Bible” (1888, p. 349). By arranging the contrasting phrases of the antithesis into two columns, the Bible student is able more easily to grasp Paul’s intended meaning:
|2 CORINTHIANS 3|
|Old Covenant||New Covenant|
|Ministers of the new covenant (vs. 6)|
|Of the letter (vs. 6)||Of the Spirit (vs. 6)|
|The letter kills (vs. 6)||The Spirit gives life (vs. 6)|
|Ministry of Death (vs. 7)||Ministry of Spirit (vs. 8)|
|Written/Engraved on stones (vs. 7)|
|Ministry of condemnation (vs. 9)||Ministry of righteousness (vs. 9)|
|Glorious (vss. 7,9.11)||Much more glorious (vss.8-9,11)|
|Passing away (vs. 7)||Remains (vs. 11)|
|Veil on Moses’s face (vs. 13)||Great boldness of speech (vs. 12)|
|Veil remains in reading O.T. (vs. 14)||Veil taken away in Christ (vs. 14)|
|Veil lies on their heart (vs. 15)||Veil taken away when one turns to the Lord (vs. 16)|
Comparison of “the letter” vs. “the spirit” of the law (O.T./N.T.)
It should be immediately evident to the unbiased observer that “the two legs of the antithesis are the New Covenant in contrast with the Old Covenant” (Dungan, p. 268). Precisely the same meaning is conveyed by the same terminology in Paul’s letter to the Romans (2:29; 7:6). The Old Testament legal system, though an excellent system for what God had in mind (Romans 7:12), was unable to provide ultimate forgiveness for violations of law and, in that sense, “kills.” It took Jesus’ death on the cross to make “life” possible, i.e., actual cleansing from sin.
When one recognizes the existing contextual meaning, it becomes apparent that these verses have absolutely nothing to do with the alleged “spirit vs. letter” contention! In fact, the Bible nowhere postulates such a thing. Like all liberal thinking, one must refrain from thinking too much about it if one does not wish to see the absurdity and nonsensical nature of it. The “spirit vs. letter” contrast is “better felt than told” gobbledygook that makes no sense. In an article titled “The Letter That Killeth” written on April 3, 1897, J.W. McGarvey responded to just this type of thinking:
Just once in the course of his writings Paul makes the declaration that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:7); and no remark that he ever made has been applied in a greater number of unlicensed ways. If a man insists upon preserving some ordinance in the very form of its original appointment, such an ordinance as baptism or the Lord’s Supper, for example, he is accused of contending for the letter that killeth, while the man who makes the charge, and who changes the ordinance, claims that he is following the spirit that giveth life. All of that large class of writers who make free with the Scriptures while claiming to reverence their authority, employ this device to excuse their departures from the word of God, while those who remonstrate with them for their license are denounced as literalists or sticklers for the letter that killeth. In all these instances, it seems to be claimed that if you stick close to the ordinance as Christ gave it, you will kill somebody. The last example that attracted my attention was in connection with the number of elders that should be appointed in a church. The writer says: “It has been thought to be a greater evil to have a congregation without a plurality of elders than to have an eldership without the requisite qualifications;” and he adds: “This is to do violence to the spirit of the New Testament in an effort to be loyal to its letter.” But which, in this case, is the letter, and which is the spirit? To have a plurality of elders is certainly the letter of the New Testament; that is, it is the literal requirement; and the literal requirement also is to have elders of prescribed qualifications. Where, then, is the spirit as distinguished from the letter? Echo answers, Where? The writer was so in the habit of using this favorite expression where he wished to justify a departure from Scripture precedent that he evidently applied it in this instance from pure habit and without thought. The watchful reader will have seen many examples of the kind (1910, pp. 160-161).
Indeed, redefining the biblical expressions “spirit of the law” and “letter of the law” enables the situationist to promote his agenda under the cloak of Bible backing.
If one wishes to use the expression “the spirit of the law” to refer to a proper attitude, and “the letter of the law” to refer to compliance with the explicit dictates of Scripture, it is certainly true that a person can distort or disregard “the spirit of the law” while following carefully “the letter of the law.” A person may engage in external, rote compliance without heartfelt, genuine love for God and His will. But it is impossible to represent faithfully “the spirit of the law” (i.e., to have the right attitude) while acting out of harmony with the specific details of the law. When Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commands” (John 14:15), He pinpointed the fact that “love” for Him includes “obedience.” It is possible to obey and not love; but it is not possible to love and not obey. One may have good intentions in one’s religious pursuits, but if those religious actions are contrary to God’s specified will, the activity is unacceptable to God. The situationist’s claim that sincerity and feelings of “love” legitimize whatever action “love” takes, is in direct contradiction to Bible teaching.
The fact of the matter is that God has always required that people approach him “in truth,” i.e., according to the divine directives that he revealed to man. The only worship that has ever been acceptable to God has been that worship which has been undertaken with (1) a proper attitude, frame of mind, and disposition conducive to spirituality, and (2) faithfulness to the specific items which God pinpointed as the proper external acts to be performed. Jesus made this fact very clear in His encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:23-24). God has never accepted one without the other. He has always required both. He has always required two facets of response to His will: the right action with the right attitude. Notice the following chart of scriptures:
|Ecclesiastes 12:13||fear God||keep commands|
|Acts 10:35||fear Him||work righteous|
|1 John 3:18||word/tongue||deed/truth|
|Romans 1:9||with my spirit||in the gospel|
To emphasize one dimension of obedience over the other is to hamper one’s acceptance by God. Bible history is replete with instances of those who possessed one without the other and were unacceptable to God. The Pharisees (Matthew 23:3), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:2-4), and the people of Amos’ day (Amos 5:21-24) engaged in the external forms, but were unacceptable because of their insincerity. Paul (Acts 22:3; 23:1), Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2), and Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6) all demonstrated genuine motives, but were unacceptable to God because of their failure to observe the right forms.
Think for a moment of the many in biblical history who failed to approach God “in truth,” that is, they approached God, but did so without sufficient attention to complying with the details and guidelines that God had articulated. Adam and Eve, regardless of the condition of their attitude, were condemned by God for the external act of eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:17; 3:11). Likewise, Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), the Sabbath breaker (Numbers 15:32-36), Moses (Numbers 20:11,12), Achan (Joshua 7), Saul (1 Samuel 13:13,14; 15:19-23), Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:1-7; 1 Chronicles 15:12,13), King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16-18), and Ezra’s contemporaries (Ezra 10)—all experienced the displeasure of God for their deviation from divine directions.
God has not changed in His insistence upon man’s loving obedience to His instructions (John 14:15; 15:14; 1 John 5:3). The Old Testament was written, among other reasons, in order for Christians to learn from the example of those who departed from God’s way (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11). New Testament faith, the kind of faith that Christians must possess if they wish to be pleasing and acceptable to God, is obedient trust—trust that conforms to God’s will (Hebrews 11; James 2).
The psalmist understood that God’s truth consisted of God’s written words (cf. Psalm 119:30,43,142,151,160). So did Jesus when He said, “Thy word is truth,” and declared that the basis of judgment would be the words that He spoke (John 17:17; 12:47-48). Worshipping God “in truth” is equivalent to “doing truth,” which entails “deeds” or external actions which are prescribed by God (John 3:19-21; cf. loving “in truth” in 1 John 3:18). When Jesus taught the way of God “in truth” (Matthew 22:16), He related information that accurately represented God’s will. When the Colossians heard “the word of the truth of the gospel” (Colossians 1:5), they heard the specific tenets, doctrines, requirements, and teachings to which they had to conform their lives.
Situationism, antinomianism (freedom from law), and liberalism (loosing where God has bound) share in common their mutual aversion to law keeping. Christians must not fall prey to these sinister forces that attempt to soften and obscure the clear call from God to render obedience to His directives. What He seeks from people is conformity to His laws out of hearts full of sincerity, earnestness, and love.
SITUATIONIST PROOF TEXTS: THE GRAINFIELD
“But what about that time when the Pharisees reprimanded Jesus’ disciples for picking grain and eating on the Sabbath? Was not that incident a clear case of Jesus advocating freedom from the ‘letter of the law’ in order to keep the ‘spirit of the law’? Was not Jesus sanctioning occasional violations of law in order to serve the higher good of human need and spiritual freedom?”
A chorus of voices within Christendom is insisting that the report of Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) does, indeed, advocate Christian “freedom” (i.e., freedom from law) and its priority over rule-keeping (e.g., Clayton, 1991, pp. 21-22; Collier, 1987, pp. 24-28; Lucado, 1989; Woodruff, 1978, pp. 198-200). Abilene Christian University professor David Wray wrote in reference to Jesus: “He healed and allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus then used ‘theological reflection’ to help his followers understand that people take priority over rule keeping and legalism” (1992, p. 1, emp. added). Richard Rogers claimed: “Jesus taught…that people took priority over the rules” (1989, p. 14, emp. added). Compare these statements to the one made by Randy Fenter: “It is not what we follow, but who we follow; not a set of values but a Person. …Are you committed to a set of Christian values, or are you committed to Jesus Christ who died for you?” (1993, p. 1, emp. in orig.). Frank Cox claimed that Jesus had “the power to modify or change the rules of Sabbath observance. Sabbath observance must bend to human needs” (1959, p. 41, emp. added). Another writer insisted that “there are occasions when necessity outweighs precept, as Jesus himself indicated in Matthew 12:1-5” (Scott, 1995, p. 2, emp. added). Still another writer claimed that Jesus was suggesting, “the Sabbath commandment was optional if inconvenient” (Downen, 1988, emp. added). Hook insists, “David and his soldiers ate the bread of the Presence and Jesus gave His approval of the action” (1984, p. 30, emp. added).
Interestingly enough, these remarks are insidiously reminiscent of the very ideas promoted by the most theologically liberal sources imaginable. The “Father of Situation Ethics,” himself, wrote that “Christians, in any case, are commanded to love people, not principles” (1967, p. 239, emp. added). He referred specifically to Matthew 12 when he said that Jesus was “ready to ignore the Sabbath observance” and that He “put his stamp of approval on the translegality of David’s action, in the paradigm of the altar bread” (pp. 15,17, emp. added). A Fort Worth First United Methodist Church minister stated: “Instead of putting the Scriptures first we should put God first” (as quoted in Jones, 1988, 1:8). This sort of humanistic inclination constitutes a great threat to the stability of the church and the Christian religion. It undermines the authority of Scripture, and further fosters the shift to emotion, feelings, and subjective perception as the standard for decision-making (see “The Shift to Emotion” in Miller, 1996, pp. 52-63).
It never seems to dawn on those who promulgate the “love Jesus vs. love law” antithesis that they are striking directly against the Bible’s own emphasis. Their contrast is not only unbiblical, but borders on blasphemy. Was the psalmist “legalistic” when he declared to God, “Oh, how I love Your law!” (Psalm 119:97)? Was he “idolatrous” or guilty of “bibliolatry” (book-worshipping) when he declared: “How sweet are Your words to my taste; sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103)? Over and over again, he affirmed his love for God’s Word: “…Your commandments, which I love” (vss. 47-48); “I love Your law” (vs. 113); “I love Your testimonies” (vs. 119); “I love Your commandments more than gold” (vs. 127); “Your word is very pure; therefore Your servant loves it” (vs. 140); “I love Your precepts” (vs. 159); “I love Your law” (vs. 163); “Great peace have those who love Your law” (vs. 165); “I love them exceedingly” (vs. 167). He claimed that God’s words were his delight (vss. 24,35,70,77,92,143,174), his hope (vss. 43,49,74,81,114,147,166), and his life (vs. 50). He even stated: “I opened my mouth and panted for, I longed for Your commandments” (vs. 131; cf. vss. 20,40).
The fact of the matter is one cannot love God or Jesus without loving and being devoted to Their teachings. That is why Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me” (John 14:21). “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:23). “He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (John 14:24). John echoed his Savior when he said: “[W]hoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him” (1 John 2:5), and “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). How ludicrous and contrary to the essence of deity to place in contrast—to pit against each other—God and God’s laws. This is a bogus, unscriptural juxtaposition. It is not a matter of either/or; it is both/and. To minimize one is to minimize the other. Those who do so are surely in the same category as those of whom Paul spoke: “…they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10, emp. added).
It likewise does not seem to dawn on those who espouse the “rules must bend to human necessity” philosophy that they are insulting the God of heaven—He Who authored the rules. Does it even remotely begin to make sense that God would author a law, tell humans they are obligated to obey that law, but then “take it back” and tell them they do not have to obey that law if it is “inconvenient,” or if it is in conflict with “human need,” or if necessity requires it? And who, precisely, is to make the determination as to whether God’s law in a particular instance is “inconvenient”? Surely not man—since “it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). And which people in all of human history ever found conformity to God’s laws “convenient”? “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2, emp. added; cf. 16:2).
Imagine parents telling their children that it is the will of those parents that the children obey the following instructions: “Do not steal, cheat, or lie.” Then imagine those same parents additionally stating: “But kids, if any of these requirements are inconvenient, or if your friends ask you to go help them steal a car, or if you feel you must cheat on a test to insure graduation, hey, ‘people take priority over rules,’ so if you must, feel free to ignore these requirements.” Those parents who take this approach to parenting inevitably produce lawless, undisciplined, unruly, irresponsible children. In fact, those parents eventually find that their children do not love them!
MEANING OF MATTHEW 12:1-8
Many commentators automatically assume that the charge leveled against Jesus’ disciples by the Pharisees was a scripturally valid charge. However, when the disciples picked and consumed a few heads of grain from a neighbor’s field, they were doing that which was perfectly lawful (Deuteronomy 23:25). Working would have been a violation of the Sabbath law. If they had pulled out a sickle and begun harvesting the grain, they would have been violating the Sabbath law. However, they were picking strictly for the purpose of eating immediately—an action that was in complete harmony with Mosaic legislation (“but that which everyone must eat”—Exodus 12:16). The Pharisees’ charge that the disciples were doing something “not lawful” on the Sabbath was simply an erroneous charge (cf. Matthew 15:2).
Jesus commenced to counter their accusation with masterful, penetrating logic, advancing successive rebuttals. Before He presented specific scriptural refutation of their charge, He first employed a rational device designated by logicians as argumentum ad hominem (literally “argument to the man”). He used the “circumstantial” form of this argument, which enabled Him to “point out a contrast between the opponent’s lifestyle and his expressed opinions, thereby suggesting that the opponent and his statements can be dismissed as hypocritical” (Baum, 1975, p. 470, emp. added). This variety of argumentation spotlights the opponent’s inconsistency, and “charges the adversary with being so prejudiced that his alleged reasons are mere rationalizations of conclusions dictated by self-interest” (Copi, 1972, p. 76).
Observe carefully the technical sophistication inherent in Jesus’ strategy. He called attention to the case of David (vss. 3-4). When David was in exile, literally running for his life to escape the jealous, irrational rage of Saul, he and his companions arrived in Nob, tired and hungry (1 Samuel 21). He lied to the priest and conned him into giving them the showbread, or “bread of the Presence” (twelve flat cakes arranged in two rows on the table within the Tabernacle [Exodus 25:23-30; Leviticus 24:5-6]), to his traveling companions—bread that legally was reserved only for the priests (Leviticus 24:8-9; cf. Exodus 29:31-34; Leviticus 8:31; 22:10ff.). David clearly violated the law. Did the Pharisees condemn him? Absolutely not! They revered David. They held him in high regard. In fact, nearly a thousand years after his passing, his tomb was still being tended (Acts 2:29; cf. 1 Kings 2:10; Nehemiah 3:16; Josephus, 1974a, 13.8.4; 16.7.1; Josephus, 1974b, 1.2.5). On the one hand, they condemned the disciples of Jesus, who were innocent, but on the other hand, they upheld and revered David, who was guilty. Their inconsistency betrayed both their insincerity as well as their ineligibility to bring a charge against the disciples.
After exposing their hypocrisy and inconsistency, Jesus next turned to answer the charge pertaining to violating the Sabbath. He called their attention to the priests who worked in the temple on the Sabbath (12:5; e.g., Numbers 28:9-10). The priests were “blameless”—not guilty—of violating the Sabbath law because their work was authorized to be performed on that day. After all, the Sabbath law did not imply that everyone was to sit down and do nothing. The Law gave the right, even the obligation, to engage in several activities that did not constitute violation of the Sabbath regulation. Examples of such authorization included eating, temple service, circumcision (John 7:22), tending to the care of animals (Exodus 23:4-5; Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Matthew 12:11; Luke 13:15), and extending kindness or assistance to the needy (Matthew 12:12; Luke 13:16; 14:1-6; John 5:5-9; 7:23). The divinely authorized Sabbath activity of the priests proved that the accusation of the Pharisees brought against Jesus’ disciples was false. [The term “profane” (vs. 5) is an example of the figure of speech known as metonymy of the adjunct in which “things are spoken of according to appearance, opinions formed respecting them, or the claims made for them” (Dungan, 1888, p. 295, emp. added). By this figure, Leah was said to be the “mother” of Joseph (Genesis 37:10), Joseph was said to be the “father” of Jesus (Luke 2:48; John 6:42), God’s preached message was said to be “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21), and angels were said to be “men” (e.g., Genesis 18:16; 19:10). Priestly activity on the Sabbath gave the appearance of violation when, in fact, it was not. Coincidentally, Bullinger classified the allusion to “profane” in this verse as an instance of catachresis, or incongruity, stating that “it expresses what was true according to the mistaken notion of the Pharisees as to manual works performed on the Sabbath” (p. 676, emp. added)].
After pointing out the obvious legality of priestly effort expended on the Sabbath, Jesus stated: “But I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple” (12:6). The underlying Greek text actually has “something” instead of “One.” If priests could carry on tabernacle/temple service on the Sabbath, surely Jesus’ own disciples were authorized to engage in service in the presence of the Son of God! After all, service directed to the person of Jesus certainly is greater than the pre-Christianity temple service conducted by Old Testament priests.
For all practical purposes, the discussion was over. Jesus had disproved the claim of the Pharisees. But He did not stop there. He took His methodical confrontation to yet another level. He penetrated beneath the surface argument that the Pharisees had posited and focused on their hearts: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7). In this verse, Jesus quoted from an Old Testament context (Hosea 6:6) in which the prophet of old struck a blow against the mere external, superficial, ritualistic observance of some laws, to the neglect of heartfelt, sincere, humble attention to other laws while treating people properly. The comparison is evident. The Pharisees who confronted Jesus’ disciples were not truly interested in obeying God’s law. They were masquerading under that pretense (cf. Matthew 15:1-9; 23:3). But their problem did not lie in an attitude of desiring careful compliance with God’s law. Rather, their zest for law keeping was hypocritical and unaccompanied by their own obedience and concern for others. They possessed critical hearts and were more concerned with scrutinizing and blasting people than with honest, genuine applications of God’s directives for the good of mankind.
They had neutralized the true intent of divine regulations, making void the Word of God (Matthew 15:6). They had ignored and skipped over the significant laws that enjoined justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23). Consequently, though their attention to legal detail was laudable, their misapplication of it, as well as their neglect and rejection of some aspects of it, made them inappropriate and unqualified promulgators of God’s laws. Indeed, they simply did not fathom the teaching of Hosea 6:6 (cf. Micah 6:6-8). “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” is a Hebraism (cf. Matthew 9:13) [McGarvey, 1875, pp. 82-83]. God was not saying that He did not want sacrifices offered under the Old Testament economy (notice the use of “more” in Hosea 6:6). Rather, He was saying that He did not want sacrifice alone. He wanted mercy with sacrifice. Internal motive and attitude are just as important to God as the external compliance with specifics.
Samuel addressed this same attitude shown by Saul: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). Samuel was not minimizing the essentiality of sacrifice as required by God. Rather, he was convicting Saul of the pretense of using one aspect of God’s requirements, i.e., alleged “sacrifice” of the best animals (1 Samuel 15:15), as a smoke screen for violating God’s instructions, i.e., failing to destroy all the animals (1 Samuel 15:3). If the Pharisees had understood these things, they would not have accused the disciples of breaking the law when the disciples, in fact, had not done so. They “would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7, emp. added).
While the disciples were guilty of violating an injunction that the Pharisees had made up (supposing the injunction to be a genuine implication of the Sabbath regulation), the disciples were not guilty of a technical violation of Sabbath law. The Pharisees’ propensity for enjoining their uninspired and erroneous interpretations of Sabbath law upon others was the direct result of cold, unmerciful hearts that found a kind of sadistic glee in binding burdens upon people for burdens’ sake rather than in encouraging people to obey God genuinely.
Jesus placed closure on His exchange with the Pharisees on this occasion by asserting the accuracy of His handling of this entire affair: “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (vs. 8). In other words, Jesus affirmed His deity and, therefore, His credentials and authoritative credibility for making accurate application of the Law of Moses to the issue at hand. One can trust Jesus’ exegesis and application of Sabbath law; after all, He wrote it!
Matthew 12 does not teach that Jesus sanctions occasional violation of His laws under extenuating circumstances. His laws are never optional, relative, or situational—even though people often find God’s will inconvenient and difficult (e.g., John 6:60; Matthew 11:6; 15:12; 19:22; Mark 6:3; 1 Corinthians 1:23). The truth of the matter is that if the heart is receptive to God’s will, His will is “easy” (Matthew 11:30), “not too hard” (Deuteronomy 30:11), nor “burdensome” (1 John 5:3). If, on the other hand, the heart resists His will and does not desire to conform to it, then God’s words are “offensive” (Matthew 15:12), “hard,” (John 6:60), “narrow” (Matthew 7:14), and like a hammer that breaks in pieces and grinds the resister into powder (Jeremiah 23:29; Matthew 21:44).
SITUATIONIST PROOF TEXTS: “LEGALISM”
“But this all sounds so legalistic! I thought the Bible condemned legalism.” One pervasive cultural phenomenon in American society is the predilection to be averse to law, restriction, and limitation. “Freedom” gradually has come to be conceptualized as freedom from restraint. Those who do not embrace a lax, casual, and open attitude toward moral value and ethical behavior are labeled “intolerant” and “mean-spirited.” Even within Christian circles, stressing the need to conform strictly to the will of God in all matters of faith and practice can cause one to be labeled as a “fundamentalist.” He is set aside as an immature and pharisaical misfit who simply has never “grown” to the point of grasping the true spirit of Jesus. He is “negative” and lacks “compassion.” And, yes, he is a “legalist.”
Listening carefully to the majority of those who fling about the term “legalistic,” it is soon apparent that they understand the term to refer to too much attention to legal detail. In the 1960s, Fletcher pinpointed the popular notion of “legalism”:
In this ethical strategy the “situational variables” are taken into consideration, but the circumstances are always subordinated to predetermined general “laws” of morality. Legalistic ethics treats many of its rules idolatrously by making them into absolutes.… In this kind of morality, properly labeled as legalism or law ethics, obedience to prefabricated ‘rules of conduct’ is more important than freedom to make responsible decisions (1967, p. 31).
It would be difficult to underestimate the cataclysmic consequences of this depiction on the moral fiber of human civilization. Typical of the widespread misconception that “legalism” has to do with giving too much attention to complete obedience, is the illustration given by a preacher, college professor, and prominent marriage and family therapist in a university lecture titled “Getting Ahead: Taking Your Family With You:”
I found out when you’re dialing numbers…you have to dial about eighteen numbers to get started, and then you have to dial eighteen more—you know what I’m talking about? And if you miss, what? If you miss ONE—just ONE—you say ugly things to yourself, don’t you? Because you know you blew it again. It is amazing how legalistic the telephone company is (Faulkner, 1992, emp. added).
The very idea that obedience to God’s laws would one day be viewed as negative by those who profess adherence to Christianity, and then for this obedience to be denounced as “legalism,” is utterly incomprehensible. Such a posture should be expected to shake the very foundations of a nation’s standards of morality, stimulating a corresponding widespread relaxation of moral behavior. Yet is this not precisely what has happened to American civilization in the last forty years?
What exactly is “legalism” according to the Bible? Is “legalism” to be equated with too much concern for obedience? Is “legalism” equivalent to ardent determination to keep God’s commandments? One who possesses such a view would naturally tend to gloss over “details” of New Testament teaching, relegating to the realm of minimal importance various matters that he or she deems are not “weightier matters of the law.” In the words of one rather permissive preacher, “We don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Surprisingly, the term “legalism” does not actually occur in the Bible. However, many extrabiblical words have been coined to describe biblical concepts (e.g., “providence”). In its classical, negative usage, “legalism” entails trusting one’s own goodness. Legalism pertains to one’s attitude about his own person (i.e., having an inflated sense of self-importance—Luke 18:11-12; Proverbs 25:27; Romans 12:3) and practice (i.e., thinking he or she can earn or merit salvation on the basis of performance—Luke 17:10; Romans 3:9-18,23; 11:35; 1 Corinthians 9:16). Legalism does not pertain to the propriety of the practices themselves. God always has condemned the person who is proud of his obedient actions, who trusts in his own goodness, and who expects to receive God’s grace on the basis of those actions (cf. Luke 18:9ff.; Romans 9:31ff.). But He always has commended the person who maintains absolute fidelity to the specifics of His commands (e.g., John 14:15; Romans 2:6-7,13; 6:16; Hebrews 5:9). The difference between the former and the latter is the attitude of the individual—a factor that only God is in a position to perceive (Luke 6:8). How presumptuous it is for one Christian to denounce another Christian simply on the basis that the latter exhibits meticulous loyalty to God’s Word—as if the former is able automatically to know his brother’s motive, and thus somehow read his mind. Purveyors of religious error often redefine otherwise good terms, placing their own spin on the word, thereby subtly slipping their false doctrine in on unsuspecting listeners. The liberal has redefined “legalism,” shifting the meaning from the attitude of being self-righteous to the action of conscientious obedience to all of God’s Word.
As proof of this contention, consider the classic examples of “legalism” in the New Testament: the Pharisees. Why may the Pharisees be classified as legalists? To answer that question, one must examine wherein Jesus found fault with the Pharisees. He reprimanded them for three central failings. First, they were guilty of hypocrisy. They pretended to be devoted, and went to great lengths to appear righteous, but they did not actually follow through with genuine, loving obedience to God (Matthew 23:4-7,25-28). Second, they gave attention to some biblical matters, but neglected others of greater importance (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). Jesus referred to this tendency as straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). (Of course, He was, thereby, neither advocating nor endorsing gnat swallowing.) Third, they misinterpreted Mosaic law (Matthew 5:17-48), and even went about binding and enforcing their fallacious interpretations, elevating these human traditions, laws, and doctrines to the level of scripture (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13). Jesus repeatedly upbraided the Pharisees for these three spiritual maladies. But with these three shortcomings in mind, notice that the “legalism” of the Pharisees did not have to do with fervent attention to fulfilling the “letter of the law.” The Pharisees were not condemned because they were too zealous about strict obedience to God’s will. They were condemned because “they say, and do not” (Matthew 23:2).
As a matter of fact, God always has been vitally concerned that those who wish to be pleasing to Him give great care to obeying the details and particulars of His instructions (e.g., Leviticus 10:1-3; 2 Samuel 6:1-7; 1 Chronicles 15:12-13). Jesus even equated this crucial sensitivity to obedience with love for Him (John 14:15; 15:14). Many who possess a flippant, blasé attitude toward rigid obedience, think that they are avoiding a “legalistic” syndrome, when they actually are demonstrating lax, weak spirituality and unfaithfulness.
“Faithfulness” is, by definition, obedient trust or loyal compliance with the stipulations of God’s will (James 2:17-26). “Righteousness” is, by definition, right doing (Acts 10:34-35; 1 John 3:7). Abraham understood this (Genesis 26:5; Hebrews 11:8). Moses understood this (Deuteronomy 4:2; 6:17; 10:12; 11:8,13,22,27-28). Joshua understood this (Joshua 23:6,11; 24:14-15). John understood this (1 John 5:3). So did Paul (Romans 6:16).
In reality, outcries of “legalism” can serve as a convenient smoke screen to justify departure from the faith, and to cloak an agenda that seeks to introduce unbiblical worship innovations into the body of Christ. Make no mistake: there are hypocrites in the church, as well as those with critical hearts whose demands for conformity arise out of self-righteous arrogance. But the major threat confronting the people of God today is the perennial problem of humanity: a stubborn, rebellious propensity for deviation/apostasy—i.e., an unwillingness to submit humbly to God’s directives (e.g., Genesis 4:7; 1 Samuel 15:22-23; Ecclesiastes 12:13; Micah 6:8; Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 3:10-12; 6:16; 10:21; 2 Thessalonians 1:8). That is precisely why, after rebuking the Pharisees for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law,” i.e., justice, mercy, faith, and the love of God (cf. John 5:42), Jesus reiterated: “These [i.e., the weightier matters—DM] you ought to have done, without leaving the others [i.e., the less weightier matters—DM] undone” (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42, emp. added). This is also why Jesus declared: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven…. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19-20). He meant that careful attention to all of God’s commandments—including those deemed “least”—demonstrates a conscientious regard for pleasing God. Whether under Judaism or in the kingdom of Christ, seeking to obey God with an humble attitude is paramount. Those who relegate some doctrinal matters to a status of less importance (e.g., worshipping God without human additions—like instrumental music, praise teams, choirs, and baby dedications), and teach others to participate in these unscriptural innovations, thinking that God will not be “nit-picky” over such “minor” things, will find themselves facing eternal tragedy.
Yes, we must avoid “legalism.” A smug sense of superiority and spiritual self-sufficiency will cause a person to be lost eternally (e.g., Luke 18:9-14). But who would have imagined—who could have anticipated—that the day could come when God’s demand for obedience would be circumvented, derided, and set aside as “legalism”? Those who advance this viewpoint are, in actuality, advocating “illegalism”! We dare not mistake “legalism” for loving obedience to the will of God in every facet of our lives. Instead, we must carefully “do all those things which are commanded” (Luke 17:10), recalling Jesus’ words: “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). We must stake our lives upon the grace of God, but then we must love and obey Him, remembering that “this is love for God: that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
SITUATIONIST PROOF TEXTS: 1 CORINTHIANS 6:12; 10:23
Another allusion to Scripture by the situationist in an attempt to bolster his case is Paul’s statement: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful; all things are lawful for me, but all things do not edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23; cf. 6:12). Fletcher appealed to this statement by Paul as proof that moral absolutes are not binding in all situations:
As Paul said twice in his letter to Corinth (chs. 6:12; 10:23), this approach fails to perceive that it is not its being “lawful” that makes a thing good but whether it is expedient, edifying, constructive—whether it builds up. What else could make a thing “lawful” (i.e., loving) except agapeic expediency? Theodore Roosevelt was either not quite candid or not very thoughtful when he said, “No man is justified in doing evil on the ground of expediency.” He was much too mired down in “intrinsic” moralism (1967, p. 22; cf. Hook, 1984, pp. 47-48).
Fletcher makes precisely the same mistake that the Corinthians had made in misunderstanding Paul’s teaching. In context, Paul was referring to the legality of consuming foods sacrificed to idols, in contrast with the inexpediency of doing so in light of weaker brothers. He was teaching that Christians must be willing to make concessions on indifferent, technically lawful, matters for the sake of weak Christians.
Paul certainly was not saying that absolute, unchanging laws do not exist, or that God’s laws possess a “flexibility and elasticity” that enables them occasionally to be set aside! As McGarvey and Pendleton observed, the Corinthians “had erred in taking the rule as to things indifferent, such as natural appetites, and so applying it as to make it cover not only sinful things, but even those grossly so, such as sensuous lusts” (n.d., pp. 76-77). So when Paul said “all things are lawful for me,” he was not referring to the absolute laws of God; he was referring to things that are legally optional. The eating of meat to which the context refers was lawful. But to eat or not to eat it was a matter of option and personal opinion. In such cases, and only in such cases, Paul taught that one’s decision must be made on the basis of expediency, i.e., how it affected the spiritual condition of others (cf. Woods, 1986, 2:161-162). Fletcher is guilty of the very thing for which the Corinthians were rebuked and corrected.
Probably no greater threat to the stability of society exists in our day than the humanistic, antinomian philosophy of situationism and its multi-faceted pluralistic and/or post-modernistic manifestations. It is part and parcel of the general rebellion against the authority of God’s Word that engulfs America. Vast numbers of people are living life and making decisions based upon their own subjective perceptions and personal feelings. For them, the concepts of right and wrong, truth and error are obscure, blurred, hazy, gray, and complex. What is wrong in one situation may be right and acceptable in another situation. Satan has done his job well. He has made great strides in American culture in the last half century in his effort to break down biblical values and moral absolutes. He has succeeded in replacing this framework with a tolerant, open, permissive attitude and outlook that refrains from passing judgment on anybody or anything. The “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” perspective has been embedded firmly into American civilization.
The mindset of today’s situationist is not new. We humans do not generally regard rules and regulations as positive phenomena. We usually perceive them as infringements on our freedom—deliberate attempts to restrict our behavior and interfere with our “happiness.” Like children, we may have a tendency to display resentment and a rebellious spirit when faced with spiritual requirements. We may feel that God is being arbitrary and merely burdening our lives with haphazard, insignificant strictures. But God would never do that. He has never placed upon anyone any requirement that was inappropriate, unnecessary, or unfair. During the Israelites’ final encampment on the plains of Moab prior to entrance into Canaan, Moses articulated a most important principle: “[T]he Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes…for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24, emp. added; cf. 10:13). God never would ask us to do anything that is harmful to us. He does not restrict us or exert His authority over us in order to purposely make us unhappy. Quite the opposite! God knows exactly what will make us happy. Compliance with His wishes will make a person happy (John 13:17; James 1:25), exalted (James 4:10), righteous (Romans 6:16; 1 John 3:7), and wise (Matthew 24:45-46; 7:24).
Those who wish to relieve themselves of restriction will continue to invent ways to circumvent the intent of Scripture. They will continue to “twist” (2 Peter 3:16) and “handle the word of God deceitfully” (2 Corinthians 4:2). They will exert pressure on everyone else to “back off,” “lighten up,” and embrace a more tolerant understanding of ethical conduct. But the “honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15) will “take heed how [he/she] hears” (vs.18). The good heart is the one who “reads…hears…and keeps those things which are written therein” (Revelation 1:3, emp. added). After all, no matter how negative they may appear to humans, no matter how difficult they may be to obey, they are given “for our good.”
The Bible simply does not countenance situation ethics. Jesus always admonished people to “keep the commandments” (e.g., Matthew 19:17). He kept God’s commands Himself—perfectly (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26). And He is “the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9, emp. added).
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