Take a deep breath and repeat after me: “The New Testament is neither a constitution nor a blueprint. The New Testament is neither a constitution nor a blueprint. The New Testament is neither a constitution nor a blueprint.”
Much of the Torah is in fact a constitution. Deuteronomy is written in the form of an ancient treaty. But the New Testament is plainly not written in that form. Therefore, we should not read it as a legal document.
I’m a lawyer. I know law when I see it. Deuteronomy is law. The New Testament is not.
Okay. One more time: “The New Testament is neither a constitution nor a blueprint. The New Testament is neither a constitution nor a blueprint. The New Testament is neither a constitution nor a blueprint.”
If the New Testament isn’t law, then what is it? Well, the Gospels and Acts are quite plainly stories — true stories or narratives, if you prefer — but stories. And the epistles are letters, written to deal with a particular situation in a particular culture. And Revelation, well, it’s apocalyptic literature.
Does that mean there are no laws? Well, it means we don’t start by looking for laws. Rather, we read for it is. And we let the Bible tell us what the questions are. The Bible gives us all the answers that matter the most, but only if we ask the questions the Bible was written to answer.
Let’s start by taking a very global view. If we purge our legalistic attitudes from our minds and read the Gospels, what do we find?
* All four are stories climaxing in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
* All four include Jesus’ teachings, which speak of a coming “Kingdom” in which his disciples will participate. They’ll love each other, quickly forgive, and spread the “good news” to others to bring them into the Kingdom as well. And faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and Lord will be essential to citizenship in this Kingdom. And there are lots of warnings of coming persecutions for his followers.
* The emphases seem to be the resurrection, faith in Jesus as the prophesied Messiah, the Lordship of Jesus, sharing the good news, and a very high ethic for those following him, both in terms of personal morality and care for those in need.
* Jesus clearly wants his disciples to live together in community, working together to achieve his purposes. Jesus speaks much more of a “Kingdom” than a “personal relationship.”
* Jesus is deeply concerned about the poor.
What’s not in the Gospels?
* There’s not a word about an order of worship, but he does say his followers will worship “in Spirit and Truth” — which is about the Holy Spirit and the gospel, in contrast to the particulars of worship given in the Torah. Indeed, Jesus seems to say that worship will no longer be about obedience to positive commands but will instead be about transformation.
* Jesus says nothing about elders or deacons. He says that there will be no “lording over” in his Kingdom and the greatest in the Kingdom will be slaves of all others.
* There’s nothing about the name of the Kingdom, other than “Kingdom.”
* There’s nothing about women having a subordinate role in the Kingdom. In fact, he includes women among his disciples, which was an unheard of practice for a Jewish rabbi.
It’s rather astonishing how little concern Jesus has with ecclessiology (the theology of how to do church), isn’t it? God the Son comes to earth, teaches for three years, and surely tells us what’s most important. And ecclessiology is barely mentioned at all.
On the other hand, restoring and preserving relationship with God, with each other, and with our spouses is a paramount concern. So are missions and benevolence.
If you were to compile “marks of the church” from the Gospels, you’d generate a list something like —
* Faith in Jesus as the Messiah of prophecy
* Submission to Jesus as Lord
* Teaching the good news of the Kingdom
* Care for the poor
* Loving one another and showing that love through forgiveness, holding one another accountable, and submission to the community
That’s not all, and I’m not trying to be comprehensive — just fair to the text.
All this is so astonishing, so contrary to our expectations, that some of our preachers actually go so far as to dismiss Jesus as an Old Testament prophet — teaching for a dispensation that no longer matters. You see, Jesus has the audacity not to emphasize what we consider of central importance.
And that’s because we asked the wrong questions.