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Right and Wrong in the New Testament

The New Testament teaches us that behaving ethically—that is, following certain commands and injunctions—flows out of the new life and identity we have in Christ. When we fail to see this the commands of the New Testament become, merely, ethical mandates for which people are encouraged to strive. We get preoccupied with the details of the New Testament commands, but not the spirit. Our thinking, then, actually brings about death.

For example, Paul teaches that love is not rude (1 Cor 13:4-5). Some take this as if it is saying, “Thou shalt not be rude.” Then people do their best to avoid being rude. When they avoid rudeness they feel good about themselves, and when they act rudely, they feel bad.

We can take this a step further by debating on what exactly constitutes rudeness and the specific conditions under which a behavior might look rude and not actually be rude. For instance, someone might appear to be rude, when in fact they are merely setting healthy boundaries. Others might have a personality type that results in words that could be taken as rude. If there are scenarios in which people disagree about what is rude and what is not, we might find ourselves planting ourselves on one side of the debate or the other. Indeed, if it is important enough to us, our posturing could result in factions of Christians arguing with one another—rudely.

This brief discussion about being rude illustrates how ethical questions typically focus entirely on behavior. We end up living in our head, filtering everything through what we think we know about rudeness. But this totally misses the perspective taken in the New Testament about ethics.

For Paul, when he wrote this verse about love not being rude, he was not saying that we should try hard to avoid rudeness. He was highlighting that we must live in love. If you are living out of love of God, you won’t be rude. You will actually fulfill the law.

In fact, you can strive to obey a hundred ethical rules you’ve created to define rudeness in particular situations but be completely devoid of love.

Paul was not giving us a list of dos and don’ts in 1 Corinthians 13. He was rather describing what life in Christ, life in love, and/or life in the Spirit looks like. His purpose was not to get us to act differently; his goal was to help us to be different. In telling us love is not rude Paul was giving us a flag to help us notice when we are acting out of love and when we are not. He was giving us a sign point so that we can discern when we are acting out of the old self and when we are acting out of the new.

The New Testament behavioral injunctions are not things we are supposed to strive to perform. Neither are they new universal ethical rules by which we are to try to motivate others to live. They are evidences that disciples are participating in the abundant life Jesus came to give. The New Testament is not about ethical behavior; it’s about a radical new way of living. It is about life lived in surrendered union to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It is about experiencing the transforming power of God’s love flowing into and through a person.

—Adapted from Repenting of Religion, pages 93-96

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