The Bible in a Year – 24 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

24 October. Romans chapters 14-16

Paul’s emphasis in this final section of his teaching to the Roman Christians is on avoiding causing offence.  The sort of things that he suggests could easily cause offence are observing holy days (14:5), or eating meat or drinking wine (14:21) when other Christians think that doing one of these things is wrong.

Those particular differences do still exist within Christianity, although perhaps not for the same reasons. Some denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, believing that all days are equally holy; some believers refrain from all drugs including alcohol; many are vegetarian or vegan, but for reasons of health or animal welfare rather than the reason for avoiding meat in Paul’s day, which was to do with ritual sacrifice.

In addition, you will find differing approaches to the acceptability of such actions as lending money at interest (does the scriptural ban on ‘usury’ refer to any interest charge, or only excessive rates?), or buying raffle tickets (does that constitute gambling, or not?). Not to mention the never-ending arguments about human sexuality, abortion, the role of women in church, etc.   When Christian friendships, individually or between churches, are put under strain over such issues, we know that something has gone wrong and we are far from the ideal of loving each other as sisters and brothers.  As anyone who has (literal) brothers or sisters knows, we cannot expect our siblings to think or act exactly like us, and so getting along as a family has to involve accepting difference.

The principles that Paul lays down are ones that can be applied to these, or any other question of ethics.  Firstly, our actions should all be intended to “honour the Lord” (14:6) and we do not honour him if we show hypocrisy by criticising in others the actions that we find ourselves doing. Secondly, it is God’s role to judge people, through Jesus, and so while we might offer other people the benefit of our thinking on such an issue we must not condemn them for thinking differently (14:10). Thirdly, all our words and actions must be intended to work towards peace and harmony, not conflict (14:16-19). Fourthly, we should act in accordance with our own conscience, for it is more of a sin to believe something is wrong and yet do it, than it is to believe it to be acceptable in the first place (14:22-23). Finally, we should strive to please others and not ourselves (15:1-3).

Of course it is not easy to follow all these principles all the time.  The temptation to judge others whose actions we disagree with is a strong one.  Words of criticism slip out of our mouths all too easily. And at the heart of what we mean by sin is the will to please ourselves rather than others.  But if we can use as our guide these five principles of avoiding hypocrisy, not judging people, working for peace, acting according to conscience, and pleasing others, then we will not go far wrong.


The Bible in a Year – 14 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

14 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 9-11

In these chapters, Paul turns to the practicalities of Christian living. The questions he discusses are all still relevant today, though we may come up with different answers as a result of differences in culture.   For instance, Paul explains at length why women should wear veils in church (not “hats” as some people think); it derives from an understanding of women as being subservient to men, and of their long hair which is their ‘glory’ being a temptation to men to distract them from holy thoughts.  Most human societies have moved on from that kind of thinking about women, and if a man finds a woman in church attractive, that’s his issue to deal with, not her fault.

There are, of course, some Christians who will say that if we believe the Bible to consist of writings inspired by God, we should take it all literally, but that leads to all kinds of complications and paradoxes, simply because it was written over a period of about 1000 years (and including much earlier ideas in some parts) by people whose culture and philosophy varied from Persian to Greek, as well as Jewish.

God does want us to live in a way that honours him and each other; but in Christ he put to an end the idea that there is one unchanging set of moral and religious rules for all time.  Paul concedes this with his challenge to the Corinthians: “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?”(11:13).  He hopes, of course, that they will say “no”; but we are free to differ.

Paul himself has given us in the previous chapter the overarching principle to guide our Christian ethics: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others” (10:23-24).  What that means in practice will depend on when and where we live, and the culture of our neighbours.

The Bible in a Year – 7 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

7 October. James chapters 1-5

Today we move from the Old to the New Testament. This is going to be difficult, because all its books are so richly packed with history, stories, or religious teaching, that I cannot do justice to the whole of even one chapter, let alone several, in a few hundred words.  So I will be very selective in which passages I comment on.

The choice by those who put this reading plan together of James as the first of its books to read is interesting, as Paul’s letters are usually thought to be earlier.  There are a few things that make this letter distinctive: it makes no reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which are central to Christian thought; it is clearly addressed to Jewish rather than Gentile readers, with frequent references to characters from the Old Testament; and while exhorting the reader to have faith in Jesus, it stresses the importance of ‘doing the Word’ (that is, putting into practice the religious and ethical teaching that we receive), and the role of ‘works’ (ethically correct actions) in salvation, whereas Paul’s several letters insist that however good our ‘works’ it is faith in Jesus alone that saves us.  But it is good to have a balance of those views in our approach to Christian living.

Out of James’s many practical teachings, all of them with vivid illustrations, I will take that of speech (James 3:1-12). He compares the mouth to a spring, which may be brackish or fresh water, but not both; even a small amount of salt in it will make the clean water undrinkable. He also compares it to trees that can only produce one kind of fruit.  So it is that we cannot expect anyone whose words are ever harmful – cursing or judging others, or boasting (4:13-17) – to be a blessing to others.  All our speech must be good and wholesome if we are to be effective disciples of Christ.