This article originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of the Echo, Lancaster Bible College's magazine.
In John chapter 8, Jesus entered into a dangerous controversy. He was teaching in the temple after a short respite with His disciples when suddenly, a group of scribes and Pharisees interrupted him by pushing forward a woman who had committed adultery. “Teacher,” they asked, “This woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women, so what do you say?” Teaching in the temple, the capital building of Jewish society, culture and religion, the scribes and Pharisees had placed Jesus squarely in the middle of the growing tension between Jerusalem and Rome.
In the first century A.D., Rome ruled over Palestine. Less than seventy years before Jesus began his ministry, Roman power ended the Jews’ second independent state that was once ruled by the Hasmonean Kings. Although Rome allowed Jews to practice their religion, they now had no power to enforce the civil laws of the Torah, which could not be separated from the Judaic religion. For Jews, the civil law controls the arena of religious life, meaning that the Roman government, for all intents and purposes, squelched Judaism. In fact, Jews found Roman control of Judea’s civil law so oppressive that they would fight a deadly revolution forty years after Jesus taught in the temple that would result in the final destruction of that temple. In John 8, the Jewish leaders thrust Jesus between the demands of Jewish religion and Roman law and culture.
The scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who would force Him to side with either Moses or Caesar. According to Mosaic law, Jewish leaders must punish what it deems a crime; in this case, Jewish law demanded the stoning of adulteresses. However, since Rome ruled Judea, it alone claimed the right to enforce civil law. Knowing this, the Pharisees presented Jesus with a difficult decision: Would he defer to Roman law and thereby render Moses’ law void or would he enforce the Mosaic law and suffer punishment for violating Roman authority?
The conundrum into which the Jewish leaders forced Jesus is not entirely unlike the one American Christians find themselves wrestling with today. Although Americans are certainly not called upon to stone sinners, still secular society pressures Christians to decide between obeying its rules or the Bible. Public shaming, incendiary protests and even laws encroach on areas of religious belief and practice once protected in American society so that Christians have to either curtail their involvement in the public square or compromise their faith. From being forced to participate in homosexual weddings to having tax money used to support abortion, the secular culture is forcing Christians to choose between God and Caesar. In his contest with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus offers His people useful instruction which may serve as a corrective to errors Christians often make when engaging secular culture.
American Christians have generally chosen one of two responses to secular society’s demands that they must abandon religious belief in order to participate in the public square. First, many American Christians have sought to separate themselves from secular society based on a clear statement of proper Christian belief and action. These Fundamentalist Christians, as they are traditionally described, see secular society as a danger to their clearly stated religious convictions. In an effort to avoid compromising their beliefs, they have set out to reclaim culture in a war of values that has now dragged on for nearly sixty years. Although they have remained steadfast and overt about their commitment to God’s laws they have suffered serious losses against secular culture. Fundamentalists who may once have hoped to prohibit alcoholic consumption now fight to keep males out of girls’ restrooms. Yet, for all the failures of their strategy, Fundamentalists have been steadfast witnesses to God’s laws and character. They have understood that compromising Biblical morality endangers not only the Church but the American republic as well.
A new group of Evangelicals have taken up a second response to secular society which seeks to abandon the culture war metaphor. In hopes of creating dialogue and authentic relationships with nonbelievers, these New Evangelicals choose to lead with compassion rather than clearly stated convictions about God’s laws. Thus, this group takes no public stance against homosexual marriage, for example, in hopes of winning the public over with compassion. Although this strategy has born real fruit in individual relationships, the reticence to clearly state God’s laws has only accelerated the liberal shift of both American culture and even American churches. Compassion for alternative sexual relationships and the fluidity of gender identity seems to communicate a lack of conviction that only validates secular trends in politics, law, art and culture. One who supports gay marriage in the public arena to foster relationships has little justification in preaching against it from the pulpit.
In John 8, Jesus could have used either the Fundamentalist or the New Evangelical strategy to answer both the Pharisees and Rome. He had the opportunity to stand against the pagan cultural forces of Rome and confirm the relevance of the Mosaic law to sin in His day. He also could have reached out to the adulteress with compassion in an effort to win her over and to make himself less odious to Roman culture. According to John’s narrative, Jesus did neither by doing both. He looked at the Pharisees and made one of the most profound moral statements to be found anywhere in world literature – “You who have not sinned, cast the first stone.” With these words, Jesus led with a compassion clearly founded on God’s law.
Imagine what the prostitute must have heard when Jesus uttered these words. “Do you mean to say that the sins of Pharisees are as bad as mine?” Indeed, religious leaders break God’s commandments the same as adulterers. Not only did His words indicate that He would not stone her, they also raised her from guilt and shame, from social isolation and ignominy. Jesus does not use the woman as a pawn in a culture war meant to drive Rome from Jerusalem, or sin from society. He led with love, but he did not stop there.
Jesus did not chiefly concern himself with creating a good relationship with the secular society around Him nor with the woman whom he had just encouraged. In an effort to run from the culture war which has proven so flawed in the past sixty years, Christians must not simply respond to rampant sin and egregious violations of God’s glorious character with a sympathetic, “Hey, we all sin, so we won’t judge.” Raising the issues of the Pharisees’ guilt put the woman’s sin in perspective but doing so did not stop Jesus from addressing her sins directly. You are forgiven, Jesus said, “And from now on, sin no more.” Jesus extends incredible grace to the woman but in no way exhibits tolerance. He tells her clearly that she must desist from her sinful lifestyle.
Christ reminds His followers that He would have them love their neighbors as themselves. The Church must reach out in love to sinners of all kinds without exception: single mothers who have had abortions, homosexuals, transgendered people, fornicators, thieves, murderers and liars. Christ spared no personal cost to give grace to the fallen. Yet, the Church must not empty its loving message and ministry of God’s character and law. The second part of the Greatest Commandment follows from the first: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.” The Church must have a passion for God’s glorious character and be unashamed to declare His laws. Christ’s response to the Pharisees, Rome and the adulterer show us that Christians must never empty their love for neighbor of a passion for God’s laws, nor preach God’s law without extending His infinite grace.