Saturday, 26 July 2008

Living Levitically

Christianity Today have a fascinating article by Daniel Harrell from Park Street Church in Boston (a famous evangelical church once pastored by Harold J. Ockenga). Harrell taught through Leviticus and challenged a group from his church to "live Levitically" for 30 days. Each person was to read Leviticus for themselves and then to decide how they would follow it. There was an explicit recognition that Leviticus does not apply to Christians in the way it did to Israel, but beyond that there was a range of ways of following Leviticus. 

Harrell describes the approaches. 
"Some people in the group ate kosher and wore linen trousers (in January no less). Just about everyone did a version of Sabbath keeping. Several men didn't shave. Another went as far as to build a tabernacle in her 600-square-foot apartment as a reminder of God's presence. One woman remarked how getting dressed each morning suddenly became a very slow and intentional process. "Fast girls aren't holy," she discovered.Other participants tried to figure out corresponding contemporary practices. For instance, if it is the case that a beard in the ancient Near East distinguished you from clean-shaven pagans, then I decided that maybe wearing a huge cross would approximate that in our day. Another person kept the food laws by only purchasing food locally farmed and humanely prepared. Several people, deciding that burnt offerings suggest a need to be aware of sin in a way that we typically aren't, wrote down their sins for the month, and then ceremonially burned them as a sign of God's forgiveness."

I am not sure what to make of this. On the one hand it sounds like an interesting educational exercise. It involves people in reading and reflecting on the Bible. The need to take action obviously pushed people to clarify what they thought and to be very concrete. However the range of hermeneutical approaches seems to undermine the exercise to some extent. Harrell says that it was important to do this in community. The result though was a classic postmodern situation, everyone doing their own thing together! It is not the same as a community which is consistently regulated by the Levitical law. I think I'd want to offer some guidelines to people for their thinking. 

That then points to the deeper problem. The month was an experiential learning exercise and month of some new spiritual disciplines, both of which are valuable but neither of which are the same as living under the law of God. For the law of God calls for consistent, life-long obedience. I'd defend the classic Reformed view of the three uses of the law (see Michael Horton's exposition of that here). So I'd say that Christian are called to obey the law understood in and through its fulfillment in Christ. (There are some explanations and nuances I'd put with that statement, but I'll leave those for another time). It is possible that living Levitically for a month may trivialise the serious Christian obligation to keep the law.

So while I was intrigued to read about the exercise, I'm not convinced about it. However I'd be interested to hear what others have got to say about it.

Scott McKnight has a brief summary of Living Levitically at Jesus Creed (followed by lots of comments).


Pete Moore said...

Hi John - that is a great post. 'Living Levitically' reminds me of a tension we face as pastors and as Christians.
On the one hand we insist passionately that believers must have direct access to the Scriptures (which are completely adequate to equip us for fruitful living.) It's great to see this pastor and church encouraging ordinary Christians to do that. I imagine Leviticus is a book that is often read through quickly or completely overlooked.
But on the other hand, we do wish to remain faithful to Christ - and not to belittle him or his achievements (as the one whom Leviticus is ultimately all about.) I got the impression that for some who were 'Living Levitically' the significance of Jesus Christ and his achievements were indeed underestimated or overlooked.
Perhaps a solution would be to ensure that at the end, the church was 'debriefed' in a way that gave Christ his due!

Daniel McClintock said...

Hi John,

I've been mulling over this on-and-off for the day now; I think I've settled slightly more to the positive side of the spectrum than you. I want to give them the benefit of my doubt.

I just can't be too critical of people doing their best to live out the Bible as they understand it. I'm not sure that it is 'everyone doing their own thing together', since the weekly church service and the online community they built provided the opportunity for mutual reflection on each other's application of the text. This is probably as much community as happens in most churches.

Also, it doesn't appear that any of the participants were told to apply Leviticus in any particular way. It just seemed to be a group of volunteers, willing to actually do the applications they came up with after reading the Bible. I assume that each applicant was free to go on with life just as they had, if they believed they had already been applying Leviticus appropriately, in light of the gospel.

I’ve had a look at their sermon library, and am disappointed by one thing- I’d have thought it would have been a great series to follow up by reading Galatians together. Instead they went from Deuteronomy, to Leviticus, to a bitza series from Malachi and the gospels. I reckon my thinking mirrors Pete’s a little here- a prebrief* or a debrief on our freedom from legalism in Christ would have been helpful. My internet access won’t allow me to listen to their Leviticus sermons, perhaps the preaching kept Christ central. I’d be interested if anyone can have a listen to a few and see how the experiment was handled from the pulpit.


* I’m pretty proud of this new word, feel free to use it. :-)