Linda Church of Christ

Unity Is Not Found In Relativism

By Dave Miller

    Relativism is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that all moral value is relative. The relativist insists that no absolutes exist. Right and wrong are to be determined by life's circumstances and the human condition. Right and wrong depend upon the situation. Of course, this viewpoint naturally leads to self-contradiction. You heard about the professor who stood before His college class and insisted, "There are no absolutes!" A student raised his hand and asked, "Are you sure about that?" To which the professor responded, "Absolutely!"

    Joseph Fletcher, the "father of Situation Ethics," has been an influential force in the promotion of relativism in America. He was preceded by men like Emil Brunner (The Divine Imperative), Reinhold Niebuhr (Moral Man and Immoral Society), and John A.T. Robinson (Honest To God) who all promoted ethical relativism. These forces have taken their toll on our nation and, sadly, on the church.

    Relativism insists that we humans are free from prefabricated decisions and prescriptive rules. Relativism presupposes that truth is relative and nonabsolute. Relativism allows for openness and differences of judgment with the understanding that value exists only in reference to persons rather than retaining an absolute, independent existence. The far-reaching impact of relativism is seen in the shift away from ironbound do's and don'ts and a set standard of morality to the common sentiment expressed widely in our culture that what is right for one person may not be right for another.

    Relativism in our country is seen in many forms. It is seen in the public school's push for "multiculturalism" in which a variety of viewpoints are set forth as equally legitimate ways of looking at life and reality. It is seen in the nationwide promotion of "pluralism" in which divergent, even contradictory, religious views are held up as equally credible. It is seen in the domination of evolution as the only scientifically plausible way to account for life on earth. It is seen in the constant clamor for everyone to refrain from being judgmental about the views of others (cf., Gen. 19:9). It is seen in the aversion to authority and the breakdown of the judicial system that has lost sight of the objective standards to which citizens were once held accountable.

    Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is the presence of relativism even in the church. The clamor for unity at all costs, unity-in-diversity, is a direct manifestation of the influence of relativism. For many in the church, unity takes precedence over truth and the need to be right about what God says. In reality, the unity of which they speak is simply togetherness. It is an emotional, "touchy-feely," nonrational sensation of blind acceptance. Truth is relegated to a nonessential status, creating an illusion of love through superficial friendship and physical closeness.

    The Bible is extremely clear in its treatment of relativism. From the Garden forward, relativism is condemned as evil in God's sight. Attempting to achieve unity through relativism is futile. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). Here is the only way to achieve unity with fellowman and unity with God. God's truth must be embraced and lived. We must ascertain the divine standard, determine what God's will is on any given subject, and then conform and comply with those regulations. The central concern of humanity as set forth in Scripture is to obey/love/glorify God (Ecc. 12:13; Mic. 6:8; Matt. 22:37; 1 Cor. 6:20; 2 Cor. 5:9; 10:5; 1 Pet. 4:11). By definition, the only way to please God is to do what He tells us to do (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3; Lev. 10:3). If we would devote ourselves to this one all-encompassing, all-consuming objective, unity would be achieved. All other attempts to bring unity are flawed and ultimately fatal.

    One blatant attempt to promote unity through relativism is seen in the treatment given to Matthew chapter twelve by some within the church. They insist that Jesus and His disciples violated the Sabbath law when they plucked grain from a neighbor's field on Saturday. Consequently, we should not be too rigid about insisting upon meticulous compliance with Bible regulations. People take priority over rules and we should be flexible in our handling of Bible legalities. This kind of thinking makes a mockery of God's word and ultimately will make Bible regulations irrelevant.

    The facts of the matter are that the accusation of the Pharisee's was false. Jesus' disciples were not violating the Sabbath when they plucked from a neighbor's field on Saturday (Ex. 12:16; Deut. 23:25). They were acting in complete accordance with Mosaic law. Jesus provided a penetrating, logical refutation of the Pharisee's position. He began by employing what logicians call argumentum ad hominem in which attention is directed to an individual endorsed by one's opponent. The Pharisees held David in high regard. Yet in I Samuel 21, David violated the law by consuming bread which was to be eaten only by the priests (Lev. 24:5-9). Jesus' point is that the Pharisees approved of David, though he clearly violated the law. Yet, they inconsistently condemned Jesus' disciples, though they had not violated the law.

    He advances a second argument in verse five. Priests were required by the law of Moses to perform work on the Sabbath. Yet they were not guilty of violating the Sabbath because their work was authorized to be performed on that day. The Sabbath law did not enjoin total inactivity. The law authorized a variety of options and obligations which did not constitute violation of the Sabbath regulation. Authorized Sabbath activity included eating, temple service, circumcision, and extending kindness or assistance to the needy (Deut. 22:1-4; Matt. 12:10-12; Luke 13:14-16; 14:1-6; John 7:22-23).

    Next, Jesus deduced a logical conclusion that followed from His analogy of the disciples' action with the action of the priests in the temple. If mere temple service was authorized on the Sabbath, then obviously service rendered in the presence of the Son of God was authorized!

    These three points were sufficient to refute the false charge of the Pharisees. However, Jesus proceeded to penetrate beneath the surface issue which they had raised to focus upon their hearts. The truth was that they were not really concerned about a correct application of the law to life. They were masquerading under that pretense (cf., Matt. 15:1-9; 23:3). Their problem was not in an attitude of desiring careful obedience to God's law. Rather, their zest for law-keeping was hypocritical and unaccompanied by obedience themselves and concern for their fellowman. They were more concerned with scrutinizing and blasting people than with honest, genuine applications of God's laws for the good of mankind.

    They had neutralized the true intent of divine regulations, making void the word of God (Matt. 15:6). They had ignored and skipped over the significant laws which enjoined justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23). Consequently, though their attention to legal detail was laudable, their misapplication of it as well as their neglect and rejection of some aspects of it made them inappropriate and unqualified advocates.

    Indeed, they simply did not grasp the teaching of Hosea 6:6. "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice" is a Hebraism (cf., Matt. 9:13). God was not saying that He did not want sacrifices offered under the Old Testament economy (notice the use of "more" in Hosea 6:6). Rather He was saying that He did not want sacrifice alone. He wanted mercy with sacrifice. Internal motive and attitude are just as important to God as the external compliance with specifics.

    The same point is made in Micah 6:6-8. In both Micah and Hosea, God struck a blow against the mere external, ritualistic observance of some laws to the neglect of heartfelt, sincere, humble attention to other laws and treating people properly. Samuel addressed the same attitude shown by Saul (I Sam. 15:22). If the Pharisees had understood these things, they would not have accused the disciples of breaking the Sabbath law when, in fact, the disciples had not done so. They were "not guilty" (vs. 7).

    While the disciples were guilty of violating an injunction which the Pharisees had made up (supposing the injunction to be a genuine implication of the Sabbath regulation), the disciples were not guilty of a technical violation of Sabbath law. The Pharisees' propensity for enjoining their uninspired and erroneous interpretations of Sabbath law upon others was the direct result of cold, unmerciful hearts that found a kind of sadistic glee in binding burdens upon people for burdens' sake rather than in encouraging people to obey God.

    In verse eight, Jesus placed the finishing touches upon His argumentation with a fifth and final point: He is Lord of the Sabbath day. As God, He was in the position to assert His divine authority and apply accurately the teaching of the Old Law. One can trust Jesus' exegesis and application of Sabbath law--after all, He wrote it!

    Matthew twelve does not teach that Jesus sanctions violation of His laws under extenuating circumstances. His laws are never optional or relative--even though human beings many times find God's will inconvenient and difficult (John 6:60; Matt. 11:6; 15:12; 19:22; Mark 6:3; I Cor. 1:23).

    Let us not succumb to the pressure being exerted by those around us to "lighten up," loosen up, and embrace a broader view of unity and fellowship. Let us seek first and foremost to please the great God of Heaven. Let us strive for the unity which pleases God. Unity is not found in relativism--relaxing the limitations and restrictions of God's will. Rather, unity is to be found in only one place and in only one way: when honest-hearted people have enough love and trust in God to conform themselves to His holy word (John 17:14a, 17, 20). Only then will we achieve the unity for which Jesus prayed and for which Jesus died.

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