In 2003, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, defied a court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the lobby of the state court. This public demonstration of religious conviction garnered international attention. This was not the first time that Chief Justice Moore had made the headlines. Before he was elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, he was the subject of national controversy when he boldly displayed a plaque of the Ten Commandments in the courtroom where he served as judge, and refused to take it down when pressured by opponents.
A Divided America
In a nation where the constitution promotes a separation of church and state, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) interpreted Moore’s actions as government enforced religion. Representatives for the ACLU argue that those who function as civil servants cannot allow their religious convictions to influence any decision that may affect public policy. The ACLU is opposed by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization comprised of conservative Christian legal experts.
The ACLJ defends Moore’s right to display the Ten Commandments, claiming that not only is it impossible for a person to remove religious convictions from decision making, but the Ten Commandments are at the foundation of American society. Those who followed the case know that the ACLU claimed victory when a federal court ordered the forced removal of the monument. The massive structure was placed in storage in a room at the court-house while Chief Justice Moore unsuccessfully fought for his right to put it back on public display.
A Bifurcated Adventism
Undoubtedly, this case would have concerned Seventh-day Adventists around the globe. With our understanding of the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan, we know that the final conflict will involve loyalty to the law of God. Traditionally, we have interpreted that loyalty through the lenses of the fourth commandment. We like to shed the spotlight on the masses that profess Christianity but are not willing to follow God all the way. When it comes to God’s expressed will in his Ten Commandments, they are willing to give ninety-per-cent to Him, but the other ten-per-cent is reserved for the human made rules of their denominations.
In reality, loyalty to God involves more than ceasing from labor on a fixed day each week. Unfortunately, our historic fixation on legalistic observance of the Sabbath day has resulted in a bifurcated Adventism. On one extreme is a burdensome Adventism where people misunderstand the meaning of “working out one’s own salvation.” Like the Rabbis of old, they have developed countless halakoth (mini-laws) that were originally intended to lead to the Ten Commandment law, but have taken on the same importance. Consequently, in the spirit of their pharisaical forebears they are beguiled by the perfectionist philosophy of M. L. Andreasan, and believe that Jesus Christ cannot return until 144,000 faithful Adventists demonstrate that they can live holy without an intercessor.
On the other extreme is a toxic Adventism where generational Adventists take pride in declaring a type of libertarianism that would make the devil himself blush. Claiming to be free from tradition they gleefully throw out the baby with the bathwater as they reduce their religious experience to their narrow interpretation of the Ten Commandments. In direct contradistinction from the legalists, rather than adding scores of halakoth to the Ten Commandments, they dismiss all other legal prescriptions whether in scripture or tradition. As a result, in the spirit of their permissive forbears, they promote a godless hedonism where sexual excess and humanistic reasoning are unabashedly celebrated.
A United Agenda
Although these two positions appear to be miles apart, they are actually using different methods to accomplish the same goal. In its own way, each has “laid down the law.” The legalists may think that they are protecting God’s law, but in elevating tradition to the status of God’s revelation, they have effectively diffused the unparalleled importance of the Decalogue. In fact, this is the very reason why many evangelicals are totally oblivious to the absurdity of their claim to revere God’s law. The thousands of well meaning Christians who gathered on the steps of the Alabama Supreme Court to support Roy Moore ignored the fact that through their worship practices, they violated the very law they claimed to be defending.
Adversely, the liberals may believe they are putting the law in it’s proper place, but in ignoring other Divinely originated legal prescriptions, they have dismissed the very commentary that could help them to understand the intent of God’s law. This is why they could attend church every Sabbath and nourish their bodies with a vegetarian diet, yet at the same time they dismiss the biblical account of creation and promote sexually unrestrained lifestyles that feed the desires of the flesh. They may contemptuously dismiss the Religious Right activists who support Judge Moore, but don’t realize that they are in different sections of the same camp. For both of these extremes, Christ has made it clear that anyone who consciously places human precepts over the word of God have an empty religion (Mt 15:9).
God gave humans a written transcript of his law for a purpose—he wants us to know how to experience meaningful relationship with Him and each other. The law was not given so that we could get close to God, but so that we can stay close to him. This is powerfully portrayed in the fact that before God even revealed the law to Israel, he delivered them from bondage and endowed on them the special status of “holy nation” and “royal body of priests” (Ex 19:6). It was only after his merciful acts that he provided the terms for the relationship.
When Christians amend the terms of the covenant by either ignoring the principle behind each commandment or rejecting the grace that precedes obedience, they are effectually laying down the law. They are unilaterally renegotiating the terms of a non-negotiable relationship. I fully understand that many Christians who violate God’s law, do so with informed ignorance. They have inherited a legacy of biblical interpretation that seeks to dismantle the authority of the very God who inspired the Bible. Nonetheless, the Spirit wants them to know that Christ did not lay down his life so that they can lay down the law. He laid down his life so that the law can be inscribed in their very hearts (Rom 8:3-4). As you contemplate how you relate to God’s covenant law, never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton directs the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. He is the principal contributor for this quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide and its companion book, Laying Down the Law (Review and Herald, 2013).