The usual and orthodox view of how to read the New Testament is that Paul's instructions (and those of the other apostles) to the various churches in his letters are commands, and that these are generally binding on Christians everywhere and for all times, with a little allowance (but not much) for cultural change. Paul is referred to as the chief lawgiver of the Christian church and his writings more than any others are the foundation of the long tradition of canon law.
I have a problem with this view, and its this. Paul himself made some very strong negative statements about law in general. Would he have liked his words to become a new law?
Let's start with the book of Galatians. This book is set against the background of Paul's ongoing dispute with the Judaisers - those who believed that Gentiles who converted to Christ needed to obey the Jewish law, the torah, in full. In Acts 15 you can read the story of how some Jewish Christians were teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation, and got into "sharp dispute" with Paul and Barnabas. At the subsequent meeting with the apostles in Jerusalem to resolve the issue, the group accepted a resolution suggested by James - that the only requirements placed on Gentile converts should be that they "abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality." It is interesting that of these four rules, only the first and last are generally observed among Christians now.
Paul tells the story rather differently in Galatians. He describes how, fourteen years into his ministry, he went down to Jerusalem for a private meeting with "those who seemed to be leaders" to check that his version of the gospel was the same as theirs. Here is how he describes their response.
As for those who seemed to be important - whatever they were makes no difference to me, God does not judge by external appearance - those men added nothing to my message....All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing we were eager to do. (Gal 2:6-10)
He then goes on to describe how Peter, under the influence of James, later changed his tack and gave ground to those advocating circumcision, and how Paul rebuked him sharply. In the process, we get an intimate look into the tensions present in the early church. Two things stand out for me.
- Paul had scant respect for the apostles and did not recognise their authority - "whatever they were makes no difference to me!" He did not learn the gospel from them. He is completely unafraid to rebuke Peter, the leader of the apostles, when he falls away from what Paul considers the true gospel.
- He has no truck with the idea of prescribing a shortened list of rules for Gentile converts. The apostles "added nothing to his message".
Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith could be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Gal 3:23-25)
...when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son...to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Gal 4:3-5)
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)
The picture is a very clear one. The torah, the law, is equivalent to slavery. His hearers needed it because they were immature, like children, and so needed to be restrained. Now that Christ has come and delivered them they don't need it any more. Christ didn't come to call people back to the law, or to bring a new law. Instead, he replaced the law, a childish thing, with the possibility of a direct, loving relationship with God. This is how he emphasises the point.
You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Gal 5:4-6)
If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. (Gal 5:18)
Now I know you're going to say that he's talking about the Old Testament law, and that his own commands supercede it, but that's not what Paul is saying. His message is not to replace one law with another, it is to replace law with grace. It is to bring us into a relationship with Christ which transcends the law, as freedom transcends slavery. He constantly observes the tendency to drift back towards law, even in the apostles, or to set up a new law, as he describes in Colossians, and he fights it at every turn.
It is ironic, but hardly surprising, that the man who fought this battle should find his own writings used to establish a new law. The big fear that church leaders constantly face - and you can see this already in Paul's writings - is that this teaching would be interpreted to mean "anything goes". Paul warns the Galatians, "do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love." (Gal 5:13) In Romans he quotes inaccurate reports of his teaching; "let us do evil that good may result" (Rom 3:8), and returns to the same theme later: "shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means!" (Rom 6:1).
So, if he is not preaching a new law, and he is not preaching "anything goes", what is he saying? To continue the image from Gal 3 and 4, he is asking us to live as God's adult children, children who have come into our inheritance. We no longer live by a set of rules which govern our behaviour, because now we are grown up we are expected to be responsible for ourselves. But we still have obligations - to our Father as head of the family, and to our siblings. The honour of our family is at stake, so we need to behave in a way that increases that honour. This is why Jesus says, "all men will know you are my disciples if you love one another". Paul echoes this time and again in his writings. In Galatians he says
The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbour as yourself". (Gal 5:14)
He expands on this in Romans.
The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, is summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. (Rom 13:9,10)
We need to learn to love, not to obey a new law. He knows that this is not easy, indeed that it is much more challenging than simply following a set of rules, and in his letters he provides all sorts of guidance to the various churches about how to live this out. As is his way, he is often very emphatic about this guidance. Much of it is still good for us today. But for it to be turned into law goes against the very heart of the gospel Paul himself was preaching, and represents a loss in his lifelong fight against those who wanted to bind Christians to laws old and new.