Social laws and spiritual laws

Baha’is often think that progressive revelation is easily demonstrable to a Christian. Simply point out that Christ abrogated many of the laws of Moses. If God’s law could be abrogated once, why not multiple times? Especially since the world keeps changing.

Deepened Christians will not find this argument compelling. In order to understand why, one must understand the different ways that Baha’is and Christians understand God’s purpose in revealing laws.

For Baha’is, there are two kinds of laws: spiritual and social. Spiritual laws, such as the necessity of prayer and fasting, remain constant from one dispensation to the next. Social laws, on the other hand, are not constant. They are tailored to the needs of each age, and can change for each new dispensation depending on what the new problems are.

By contrast, Christianity does not distinguish between spiritual and social laws in the Bible. Rather, it distinguishes between laws that prepared mankind for the coming of Christ, and laws that logically follow from God’s nature as revealed in Christ.

We do have social laws in Christianity, but they are not mandated by scripture. For example, fasting is a necessary part of living a Christian life. But the regulations of fasting may be set by the Church to suit the needs of a given culture, and therefore change over time. We don’t need a revelation from God to set new rules. The Church, in her role as shepherd of the faithful, can set new rules if they are necessary, and can even tailor those rules to the needs of a particular culture. Thus, the rules for fasting are slightly different in the U.S. than they are in other parts of the world.

Let’s take divorce for instance. Moses allowed divorce and Christ prohibited it. Seemingly a classic case of a social law. But look more closely. The Mosaic law of divorce is summarized in Deuteronomy 22 and 24. Note that scripture does not institute divorce. Rather, it recognizes that divorce exists and seeks to regulate it.

Then when Jesus came he had this exchange with the Pharisees:

The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him.

He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?” They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”

But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:2-12)

This is not a social law designed for 1st-century Palestine. This is a statement about what is natural to us as human beings.

Jesus’ attitude toward divorce is different from Baha’u’llah’s. For Baha’u’llah, the phenomenon of divorce is in itself morally neutral. It is either appropriate or inappropriate purely on pragmatic grounds – what will best serve the social issues of the time. For Christ, divorce is fundamentally unnatural, always and everywhere. Moses merely permitted divorce to exist, “but from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Other places where Christ talks about divorce are Matthew 5 (in the Sermon on the Mount), Matthew 19, and Luke 16.

As I said above, laws in the Bible either prepare for the coming of Christ or logically follow from God’s nature as revealed in Christ. The laws of Moses regulating divorce prepared Israel by restricting divorce under certain circumstances. But the Old Testament also condemns divorce as evil. In several places, God explains that just as marriage is meant to be permanent, so the relationship between God and his people is meant to be permanent.

Judah has broken faith; an abominable thing has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem. Judah has profaned the temple which the LORD loves, and has married an idolatrous woman. May the LORD cut off from the man who does this both witness and advocate out of the tents of Jacob, and anyone to offer sacrifice to the LORD of hosts!

This also you do: the altar of the LORD you cover with tears, weeping and groaning, because he no longer regards your sacrifice nor accepts it favorably from your hand. And you say, “Why is it?”

Because the LORD is witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have broken faith though she is your companion, your betrothed wife. Did he not make one being, with flesh and spirit: and what does that one require but godly offspring? You must then safeguard life that is your own, and not break faith with the wife of your youth.

For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with injustice, says the LORD of hosts. You must then safeguard life that is your own, and not break faith. (Malachi 2:11-16)

If you must use the spiritual-law/social-law distinction, then in Christianity, the prohibition of divorce is a spiritual law. It logically follows from the nature of God and from our nature, and is therefore eternal.