That’s what the Apostle Paul said that at the beginning of Acts 23. The problem was, he said it to a High Priest. That meant he’d violated Exodus 22:28: “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.”
Here’s what happened. Paul was standing trial in Jerusalem before the Sanhedrin. (Basically the Hebrew “Supreme Court.”) He was on trial for preaching the Gospel when high priest Ananais told a guard to “strike him on the mouth.”
That’s when Paul made his rash comment:
Those standing nearby said, ‘Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?’ And Paul said, ‘I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.”’
Which brings up Conservative Christians who say the Bible must be interpreted literally.
As the International Bible Commentary noted: “Paul’s stern rebuke was contrary to the letter of Exod. 22:28, and he at once admitted it. The president [i.e., the high priest Ananias] was a criminal, but the ‘seat’ was sacred.” (Emphasis added.) And Exodus 22:28 says, in the New Revised Standard Bible, “You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people.”
That in turn brings up Biblical inerrancy, the “doctrinal position that the Bible is accurate and totally free of error.” That is, “Conservative Christians generally believe that God inspired the authors and redactors of the Bible. Hence, they wrote material that was error-free.”
So if the Bible is “inerrant” – error-free – and must be interpreted literally, then Conservative Christians could be violating the letter of Biblical law. (If they were – for example – to curse or otherwise criticize a sitting President of the United States…)
Of course there is a way around that. But the only way around that dilemma is to use a liberal interpretation of the Bible. As to the differences – between a strict construction, as opposed to a more “liberal” construction – see Strict constructionism – Wikipedia:
Strict construction occurs when ambiguous language is given its exact and technical meaning, and no other equitable considerations or reasonable implications are made… If the language is plain and clear, a judge must apply the plain meaning of the language and cannot consider other evidence that would change the meaning. If, however, the judge finds that the words produce absurdity, ambiguity, or a literalness never intended, the plain meaning does not apply…
So the question becomes: are the “laws of the Bible” set out in clear and unambiguous language?
If the laws of the Bible are plain and clear, the “plain meaning” rule applies. But if that language results in a “literalness never intended,” the plain-meaning rule does not apply. (And Paul did say in 2d Corinthians 3:6, that the letter of the law kills, while its spirit “gives life…”)
Put another way, the plain meaning of Exodus 22:28 and Acts 23:5 seems pretty clear, if you interpret the Bible literally. On the other hand, consider the potential defense offered conservative Christians through “liberalism:”
Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings… The word liberal in liberal Christianity denotes a characteristic willingness to interpret scripture without any preconceived notion of inerrancy of scripture or the correctness of Church dogma. A liberal Christian, however, may hold certain beliefs in common with traditional, orthodox, or even conservative Christianity.
(See Liberal Christianity – Wikipedia.) So, if the term “leader of your people” must be interpreted literally, then Conservative Christians could be in big trouble if they were – for example – to criticize a sitting President of the United States.
On the other hand, you could “liberally” say that in the United States, ultimate power doesn’t reside in one president who can serve a maximum of eight years. In America, ultimate political power resides in the Sovereign People, as in “We the people” at the start of the Constitution.
To sum up: Conservative Christians can avoid getting into trouble for violating the letter of Exodus 22:28, but only by using a liberal interpretation. They can criticize the President all they want, as long as they don’t criticize “the Sovereign People” who elected him. (A subtle distinction to be sure.) Put another way, conservative Christians only avoid the penalty for violating the strict letter of Exodus 22:28 by using a liberal interpretation. That would be ironic…
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This post was previously published in May 2014 as “On dissin’ the Prez.”
The upper image, “Fra Angelico, Dispute before the Sanhedrin (1449),” is courtesy of Wikipedia: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/Angelico,_niccolina_02.jpg.
The lower image is courtesy of Irony Images – Image Results.