There was an interesting discussion on reddit today, sparked by the following protest sign:
Some atheists on the board thought this was a real zinger, while the more religiously oriented members tried to explain why Christians are against gay union but don’t have a problem with barbers. The believers try hard to explain why it’s not hypocritical, but unfortunately did a rather poor job. Which isn’t surprising; it’s a difficult subject and most believers don’t really know that much about it.
As the heart of the apparent contradiction is the theology of supersessionism.
Supersessionism and replacement theology are uniquely Christian interpretations of New Testament claims, viewing God’s relationship with Christians as being either the “replacement” or “completion” of the promise made to the Jews (or Israelites) and Jewish Proselytes. Biblical expressions of God’s relationships with people are known as covenants, so the contentious element of supersessionism is the idea that the New Covenant with the Christians and the Christian Church somehow “replaces” or “completes” the Mosaic Covenant (or Torah) with the Israelites and B’nei Noah. (wikipedia)
In a nutshell, Christians do not believe they need to follow Jewish scripture in order to be in a covenant with the god of the Jews. It’s difficult to make generalities, because this doctrine is highly contentious among the different Christian sects. And regardless of the version proscribed, the doctrine is usually attributed to Jesus. At least the more theologically naive believe this; as it is demonstrably not true.
Both Jesus and the early Christians were devout Jews; and followed the Torah. Minus some pastorals, any time a New Testament book mentions scripture, it is referring to the Torah and the Torah only. In accounts both secular and religious, James the Just, brother of Jesus and first leader of the Church in Jerusalem, is hailed for his incredible purity and devotion to scripture. Jewish Scripture. The Bible also makes this clear in Acts chapter 21, in which Paul is required by the church to purify himself at the temple. You cannot get much more observant to the law than purifying yourself for temple worship.
While this chapter so strongly affirms the Jewishness of Christianity, oddly enough it also gives us the first glimpse of supersessionism. This is where certain believers are exempted from the full requirements of the law. What most people miss here, but what is clearly stated, is that these exceptions apply to GENTILE believers only. Gentiles could be god-fearers within the Christian Jewish community; they would no longer be required to convert to Judaism to be Christians.
Note that Jewish Christians were NOT exempted from the law, in this verse or in any other.
Ask any believer you know if God would punish a Jewish Christian for cutting their beard, and you’ll be met with a blank stare. But as far as the biblical account is concerned; that IS the case. Interestingly, this is not a departure from the Judaism of the time. There were many god-fearing gentiles in mainstream judaism, and they were not required to be circumcised. Only if they wished to become adopted Jews were they required to go through this painful process. James simply applies these same standards to gentile Christians; they could become Christian god-fearers without being adopted into Judaism.
Many are surprised to discover that Christian scripture does not directly advocate supersessionism. It’s true that there are many verses that are explicitly anti-Jewish; where Jesus or his followers stand up against the temple or other religious and secular authorities. But none of them speak against the Torah, against the law of God for the Jews! And all Jewish Christians are portrayed as following the Torah. Jesus might interpret things differently than the priests do (healing on sabbath, eating with impure Jews), but he never denies the authority of the law; and is even said to have kept ALL of the Jewish law to perfection. His own interpretation, of course, but even that is fundamentally Jewish!
This is a deep topic, but I have at least gotten far enough to tell you why Christians can cut their hair. Because THEY AREN’T JEWISH, that’s why. They are Gentiles, so they don’t violate Leviticus by cutting their hair and beards. I would also point out that by this same logic, eating blood sausage is still an abomination!
Of course, these days, gentile Christians can eat all the blood they want, and Jewish Christians can cut their hair and wear linens with their wool. And at least if you’re protestant, you can get divorced for reasons other than infidelity. In a nutshell, the reason for that is supersessionism.
Actually; not the last one. Divorce and remarriage is sexual immorality; this is affirmed by Jesus in all acocunts. It also falls under James’ “sexual immorality” requirement for Gentile believers (as does homosexuality, by the way…sorry). I’m actually not sure how Protestants justify that issue; I know Catholics don’t allow it.