The Battle Over God's Creation
It is to be freely admitted that virtually all champions of environmentalism, eco-justice, animal rights, veganism, etc., are antagonistic to Biblical Christianity. In their prose we often see emotional sensationalism, sentimentalism,1 disdain for humanity, pro-abortion agendas, moralistic condescension, and "the tendency of environmentalism to become ‘everythingism'-i.e., to lead to totalitarian visions of social reform."2 Their work is either grounded in neo-pagan thinking or it attempts to co-opt the Scriptures3 (or argues in favor of setting aside Scripture4 in the interests of an ecumenism we would naturally reprehend). See ResistingTheGreenDragon.com for a macro-level (public policy) exposé of the anti-Biblical (and statist) trappings of modern environmentalism.
This apparent "package deal," this tying of the baby to the bathwater, will continue to doom the baby until informed Christians establish that we ourselves have fallen prey to a false dichotomy. Bible-believing Christians are in a unique position not only to take true godly dominion in regard to these concerns (along a very different trajectory from the one taken by the humanists), but we have more powerful tools to reverse the curse on God's creation than unregenerate mankind at large possesses (see R. J. Rushdoony's discussion of Romans 8:19-23 in this issue of Faith for All of Life).
We therefore will speak of Biblical alternatives that turn the tables on the humanists. Should we find value in a given humanist's approach in a specific action, this does not widen into an endorsement of that humanist's overall philosophy or worldview anymore than Christ's extolling of the Samaritan's conduct toward the man set upon by thieves (Luke 10:37) implies an endorsement by Him of faulty Samaritan theology. Romans 2:14 acknowledges that men outside the covenant might possibly "do by nature the things contained in the law," but St. Paul's moral reference point remains an explicit anchoring to God's law: no general endorsement is ever expressed or implied. The same holds throughout this analysis. As Dr. R. J. Rushdoony puts it, "[T]he belief that nature is normative is anti-Christian and clearly unbiblical. It is God who is normative, and His law that governs man and nature alike."5
Extending the Culture of Death
Be prepared for a surprise. The HSUS (Humane Society of the United States), the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have traditionally been the greatest defenders of the wholesale killing of dogs and cats in animal shelters. When innovative new life-saving paradigms came online in city after city, these big-name, high-profile "defenders" of animal rights either ignored these new approaches,6 dismissed these successes with self-righteous rationalizations,7 or actively resisted life-saving efforts.8 These organizations treat killing of shelter animals as a great kindness and mercy. "[B]ut the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel" (Prov. 12:10b). The first half of that proverb reads, "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast." These ideas inhabit the same verse and thus share the same context.
To be clear, note that the so-called No Kill revolution does not mean that euthanasia in an animal shelter falls to zero, but rather that only irredeemably injured, ill, suffering, or vicious animals are euthanized (i.e., true mercy killing). The accepted litmus test for achieving No Kill status is an annual live outcome rate of 90 percent or higher at an animal shelter (contrast this with PETA's 10 percent or lower live outcome rate in 2005 exhibited in endnote 7). The big animal-rights organizations continue to promote the failed LES model (Legislation, Education, Spay/Neuter) that they use to blame the public (not the shelters or their directors) for sky-high death rates. PETA, too busy reinventing fish as "sea kittens,"9 has written off real kittens like nobody's business.
A key factor driving high kill rates is, ironically, the myth of pet overpopulation, which can be stated this way: the killed animals are labeled "unwanted" and "unadoptable" because these animals outnumber the available homes they could be placed in. This statement is absolutely false. There are far more homes available than there are pets to place. Thousands of shelters say they are "killing for lack of space" due to "overpopulation," when each has dozens of empty cages.10 Shelters actually kill out of convenience.11 As Shakespeare and Shaw noted, "Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity."12
The irony in the "overpopulation" claim (when there are actually twice as many qualified homes for shelter animals as there are animals entering shelters) is that R. J. Rushdoony wrote a seminal work, The Myth of Overpopulation, which debunks this myth as it relates to humans.13 These respective myths (animal overpopulation, human overpopulation) are two peas in a pod, as are the associated concepts of an "unwanted dog or cat" (justifying shelter killing) and an "unwanted child" (justifying human abortion). In drawing this comparison, we are emphatically not putting human life on the same level as animal life (as far too many animal rights advocates insist upon doing). A human is "worth more than many sparrows" (Luke 12:7 NIV). But the culture of death always casts a wide net, affecting man and the beasts placed under man's dominion.
The HSUS, ASPCA, and PETA represent old wineskins that the new wine will inevitably burst. Once we Christians grasp the proper Biblical dimensions of the situation, we will join in blowing the whistle on the false moralism currently driving these organizations. However, we must be careful not to adopt every plank in the No Kill platform, for many of its leaders see it as a stepping stone to veganism, just as doctrinaire libertarians see their political philosophy as a stepping stone to legalized prostitution. There are Biblically valid elements in No Kill sheltering (just as there are in libertarian thinking and in the Samaritan's rescue of the victim in the ditch), but we must be vigilant and discerning. In the dispute between the Sadducees and Pharisees over the resurrection, Jesus took the side of the Pharisees-but in so doing He did not promote the Pharisees' full agenda.
In other words, Christians will make neither faction entirely happy. The big-name animal rights groups will recoil when Christians support alternatives to the killing game they've been playing, but No Kill advocates might be disappointed that we won't go the final mile with them. Our standard is Scripture, and our allegiance must be to that standard.
But what are the Biblical dimensions of the animal shelter function in modern culture? It's one thing to allude to them, but it's necessary to spell them out in basic form.
The Relevant Biblical Texts
The texts of interest are directed to conduct toward a neighbor (Deuteronomy) and toward an enemy (Exodus) with the primary focus being the animals that God commands us to assist.
If you see your fellow Israelite's ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it. If you see your fellow Israelite's donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help the owner get it to its feet. (Deut. 22:1-4 NIV ©2011)
If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it. (Exod. 23:4-5 NIV ©2011)
The Exodus passage puts the interest of the animal ahead of one's hatred of one's enemy. Both passages clearly lay out what kind of conduct is forbidden: ignoring the animal's plight. The literal Hebrew behind the NIV phrase in Deuteronomy 22:4 is "withdraw not thyself," while the Hebrew in Exodus reads "thou shalt cease from leaving," i.e., leaving the animal "in a helpless condition."14 God commands that if the owner is unknown, the animal is to be taken back to your own home (and properly fed and cared for, as Matthew Henry observes15).
Dr. Rushdoony's powerful essay "Thou Shalt Not Destroy" alludes to these two texts and other parts of God's law concerning animals: "His law reminds us to be mindful of them ... An animal in distress must be aided ... Stray animals were to be returned to their owners ..."16 The "wanton destruction" that Rushdoony believes the law forbids is surely exemplified in the high-kill animal shelters of America. But disregard for God's law in modern Christendom has led to either inaction or theologically deformed actions on our part.
Excepting an Irish law passed in 1635, the first laws against animal cruelty were passed by the Puritans (in 1641 in Massachusetts and in 1654 in England).17 That was probably the last time Christians exercised any leadership or serious cultural impact in this area, evidently because subsequent generations were slack in the law (Hab. 1:4). Reaction against modern environmentalism's extremes (worship of the creation and reverence for animals as opposed to reverence for God alone and respect for creation) has become a substitute for actual reconstruction in this area.
The ethical vacuum that results when God's law is slacked will be filled with false substitutes, such as the utilitarianism of Peter Singer that continues to drive the animal liberation movement (although there actually are activists more extreme than Singer who regard him as a mere halfway house to the radical endgame they envision18).
Matthew 5:19 is relevant here for another reason. What, precisely, is the least commandment? The Hebrews asserted that Deuteronomy 22:6-7 "is the least of all the commandments of the law of Moses." But what is that law about?
Whoso shall loosen even the least of these commandments and teach men so, shall be least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But there's more: this "least of the commandments" involving animals (nesting birds in this instance) promises something astonishing for those who obey it: "[T]hat it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days." This is the same promise God makes for keeping the fifth commandment concerning honoring father and mother.
So much for giving short shrift to the commandments concerning animals!
As Matthew Henry notes, only in man's law does the principle de minimis non curat lex (the law takes no cognizance of little things) hold: "Because God's providence extends itself to the smallest affairs, his precepts do so, that even in them we may be in the fear of the Lord, as we are under his eye and care. And yet the significance and tendency of these statutes, which seem little, are such that, notwithstanding their minuteness, being found among the things of God's law, which he has written to us, they are to be accounted great things."19(Henry's last phrase is an allusion to Hosea 8:12, where Ephraim esteems the "great things" of the law that God wrote to him to be "a strange thing.")
Christians need to exercise stewardship and leadership in these areas, bringing Deuteronomy into the very animal shelter systems that we've corporately delegated the welfare of stray, abandoned, and orphaned animals to. The time to dwell approvingly on Oliver Cromwell's achievements is over: it's time to bring that same spirit to vigorous life and go much further than the Puritans did during their short tenure.
It's time to unleash the Word, push back false and/or statist solutions, and begin to reverse the curse on creation that our first parents inflicted upon it. Pushing back against the HSUS, ASPCA, PETA, and others using the No Kill paradigm as a provisional tool is a good place to start taking ownership of our full list of duties under God's law. Christians must expose the culture of death these big groups defend and offer the Biblical alternative to it.
To repeat: we must no longer merely change our focus: we must widen it.
The Other Dimension: Man's Abdication of Godly Dominion over Creation
The creation responds to man's conduct. When man obeys the land Sabbath law, the earth yields a double harvest in the sixth year.
But the creation also responds to man's misconduct and his abdication of responsibility. The bubonic plague was influenced by man's conduct and only incidentally by rat and flea populations, as R. J. Rushdoony points out.20 Creation responds to man, for good or ill. The entire creation is groaning, "stretching its neck forward" in anticipation of liberation, as Rushdoony explains in his essay on Romans 8:19-23 in this issue.
Christians can move this process, this liberation from vanity, forward. Proper dominion (leadership and authority grounded in justice and calling) over animals will push back the vanity, the futility. As an example of how this can be done, we select something quite mundane: the family dog.
The modern family dog is a victim of man's abdication of godly dominion. In most homes today, the family dog has taken dominion in every area due to dereliction of duty by humans. We even use evolutionary language (!) to describe this phenomenon: this dog is the alpha (the leader); this other dog is a beta, a gamma, or an omega. In the absence of a human exercising dominion as the actual alpha (leader), the dogs must fill in this hole by taking the reins of dominion that the humans have relinquished.
The alpha dog does what it wants to do. This is what comprises alpha status. In the absence of a human alpha, determining relative rank becomes all-consuming to a group of dogs. The rank-determination process gives rise to the futility/vanity that Romans 8 refers to in at least two ways: dog-dog violence and dog-prey violence. Are your dogs killing squirrels on your property? Do they fight amongst themselves? Is this carnage just dogs being dogs?
This is dogs occupying the empty hole left in their world where man should have been. These are the results when man leaves dominion to the animals. But there is a solution.
Retaking Godly Dominion in Your Home
How do we retake dominion that we've ceded to the family dog(s)? There are several steps to take, and consistency is critical. You, the human, must become the alpha, the true leader of the pack. Once you establish this, pack distinctions will disappear among your dogs (erasing dog-dog aggression), and more surprisingly (and controversially), your dogs will no longer kill small animals in the yard. They may or may not chase them, but they will decline to catch and kill them because only the alpha may do so. Assuming you don't eat raw squirrel, this carnage-free goal, the inexorable pushing back of the futility and vanity that Dr. Rushdoony describes in Romans 8:19-23, can be achieved in part by you consistently maintaining godly dominion over all your house, including your dogs. We list additional details and important qualifications in an endnote.21
As a dog owner, you must understand how your pet conceives of your role as the one to whom God gave the responsibility of dominion. When animals fill in the dominion vacuum left by humans, their attempts at dominion will generally end in a defiled version of dominion (i.e., aggression) that is usually rationalized in terms of instinct and the laws of nature. The supernatural component in Romans 8:19-23 is ignored at the creation's expense. When seen in that light, this apparently bizarre digression from the first part of this article is seen to reveal the flip side of the coin: to faithful obedience there will always correspond the exercise of dominion under law.
This hasty, incomplete sketch makes clear that godly dominion (not ungodly domination) is a 24-7 concern, but the well-earned fruit of such diligent dominion is deliverance from futility and vanity (animal-animal violence and depredation). The deformities in the relationship between man and creation are dialed back enough to start liberating nature from the effects of sin. Where applied, such dominion-oriented approaches transform animal behavior because man has dutifully taken the reins appointed him by the Creator, and has done so in faith. And all of this leads to a great goal described in Scripture, a goal that positively dares us to walk in faith rather than by sight.
The True End Game
All of creation is moving toward a future where Isaiah's prophecy shall blossom into fullness:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. (Isa. 11:6-9)
While humanists persist in trying to build Eden22 without Christ's atonement, the transformation of Isaiah 11 is premised on the Messiah's work in history (verses 1-5 and verse 9). The small beginnings23 of this divinely ordered transformation, the pushing back of futility, can begin in your own household. It will inexorably conclude with the fullness of Isaiah's prophecy being realized in the world God created. Then, the last enemy shall be destroyed, death itself. Prior to that consummation, wars shall have entirely disappeared from the earth (Isa. 2:4 and 9:7) and man and nature shall have been reconciled (Isa. 11:6-9). (We note in passing that the dispensational notion that animal sacrifices shall persist through a literal millennium is flatly contradicted by Isaiah's assertion that none of the animals in God's holy mountain shall ever be hurt or destroyed.)
The transformation of hitherto carnivorous creatures into herbivorous ones described by Isaiah may include man as well, implying that vegetarianism might possibly have a brief future just before the consummation of history. As Rushdoony points out, the precondition for this physical change in man and animal is stated in Isaiah 11:9.24 Humanists, however, seek a direct line to their supposed utopias through the will of the flesh, either bypassing God's Word or mishandling it, but such a change will be a supernatural consequence of the Great Commission's completion.
Will our stewardship over creation be informed by the laws of God? Will our exercise of godly dominion begin to reverse the curse and contribute in some small measure to the liberation of the creation from the futility into which it has sunk under Adam's transgression?
Will we do the weightier matters of the law-justice, mercy, and faith-without leaving these other things undone?25
Will we do and teach even the least of His commandments? Since there is no other way to bring God's law to bear on these particular matters, God surely desires that more serious Christians will seek to be called great in the Kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19).
What will you be called in His Kingdom?
1. R. J. Rushdoony points out, "Sentimentalism can be as evil as tyranny in its consequences." Cf. Rushdoony, Exodus (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2004), 330.
2. E. Calvin Beisner, Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute & William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 42. This pioneering book by Dr. Beisner is nearly the only study we can comfortably recommend to serious Christian readers. Out-of-print as of October 2010, copies are still available at www.ecalvinbeisner.com, and it is likely to be reprinted by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation (www.cornwallalliance.org). This latter website is recommended for readers interested in big picture (macro-level public policy) issues as formulated on a serious Biblical footing. Dr. Beisner directs interested Christians to an important Cornwall Alliance project at www.resistingthegreendragon.com.
3. Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002). Scully persists in quoting Scripture as window dressing despite not being "a particularly pious or devout person" (1). The author, a political conservative, takes on fellow conservatives Chuck Colson, Dennis Prager, and Joe Sobran (130-140), picking apart their moral logic and bemoaning the absence of any clear statement of what constitutes "godly dominion" (131). Despite the book's title, it doesn't fill that hole either, it being easier for Scully to collate atrocities and inhumane conduct for hundreds of pages than to deliver a scriptural solution.
4. Andrea Cohen-Kiener's Claiming Earth as Common Ground: The Ecological Crisis Through the Lens of Faith (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2009) is a veritable clearinghouse of such ecumenical, progressive, liberal sentiments, thus: "We need to examine what we've been taught about God in light of today's environmental crisis" (77). Wrong: we should examine today's environmental crisis in light of God's Word. "It is crucial for us to remember that earth (the universe, in fact) is the primary and largest context" (87). Wrong: the world will pass away, but His Word will stand forever: God and His Word provide the largest, unshakable context. "However, if we want to be effective in saving our beautiful planet, we need to put aside our hard-earned isms" (34). Take one guess what we Christians are expected to put aside. "The environmental crisis challenges us to love the God of creation more than the God of the pews. Our dogma will not help us here; our experience of the living universe will" (28). The false dualism here is explicit and easily discerned. No surprise that most environmentalism has become a sociopolitical religion in opposition to Biblical Christianity. See Dr. Beisner's article in this issue of Faith for All of Life for further macro-level insights.
5. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 1973), 262.
6. Nathan Winograd, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America (Los Angeles: Almaden Books, 2007, 2009), 98. The ASPCA researched an article on the future of No Kill and omitted the data from the one No Kill shelter it studied. In his self-published 2009 book Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America's Animal Shelters, Winograd reiterates these charges: "HSUS leadership continues to provide political cover for shelter killing and fails to acknowledge and promote existing No Kill success while offering only token initiatives toward it" (119).
7. Ibid., 100. An HSUS workshop (March 2006) taught that "we are not killing. We are taking their life, we are ending their life, we are giving them a good death ... but we are not killing." In 1999, PETA killed 1,325 of the 2,103 dogs and cats it claimed to rescue and claimed this was "an act of kindness" (102-103). As Winograd adds concerning PETA, "By 2005, nearly 2,000 dogs and cats-over 90 percent of those it ‘rescued'-were killed. What kind of rescue is that?" (103).
8. Ibid., 99f. Much of Winograd's book (and website) documents how the status quo culture of death continues to be strenuously defended by PETA, the ASPCA, and the HSUS. Every city that becomes a No Kill city is an open rebuke to these organizations, and they resent this fact.
10. Ibid. "The City of Los Angeles Animal Services Department kills every day despite empty cages" (156). "The Lane County Animal Regulation Authority kept all but a half dozen cat cages empty at the height of the busy season, even though it killed approximately 70 percent of cats during the last year, many of them ostensibly for ‘lack of space'" (157).
11. Ibid. Regarding Los Angeles, "a veterinarian who tried to keep more animals alive by keeping the cages full was fired in 2005, in part, due to staff complaints of ‘too much work'" (156). The entire chapter is filled with countless examples like this. Against such "killing for convenience," see endnote 15.
12. Ibid., 156. Winograd begins his chapter on the myth of overpopulation with this quotation.
13. See Dr. Beisner's article in this issue to see how human overpopulation continues to be characterized as the worst form of pollution by increasingly aggressive environmentalist ideologues.
14. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch 1:2 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), 145.
15. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible in 6 Volumes (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company), 1:814. Henry states that the one coming upon the stray animal "must not mind [the] trouble" and "must not mind [the] expense" of intervening on the animal's behalf: God requires them to take the trouble and the expense of helping the creature, which verse 3 expands to include any animal or thing that has been lost.
16. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 2: Law and Society (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1989), 355.
17. The Massachusetts Bay Colony's constitution was based on The Body of Liberties by Rev. Nathaniel Ward, a Puritan. The 1641 law against cruelty to domestic animals was based on Ward's work, contradicting humanist René Descarte's 1637 position that animals were insensible automata incapable of suffering. The 1654 animal cruelty laws in England were rescinded after Oliver Cromwell died. Modern animal rights legislation can easily coexist with human malignancy, as witness the stream of laws against animal cruelty passed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
18. Law professor Gary Francione (Rutgers School of Law, Newark) holds that the only right animals need is the right not to be owned: until animals are no longer regarded as property (i.e., pets, livestock, etc.), the battle he champions hasn't yet been won. Francione's position is hostile to other animal activists because he believes they aren't extreme enough. His views are clearly in opposition to Scripture, but until Christians understand the ramifications of Biblical law, our apologetic against utilitarian arguments will be deplorably anemic and ineffective.
19. Henry, Commentary.
20. R. J. Rushdoony, "The Possibility of Depopulation," Faith for All of Life, July-August 2010, 2-4. See also the second volume of his Systematic Theology (957-958 and 966-967) cited in endnote 24.
21. The following counsel is not based on Cesar Millan's Dog Whisperer approach despite any affinities they may share, nor does it involve man becoming an alpha animal but rather his becoming fully human. The term "alpha" entails dogs occupying the slot left empty by man's forfeiture of dominion. The term is used for clarity regarding retaking lost human ground, not endorsement of any evolutionary misconceptions.
First point: the alpha always sleeps at a higher elevation than the rest of the pack. Packs of stray dogs in New York were diligently studied over a two-year period. The alpha dog will knock over a trash can to sleep on it in the midst of the pack (very uncomfortable but crucial in asserting alpha status). Lesson for your home: no dogs on the bed or furniture.
A dog can be invited up onto the sofa next to you, but may never just get onto the sofa on its own volition. You must be the alpha, the human leader. Man must exercise dominion. You might wonder what should happen when the doorbell rings. The dogs are to bark to alert you to the visitor, but they remain about ten to fifteen feet behind you, sitting in silence as you open the door, remaining seated until or unless invited to meet the guest(s). A dog on your bed is asserting that it has dominion, not you. It is filling the hole left when you forfeited dominion to him/her.
Alpha dogs will not permit another dog within ten feet of them while eating. Lesson: all dogs must remain ten feet away from your table while you are eating. No exceptions.
Alpha dogs decide when and where the other dogs go, eat, and do. Lessons for us: door control is asserted (no dog goes through a door without express permission: they are to sit and wait until you bid them through). Food control is asserted (dogs sit patiently while food bowls are placed before them, not moving toward food until permission is granted). By reordering and realigning the use of leashes, collars, crates, and dog toys in terms of man's dominion, household discipline can be reestablished. (If your leashed dog is ahead of you, pulling you forward, it is usurping your dominion status; its shoulders should remain behind yours as you walk. If you stop to speak to another person and the dog is between you and the person, the dog is asserting control of the encounter. A dog jumping up on you is asserting its ownership over you: step into the dog rather than backing up to yield control of your space to the animal (which equals submission to the dog's authority).
These comments are not an endorsement of any given dog training method, which would be wholly out of place in this periodical, but some available methods are better than others at arriving at results consistent with Biblical goals. Exercise wisdom in charting your household's future standards of conduct.
22. Cohen-Kiener's book (see endnote 4) includes an entire section called "The New Eden: Reclaiming the Garden." Contributor Andrea Ferich's essay therein (101f.) mentions the New Eden several times. Says she, "As we studied biblical scripture, I came to read the holy text in light of my ethical understanding of sustainable agriculture as an act of eco-justice, and as a prayer that draws me close to the good news that Jesus spoke." We can discern from such misinformed statements how crucial a recovery of God's law and Biblical orthodoxy really is in this spiritually confused day and age.
23. Note God's view of small beginnings in Zechariah 4:10.
24. R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), 262-263.
25. Far too many Christians pick up the absolute wrong lesson from our Lord's rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, tacitly dropping the final words our Lord spoke:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. [Emphasis added.]
The vast majority of Christians get the following doctrine out of the above passage: forget tithing herbs and other inconsequential things, just focus on the important stuff. But our Lord doesn't even come close to saying any such thing. He doesn't say Drop This and Do That instead. He says the Pharisees need to add more to their ethical obligations. They need to do judgment, mercy, and faith and pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin. Our Lord specifically states these men are "not to leave the other undone." But the modern take on this passage is to leave the other undone in our bid to make the main thing the main thing (which invariably mutates into we should make the main thing the only thing).
This "main thing" orientation presupposes a right to prioritize God's laws and to choose only the important things to observe. It assumes God would have been much happier with Pharisees who did the opposite of those in Matthew 23:23, namely, such as those who would do judgment, mercy, and faith but merely failed to tithe on their herb gardens. God would supposedly be so pleased at the weightier matters being done that He'd wink at the fluffy stuff.
But tithing mint and rue isn't to be taken lightly: those commandments are also weighty (as Matthew Henry notes). God's laws come in two flavors: weighty and weightier. Those herb tithes were not inconsequential because man shall live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). Loosening the least of the commandments and teaching others to do the same leads to immediate demotion in His Kingdom (Matt. 5:19); those who are great in His Kingdom are those who do and teach even the least of His commandments. Jesus didn't instruct the Pharisees to change their focus but to widen their focus. The law of God is an integrated whole, a unified totality containing no trifles (James 2:10). Pharisaic ostentation and hypocrisy aside (their tithing made them look to be what they weren't and incited our Lord's warning in Matthew 5:20 that their "righteousness" needed to be exceeded by His hearers), Christians establish the law (Rom. 3:31) by establishing all of it (Matt. 4:4) without regarding this totalistic approach as burdensome (1 John 5:3 NKJV - "His commandments are not burdensome").
Yet, in key areas, we Christians fail-and we fail quite resoundingly, with a self-righteousness that rivals that of the Pharisees. Our disdain for a host of humanistic agendas that don't pass the sniff test causes us to throw a multitude of babies out with the bathwater. Consequently, our totalism is not totalistic enough. Because so much of the humanistic bathwater is particularly odious from the standpoint of Biblical orthodoxy, we neglect to hunt for the baby that sank underneath the surface.