Sexuality and Our Public Lives: Calvin Among the Samaritans
In commenting on the Samaritans our beloved brother, John Calvin, made a penetrating observation about the nature of religious pride.
His comments are a particular help in answering the question, How now shall the church live when boundaries of public life, at a time more pluralistically welcoming to God's moral law, are now rapidly contracting against it with overt hostility? What shall the Christian do - retreat or fight, shout or whisper, love or hate?
We have much to learn from Calvin among the Samaritans.
In John 4:9 the woman at the well is incredulous that Jesus has breached the great religio-social wall between her people and his own: "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jn. 4:9).
It is at this very point Calvin exposes the cultural ethos lying behind her surprise. He writes:
The Samaritans are known to have been the scum of a people gathered from among foreigners. Having corrupted the worship of God, and introduced many spurious and wicked ceremonies, they were justly regarded by the Jews with detestation. Yet it cannot be doubted that the Jews, for the most part, held out their zeal for the law as a cloak for their carnal hatred; for many were actuated more by ambition and envy, and by displeasure at seeing the country which had been allotted to them occupied by the Samaritans, than by grief and uneasiness because the worship of God had been corrupted. There was just ground for the separation, provided that their feelings had been pure and well regulated.
Calvin suggests that most of the disgust from Jews toward Samaritans was a carnal hatred hidden beneath a cloak of zeal for God's law (John 8:48 shows this vividly). The Jews used the law's condemnation of corrupt worship to hide their sinful passions. They did not want their country occupied by Samaritans. They lusted for a more homogeneous nation where they would not have to make contact with certain kinds of sinners. It is not hard to see how such blinding pride would stifle any desire to see God bless the nations with good news of a Redeemer. What would become of you if Jesus refused contact with certain kinds of sinners?
The lesson for us in our time is to check our own passions especially wherever and whenever we communicate our displeasure with what we find in the world. Before you speak, before you write, before you post, ask: Is it godly grief which fills my heart or is that merely the old sin of envy?
A deep societal envy surges when the heart regrets seeing enemies acquire what we ourselves have always (sinfully) wanted - an earthly country of our own where all the values, ambitions and goals of the nation vindicate our rightness. Envy surges because others are now where we hoped our idols would bring us, on the "right side of history," receiving a temporal earthly justification from their fellow men.
As our nation's laws further contract against tolerating the law of God, let us begin each day doing what the Jews should have always done, doing what all who lived by faith indeed did - let us "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one." (Heb. 11:16). Only by setting your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:13) will you overcome envy and hatred toward those who approve what God forbids (Rm. 1:32).
There is something else in Calvin's analysis. He says the Samaritans "were justly regarded by the Jews with detestation" and "there was just ground for the separation."
This is a straight-no-chaser approval of those whose delight is in the law of the Lord. Calvin is not approving carnal hatred; he has already upbraided it. He is approving a holy hatred out of love for God. He echoes Jesus' own approval of something he found in the church of Ephesus: "Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Rev. 2:6).
The lesson for us in our time is to remember we are what we love and what we hate. What we love and hate is reinforced by the ceremonies and catechisms we choose to partake in and avoid. To love God's law then means you will make strategic separations (Ps. 1:1-2) from the ceremonies of the wicked (e.g. attending same-sex weddings), from the rituals of sinners (e.g. silently accepting each new perversion), from the catechisms of scoffers (e.g. using the grammar of transgenderism). These separations may reach all the way into your career path, your home life, your school choices, even your property rights (Heb. 10:34). Your forsaking the world will go public.
The state, established by God as it is, must be honored and respected by all believers (Rm. 13:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:17). However, throughout history the fervor of the state has ebbed and flowed in its demand to be worshiped. At times it has, like the Samaritans, advanced its own spurious and wicked ceremonies and corrupt catechisms. When the Christian can no longer voluntarily "opt out" of these ceremonies and catechisms, a season of costly separation has come. Love for God and his “little ones” will compel us to suffer nonparticipation (Matt. 18:6), not in the voting booth but in some public institutions.
We must, of course, never absolutize our public separations. Christ will do that work himself on the day of his appearing (Mt. 25:33). Now are the days of going to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth with the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). These are days to breach walls built both by our envy and by the sin of those yet dead in their trespasses. Let us then be both separated unto Christ and follow after Christ, surprising the sin-parched world with news that Jesus still comes with living water.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.