Confessions and catechisms teach us so much about our faith. Take, for instance, the Westminster Confession. One fascinating thing it does is collect the Bible’s moral teaching — positive and negative — in relation to the 10 Commandments. A student can follow this catechism to learn much of what the Bible teaches about living rightly in God’s family.
Positive and negative commands
In this way, Westminister’s approach is similar to traditional Jewish teaching. Jewish scholars distinguished 613 separate commands in the first five books of the Old Testament. They consistently identified both positive and negative commands within specific guidance. So Jewish scholars pointed out, for example, that God expects God’s people:
- Not to gather grapes that have fallen to the ground
- To leave fallen grapes for the poor
These two commands are both found in Lev. 19:10. One gives direction about action to avoid, the other describes action to take.
What to do, what not to do
Likewise, Westminster points out for each of the Ten Commandments what actions are to be taken and which to avoid, based on the dozens of related commands throughout the Bible. This offers a beautiful counterpoint to those who see Christianity as a religion of “do not” ordinances. Equally, it challenges those who see the “10 biggies” as a short and simple list they can easily check off.
‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ — Easy, Right?
Take one seemingly simple example: “Thou shalt not steal.”
Knowing that we haven’t submitted a false expense report or used a company car for personal mileage or knocked over a convenience store, Christians may feel comfortable about this one. Then a Christian colleague will challenge them about whether an employer’s paperclip went home on a document and they start to wonder: just how perfect is perfect anyway?
I’m guessing that the challenging colleague may not have checked out the full list of duties and forbidden actions that are collected under “Thou shalt not steal” in the Westminster Confession. If they had, there might be a few more anxious moments.
3 ways to steal you might not have considered
Having so many points in front of us makes it easier to think about the stuff we never imagined we were stealing.
The average youth group member probably hasn’t been challenged to consider how many minutes of computer gaming per day would be considered “wasteful gaming” in God’s eyes.
I’m going to guess that the average 21st century Christian business executive hasn’t considered the idea that warehousing products while waiting for the price to rise (“engrossing commodities to enhance the price”) has been considered theft during most of the history of Christianity.
Excess ‘time out’ at work
Nor, perhaps, have most of us thought about the time we waste at work as theft. According to Salary.com, more than half of us waste 30-60 minutes every day.
(To give my own Wesleyan tradition its due, John Wesley diligently instructed early Methodists that they were obliged to find ways to improve their time at the job for the benefit of their own skills development and their employer’s profit.)
So what’s the Big List about Theft in Westminster?
- truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man
- rendering to every one his due
- restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof
- giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others
- moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods
- a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition
- a lawful calling, and diligence in it
- avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, and suretiship, or other like engagements
- an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own
Actions to Avoid
- theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen
- fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust
- oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depredation
- engrossing commodities to enhance the price
- unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves
- inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods
- distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them
- envying at the prosperity of others
- idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming
- all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defraud ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.
The 1658 edition of the Westminster Confession appends the many Scripture texts that explain its points.
Catechisms and confessions are wonderful tools for pointing out key elements of God’s instruction to us. They remind us that it’s not that legalistic coworker who worries about paperclips that we should have in mind. We need to be thinking about God, who has given good direction for how God’s people live responsibly together.