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It's Not Leprosy
(Editorial - April 1999)

Christadelphians believe the Law of Moses was fulfilled and superseded by the teachings, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Given our right understanding on this point, it is remarkable how much we continue detailed study of the rituals and ordinances of the Law. Many a Bible class studies the sacrifices, the high priest, the feast days or the tabernacle and its furnishings. Sunday school classrooms, and some homes, are decorated with pictures of the tabernacle and the high priest in full regalia. If someone dropped in on us, without knowing better, they might well think we were preparing to re-institute the law.

Of course, there is good reason for our interest. Following the New Testament lead, we find the Law contains essential background to the principles of the sacrifice of Christ and to acceptable worship of God. Further, we are people who read the whole Bible, not just the Psalms and New Testament, so we want to understand all scripture.

In keeping with this tradition, we draw attention to principles evident from the priest’s examination for leprosy (recorded in Leviticus 13). The principles are particularly, but not exclusively, applicable to ecclesial life and our concern for the possible eruption of false doctrine in our midst.

Some things look like trouble but are not
There are some symptoms which are unmistakably leprosy (Lev. 13:3). One careful examination by the priest would be enough to determine the individual was infected and declare him unclean. In like manner, there are some teachings which are unmistakably major departures from the gospel and teachers of them, after careful examination, must be set apart from the community. A New Testament example is a denial that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (II John 7, 10); today’s equivalent is the doctrine that Jesus Christ is not a human being who has been immortalized and glorified but is part of a triune godhead. Teachers of such error were/are not to be countenanced.

Beside the obvious, however, there were many skin conditions which could have been leprosy but, upon closer examination, were not that disease (Lev. 13:4-44). The parallel is that there are many teachings which may be major departures from the faith, but are not unambiguously so. How are these not-so-clear cases to be handled? The principles of Leviticus offer instruction.

Do not exclude unless necessary
Since the questionable skin conditions could indeed be leprosy, why not protect everyone else by assuming the worst, labeling the person leprous and excluding him from the community? Why not do the same to any person suspected of false doctrine?

In the case of the physical disease, the answer is obvious: It would be dreadful unnecessarily to cut off a person from his family and livelihood, to say nothing of the terrible hurt to the family members who lost close association with a loved one. Furthermore, those exiled from the camp were cut off from the vital communal worship of the congregation. Most in Israel struggled to maintain obedience in the best of circumstances, and exclusion would likely worsen their opportunity to be saved.

There is here a pointed lesson for our community. The quickest and easiest solution may be simply to exclude anyone having ideas which seem out of step with our teachings. After all, we can reason, the rest of the community needs to be kept safe from what could be fatally wrong teaching. Unfortunately, what is not so obvious is the damage done by wrongful disfellowship. It’s easy to see the harm when a leper is physically set aside; it may not be so easy to see the spiritual damage done by exclusion from the household of faith, yet very few can sustain the faith on their own.

Consider as well that Israel was to be known as a fair, considerate and loving community. It would hardly be consistent to exclude a person because they may have leprosy without making certain of the condition. In our own case, we are to be a community renowned for our love toward other believers. It’s hardly consistent to exclude from our fellowship those who might appear astray before determining that they certainly are afflicted with doctrinal error of a grave magnitude.

Judge on what you see
The symptoms of leprosy were visible on the skin, just as false teaching is out in the open to be heard and read. While the cause of leprosy is a microscopic bacteria, the priest was not given a means of probing into the inner man; all he could use for evidence was what he could see. If it was going to take weeks for a correct diagnosis to be made from external developments, he was to take the time.

The parallel is evident. While the Lord knows the heart, we don’t, and we are not to be making judgments of another’s heart. Our decisions must be based on what we can positively see and hear, not by our suspicion or personal dislike.

Examination over time
The time factor was critical to the diagnosis:

"The priest shall look on him the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague in his sight be at a stay, and the plague spread not in the skin; then the priest shall shut him up seven more days: and the priest shall look on him again the seventh day" (Lev. 13:5-6).

There was to be a personal involvement over an extended period of time. This was the only way an accurate diagnosis could be made as to whether the condition had spread. The process might be inconvenient to everyone, but that was the only fair and considerate approach to take.

All kinds of human behavior can only be evaluated over time. Passing circumstances can cause people to act and think contrary to their normal patterns. This often happens in ecclesial life. A combination of factors may cause a person to stray for a while on some area of teaching or temporarily to behave badly. That’s why only the local ecclesia is fit to make decisions in such cases. Counsel from a distance may help to clarify principles, but it should not be allowed to make a final decision. There are more than a few examples where the "innocent" party in a marital breakdown has contributed more than 50% to the problem. Only those with long-term experience with the situation will really know the facts.

There are a good many campaigns of accusation from afar which would never have started if this wisdom of Leviticus 13 had been followed. Some have presumptuously interfered into situations thousands of miles from their homes, ignoring or demeaning (perhaps inadvertently) the considered wisdom of those who know the situation first-hand over time.

Had the condition spread?
So it was that the same priest who observed the progress of the condition must determine if it had spread. The idea of spreading occurs 15 times in Leviticus 13.

This is a critical concept in examining wrong teaching. Has one confused idea led to another or has it stopped there? Some brethren have difficulty articulating aspects of the atonement, for example, and say what is not correct. Does this reflect fundamentally wrong thinking or is it a difficulty in one, restricted area? Over time, somebody on the spot is in the best position to determine the answer.

The priest was looking for the existence of clear-cut evidence of leprosy. We are inclined to view some suspicious teaching as the tip of an iceberg, a glimpse of a mountain of corrupt teaching lurking just beneath the surface. That’s possible, but the priest was given very strict diagnostic procedures to follow to make sure he didn’t jump to wrong conclusions. It’s clear the Lord was concerned people might be labeled lepers when they were not. Being fully aware of our tendency to panic and needlessly hurt other people, the Lord sought to protect the innocent as well as isolate the diseased. We could well learn the principles behind the Lord’s commands so we, too, can determine when it’s not leprosy.

Don Styles

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