This isn't an attempt to repudiate the Bible or anything. In my opinion, it's absolutely ridiculous to hunt around for objectionable passages out of this book or that book, and follow that up with a conclusion that the Bible is worthless. By contrast, this is an attempt to expose questionable pieces of scripture that we might use to justify our own misbehavior. It's an attempt to allow ethics to affect how we interpret and assign normative value to various parts of scripture, when we usually do this the other way around.
So let's take a peek at the passage that was the sermon text at my church this past Sunday. It's the story of two early Christians, Ananias and Sapphira, and is found in Acts 5. I'll start my quotes a little earlier, in chapter 4.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.
Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?"
"Yes," she said, "that is the price."
Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Now, let me begin by saying that I don't think we should let Ananias and Sapphira off the hook for being greedy. The story obviously presents them as trying to get the church to approve of their generosity while feathering their own nest. But really, does the punishment fit the crime? So that's my first question about the ethics implicit in this passage: how is God morally justified in killing Ananias and Sapphira?
My second question has to do with Peter's attitude. Like one of my friends at church said, "Peter doesn't seem to be acting very much like Jesus." To make this a little more obvious, imagine Ananias and Sapphira as a couple from your church. You can even imagine some people you don't like very much.
Now imagine that the husband comes in to talk one of the church leaders, lies to him, and then keels over dead from a heart attack. When the wife comes in a couple hours later, what would you expect the church leader to do?
A. Gently break the news of the husband's death.
B. Warn the woman to be honest so God doesn't strike her dead.
C. Craftily cross-examine the woman and get her killed too.
I would hope for A, or at least B, but Peter seems to be doing C. Yep, those are the kinds of leaders I want for my church! So the second question is: how is Peter morally justified in entrapping, rather than comforting, Sapphira?
My third question isn't really specifically moral, but in light of ConcernedEngineer's recent comments - about how rejecting him is the same thing as rejecting God - I want to ask this question too. When Sapphira lies to Peter, he responds with, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?" My third question is: How is lying to Peter the same thing as "testing the Sprit of the Lord"?
My hunch is, there are no satisfactory answers to these questions. There is no way to justify the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. There is no way to justify Peter's entrapping Sapphira. And lying to Peter is absolutely nothing like testing the Spirit of the Lord. Combined with the fact that this is one of only two New Testament stories about God striking people dead (excluding whatever the heck is happening in Revelation ... and correct me if I'm wrong), I think we should be very cautious in trying to interpret this story and apply it to today's church. Frankly, I'm tempted to take the scissors to this story, but that would put an ugly hole in the middle of the story of Stephen, so I'll refrain.