Casuistry – Matthew 23:16-22

Have you heard of the word casuistry? I hadn’t until I was doing a little study on Mathew 23:16-22. It is the best English word to describe one of the things Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of.

Here is the passage

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple is bound by nothing. But whoever swears by the gold of the temple is bound by the oath.’ Blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing. But if anyone swears by the gift on it he is bound by the oath.’ You are blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and the one who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and the one who sits on it.

(Mat 23:16-22 NET.)

There are two generally understood meanings of the word casuistry. Both involve making moral choices based on specific principles or rules. In a good sense it is just a framework for making ethical decisions that have complicated or competing priorities. For example physicians are expected to follow the maxims of “do no harm” and “patients ought to have autonomy in matters of treatment.” Imagine a situation where a patient is refusing lifesaving treatment but is mentally compromised by their condition. The doctor must decide to compromise on one maxim or the other. Say the doctor does decide to treat the patient by ordering a sedative and conducting surgery. The patient recovers and is angry accuses the doctor not following the maxim of patient autonomy. The doctor used casuistry to make his decision and is confident he/she was justified in making that decision given the situation.

In the situation Jesus addresses the scribes and Pharisees were attempting to do the same thing but dishonestly and speciously. They would make oaths on the temple but wouldn’t live up to them and when questioned they would say that oath on the temple means nothing. When people might accuse them of not living up to that morals or promises they would provide complicated reasoning to avoid accountability.

Why am I bringing this up here? It isn’t uncommon for controlling church leaders to come up with really high sound spiritual reasons to avoid simple biblical principles. While we don’t generally have complicated theologies about oaths we do have a confusing and often conflicting world of pet charismatic teachings like prophetic acts, spiritual warfare, the prosperity gospel, spiritual mapping, and spiritual coverings. While some have more basis on scripture than others they have become fertile grounds for complicated and sometimes deceptive reasoning to justify sinful behaviour.

What lies at the root of this is a desire to complicate issues to such a degree that it makes it difficult to make sense of any situation. It is a very intentional tactic used by insecure and/or malicious church leaders to avoid accountability. Through heavy handed coercive efforts they attempt to bring about submission and compliance. With that established they protect their position by creating a surreal environment where simple logic and reason are muddled by a web of competing and conflicting values. This creates an ideal environment for obscuring reality and evading accountability.

Casuistry isn’t the only trick. There are other subtle manipulations that I’d like to write about in the future.