Shellfish and Sexuality or How You’re Misusing the Old Testament

September 15, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

I’ll start with the shocking statement.  Not all commands in Scripture apply to me.  You should actually not be too shocked by that regardless of what you believe about the Bible.  I’ll give a very simple example:

So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. Genesis 6:14

See, that wasn’t too controversial.  God commanded Noah to go make an ark, but when I read that command, I don’t panic because I can’t build, well, anything.  That command is not to me.  It is to Noah at a particular time for a particular reason.

This leads me to the current debate that seems to be happening all over the internet and social media in particular.  I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said debate.  How about current yelling over each other and zapping each other with “gotcha” posts?  A debate implies civility and engagement.  The era of civil debate is dead, though my heart is to see it come back from the dead.

There is a lot of noise out there about what the Bible says about sexuality.  It’s not limited to people who believe the Bible is God’s Word.  People who don’t believe that the Bible is relevant to the discussion make posts explaining that the Bible doesn’t say what people think it does.

If you haven’t seen it, one of the best zingers out there comes from a clip of the West Wing.  In this clip, the stereotypical uptight, self-righteous evangelical Christian tells President Bartlett that homosexuality is an abomination, quoting Leviticus.  (I would complain about the stereotype, but I really can’t.  Stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason.)  Bartlett (Martin Sheen) then eviscerates this lady by quoting chapter and verse of several other verses in Leviticus asking if he should follow those too.  These include selling his daughter, not touching pigs’ skin (football) and of course, the Old Testament prohibition against eating shellfish.

Sigh.  The number of posts I have read over the last couple of months that basically say if you think homosexual behavior is a sin then you can’t eat shrimp is exhausting.  It has become very clear to me that we do not understand the Old Testament law and how it applies to Christians today.  On the one hand, Christians throw Leviticus out there, without any real regard for the fact that Christians intentionally do not apply most of Leviticus. On the other hand, non-Christians or Christians who are more theologically and/or politically liberal throw shrimp back in their faces (metaphorically of course).

So here is the question: How does the Old Testament law apply to Christians today?

Well, here is the answer: It depends.

(For 2 brief but exciting seconds, I considered ending the post there, just to be that guy.)

Some of the Old Testament has direct application to Christians and some of it does not.  However, all of it is relevant.  Back to Noah.  I am not called to build an ark, so that command does not directly apply to me.  However, I learn that God hates sin from that passage.  I also learn that God speaks directly to his people.  I also know that God calls people to do ridiculous things based on faith.  I will likely never build an ark, barring an incident similar to Evan Almighty, but God has called me to build a handful of metaphorical ones.

What about the OT Law specifically?  Again, it depends.  The laws can typically be broken down into 3 different categories.

1)      Civil (governmental) commands. These are the commands that God gives his people in how to govern themselves.  These commands are relevant to the Jewish people.  For example, they are asked to cancel debts every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1).  Some of these laws are good ideas, others are clearly limited to a more agrarian, nomadic society. Either way, we are not required to follow them, but we can learn from them.

2)      Ceremonial (tell them how to worship) commands. These are the commands that deal with how God wants them to worship him.  These include all the commands about the different festivals that they should celebrate and the specifics of the tabernacle.  Again, we can learn principles about God’s heart, but they aren’t directly applicable.

3)      Moral commands. These are the ones that express God’s heart for what is right and wrong.  They are timeless principles that should be followed regardless of time period or people.  Don’t lie. Don’t murder. Worship only God.

So, here is the question: How do we decide which is which?

Well, here is the answer: Carefully.

(Another 2 second pause, but I’ll continue)

For the most part, it’s pretty easy.  The law is broken down into sections and for the most part it is fairly clear.  When a law is referencing how they should worship, you can put those in the appropriate category.  When the topic is dealing with how the priests should test for leprosy, that is civil.  However, there are some commands that have always been debatable, most notably whether or not God still wants us to honor the Sabbath and take a day of complete rest.

Today we are debating sexuality.  Is what the Old Testament says about sexuality still applicable to Christians today?  How do we decide?

I believe that it is important to ask if the command is repeated in the New Testament.  If it is, then you can be certain that it is applicable.  All of the 10 commandments are repeated except for following the Sabbath. The New Testament does have a lot to say about sexuality.  In fact, like most moral commands, the New Testament makes them more challenging.  In the Old Testament, murder is prohibited.  Jesus says hate now is the standard.  Adultery changes to lust.  Loving your neighbor becomes loving your enemy.  The confusing nature of family and marriage in the Old Testament becomes clear in the New Testament and goes back to what God’s original design was in the Garden of Eden—one man and one woman in marriage for life.

If a command is not repeated in the New Testament, I would encourage you to be open-handed, and not so dogmatic about it.  I would also encourage you to not quote Leviticus if there is a more directly relevant New Testament command, because of all the confusion swirling around the use of the OT Law.

While we are on this subject, can I throw a couple of other thoughts out there?  First, that an action, and specifically sexual sin, is wrong is not the only thing the Bible has to say that is relevant.

John 3:16-17 is relevant (Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to save a world that is already condemned).

Ephesians 2:8-10 is relevant (We come to God by grace through faith, not by changing behavior. We don’t act like Christians first, we come to God in faith first.).

John 8 is relevant (Without sin cast the first stone.  Go and sin no more.).

Matthew 7 is relevant (Be sure there is no log in your own eye.).

The story of the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son, and numerous stories about the love of Jesus and how God has called us to bring love and light to people who are sinning are all incredibly relevant.  Don’t be so busy trying to win an argument that you lose the access to someone who needs to experience God’s love in a real way.

Next, what is the correlation between something being Biblically sinful and what should be legal or illegal in secular society?  No one agrees on this.  One verse says “give to everyone who asks” another says “If you don’t work, you can’t eat.”  God says we should care for the alien in our land.  God also hates divorce.  Which of those verses should our government apply and how?  The most common answer is the ones that back up my already established political convictions.  The Bible is relevant to government when I want it to be.  When I don’t want it to be, it’s just for individuals and/or churches.

There’s a great conversation to be had there, if we were still capable of having great conversations. Civil people discussing the relevance of Scripture to government and what is the basis of morality would be great conversations.  Again, we know longer have great conversations.

While I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I have said, can we try and agree on a couple of things?

First, don’t misuse the Bible to make your point.  If you believe the Bible is God’s Word, misusing it is dangerous.  If you don’t, it’s just disrespectful to those that do. Second, could we try, just try, to talk to each other rather than at each other or over each other?  I’m pretty sure I could find a relevant verse for that one, in both Testaments.

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