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.

What About Abortion and the Gays?

September 8, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

I was minding my own business and someone that I didn’t know started walking up to me.  I could tell that she wanted to talk to me.  (Experience tells me that there is about a 90% chance that this is going to be OK)

She comes up to me and says in a fairly curt way, “So, you’re a pastor or something right?” (Now there is a 25% chance)

“Yes ma’am.” (I was raised in the South)

“What’s the name of the church?’

“The Grove Church”

“Grove Church? I guess that’s non-denominational, huh?’ (10%)

“Yes ma’am”

“I guess you do contemporary music then?” (5%)

“Yes ma’am”

“Aaargh! Why do you do that? Contemporary music!” (<1%)

I tried to explain, that we as a church were trying to reach people that right now are not connecting well at church, namely people 40 and under.  We want to have an approach that has a greater chance of appealing to younger people.

She begins to explain her disdain for contemporary music.  Same stuff I’ve heard for 20+ years.  It’s repetitious, loud, not worshipful for her etc.

“So, these young people.  Are they getting saved?” (<.01%)


“Are people getting saved?”

“Yes ma’am. People are getting baptized and…”

“I don’t care about that.  Are they really getting saved?”

I explain to her my/our understanding of Jesus Christ as God’s Son and how sin destroys our relationship with God and how everyone needs God’s forgiveness through Jesus.  This seems to satisfy her (she even commends (?) me by saying, “So you don’t water it down then”), and I am briefly optimistic that this conversation is winding down.  That’s when it happens.

“What about abortion and the gays?” (0%)

….. (Awkward silence)

My brain is in overdrive at this point.  How am I going to respond to this? Why is she asking me this?  Why did she ask it like this? Please believe me.  That is exactly what she said.  She said it in a fairly harsh dismissive tone as well.  My brain typically works pretty quickly but I was stuck.  My wife accurately predicted my first response.

“What about them?”

“Well you know!” (Do I?)

This has been a while ago.  It still echoes in my head.  That whole conversation bothered me.  It bothered me for a lot of different reasons.  All my various thoughts on this exchange could end up being a blog series or a book.

We will start with this.  Is this really who we as Christians want to be know as? Does this represent us? And do we want it to?  Is this really what we have become? Let’s take her 3 questions in order.

1) Do you do contemporary music?  Interpreted: Do you do music that I like?  Is this the most important question to ask when evaluating a church? Does music style still divide us?  I feel like I could rant on this but I feel like I would be partying like it’s 1999 (Boom! Dated reference!)  How about is your worship passionate and sincere? Is your time of worship an opportunity for people to connect their hearts with the heart of God.

2) Are they getting saved? Interpreted: Are you telling them the hard truths that they need to hear?  Perhaps she is simply meaning to ask if we are church that values the gospel or if we believe that the Bible is the final authority on faith and life.  To give the benefit of the doubt, she could just have been awkwardly asking if we are compromising truth to be attractive.  However, what she asked was about compromising truth that other people need to hear.  She didn’t ask if I was going to challenge her with God’s word.  She wanted to know that they were going to be challenged.

3) What about abortion and the gays? Interpreted: Do you agree with me on my hot-button issues?  Are these the issues that determine whether or not a church honors God and believes the Bible? Why not what about poverty and the orphans? What do we communicate with the people who are far from God that these are the issues that determine whether or not someone is authentically Christian?  I’ll tell you in part what it communicates.  It says that you are not welcome until you agree with our politics.  “Charlie it is not a political issue.  It is a moral and Biblical issue!” What you mean to say is that it is not simply a political issue.  But it is one, and in a culture that chooses to tolerate a bitter, confrontational political climate, you should take care in making hot-button political wedge issues, the primary issues in your church.

This is the point in which I am accused of being soft or compromising truth.  This is humorous to me considering most of my life I have been accused of being close-minded and judgmental.  How about this, can we be uncompromising with truth and uncompromising in our love toward people?  There is so much more to the issues of the sanctity of life and sexuality than the sound bite that this lady wanted.  I do not want to have my thoughts on controversial subjects whittled down to a sound bite to pass someone else’s litmus test.

Would it be too far for me to say that if I had to choose I would rather have some Christians question my orthodoxy on some issues than to have any non-Christians question me or my church’s commitment to loving them?  I want everyone to know that forgiveness and life is available to them through Jesus Christ.  But we are too busy trying to figure out who can be the most “right” on these issues that we have forgotten that there are broken, hurting people out there that need to know that God is right there with his hand out offering hope, love, peace and forgiveness. “But they need to know that what they are doing is sin and we need to tell them…”  Serious question. Do you really believe that evangelical Christians have under-communicated that abortion and homosexuality are sinful?  I would find that hard to believe.

Jesus told us that we are the light of the world.  What kind of light are we?  Are we lighthouses pointing to safety or police spotlights bringing judgment? Are we a campfire providing warmth and light or are we torches to go with our pitchforks?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what about abortion and the gays?  You never really answered the question.”

Fine here you go:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3:16-17

There is obviously so much more to say, but I’ll stop there and just let this be a conversation starter.  What do you think?  Am I too soft? Am I being too hard on us?  How would you have handled that conversation?