Are Christians inconsistent about laws in the Old Testament?
Sometimes Christians get accused of picking and choosing which Old Testament laws they want to obey. For example, the Old Testament outlaws the eating of shellfish, and the wearing of mixed fabrics – yet many Christians today say it’s okay to ignore those laws, whilst at the same time insisting that we obey other parts of the Old Testament law. Surely this is inconsistent?
If you know the US TV series The West Wing you might remember an episode in which the US President challenges an obnoxious Christian radio host about her apparent inconsistency. First he baits her into quoting chapter and verse on some Old Testament laws she upholds. Then he says to her:
I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?
While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?
Here’s one that’s really important ’cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? …”[i]
Now it’s undeniable that Christians ignore some Old Testament laws while obeying others. Whilst some might do this out of ignorance, I want to suggest that actually there’s a really good reason why Christians should be inconsistent in their approach to the Old Testament law, and that reason is Jesus and the bigger story the Bible is telling.
To understand why, let’s think about the purposes of Old Testament laws. Broadly speaking they fall into three categories:
- Sacrificial laws which relate to the animal sacrifices offered in the Jewish religious system. The purpose of these sacrifices was to deal with sin.
- Ceremonial purity laws which include rules about clean and unclean foods and animals (the President pigskin laws!) Their purpose was to help people be ritually clean, ready to come into God’s presence in the temple, and also to keep Israel distinctive from the other nations.
- Moral laws which set out moral rights and wrongs. For example Leviticus 20, which among other things says that practices such as child sacrifice, incest, spiritualism and adultery are wrong.
However the Old Testament isn’t just a law book, it also tells the story of God’s relationship with his people. As we meet characters like Abraham, David, Esther and Ruth, we learn about God’s trustworthiness and his care for his people. We also see how impossible it is to keep God’s law perfectly. That’s why in the Old Testament, the heroes are also always villains!
Taken together these individual stories reveal a bigger story arc: the search for a descendant of Adam and Eve who will put the world to rights. He’s given various names, for example:
- Serpent Crusher (Genesis 3:15);
- a Prophet greater than Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-19);
- an Everlasting King (2Samuel 7:12-16);
- and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53).
But it wasn’t until nearly 500 years after the final words of the Old Testament were written that Jesus declared these prophecies were all about him (John 5:39). You can imagine what a shock it was. Such blasphemy! No wonder they crucified him! And if Jesus had stayed dead his words would have died with him. But he rose from the grave, and that’s why we take what he says about the Old Testament and what we do with its laws so seriously.
So what did Jesus do to the Old Testament Law? For starters, Jesus commits himself to all of it. He says,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)
But what does that word fulfill mean?
- The sacrificial laws find their fulfillment in Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice. Christians have no need to sacrifice sheep and goats because Jesus is the final sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10) “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
- The ritual purity laws also find their fulfillment at the Cross. No amount of eating the correct diet can makes us ritually clean before God, but asking for forgiveness through the cross makes us clean once and for all (1John 1:8-9). Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19) and the early church rejected ritual practices such as circumcision (1Corinthians 7:18).
- But what about the moral laws – the laws governing life and love and all our relationships? Jesus made them even more demanding! He said things like, “You’ve heard that it was said love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but I tell you love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s the moral law of love dialled up to 11! No wonder we need the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
So are Christians inconsistent in their handling of Old Testament laws? Yes – but only if you take the Old Testament law books in isolation and ignore the purpose of the laws they contain. However if you read the Old Testament laws books in the context of the bigger redemption story revealed in the Bible, Christians are right to distinguish between different types of Old Testament law. In fact, to not distinguish would be to deny one of the central themes of Christian faith: that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for sin.
First published in the Bridge Magazine, November 2017
[i] The West Wing, series 2, episode 3, “The Midterms” quote cited from http://bernidymet.com/president-bartlets-theology-challenge-how-will-you-respond/