Conservative Evangelicals and Homosexuality: The Bible and Homosexuality (Part 6)

In this blog I want to begin to look at what the Old Testament teaches about same-sex relationships. I want to start from general principles about how we understand how the Old Testament applies to us. This follows from my last blog, where I focused on the positive teaching of the Bible on sexual relationships, concluding that God had created us to have sexual relationships in the context of heterosexual marriage and noting the powerful picture this is of Christ, the bridegroom and the church his bride. This picture emphasizes why transgressing the boundaries of God’s plan for sexual relationships is such a significant thing, because it undermines the purpose for which he created them.

The Problem of Applying the Old Testament Law to Us

I want to focus briefly on the Old Testament Law. Technically that is the first five books of the Bible – Genesis to Deuteronomy. Often we’re particularly talking about the rules for living that we find God giving the people of Israel in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which include the Ten Commandments.

Almost without fail, when discussing any issue about the Old Testament Law that people don’t like, someone will quote the passages on not eating shellfish (e.g. Leviticus 11:9-11) and not wearing clothes of mixed fibres (e.g. Leviticus 19:19). The logic goes: if you don’t keep those laws, then when the Old Testament Law says something about same-sex relationships for example (e.g. Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13) we don’t need to listen to that either. It’s doesn’t apply any more to us.

Now, fairly obviously, it must be a bit more subtle than that, otherwise I could decide that stealing and lying are actually fine after all, because they’re in Old Testament Law (e.g. Leviticus 19:11) and I don’t need to keep that any more.

So the question is, how should Christians apply the Old Testament Law today?

Jesus’ Teaching on Applying the Old Testament Law

Fortunately, Jesus himself taught us how we are to understand the law when he said:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Mat 5:17 NIV)

The Old Testament law is not abolished by Jesus, we are still to learn from all of it. However, it is fulfilled by Jesus, and so we will have to think how the coming of Jesus transforms our understanding of the Law (much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, is giving us examples). While people have written books on how to understand this relationship, perhaps the simplest approach is to give two helpful rules of thumb.

  1. If a law or principle from the Old Testament is found in the New Testament as well, then we can be confident the Old Testament law still applies as it did.
  2. If the law is specifically restricted in some way in the New Testament (like sacrifices), then we can be confident that it now applies differently (the Old Testament sacrifices are to teach about the sacrifice of Jesus, whose sacrifice fulfils them by being the final sacrifice, see Hebrews 10:1-18).


Moral, Civil and Ceremonial Law

This second rule of thumb is sometimes summarised by splitting the law into three helpful divisions: moral, civil and ceremonial. The moral law is the timeless ethical principles, encapsulated for example in the Ten Commandments. The civil law was God’s instruction for how the nation of Israel should be governed. The ceremonial law was how the religious life of Israel was regulated (sacrifices, priests etc.).

In general the moral law is understood to remain in force (although transformed by the forgiveness offered in the gospel and the power to serve God given by the Spirit). Therefore, the commands against stealing and lying remain in force. It’s worth noting they are repeated in the New Testament as well (for example Romans 13:9; Ephesians 4:28; Colossians 3:9).

In contrast, the civil law doesn’t straightforwardly apply now, because the people of the God and the nation of Israel are no longer the same thing. The people of God are now the church and the church is not a nation. So we have to think harder about how those civil laws might be fulfilled in Jesus today. While we might agree that stealing is wrong for Christians, we will have to think what the implications are for Christians who steal in church (see, e.g. Ephesians 4:28) and what we might want to campaign for and vote for with respect to our government.

Finally, the ceremonial law is of course radically changed by Jesus - the great high priest and final sacrifice. This area has been one of constant problems for the church. We have taken law applying to priests and applied it to church ministers who in the New Testament are no more priests than any other church members (e.g. 1 Peter 2:9) and much less priests than the Lord Jesus (e.g. Hebrews 4:14-5:10)!. We have taken sacrificial law and applied it to our communion services, instead of recognising that sacrifice was completed in Christ. We have taken temple law and applied it to our church buildings, neglecting to see that the New Testament removes the physical temple and replaces it with the temple being God’s people.

It is worth pointing out that this division of the law into moral, civil and ceremonial is the approach taken in the Church of England. In our statement of faith, the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, we read in Article VII:

Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

Thinking About the Law and Same-Sex Relationships

We will look at what the Old Testament says about same-sex relationships in detail in the next article. For now, let me draw some conclusions. First, it isn’t enough to find some laws in the Old Testament that we don’t think apply now (like eating shellfish and wearing clothes of mixed fibres) and then apply that as a blanket removal of obedience to any laws in the Old Testament. In fact, that’s a rather silly argument. We need a more nuanced approach.

Second, if we ask the question: is a particular law re-affirmed in the New Testament? then while we find nothing re-affirming laws about shell-fish and mixed-fibre clothes, we do find re-affirmation of laws prohibiting same-sex sexual relationships (e.g. Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9).

Third, it seems likely that both the laws about shell-fish and mixed-fibre clothes have been fulfilled in the coming of Christ in a way that means we don’t keep them now. In terms of shell-fish we for example, Jesus made it clear that all foods are clean now (Mark 7:19). In fact, it seems likely that both of these Old Testament laws were actually ceremonial, about keeping clean and separate (the law about mixed fibres, as with the other laws in that verse, is probably emphasizing the separation and distinction the people of Israel are to have as a holy people). So while we are still to be a holy people, God has given us a different way as Christians to set about doing that.

In contrast, the laws on same-sex sexual relationships seem most likely to fall into the category of moral law, which remains in force for the Christian.

All of this will hopefully clear the way for discussion of what the Old Testament actually says about same-sex sexual relationships. With this framework in place, in the next blog we will discuss three passages which deal with this issue.

Other Posts in the this series:

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