Question: Why appeal to Leviticus to condemn homosexual practice when you ignore all of the other laws? Do you pick up sticks on the Sabbath? Do you wear clothes with different types of fabric? It seems that Christians are picking and choosing.
This is a very common objection to the traditional Christian view of homosexuality. On the surface, it seems rather devastating. On the one hand, if we say that those other Old Testament (OT) rules don’t apply anymore, we seem to be picking and choosing, and opening ourselves up to the accusation of inconsistency and hypocrisy. On the other hand, if we say those rules do apply, then we are viewed with even more distain since much of the OT laws are quite foreign and offensive to modern ethics. So there you have it: Game, Set, Match.
Well, not so fast. The reality is that the church has always had an answer to this objection. So what I’m going to write is nothing new, and certainly not a modern invention to get out of this dilemma. But at the outset I need to mention that this issue has led to a bunch of theological discussion regarding the place of the OT law in the life of the Christian; and it is ongoing, and when I say “a bunch” I mean voluminous. Rather than getting too bogged down in the issues of law and grace, let me state a few things about how Christians answer this challenge.
First, the “offensive” laws are primarily located in the Law of Moses.* These laws were given to the children of Israel. Many of the commandments were geared toward them alone, and this to distinguish them from the surrounding nations. Therefore, as a whole, the Law of Moses was never intended for all people, let alone for all time.
Second, though the Law of Moses was only intended for Israel, it did contain rules that would have applied to all people. For instance, “You shall not kill (murder)” is one of the Ten Commandments, yet also a law expected of all people, for all time. Conversely, a command such as “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you” (Lev. 11:30) is for Israel, not, say, the Philistines. So how do we know which is which? This is where much of the above-mentioned theological discussion rests, but there are some general guidelines that help. For instance, we get a strong clue from how the Bible speaks of the sins of the nations. They are condemned for such acts as murder, child sacrifice, idolatry, witchcraft, and various forms of sexual deviancy, including homosexuality. However, they are not condemned for failing to adhere to many of the other laws: Sabbath keeping, eating unclean creatures, temple worship, cleanliness rules, etc. What we see from this is a clear indication that there are many laws within the Law of Moses that are normative for all, and many that were only for Israel. This is why many Christians throughout the centuries have categorized the law into moral, ceremonial, and civil, aspects.**
Additionally, when we look at the New Testament, we find much the same story. One of the most important theological issues of the new church, and in fact what precipitated the first council, was how the Gentile Christians were to view the Law of Moses. Were they to be circumcised, for instance? The answer was, and still is, no. What we find in the NT are teachings condemning various forms of sin (including homosexuality), but no teaching condemning anyone for not following those laws specific to Israel.***
- The OT Law of Moses was intended only for the Hebrews.
- There are moral laws that God intends all people, in all epochs, to follow.
- The Law of Moses contains many of these moral commands, in addition to many other laws specific only to Israel.
- Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses “thus abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances” (Eph. 2:15). Yet if one breaks a moral command, it is still sin.
- One of the moral laws clearly spelled out in both the OT and NT is the prohibition on homosexual behavior.
There is no inconsistency, no hypocrisy in how Christians view the OT law. To state again, this has been pretty basic Christian teaching since the beginning. The objection has never been a particularly difficult one and still isn’t – though to the skeptic it certainly seems to be.
* Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; also called the Torah in Judaism and the Pentateuch in Christianity.
** Most scholars today have distanced themselves from categorizing the Law of Moses into “moral,” “civil,” and “ceremonial,” since the Bible doesn’t include these categories and it oversimplifies the nuanced nature of biblical law. While I understand the reasoning, I don’t have a problem with such categories. It might be best to shun these distinctions in academic papers, but any meaningful dialogue with non-Christians or lay Christians needs these distinctions. Otherwise, there is too much complexity, and too little clarity, leading to dead-end discussions.
*** For verses related to this paragraph: Acts 15:1-29; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:1-3, 16-26, 6:15