I received this question from a former student, “How do we decide what we follow from the Old Testament as modern Christians? For example, why can we cut our hearts but not support homosexuality?”
Great question. Tough question.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about how Christians view the Old Testament. It’s helpful to think in terms of covenants rather than testaments. Some people are saying we need to “unhinge” ourselves from it’s commandments completely, because the new covenant has made the old obsolete and defunct. In large measure, this is a reaction against those who have upheld the laws of the old covenant without viewing them through new covenant eyes. Christian tradition has consistently affirmed the goodness of the old covenant even while maintaining that we are now “under grace, not law.”
Understanding the Old Covenant
The Old Covenant was given to Israel. It told them who they were (“I will take you as My own people, and I will be your God.” Exodus 6:7), how they are to live (“Now this is the commandment – the statutes and the rules – that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it.” Deuteronomy 6:1), and how to be saved from their sin (“You shall present these to the Lord at your appointed times, besides your votive offerings and your freewill offerings, for your burnt offerings and for your grain offerings and for your drink offerings and for your peace offerings.” Numbers 29:39). It is important remember the Old Covenant was made with Israel, but for the sake of all nations on the earth.
That means God’s eye was on both Israel and the world. It makes sense, then, for some of the laws are specific to Israel while others pertain to his desire for all humanity. As Christians who are under the New Covenant, the Old must not be thrown in the trash and ignored. Instead, there is much to learn and benefit from, for it is the very foundation upon which the New is built. Discerning which aspects of the Old are still binding and beneficial today requires us to consider the three types of laws in the Old Covenant.
Three Types of Old Covenant Laws
Moral – These are the laws about foundational human living. Don’t worship idols, don’t murder, tell the truth, love your neighbor as yourself, etc. These laws are based not in Israel’s calling, but in God’s identity and reflect his purpose for humanity, who was created in the image of God (imago Dei). Because these laws are based in God’s eternal nature and in the imago Dei, these laws remain binding on all people for all time.
Civil – These are the laws specific to Israel for their governance and legal organization. These laws direct God’s people regarding how they should interact with one another (and with outsiders). For example, if someone steals your cattle, the civil law provides insight about what justice looks like. These laws were specific to Israel and while we may continue to learn from them, they are not binding.
Ceremonial/Sacrificial – These laws direct Israel’s worship of the Lord. More specifically, the ceremonial law governs the sacrifices that are presented in the temple in order that God’s people would receive mercy, grace, and righteousness as his holy people. Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law by offering himself once for all, this is taught throughout the New Testament but especially clear in Hebrews.
What Category Directs Human Sexuality?
I think this is the fundamental question driving the homosexual question in the Church today. If sexuality was a part of the Civil Law, then it can easily be sidelined as something specific for Israel that is not binding on Christians today. The Old Covenant prohibited the eating of shellfish, like lobster (Leviticus 11:9-10). I love lobster, and I eat it with glee. This is not sinful because the civil laws of the Old Covenant are no longer binding. In the same way, if sexuality falls under the Civil Law, then I would be free to love and marry whomever I desire.
But human sexuality is anchored in the imago Dei, the image of God. Genesis 1:27 clearly says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Gender and sexuality are an ingrained component of what it means to be created in the image of God. Sexuality is anchored in and flows from the nature of God. This is why the Apostle Paul describes marriage and then writes, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). Sexuality is not simply a human decision. This places the Old Covenant’s sexual laws under the Moral Law (which remains binding on all humanity) rather than the Civil Law (which is particular to Israel).
In today’s culture, sexuality is viewed as simply a choice between two (or sometimes more) people. If it makes them happy, then it is cruel and hateful to place your preferences over their desires. I completely understand this approach… if sexuality is a type of Civil Law. I am sensitive to this view, and am grieved by the ways the LGBTQ community has been singled out in some legitimately hateful ways. This article was written to explain that Christians believe sexuality is a direct outflow of what it means to be created in God’s image, and sexual intimacy is a living portrait of the intimacy we were made to experience with God. This means sexuality is governed by God’s Moral Law. That is why Christians uphold the Old and New Testament’s teaching on sexuality while eating lobster.
In the end, each person needs the same savior, Jesus Christ. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, we can all agree that we have sinned sexually in some way. More than that – we have all sinned in more ways that we could possibly recount. Whether your sin is of a sexual nature or of another kind, each person is invited to find life and hope and salvation through Jesus Christ. May this be the greatest and boldest message that Christians are known for proclaiming – life through Christ Jesus who loves us.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.”