A reader writes:
I know you are a very busy person, but if you could humor me by helping me out with this, I would appreciate it. I keep reading over and again, on FB and blogs that “Sure, the Bible condemned homosexuality, but it also condemned the eating of shellfish. If you think homosexuality is wrong, then you are a hypocrite if you eat shrimp.” I think an entire episode of The West Wing was centered around this argument. (I have seen similar arguments about certain fabrics being used together.) Did I dream this, or is there a difference between moral and practical imperatives in the OT? Could you bring clarification to this discussion? When people wield this brilliant argument, what should our response be? Thanks.
Happy to help. This much-beloved chestnut overlooks the fact that the Christian tradition distinguishes between the moral laws of the Old Testament and the ceremonial and ritual law. The former obtain (though sometime perfected by the Christian tradition) while the latter do not. So, for instance, the moral law also forbids murder and adultery and other things contrary to the good of the human person. The fact that the new covenant does not require us to be circumcized or keep kosher does not mean we are free to murder and steal too.
The Old Testament doesn’t make hard and fast distinctions between what is morally defiling and what it ritually defiling. The latter is an image of the former, as Jesus makes clear first in his teaching on unclean food and finally in Acts 15, when he reveals that it is the reality of moral defilement, not the image of ritual defilement, that matters. For a detailed discussion of that, go here and here.
Homosex is not understood by Jesus or the apostles as ritually defiling, but as morally defiling, since it is contrary to the sexual nature of the human person. For Jesus, sex is for marriage, period. And marriage is for one man and one women in lifelong union. All other forms of sexual expression–including homosexual expression and the ever-popular sin of heterosexual fornication–are right out. It’s not complicated. It’s just extremely difficult for fallen human beings. One of the favorite strategies we have is that old chestnut from The West Wing, which already had whiskers on it when Aaron Sorkin stole it from the interwebz.