Why do Christians ignore so many biblical laws?

EYTAN IN COLLEGE PARK, MD., ASKS:

Why do Christians not follow Jewish law or celebrate Jewish holidays if they believe in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

A classic issue. Eytan is correct that Christianity ignores many laws and festivals in the Bible’s first five books, yet fully embraces the Hebrew scriptures (“Old Testament”) alongside its New Testament. The church decided this with finality in the 2d century when it spurned Marcion and other heretics who condemned the Hebrew scriptures as inferior.

One common explanation is that God gave many of the Old Testament laws to sharply define and strengthen the identity of his uniquely chosen people,  whereas in the New Testament era all ethnic lines are removed. The Roman Catholic Church’s catechism says “the Old Law is a preparation for the Gospel” that teaches us about sin and “presages the work of liberation from sin which will be fulfilled in Christ.”

Two major laws were removed by direct revelation from God, according to the New Testament. In Acts chapter 10, the apostle Peter is commanded through angelic visions to suspend kosher laws and eat “all kinds of animals” to foster Gentile conversions. In Acts chapter 15, leaders at the Jerusalem council (circa A.D. 50) ruled that male Gentiles did not need to be circumcised upon conversion to faith in the God of Israel.

As for all those other Old Testament precepts, the Church of England’s venerable Thirty-Nine Articles offer a typical understanding: “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.”

Translation: The laws fall into three categories. Christians are not bound by ceremonial laws (though they’re free to observe any item they wish, as some do). Also no longer mandated is civil legislation that applied to ancient Israel. However, Christians are to obey the third category of “moral” commandments.

Currently there’s intense religious disagreement over one law. Leviticus chapter 18 lists what Christianity traditionally regarded as binding “moral” laws, against incest, adultery, child sacrifice, sexual exploitation of animals, and male homosexual relations. Today most everyone upholds the first four requirements, but liberal Protestants now believe the last point is outmoded (along with the New Testament strictures in Romans 1:26-27 and elsewhere).

The divisiveness of this issue is showcased in the “mainline” Presbyterian Church (USA) — not to be confused with the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. In 2011 its  regional units split 97 – 74 in a referendum that abolished a 1996 mandate that clergy and lay officers observe “fidelity” in man-woman marriage or “chastity in singleness.” Last July the PC(USA) assembly upheld the church’s man-woman definition of marriage by only 52  percent, defeating a proposed “two people” rewrite.  This long-running debate has caused some tradition-minded congregations and members to quit.

In Judaism, as recently as 1983 even the liberal Reform branch issued a rabbinical compendium that declared “Scripture considers homosexuality to be a grave sin.” Sounding much like the Thirty-Nine Articles, this ruling said “it may well be that we do not consider ourselves bound by all the ritual and ceremonial laws of Scripture, but we certainly revere the ethical attitudes and judgments of the Bible.” The text further called same-sex marriage “a contravention of all that is respected in Jewish life.” Since then, liberal Jews, like liberal Protestants, have reversed course, while Orthodox Judaism preserves this commandment along with the entirety of the biblical law. Islam likewise forbids homosexual behavior on scriptural grounds.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • MJBubba

    “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Go read Matthew Chapter 15 to see Jesus’ words in context. We use the words of Jesus to inform us on how to view the Law of Moses. Any first century Jew who heard “sexual immorality” would think of Leviticus Chapter 18.