It is an abomination, the book of Leviticus says, for a man to lie with another man as with a woman. That’s an emphatic word, “abomination,” suggesting that God doesn’t merely disapprove, but finds such behavior detestable.
But Leviticus also says that it is abominable to eat “anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales.” Shellfish are thus declared unclean and God’s people are commanded not to eat them.
Nowadays, Christians don’t hesitate to swallow shellfish, yet many are still adamant that same-sex relationships be condemned as detestable and abominable. When the ‘vixen and I went out for a buck-a-shuck night to celebrate her recent birthday, no one balked or batted any eye. But when a same-sex couple exchanges wedding vows, many Christians are upset to see them “deny so much of scripture.”
Hence the “God hates shrimp” argument and the important question it asks of these Christians. Some parts of scripture are apparently not regarded as binding and relevant for Christians today. Other parts are. When Christians disregard the biblical prohibition against eating shrimp, no one says they are “denying scripture,” but when other Christians similarly argue that the biblical prohibition against same-sex relationships should not be viewed as binding today, those Christians are denounced as anti-biblical deniers of scripture.
So what’s the difference? Is this picking and choosing wholly arbitrary — an accident of cultural preferences and prejudices? Or is there some rational, principled basis for this picking and choosing?
This question isn’t really about shrimp. It’s about hermeneutics. Shrimp have just become a convenient, delicious shorthand surrogate for all the many, many things the Bible unambiguously commands that Christians today feel free to ignore or to disregard. And there are a lot of such things.
Consider again those Christians exchanging wedding vows. “Traditionalists” are upset if the couple exchanging vows are not a male and a female, but they’re never upset that such a traditional couple might stand up in church and exchange vows. The Bible commands us not to do that. “Do not swear at all,” Jesus said. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No;’ anything more than this comes from the evil one.” So just as the Bible tells us that God detests shrimp, so it also tells us that Satan is the source of wedding vows.
Again, “God hates shrimp” is not an accusation of hypocrisy. Nor is it some reckless call for a sweeping dismissal of everything the Bible has to say. It is a question that arises from a fact. Christians, in fact, pick and choose treating some biblical commandments as authoritative and others as not. On what basis are they doing so?
The key thing to notice when asking this question of white evangelicals in America is that they don’t usually try to answer it. They don’t respond with a hermeneutical argument for how to approach the Bible, but rather with a defense of their affirmation of particular commandments. Such non-answers don’t provide an explanation of the principles by which we can determine whether or not a biblical teaching ought to be regarded as binding. They offer, instead, after-the-fact, ad hoc rationalizations — attempts to defend our current practice by creating some retroactive explanation for them.
I want to look here at three popular variations on this non-answer.
1. It has something to do with Peter’s vision in the book of Acts.
This story from Acts 10 is popular in Sunday school curriculums because it provides an opportunity for some compelling visuals that escape the usual robes-and-sandals assortment on the flannelgraph. Peter is praying on a rooftop when God sends him a vision showing a huge tablecloth on which are all those foods that Leviticus prohibits as “unclean.” Peter hears God’s voice commanding him to eat these unclean animals. Peter refuses, and God tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
That seems to explain the shrimp problem, then, right?
Well, no. This fails to address the question for two reasons. First, because it only applies to one particular example — it’s only about shrimp, and thus cannot explain or account for the multitude of other biblical commands our contemporary picking and choosing disregards. And, secondly, because it isn’t really about shrimp at all.
This was Peter’s vision from God. Peter was the only one who was there and the only one who saw it. Peter heard God’s voice, but nobody else did. And so if we want to know what Peter’s vision meant, we should ask Peter.
Happily, Peter provides a detailed explanation of his vision and tells us exactly what it meant. He spells this out explicitly there in Acts 10, and then repeats it in the following chapter. And according to Peter, this vision from God wasn’t about shrimp or diet or unclean food. It was about people.
“God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean,” Peter explains in Acts 10:28. “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us,” Peter tells the apostles back in Jerusalem (Acts 11:12). And after hearing Peter describe his vision the Christians in Jerusalem said, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Nobody in the book of Acts thought this was about food. Shrimp didn’t even enter the conversation.
What this story was about, then — according to Peter, and to the apostles, and to Luke who wrote it all down — was the Spirit of God instructing them not to reject people based on laws or commandments that previously declared them unclean and abominable. In other words, this is a story that you really, really do not want to mention in defense of excluding LGBT people because the scripture says they’re unclean.
2. The anti-shrimp commandment was ceremonial law but the anti-gay commandment is moral law. The ceremonial laws are no longer binding, but the moral laws are.
OK, this seems more promising. This recognizes the need for a more principled, systematic approach and it attempts to provide one.
But the problem is that this distinction between ceremonial and moral law in Leviticus isn’t actually a thing. It doesn’t come from Leviticus, but can only be retroactively imposed back onto it. And the text itself doesn’t welcome such an imposition.The people who first wrote and compiled and read the Hebrew scriptures didn’t make such a distinction. Nor did first-century Jews, such as Jesus and Paul. The categories of “clean” and “unclean” in the Hebrew scriptures don’t really allow for this distinction either. It won’t let us treat those categories as merely “ceremonial” and somehow divorced from the matter of morality.
This problem becomes more acute when we actually try to apply this anachronistic distinction. The first step is, of course, to classify all the dietary stuff as “ceremonial” law and all the sex stuff as “moral” law. (Thus, shrimp is OK, but butt-secks is still bad.) But then it turns out we don’t want to keep all of the sex stuff, just some of it. So we have to sift through the sex bits, reclassifying the laws involving menstruation as “ceremonial” while still keeping many of the adjoining sex laws as moral.
And then there are the money bits. There are a lot of laws about money, trade, lending, property, widows, orphans and aliens, and these laws are explicitly, undeniably moral. There’s nothing “ceremonial” about them. And yet we disregard all of that stuff even more thoroughly than we disregard the idea of keeping kosher. So some will elaborate this theory even more by adding yet another new category of biblical commandment — a “civil” law that will explain our disregard for biblical commandments about money and property in the same way that the category of “ceremonial” law might explain our disregard for the dietary commandments.
The more we attempt to rely on these extra-biblical categories, the more unreliable this whole approach seems. The more we try to apply it to account for additional biblical passages we no longer treat as binding the more ornate and elaborate we’re forced to make it. It ceases to seem elegantly simple and begins accruing oddities and ornaments like those little recursive loops that were added in an attempt to salvage Ptolemaic astronomy. Such retroactive amendments make any system seem suspiciously pliable and convenient.
In practice, then, this approach doesn’t so much provide a system to explain the basis for our picking and choosing as it provides a fancy disguise for our pre-existing preferences. Whatever bits we like are deemed unchangeable moral laws while the bits we don’t like are deemed “ceremonial” irrelevancies. Rules about my money and my property become optional. Rules about your genitals and your sexuality do not.
3. OK, how about this? The anti-gay stuff is reaffirmed in the New Testament, while the anti-shrimp stuff is not.
Again, this approach offers some promise of a more principled methodology. We need to be cautious here — approaches requiring a stark distinction between the New Testament and the “old” risk the pitfalls of ancient heresies and all-too contemporary anti-Semitism. But still, this is worth exploring.
The principle we can distill from this seems to be something like this: commands from the Hebrew scriptures that are reaffirmed in the New Testament are binding for Christians today; those that are not reaffirmed in the New Testament are not. This principle seems to account for the particular matter of the shrimp/gay disparity, but I’m afraid it doesn’t fit quite so neatly when it comes to many of the other commandments from the Hebrew scriptures that we would need for it to explain away.
Consider, for example, the prohibition against lending at interest and the commandment that all debts be forgiven every seven years. These are explicit, unambiguous commandments in the Hebrew scriptures, both repeated many times over. They are also, inconveniently, both reaffirmed in the New Testament. Jesus himself upped the stakes on these commandments — not only must we not lend at interest, he said, but we must lend without the expectation of repayment.
Yet almost all contemporary Christians disregard these commandments completely. Our lives are shaped by a form of capitalism that is built upon a foundation of lending at interest. We have mortgages, checking accounts, life insurance, student loans, savings accounts (in theory) and all the rest.
The initial promise of this whole approach begins to falter once we recognize that the Sermon on the Mount is part of the New Testament. That’s three solid chapters of commandments and teachings that most Christians disregard as thoroughly as the dietary laws of Leviticus. None of what Jesus teaches there about money and possessions shapes our behavior as Christians today. (Even the early church’s teaching that “superfluity is theft” greatly liberalizes Jesus’ teaching there.) That New Testament passage also gives clear commandments about violence, retaliation, and public prayer that most Christians do not treat as binding. The only part of the Sermon on the Mount that most white evangelicals treat as mandatory is the bit about divorce — so once again, rules for your sex life are binding, rules for my possessions are not.
There’s also the thornier difficulty of many New Testament figures themselves — Jesus and Paul among them — making sweeping statements to reaffirm the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, every jot and tittle and shrimp. Both Jesus and Paul contended with the commandments and the laws of the Hebrew scriptures, but they tended to do so comprehensively, not in a way that sought to affirm one commandment while exempting us from another.
Paul’s language is helpful here — both in terms of highlighting the inadequacy of this NT-reaffirmation approach and in terms of pointing us toward a better hermeneutic for understanding every biblical commandment:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Or again here:
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul’s argument there hints at why every attempt to explain the Shrimp Good, Gay Bad appeal to biblical commandments is going to fall apart. His argument — his whole theology, really — doesn’t really accommodate the way anti-gay scriptural passages from Leviticus are invoked to exclude and condemn LGBT people today. Nor can his argument be easily reconciled with the way anti-gay scriptural passages from his own epistles are invoked to do that.
But that’s a separate, larger discussion. Here all we need to note is that Paul’s language — “any commandment” … “the whole law” — won’t allow for us to appeal to some principle of selective New-Testament reaffirmation as a basis for being anti-gay and pro-shrimp. The New Testament does not pick and choose and therefore we cannot appeal to it as a guide for our picking and choosing.