Anyone who has ever read the Old Testament knows there’s a lot of laws listed in those books– over 600 to be exact.
In many circles of Christianity there’s often much debate as to what degree, if any, a Christian ought live by these laws.
In the past when I have suggested that Christians are not obligated to abide by any of these laws at all, commenters will often quickly object, saying that “Jesus didn’t abolish the law.” While that fact is true (I’ve explained that, here), when pressed harder most of these Christians will admit that, no, not all of the Old Testament laws are to be followed today. After all, there’s the prohibition on bacon, shellfish, and wearing a cotton/polyester blend worked into those laws, which rarely even the most conservative fundamentalist will abide by.
In this way, using the OT law almost becomes a game with shifting rules and sinister strategy. It goes something like this:
A: “The Bible says gays are an abomination, and Jesus didn’t abolish the law!”
B: “Um. Ok. You do realize that it calls people who work in banks an abomination, that there’s that whole long list of tasty foods you’re not allowed to eat, and that you’re not supposed to cut your sideburns, right?”
A: “You’re misusing scripture! Those laws were just for Israel at that time for different reasons.”
B: “Wait- so you’re telling me Jesus didn’t abolish the law, that the OT law still stands, but that the prohibited stuff you like to do doesn’t apply anymore. How does that work?”
A: “See, this proves how meaningless your college degrees are. If you had a true education you’d know that the laws are separated into categories– ceremonial, civil, and moral. The first two categories we don’t have to obey, but the third one we still do.”
And that’s how the conversation goes, over and over again.
When pressed about OT laws they will claim the argument of categories where one category still applies, but the others do not. Here’s how they describe those classifications:
“Ceremonial Law: This type of law related to Israel’s worship. (Lev 1:1-13) The laws pointed forward to Jesus Christ and were no longer necessary after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Though we are no longer bound to them, the principles behind the ceremonial laws, to worship and love God, still apply.
Civil Law: This law dictated Israel’s daily living (Deut 24:10-11); but modern society and culture are so radically different that some of these guidelines cannot be followed specifically. The principles behind the commands are to guide our conduct.
Moral Law: The moral laws are direct commands of God. A good example are the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17). The moral laws reveal the nature and will of God, and still apply to us today. We do not obey this moral law as a way to obtain salvation, but to live in ways pleasing to God.”
But there’s a few problems with this line of argumentation.
First and foremost, the Old Testament itself does not separate the laws into categories– these categories are modern ways to try to understand and compartmentalize a rather large system of ancient laws. If the biblical authors had intended there to be clear-cut categories, that’s probably how we would find the law written– but it’s not. There’s not a book of ceremonial law followed by a book of moral laws. How can we know for sure which law belonged in which category? We can’t, because the Bible doesn’t tell us.
While developing systems of classification can be helpful, they are our classifications, not the Bible’s.
Additionally, even if the laws were cleanly separated into categories, no where in the Bible does it say “these two categories of OT law are not to be followed anymore, but this one category does still apply.” That’s now how NT writers viewed OT laws.
Finally, and I find this one the most tragic and amusing: classifying OT laws into categories, where only one category still applies, invites one to be ridiculously self-serving. Case in point, I was looking at how the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry website dealt with these categories and noted the following: laws about oppressing the poor are conveniently listed as “civil” instead of “moral”, while they were sure to list things like homosexuality under moral category.
What makes denying personal charity, and refusing to feed the hungry, something that falls outside the realm of morality? Or, if civil laws govern relationships between people, as their website claims, why then would sexual behavior be listed in the moral category and not the civil category that governs relationships?
The reality is that separating OT laws into categories may be helpful in understanding how these laws impacted this ancient culture. However, when we separate them into categories for the purposes of determining which ones we are still required to obey, and which ones we are not, we will find ourselves inclined to subconsciously do this in a way that is charitable to ourselves, and condemning to others.
Old Testament laws, while impacting different areas of life, were not meant to be neatly sorted and selectively applied– certainly not so in the modern age.
The good news? Well, if you’re a Christian you’ve invited to follow Jesus and to model your life after him– so there’s no need to figure out OT law, since a Christian is under the law of Christ.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.