Have you ever seen the West Wing?
If so, you’ll be in love with fictional President Jed Bartlett. He. Da. Man. I imagine that his dry wit, pristine hair and ability to converse about the nuances of the geo-political dynamics of the planet while striding confidently down corridors have a special place in your heart. Mine too. Ah Mr President, if only you weren’t imaginary.
There’s a moment in the show where a stereotypical portrayal of a redneck Christian brings up a conservative ethical opinion to the President, and quotes the book of Leviticus to back it up. Bartlett goes mad and begins to ask some rather aggressive questions. It’s gripping. He shouts:
“If you agree with Leviticus, what would be a good price for my daughter when I sell her into slavery? Do I really have to stone my Chief of Staff for working Sundays? Or put to death disobedient children, or people who grow mixed crops, or sleep under blankets of different threads? If touching pigskin is forbidden, then do the Redskins have to wear gloves? And if not, why not?”
His point? If you’re gonna claim to be making your ethical decisions based on the Bible, then what about all those commands you totally ignore?! What about all the stuff you totally leave out, huh? Ha. Gotcha.
How would you respond?
I preached over the last couple of weeks on the general question of how Christians, this side of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, should relate to the Old Testament. That will be linked to here in the coming few days if you want an introduction to that general topic, to help set the scene for you.
But the basic question here I want to answer is this: “On what basis are some commands seen as non-binding on Christians, compared to others that we still obey?”.
It can’t be that we just disregard it willy-nilly – that’s not much of a way to treat commands from a Holy God in a Holy Book we say drives our decisions.
So why, then?
Here’s a few thoughts.
Some big things that really help
1. If the Old Testament says something that the New Testament then restates, it is still binding on us.
E.g. Do not murder. Your Old Testament says do not murder. Are we free to disregard that because we’ve moved on to the New? No.
Why? Because we’re picking and choosing commands that are culturally popular? NO. We obey that command because the New Testament brings up that command and goes YEP, THIS IS IMPORTANT STILL! Jesus says in Matthew 5:21-22 that not only should we not murder, but we should not get sinfully angry in our hearts towards people. So he actually raises the bar on this one. 1 Peter 4:15 says we might suffer in the Christian life, but then rolling his eyes, Peter effecitvely pleads: “Guys, come on, let’s not suffer because we just go around being stupid. E.g. Don’t murder people!”
So, if you see it in your Old Testament, and someone somewhere in the New Testament says it’s still a thing, then it’s still a thing.
2. If the Old Testament says something, that the New Testament explicitly revokes, then it’s not still binding
E.g. Pork and shellfish are unclean. That’s in Leviticus, God wrote Leviticus, we love God, therefore, should we stop church brunches and their copious amounts of bacon?
Well, I think the church brunches idea is up for grabs in general, that’s for another post. But in terms of eating bacon, the New Testament message is “in terms of your relationship with God, you are now free to eat anything you want”.
Jesus in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 says no-one is defiled by what goes into them (including food), but what comes out (like hatred and arrogance and smartphone dependency and lying). Mark makes it clear after this, in v19: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean”. Paul actually has a massive go at Peter about this very issue, when Peter slips back into his O.T food laws to look good to the religious types. And Paul says “I opposed him to his face, for what he did was very wrong”. Acts 10 tells the story of Peter arguing with God (never a good shout) saying “Guys, this stuff’s unclean” and the voice from Heaven says: “Do not call unclean what I have called clean”.
So anyone who says “If you’re a Christian, you need to obey the Levitical food commands” is wrong. Because the New Testament says so. They’ve been fulfilled by Jesus. That was then. This is now. You’re not picking and choosing, you’re obeying Jesus’ understanding of the Old Testament. (All this is to say that if you encounter someone for whom eating certain things is wrong, don’t be a wally about it. Perhaps it’s a weakness in their conscience, perhaps they’ve just got an allergy, be kind, be gracious, we’re all working it out bit by bit on a journey of truth).
Plus, this I hope is clear, but being vegetarian or vegan is fine by the New Testament. There’s a hundred reasons you might make that choice. What’s not okay is insisting that godly Christians all must avoid pork.
But what if the Old Testament says it, and the New Testament is silent on it?
E.g. Tattoos. Old Testament seems to say don’t get tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). No-one in the New Testament says “YEAH, THEY ARE REALLY BAD, DON’T DO THAT.” But also no-one in the New Testament says “HEY THE TATTOOS THING, THAT’S FINE NOW!”.
What do we do with such things?
1) Woah, don’t panic. God is gracious and we’re learning. Let’s figure it out together. Don’t beat yourself or anyone else up about this stuff. Don’t jump to conclusions about others quickly or make your instinctive opinion on an issue the bench mark by which you judge others.
2) Ask Jonathan!!!!!!!!!
3) Here’s two general options that people punt for: Some people say “EVERYTHING in the Old Testament is for us to obey, UNLESS the New Testament says otherwise”. Other people say “EVERYTHING in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ and thus not binding, UNLESS The New Testament explicitly says otherwise.” Opinion one might lead you not to get a tattoo. Opinion two might lead you to feel free to get one (if mummy and daddy say it’s okay kids). I personally think the tattoo thing comes so closely surrounded by food laws, cleansing rituals and instructions for sacrifices (all of which the New Testament says are now obselete because they’re fulfilled in Jesus) that it’s safe to assume the tattoos law is in the same category and is not binding on us. But that’s just my view. What do you think?
4) We have some layers of help at our disposal – each other, our elders, the body of Christ across geography (other Christians worldwide today) and the body of Christ across history (what old, dead guys said about it). Let’s be humble and hear the help of others.
5) Read this