SHELBYVILLE, Ky. – It’s a common scenario. Someone objects to the Bible’s teaching on a point of ethics or morality (often homosexuality, promiscuity or divorce), so he cites a couple of Old Testament commandments and says something like, “Well, the Bible also says not to wear a garment made of wool and linen mixed together (Deuteronomy 22:11) and not to eat pork products or shrimp (Leviticus 11:7-12).”
The implication is either that the person upholding biblical standards of sexuality is a hypocrite because he’s wearing a linen/wool blend sport coat and ate a hotdog for lunch, or that the Bible’s commandments are inconsistent and therefore not credible. And it’s not just a hypothetical scenario. A recent New York Times op-ed article argued against a biblical position on homosexuality by suggesting that the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally because it also says to “refrain from planting multiple kinds of seed in one field” and not to charge “interest to the poor.”
Such arguments may seem convincing at first. But their problem is a failure to recognize the Bible’s overarching storyline. They assume that scripture is largely a list of doctrines and rules. Since some of the rules seem outdated or impractical, the critics reason, all of them should be taken with a grain of salt. The problem with such reasoning is that the Bible isn’t merely a list of rules and doctrines. It’s a story about how God relates to the world He created. And with a little study it becomes obvious that God gives slightly different instructions to His people in different parts of the story.
In the Old Testament the Jews were God’s chosen people. He gave certain ritual and judicial laws to set them apart from the pagan, Gentile nations around them. The commands mentioned in the Times op-ed are perfect examples. Leviticus 19:19 told the Israelites not to sow a field with two different kinds of seed. The idea was to set Israelite fields apart from Gentile fields, marking the Jews as God’s set-apart people. Similarly, Deuteronomy 23:19-20 forbade Jews from charging interest on loans to their countrymen, particularly the poor, though they were free to charge interest on loans to foreigners. Again, the command was intended to set Israelites apart from all other nations as God’s chosen people – with whom He had made a covenant and on whom He had set His love. Similar explanations apply to the commandments not to mix wool and linen and to refrain from eating certain types of meat.
After the coming of Christ, however, there was no longer a spiritual divide between Jews and Gentiles. All who placed their faith in Jesus could become God’s people, regardless of their nationality (Ephesians 2:11-22). Accordingly, God abolished the ritual and judicial laws that set Jews apart from non-Jews (Acts 10:9-48; Hebrews 8:13-9:28) – laws like those about sowing seed and charging interest. At the same time, God kept in force moral standards that promote holiness and general well-being, as in the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. That’s why Christians are neither hypocritical nor inconsistent when, for example, they insist on keeping sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriage but do not keep Old Testament ceremonial laws.
Knowing the overarching story of scripture helps us to know Christ and see a hint of the gospel in every passage. That alone is reason enough to study the narrative of scripture. But in addition, knowledge of biblical theology makes us less vulnerable in those all-too-common circumstances when a critic begins, “Well, the Bible also says …”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This column first appeared at the blog of Bible Mesh, a website that teaches the Bible as a unified story pointing to Christ. David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky.)