But what about shellfish?
A popular strategy employed by those who oppose Christian teaching about homosexual behaviour, is to point to other Old Testament laws which Christians don’t seem to be concerned about. Why do Christians believe that Leviticus 18:22 ought to be obeyed, which says that it is unlawful for a man to lie with another man, while not putting Leviticus 19:27 into practice which forbids clipping the edges of one’s beard? Or Leviticus 11:9-11 which forbids the eating of shellfish and other such sea-foods. Why are some parts of the Old Testament law highlighted and attempts made to abide by them, while others seem to be ignored? In short, which bits of the Old Testament law should we follow?
The question can be answered by addressing a slightly different question which is this: what is a Christian person’s relationship to the Old Testament law? Jesus himself gives a very clear answer to this question. In Matthew 5: 17 – 19 he says:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus is very clear about the relationship of his people to the law. They are not to abolish even the smallest of the laws. However, the way they are to relate to the Old Testament laws is that they are to fulfil them. The Christian person then does not set aside any of the laws of the Old Testament – including the strange ones about not eating cuttlefish, and not wearing clothes made out of two different fabrics woven together, as well as the ones about human sexuality, and coveting and the rest. The Christian person does not set them aside, but fulfils them. This doesn’t mean living by every detail of the Old Testament law, but it does mean fulfilling it.
This then raises the question, what does it mean to fulfil the law?
Jesus Christ himself has fulfilled the law. This means that for those who believe in him, Jesus is ‘the end of the law’ (Romans 10:4) and he has made the Old Covenant (which contains the Old Testament laws) obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). In other words, those who believe in Jesus fulfil the law.
That is, we do not have to sacrifice lambs or bulls when we sin, as the Old Testament law required (Leviticus 4 – 5). But we have fulfilled this command by putting our trust in the Lamb of God whose sacrifice has truly cleansed our consciences and removed our guilt.
But if we who believe in Jesus fulfil the law – then does that mean we have also fulfilled all the Old Testament commands about human sexuality and not coveting and not murdering and so on, and therefore don’t have to abide by these laws? We have indeed fulfilled these laws by trusting in the one man who perfectly abided by God’s law; however that does not mean that we no longer abide by these particular laws. The question, again, is: what does it mean to fulfil these laws? Again, the New Testament tells us in Romans 13: 8 – 10:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For 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: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
That is, we go on fulfilling the Old Testament laws about not murdering and honouring our parents and about our sexuality and about not coveting by loving our neighbour as ourselves. That is, the commands which are given in the New Testament (that is, the New Covenant) point out to us how to fulfil the Old Testament commands, and which Old Testament commands we fulfil by continuing to abide by them.
Classically within Reformed theology, this has been explained by speaking of the Old Testament as containing Civil, Ceremonial and Moral laws. Ceremonial laws are those which relate to the work the priests do on behalf of the people of Israel – like the laws about sacrificing goats and bulls when people sin. Civil laws are those which relate to how the nation of Israel was to act as a nation. Not wearing cloth of linen mixed with wool would be an example of one of these laws, as would the laws about the inheritance rights of the firstborn, and the laws about putting people to death if they do particular things. The moral laws are those which define for us what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves. The laws about not stealing, appropriate and inappropriate sexual relations and not murdering are examples of these.
While the Old Testament itself doesn’t use these distinctions, they are very helpful it explaining how the New Testament relates to the Old. So Article 7 of the Anglican Church’s Thirty-nine Articles reads:
‘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.’
That is, the Christian person does not have to abide by the Civil or ceremonial laws as they are fulfilled in Christ. But part of fulfilling the moral laws in Christ means abiding by the moral law of the Old Testament.
So if one of your friends asks you the same tricky questions, about shellfish or beard-trimming, it is good to think ahead about how you might answer them. And if you’re stuck for words, just remember the most important one: fulfilment!