Christians and Scriptural Consistency

Timothy Keller is one of my favorite Christian theologians and writers. In the following article which appeared in Church Leaders as Why Same-Sex Acts Got the Death Penalty in OT but Not Today Keller provides his views regarding seeming inconsistencies in Christian worship and practice.  Do you agree with his understanding?  For those who take the Bible as authoritative this is very important.  For those who view the Bible as merely a set of sometimes useful writings with no bearing on how one should live, not so much.  For those giving the Bible no credibility whatsoever – well, to them it doesn’t matter at all.  RMF

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Why Same-Sex Acts Got the Death Penalty in OT, but Not Today

By Tim Keller

Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller

  I find it frustrating when I read or hear columnists, pundits or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey.”

What I hear most often is, “Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren’t they just picking and choosing what they want to believe from the Bible?”

It is not that I expect everyone to have the capability of understanding that the whole Bible is about Jesus and God’s plan to redeem his people, but I vainly hope that one day someone will access their common sense (or at least talk to an informed theological advisor) before leveling the charge of inconsistency.

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First of all, let’s be clear that it’s not only the Old Testament that has proscriptions about homosexuality.

The New Testament has plenty to say about it as well. Even Jesus says, in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3-12, that the original design of God was for one man and one woman to be united as one flesh, and failing that (v. 12), persons should abstain from marriage and from sex.

However, let’s get back to considering the larger issue of inconsistency regarding things mentioned in the OT that are no longer practiced by the New Testament people of God. Most Christians don’t know what to say when confronted about this. 

Here’s a short course on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament:

The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices that were to be offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshippers could approach a holy God.

As part of that sacrificial system, there was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification.

But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them (cf. 1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalm 50:12-15; 51:17; Hosea 6:6). When Christ appeared, he declared all foods ‘clean’ (Mark 7:19) and he ignored the Old Testament clean laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies.

But the reason is made clear.

When he died on the cross, the veil in the temple was ripped through, showing that the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its clean laws had been done away with. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us “clean.”

The entire book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were not so much abolished as fulfilled by Christ. Whenever we pray ‘in Jesus’ name,’ we ‘have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus’ (Hebrews 10:19).

It would, therefore, be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole if we were to continue to follow the ceremonial laws.

The New Testament gives us further guidance about how to read the Old Testament.

Paul makes it clear in places like Romans 13:8ff that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship but not how we live.

The moral law is an outline of God’s own character—his integrity, love and faithfulness. And so all the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethics of the Old Testament are restated throughout the New Testament (Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; 1 Timothy 1:8-11).

If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.

Further, the New Testament explains another change between the Testaments.

Sins continue to be sins—but the penalties change. In the Old Testament, things like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state and so all sins had civil penalties.

But in the New Testament, the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments.

The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how a case of incest in the Corinthian church is dealt with by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1ff and 2 Corinthians 2:7-11).

Why this change?

Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.

Once you grant the main premise of the Bible—about the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation—then all the various parts of the Bible make sense.

Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed.

Because of Christ, the church is no longer a nation-state imposing civil penalties.

It all falls into place. However, if you reject the idea of Christ as Son of God and Savior, then, of course, the Bible is at best a mish-mash containing some inspiration and wisdom, but most of it would have to be rejected as foolish or erroneous.

So where does this leave us? There are only two possibilities.

If Christ is God, then this way of reading the Bible makes sense and is perfectly consistent with its premise. The other possibility is that you reject Christianity’s basic thesis—you don’t believe Jesus was the resurrected Son of God—and then the Bible is no sure guide for you about much of anything.

But the one thing you can’t really say in fairness is that Christians are being inconsistent with their beliefs to accept the moral statements in the Old Testament while not practicing other ones.

One way to respond to the charge of inconsistency may be to ask a counter-question: “Are you asking me to deny the very heart of my Christian beliefs?” If you are asked, “Why do you say that?” you could respond, “If I believe Jesus is the the resurrected Son of God, I can’t follow all the ‘clean laws’ of diet and practice, and I can’t offer animal sacrifices. All that would be to deny the power of Christ’s death on the cross. And so those who really believe in Christ must follow some Old Testament texts and not others.”
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

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About ronfurg

Former naval officer, federal investigator, forensic scientist, senior executive service member and pastor. In retirement serves as volunteer and life group leader at New Life Christian Church (www.newlife4me.com). Devoted to beautiful wife, kids and grandkids. Looking forward to the time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all and that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
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2 Responses to Christians and Scriptural Consistency

  1. jhilgeman2 says:

    I never understand why people keep referring back to Matthew 19’s discussion of divorce as having ANYTHING to do with homosexuality. Jesus’s answer is in direct response to a question on divorce, and Keller even precedes his comments with such: “…Jesus says, in his discussion of divorce…”

    The Pharisees did not ask, “Is it lawful for a man to lay with another man?” They asked if a man can divorce his wife for any reason. The conversation has been narrowed to a specific topic – two heterosexual people that have already been united in marriage, and a man is looking at divorcing his wife, with the implied intention of re-marrying another woman as a loophole in the ceremonial law.

    Jesus is denying that there’s any loophole, and he’s not only giving a direct response, but he’s ALSO answering the unasked questions, too. However, he apparently doesn’t see fit to answer any unasked question about homosexuality. Trying to extend that passage to cover a condemnation of homosexuality is blatantly adding our own voice to Scripture.

    Assuming that the reference to eunuchs is indeed about a life of celibacy, it’s still within the context of a discussion on divorce and marriage, with marriage being something for people who cannot handle the celibate life (also echoed by Paul later on).

    As far as the O.T. goes, all of those “frustrating comments” have validity because people keep quoting those O.T. verses as proof of Biblical condemnation. If Christians would stop using those verses out of context and simply stick to the N.T., then there would still be arguments to be made, but none about the inconsistency of following some laws and not the others.

    Those prohibitions were there to prevent the Israelites from falling into the traps of idolatry, and all of those laws are consistently preceded with (paraphrased), “These are the things that the land’s previous inhabitants did before you got here, and I destroyed them for it.” That’s why so many of the laws are in reference to activities that are performed in worship of the false gods of that area.

    As Keller mentions, the importance of sexual morality still lives on, but the part that becomes ambiguous is whether or not a homosexual marriage is considered “okay.” The Bible is silent on this, regardless of everyone who wants to extract some unspoken clause of exclusivity from Matthew 19.

    In the cloud of things that aren’t certain, we need to fall back to what God is telling us in our heart. We’re given the ability to know when we’re wrong, and sin is anything that does not come from faith – faith in the righteousness and purity of our actions and motives. That is something that only each person can decide for themselves – “Am I doing this for the right reason?” Nobody else can answer that except that person and God.

    • ronfurg says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response to Keller’s article. I personally do understand and concur with Keller in seeing God’s design for sexual relations to be limited to a man and a woman. It just happens that it is in the context of divorce that the issue is addressed. I believe that Jesus was never called upon to address the possibility of same-sex marriage because it was so clearly forbidden and understood by everyone in that culture. Also, with respect to any supposed ambiguity regarding the “okay-ness” of homosexual marriage, I simply do not see it that way. True the Bible does not explicitly proscribe homosexual marriage itself but it does clearly proscribe the activity itself, just as it does heterosexual activity outside of marriage. So, I’m not confident that we’re operating in the “cloud of uncertainty” where there is wiggle-room for actions taken in faith. While we hold differing views in these matters we can certainly agree on the need to strive for purity in our actions and motives and the overarching requirement to be driven by godly love as best as we can understand it using Jesus as a model and the Holy Spirit as our guide. Again, I sincerely appreciate you comments and acknowledge my fallibility and hold to my right to change my mind at anytime as God gives me better understanding. And, He does that frequently.

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