I am going to take the opportunity of our migration to a new domain to launch the first of an unknown number of posts in a series concerning the delicate balance between scriptural commands, the teachings (and commands) of Christ, and the freedom that comes from a relationship with Christ.
We know Jesus came to free us from the oppressive constraints of Mosaic law. Most of the old laws are disregarded. We do not concern ourselves with mixing cotton and wool or cross-breeding cattle. We do not keep kosher. We no longer sacrifice doves and oxen on holidays. But clearly a strong legacy of the Old Testament law is ingrained into Christian morality. For example, we still revere the Ten Commandments. No murder, no lying, no stealing, etc. We honor the Sabbath, albeit in a more relaxed fashion than in past. Many Christians adhere to a strict Old Testament tradition of tithing. In the early days of the Christian church, the issue of whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised was a heated divisive issue, even among the Apostles.
This can be confusing, and sometimes seems to outsiders as if we are simply cherry-picking the laws we want to obey while claiming Jesus freed us from the more inconvenient ones. That is not the case. Perhaps the clearest explanation (this comes from actual scholars, not just me) is that the laws in the Old Testament were divided into three categories:
civil – laws concerning property rights, the government, settling of disputes, etc.
ceremonial – laws concerning religious ceremonies, sacrifices, holy days, the priesthood, etc.
moral – laws concerning sexual conduct, theft, treatment of the poor, etc.
I think this is a good analysis, but I would put forth that since ancient Israel was a theocracy, the civil and ceremonial categories could be combined. That is a bit semantic. The primary point is that our new covenant with Christ abolishes the civil and ceremonial categories but God’s moral laws remain intact.
However, I think this is something of a weaksauce theology. I suggest that Christ has freed us from all of the Old Testament laws, and we are left to rely on a combination of guiding principles from the Old Testament moral law, Jesus’s teachings, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to determine how we, as Christians, should act.
Gal. 5:18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.”
Now, that does not give us free rein to go out and engage in a lifelong litany of licentiousness. Practically speaking, the conclusions we draw from the teachings of Jesus and the guidance of the Spirit should converge on the guidelines from the Old Testament, much like when you solve an algebra problem and check the solution in the back of the book to see if you are on the right track.
The distinction between those two interpretations is subtle, but I believe it is an important one. Learning to be in tune with the Spirit and apply Jesus’s teachings are important skills Christians must develop. (And spend their whole lives developing. Perhaps some day I’ll put up a post on Christian “continuing education”)
I have heard many preachers say things like “The Bible contains all you need to know” or “All the answers are in this book.” I appreciate what they are saying, and I am not diminishing the importance of the Bible or suggesting it is incomplete. But we cannot expect a book that was written 3000 years ago, in a different culture, to have explicit instructions for all situations we will encounter in our modern society. We have to apply the teachings and principles from the Bible, coupled with active guidance from the Spirit, to find our way in our own culture and world. The moral precepts from the Old Testament can certainly inform those decisions, but we should not expect to find the answers laid out for us in detail for every situation we encounter.
Of course, not all Christians always arrive at the same conclusions about some difficult issues. You can find Christians on both side of the political spectrum. Some people abstain from alcohol, some do not. Other dividing issues include controversial topics like abortion, the use of deadly force in defense of yourself or others, the role of the government and the church in caring for the poor, relations with people of other faiths, as well as more ecclesiastical topics like infant baptism, the ordination of women, congregational autonomy, and so on.
There are sincere, informed Christian people on every side of each of those issues. But is that okay? Are some of these people wrong? Is it possible for them to all be right? It is a very complicated question. Over the course of several blog posts, we’re going to explore some of these issues and try to determine if there is a clear Christian stance on some issues, or perhaps if there is room for disagreements on others. We will also examine the nuanced question of is it possible for earnest Christians to genuinely be led by the Spirit in different directions on the same issue. I don’t promise that I’ll arrive at any solid answers for that question, but I believe it warrants pondering, and I am confident we will learn something worthwhile along the journey.