Why Christians aren’t ‘Cherry-Picking’ the Old Testament.

In a previous post, I introduced a series of upcoming blogs, in which I hope to increase people’s understanding of the worldview of biblical Christianity (as least as I and the majority of Christians I know see it). In particular I want to address misunderstandings of biblical Christianity that are regularly coming up as I engage with people about same-sex marriage as the postal vote looms. Please note: I’m not writing these blogs to argue for the ‘No’ case – there are plenty of people writing and posting well written articles along those lines. I’m writing these blogs because I believe we cannot love each other if we don’t understand each other (on both sides). I want to increase the love and decrease the hate in this debate, because I strongly feel this is what my saviour and king Jesus would want.

I don’t watch much TV, but since we got the DVD set of the West Wing, it has become one of my favourite TV series. It is brilliantly written and gripping, with complex and inspirational characters. It’s such a breath of fresh air compared with the brainless reality TV, crude comedy and far-fetched medical or forensic shows that dominate our screens. There is one scene that particularly sparked my interest. I’ve seen the rhetoric from this scene reproduced many times since, in particular by opponents to the Christian view of marriage.

The President of the US, Jed Bartlet – a man of faith, a man who knows his Bible well, eloquently and convincingly destroys a conservative Christian woman’s confident assertion that the Bible teaches ‘homosexuality is an abomination.’ You can view the clip on YouTube – it’s worth a watch, especially for Sam Seaborn’s line at the end of the scene!

His (it’s actually the writer of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s) line of reasoning (which so many have copied since, either knowingly or not) is basically this: If you’re going to accept the part of the Bible that says homosexuality is wrong, then you also have to accept the parts that say that it’s fine to own slaves, that we should stone people for working on the Sabbath, that we shouldn’t plant two different crops side by side or wear garments made out of two different materials.

It’s a compelling argument. You can’t cherry pick the Bible. You can’t have a double standard. And there’s a further implication – if you accept the Bible as the Word of God then you are backward, outdated, and you’ll end up ‘on the wrong side of history.’ So move with the times or see your beliefs  slip into utter irrelevancy. No one is going to believe you if you claim ‘the Bible is the highest authority’ and have this double standard. So just admit that it’s not.

And it’s a really important question for those who wish to call themselves ‘Bible believing’ Christians. Either you accept the teaching of Scripture or you twist it to suit your agenda. And there are many ‘Christians’ who have done the latter throughout the centuries. You can get the Bible to say (or not say) pretty much anything if you work hard enough. The German church supported the Nazi party and Hitler when they came to power. The Crusades were justified from the Bible as ‘reclaiming the Holy Land.’

There are other Christians who want to say – “well that stuff is in the Old Testament – Christianity is about Jesus, and the New Testament.” Marcion, an early theologian who had quite a following, actually tore out the Old Testament (and bits of the New that disagreed with him) from his Bible.

But it’s not as simple as that. Jesus was a Jew, as well as those who wrote the New Testament. Not only do Jesus and the apostles quote the Old Testament all the time to support their teaching, they call it the Word of God. A great example is a really important passage for understanding Jesus’ teaching on marriage being between a man and a woman in Matthew 19 (which I’ll look closer at in an upcoming blog – ‘But Jesus never mentions homosexuality’). Jesus quotes Genesis 2 (from the oldest part of the Old Testament), and understands it to be God speaking –  “what God has joined together” (Matt 19:6).

What’s more there does seem, on the surface at least, to be a bunch of contradictions between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament seems to describe an angry, vengeful God, who wipes out people for seemingly small crimes, whereas the New Testament is about a God of love, peace, unity and eternal happiness, exemplified in the peace-loving God-man Jesus. One Facebook commenter asked me recently, “is it eye for an eye or love your enemies? You can’t have both.”

So what’s the solution? Are Christians doomed to either cherry pick the Bible, perform scholarly gymnastics to cleverly twist the interpretation to stop it contradicting itself, or abandon it as a source of truth – the very Word of God?

 If you permit me an aside here (if you’re bored or in a rush, skip to the numbers below) – can I quickly say that I hope you see this question is hugely important for Christians. There is nearly 2000 years of scholarship, including some of the smartest people in history, who have devoted decades of their lives to answering these questions. I stand on the shoulders of giants. So for someone who doesn’t know much about the Bible or Christianity to assume there is no adequate answer is naive at best, and supremely and ignorantly arrogant at worst. I’ve worked out an answer that fits my inquisitive, skeptical, logical mind – it may not be enough for you. If that’s the case, don’t dismiss it and say you’ve heard the arguments and you’re not convinced – there is far more that could be said that a blog (let alone a 500 page book) would not come near to covering. If you aren’t convinced – please talk to me about it – I’d love for you to stretch my own thinking on this topic. Just don’t assume coz you’ve read this blog you’ve heard all the arguments. You haven’t.

But here is my feeble attempt. Here are 5 key principles that I think Christians need to hold together to make sense of God’s teaching in the Old Testament.

1. The Old Testament is the word of God. 

I’ve already alluded to this point, but it is the key starting point for the question at hand. If God has spoken to humanity, then it is foolish and even offensive for humanity to think they can work out God for themselves. Likewise, there are many different types of ‘Christianity’ out there, but the key to working out which of them is ‘authentic Christianity’ (ie worshiping the true God as he reveals himself) is to examine carefully what the Bible says.

Of course, there will be different theories about what the Bible teaches about different things. But the important question for every individual to ask is – does this idea fit with God’s word as God intended it? This is the task I have been pursuing since I became a Christian in February 2006. It has led me out of a medical career to Theological College. I believe it is the most important task a human faces: what can be known about our creator God?

2. Context is key. 

As well as being the word of God, the Old Testament was written by particular people, to a specific group of people, at a specific time. It would be foolish to take something written to someone else and apply it directly to us without considering who wrote it, when it was written, to whom and for what purpose. It would also be doing yourself and the text a great injustice to take a particular part of a text and read it in isolation, without considering how it fits into the text as a whole.

As an extreme example – did you know the Bible teaches that there is no God? That’s a direct quote from 2 different parts of the Bible – Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1. See – the Bible contradicts itself…. until you read it in context – on both occasions, the full sentence is, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’

Let’s take one of Jed Bartlet’s examples which is a bit more relevant in thinking about Old Testament rules:

“touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean” (Lev 11:8).

Why do Christians seem to ignore this verse of Leviticus and yet be so uptight about Leviticus 18:22 which calls homosexuality an abomination?

Let’s consider the context. Leviticus is a book written to be the law for the nation of Israel, to establish how they were to live as a Holy Nation under God’s rule. This was a theocracy, (ie. God was the nation’s ruler) built on a strict religious system to distinguish them from surrounding nations. This included a range of seemingly arbitrary actions that made one ‘unclean,’ which would necessitate a series of cleansing rituals. With the coming of Jesus, God’s people were no longer confined to the ethnic nation of Israel, and their cleanness was no longer based on rituals but on Christ’s fulfilment of the law – so Jesus says in Mark 7:18-19:

“…nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.

And if it wasn’t clear enough, Mark adds the editorial note:

 “(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:19b).

Unclean food laws are further taught as not being applicable to Christians in the rest of the New Testament (eg. Acts 10, 1 Tim 4:3).

So what about homosexuality? Is it just part of the theocratic system of Israel’s society? Is there something about homosexuality that is arbitrary and simply to keep Israel distinct from the nations around it? Does the New Testament talk about ‘declaring all forms of sexuality clean’? These are important questions to ask, to ensure we aren’t ‘cherry picking’ verses to support a particular position.

3. Context only gets you so far.

Context is really important, and really helpful. But it’s not the silver bullet for interpretation. Not everyone who reads passages in context agree on what passages teach. That’s because sometimes things like the meaning of words or phrases, how much emphasis to put on historical context of a given passage, and the authors’ intent in writing certain things are unclear.

Some important principles to consider in these situations are:

  1. Let the Bible interpret the Bible. This is one that distinguishes more conservative Christians from more liberal Christians. Conservative Christians like myself believe that the Bible as it was originally given is the Word of God, with his stamp of authority on every word. If this is the case, when we find a passage doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of Scripture, then either it’s not part of the word of God, or we aren’t understanding it properly.
  2. Don’t try and make the Bible say more than its saying. If the Bible is unclear on something, it’s important not to push a particular view on that topic too far, or assert it with more emphasis than the Bible gives it. This is really tricky when it comes to something where a decision actually has to be made – such as “do we baptise children or not?” A decision has to be made, but the Bible doesn’t mention the baptism of children, and so you have to look at all the surrounding principles and make a decision based on what you can infer. (Hence baptism is an issue that is disputed between many Bible believing Christians).
  3. Consider how our own personal biases might shape the way we read a text. This is probably the most common hurdle that Bible interpreters trip over. We need to be aware of our biases and ensure that the reading we are making is based on what the text is actually saying, not a convenient support for a view we are bringing to the Bible. We can never be free of bias, but techniques to work out objectively what a text is saying (aka exegetical techniques) are what biblically scholars devote their lives to. The usual culprits are when we let our allegiance to certain traditions or institutions, or our personal experiences sit over the Bible. Rather than let the Bible speak into and critique those traditions / experiences, we let those traditions / experiences speak into and critique what the Bible says.
  4. Consider how this text is interpreted by others. The wisdom and understanding that a single individual can gather in a lifetime is infinitesimally small compared with the wisdom available to the human race. As I mentioned earlier, when interpreting the Bible, there are 2000 years of scholarship to help you. In a world where endless information is at our fingertips there is no excuse for being uninformed about something that is important to you. There’s a lot of rubbish out there, but there’s also a lot of gold. If there is a disputed text or issue, gather the strongest arguments for each case that you can find, and work out for yourself who makes the most compelling argument.

4. Christianity is not about rules.

There are a lot of rules in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. As a result, many people think that being a Christian is about trying to live according to God’s rules. The usual perception goes something like this: Those who do ‘good’ in accordance with God’s rules will get to go to heaven when they die, those who don’t will be condemned. In this way, Christianity is pretty much like any other religion – a group of people who are driven by some concept of a deity to try and be good people. Which explains why we often hear objections to Christianity along the lines of: ‘I don’t need a God to tell me how to live a moral life.’

But Christianity isn’t about following rules. The Old Testament rules aren’t what we base our religion on. They show God’s standard of perfection is a standard we can never reach. Following rules to get to heaven is like trying swim up a waterfall. It’s just not going to happen. God will not tolerate any evil, and he will not leave any deed unpunished.

If you want to read more about this, it’s worth reading all of Romans 1-8, but here is the key point: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”(Romans 3:20)

The Old Testament law shows us that we’ve failed.  We all stand condemned before God, facing the death penalty – the just punishment for a life lived in rebellion against the author of life. All of us, that is, except one.

This is why Christianity is Christianity. It’s all about Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one man who perfectly obeyed God’s law in the Old Testament. And so in dying a death he didn’t deserve, he became a substitute. He substituted his own perfect life for us. Here’s a couple of examples where this is summed up beautifully by the apostle Paul:

“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”(Romans 5:7–8)

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”(2 Corinthians 5:21)

Jesus has become the mediator between us and God:

“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5)

What this means is the Bible isn’t a rule book. It’s a book about how people who don’t follow the rules can be right before God. And the amazing news is that because of his amazing grace and love and mercy, God has made it possible for us to be right before him, through the death of his son Jesus. Have a look at my previous blog on ‘Why Christians can hate the sin but love the sinner’ for more on this.

So if the Bible’s not about rules, how do we decide what it does teach?

5. Christian ethics is multifactorial.

So hopefully you’ve seen that coming to understand what God’s will is in the Old Testament is far from ‘cherry picking’. There are detailed and essential processes that must be taken into account, especially the teaching of Jesus and his personal fulfilment of the Old Testament.

But it’s also not as straight forward as just looking at God’s commands and ignoring everything else. The Bible is a unified framework for all of life for all people. Christian ethics (a system of morality based on the Bible), is far more than listing all the commands in their correct context. There are many situations (such as same-sex marriage) which aren’t specifically dealt with in the Bible. Does this mean the Bible is silent on those situations?

In order to make ethical decisions we need to take into account the whole teaching of Scripture on how God would have us live. Andrew Cameron suggests there are 5 ethical categories (‘poles’) which I find extremely helpful and biblical for approaching any ethic issue:

  1. Creation. What is God’s intention for us within the created order?
  2. New creation. What is God’s intention in light of his promises for the future, where God will establish a new heavens and a new earth without evil?
  3. Character of God. How is God’s character reflective of his will for us?
  4. Commands. What does God specifically command us to do?
  5. Community in Christ. How does Jesus’ establishing of a new community of believers shape how we are to live now?

Cameron argues that Christian ethics is a dynamic process where we must integrate all of these elements. Over-emphasising one ‘pole’ at the expense of another will distort our morality in a direction away from God’s will. In a way, these principles are just a broader way of considering the question of context. The question they are answering is: ‘how does this passage fit in the context of the whole of the Bible’s teaching on the Christian life?’

A suggested technique.

Given the above principles, here are 13 questions to ask of any passage of the Bible, especially from the Old Testament.

  1. Historical context: Who was it written to?
  2. Literary context: Where does it fit within the book / section of the book it was written in?
  3. Is this passage or the principles in the passage mentioned in the New Testament?
  4. How does it relate to the rest of the Bible’s teaching?
  5. Am I trying to make it say more (or less) than it is actually saying?
  6. What biases might I be bringing to the text?
  7. What do other intelligent and thought-out people have to say about this text?
  8. How is it fulfilled in or by Jesus?
  9. How does it relate to God’s created order?
  10. How does it relate to God’s future plans for a new creation?
  11. How does it relate to the character of God?
  12. Is there a clear command here?
  13. How does it relate to the community of believers established by Christ?

So… now would be a great time to look at Leviticus 18:22 using these principles.

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

I might do that in a future blog post. But I’ve explained the principles – why don’t you apply these principles and work out what God has to say for yourself?

In the meantime, hopefully this is a helpful response next time you or someone else thinks that Christians are just thoughtlessly cherry-picking the Bible to suit their own agenda. While it may be a fair critique for some, it’s important to understand a bit more about someone’s thought processes before jumping to such a conclusion.

In accordance with s 6(5) of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017, this communication was authorised by Andrew Williams, of Croydon Park, NSW.

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