During the lead up to the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017, I remember being surprised at the number of Christian people in my own circles who could confidently say ‘I know what the Bible teaches about homosexuality’, whilst at the same time having no idea why that teaching is right and good, other than for the bare fact that God says it is.
I have even heard people make apologies on behalf of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on marriage, as if to say, ‘I’m sorry he says what he says, but because he does, I’m afraid that’s the way it is.’
Thankfully, of course, our intuition tells us that all that really baffling and unpalatable stuff in Leviticus – such as regulations that seem disproportionally burdensome to women undergoing perfectly natural things like menstruation or childbirth – no longer applies to the church today. But such is the embarrassment this teaching continues to generate that Christians not uncommonly hesitate about the appropriateness of even reading these passages publicly in church. The desire to provide explanation and context to these injunctions in a way that a mere Bible reading doesn’t is, as far as it goes, fair enough. But does not this hesitation at least unmask a truth we find deeply prickly and unsettling: at some point or another, God thought this was a good idea?
Then there are those bits and pieces of Levitical code that rather awkwardly appear to carry over into the new covenant, not least the prohibitions against all those practices that deviate from monogamous, ‘heteronormal’ sexual expression. And even if we sense that the draconian impositions on the female sex have gone the way of the now-redundant food laws, we might well wonder whether their haunting presence lingers on nonetheless, in the asymmetry that distinguishes Paul’s instructions to women and men in marriage or the life of the church. Even so, they are what they are, and however uncomfortable they make us feel, however shrill they sound in the ears of our neighbours, our laudable instinct to obey the word of God kicks in, and so obey them we must.
Naturally enough, when it comes to matters of sexuality or other notoriously controversial issues like the roles and responsibilities of women and men within marriage and the life of the church, we rush full steam into all the practical questions that flow from these enduring biblical commands. What does Ephesians 5:24 (‘wives should submit to their husbands in everything’) mean for my marriage? Where do we draw the line between the headship Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and abusive coercion? What does 1 Timothy 2:11-12 mean for preaching or leadership in my local church? How does the prohibition against homosexuality square with proposals to bless same-sex unions? And so on.
We are deeply invested in these questions, driven as they are by what is – I repeat – an undeniably laudable desire to discern and honour the will of God. There is a risk here though. In our zealousness to get to the bottom of these practical concerns and to ‘hold the line’ as it were, we may not have adequately lingered on the divine logic, proportion, and goodness of these injunctions. But without a sufficient grasp of those dimensions, our ‘complementarian’ practice – to name just one distinctive – is much more at peril of buckling under the pressure of a culture that chides us for what sure sounds a lot like all we are really interested in doing is placing a whole lot of meaningless and oppressive restrictions on women. The same goes for our opposition to the numerous other mores of a culture so defiantly moving in a different direction: abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and the rest. I am not fearmongering here: the seemingly arbitrary, culture-bound, impractical nature of the Bible’s injunctions has for many within the church proven to be just too brittle.
But God has not given us a set of arbitrary, culture-bound, and impractical injunctions. Here it is worth reminding ourselves of the striking refrains the Psalter makes concerning God’s law, most notably in Psalms 19 and 119: the law of the Lord is ‘good’ (Ps 119:39); ‘righteous’ (119:62, 138); ‘trustworthy’ (119:86); ‘eternal’ (119:89); ‘wonderful’ (119:129) ‘perfect’; giving ‘understanding’ and making ‘wise’ the simple (Pss 19:7; 119:98, 104, 130).
There is a venerable tradition – echoed in our own Thirty-Nine Articles – of categorising God’s law into three distinct varieties: the so-called ‘civil’ laws that regulated Israel’s social and political landscape, ‘ceremonial’ laws that ordered her religious practices and affairs, and ‘moral’ laws like the Ten Commandments that provide a normative standard for the behaviour of all people everywhere. And if, as Article 7 puts it, Christians are now free from the first two categories, ‘no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.’
It’s a guide that is informed by the contours of the New Testament’s application of the Old Testament law to the early church, and as a practical rule of thumb, there is clearly something to this way of approaching the law as Christians today. The difficulty with it is it can give the impression that while there might be something enduring and normative about the moral law, perhaps the civil and ceremonial proscriptions were entirely arbitrary after all. So, while we might infer that it’s always good to preserve life and refrain from murder on the grounds that God is the eternal life-giver, for instance, maybe there was no good reason for the Israelites to refrain from eating grasshoppers than the simple fact that God at the time said so. Likewise, and perhaps more unsettlingly, does this mean there was no good reason for imposing the burden of ritual impurity upon a new mother or a woman undergoing menstruation than the simple fact that once upon a time, God said so (Lev 12; 15:19-30)? And if it turns out that various Old Testament laws are arbitrary, what’s to say that some of the demands the New Testament makes on the church today are any less arbitrary than those which preceded them?
The Psalmist, however, speaks differently about the law. It is ‘good’ and ‘wise’, speaking not just of individual bits of it, but of its totality. In other words, however much it is freely decreed by God, its quality has an even deeper foundation in his own very character and being. Even more emphatically, as if to underline the indelibility of this connection, it is ‘eternal’. When Jesus refers to the law in the context of his own ministry, he speaks of it enduring in a way that is inseparable from the longevity of creation itself and the consummation of all things: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished’ (Matt 5:18). At the very least, then, we have to conclude that whatever Paul means by the ‘law of Christ’ (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21), it cannot be at odds with, or even a simple replacement of the law given to Moses.
The Old Testament law itself bears witness to its enduring normative character, alongside its harmony with the very order of all that God has made. A closer look at the some of the so-called ceremonial laws – e.g., the food regulations that were imposed on the Israelites (Lev 11) – illustrate the way God’s ordering of Israel’s life and relationship with him mirrors patterns and distinctions he has stitched into creation itself. It’s not that some animals were inherently morally suspect, and therefore unsuitable for food, and others were not. The Bible very often extols the symbolic virtue of creatures that were considered ‘unclean’: the lion (Num 23:24; Hos 5:14); the hawk (Job 39:26); the eagle (Exod 19:4); the ant (Prov 6:6-8); even the snake (Prov 30:19). After all, God made them. Yet so closely connected are the works of God that it shouldn’t surprise us that even the very shape of the animal world can effortlessly be purposed by him to illumine something true of his relationship to his people. An older generation of biblical commentators readily perceived these connections. Could it be that animals which chew the cud fittingly represent the description of the righteous who relish the sweet ‘taste’ of God’s word (Ps 119:103; Jer 15:16)? Could it be that the cloven hoof fittingly represents the ‘feet’ God gives his people to set them secure on the heights (Ps 18:33)? Could it be that the scales and fins of the fish fittingly represent a layer of protection from, and a certain capacity to resist being swept along in the ‘restless sea’ of evil (Isa 57:20-21; Eph 4:14; Jude 13)?
Similar connections can be made between the regulations regarding childbirth and menstruation. Both ancient and modern commentators have recognised the way Adam’s relationship to Eve in the Garden (Gen 2), and the instituted pattern of marriage and procreation that follows, sum up the very pattern of creation itself (Gen 1). In Genesis 1, that which is ‘formless and empty’ (Gen 1:2) is first ‘formed’ by God on days one to three of creation (Gen 1:3-13) only to be ‘filled’ on days four to six (Gen 1:14-25). In a parallel fashion, Genesis 2 speaks of Adam who is first ‘formed’ from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7), and then placed in a ‘Garden’ God has planted to fill it by ‘working and taking care of it’ (Gen 2:8, 15). But it turns out he is incapable of fulfilling his vocation to fill the earth without a suitable helper taken from his side (Gen 2:20-21).
Within this context, motherhood and the generative character of the womb has a deep and irreducible significance, as together they symbolise the filling activity of God and the generative life of his creation itself. In that way, Eve is said to be the ‘mother of all the living’ (Gen 3:20). We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Adam’s reprehensible failure in the Garden is something that strikes at the very womb of his bride and all that it signifies. Not only is childbirth now fraught in a way that it was never intended to be (Gen 3:16), the ground which was to generate life and nourishment now gives way to weeds and toil, and eventually consumes the very life it once gave to Adam himself (Gen 3:17-19). In other words, life has given way to the barrenness of death.
Seen in this light, the regulations regarding childbirth and menstruation, for all their lingering strangeness to us, might start to make a bit more sense. Through Adam’s fall, blood – at once a representation of ‘life’ itself (Lev 17:14) – is now also a representation of death and judgment, or the draining-away of life that has ensued with sin; the spilled blood of Abel crying out for vengeance (Gen 4:10). So here is another suggestion, then, and in a forum like this it can only be a suggestion. Perhaps God purposed the blood of the womb – at once a figure of its inherently life-generating character – to be a figure of the death and judgment that he takes away, especially through the atonement and purification of sacrifice (Lev 12:6-8; 15:28-30). To put it simply, could it serve to represent the way in which life, that has given way to death, now, through divine grace and sacrifice, gives way to life once more?
If this inference is correct, it is not that God once arbitrarily deemed there to be something inherently unclean about motherhood or menstruation (a prospect we find almost too horrific to contemplate!) so much a case of him putting something to purpose with deep, symbolic connections to the very order of things he has made, revealed in the rich, interleaving tapestry of Scripture.
All this is to say that however true it is that these impositions on women – or the food laws – do not apply in practice to Christians today, it is important to see how the divine ‘purposing’ of these things at one time was not arbitrary, but had a wisdom that reflects both the nature of God and the order of creation itself. In that sense, their ‘ceremonial’ character – quite apart from their application – is enduringly significant. It is no less ‘eternal’, ‘good’, and ‘wise’ than any other ‘moral’ aspect of his law. And with a bit of careful reflection and meditation on Scripture, we can say and must say the same about every other prescription of God’s law.
Why is it, then, that some things have now passed away in practice, only for other things – like the laws regarding our sexual conduct – to remain? And how do we decide between what no longer applies and what does? A short and sweet answer to these questions would be to say that Christians are no longer practically bound by the ‘Old Covenant’ law – as exemplified in the Levitical code – because the Old Covenant itself has been rendered obsolete by the coming of Christ. Now we are only obligated by what is taught in the ‘New Covenant’ and anything carried over and upheld by what Paul calls the ‘law of Christ’ (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21). There is an undeniable truth here. A Christian’s freedom from the old jurisdiction that bound the Israelites is a theme that dominates New Testament letters like Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews.
This is only part of the answer though. In tracing out the enduring wisdom of God’s law, together with the discontinuities and continuities of its application from Old Covenant to New, we must discern how all its threads have been gathered up with the appearance of Christ, ‘who has become for us wisdom from God’ (1 Cor 1:30). For every prescription of Scripture, whether Old Covenant or New, only properly comes together in him.
Certainly, it is true that this discernment helps us make sense of why the practice of some things has passed away with the coming of Christ and why some things remain. The reality of new life from the barrenness of death, once symbolised by the cleansing rituals of childbirth, is now openly revealed in Christ, whose own spilled blood ‘speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (Heb 12:24). Likewise, the purity that was once symbolised by the food laws is now revealed in the internalised reality of new hearts and consciences ‘washed with pure water’ (Heb 10:22). It is not that the reality was somehow inaccessible to those under the Old Covenant, but it was only then encountered through these symbolic, shadowy forms. Now that the veil has been removed, as it were, it is fitting that the old practice has passed away. But it is equally fitting that the practice of some things remain under the New Covenant. The ecclesial reality of Christ and his bride not only sheds light on the irreducible and enduring wisdom of laws regarding matrimony and sexual conduct, it also explains why any deviation from these norms continues to have no positive place in the plans and purposes of God.
But quite aside from questions of discontinuities and continuities of practice, we must not speak of the Old Covenant’s obsolescence in a way that robs God’s law of its enduring wisdom and significance, even for the Christian today. However strange, unfamiliar, and even confronting its ways, it has been preserved by God as a distinct witness to the eternal beauty and wisdom that is summed up in Christ. In that way it serves to enrich our knowledge of Christ, and – because we belong to Christ – ourselves as well. We would be poorer without it. More than that, it shouldn’t surprise us if its wisdom continues to reverberate through the teaching of the New Covenant, even where certain practices have now made way for others. For instance, the distinctive witness of Old Covenant laws regarding matrimony and childbearing to the husbandry of Christ and the abundant fruitfulness of his ransomed bride, not only helps make sense of the vocations the New Covenant lays down for the Christian husband and wife (Eph 5:25-33), it also sheds light on the peculiar shape in which church life is to be ordered in this age (1 Tim 2:8-15). In fact, it is only as these symbolic connections are grasped – something Paul explicitly presses us to do (e.g., Eph 5:32; 1 Tim 2:13-15) – that these instructions will appear much less like arbitrary ends in themselves and no less fitting witnesses to Christ than their Old Covenant antecedents.
Much more can and must be said on the issues raised by these brief reflections, no doubt. By all means, let us continue to defend and nut out the practical implications of various biblical injunctions for the life of God’s people in the world. But in doing so, let us not bypass the richly edifying labour of reflecting deeply upon the enduring wisdom of God’s law, especially upon the way it all comes together and is given back to us in Christ. For the ‘decrees of the Lord are firm, and altogether righteous’ (Ps 19:9).