Recent missives in support of same-sex marriage have sought to drown out the evangelical voice by asserting that its moral stance is both selective and inconsistent with the Bible’s own teaching.
The common form of the charge levelled against Christendom runs as follows:
Christians claim that same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s Law, but there are many things that God’s Law forbids that Christians are perfectly comfortable practising. Deuteronomy 21:18-21, for example, commands God’s people to stone to death disobedient and rebellious children. Do Christian parents stone their children to death when they are disobedient? Deuteronomy 19:19 and 22:11, further, commands us not to wear garments made from both wool and linen; but we don’t hear Christians making a fuss about mixing fabrics. Leviticus 11, moreover, lists various animals that may, and may not, be eaten. Notwithstanding, Christians happily eat many meats that the Bible declares to be unclean. They, themselves, don’t take God’s Laws seriously; why, then, should we listen to Christians when they condemn same-sex relationships?
The purpose of this article is to comfort the believer with the knowledge that there is nothing inconsistent with the view that evangelical Christendom holds on same-sex marriage vis-à-vis certain other Old Testament prohibitions. Indeed, the charge that the world levels against us flows from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and function of biblical law.
Protestant theology has traditionally distinguished between Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws and (Old and New Testament) moral law. For example, as Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) writes:
“The [moral] law is nothing else than the eternal will of God. For I shall say nothing here of civil laws or ceremonial laws, because they have to do with the outer man, and I am now talking of the inner man. Besides, these laws vary according to the exigencies of the times, as we often see in the case of civil laws; and ceremonial laws were abolished altogether by Christ, for they were made to be amended at some time, as was also done at the proper time, Heb. 9:10. But the divine [or moral] laws, which have to do with the inner man, are eternal. The law will never be abrogated that you are to love your neighbour as yourself; and theft, false witness, murder, etc., will always be regarded as crimes.”
Certain Old Testament Laws were ceremonial in nature: their purpose was to point Israel to Christ as the only basis upon which God would redeem His people. The Passover Feast (Ex. 12 and Deut. 16), for example, was, at its heart, a reminder to Israel that God, Himself, would send a (the) Lamb to rescue His people from the bondage of sin.
Similarly, God’s laws circumscribing ceremonial purity fall under this heading. For example, when God permitted Israel to eat only certain herded animals, namely those that divide the hoof, are cloven-footed and chew the cud (Lev. 11), these laws point forward to Christ. The animals that God declared clean typified the “perfect” animal: sheep and cattle (both of which divide the hoof, etc.) represent the “perfect” farmed beast. A camel (Lev. 11:4) and a pig (Lev. 11:7-8) do not represent “typical” livestock. Likewise, fish typify the “perfect” marine creature (Lev. 11:9), whereas sea-life that lacks either fins or scales are not “typical”.
In this manner, Old Testament food laws typify Christ, whose flesh is (figuratively) “true [archetypical] food” (John 6:55).
Likewise, the law surrounding the wearing of garments made from mixed fabrics acted as a reminder to Israel of God’s purity. When the Israelite was forbidden to wear such a garment, he or she was to understand this particular injunction in the context of the whole Jewish ceremonial system: it pointed to a need for God, Himself, to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, namely His holiness and Israel’s sin. This reconciliation has, of course, now been accomplished in Christ; and the type has been superseded by the archetype.
Laws relating to the civil and criminal administration of ancient Israel vary, as Zwingli notes, according to the exigencies of the times. Laws regulating how Israel was to deal with certain criminal behaviour and certain civil remedies were never intended to operate beyond the geographic and chronological borders that defined ancient Israel. For example, laws relating to Cities of Refuge (Deut. 19) were never designed to be the pattern for either ancient Philistia or modern Western democracy. On this basis, it is patently clear that Deuteronomy 21:18-21 does not demand of Christian parents that they stone their children to death for disobedience or unruly behaviour.
In contrast to the civil and ceremonial Law, God’s moral law is eternal and unchangeable. What was wrong for ancient Israel is wrong for all men and women, in all ages, and in all places. God’s moral law bound, and continues to bind, humankind to all that is holy and pure. It cannot change; not one “jot or tittle” can, under any circumstances, be abrogated or laid aside. If God were to loosen His moral demands, then He would cease to be that which He is in essence: pure, holy, and ontologically unchangeable.
God’s laws relating to illicit sexual relationships fall within the ambit of God’s moral law. The question, therefore, is not whether the Christian feels at liberty to wear a polyester-cotton blend shirt, or whether he or she eats pork, shellfish or any other animal declared to be unclean by the ceremonial law, but whether God’s moral law outlaws same-sex relationships, as, indeed, it prohibits any other form of inordinate, or unlawful, sexual contact. If the moral law prohibits such things, then not even evangelical Christendom’s moral blindness can transform that which is unlawful into a lawful union.
The question arises, quite naturally, how one is to distinguish the moral law from the ceremonial and the civil. The Scriptures do not leave such an important division to the sensitivities and whims of the individual Christian or denomination.
God gave His moral law to the whole of Israel when they assembled at the base of Mount Sinai (Ex. 19). He did this, it is suggested, because, as Zwingli notes, the moral law of God relates to the “inner man”. Every man, woman and child in Israel was responsible for their conformity to the law that God delivered in the form of the Ten Commandments. In contrast, the civil and ceremonial law was delivered to Moses and the elders of Israel alone (see, for example, Ex. 24 and the chapters following), consistent with the fact that adherence to Israel’s civil and ceremonial Laws were matters for its leaders; they relate, as Zwingli notes, to the “outer man”.
In addition, the New Testament, as well as the Old, draws a distinction between the moral law, on the one hand, and civil and ceremonial Law. The moral law is eternal and inherently good (Mat. 5:18 and Rom. 7:12), whereas civil and ceremonial laws are not so described (Rom. 10:4, Heb. 7:13; John 8:1-11). The Ten Commandments, and every explanation as to their ambit (including Lev. 18:22; 20:13, Deut. 22:5; 23:17, for example) continue to be, and forever will be, binding upon every responsible creature, in every age, and in every place. Accordingly, the evangelical Christian may, indeed should, maintain his or her objection to same-sex marriage without adopting a position that is inconsistent with the broader teaching of Scripture.