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Do All the Commands of the Bible Apply To Christians Today?

25 Oct

Do All the Commands of the Bible Apply Today?

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By Robert L. Plummer

“Why do you insist that homosexual behavior is wrong when the Bible also commands people not to wear clothes woven from two different kinds of materials (Lev. 19:19)? You just pick and choose your morality from the Bible.” Such accusations against Christians are not uncommon today. How can we, in fact, determine what biblical commands are timeless in application? Do we have a biblical basis for obeying some commands in Scripture while neglecting others?

Covenant Bound Commands

In looking at this important question, we first need to distinguish between commands linked to the old covenant that have been superseded in Christ and commands that are still to be lived out on a daily basis by God’s people. Though a bit of an oversimplification, it can be helpful to think of God’s commands in the Old Testament as divided into civil (social), ceremonial (religious), and moral (ethical) categories. Those laws that relate to the civil and ceremonial (for example, food laws, sacrifices, circumcision, cities of refuge, etc.) find their fulfillment in Christ and no longer apply. The idea that Christians are not expected to obey the Old Testament’s civil and ceremonial commands is found throughout the New Testament. For example in Mark 7, we read: Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this, Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean”). He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'” (Mark 7:14-23, my emphasis).

Similarly, in Acts, we read: The apostles and elders met to consider [the question of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be saved]. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11 – note – As a missionary accommodation [so as not to offend Jews], the early Christians did forgo some permitted foods {Acts 15:20; 1 Corinthians 8-10}).

Not only the civil and ceremonial laws but also the timeless moral demands of God find their fulfillment in Christ. Yet, these moral commands continue to find their expression through the Spirit-empowered lives of Christ’s body, the church (Romans 3:31).

Some speculate as to the reasons for some of the more unusual commands in the Old Testament. Why does touching someone’s dead body make one unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11-13)? Why was eating catfish forbidden (Leviticus 11:9-10)? Sometimes pseudoscientific reasons are offered, such as in books that encourage people to eat like the ancient Israelites (E.G., Jordan Rubin, The Maker’s Diet: The 40 Day Health Experience That Will Change Your Life Forever [Lake Mary, FL: Siloam, 2004]).

Elsewhere, pastors or commentators wax eloquent on the symbolic meaning of various commands. Admittedly, there are some symbol-laden divine instructions; yeast, for example, seems to have repeated negative connotations in the Bible (Exodus 12:8-20; 23:18; Lev. 10:12; Luke 12:1; 1 Cor. 5:6-8; Gal. 5:9 [Yeast can refer to pride, hypocrisy, false teaching, etc. But note how it symbolizes a positive pervasive influence in Luke 13:21]). Moving beyond the few explicit indications, however, the suggested symbolic for Old Testament regulations quickly becomes quite fanciful. Whatever the reason for the various commands (frankly, some of which are puzzling), it is clear that one of their main functions was to keep God’s people as a separate, distinct group, untainted by the pagan cultures around them (Exodus19:6; Ezra 9:1; 10:11). Also, some of the biblical commands imply that the surrounding nations engaged in the exact practices God forbade, apparently with pagan religious connotations (Lev. 19:26-28). God preserved the Jews as his chosen people, through whom he revealed his saving plan and finally brought the Savior at the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4).

Many supposed inconsistencies of Christian morality (for example, the charge that Christians pick and choose their morality from the Bible) are explained by understanding the provisional and preparatory nature of the civil and ceremonial laws of the old covenant period. The parallel is not exact, but imagine how foolish it would be for someone to raise the accusation, “Millions of people in every state of the Union are flaunting the Constitution! You don’t really believe or obey your Constitution, which states in the Eighteenth Amendment:

The manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited (The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified January 16, 1919). To which we would reply, “Yes, that amendment once was the law of the land, but it was superseded by the Twenty-first Amendment, which begins ‘The eighteenth article of the amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.'” (The Twenty First Amendment was ratified December 5, 1933)

The Bible is not a policy book, with each page giving equally timeless instruction. Yes, “Every word of God is flawless” (Proverbs 30:5). Nevertheless, the Bible is more like a multi-volume narrative, in which the later chapters clarify the ultimate meaning and sometimes the temporary, accommodating nature of earlier regulations and events (e.g., Matthew 19:8). Old Testament commands that are repeated in the New Testament (for example, moral commands, such as the prohibition of homosexuality [Lev. 18:22; 1 Cor. 6:9]) or not explicitly repeated (as are the civil and ceremonial laws [Mark 7:19; Heb. 10:1-10]) have abiding significance in the expression of God’s Spirit-led people.

Prescriptive Versus Descriptive

If we reflect on what biblical texts are applicable today. It is also important to consider whether a text is prescriptive or descriptive. That is, does a text prescribe (command) a certain action, or does it describe that behavior? This question can be complex, as some behaviors are described in praiseworthy ways so that they essentially have a secondary prescriptive function. Luke, for example repeatedly reports Jesus’ praying (e.g. Luke 3:21; 5:15-16; 6:12; 9:18-22; 29; 10:17-21; 11:1 22:39-46; 23:34, 46). Such descriptive passages complement more explicit exhortations to pray in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 11:2-13; 18:1-8; 22:40, 46). So, a good general rule is that a behavior reported in the text may be considered prescriptive only when there is subsequent explicit teaching to support it.

Another situation where we must consider the prescriptive nature of texts is Christian baptism in the New Testament. Some Christians claim that baptism must be performed immediately upon a convert’s initial profession of faith. In support, they cite a number of narrative texts in the New Testament, which describe baptism as coming immediately or very soon after a person believes (e.g., Acts 2:41; 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15, 33; 18:8). However, nowhere in the New Testament do we find an explicit prescription such as this “Baptize persons immediately after they believe.” It is clear that all believers are to be baptized (Matt. 28:19; Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 1:13-16), but the exact timing of that baptism in relation to conversion is not explicitly stated.

In further thinking about the timing of baptism, we should note that many early conversions reported in Acts came within families or groups that were steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures. Yes, the early church was quick to obey Jesus’ command for disciples to be baptized, but the background and setting of these early believers differs considerably from those of most converts today. Also, the evidence of conversion that accompanied the apostolic preaching in Acts was often dramatic and/or miraculous. Since we lack an explicit command on the timing of baptism, wisdom must be applied in discerning the reality of our converts’ faith. Thus we conclude: immediate baptism could be advisable or further times of instruction and observation may be necessary.

Culture, Time, and Biblical Commands 

In relation to culture and time, the moral commands of Scripture can be divided into two categories.

(1) Commands that transfer from culture to culture with little or no alteration.

(2) Commands that embody timeless principles that find varying expressions in different cultures.

Many commands in Scripture are immediately applicable in other cultures with little or no alteration. For example, in Leviticus 19:11 we read, “Do not steal.” While cultures may have varying understandings of private property and the public commons, all humans are equally bound by this clear supra cultural command. It is wrong to pilfer the private property of others.

Other commands of Scripture, while immediately applicable across various futures, have implications depending on the culture in which they find expression. For example, in Ephesians 5:18, we read, “Do not get drunk on wine.” This command applies in a timeless way across all cultures. It is always wrong to get drunk with wine at any time in any culture. In more detailed application, however, the student of Scripture also should ask what other substances a culture may offer that have a similar effect to wine (for example, being drunk with vodka, getting high on marijuana, etc.). In seeking such implications within new cultures, the initial command, while immediately understandable, is given broader application. One way to develop applications is to distill the principle of the original command–for example, “Do not take a foreign substance into your body to the degree that you lose control of your normal bodily functions or moral inhibitions.” Then, one can go on to discuss what substances in different cultures would present this danger and thus should be forbidden from human intake to the degree that they cause the deleterious effect (Stein uses Ephesians 5:18 to illustrate implications [Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules {Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994}], 39).

The close similarity between drunkenness from beer, vodka, or wine is relatively transparent to most readers. But what about a command with more cultural veneer? In 1 Corinthians 11:5, for example, Paul writes, “And every woman who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonors her head–it is just as though her head were shaved.” Should women today, then, always cover their heads when they pray in public? Again, it is important to ask the purpose behind Paul’s original command. Was it specifically the physical placing of a piece of cloth on a women’s head that concerned him? Was it not, rather, the woman’s submission to her husband that this head covering expressed in the culture to which Paul wrote (See 1 Cor. 11:1-16 and confer Benjamin L. Merkle, “Paul’s Argument from Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14: An Apparent Inconsistency Answered,” JETS 49, no. 3 [2006]: 527-48). If so, we can ask, “Does a woman covering her head in our culture express submission to her husband?” Transparently, it does not. What behaviors, then, communicate a woman’s submission to her husband? Two examples from the Southeastern United States are a woman’s wearing of a wedding ring on her left finger and the taking of her husband’s last name (without hyphenation). While a woman keeping her maiden name may not express an unbiblical independence in some cultures (China, for example), within the circles where I grew up, a woman keeping her last name after marriage was an implicit rejection of biblically defined gender roles.

Finally, we should note that there are some nonmoral commands that are not applicable outside of their original setting. These are commands the author intended to be fulfilled only once by the intended recipient(s) and did not see as paradigmatic in any way. The list of such commands is very small. One example would be 2 Timothy 4:13, where Paul asks Timothy, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” Such a command was obeyed by Timothy, we presume, and has no further application in any other culture or time.

Below is a list of guidelines to help determine in what way a biblical command may find varying expressions in other settings.

(1) Rephrase the biblical command in more abstract, theological terms. Is the injunction a culturally specific application of an underlying theological principle? Or are the command and cultural application inseparable?

(2) Would a modern-day literal application of the command accomplish the intended objective of the biblical author’s original statement (assuming you can determine the objective of the biblical author’s command)?

(3) Are there details in the text that would cause one to conclude that the instructions are only for a specific place or time?

(4) Are there details in the text that would cause one to conclude that the instructions have a supra cultural (that is, the command applies unchanged in different cultures)?

(5) Do your conclusions about the debated passage cohere with the author’s other statements and the broader canonical context?

(6) Is there a salvation historical shift (old covenant to the new covenant) that would explain an apparent contradiction with other biblical instructions?

(7) Beware of a deceitful human heart that would use hermeneutical principles to rationalize disobedience to Scripture. Interpretive principles, like a sharp knife, can be used for both good and ill.

*The article above was adapted from Question 19 “Do All The Commands of the Bible Apply Today?” in the excellent book by  Robert L. Plummer. 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: MI, Kregel Publications, 2010.

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