Here’s question three in our series on questions from Facebook. This question actually comes from a discussion i had with a friend over lunch last week. In a nutshell her question was “How do you decide which commands to obey in the Bible?”
It’s a very good question. She had observed that there are commands in the Bible that people do not obey. In particular she pointed out the passage where parents are supposed to publicly execute violent children (Exodus 21:15). Clearly no biblical theist, whether, Christian or Jew, in North America follows this biblical command. So, if we say that we believe “the Bible has authority over those who live in relationship with Him” (Check out our “What We Believe” page for more on our beliefs.), why don’t we obey everything in the Bible?
The answer has to do with how we interpret the legal portions of the Bible. The Bible is made up of many genre’s of literature. A majority of the Bible is narrative, but there is also prophecy, poetry, epistolary, and legal literature. By legal literature, I mean the specific laws found primarily in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
The Old Testament legal code can be divided into three different sub-sections; (1) moral, civil, and ritual. The moral code covers issues on morality and ethics (i.e. the Ten Commandments Exodus 20). The civil code covers how the Nation of Israel was to be run judicially (i.e. the issue regarding children cited above or provisions to care for the poor Leviticus 19:9). The ritual code covers issues of Israelite religion and worship (i.e. the ritual sacrifices found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers).
Since these three subsets of the legal code have different purposes they should be interpreted accordingly. The moral code is the simplest to interpret. Morality and ethics don’t change with culture or time. “Don’t murder” applies any where at any time. There is very little need to interpret such statements. Christian theologians and pastors believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfills the ritual code. For us, everything regarding the temple and the rituals surrounding it point to Jesus. We, therefore, do not perform these rituals anymore, but we read them and they help us better understand the necessity and efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice.
The civil code is the trickiest to navigate and the one skeptics and people overtly challenging Christianity often use as proof-texts against us. The first thing that is important to realize with regard to the civil code is that it is the laws intended to govern a specific nation, at a specific time, in a specific environment. It’s more like the United States Code, than the Constitution. It lays out how the fledgling nation of Israel will deal with criminal and civil issues. It is a time-bound code. It is not intended to be applied universally. But, the issues it raises are universal. What do you do with a criminal? What do you do with a thief? The civil code lays out how Ancient Israel was to deal with such offenders. In the 1st century a.d. both Jesus and Paul told the early Christians that it was their responsibility to follow the laws of Rome. Throughout the New Testament, there are references to Christians following the laws and obeying governmental leaders. For Christians today, we are to follow the laws of whatever nation in which God has placed us. We are called to be good citizens and do our best to support what ever government is appointed over us.
To bring this in for a landing, it is against U.S. law for me to execute my unruly child. I, however, am not obligated to permit a child committing criminal or abusive acts to continue to do so. In our country we have a host of resources to protect parents and correct extreme behavior. If my child were committing criminal acts they would have their day in court and if convicted would pay the appropriate consequence from community service to juvenile detention.
So no, I don’t obey every command literally in the Bible. I do, however, do my best to live out the spirit of every command as modeled and taught by Jesus.
If you’re interested, there’s a really good book by A. J. Jacobs about his year trying to live literally every command in the Bible including an entertaining anecdote of him stoning a confessed adulterer, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.