In my mind, the central question of Christianity is this: why do Christians selectively incorporate some provisions of the Old Testament, and reject others? There are plenty of examples, but the most obvious today is the condemnation in Leviticus against homosexuality: “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22) But barely a page later, Leviticus also says, “you shall … not tattoo any marks on you.” (Leviticus 19:27) Many hip young preachers actually sport prominent tattoos, in contravention of Leviticus. So why do some Christians honor the teachings of one portion of the Old Testament, and ignore others? Is there a reason, or a consistent theory of application or incorporation, to explains this? Or is it merely random, accepted and rejected at will?
One possible answer is that the Bible calls one an abomination, while the other is merely prohibited. But there are other provisions of Leviticus, particularly the dietary laws that use the term “abomination.” Eating swine, or fish without scales, is called an abomination. Yet most Christians eat pork and shellfish. So it can’t be that the Old Testament defines the transgression as an abomination.
Some Christians will point to the support in the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he says that “men who have sex with men … will [not] inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Again, there’s no doubt that Paul condemns homosexual behavior. But it should be noted that in the same sentence he also says that neither “the greedy nor drunkards … will inherit the kingdom of God.” So why do modern Christians, particularly conservative Christians, get so worked up about sexual immorality, but don’t seem to worry much about greed? After all, Paul condemns both equally.
This isn’t just a theological issue. It has very real practical implications because many people want to establish public policy based on religious teachings. Many conservatives, in particular, refer to biblical teachings to justify their opposition to abortion and same sex marriage.
The problem is that there are contradictions and ambiguities between various provisions of the Bible, as well as differences in teaching between the Old and the New Testament. How should we deal with these inconsistencies? How do Christians deal with these inconsistencies?
In the law there is something called a statute (or rule) of reception, which explains how old laws are received into the provisions of new laws. As an example, after the United States declared independence most of the states enacted statutes that said the Common Law of England was received into the law of the state, and would apply where appropriate.
Is there a rule of reception in religion? Is there a rule that explains which provisions of the Old Testament apply to the New Testament?
There are, and I’ll discuss them later, but unfortunately they are no more consistent than other provisions of the Bible and require interpretation. Because of this they are often honored more in the breach than the in the observance. But let me suggest that the teachings of Jesus offer a good guide to applying the teachings of the Old Testament.
I’ll describe some of the inconsistencies in the Bible first, specifically regarding abortion and homosexuality. Then I’ll look at possible rules of reception to guide how we apply these teachings to the modern world.
Most religious denominations oppose abortion, and cite the Bible to support their position. Unfortunately, in most cases the cited scripture is less than clear, and there are also some biblical provisions that seem to accept abortion.
The main support for opposition to abortion is found in statements that note that God formed people in the womb:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
Did not He who made me in the womb make him, And the same one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:15)
Yet Thou art He who didst bring me forth from the womb; Thou didst make me trust when upon my mother’s breasts. Upon Thee I was cast from birth; Thou hast been my God from my mother’s womb. (Psalm 22:9-10)
For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Thy works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from Thee, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth. Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Thy book they were all written, The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. (Psalm 139:13-16)
Thus says the LORD who made you And formed you from the womb, who will help you, `Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 44:2)
Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, “I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, Stretching out the heavens by Myself, And spreading out the earth all alone. (Isaiah 44:24)
These provisions suggest that God created people very early in the gestation process, well before the egg attaches to the wall of the uterus. And this implies that even at the earliest point of the pregnancy the fetus is fully human.
There is one provision, from Exodus, that seems fairly clear, but curiously it is quoted by both the opponents and supporters of abortion rights:
If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22-25).
There are two problems with this verse. The first is that it does not clearly define what it means by harm. Does it mean harm to the mother, or harm to the prematurely born child? It seems to indicate that the harm is to the woman since the “husband” and not the “father” defines the punishment. It also seems to indicate that it means the woman since it implies that no harm beyond the miscarriage. And if it only means harm to the mother, then it means that the “child” has no value, or at least no value worth mentioning in this provision.
But even if it does mean harm to the child there are still some problems. If the woman is hurt, and goes into premature labor and delivers the baby, this section seems to suggest that if the baby is dead the man who caused the harm should be punished, a life for a life. This clearly seems to imply that a viable fetus that can be delivered alive is a person, and so if not delivered alive the punishment is the same as if a living person had died. But what of a situation early in the pregnancy, where there is no way to tell if the woman was actually pregnant, because the fetus is too small? One could easily read this section to mean that if, and only if, the fetus was viable and born dead rather than alive, then the punishment would be the same as for a living person. If that is the case then harm to a fetus before viability is not punishable, meaning the fetus has no value. In fact, it is because of this ambiguity that this section is cited by both the opponents and the supporters of abortion rights.
This ambiguity regarding the fetus is reflected in a general ambiguity in the Bible regarding the value of infants. In Leviticus, for example, God gives Moses instructions for redeeming people, or valuing them for certain purposes:
When a man consecrates by a vow certain persons to the Lord, according to your valuation, if your valuation is of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old, then your valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. If it is a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels; and if from five years old up to twenty years old, then your valuation for a male shall be twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels; and if from a month old up to five years old, then your valuation for a male shall be five shekels of silver, and for a female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver; and if from sixty years old and above, if it is a male, then your valuation shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels. (Leviticus 27:2-7).
There is no provision for valuing an infant younger than one month, which strongly indicates that infants under one month old are essentially worthless. This is not the only provision that does not provide a measure for the value of newborns. In the first census of the Israelites, as they neared the Promised Land, infants of less than one month were not considered people.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, saying: ‘Number the children of Levi by their fathers’ houses, by their families; you shall number every male from a month old and above.’ (Numbers 3:15-16)
This view of infants was common in ancient times, when life was harsh, and newborns frail, and their survival tenuous at best. In fact many ancient societies frequently disposed of newborns if they were sickly, deformed, or illegitimate, or even if they were simply unwanted. The most common method of infanticide was “exposure” or leaving the infant outside. In ancient Greece and Rome exposure was not considered murder, since the child would die of natural causes, generally starvation or freezing, though occasionally they were eaten by animals. And there was always the chance that the child would be found and adopted. Mythology is full of stories of such survival of abandoned infants: Oedipus was found and raised by shepherds, and Remus and Romulus were raised by wolves. There is little evidence of the attitudes of ancient Judaism towards infanticide, but according to the Jewish/Roman historian Josephus, it was forbidden in the first century. (See, Josephus, “Against Apion.”)
So one can select, and then interpret, Biblical passages that imply opposition to abortion. But one can also select passages that indicate that ancient Jews placed no value on an unborn or newborn child. So which one do we select? Which one has primacy?
Many of the opponents of expanding gay rights, including gay marriage, justify their position by asserting that it is prohibited in the Bible. They most frequently quote Leviticus:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
The punishment for this behavior is death:
If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)
These provisions are abundantly clear in their condemnation of homosexuality. One problem, however, is that this description of behavior as an “abomination” and this condemnation of death, is also applied to many fairly run-of-the-mill behaviors, like cursing your parents. Bad as that may be, it does not warrant death. But the other problem is that there are at least two famous stories from the Old Testament that indicate a more tolerant view toward homosexuality. The first involves Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. After her son dies, Naomi urges Ruth to return to her home country. Ruth is mortified: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17). Where you die, I will die? Seems pretty close. “May the Lord deal with me?” What exactly does that mean? Why would the Lord have to deal with a woman who simply loved her mother-in-law like her own mother? He wouldn’t. He would only have to “deal” with the issue if there was something else going on.
The other story involves King David as a young man, and his relationship with the son of his predecessor, King Saul. After David kills Goliath, King Saul has David brought to him. Saul is concerned that David might be a threat, and so wanted to keep him close (shades of Machiavelli). Saul introduces David to his family, including his son Jonathan.
After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1-4)
“Became one in spirit” … “loved him as himself” … “made a covenant”? Those all seem pretty intimate, and they are far more intimate than other friendships described in the Bible.
Later, when Saul decides he has to remove David, Jonathan warns him of the plot, and then intercedes with his father on David’s behalf. (1 Samuel 19:1-7.) It doesn’t work, and Saul attempts to kill David. David flees, and Jonathan goes with him. As they were fleeing, David and Jonathan affirmed their love for each other.
And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself. (1 Samuel 20:17).
They party and Jonathan returns to his father’s home. He again pleads David’s case, and Saul isn’t happy.
Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, ‘You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send someone to bring him to me, for he must die!’” (1 Samuel 20:30-31)
“Perverse”? What is Saul implying? “Shame”? Is it just the shame of siding with the father’s opponent, or is it something more? Many Biblical scholars believe it is more.
In the second book of Samuel, when David learns of Jonathan’s death he is overcome, and orders that the people of Judah be taught a special lamentation, which includes this line:
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (2 Samuel 1:26.)
More wonderful than a woman?
The homoerotic nature of the relationships between Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan, are frequently mentioned as examples of people in the Bible who were very likely gay. But as with many other stories in the Bible, it isn’t clear.
The New Testament also contains ambiguities regarding homosexuality and sexual immorality. Paul clearly condemns homosexuality and sexual immorality, but Jesus never mentions homosexuality, and is consistently forgiving and non-judgmental toward people accused of sexual immorality. Paul first.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes God’s wrath against the various sins of humanity. He says that those who succumbed to lust “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” (Romans 1:25). Among those who did this,
even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27).
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes some things that will keep a person out of heaven:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
There are similar statements in the letters of Timothy, 1 Tim. 1:10, and 2 Tim. 3:3.
The problem I have with Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality (and other types of sexual immorality) is that it seems to contradict Jesus’s own teaching on the matter. It’s not that Jesus said it was OK, he didn’t. It’s just that he said, in effect, who cares?
In one of the most famous scenes in the Bible, Jesus is teaching at the Temple when a group of people bring him a woman caught in the act of adultery. The punishment for adultery was death, often by is stoning. (Death in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, and death by stoning in Deut. 22:24).
The Pharisees “brought a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing Jesus of blasphemy.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:3-11).
Jesus is clearly not condoning her behavior, and he admonishes her to leave her life of sin. But he is rejecting the Old Testament teaching and ridiculing (if not condemning) those who are overly fervent in administering it.
There is a somewhat similar story in Luke. Jesus in dinning with a group of Pharisees in Capernaum, and a woman who had lived a sinful life came and washed his feet with her tears and poured perfume on his feet. When one of the Pharisees asks Jesus if he knew what kind of woman she was. Jesus said:
“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:44 & 47-48.)
Again, he doesn’t reward her behavior, but he doesn’t condemn it either. So, while the Old Testament, and Paul, seems pretty clear on sexual immorality, Jesus is pretty forgiving. Paul says that a sinner cannot enter heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) but Jesus says to forgive the sinner. (John 8:2). Does this mean that Paul is rejecting Jesus’ teachings? A literal reading of the text seems to imply that, but the reality is that Paul never knew the living Jesus, and the Gospels were written after Paul wrote his letters, so there is no way to know if Paul knew of this particular teaching or not.
But Jesus is expressly forgiving of the sinful. Why, then, I have often wondered, aren’t modern Christians. And why do modern Christians seem to ignore Jesus’ teaching on tolerance while embracing Old Testament rules of intolerance? That brings us back to the original question regarding the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments.
There are a number of examples in the Gospels where Jesus in essence rejects Old Testament teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount there are at least two examples where Jesus contradicts, if not rejects outright, the teachings of the Old Testament.
It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32, also Matthew 19:8 and Mark 10:3-10)
It’s interesting how Jesus uses the “some say” form of argument to diminish the validity of the rule on divorce. But it wasn’t just some guy who said that about divorce, it was Moses. (See, Deuteronomy 24:1).
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38).
But again this was not just some old aphorism meant to provide a modicum of instruction in daily life, this line is from the Law of Moses. (See, Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21.) So twice, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contradicts the Law of Moses.
Later in Matthew, Jesus is questioned about the behavior of his disciples. Apparently someone noticed that they didn’t wash their hands before eating. (Is Pharisee Hebrew for schoolmarm?) Jesus says:
“what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11).
That is one of my favorite Bible quotes. But the point is this contradicts a number of teachings in Leviticus on cleansing (Lev. 15:11), as well as the entire range of Jewish dietary laws found in Leviticus, (Lev. 11:3-8, also Deut. 14:3-21) which governs what goes into the mouth.
Another day Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath, and someone notices that they plucked grain and ate it. (Mark 2:23). Jesus is questioned about that by a Pharisee, who says “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24.) (Side note: those disciples seemed to get into trouble for eating a lot, didn’t they?) The actual violation is not for eating, but for working on the Sabbath, which is prohibited in Exodus 34:21. Jesus responds:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27.)
That might sound nice, but it directly contradicts the Fourth Commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work …. (Exodus 20: 8-10; Deuteronomy 5:12-14.)
Jesus is not only contradicting the teachings of the Old Testament, he appears to be contradicting the teaching of one of the Commandments.
The problem, however, is that despite these statements, Jesus also seems to endorse the teachings of the Old Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount he said:
For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:18).
So now Jesus says that not one part of the Law shall be changed? What about the parts, noted above, that he seems to change? Is Jesus contradicting himself?
The fact that Jesus seems to readily contradict, if not reject, teachings from the Old Testament only draws my question into clearer focus. What is the rule for incorporating Old Testament teaching into New Testament teaching?
Unfortunately Jesus doesn’t give us a clear rule (though I’ll suggest in a moment that he has given us a good guideline.)
But what about other statements in the New Testament? Paul condemned homosexuality, as noted above, but does he provide any explanation for incorporating other provisions of the Old Testament? Actually he does, but even here there is ambiguity. Paul sets out a rule in his letter to the Galatians, but is seems to contradict a rule set out in Acts. In order to explain this, I need to provide some background.
Paul was the main evangelist of Christianity to the non-Jews. In that mission Paul was very willing to proselytize to and convert Gentiles. This caused a schism in the early Church. Paul was willing to accept non-Jews as converts in his mission to Asia Minor (primarily in present day Turkey, Greece and Syria), but the followers of Christ who remained in Judea were preached to and sought coverts exclusively from among their fellow Jews. So the question arose, only a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus, of whether a person needs to be a Jew to become a follower of Christ? After all, Jesus was a Jew, and he said that the Law must be obeyed.
After a few years of his ministry, Paul returned to Jerusalem to hash out this dispute with the other Apostles. Chief among the Jerusalem cohort was Peter, or Simon Peter (occasionally called Cephas, which is Aramaic for Peter), who had been Jesus’s right hand man, and James, the brother of Jesus. The dispute plays out in Acts Chapter 15, and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, though they tell the story differently. Galatians was written first, and much more clearly describes the nature of the dispute, so I’ll present it first.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said that:
I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. (Galatians 2:7-8.)
But apparently Peter was suggesting that only the circumcised could be saved, and so when they met in Jerusalem, Paul confronted him directly:
I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Galatians 2:14)
(A brief side note: Peter had a vision, described earlier in Acts, in which the heavens opened and a wide variety of animals were presented to him, and a voice said “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter refuses to eat the animals since some are unclean (un-Kosher). The voice then says that “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” (Acts 10:12-15). This appears to be part of the justification for abandoning the Jewish dietary laws among early Christians, and is part of why Paul claims that Peter lives like – i.e. eats like – a Gentile.)
Paul continues with his argument against Peter:
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:14-21, emphasis added.)
Paul says that if “righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” This hardly sounds like an endorsement of rigid adherence to the Law of Moses from the Old Testament. Yet Paul, as noted, does demand adherence to at least some provisions of the law.
Acts has a slightly different version of the story, which indicates less direct tension between Peter and Paul, the two main apostles, and more agreement.
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1-2.)
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Simon 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 did not discriminate 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 Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors 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)
James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:13-15, 19-21.)
Basically he’s saying that they should obey some of the laws, particularly dietary laws and laws regarding sexual immorality, but disregard “the yoke” of circumcision. After this discussion, “the elders,” (which may or may not include Paul) the drafted a letter to be carried to Asia Minor that said:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. (Acts 15:28-29).
This is a much more specific set of rules regarding the provisions of the Old Testament that Christians should follow. But virtually no Christian today bothers with the listed dietary restrictions. So why do they demand adherence to the rules on sexual immorality? And how to reconcile the ambiguity between Acts – where the “elders” say you must obey a couple of the dietary laws (which Christians now ignore) and laws regarding “sexual immorality” – and Galatians – where Paul says that “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” So which is it?
But not only does the New Testament contradict itself regarding the application of the Old Testament, it contradicts Jesus. Both the rule in Acts and Paul’s specific writings about sexual immorality contradict Jesus’ examples of forgiveness. The apostles’ intolerance is measured against Jesus’ tolerance. And this, in my mind, diminishes the rule of reception in Acts.
So is there a consistent rule of reception? I would suggest that there is. Throughout his ministry Jesus preached love, respect, and tolerance. His statements of condemnation were directed at those who were judgmental and intolerant. Perhaps this should be our guide.
Paul said that a person is not justified by adherence to the law of the Old Testament, but by faith in Jesus. Surely this must mean, in whole or in part, faith in, as much as adherence to, his message.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35.)
Jesus gave a new commandment: “love one another.” What are the components of love? Leaving aside romantic love, how does one express love for another? Through compassion, tolerance, acceptance, respect? Certainly these, and many others.
This “new commandment” is my key to receiving the teachings of the Old Testament into the New. People will know you as a disciple of Christ by how well you honor the commandment to love one another. That is pretty clear. Not much ambiguity or need for interpretation. Therefore, those provisions in the Old Testament that support this New Commandment should be honored and adopted. Those which contradict this New Commandment can probably be ignored.
Unfortunately this doesn’t clarify the ambiguity over abortion, but it does, at least in my opinion, clarify the question of homosexuality. Jesus never once condemned homosexuality, and preached tolerance and forgiveness of other types of sexual immorality. If tolerance is a component of love, as surely it is, and if Jesus expressed His love through tolerance, as surely He did, then how can we follow Jesus’ New Commandment through intolerance?