Cherry Picking The Bible

Opponents of gay marriage, and gay rights in general, always refer to the Bible to support their views. But surprisingly they never mention Jesus and what he thought of homosexuality. Could it be because he never condemned homosexuality?

The opponents of gay rights, primarily conservative Christians, are correct that the Bible condemns homosexuality, specifically in Leviticus and a few references in the New Testament. But there are many other things that are condemned in the Old Testament, like getting a tattoo or eating shellfish, and these same Christians don’t get worked up about those. In fact, much of Leviticus consists of lists of prohibitions, condemnations and abominations, but conservative Christians aren’t trying to influence public policy based on those teachings. In fact they virtually never mention the vast majority of prohibitions from the Bible. They focus almost exclusively on issues of sexual morality in general but are particularly worked up by homosexuality.

It bears repeating that Christ never once condemns homosexuality. He actually never even mentions it. Not a single reference: and absolutely no condemnation. And when given the chance, Jesus didn’t condemn sexual immorality, but rather condemned the hypocrisy of those leveling the charges of sexual impropriety.

Why then do some “Christians” look past Christ’s lack of teaching on the issue, and his clear example of forgiveness, to pull out a few select statements from the Old Testament to condemn certain sexual behavior? By the same token, why do they ignore all of the other things that the Bible and the Old Testament condemn? Why do they ignore rules on food, grooming, human relations, and religious observation? Why do they ignore things that are condemned, like tattooing, as well as things called an “abomination,” like eating shellfish? Why do they sort through all of the prohibitions in the Old Testament, and pull out the one condemning homosexuality?

Is there something in the Bible that justifies this selective application of the Old Testament? In other words, is there a rule in the New Testament that explains what provisions of the Old Testament are important and must be observed by Christians? Well, yes, actually there is. In fact there are a couple of rules in the New Testament that specifically describe the application of provisions of the Old Testament. Unfortunately, like much of the Bible, these rules are ambiguous and contradictory. And here is the best thing, even though there are rules, modern conservative Christians ignore them.

The rules in question developed in the early years of the Christianity as different groups of evangelists sought converts in different parts of the Roman Empire. The evangelist Paul spent most of his time in the Eastern Roman Empire (modern Greece and Turkey) preaching to pagans and non-Jews. The remaining disciples, chief among them Simon Peter, Jesus’s one time right hand man, and James, the brother of Jesus, stayed in Jerusalem and sought converts among the Jews. A debate arose between the two groups over whether or not a convert to Christianity had to follow Jewish law. After all, Jesus was a Jew. So did this mean that his followers must be as well? Those preaching to non-Jews were encountering two issues that were making people reluctant to convert to Christianity through Judaism. The first involved “kosher” dietary restrictions, which were difficult for many non-Jews to follow. The second was circumcision, which was scaring off potential male converts.

One time, when Paul was in Jerusalem, the two groups gathered to discussion the issue. The discussion plays out in two sections of the Bible – Chapter 15 of Acts, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians – and they have two slightly different versions of events. In Acts the two groups each present their views, and then James, the brother of Jesus, speaks.

“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 15:19-21)

A group of “elders” then wrote a letter explaining these provisions for evangelists and for the new churches in the east. Acts doesn’t specify Paul’s role in the discussion or letter, but implies that he was one of the “elders.” The letter paraphrased James’ statement, and essentially said that the rules on sexual immorality and a number of rules dealing with food were the important rules to follow. So that’s one version. How closely to modern conservative Christians adhere to this rule? Well, they obsess over the rules on sexual morality but completely ignore the rules on food.

The story set out in Galatians indicates a great deal more conflict between the two groups. During the debate Simon Peter began to distance himself from the group opposing the requirement for circumcision. Paul got angry and accused Simon of hypocrisy because he was known to eat un-kosher food with Gentiles.

“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? … 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.” (Galatians 2: 15-16, emphasis added)

A bit later Paul summarized his views: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. … I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:19-21) Paul is saying that if salvation can be found through adherence to the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, then there is no reason to follow Christ. This creates another possible rule for applying the Old Testament: belief in Jesus is the key to salvation, and not adherence to Laws set out in the Old Testament. This sounds like a nearly complete rejection of Old Testament teaching. Modern conservative Christians like to preach the part about belief in Jesus as the key to salvation, but conveniently and completely ignore the part where Paul repudiates “the law.”

Of course they can do this because Paul doesn’t completely repudiate the law. He refers to rules set forth in the law, but he just selectively incorporates them. For example, in Romans, Paul condemns homosexuality, but also condemns in equally harsh terms, slander, insolence, disobedience to parents, and a host of other transgressions. (Romans 1: 24-32) In Corinthians he not only condemns homosexuality but also fornication, idolatry, adultery, drunkenness and extortion. (1 Corr. 6:9-10.) And modern conservative Christians downplay most or what Paul condemns, except homosexuality and sexual morality.

So the New Testament has ambiguous rules regarding the incorporation of the teachings of the Old Testament. Can Jesus give us any guidance? After all, Christianity is supposedly based on his teachings. Unfortunately Jesus also seems to have an inconsistent view of the Old Testament and its teachings.

Jesus only specifically mentions the “Law” of Moses only once, in the Sermon on the Mount. During this extensive Sermon he said that he would not change a “jot or tittle” of the Law so long as heaven and earth endures. (Matthew 5:18) That seems pretty clear, but unfortunately in the same sermon he specifically rejected certain provisions of the Old Testament. He rejects the law on divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) and harsh punishment like an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38). Elsewhere in the Gospels he rejects dietary laws (Matthew 15:11), and strict observance of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). It’s notable that in most cases he rejects harsh provisions from the Old Testament in favor of a broader, more forgiving interpretation. Rather than an “eye for an eye” he says to “turn the other cheek.”

The rules from both Acts and Galatians set out above don’t specifically mention divorce or punishment, so it’s not clear if Christ was following either of those rules. But both Acts and Galatians do specifically condemn sexual immorality. How did Christ deal with this issue?

There are two stories in the Gospels where Jesus is presented with women accused of sexual immorality, and in both cases (Luke 7:44-48 and John 8:3-11) he forgives the accused, and seems to condemn her accusers. In one of the most famous stories in the Bible, when a group of Pharisees bring him a woman accused of adultery, Jesus says “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Jesus then looked down and drew letters in the dirt. After a few moments he looked up and the crowd was gone. He asked the woman if anyone had condemned her and she said no. He said, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11) Jesus clearly doesn’t condone her behavior, but he hardly seems worked up about it.

This is a curious incident to consider when discussing Christ’s approach to the Old Testament. The Pharisees seem to believe that Jesus’ teachings contradicted the Law. When they brought the woman to him they said, “Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say?” (John 8:5.) Why would they ask that question if they thought that Jesus assiduously taught the law? The Gospel of John even says that they asked this question to test him. (John 8:6.) The incident strongly suggests that Jesus had a reputation for diverging from the Law of Moses.

Jesus doesn’t provide a uniform rule for applying Old Testament teachings, but he does provide a clear example of behavior throughout the Gospels. Instead of “do as I say, not as I do,” Christ’s lesson was “do as I do, not as I say.” What he said may occasionally be unclear, but what he did was not. The clear lesson of his example is tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness.

But perhaps he did provide a rule. At the Last Supper, after Judas left to inform the authorities, Jesus tells the remaining disciples that he will be with them only a little longer, so he provides them with a parting lesson. He then tells them, “A new commandment 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)

This New Commandment was Christ’s last admonition to his followers: Love each other. This commandment certainly explains Christ’s behavior, and defines his attitudes towards the lessons of the Law of Moses. Can we develop a logically consistent rule for incorporating the teachings of the Old Testament into the New based on this Christ’s new Commandment? I think so.

Paul said that “a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” While one aspect of faith is belief in Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins, another aspect of faith in Jesus Christ must be faith in his lessons and examples. I would go further and suggest that “faith” must mean faithful adherence to these lessons. Christ said that “everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” That was the example he lived, and the lesson he gave to his followers. Christ’s overarching example was love, and He selectively applied a few teachings of the Old Testament based on this lesson. Let me suggest that the application of this rule would mean that the provisions of the Old Testament that comply with Christ’s New Commandment should be followed, and those that contradict it should be ignored.

Many conservative Christians ignore Christ’s New Commandment and the clear example of Christ’s behavior, and arbitrarily cherry pick provisions from the Old Testament to justify their beliefs. Those who use the Bible to justify intolerance can certainly find words to support their beliefs. But they won’t find those words in Christ’s mouth. They don’t find support for their actions in Christ’s behavior. And they certainly can’t justify their beliefs with Christ’s new commandment.