Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Understanding the Law

A few weeks ago in the youth group where I teach, one of our youth talked about being challenged by others at his school about some of his beliefs. In particular, that famous old Levitical canard was thrown at him—“How can you teach parts of the Old Testament but you ignore that it says not to eat shellfish, etc.?”

This is not something to be dismissed, but is a fair and relevant question. Frankly, it is my belief that very few Christians actually have thought this through or studied enough Old Testament to understand the right answer. As a result, we often see that Christians err when approaching the Old Testament. Some Christians (so-called “Judaizers”) teach that we must follow the Law to please God; others teach that nothing from the Old Testament matters whatsoever and can just be ignored entirely.

The result is somewhere in between, and I think it is well worth us understanding.

Types of Law

For any civilization, there are always three types of Law: civil law, religious (ceremonial) law, and moral law.

Civil Law: Civil law is the law handed down by the secular government to protect the rights of the citizens and determine what is and is not illegal in the society. In America, these are laws like the tax code, speed limits, murder and manslaughter laws, drug laws, etc. It is the combination of the laws in the nation’s constitution and legislation which define legally acceptable behavior. The punishment for disobedience is imprisonment or legal fines.

Religious/Ceremonial Law: Anywhere that religion exists, there is a law—sometimes explicitly stated, sometime implicitly known—which defines proper “ritual” behavior. This is the law that the religious body uses to determine what behaviors and rites are appropriate for appearing before God. For example, the Catholics have ritual laws defining church attendance on holy days, proper methods of receiving communion and baptism, and administration of the sacraments and Mass. Muslims have laws demanding almsgiving, prayer times, pilgrimages, and the like. Even the most “anti-legalistic” evangelical Christian has a whole host of ritual laws. They would consider it inappropriate to attend church drunk or covered in blood; they would consider it wrong to skip church to go hunting; many consider it wrong for homosexuals or women or the divorced or adulterers to hold positions of authority in the church, etc. So there is for each of our churches and religious bodies a “ritual purity” set of laws that defines what type of behavior is appropriate in order to go before God. The punishment for disobedience is that one is unfit to go before God, and/or receives the shame of fellow believers.

Moral Law: This is the natural law shared by all civilized men determining “right” from “wrong”. These are the things that we believe we all share in common. For example, historically every society has agreed with the same moral guidelines that the ancients called cardinal virtues: men should be prudent (making wise decisions), just (giving each his rights fairly), temperate (able to control his desires), and courageous (able to stand up for their rights). Further, modern societies generally believe in the inalienable right of each human to freedom and dignity, the right to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”, etc. So we would say that these are the laws that all humans inherently feel internally. This is why every society, regardless of constitution or religion, outlaws so many of the same things (theft, murder, rape)—they are seen as universal moral wrongs. The punishment for disobedience is to be considered sinful, whether being evaluated by God or an atheist.

The American Approach

All civilizations have a mixture of these three types of Law. For example, see the Venn diagram to the right, which shows modern American types of Law. We have some laws which are purely religious/ceremonial—rules like how to ordain clergy, proper decorum during worship service, rules about worship/liturgy, how to administer sacraments and ordinances, etc. Then we have some morality which is neither accepted in the religious sphere or civil law, such as libertarianism, secular humanism, vegetarianism, etc.—moral issues which are neither religious nor legally binding. We also have a circle of civil law—rules like the tax code, speed limits, flag code, etc.

But there is some overlap between these groups, and it is how the overlap occurs that largely defines a society’s approach to law.

Among American Christians, some things are considered moral and religious law but left out of civil law—things like idolatry, abortion, blasphemy, fornication, and homosexuality are considered to be both improper ceremonially and morally wrong, yet are not part of the American government’s legal system.

Likewise, some things are religious laws and moral laws which are incorporated in the civil law, such as prohibitions on murder and rape, and a demand to care for the needy.

In addition, some of our religious ceremonial laws overlap with civil law, such as in the administration of marriages and operation of some faith-based initiatives.

For us, this inherently makes sense. Our country was largely founded upon the concept of Two Kingdoms (as discussed last week), which originate with Martin Luther. In this theology, God works differently through earthly kingdoms (using the rule of law) as He does through our spiritual lives (using the rule of grace). So we Americans all inherently agree that some things are religious-only laws and some things are civil-only laws. We do not want the government telling us how to ordain our pastors or give our sacraments or attend church; likewise, our government does not want one religion’s ceremonial laws to bleed over into civil legislation.

We Americans, then, have a tendency to bring this approach with us to reading the Old Testament. So when we read a book or a passage of Scripture, our minds want to place this into one of the categories above—is this a Jewish ceremonial law, or a moral commandment for everyone, or a civil law, or some combination of the above?

The Old Testament/Jewish Approach

The problem with this approach is that you need to be able to approach Scripture within the context from which it originated. So we need to understand the Jewish mindset before we read the Levitical and Deuteronomic accounts of the Mosaic Covenant.

As you can see in this Venn Diagram, the Jewish mindset was quite different. At the time that the Law was created, the Jews were simply separate tribes with the same ancestor. Their ancestors had worshipped the God Yahweh, but they had no religious practices or ceremonies. Their morality was indistinguishable from the world around them: just like every other Near Eastern people they lived in a period where “eye for an eye” was considered a major step forward into civilized living, because it limited retribution to being in proportion to the wrong done to them.

So at the time that Moses delivers the Law to the Jews, you must remember that they have no uniform identity, because they are not yet a people. They have no religious identity, no shared moral code, and no national identity.

When Moses delivers the Mosaic Covenant, what we are seeing is a single document fulfilling all of these roles—ceremonial, moral, and civil. Unlike modern Americans, who see these as separate, overlapping spheres of thought, the ancient Jews simply had The Law. It addressed all of those concerns, and no one part was different than the other. All 613 commandments were simultaneously civil law, moral law, and ceremonial law.

This is one of the reasons that the Jews caused so much trouble for the Romans. Most nations that the Roman Empire conquered had a more American-like view, and as long as the Romans didn’t really mess with their religion, they could easily accept the new Roman civil law instead of their own. But for the Jews that did not work—because their civil law and religious law were one and the same. The Jews were a constant thorn in the Roman sides, due to their tendency to rebel, skip out on paying taxes, and the like—because to them, any change in civil law was the same thing as attacking God.

Then Jesus Came Along

Everything was good for a dozen centuries or so, until a rabbi named Jesus came along. Jesus’ approach to the Law was quite a bit different than the standard Jewish approach.

With regard to civil law and politics—Jesus followed the law and submitted to its authority, but didn’t give it much thought. He purposefully avoided the political discussions of His day, simply saying to pay your taxes and do what is required of you (Matt 22:15-22). Even Pontius Pilate, the Roman official of Jerusalem, could find no civil law that Jesus had broken (John 19:6).

Then, Jesus greatly shrunk the religious/ceremonial law. For most of His ministry, Jesus focused on clarifying that the religious/ceremonial laws of the Mosaic Code are a subset of the moral law (for example, see the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). So Jesus followed laws of tithing and Sabbath observance and holy days…in general. But to Jesus, fulfilling the Moral Law was of higher precedence than fulfilling the ceremonial laws (Mark 3:1-6, Matt 5-7; 23:1-36).

In science all the time, you will hear people refer to “General” and “Specific” theories. The General Theory of something is the higher, over-arching explanation, and the “Specific” theory is one particular application of it. To use a physics example, Einstein’s General relativity describes gravity as a property of curved space-time, and Special relativity deals with how measurement happens within a frame of reference due to that curvature.

In the same way, Jesus seems to be clarifying that there is a sort of “General” Law from God and a “Specific” Law. The Jews, He argues, are wrong for looking at everything equivalently in the Law. Jesus specifically tells the Pharisees that they do a great deal with ceremonial rules like tithing, but He explicitly says that there are “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23).

So Jesus in other words is arguing that God has a general Moral Law to which we are all beholden, and a specific Ceremonial Law that the Jews were chosen to uphold. Later in the New Testament, we see statements by Peter, Paul, and James all clarifying that Gentiles are responsible for upholding the Moral Law, but not the Ceremonial Law (Acts 10:9-23, Acts 15:22-29, Romans 14:13-18).


Once we understand that the Mosaic Law was meant to fulfill all such legal approaches for the society, and understand the teaching of Jesus and His apostles, our own approach to the Scriptures becomes more clear:

1. Civil laws are to be followed, but are not a major concern for Christian thought.

Today more than ever, Christians are concerned with somehow transforming civil law to matching the Scriptures. This is a touchy and difficult area, however. I think there is nothing wrong in voting for candidates who will attempt to make the government more moral…but it is difficult for Christians to separate this from our own religious, ceremonial culture – and from whichever political party we happen to agree with most closely.

For the Christian, the safest thing is to simply vote your conscience, keep your mouth shut, and pray for your country. The apostles lived in the most evil and overtly anti-Christian empire in history, and their approach was simply to keep their heads down, live Godly lives, and pray for the wisdom of their leaders. But they—like Martin Luther in his theology of the Two Kingdoms—understood that God empowers civil leaders for temporary purposes only. Our goal is to be focused on the spiritual, eternal kingdom and laws.

So follow the lead of Jesus—pay your taxes, live a Godly life, pray for the leaders of our country…but try and remember that of the three types of law, politics is far and away the least important and should not take much of your thought or energy.

2. Always be clear to separate God’s moral law from the religious/ceremonial culture of your day. This is the heart of the “religion vs. relationship” part of Christianity. The “works” of our faith (prayer time, Bible study, church attendance, tithing, serving your community, etc.) are good and fine as far as they go. But they are paintings on the walls of your faith…they are not the foundation and framing of your spiritual home. The foundation of your relationship with God is your faith, and only your faith; and the walls are the Moral Laws. These are the things we should be focused on. All the religious trappings may make your house look nicer, but unless it is built upon a firm foundation of sola fide (faith alone), then you are destined for collapse.

3. Whenever you read an Old Testament command, and you wonder if it applies today, simply read the context and ask yourself what the Law is there for. (It’s actually almost always very obvious.)

Is it there to provide civil justice? If so, see #1. This is a civil law which applied to the Jewish kingdom, and thus is only applicable to you today if you are a Jewish citizen living in Israel.

Is it there to define ritual purity of a person to participate in Jewish ceremonies? If so, see #2. This was a law meant to define your purity to enter the Temple and engage with God, which (since the collapse of the Temple in 70 AD, and the start of Christianity after His resurrection) is no longer applicable to anyone, and was never applicable to Gentiles.

Or is it the third kind of law—a Moral Law which defines whether failure to follow the Law actually damages your soul and its relationship to God? These are the Old Testament Laws that we must continue in modern Christianity. The Didache (I will have a series on it starting mid-November) describes these as the “grave sins” which are forbidden to Christians. Jesus summed it all up as loving God and loving others. The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) were a bit more specific, telling the Gentiles not to worry about the ceremonial law, but clarifying that idolatry and sexual immorality were parts of “moral law” rather than “ceremonial law”, in case anyone was unsure.


As you can see, it is not nearly as difficult as you might think to understand how to interpret the Mosaic Law…as long as you understand the three types of Law first, and realize that the Jews did not make the same distinction that we do. But when you understand this, it is actually pretty straightforward.


* Grace note – I cannot help myself so I have to clarify something which should be obvious to all regular readers. Yes, we should abide by Moral Law. That is our ultimate goal, and as we grow closer to Christ we will be better. However, abiding by moral law is not the thing which saves you or builds your relationship with Christ; that is faith and faith alone.

(NOTE: The original version of this post was 1,200 words longer. There were good points in there, but it was just too long. Maybe I'll do a part 2 some other time.)


  1. Yes! Please do the rest as part 2!!! :)

  2. Thank you for this post. Very enlightening and, though I knew most of this, it was nice to have it organized and elegantly stated in one place. Definitely helps my thinking in many areas.

  3. This was a very helpful post, I already understood the distinction between ritual purity and moral law (in trying to explain how homosexuality is a moral offense in the OT law, not a matter of ritual purity), but I hadn't quite grasped the distinction between civil and moral law.

  4. Guys, thanks for the feedback! OK I will put part 2 on my to-do list for upcoming business trip. And Kyle you definitely hit on part of what I was going to explore in part 2...What does this mean for Levitical/Deuteronomic laws--i.e., which apply today and which do not.