A Christian is involved in a conversation about sexuality, which inevitably turns to the topic of homosexuality. She is asked her opinion, and replies (quoting the Bible, of course!) that homosexual behaviour is contrary to the will of God for human sexuality, which is to be expressed solely between a man and woman, within marriage.
Hearing this, a skeptic or progressive-minded person in the group retorts, "OK, so the Bible condemns homosexuality. But if you read Leviticus 11:9, it also condemns eating shellfish. And Lev. 19:19 says not to make your clothing out of two kinds of fabric. Is that a polyester-cotton T-shirt you're wearing? You don't seem too concerned about obeying some of God's laws. Why are you so obsessed with this one?"
The Christian finds herself at a loss for words. She knows what she believes, but she hasn't thought through why she observes some of the Bible's moral commands, and not others.
You might have heard a scenario like this on a talk program, or witnessed it in person. It might even have happened to you.
When a skeptic points out that a Christian who disapproves of homosexual behaviour doesn't generally disapprove of eating shrimp cocktails, it's actually an ad hominem argument (against the person, rather than her point). But that supposed double standard is now an excuse the skeptic can use to reject Christianity entirely.
One of the jobs of an apologist is to take such excuses away from unbelievers (2 Corinthians 10:5). Arguments like this can be a conversation stoppers simply because we often don't know how to navigate the Bible's many moral imperatives. Which ones were meant for a particular time or culture, say, or which were meant for all times and peoples? How can we determine which biblical commands have significance for us today? Here are a few hermeneutical principles that we can apply.[i]
- What is the text's intended audience? To whom is it addressed: to the nation of Israel, a certain church or person, or the entire human race? Am I a member of that audience? For example, when Paul told Timothy to drink some wine, it was not a blanket endorsement of alcohol use, but helpful advice to Timothy for his stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23). But when Paul wrote in the same letter that elders and deacons must not be addicted to wine (1 Tim. 3:3-8), that standard is applicable to any church leader.
- What is the command's basis? God's laws are not arbitrary. There is a logic behind them. Is a command grounded in the nature of God or man? Is it a timeless principle or a temporary one? Is it based on the created order, or a custom of a particular culture?
- What is the progress of revelation on this topic? Is it taught consistently throughout Scripture, or is it later modified? Is it a frequent topic or an occasional one? Do Jesus or his apostles interpret it in a particular way? Divorce, for example, was permitted for nearly any reason in the Law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). However, when Jesus interpreted the Law, he said it was merely tolerated because of the hardness of people's hearts, and the only valid reason for divorce was infidelity (Matthew 19:8-9). Later, Paul also included desertion by an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:15).
- What is the literary genre of the book or passage containing the imperative? Consider the Proverbs: they are wise generalizations about how the world works, not case law. Jesus' parables are stories intended to make a single point, not necessarily to provide a pattern for living. The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) does not teach that we should pester God with our prayers until we wear him down. Instead, Jesus is saying that unlike the unjust judge, God loves us and wants to give us justice.
- Narrative is not necessarily normative. Some biblical texts describe events as they happened, without implying that we should go and do likewise. Joseph saved Egypt from starvation by nationalizing all the farmland (Genesis 47:20-26), but we shouldn't base an economic theory of property ownership on this emergency situation.
- Don't confuse principle with practice. Certain timeless principles may be demonstrated in different ways. When Paul encouraged the Roman church to "[g]reet one another with a holy kiss" (Romans 16:16), in that culture, love to the family of God was expressed with a kiss. Today we might shake some hands around us before sitting down.
- A specific command might be limited to the evil to which it is opposed. When Jesus told his listeners to "call no man your father" (Matt. 23:9), he was opposing the pride of scribes and Pharisees who "love the place of honor" (23:6). He almost certainly did not intend merely to forbid us from addressing our elders or clergymen as "father."
With these guidelines in mind, how do same-sex relations and eating shellfish compare?
In the beginning, God made humanity male and female, to reproduce and fill the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Same-sex relations are forbidden because they reject God's good created order and his intent for human sexuality. Homosexuality is consistently portrayed negatively throughout the Bible, beginning in the days of Abraham. When the men of Sodom mobbed Lot's house to have their way with his male visitors, Lot urged them, "do not act so wickedly" (Gen. 19:7). Because of this and other wickedness, God destroyed the city. The Mosaic Law explicitly forbids homosexual activity: it is an offense serious enough to merit death (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). In the New Testament, Paul treats homosexuality as symptomatic of mankind's rebellion against God, overthrowing the natural sexual relations of creation, with the opposite sex, for unnatural relations with the same sex (Rom. 1:26-27). In his letters to the Corinthian church and to Timothy, he says that those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9); it is "contrary to sound doctrine" (1 Tim. 1:10). Note that the three Pauline letters are written to a primarily Gentile audience, not to a Jewish one.
Clearly, therefore, the biblical injunction against homosexual practices is intended for all peoples, in all times, and at all places.
By contrast, eating fish without scales and fins is also prohibited by the Law (Lev. 11:10-12; Deut. 14:9-10), and the penalty for touching them is ceremonial uncleanness until sundown (Lev. 11:24ff). These are the only places where the prohibition is given. No Gentile nation is ever judged for not observing Israelite dietary restrictions. On the other hand, Mark says that Jesus declared all foods "clean" (Mark 7:19). In a vision, Peter was invited to eat unclean food (Acts 10:9-16). It was an object lesson about welcoming the Gentiles into the blessings of the Gospel (Acts 10:34ff). In effect, God declared the end of a greater taboo by inviting Peter to break a lesser one.
Obviously this law is intended only for the Israelite nation. The logic behind it is to maintain a visible, ceremonial distinction between the Israelite and Gentile nations. (This isn't as unusual as it might sound. Even today, one of the reasons the Amish don't use electricity or cars is to distinguish themselves from the "English.")
Properly understanding the Bible takes work. Navigating through the contemporary relevance of Scripture's moral commands can sometimes be less clear-cut than this example. However, just because there isn't a pat, "sound bite" answer, that doesn't mean there isn't a good answer.
Now, spend some time studying the Bible for yourselves, and use your work to answer your skeptical friends.