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Why keep some Old Testament laws and discard others?

Posted: Friday, December 26, 2003

Among the issues raised during the bitter dispute over homosexuality in the Episcopal Church this year is why Christianity has upheld some Old Testament laws and discarded others.

Why eat pork, for instance, but oppose same-sex behavior?

The Bible itself is the starting point in the search for answers.

Churches representing many of the world's 1.9 billion Christians have cited biblical teachings as they have questioned the consecration of an openly gay Episcopal bishop.

New Testament passages against gay sex (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:9-10) are crucial, of course. And both sides agree that the New Testament teachings draw from the Old Testament commandment in Leviticus 18:22, ''You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,'' repeated in Leviticus 10:13 with a specified death penalty.

Orthodox and Conservative Judaism follow this teaching; so did the liberal Reform branch at one time, though it now ordains homosexuals and blesses same-sex couples.

In New Testament times, Christians decisively ended two other Old Testament requirements when they began to expand from their Jewish roots and evangelize the Gentiles, the pagans all around them.

Around A.D. 48, the Council of Jerusalem freed Gentiles from the ban on pork and other kosher rules, and from required circumcision for male converts (as recounted in Acts 15). However, the council agreed that Gentile and Jewish Christians must continue abstaining from ''unchastity,'' usually understood as including all sexual immorality.

When the Episcopal General Convention ratified the election of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire last summer thus clearing the way for him to become the denomination's first openly gay bishop it issued no formal statement explaining its current policy on homosexuality.

But a 2002 study by the Diocese of New York cited the first century reversal on diet and circumcision in arguing that morality evolves, so no universal rule should be imposed against homosexuality.

A conservative critique of that study earlier this month said Christianity has always followed the principle of eliminating the Old Testament's ''ritual, ceremonial or civil'' laws while upholding its moral tenets as ''immutable.'' That criterion was used in the Church of England's founding 39 Articles of Religion, adopted by America's Episcopal Church the U.S. branch of Anglicanism in 1801.

Liberals note that Jesus never addressed homosexuality as such. Conservatives respond that Jesus taught marriage was between a man and a woman, and also said no detail of Old Testament law would disappear ''till heaven and earth pass away'' (Matthew 5:18).

Old Testament law was a central concern in the first major Episcopal book to propose moving left on the gay issue, 1988's ''Dirt, Greed, and Sex'' by the Rev. L. William Countryman.

A professor at California's Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Countryman contended that ''abomination'' was a technical term signaling purity rules to keep Jews separated from Gentiles. New Testament faith supplanted all such requirements, he said. Robinson has also used this argument.

Liberals say the New Testament writers addressed only exploitative relationships, not long-term committed gay relationships that are accepted in the modern world. Nor was there a sense that a gay sexual orientation might be inborn.

The New York Diocese report noted that the Old Testament condemned other practices Christians generally allow (intercourse during menstruation) and permitted things Christians reject (polygamy). Making the same point, United Methodist scholar Walter Wink concluded, ''The Bible has no sexual ethic.''

But Presbyterian Robert A.J. Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, author of the conservative opus ''The Bible and Homosexual Practice,'' disagrees.

He believes there's a strong moral analogy between the homosexual ban and the law against incest, which has universal support. Both rules appear in Leviticus 18, alongside moral prohibitions on bestiality and adultery.

Wink counters: If conservatives think Leviticus must still be obeyed, then to be consistent they ''must demand the death penalty for everyone who performs homosexual acts.''

The Rev. Peter Moore, conservative president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., says the punishments showed God's abhorrence of the condemned acts, but there's no evidence biblical Israel commonly applied them.

One thing is clear from the ongoing debate the two theologies on homosexuality are irreconcilable. Says Countryman: ''We're in for a rocky ride for the next generation.''



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