Are Christians cherry-picking which verses to obey from the Old Testament?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Here’s a wonderful article from Peter Saunders.

The challenge:

An argument frequently advanced by those attempting to defend homosexual practice is that Christians ‘cherry pick’ the commands in the Bible – that is, they chose to emphasise some commands while ignoring others.

The Old Testament may forbid homosexual acts (Leviticus 18:2; 20:13) but it also forbids eating seafood without fins and scales (Leviticus 11:9-12; Deuteronomy 14:9, 10).

So how can Christians then justify upholding laws on sexual morality whilst at the same time ignoring the food laws from the very same books of the Bible? Why may they eat shellfish but not be allowed to have sex outside marriage? Isn’t this inconsistent and hypocritical?

The solution is that God enters into “covenants” with his people, and the terms of those covenants change.

Especially dietary laws:

The answer to this question lies in an understanding of biblical covenants.

A covenant is a binding solemn agreement made between two parties. It generally leaves each with obligations. But it holds only between the parties involved.

There are a number of biblical covenants: Noahic, Abrahamic, Sinaitic (Old), Davidic and New.

Under the Noahic covenant, which God made with all living human beings (Genesis 9:8-17), people were able to eat anything:

‘Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything’ (Genesis 9:3).

But under the Sinaitic (Old) Covenant, which God made with the nation of Israel, people were able to eat certain foods, but not others.

Jesus clearly created a new covenant with his followers, where the dietary laws are lifted:

Jesus said that he had come to fulfil the ‘Law and the Prophets’ (Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:44). He would establish this new covenant with new laws, with himself as high priest based on his own sacrificial death on the cross.

This new covenant would completely deal with sin (Hebrews 10:1-18) and protect all those who put their faith in him from God’s wrath and judgement…

[…]‘In the same way, after the supper (Jesus) took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”’ (Luke 22:20). ‘…we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (Hebrews 10:10)

People would come under the protection of this new covenant, not by virtue of belonging to the nation of Israel, but through faith in Christ. In fact the function of the Old Testament Law (Sinaitic covenant) was to point to Christ as its fulfilment.

[…]So what then did Christ say about foods? He pronounced all foods clean for his followers to eat:

‘ “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?  For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them.  For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder,  adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23)

Jesus was making that point that under the new covenant God required purity of the heart. Internal thoughts and attitudes were as important as external actions.

So, for Christians, the dietary / ceremonial laws don’t apply, but the moral laws do apply. Food is OK for Christians, but sexual immorality – which includes premarital sex and adultery – are NOT OK for Christians.

I think sometimes when you are talking to people whose motivation is just to get rid of any objective moral law entirely, they tend to ask questions without really wanting a good answer. This is especially true when it comes to the morality of sex. They ask the question not to get an answer, but to justify getting rid of the moral rules governing sexuality. The answers are there for people who are willing to respect God in their decision-making. The answers are not found only by people who have a reason to not want to find them.

10 thoughts on “Are Christians cherry-picking which verses to obey from the Old Testament?”

  1. WK,

    Interesting! Apparently, Mr. Saunders believes in covenant theology. However, he (and all Christians) should know that there are at least 3 schools of thought ‘on the issues of law, gospel, and the structuring of God’s redemptive relationship with humankind: dispensationalism, covenant theology, and new covenant theology.’

    Please read the following article on the 3:

    I have to admit that I don’t agree with dispensationalism, and I agree with some parts of covenant theology and some parts of new covenant theology.

    ‘So what then did Christ say about foods? He pronounced all foods clean for his followers to eat:’

    I am not sure that I agree with this. I believe that ‘your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.’ 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. We need to nourish and cherish our bodies by not only eating and drinking healthy foods & beverages, but also by exercising. I don’t believe Jesus meant that all foods are clean for you (especially those foods & drinks paid in homage to certain pagan gods & deities). I believe Jesus was using the food example as an allegory (i.e. ‘more emphasis should be placed on the underlying message behind a story rather than the narrative details’). Since this was an allegorical story, Jesus wasn’t telling us (or the Jews of His day) that they (or we) can eat anything.

    Finally, if you advocate for the New Covenant Theology (NCT), then you look to the Law of Christ and not the Law of Moses for how one chooses to live. Here is a brief excerpt of NCT from the link that I posted:

    ‘New covenant theology typically does not hold to a covenant of works or one overarching covenant of grace (although they would still argue for only one way of salvation). The essential difference between New Covenant Theology (hereafter NCT) and Covenant Theology (CT), however, concerns the Mosaic Law. CT holds that the Mosaic Law can be divided into three groups of laws — those regulating the government of Israel (civil laws), ceremonial laws, and moral laws. The ceremonial law and civil law are no longer in force because the former was fulfilled in Christ and the latter only applied to Israel’s theocracy, which is now defunct. But the moral law continues.’

    ‘NCT argues that one cannot divide the law up in that way, as though part of the Mosaic Law can be abrogated while the rest remains in force. The Mosaic Law is a unity, they say, and so if part of it is canceled, all of it must be canceled. On top of this, they say that the New Testament clearly teaches that the Mosaic Law as a whole is superseded in Christ. It is, in other words, no longer our direct and immediate source of guidance. The Mosaic Law, as a law, is no longer binding on the believer.’

    ‘Does this mean that believers are not bound by any divine law? No, because the Mosaic Law has been replaced by the law of Christ. NCT makes a distinction between the eternal moral law of God and the code in which God expresses that law to us. The Mosaic Law is an expression of God’s eternal moral law as a particular code which also contains positive regulations pertinent to the code’s particular temporal purpose, and therefore the cancellation of the Mosaic Law does not mean that the eternal moral law is itself canceled. Rather, upon canceling the Mosaic Law, God gave us a different expression of his eternal moral law — namely, the Law of Christ, consisting in the moral instructions of Christ’s teaching and the New Testament. The key issue that NCT seeks to raise is: Where do we look to see the expression of God’s eternal moral law today — do we look to Moses, or to Christ? NCT says we look to Christ.’

    ‘There are many similarities between the Law of Christ and Mosaic Law, but that does not change the fact that the Mosaic Law has been canceled and that, therefore, we are not to look to it for direct guidance but rather to the New Testament. For example, England and the US have many similar laws (for example, murder is illegal in both countries). Nonetheless, the English are not under the laws of America, but of England. If an English citizen murders in England, he is held accountable for breaking England’s law against murder, not America’s law against murder.’

    ‘The benefit of NCT, its advocates argue, is that it solves the difficulty of trying to figure out which of the Mosaic laws apply to us today. On their understanding, since the Mosaic Law is no longer a direct and immediate source of guidance, we look to the Law of Christ for our direct guidance. Although the Mosaic Law is no longer a binding law code in the NT era, it still has the authority, not of law, but of prophetic witness. As such, it fills out and explains certain concepts in both the old and new covenant law.’

    1. Regardless of whether or not the Torah is a unified whole Jonathon Klawans has shown that it, the Torah itself, does differentiate between ritual, moral, and dietary laws. They were not originally all viewed as synonymous. The moral laws apply to all. The ritual and dietary laws do not. Not even in the Old Testament.
      In addition, as pointed out in this very post, there are multiple laws in the
      Torah. The Noahide Laws were thought to apply to all human beings while the Mosaic Laws only applied to the Jews.
      Then in Acts 15 when the Jewish Christians were trying to figure out which peculiarly Jewish Laws (if any) need to apply to these new Gentile Christians they looked to Torah. The Jewish Laws that Christians are told to follow were not chosen arbitrarily but come straight from Torah. Each one of the rules that it is agreed apply to Gentiles Christians comes from Leviticus 17-18 where it talks about the “sojourners in your midst.” In ancient Israel, non-Jews that lived in Yahweh’s nation didn’t have to follow all of Jewish Law but there were laws that still applied to them if they were going to live in Israel. These same laws are binding on Gentile Christians who aren’t Jewish but have been adopted into the Kingdom of Yahweh through the sacrifice of Jesus.
      There are so many different approaches to Christianity’s relationship to Torah and I don’t know why. Everything mentioned above is sound and affirmed in peer reviewed Old Testament scholarship. It allows the Bible to be coherent and consistent. Further it accounts for all the different covenant laws without downgrading any of them nor make Gentile freedoms seem arbitrary. It’s not just that Gentiles are free from certain aspects of the Law through Christ. Gentiles were NEVER meant to follow some of these laws. Only the moral ones which include not murder, steal, or commit sexual immorality.

      1. Tom Wells & Fred Zaspel has shown, in their book ‘New Covenant Theology’ that Christ has abolished the old covenants, and has established the Laws of Christ. As I stated earlier, in the article, certain moral laws from the old covenant overlap into the new covenant (i.e., it is still a sin to murder).

        In my opinion, one of the differences lies in the consequences of the Law of Christ as compare to the Mosaic Laws (those who blasphemed the Lord, in the OT, were immediately put to death. Furthermore, the Lord even said that those who disobeyed, in the OT, ‘will never enter my rest’. However, in the NT, when the people of a certain village refuse to welcome Jesus and his followers into their town, the disciples wanted Jesus to command fire to consume these villagers. Jesus rebuked his disciples, and stated: ‘For the son of man did not come to destroy man’s lives but to save them.’ Luke 9:53-56. These people rejected Jesus, but they didn’t immediately receive a sentence of death, in the physical world, as well as the spiritual world! Instead, Jesus still gives them a chance/time to repent. Jesus knew that these people will change or be converted later on! Or was He giving them a chance or time to believe? Or was He telling His disciples to remember why He came, and to focus on sharing the Word, and not on whether or not these people will believe, and/or how they will respond to the message of the Gospel? They will eventually perish, spiritually, if they don’t believe?).

        Another difference, in my opinion, lies in the constitution of a moral law. Is a particular law a moral one or a ritual? An example is the 4th Commandment: Keeping the Sabbath. There are a few theologians who believe that this is a moral law (not a ritual, like circumcision), and should be kept by both Jews & Gentiles. However, there are a few theologians who believe that this is not a moral law, (but a ritual, like circumcision) and therefore, Jews & Gentiles, do not have to keep it.

        Who is correct Klawans, or Wells & Zaspel? Or Dispensationalists? I stand with my earlier response: I am in agreement with parts of covenant theology and NCT, but I am opposed to dispensationalism.

        1. “Who is correct Klawans, or Wells & Zaspel?”
          This question suggests an unnecessary dichotomy as they have two very different focuses. That might be my fault as I listed several ideas and name dropped Klawans for one of them. You might have taken that to mean that my entire post was all his argument.
          Wells and Zaspel are trying to answer a theological problem of a perceived discrepancy between Christians and Old Testament Law. Klawans is not, as his argument has nothing to do with the New Testament. If he mentions it at all then it’s just another Jewish-written text written long after Torah. Klawans is making an argument about the Torah by letting the Torah speak for itself. He argues that the Torah itself, regardless of later writings, delineates between ritual, moral, and dietary laws.
          One advantage to this is that an outsider could accuse Wells and Zaspel of twisting the text to harmonize a blatant contradiction between testaments and justifying hypocrisy of Christians, but if Klawans’ argument holds then it helps solve the dilemma without even bringing up the New Testament and so one can’t be thus accused.
          Asking why we insist the moral laws be upheld but not dietary or ritual we can say that this is a category error akin to an equivocation as the Torah itself doesn’t treat them the same. (and the Sabbath doesn’t fall in moral according to Klawans’ analysis of the text)
          With that said, they are saying similar things. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
          I suppose what I dislike is the wording. The idea that the Torah is basically thrown out by Christ. This seems incredibly wrong to me. Didn’t Christ have to die because the Adamic covenant is still in effect and we’re all dealing with the consequences of the break? Isn’t that why we need Jesus? And the Noahide Laws didn’t throw this out but added to it. The Mosaic Law didn’t throw out the Noahide, it added to it (and only applied to the Jews). Likewise, Jesus did not abolish the Law but added to it. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17)
          “Do we then make void the Law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” (Romans 3:31)
          The ritual laws were made to purify/decontaminate sacred space to attract the Creator to His people. As such sacred space was bound to a certain race and geographical location. These were not abolished by Christ, they were fulfilled by Him allowing His glory to spread to the Gentiles and beyond national boundaries. The ritual Laws are still in effect, they are still there, but they have been satisfied by the Perfect Sacrifice. Like a thirsty man who can only find drops of water and then finally finds a whole stream or a computer jacked to infinite supply of energy. It’s not that they’re now independent of these things, but that they have a never ending supply and, so, are without concern. “Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry” (CSLewis, The Great Divorce)
          Too often I feel like the OT is treated like this inconvenient appendage that can’t be cut off so we have to make excuses for it. The only value seems to be to reinterpret passages in light of what we think the NT says. This is bass-ackwards. We shouldn’t be trying to understand OT in light of NT but the NT in light of OT as the disciples did. When Paul made a rebuke or special point, even though he was writing to Gentile Churches, he went to Torah. When the Jewish Church were trying to figure out what to do with these new Gentile converts, they went to Torah.

          1. ‘Asking why we insist the moral laws be upheld but not dietary or ritual we can say that this is a category error akin to an equivocation as the Torah itself doesn’t treat them the same. (and the Sabbath doesn’t fall in moral according to Klawans’ analysis of the text)’

            Of course the Torah doesn’t treat dietary, ritual, or moral laws the same. But this isn’t the reason, question (per se), or explanation of the ‘cherry picking’ theory. The question is whether or not Christians still have to follow certain OT laws. The answer is only the moral laws, according to Mr.Saunders (and probably you & WK). This is a Covenant Theological perspective. There are many problems with the Covenant Theology (CT), as I have delineated in the above links and via the example of the Sabbath (for an example of an individual who makes a great case for the Sabbath as a moral law, please read the following link:


            Hence, New Covenant Theology (NCT) enters the picture (Please read the above links, discussing NCT). The main purpose of NCT is to eliminate ‘cherry picking.’ by starting over by using the NT. Like CT, there are also problems with NCT (Please read the above link).

            Since there are problems with all 3 theological perspectives on ‘the issues of law, gospel, and the structuring of God’s redemptive relationship with humankind’, as I have stated earlier, I don’t fully support any of them (I have my own theological perspective of the issues of law, gospel, etc., that has less to do with redemption theology-man has always believed that Christ only came to save him from God’s Wrath, but this is not even the main reason why Christ came, from my perspective-and more to do with what happened before and/or between Genesis 1:1 & 1:2. Yes, I am a believer in the Gap Theory. For more on this, please read the following link:


  2. There is an easier defense, at least with respect to sexuality. All of the discussion about cherry picking ignores or overlooks the fact that in Acts 15:28, the letter from the Council at Jerusalem to the Gentile believers states explicitly what from the Law they are to obey. The first three have to do with dietary laws – meat with the blood in it, the meat of strangled animals, and things sacrificed to idols. The fourth is sexual immorality, which has, as nearly as I can tell, always been understood by the Jews and by the Church to mean sexual acts of any kind with anyone who is not currently your spouse. With respect to the spouse, Jesus Himself defines marriage in the Gospels, referring to the original marriage of Adam and Eve as the pattern.

    It’s an odd scripture in a sense because it does not add the don’t murder, don’t steal and other such moral strictures that we take for granted. I don’t know, for example, of a single Christian who would argue that this Scripture means we are free to murder. I personally take the view that the Council was underscoring things that were either side issues or else things Gentiles in particular really struggled with and we know things sacrificed to idols and immorality were rampant in that day. Because of Paul’s later teaching about eating, I would say that the stricture at least about things sacrificed to idols is to protect the weaker brothers and sisters from stumbling. Sex, though, is a thing that the vast majority of humans struggle with at one time or another and it may be that the apostles and the Holy Spirit felt that a gentle reminder on the importance of sexual purity was in order.

    1. Yes! No one ever mentions Acts 15. Funny how a quintessentially relevant text always somehow gets ignored in these accusations of cherry picking.
      There are, in my mind, two reasons that murder and theft get ignored:
      The first and primary reason is because the council looked at Leviticus 17-18 for the laws that apply to non-Jewish immigrants living in Israel. Murder and theft aren’t mentioned there.
      The secondary reason, I believe, is because murder and theft are laws that even the Gentiles hold to be true. They also don’t mention idolatry. The question (originally centered on circumcision and then expounded) was, more or less, what peculiarly Jewish laws apply to the new Gentile Christians. And having pledged themselves to the One God, Yahweh, and the One Lord, Jesus Christ, idolatry wouldn’t be an issue either.

  3. Once again, I continue to forget something: For a great theory of the why’s and how’s of the Gap Theory/Incident transpired, please read E.G. White’s ‘The Great Controversy: How Will It End?’ Chapter 29: The Origin of Evil. (I don’t agree with everything in White’s book or most of his beliefs, but I do think chapter 29 is a fascinating read).

  4. RWL,

    “Of course the Torah doesn’t treat dietary, ritual, or moral laws the same. But this isn’t the reason, question (per se), or explanation of the ‘cherry picking’ theory. The question is whether or not Christians still have to follow certain OT laws. The answer is only the moral laws, according to Mr.Saunders (and probably you & WK).”

    See, I disagree with this reason for the cherry picking accusation. Or at least feel it’s only partially true.
    You say ‘Of course the Torah doesn’t treat… [the] laws the same.’ But having been in these conversations many times with different people I can tell you right now they think all OT laws must have the same ontological status. When they ask why one law must be followed and another can be ignored the question itself assumes that both laws are ontologically equivalent. That’s why we’re accused of cherry picking, because they feel we’re justifying our hypocrisy by making arbitrary distinctions that the OT doesn’t make.
    If you point to the council decision in Acts 15 the accusation doesn’t go away. It just gets applied to the council, as well.

    Most arguments for the distinction between laws have been very weak. We intuitively know that it’s true but we’ve never textually proved these divisions exist. We generally just assume they do. The World has noticed this weakness and it’s from this the accusations stem. Klawans has filled that argument, textually, from the Torah, itself. Most people don’t know that the Torah treats them differently. Not even most Biblical scholars. Otherwise, Klawans work wouldn’t be anything new. But it is.

    Once you can show that the original source of the laws distinguishes between them you know have a solid foundation to build on why some laws carry into the NT and some don’t without being accused of cherry picking and being arbitrary.

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