“The next time someone starts saying that you’re arbitrarily picking and choosing from the Bible, arm yourself with the civil/ceremonial/moral. You aren’t being arbitrary. You’re being faithful. You’re reading the Old Testament how the New Testament teaches you to.”
It’s pretty common these days for people to dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they follow some of the rules in the Bible and ignore others.” The challenge usually sounds something like this: “When the Bible talks about certain sexual behaviors as sin, you quote that; but when it says not to eat shellfish or that you should execute people for breaking the Sabbath, you just ignore it. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what suits you best?”
I’ve found that this objection carries a lot of weight, and not just with non-Christians. Many Christians have a hard time answering it … which is why we just secretly hope it never comes up.
One of the most helpful ways to think about this is to look at the types of laws there are in the Old Testament. The 16th-century Reformer John Calvin saw that the NT seemed to treat the OT laws in three ways. There were Civil Laws, which governed the nation of Israel, encompassing not only behaviors, but also punishments for crimes. There were Ceremonial Laws about “clean” and “unclean” things, about various kinds of sacrifices, and other temple practices. And then there were the Moral Laws, which declared what God deemed right and wrong—the 10 Commandments, for instance.
For OT Israel, all three types of laws blended together. Breaking a civil or a ceremonial law was a moral problem; conversely, breaking a moral law had a civil (and often ceremonial) consequence. But they only went hand-in-hand because Israel was in a unique place historically, as both a nation and a worshiping community. “Separation of church and state” wasn’t one of their core tenets. That’s not the case for the Church today, so the way we view the Law would have to look different.
All of this helps explain what often seems contradictory about the NT view of the Law. On one hand, Jesus said the Law was perfect, that heaven and earth would pass away before the Law would fail (Matt 5:18). On the other hand, the Apostle Paul points out that those who are born again are actually released from the Law (Rom 7:1-6; Gal 3:25). As Jesus himself put it, he came to fulfill the Law (Matt 5:17).
What does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the Law? It means that every law pointed to him, and he completed everything they pointed to. Thinking of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we keep some of the OT commands and “ignore” others.
The Civil Laws, for instance, were set up so the nation of Israel could thrive. Jesus actually emerged from this nation, but he started a new Israel—a spiritual Israel, the Church. We’re no longer bound by the civil codes of Leviticus because God doesn’t have a nation-state on earth anymore. Of course, we may wisely look at some of the principles in Israel’s civil laws as we think of our own societal politics (principles about public health, caring for the poor, etc.), but the specific rules were all fulfilled in Jesus.