I recently received the following comment on a Facebook post:
If we aren’t stoning women for being married when they are not virgins and we aren’t burning animals then why the hate on gays?
I actually receive variations of this question a lot! I have found that the best reply is to share the three types of Law found in the Bible: Civil-political Law, Ceremonial Law, and Moral Law.
Civil-political Laws found in the Bible are those that were given to ancient Israel under the theocracy of God. The command to stone witches and men who lie with men as men lie with women, would fit into this category. Since we no longer live under that government, it would be breaking the law of the government we are currently under if we were to drag out the palm readers from their shops and stone them to death, or to hurl rocks at the gay men on the floats at the gay pride rallies.
Ceremonial Laws dealt with purity and ritual cleansing, the Jews being set apart from all other peoples on earth. These involved dietary restrictions, circumcision, hygiene, specific dress, and of course animal and grain sacrifices and the many Jewish festivals. These laws point to Christ, and in light of Christ and his fulfillment of these, we do not have to observe them any longer. In certain situations it would be sinful for us to do so, such as with the animal sacrifices, that if we made would be a denial of the work of Christ’s sacrifice that was once for all.
Moral Laws are the laws that apply to all people throughout all time – laws of morality – what God desires of us to do and not to do. All sexual sin, including homosexual activity, would fall into this category of sin found in the Bible, therefore, it would still be sinful for two men to have sexual relations as a man and a woman would have, just as it would be for a man and a woman to have sexual relations if they are not married to one another. But, we don’t stone them anymore, just as we don’t stone the Wiccans or other fornicators!
These arguments usually get a well received response, because the people hearing it are usually not Christians and this is all new information that they have never heard explained to them before. In the case of this Facebook discussion, I received a unique reply because it was from a Christian who had heard who wasn’t foreign to this information:
“I feel like the Cival/Moral/Ceremonial distinction is pretty ad hoc. Rabbis recognize no such distinction in the law they are experts in. Jesus made it pretty clear to the religious leaders of the time that the distinctions they imagines were in the text were in no way apparent. He then went on to make no such distinction between Moral/Cival/Ceremonial laws in the Torah, do you know who did? Other religious leaders, from a much later time, who had done much less study in the Hebrew bible than either the pharisees to whom Jesus was talking or the Talmudic rabbis upon whom modern Jewish scholarship is based. Is that supposed to be better? If it was really an obvious key to unlocking the OT why did it take until Augustine for anybody to figure it out?
Augustine who by the way was wrong about pretty much every other theological subject about which he spoke.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a better answer than any other answer I know of, and probably has some use in helping us to understand the OT. But that doesn’t change how unsatisfying ad hoc it is. We had a problem, scripture did not have an answer, so we made up this answer after the fact in order to make our problem go away. There is no reason to believe it is true except that it solves the problem and that’s what we think should truly happen…”
I really appreciate this question because it is asking for Scripture! If there really are such distinctions of types of Law in the Bible, then Scripture should indicate it.
But based on the fact that Ceremonial Laws were fulfilled by Christ and no longer necessary to be observed, and in some cases would be sinful, and the fact that Jesus was pretty clear that his kingdom was not of this world so we wouldn’t be striving to set up a nation that follows the governmental laws of the Old Testament, I see no reason why Jewish Rabbis would be the experts in the Law on this matter as this Christian seems to propose.
I recognize that these divisions are tough to piece together in Scripture, especially since the words Civil-Political Law, Ceremonial Law, and Moral Law are not used in Scripture. Despite the absence of these categorical labels in Scripture, it doesn’t mean the teaching of these divisions isn’t present, because many accepted words in Christian Systematic Theology are not in Scripture, such as the Bible, the Trinity, and Sacraments. The following is my best shot to put together Scriptural support for the three types of Law distinguished in the Bible:
Acts 15 – The first Church council distinguished Ceremonial Law!
The need for the distinction is established in verses 1 and 5:
Vs 1 – “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'”
Vs 5 – “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.'”
James comes to the conclusion that circumcision isn’t necessary (vs. 19). But he does command them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from meat that came from animals that had died by strangulation, and from blood. The things that he commanded of them not to do were things that fell into the realm of weak and strong brother issues (except that of sexual immorality) which can be seen to be explained in Romans 14. James essentially said, “Don’t be circumcised; you don’t have to observe that Law, but with these other ceremonial issues, please avoid them so as to not offend or cause problems with your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are Jewish and still find such practices to be unclean!” At which point, I’d point you to Romans 14 for more clarity.
Paul and James on observance of the WHOLE Law.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul addresses circumcision and how it is unnecessary:
5:3 – If you accept circumcision, then you must keep the whole law.
5:4 – Are you justified by law, or by grace?
5:6 – Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith through love.
5:11 – If I still preach circumcision, why am I being persecuted?
Through this chapter we see that Paul is placing circumcision into a different type of law, because clearly Paul still taught the law, just not certain parts of the law to be observed any longer. He still commanded us to seek holiness and do the things of Christ (the Moral Law). A good way to establish what is Moral Law vs. Ceremonial Law would be to ask what laws would fall in line with loving God and loving your neighbor. Ceremonial Laws pertain to keeping one’s self and community ritually clean, where as Moral Laws focus on one’s relationship with God and neighbors through love. The Moral Laws would be the Laws that Paul still preached! He didn’t preach the need for circumcision, dietary laws, or any of the Jewish sacrifices, festivals, or days of observance. He concludes chapter 5 in his letter to the Galatians by listing the works of the flesh that we SHOULD abstain: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (vs. 19). The things that we SHOULD have present in our lives in accordance to the works of the Spirit of God are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Moral Law stuff – these things still apply to all people as things to do and pursue and things not do and pursue.
James takes a similar approach as Paul to the observance of the whole of the Law of God. Whereas Paul says if you accept circumcision you are obligated to keep the whole Law, James flips it and says if you have kept the whole of the law, but have stumbled in just one part of it, you are guilty of breaking all of it, for you are a lawbreaker (James 2:10)
The Book of Hebrews Demonstrates the Unnecessary Observance of Ceremonial Law
When I was first asked, where are the distinctions of types of the law in Scripture, I thought – THE WHOLE BOOK OF HEBREWS! But here is a sprinkling of verses from the Book of Hebrews to demonstrate the distinction:
7:27 – We have no need for the high priests of the order of Aaron or for their sacrifices.
8:5 – What should we make of the Ceremonial Laws? “They serve a copy and a shadow of the heavenly things.”
9:8-10 – “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.”
10:1 The Law [referring to all the ceremonial laws mentioned throughout the preceding chapters] is but a shadow of the good things to come!
10:28-29 – Don’t put away the blood of Christ by keeping the ceremonial, sacrificial system of the Law of Moses.
Civil-Political Recognized in Scripture
Romans 13 – Paul provides instruction to submit to the governing authorities that were put in place by God, essentially to keep order in society by punishing the evildoer and rewarding the person of good works. We must observe the laws of the land, essentially! The theocracy of God that was established with certain laws for that nation in the Old Testament is no longer an established government, therefore we shouldn’t hold to them.
The Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t just go by those rules either. This is evidenced by John 18:29-32. The Jews wanted to kill Jesus, but they had to go to Pilate, because it was unlawful under Roman rule for them to execute anyone. This shows that the Jewish leaders were submitting to the law of the land, the law of Rome in this case. This means the Civil-Political Laws of Israel in the Old Testament were essentially abolished at this point. They were trying to observe them, but could only do so in as much as Rome allowed them to keep them.
In John 8, Jesus demonstrates this principle, or recognition of Civil-Political Law when handling the stoning of a woman caught in adultery. I must note however that this passage of the Bible isn’t in our earliest manuscript copies however. In this passage, Jesus says, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” They could have been sinning by stoning the lady caught in adultery, because they weren’t also stoning the man, who apparently they let off the hook. Or… maybe Jesus was recognizing Civil-Political Law, knowing that they would be breaking Roman Law by executing her.
Jesus further demonstrates this principle of Roman Law being the Law of the Land and not the Civil-Political Laws of the Old Testament by responding to a question about paying taxes by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” (Luke 22:19-26).
As to Civil-Political Law, we should submit to the Law of the Land as Paul exhorts in Romans 13, but we should not do so at the expense of God’s Moral Law.
Daniel and his amigos demonstrate this in the Book of Daniel. They still kept the Ceremonial Laws, because Christ had not yet come, but they also kept the Moral Law, praying to God and not bowing to worship the Babylonian king. They faced due penalty for it too, however, God spared them from that penalty through supernatural intervention.
Peter addresses how to handle Civil-Political Laws of the Land that go against God’s Moral Law by stating, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Distinction in the Old Testament
So far, the distinctions of these laws have been drawn from the New Testament, which I think is the correct place to draw them since the Ceremonial Laws foreshadowed Christ and until his arrival and fulfillment, we wouldn’t have been able to fully understand their proper role.
But… I found looking at CARM’s website an article on these distinctions:“Leviticus18:22, 20:13, homosexuality, shellfish, mixed fabrics, and not being under Old Testament Law”
In the article, the author Matt Slick, notes that certain laws were given to “the Sons of Israel” whereas other laws were given to “the nations”. And when you look at the laws given specifically to Israel, we see that they were Ceremonial Laws, and when they were given to all people, they were Moral Laws. Check out the linked article above for more details.
There is plenty more that can be shared and written on how these types of the law are distinguished in Scripture, but this is a good start I believe. What do you think? What verses would you add? Or do you think the verses I have shared don’t support a distinction in types of the Law?