Why We Follow Some Old Testament Laws but Not Others

Greg Koukl

Critics accuse Christians of conveniently picking and choosing from Old Testament laws. We’re quick to “clobber” gay people with verses from Leviticus, they say, yet we don’t keep kosher ourselves. The complaint, though, is based on a misunderstanding about the Mosaic Covenant that even Christians fall prey to.

Consider, for a moment, the regulations of neighboring states. Californians are not under the laws of Nevada, but if they cross that border, then Nevada’s rules reign, not the Golden State’s.

The exact same principle—that a government’s statutes apply only to those under its jurisdiction—pertains to God’s statutes, too. A covenant is a contract. It is binding only on the signatories. No one else.

The Mosaic Covenant was an arrangement between God and the Jews in the commonwealth of Israel. It was given to the people of that nation for that time and had no direct application to anyone outside its borders.

Gentile nations were not under the laws God established for the Jews in the theocracy. They lived in a different “state.” Therefore, nothing in the Mosaic Law, in virtue of being in that Law, governs any Gentile at any time, in any place. Indeed, nothing in the Old Covenant governs any Jew anymore, either, since the New Covenant now replaces the broken Mosaic Covenant (Jer. 31:31ff).

Then why quote Leviticus 18 to condemn homosexuality? For the same reason we quote Leviticus 18 to condemn adultery, incest, bestiality, and child sacrifice—all mentioned in the same passage.

Consider California and Nevada again. Although each state has its unique ordinances, there’s overlap on major concerns. Parking laws may differ between states, but all have homicide and burglary statutes since murder and theft are universal evils.

Some laws are the kind that apply only to local jurisdictions. Other laws are the kind that apply to all people at all times, and every government should enforce them. Consequently, we still must obey some of Moses’ commands, but not because they are in the Law. Rather, they are in the Law because all people everywhere must obey them. They are universals.

How do we know which is which, though? How do we determine which laws were only for Jews in the commonwealth and which laws are universals for all times, for all people?

Sometimes it’s obvious on reflection—as with the grouping of prohibitions in Leviticus 18. When the Law says, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female” (v. 22), the wording suggests that the act itself violates the natural order God ordained from the beginning (Gen. 1–2).

Sometimes the context gives a clue. The sins cited in Leviticus 18 were the same “abominations” that “defiled” the land and brought God’s judgment on the Gentiles before the Jews and their Law arrived (see Lev. 18:24–30). Clearly, these harms were evils even for non-Jews, who were not under Mosaic regulations.

Another indication that a provision of the Law reflects a universal moral principle is when the command is repeated in the New Testament, indicating that it’s binding under both covenants, Old and New. This is true of nine of the Ten Commandments (the Sabbath being excepted, on my reading—Col. 2:16–17), as well as homosexuality—clearly condemned in passages like Romans 1:26–27, also characterized there as a violation of God’s natural order.

Today, no one lives under the Old Covenant. Gentiles never were obligated by the details of a contract they were not party to. Those laws—and the punishments prescribed for their violation—belonged to a different people at a different time. The theocracy is no more and has been replaced by a new, unconditional provision of God’s grace for both Jews and Gentiles.

Nevertheless, wickedness is still wicked wherever it takes place. There remains a Law that stands above all other laws, one to which every nation and every person must answer.