Very popular in its day, the US TV series “The West Wing” dealt with the political life of a fictional US presidential administration.
In one especially famous episode, the (decidedly liberal) President Bartlet is seen to humiliate a Bible-believing Christian by interrogating her on the applicability of certain requirements of the Law of Moses to her faith.
This incident has been picked over by many Bible critics over the years & the issues raised continue to circulate in varying forms. As a Christian you ought therefore to expect at some point to be challenged by a sceptic armed with a variant of this “West Wing Question.”
The central point raised by the Question is this: why do Christians insist upon observance of some aspects of the Law of Moses -such as in areas of sexual morality- but ignore huge tracts of Mosaic legislation where it addresses subjects such as touching the skin of a dead animal (Lev 11:24-25) or planting different crops side-by-side (Lev 19:19)? Are we not being inconsistent and hypocritical by doing so?
The show has long since ended but wherever the subject of mixed fibres and dead animal skins is raised you can know that the spirit of President Bartlet lives!
Christians have sought to address this challenge in various ways, not all of them very helpful.
First let us consider a couple of bad answers to the question!
One popular -but erroneous- way of looking at Mosaic stipulations such as those mentioned above is to view them as representing only provision for life in the wilderness prior to entry into Canaan, where they served perhaps as good hygiene advice for a people having to subsist in a harsh and dry desert environment.
But this view is not tenable since these instructions were given before the people’s failure to enter the Promised Land & so the forty-year wilderness sojourn was not in view when they were originally delivered to Israel. Moreover the Law of Moses was clearly stated to be incumbent upon Israel “throughout all generations” (Lev 3:17; 17:7 et seq) not just for forty years in the desert.
This precludes us from categorising these instructions as merely a “wilderness survival book.” Instead the Law of Moses represented the core constitution for Israelite life in the Promised Land; and their continued presence in that land was predicated upon observance of that constitution (Deut 28).
Another common but equally misguided approach has been to recruit into service that well-known half-verse of scripture,
“…for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14)
Some consider these words alone to settle the issue of the relationship of God’s Law to modern-day believers. Quite simply, it is asserted, the Mosaic Law is nothing to do with New Covenant believers who live in the "age of grace" so we need not concern ourselves with obedience to any of its precepts.
Hopefully we can see that we must deny the validity of this approach also since it wholly ignores the fact that the New Testament habitually draws upon the Mosaic code for instruction in righteousness. Clearly such an approach constitutes a form of antinomianism (lawlessness) which is alien to biblical thought.
Yet many thoughtless individuals do indeed teach –citing this half-verse as their authority- that God’s Law has no application to the life of a believer at all. This view is sometimes used to warrant bringing “alternative lifestyles” within the mainstream of Christian life on the grounds that Leviticus 18 etc is of no relevance to Christian believers living under grace.
But we ought not to forget the first half of that verse, reminding us, as it does that sin is no longer to have dominion over us!
Placing the verse within the wider context of Romans Paul was clearly speaking in 6:14 of our justification. He was saying that God’s Law is not -and never has been- the condition of our acceptance before God.
Hebrews 11 is similarly clear that saints in every age have “received a good report” i.e. been justified, by faith apart from the works of the Law. Rather the Law serves as a “school-master to lead us to Christ”(Gal 3:24) in whom grace (through faith) gives us a right standing.
Perhaps a good analogy of the Law’s role in a believer’s life is that of a spirit level.
Such an instrument serves well in accurately communicating to us whether something is straight or level. However as an instrument it can do nothing in itself to correct the problem of crookedness. Other tools must be employed for that purpose.
Just like a spirit level, God’s Law, when put up against my life, will tell me if my life is crooked or straight. However where it is found to be crooked, the Law is powerless to straighten my life out. Only grace can do that!
That is why Paul calls grace a teacher of righteousness (Titus 2:11-12). Grace does not abrogate the Law; rather grace provides the power whereby I am enabled to keep God’s Law through the might of the indwelling Spirit.
In terms of its moral authority on believers then (quite separately from the issue of justification), we most certainly are under God’s Law! Indeed within the pages of the New Testament alone there are hundreds of moral injunctions that are addressed to God’s people despite those people being said to be “under grace.”
But does this mean then, as the “West Wing Question” infers, that New Covenant believers are obligated to keep all of the Law of Moses with its (estimated) 613 rules?
Is it really necessary for me to worry about mixing those fibres together after all?
We must answer in the negative because New Testament treatment of the Law compels us to identify significant distinctions that are made within these 613 commandments rather than seeing them as a homogenous and forever indivisible unit.
It is clear for instance that many ceremonial aspects are shown to have been fulfilled in Christ e.g. the Passover lamb (Exo 12:3-6). The Jewish feasts, whilst an instructive study into Christ’s role in our redemption, are not obligatory upon New Testament believers since they were only types and shadows of things now fulfilled in the Messiah. They were the road signs pointing us to the secure city that is our salvation in Christ. Once one has reached one's destination you do not go back out and live under the road sign!
Also, the dietary laws are specifically said to have been abrogated by Christ Himself (Mk 7:19). The Church only seems to have identified the significance of His statement in later times as Peter was still seen to be observing these dietary restrictions at a certain point in time (Acts 10:9-15).
The context of chapter ten of Acts (the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius) leads me to the conclusion that the purpose of these Mosaic food restrictions was to serve as an effective bar to fellowship between Israel and the peoples from the surrounding pagan nations.
Food is an integral part of every culture’s societal life & a shared meal has always been an important component of human fellowshipping. By strictly limiting the permitted diet of the Israelite people God was placing an important practical barrier between them and the surrounding nations with their corrupting ways. It is difficult to spend a lot of time around people with whom you cannot eat.
Hence the dietary restrictions can be understood as relating to the Old Testament situation, a time when God’s people constituted a single nation distinct & separate from the societies all around. With the advent of the New Covenant and the opening of God’s grace to the Gentiles (the context of Acts 10) the problem of this practical social barrier needed to be addressed.
God prepared Peter for the change by notifying him that from now on there were to be no unclean foods. But this was only preparation for the revelation that there were now also to be no unclean people!
Interestingly food was also the central focus of the prohibitions issued by the Jerusalem Council to Gentile believers in Christ
"...write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:20).
Although circumcision was the touchstone for the debate (Acts 15:1), the eventual outcome suggests that the discussion quickly moved to consideration of the Jewish dietary laws.
Eating meals would be a vital part of fellowshipping within the future mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, hence Paul’s strong rebuke of the backsliding Peter on this very issue in Gal 2:11-14.
It is important to realize that these four Jerusalem Council restrictions were not the only commandments incumbent upon Gentile believers. We must surely notice, for instance, that the list is a little light on the Ten Commandments!
Obviously by omitting them from the list of prohibitions it was not the intention of the Jerusalem Council to sanction covetousness, theft, and murder amongst the believing Gentile communities!
Instead the four restrictions specifically addressed the issue of how God’s people were to fellowship together in a mixed Jewish/Gentile community, a milieu “where Moses was read…in every synagogue” (Acts 15:21) and certain Gentile practices were viewed with especial disgust by Jews.
Even the somewhat problematical second prohibition –that on sexual immorality- which appears at first sight to fall within the orbit of general moral law, is understood by some commentators as being a reference perhaps to the specific Levirate restrictions on marriage found in the Mosaic code. In other words Gentile believers were being encouraged to be more choosy about whom they married than was common in the pagan society they had just left.
Not withstanding, the central purpose of the directions was to satisfy the conscience of Jewish believers. This interpretation dovetails perfectly with Paul’s advice to the Corinthians on food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8). In each case the issue was not basic morality but rather a refusal to offend believers’ consciences and thereby destroy Church fellowship. These four directives need to be understood therefore as primarily social instruction rather than moral.
The Jerusalem Council did not issue any detailed instruction on general moral issues.
It had no need to do so.
It is clear that the Ten Commandments & other moral requirements were never a point of controversy for the early Church. The Gentile believers did not need guidance on moral issues since this would already have been given to them by Jewish Christians long familiar with God’s ethical code.
The Gentiles accepted these moral injunctions and, enlightened by regeneration, they now had this moral law written upon their hearts (Jer 31:33; Eze 36:26-27). But actually even as previously unsaved Gentiles they would still have had in their past lives a residual knowledge of God’s righteous requirements.
“ For when Gentiles, who do not have the (Mosaic) law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” (Rom 2:14)
It is critical to realize that here Paul is not speaking merely of those 613 laws given to Moses. Some of these still had direct application to Gentile lives, others did not. He was saying that there was always a more profound & deeper awareness of God’s moral law placed within Man himself by virtue of his having been made in the image of God (Gen 9:6).
This innate moral understanding of law is the key issue here.
Man has always been under God’s moral law- a law that long predates Moses- and has always had an inner consciousness of this code even though his fallen state prevents anything but a partial and wholly inadequate observance of its requirements.
Any who would challenge the idea of an innate moral law predating Moses may wish to consider the following questions:
Why did God hallow the 7th Day (Gen 2:3) long before Moses was given the 4th Commandment relating to the Sabbath?
Why did God destroy the whole earth in the Noahic Flood since the human race had not actually received or broken any of the laws of Moses at that point?
Why did God then implement the death penalty for murder in the aftermath of the Flood (Gen 9:5-6) long before the Israelites were told “Thou shalt not kill”?
How did Joseph know that sleeping with Potiphar’s wife would be “sinning against God” (Gen 39:9) centuries before the 7th Commandment?
Why, in later times would God command the repentance of a city like Ninevah (Jon 1:2) –a place which had never received the Mosaic Law- unless it was also as subject to God’s moral injunctions as the Israelites were? Indeed how could that city even know what such repentance would look like if there were no pattern of acceptable behaviour available for them to imitate?
It is clear from these examples that Man has always been expected to have an awareness of God’s moral requirements in such areas as murder, theft and adultery even though this awareness is quite separate & distinct from the Law given through Moses.
Fallen Man, of course, has no moral power to keep this moral law but he does nevertheless retain a certain knowledge of God whilst continually suppressing that knowledge (Rom 1:20-23).
When the Sinai revelation came, it only incorporated and codified these moral requirements within a formal document that we call the Law of Moses.
But, importantly, in addition to these, Moses was provided with other ceremonial & dietary provisions which served a different function within the Israelite community itself & only within that community.
A helpful summary of all of this is found in a popular Reformed Confession:
The Westminster Confession of Faith
Of the Law of God
“I God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
II. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.
III. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, His graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament.
IV. To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
V. The moral law does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither does Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthens this obligation.”
Armed with the knowledge of this distinction between moral law and the other aspects of the Mosaic code we now have the key to answering the “West Wing” question with which we began.
In answer to the fictional President Bartlet, we would say that touching dead animals or planting mixed crops are not, and never have been foundational moral matters for a Gentile believer in Christ. Instead these and similar prohibitions served a distinct function within the Israelite community which has long since been rendered redundant by the New Covenant.
On the other hand, sexual issues - for instance - fall within the category of that inherent morality which has been a demand of a righteous God upon all peoples at all times. This explains the New Testament’s insistence on sexual purity amongst the Gentile believers. A requirement that persists today long after we have ceased to concern ourselves with mixed fibres!
Some aspects of how this division of the Mosaic Law would work out in practice may be difficult to ascertain. I am sure that if we were to investigate all of those 613 commandments it would not always be clear which would qualify as foundational moral precepts or not.
But even where it is determined that they are not, there can still be the question of application to modern life. For instance, many have seen how, in telling the people to put a protective guard on the roofs of their houses (something that couldn’t be done in the desert by the way), Moses was nicely anticipating the requirements of modern Health and Safety legislation ( Deut 22:8)!
This is an area of study where even scholars admit that a lot more work needs to be done even after all this time. But hopefully the basic principles are clear.
1) God’s moral law (centering upon what would in time become the 10 Commandments) has existed for all peoples at all times throughout human history.
2) The Mosaic Law codified these requirements and also added to them many temporary social and ceremonial provisions.
3) These temporary provisions have now passed away leaving the original moral law still in force and still incumbent upon all.
Hence our concern, not for the passing regulations of the Israelite code, but instead for a consistent application of the eternal Law of Christ to our lives and a hunger for the true righteousness that is found only in Him.
So there is no reason for us ever again to be floored by the West Wing Question!