Arguments against the use of Leviticus 18 in any serious discussion in the church about same-sex relationships have become so commonplace as to feature in everything from Radio 4's The News Quiz to Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. If we want to argue that homosexual sexual activity is wrong, the argument goes, we must stop eating prawn sandwiches, put people to death for working on the Sabbath, and get rid of any polycotton garments we might own. And yet, even a quick glance at the chapter in question will show that none of those things are mentioned. In fact, the list of things prohibited in Leviticus 18 is rather more sinister: various forms of incest, child sacrifice and bestiality. I wonder whether President Bartlet would have been happy to make those things legal. I certainly doubt that Bishop Stephen Croft would want to support them, despite his willingness to use the argument of President Bartlet his recent publication Together in Love and Faith (p31-32).
I suggest that we need to take a clearer look at (i) the place of the Old Testament law in Christian ethics and (ii) the particular context of Leviticus 18, rather than rely on the tired lines of stand-up comedians and political satire.
I've written before about the ongoing use of the law for Christians. We cannot ignore the Old Testament law because:
- The law is a reflection of God's character and nature, which do not change;
- Christ did not ignore the law, and frequently called people to a more stringent obedience of it;
- Christ was obedient to the law, and we are to follow Christ;
- The law was given, by God's grace, to God's people, to teach them how to live, and we are God's people.
Christ fulfils the law, but he does not destroy it.
He fulfils the cultic or ceremonial aspects of the law by being the reality towards which they always pointed: he is the great high priest, he is the one perfect sacrifice, he provides eternal access into the holy of holies. We no longer need the shadows of Christ, because we have the true Christ. He fulfils other aspects of the law by being the true Israel. Where the nation of Israel was given laws to distinguish herself from other nations, God's people now are distinguished by being in Christ. This is why the vision in Acts 10 explicitly revokes the food laws, and implicitly - as Peter understood at the time - revokes the separation between Jewish and Gentile believers. These laws are fulfilled in Christ in such a way as to make them obsolete.
But there are laws which Christ fulfils by his obedience to them. This obedience is for us, so that we might be declared righteousness in God's sight. His obedience to them is an example for us of how to live righteously. These are the laws by which God's people will reflect God's character. They are what we often call the 'moral law', because they are the rules which establish what is morally good and what is morally bad, on the basis of God's own morality. God has not changed, and thus these laws still stand as the measure of morality for all Christian believers.
How do we know whether the laws in Leviticus 18 are cultic laws fulfilled in the reality of Christ, are laws for the nation of Israel, made obsolete in Christ, or are moral laws reflecting God's unchanging nature, by which we are still bound?
Well, let's look at what it says:
The Lord said to Moses,“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord. Leviticus 18:1-5
This seems to suggest that these are national laws for Israel, distinguishing them from the Egyptians and Canaanites. But notice that these are laws by which the people may live, and the repeated statement of God's name - his identity, but also his nature. Perhaps there is more to it. As indeed, when we turn to the end of the chapter, we find:
“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.
“Everyone who does any of these detestable things—such persons must be cut off from their people. Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 18:24-30
Repeatedly we are told that the actions prohibited in this chapter will defile the people and the land they live in. This is not merely a way of distinguishing the Israelites from other nations. These are actions which will make them unclean and unfit for dwelling in God's land. Even those people living in the land who are not Israelites must be held to this standard. Even the people who lived in Canaan before the Israelites defiled the land by doing them. These laws are not for a specific time or group of people. And why? Because these things are detestable. That is how God himself describes them.
God detests these things. He hates them. That is why they defile the people who do them. They make people unfit to be in God's presence.
These are not words which God uses lightly. In the whole of Leviticus, this term is used in only one other place, Leviticus 20:13, where God says, ‘“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable."
This is not merely a question of a boundary marker of behaviour to distinguish the Israelites from other nations. Incest, bestiality, child sacrifice, and same-sex sexual activity are detestable to God. This is a matter of the moral law. Things which were detestable to God then remain detestable to him now.
Christ has kept the moral law for us, and Christ has died so that we can be forgiven for our failure to keep it. There is grace, forgiveness and freedom in Christ for us all, no matter what the nature of our sin has been and continues to be. But is the responsibility of the church to teach Christians how to live in obedience to God. We proclaim the gospel of repentance and grace, but that gospel is also what teaches us to despise our sin and to seek holiness.
That is why the church cannot bless same-sex marriages or civil partnerships or any other form of same-sex sexual activity. Because it is detestable to God. How can the church bless what God detests?
How can we tell people that something God has said will lead to death, will actually lead to life? How could we be so wicked as to lie about something so important? How could we hope to avoid God's judgment on us for knowingly leading people astray?
There can be no blessing for those who persist in unrepentant sin. How could we neglect our duty to warn them and to call them to repentance?
That is the gospel which Christ came to teach: Repent and believe.
That is the gospel which Christ's church must continue to teach: Repent and believe.