To start off, there are a couple of things that need to be put firmly to the side. First, this post is not written because I decided that I had the single, definitive answer to the title question. I believe that God has given me better understanding than I had two weeks ago — just before my brother-in-law and I discussed this topic as part of a larger conversation — but not that He has shown me everything. This post will be dealing with the question as it was dealt with by the church in the NT (New Testament), particularly in the book of Acts. Second, the only thing hated in this post is sin. That’s it. No people are hated as this post is written. If anything, there is remorse for the things I have been guilty of.
How this came about is that my brother-in-law and I were discussing the glut of posts we had seen on social media about how “X is wrong.” or “I used to believe C, but I know so much better now.” Most of these posts had to do with The Law, we’re talking OT (Old Testament) here, and my brother-in-law and I were lamenting the attitude that either excuses sin that is obviously sinful or condemns something that is equally-obviously a matter of opinion. One person excuses sexual sin while another condemns men wearing hats in church. As we talked, it occurred to me that the first church had the same problem. The first group of believers — Jesus’ disciples and the apostles — were, by and large, Jewish. These folks did their level best to obey The Law in its entirety, as is fitting for a Jewish person. However, Peter and Paul and Barnabas and Mark and Silas and Timothy and a bunch of others were going around preaching to Gentiles (non-Jews) and the Gentiles were putting their faith in Christ and being saved. All the same signs accompanied the salvation of the Gentiles as accompanied the salvation of the Jewish believers, so it was obvious that God had placed His seal of approval on these believers. But there were Pharisees who had converted and these folks thought that to be a believer meant to obey The Law (Acts 15:5). But Peter had some things to say and Paul and company talked about the signs that had taken place and James suggested that they give some basic instructions — the bare necessities. So, the leadership in Jerusalem wrote as follows:
“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with [their] words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word [of mouth]. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:23-29)
That letter was the first church’s response to the question, “How much of The Law applies to Gentiles?” Their answer: Not a whole lot.
It is at this point that I think a major distinction needs to be drawn. There are two separate things that are spoken of and some folks use the term “The Law” to apply to both. There is the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue or “The Big Ten” as some folks have called them (not to be confused with the erstwhile NCAA football conference). This set of Ten Commands can be found in Exodus 20. No mention is made of a special covenant or a unique people when God hands these down. These are The Rules. Want to know what perfection looks like? There you go. The Ten Commandments are not the same as The Law. The Law is given specifically to the Jews as a covenant and to make them a special people to God. These rules apply to Jews and proselytes. But these same rules are the ones that people want to trot out as examples of Christians not obeying God. In fairness, I can’t blame people — Christians don’t seem to have this straight either. Now, it needs to be noted that the Ten Commandments apply universally. So, God’s “No murdering.” applies to everyone. The command not to commit adultery applies to everyone. It is assumed that the believer will be seeking to obey the Ten Commandments regardless of whether or not a person is Jewish. With that addressed, let’s have a look at the things mentioned: (1) no eating things sacrificed to idols, (2) no consuming blood, (3) no eating strangled meat, (4) no fornication.
No eating things sacrificed to idols. Lots of folks might think this rule outdated, but I think there’s application. You see, anything that takes up more of my time and attention than God is an idol. If I spend my every waking moment thinking about my job, then my job has become an idol. The modern world is still chock full of idols and we should be very careful not to consume things sacrificed to them. We may have a “business dinner” that sacrifices time with our family or at church or in service to God. I think there are times when it’s acceptable and times when we should not be eating that meal and only God and the individual know which time is which. I would suggest that the meal that is born of a habit of neglecting the things of God is probably an idol’s meal while the one that is an exception; maybe even a reward or a send-off for a co-worker going to new places is probably fine. Again, this is between God and the individual and I’m not in any position to judge what’s what.
The next two can probably safely be taken together as they both deal with eating. While the word used for “blood” can also mean “bloodshed.” Since the word is nestled between two other things concerned with eating, it is probably safe to conclude that the consuming of blood is what’s being prohibited. This would have been a huge concern in the ancient world. Bloodborne pathogens still present concerns today and consuming blood is a surefire way to contract all sorts of illnesses if the blood is contaminated. As for the strangled meat … our methods of slaughtering livestock do not, as far as I know, include strangulation. Everything I’ve ever encountered involves slaughtering the animal in a way that allows the blood to drain. I’m not sure what’s behind the instruction, but I’m reasonably sure that it does not bode well for those who ignore it.
Lastly, the no fornication rule. Arguably the least comfortable rule for the modern world. We can make excuses about the idol thing and even say that I’ve got the whole thing wrong. Most of us don’t eat blood anyway and strangled meat might be difficult to find. The word used in Greek is porneias (πορνείας) whose English descendants should be pretty obvious. The word applied to any and all sexual intercourse that was not between a husband and wife. All of it. This means that the one word used then includes, but is not limited to, all of the following modern English words and phrases: fornication, homosexuality, bisexuality, beastiality, polyamory, adultery, affairs, cybersex, sexting, and a host of others that I’m not even sure I know. I’m not sure if polygamy falls in the group, but any man foolish enough to marry more than one woman or share one wife with other men deserves all the grief he gets and any woman foolish enough to marry more than one man or share a husband with other women deserves all the grief she gets. I don’t see any scenario wherein polygamy works out well for those involved. Maybe I’m just shortsighted, but I’ll stay that way if I am. Meanwhile, back to the apostles and company prohibiting all forms of sex not between a husband and wife. What’s with that? I mean, we can accept the possible health concerns of the blood and strangulation deal and God has a whole commandment dedicated to not worshiping idols, so that jives. But this whole no sex at all unless it’s with our spouse? I thought God’s commandment was no adultery. And it is. I looked it up and even looked up the word in the concordance. It is adultery that is proscribed. However, Jesus came on the scene and shook things up. He said that if a dude looked at a gal and lusted for her, then he had committed adultery (Matthew 5:28). Jesus raised the bar on that commandment. He raised the bar on murder, too, but that wasn’t something that the apostles worried about. I guess they figured that even Gentiles knew not to murder people (and they did know).
See, I think that the apostles and the leadership felt it necessary to point out the fornication thing because many of the Gentile cultures were perfectly fine with certain types of sex that were not within marriage. Greeks were known to have homosexual relationships and remain married. Aristotle went so far as to say that the best (most perfect; most equal) love a man could know was with another man. Some cultures were okay with step-family getting together (something like this happened in the church at Corinth). Some of the Greek and Roman festivals involved worshiping the gods (little “g”) through sex with temple prostitutes: male or female. Parts of the ancient world actually regarded prostitution as a legitimate way for a woman to make a living and saw nothing wrong with a guy having a tumble here and there. And Greek mythology is replete with stories of people and animals (sometimes gods in disguise) having sexual relations. Beastiality might have been shrug-worthy to the Greeks. The Law forbade all of that and more besides, so the Jewish audience did not need to be told. But the Gentiles had a whole other background that they were coming from. They needed the info.
Now let’s bring this all back together. The first church, when faced with the question of how much of The Law applied considered the question and (presumably, though it’s not recorded) prayed about it and came to a conclusion that they wrote down and sent off to the Gentile believers. Almost two thousand years later and we Gentile believers are still not sure about this topic. And our uncertainty confuses non-believers. See, if we all agreed that the basics — Jesus’ command that we love God and love our neighbor and the Ten Commandments and the four things written about by the apostles — were absolutely certain and that everything else was window dressing that could be taken or left as the Holy Spirit moves us, then the non-believer would be in a much better position to understand what all is going on with us. Most of us agree on Jesus’ commands (though we disagree as to how, but that’s okay) and on the Ten Commandments (what’s to argue there?), but we lose our footing when it comes to everything else.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are other passages in the NT that explicitly state that the church taught that X was mandatory for all believers everywhere. But I’ve been through the NT a few times and haven’t found any other passages that address this exact issue.
And if you’re wondering “So what?” you probably have company. Here is the “So what?”: I, myself, am a tattooed, bacon-eating, mixed-material-garment-wearing, wrongly-trimmed-bearded, probably-screwing-something-else-up-according-to-The-Law Christian. And I’m okay with that. I’m cool with the folks who want to worship God in slacks and wingtips; I prefer jeans and flip-flops. I’m cool with my brother-in-law’s charismatic fellowship, because they teach The Bible and believe it and try to live it — same as me; they just get a little crazier during praise than I’m likely to. I’m cool with the believers who are so tatted you can’t see an inch of unadorned skin except on their face. Some of their flash is sweet. I’m totally cool with the folks who haven’t a drop of ink on them. Purple hair and piercings all over or conservatively highlighted hair and only earrings: doesn’t matter. Are we worshiping the same God and encouraging one another to stay away from idols — like self and fame and money and possessions and popularity and influence and convenience — and exhorting each other to stay pure in a polluted world? If so, then we’re family. And I love my family even though I know full well that they can be a little rough on people and seem more than a little nutty. Pro Tip: We are ALL nutty to some extent and to some people.
I need to wrap this up. It got way longer than I had planned.
If I’m wrong about how much of The Law applies, I’m sure God will correct me. He is faithful like that. If I’m right, I’m equally sure that He’ll confirm it for me. He’s faithful like that, too. Either way, I encourage anyone reading this to stop taking posts on social media as gospel and instead to dig into the four gospels and The Bible as a whole for themselves. Don’t even take this blog entry at face value. Check my references. Verify that the verses say what I claim they say. And don’t get into an argument on social media. That’s like arguing with a three year old. You’ll only frustrate yourself.