Why We Shouldn’t Unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament

Rev. Andy Stanley, one of the most influential preachers in America and pastor of one the largest churches, recently made some statements regarding the Bible that rightly raised some serious concerns. He said Christians need to “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament, which he sees as “a house of cards” that keeps many sincere seekers from accepting the Christian faith. In trying to explain the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, he argued that the Apostles were not only unhitching the church from the Old Testament, but also from the entire worldview found in it. Rev. Stanley further argued that Christianity is not based on a text (i.e. the Bible), but on an event alone, namely the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, he insisted that the Church derived certain, but lesser requirements for Gentiles only for the sake of unity, not because of anything the Old Testament says. One of those requirements for Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality, Stanley further insisted should not be defined in any way from the Old Testament. Instead, he argued, the apostle Paul’s own letters reveal that he only defined sexual immorality according to a vague principle of treating others the way you want to be treated. In other words, Stanley argues that Paul’s definition of sexual immorality is not informed at all by the law (Torah). Stanley’s message makes it clear that this also includes the Ten Commandments. In fact, he claims the Old Testament should not be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”

Initially I thought Rev. Stanley had probably misspoken and was misunderstood. When I actually listened to his message myself, however, it was worse than I suspected (See his message HERE). It is a very confused message to say the least, and one of the worst cases of eisegesis (reading things into the Bible that are not there) I’ve ever heard. Rev. Stanley wants to separate the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the law altogether. His argument seems to be that the New Covenant does not overlap with the Old in any way.

Here is the problem. Before and after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) it is obvious that the apostles and Christian evangelists preach the Gospel from the law and the prophets, not apart from the law and the prophets (see also Galatians 3:8 and context). The “apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:42) was rooted and grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures. It wasn’t their own ideas that they developed based on an experience with the resurrected Jesus apart from Scripture. The apostles teaching was derived from the Scriptures, the law, the psalms, and the prophets. And they didn’t discover these things simply upon their own reflection; Jesus himself taught them these things beginning on the first day of his own resurrection.

We must remember that Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Acts shows the continuing ministry of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church, the body of Christ on earth. Although Rev. Stanley argues that the resurrection of Jesus alone is the foundation of Christianity, Jesus himself taught in the parable of the rich man and the poor beggar, Lazarus, that if people will “not hear Moses (i.e. Torah—the law—the first five book of the Bible) and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). It is also worth noting that shortly before the telling of this parable, Luke has Jesus saying, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void” (Luke 16:17).

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Jesus also says:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. ~ Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Even a cursory reading of the four Gospels reveals that Jesus saw what he was doing as a fulfillment—not a nullification— of the Scriptures, again what we call the Old Testament today. Significantly on the very first day of the resurrection, Jesus leads his disciples in a Bible study through the law, the psalms, and the prophets to shown them how he had fulfilled them in his death and resurrection (see Luke 24). Despite the claims of Andy Stanley, nowhere in the New Testament are we given the idea that the resurrection alone, apart from the Scriptures, is the foundation of the Christian faith. Hence Paul’s reminder that the teaching handed down by the apostles, who were eye witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, was “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures …” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 emphasis mine). 

The New Covenant was a promise of the law and the Prophets fulfilled by Christ (Compare Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-28). The apostles and evangelists in Acts in their preaching and teaching showed how the promises of the law and prophets were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. You see this in Peter’s first sermon as he repeatedly quotes from the Old Testament (Acts 2). You certainly see it in Stephen’s sermon for which he is martyred (Acts 7). You see it in the ministry of Philip as well. When the Ethiopian eunuch asked him about Isaiah 53, Luke says “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Although Philip began his testimony about the good news of Jesus from Isaiah 53, you can be sure his message didn’t get stuck there. The Spirit of Christ would have certainly inspired him to show the Ethiopian how Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Scriptures as Jesus himself did on the first day he was raised from the dead (again see Luke 24). The apostle Paul also preached and taught this way, even after the Jerusalem Council where the supposed “unhitching” occurred.

Acts 17:2-3 indicates that is was Paul’s habitual practice to reason “from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, who I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'”
This loudly echoes the resurrected Jesus’ very own message on the first Easter Sunday to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and later that day to his disciples gathered behind closed doors back in Jerusalem (See specifically Luke 24:25-27; 44-49). Later in Acts 17 Luke commends to Bereans for searching the Scriptures to confirm for themselves the teaching of Paul and Silas. The obvious reason they searched the Scriptures is because it was the apostles’ custom of prove from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. Apollos also preached from the Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28). Again the preaching of the early church, the doctrine of the apostles, was the word of God as it pertained to the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of resurrection for all God’s people in the future. It was not, however, detached from the Scriptures. Their message came directly from Scripture. In fact Paul, while under interrogation, tells King Agrippa,

To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. ~ Acts 26:22-23 (Emphasis mine)

Acts concludes with Paul under house arrest in Rome. There Paul continued “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). It certainly doesn’t sound like the church had “unhitched” itself from the Old Testament, much less the entire Old Testament worldview as Stanley claims. So what was going on at the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15?

Well, they discerned from the Old Testament that Gentiles who were coming into the church through faith in Christ did not have to first become Jews through circumcision and be required to keep all of the ceremonial laws required of Jews under the Old Covenant. As Old Testament Professor Bill Arnold argues, the elders in Jerusalem led by James, the brother of Jesus, discovered from the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles who were becoming Christians could abide by the few regulations required of Gentiles living in Jewish communities according to Leviticus 17-18 (see specifically 17:8, 10, 12, 13 and 18:26 which pertains to sexual immorality). The key is that these verses from the holiness code found in Leviticus pertained to what was also expected of the resident aliens living in Israelite communities. These would be uncircumcised non-Jews who were content to live among the Jews without becoming Jewish. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church at the Jerusalem Council found guidance for what should be expected of Gentile converts in terms of basic behavior as they lived among Jews and had fellowship with Jewish Christians. I know that this still leaves lingering questions about how expectations might have been different for Jewish Christians and the ongoing significance of the Jewish ceremonial law for them. Nevertheless, the main point again is that even at the Jerusalem Council the elders of the Church decided the questions before them in this transitional period with the guidance of the Spirit and from the law and the prophets, the latter made obvious with James’ quote from Amos 9 (Acts 15:12-21). Here the council was far from unhitching the church from the Old Testament. Instead they were trying to discern how to best understand the implications of the fulfillment of its promises in Jesus Christ and how best to apply the intent of its principles and precepts as Gentiles were welcomed into the family of God.

Much more could be said here, but the greater details of the implications of the Jerusalem Council are beyond the scope of what I want to do with this article. The point is that it is a little bit unhinged to try to unhitch the church from the Old Testament. It is also a bit unhinged to try to base Christian faith on the event of the resurrection alone apart from the Scripture. Jesus didn’t do that; neither did the apostles. The resurrection, they insist, is to be understood in the context of the precepts and promises found in the Law of Moses and the Prophets. The meaning and the significance of the resurrection must be derived from the context of the written revelation found in the Bible, including the Old Testament. It is also unwise to argue that the term sexual immorality should not be informed by the Old Testament as Stanley does. It is even more unwise to argue that the Old Testament should not be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”

The fact is the New Testament quotes and alludes to specific Old Testament passages repeatedly and voluminously. Take for example 1 Peter’s call for holiness (I Peter 1:13-16), which Peter justifies by quoting Leviticus 11:44, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Consider as well Paul’s use of Israel’s negative example in the wilderness after the exodus to warn the predominantly Gentile Corinthian church about the dangers of idolatry and sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). He specifically says, “Now, these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (10:6). Rev. Stanley even insisted that the Ten Commandments should not inform any behavior in the church. He believes the New Covenant that Jesus established is “completely detached” from the Old Testament worldview. He believes Jesus came to establish a completely new worldview. In other words, for Stanley there is no continuity at all between the Old and New Covenants. This is just simply wrong! Again think about what Jesus actually said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.       Matthew 5:17-20

Think too about what Paul says about Christian love in Romans 13.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.  Romans 13:8-10

Paul’s understanding of love is obviously informed by the Ten Commandments. He also clearly thought the Old Testament was not only inspired, which Stanley concedes, but Paul also thought it was sufficient to make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and to equip God’s people “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-16). And contrary to the claims of Andy Stanley, Paul’s understanding of sexual immorality is also informed by the holiness code (Leviticus 18) and the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 19:1-12) . Whereas Stanley seems to want to understand sexual immorality in the New Testament apart from anything in the Old Testament and boil it down to a vague principle that would seem to allow anyone to interpret it anyway they want so long as they “treat others the way they want to be treated,” Paul actually defines it much more strictly. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-10 Paul indicates that the way to avoid sexual immorality if one cannot control their sexual passions is to get married. And the context indicates that Paul viewed marriage as being between a man and a woman. Moreover, as Paul warns about sexual immorality throughout 1 Corinthians 5-6, it is obvious that his understanding of its definition is informed by the Levitical holiness code and the Ten Commandments. Adultery is included in his warning in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and his term for homosexual behavior is a term coined directly from two words in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. This fact is even clearer in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 where it is obvious that his vice list, which includes that same coined term for homosexual practice, arsenokoites, is specifically informed by the law.

Suffice it to say, the New Covenant should not be understood to be completely detached from the Old Covenant. It is true that the foundation of the New Covenant is not the Mosaic Covenant. Its foundation is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Yet, although there is discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, there is obviously still much continuity. New implies that there would be some differences. But the moral laws of God summed up in the Ten Commandments, which themselves are summed up in the two great commandments to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), are still in effect. It is true that it is the spirit of the law not the letter that is most important, but the spirit of the law as it applies to the New Covenant family of God still has a great deal of continuity with the letter.

One  way to resolve the confusion is to remember what the promise of the New Covenant actually was. The promise of the New Covenant was that God’s people would be forgiven, given a new heart and a new spirit along with God’s very own Spirit, and his laws would be written on their hearts so they could obey them (see again Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-28). Jesus fulfilled that promise, and it will ultimately be fulfilled in its entirety in God’s people in the resurrection (See Ezekiel 37). But even now through faith in Christ and the gift of the Spirit we experience a glorious foretaste of the world to come.unhithced shipwreck It’s certainly not the mind of the Spirit that would lead us to unhitch or detach ourselves from God’s law. For Christians to unhitch  themselves from the Old Testament is a sure fire way to make “shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19; also see context!)

 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. ~  Romans 8:1-11 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Why We Shouldn’t Unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s