Are Old Testament Laws Obsolete? Kathy Keller, Rachel Held Evans, and the Kerfuffle Over “Biblical” Rules For Women.

“A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans has been the talk of the town lately, drawing the attention of everyone from Christian bloggers to shows like USA Today and The View. While I have yet to read and review the book (I’ll do so when I have more time), the reviews have been interesting in their own right.

There has been a line of reasoning in several of the reviews, negative and positive, that I wanted to pull out and take a closer look at. One of the criticisms leveled at the book is that Rachel skewed the conversation about “real” biblical womanhood by including the Old Testament rules, which are no longer in play. In Bible scholar Ben Witherington’s positive review, he writes “Evans tries her hand at a lot of OT and even modern Jewish praxis, which she also didn’t have to do. After all, Christians are frankly not under any form of the old covenant and so it is a bit surprising to find, for example, a whole chapter of Rachel following Jewish practices in regard to menstruation.” Kathy Keller’s scathing review of the book rests largely on this premise, as well. She writes “You began your project by ignoring (actually, by pretending you did not know about) the most basic rules of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation that have been agreed upon for centuries. Perhaps the most basic rule–agreed upon by all branches of Christianity–is that Jesus’ coming made the Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial laws obsolete.”


This criticism left me scratching my head. I understand, of course, that we are not bound by Old Testament law, especially ceremonial law. But it seemed to me that this line of reasoning, focused on which rules do and do not apply to “biblical women,” is simply trading one set of culturally-entrenched rules for another–the purity taboos of the ancient Hebrews for the household codes of first century Greco-Romans. (Frankly, I’m not sure which I would choose, if I had to). And following “the rules” has always been secondary to following God, as Jesus, David, the prophets, and every godly person who lived before Moses made abundantly clear. It’s a side effect, almost, of living a God-honoring life in a particular cultural context.

While there have always been streams of Christianity that more-or-less jettisoned Old Testament law from the “Christian” canon, viewing it as the washed-up wreakcage of a second-rate covenant, I think that is a tragic mistake. I like Walter Kaiser’s view: that the particular commands of the Old Testament can (and should) be universalized, not dismissed as irrelevant relics. This is possible, Kaiser argues, because the particular commands of the Old Testament (and indeed, the entire Bible) find their root in God’s character, which is the unchanging basis for biblical ethics and morality.

It comes down to this: Is the Old Testament Law irrelevant now because God changed the rules? Or was it only ever relevant because it taught people how to live godly lives in their particular culture, in keeping with God’s character?

If it’s the former, we need to make darn sure we know what the new rules are, and follow them faithfully. If it’s the latter, we need to make darn sure we know who God is, and follow him faithfully, whatever that looks like in our context.

I am convinced it is the latter, and that the priciple applies to “rules” from both the Old Testament and the New. God is unchanging, transcending time and culture, and the gospel was meant to be contextualized, organically transforming every tongue and tribe and nation from the inside out. The particulars–church structure, organization of family, clan, or tribal systems, codes for dress and proper behavior–can and must change to suit culture, while remaining firmly rooted in who God is.

I’m not just splitting a theological hair here. This is absolutely crucial to engaging in God’s work in a rapidly changing society, and bringing the Good News to people who are different from us, people we may struggle to understand, and perhaps even struggle to love. (Consider the recent election, maybe?) How many millions, perhaps billions, have been turned away from the gospel because they thought it was a set of rules they could never follow with integrity, or a culture they could never truly belong to? We have mistaken the particular for the universal, called our rules God’s, and shut millions out of the Kingdom in the process.

For the sake of the gospel, we need to start disentangling our culture from our religion, and our religion from our relationship with God. Note that I didn’t need to say we need to give up our culture or our religion–far from it! Human beings were made to live within culture, and religious observance helps us to understand and experience God. Be we need to know the difference, so we can offer people Jesus without insisting they swallow our culture and church traditions as well.

What do you think? What role should Old Testament regulations play in our lives? New Testament instructions? There are many different opinions on this, so I’d love to hear what you think!


13 Responses to Are Old Testament Laws Obsolete? Kathy Keller, Rachel Held Evans, and the Kerfuffle Over “Biblical” Rules For Women.

  1. Morgan Guyton November 12, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Exactly. Thanks for making this point explicit. What the so-called “Biblical womanhood” people are doing is valorizing the aspects of 1st century Roman household codes that sync up with Eisenhower-era family values which is what they’re really invested in getting back to.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

      Absolutely. And those Eisenhower-era family values only ever applied to such a small group of people! It was my years in Africa that kept me from swallowing the “biblical womanhood” ideal, even when I was constantly innundated with it. No way the majority of African women could live out what was being described in those books and Bible studies, and no way was I writing off those strong, courageous women as somehow veering off God’s plan because their lives didn’t look like mine.
      There’s nothing really wrong with living in a bubble (we all do to some extent), as long as you know and acknowledge that it’s a bubble, and not the entire universe. Bubble-based Christianity is all to fragile, and easily popped.

  2. Melissa November 12, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    I love that you used the word kerfuffle! I also appreciated this post! Looking forward to part 2

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

      Thanks Melissa! And yeah–isn’t “kerfuffle” a great word? 😀

  3. Kathy November 12, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Yes it is SO important that we “start disentangling our culture from our religion, and our religion from our relationship with God.” We seem more than happy to do this when it comes to the Old Testament (clearly it is cultural to ‘stay outside the camp’ while menstruating) and with some parts of the New Testament (covering your heads while prophesying) but with other parts of the NT and then today – we find it nearly impossible to separate out the gospel from culture and religion. But it is absolutely vital that we do so otherwise the gospel is definitely not good news for a whole lot of people in other cultures. I’ve just finished reading Seth Gladdings, Story of God Story of us – a great way to step away from the detail and really see the whole story of God! Helps us understand what was really going on in the OT.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

      Sounds like a great book! I agree, being able to step back and look at the larger picture really helps us return to the details with a sharper focus. Ironically, “The New Testament World” by Bruce Malina really helped me understand the mindset behind the OT law–everything made so much more sense! I think OT culture is SO hard for modern westerners to understand, that it’s just easier to dismiss it. The epistles are easier for our Western minds to comprehend–or at least we think they are.

  4. Kelly J Youngblood November 12, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    Thank you for writing this. One thing I like to make people aware of is that if we look at the Exodus story, Moses is telling Pharoah to let Israel go in order to worship God. So, those first commandments were two things 1) a way to worship as a community and 2) obedience out of thanks, not obedience to “get” something. Christians are just generally lacking in knowledge about what the law was for and how Jews interpret it today. And even while I agree RHE didn’t *have* to follow those laws, I thought it was great that she did in order to show that “biblical” means a lot of different things.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 12, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      Absolutely. I think the foreignness of the OT makes it really hard for us to grasp what’s going on, especially when we move from narratives (because people are people) to things touching on the quirks of daily life in that culture. The law seems so arbitrary to us, and easy to dismiss, but it made perfect sense to them, and was an integral part of their culture. If we ignore that, we miss out on a deeper understanding of what God was doing and saying through those people.

      • Kelly J Youngblood November 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

        And so many people don’t realize that [Orthodox] Jews follow these laws *today* and that they do make concessions for the ones that can’t be followed. It’s like what we Christians like to call “Bible Application” 😉

  5. David of Johnston November 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    I used to really struggle with what most perceive as extraordinarily harsh repercussions of breaking OT law. I wondered often why it was so. It was harsh to me, too.

    The conclusion that I came to isn’t what the “times” were or even what the covenant was, but what changed after Jesus came, died, resurrected & ascended: He sent the Holy Spirit.

    If there is anything that defines the early church, it’s that they were constantly filled with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. He is the Divine Guide, the Counselor who nudges our conscience when we are doing wrong. Under the Mosaic covenant, the only guide was the law, and the only thing keeping one in line with the law was the fear of the repercussions of one’s actions. If there was abundant Grace like we have, but no Holy Spirit, they would probably have spiraled out of control faster than you can say, “debauchery.”

    You ask:
    “It comes down to this: Is the Old Testament Law irrelevant now because God changed the rules? Or was it only ever relevant because it taught people how to live godly lives in their particular culture, in keeping with God’s character?”

    This is what I think the answer is:
    It is relevant as ever, but without the need for the punishment system, for if we violate our own conscience, we testify against ourselves, as does the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, if we seek Him and His Holy Presence, we will walk in his ways and keep the law. Jesus fulfilled the law because it was impossible for us, but we can still walk in-line with the law under His Grace.
    “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33
    Growing up I always saw that scripture as a “Glorify God and you’ll get the things you wanted, live out the desires of your heart.
    Once I started looking at seeking fellowship with the Holy Spirit, I started to read that scripture differently, and it opened up a whole new world to me.

    The TL;DR of my post:
    Walking in the Spirit will keep you walking in line with the law.

  6. Tim November 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    David of J has it right. Walking inthe Spirit keeps us lined up with the will of God. (Galatians 5:16.)
    I would add that Paul told us clearly what the continuing usefulness of the law is “in order that sin might be recognized as sin.” (Romans 7:13.) He also said that for those of us who are in Christ, Jesus kept the requirements of the law for us: “one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. … through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Life in God is not about what we will do, but about what Jesus has already done.
    Then Paul told us what law there is left for us to follow: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10.) James, perhaps the most staunchly Jewish of all believers, agrees with him entirely: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.”
    That’s it, from what I understand in scripture. Love is the law we now follow in this New (and eternal) Covenant with God.

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