If you’ve ever debated a biblical topic, chances are you’ve been accused of “cherry-picking.” To cherry-pick is to select and apply only those verses which advance your argument, while at the same time, ignoring all others. For instance, Leviticus condemns both the eating of pork and the practice of homosexuality – so we often hear objections like, “You can’t tell me homosexuality is wrong, if you ate bacon for breakfast.” In short, “cherry-picking” is the charge of hypocrisy. So, are Christians guilty?
The Bible is more than a series of random commands. No sentence was written in order to be isolated from its original context. Every verse must be read in light of its chapter; every chapter, its book; and every book, the Bible as a whole. Failure to recognise this principle will no doubt result in both misunderstandings and misapplications.
Take Genesis 6:14 for example. The verse contains a command from God: “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.” Now, I’ve never met a person who thought Christians were under divine obligation to build an ark and fill it with two of every animal. In this instance, the reason for the lack of confusion is simple: knowledge. We all basically know the story of Noah’s Ark. And so, we’re all aware, the command has context. God is speaking to a specific person (i.e. Noah), at a specific time (i.e. pre-flood). The same can be said of all the Old Testament commands that Christians are often accused of ignoring.
Just like the command given to Noah, there are other laws that were written to specific people (e.g. the nation of Israel), at a specific time (e.g. pre-Christ). That’s not to say these commands are now irrelevant, but simply that we ought to read them in their proper context. We have very little difficulty doing that with Noah. Take for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647):
“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.”1
So, why are Christians often accused of “cherry-picking” – Leviticus 18:22, in particular? To put it simply, some commands have a New Testament context for it. When Jesus rose from the dead, he instituted a new and better covenant in place of Leviticus (Gal. 3:19, 24; Heb. 8:6). The New Covenant, however, does not exclude every aspect of the old – murder and adultery are still wrong. In fact, in Matthew 5, Jesus amplifies these Old Testament laws by equating hatred with murder and lust with adultery.
In a number of places, Jesus makes reference to “sexual immorality” – the word is porneia. The term porneia did not exist in a vacuum, devoid of meaning, with no attachment to any particular sexual practices. The word had a clear definition, and for Jesus and his listeners, that definition came from the Old Testament, including Leviticus. Just as Leviticus was first written for a specific people (i.e. Israel), at a specific time (i.e. pre-Christ), so too are Jesus’ teachings recorded for a specific people (i.e. the Church), at a specific time (i.e. post-resurrection).