Why We Are Not Bound by Everything in the Old Law


The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance ask on their Web site (religioustolerance.org), "If we hold to Leviticus’ statements as being a blanket condemnation of homosexuality, do we then also obey the rest of the old law?"

They go on to explain with examples:

  • "If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married." (Deut. 24:5). Does ANYONE keep this law? Could you manage a whole year without a paycheck?
  • "Do not hate your brother in your heart." (Lev. 19:17). Don’t hate your siblings, even while growing up, or else you have broken the entirety of the law.
  • "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." (Lev. 19:27). Don’t shave! Ever!

It seems that the Ontario Consultants wish to make the following point: Since Christians do not follow to the letter every one of the 613 laws found in the Old Testament, we should not expect those who suffer from same-sex attraction to observe Old Testament laws on homosexuality.

Meanwhile . . .

On another front, the Eternal Gospel Church in West Palm Beach, Florida (a Seventh-day Adventist group) takes out full-page ads in newspapers around the country condemning Sunday worship in favor of Saturday worship. One such ad reports, "Church officials met . . . to establish Sunday as the official religion throughout all of Christianity, and to excommunicate and persecute those who kept the seventh-day Sabbath."

This action is then pitted against Exodus 20:10, which requires keeping holy the Sabbath day—Saturday—not Sunday, the church says.

It seems that the Eternal Gospel Church believes that the early Church had no authority to designate Sunday as a Christian day of worship when God so clearly had already set aside Saturday for that purpose. Their stance, in contrast to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, apparently, is that at least some Old Testament laws are binding on Christians.

With all this confusion what are we to do? Scrap all Old Testament laws? Observe all of them? Pick and choose?

Jesus, the Law’s Fulfillment

The answer is: none of the above. Old Testament law, as such, is not binding on Christians. It never has been. In fact, it was only ever binding on those to whom it was delivered—the Jews (Israelites). That said, some of that law contains elements of a law that is binding on all people of every place and time. Jesus and Paul provide evidence of this in the New Testament.

Matthew’s Gospel enlightens us to Jesus’ teaching concerning Old Testament law:

[A Pharisee lawyer] asked him a question, to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Matt. 22:34-40)

In saying this, Jesus declared the breadth of the new law of his new covenant which brings to perfection the old law. He explained further to his disciples:

"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:17-19)

How could Jesus fulfill the Old Testament law without relaxing it? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The Law has not been abolished, but rather man is invited to rediscover it in the person of his Master who is its perfect fulfillment" (CCC 2053).

A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture explains,

The solemnity of our Lord’s opening pronouncements and his clear intention of inaugurating a new religious movement make it necessary for him to explain his position with regard to the [Old Testament law]. He has not come to abrogate but to bring it to perfection, i.e. to reveal the full intention of the divine legislator. The sense of this "fulfilling" . . . is the total expression of God’s will in the old order . . . Far from dying . . . the old moral order is to rise to a new life, infused with a new spirit. (861)

 How Jesus Perfects OT Law

Old Testament law included many dietary regulations which were instituted as a preparation for his teaching on the moral law. Jesus discussed these laws:

"Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him." And when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:14-19)

The Catechism explains, "Jesus perfects the dietary law, so important in Jewish daily life, by revealing its pedagogical meaning through a divine interpretation . . . What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . ." (CCC 582). Paul taught similarly concerning other Old Testament law:

[L]et no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon . . . These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ . . . Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:16-17; 20-23)

In this passage we can see that Paul recognized that much of the Old Testament law was instituted to set the stage for the new law that Christ would usher in. Much of the old law’s value could be viewed in this regard.

Jesus’ teaching about the Sabbath indicates similar value in part of the Old Testament regulation of the Sabbath:

Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath." He said to them, "Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath." (Matt. 12:1-8)

Clearly, Jesus indicated that he—not the Old Testament—had authority over the Sabbath, and its regulation was not as rigid as the Pharisees thought. In fact, once Jesus would endow the hierarchy of his Church with his own authority (Matt. 16:19; 18:18), regulation of worship would become the domain of the Church.

The Law That’s Rooted in Reason

It is important to point our here that the obligation to worship is something all people of every place and time can know simply through the use of reason. It is knowledge built into the human conscience as part of what is called the "natural law." Paul makes note of such law when discussing those of his own time who were never bound by Old Testament law: "When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts . . ." (Rom. 2:14-15a).

The Ten Commandments are often cited as examples of the natural law. Christians are obliged to follow the laws cited in the Ten Commandments not because they are cited in the Ten Commandments—part of Old Testament law—but because they are part of the natural law—for the most part.

Certainly we can know by reason alone that certain actions are immoral—e.g., to kill the innocent, to take what does not belong to us, to cheat on our spouses, etc.

Similarly, we can know by reason alone that we are obliged to worship our Creator. But can we really know in the same way that such worship should take place on Saturday every week? Of course not! That part of the Sabbath commandment is not part of the natural law at all but was simply a law imposed upon the Jews for the discipline of their nation. Other people had the authority to choose for themselves the time they set aside for worship. For Christians now, it makes sense to do this on Sunday.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains,

The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship as a sign of his universal beneficence to all. Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people. (CCC 2176)

Old Testament law required, as a discipline, that the Jews worship on Saturday. Similarly, the Church obliges Catholics to worship on Sunday, the day of the Lord’s Resurrection.

Like the majority of the law found in the Ten Commandments, the Church’s teaching on the immorality of homosexual activity is part of the natural law. People of every time and place can know this through reason alone and are bound by it even without explicit teaching on it. It wasn’t absolutely necessary for God to include such teaching in Old Testament law, nor was it absolutely necessary to include it in the New Testament. Even so, the New Testament contains ample teaching in this regard. (For a fuller treatment of this issue, see "Homosexuality," This Rock, April 2006.)

The Law That Binds

So, to answer the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance and the Eternal Gospel Church, Christians are bound to the law of Christ which, of course, includes the natural law.

Old Testament law contains elements of natural law—e.g., the condemnation of homosexual activity—to which Christians are bound for that reason, not because of their inclusion in the Old Testament. Christians do not have liberty on these issues.

Also, Christians are not and have never been bound by Old Testament law for its own sake, and those elements of Old Testament law which are not part of the natural law—e.g., the obligation to worship on Saturday —were only ever binding on the Jews. Christians do have liberty on those issues.


Jim Blackburn is a cradle Catholic who was born and raised in Illinois. After graduating from Southern Illinois University, Jim ran his own brokerage firm for twelve years. During that time, he studied Catholicism and other faiths, eventually becoming an apologist for Catholic Answers. In...

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 10.