We will probably agree that what is appropriate in God's sight at one particular point in time may not be appropriate at another. As the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1). At one time it is appropriate to kill, at another to heal. At one time it is appropriate to break down, at another to build up (Ecclesiastes 3:3).
God's word for humanity at the beginning of creation was "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28). It does not follow that this command should be implemented in the same way today when the world suffers from overpopulation and from a shortage of clean air and pure water.
Paul commanded the women at Corinth to cover their heads when praying (1 Corinthians 11:5). For a long time, the church therefore insisted that women wear head covering in church, and in some churches that is still the unwritten rule. Most of us now think that, while there must have been a good reason why Paul considered it inappropriate for women to uncover their heads in church, such a reason no longer exists, so that women who today go to church without a hat do not need to fear God's displeasure.
Similarly, although Paul counselled the women at Corinth to keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), most of us are convinced that today women should be welcomed to participate in the life of the congregation on an equal footing with men. For the majority of Lutherans that includes the option to be ordained into the pastoral ministry.
Let us take a few more examples in order to help clarify the issue. In Leviticus 19:11–19, we have a long list of commands and prohibitions. Most of us will agree that some of these are still in force while others no longer apply. We still regard it as wrong that a person should steal, lie, oppress the neighbour, slander or hate one's brother or sister. But we don't think that it is obligatory any longer to pay hired help before nightfall (19:13b). We see nothing wrong any longer with interbreeding horses with donkeys to produce mules, or with wearing clothing made of 50% wool and 50% cotton, all of which is clearly forbidden in Leviticus 19:19. While intercourse with a menstruating woman is clearly forbidden in Leviticus 18:19, few of us would call it a violation of God's will today.
One more example. There is a definite commandment to keep the seventh day of the week holy (Exodus 21:8–11). We think that H. W. Armstrong of The Plain Truth was correct when he kept pointing out to the churches that this commandment has never been officially abrogated by God. Our Seventh Day Adventist friends at the Lutheran World Federation consultation a few years ago made the same point, and they reminded us that for them the celebration of the seventh day is not negotiable.
However we disagree that it is therefore inadmissible for Christians today to celebrate Sunday rather than the sabbath. Lutherans and most other Christians contend that the early Christians were entirely correct when they recognized that in Jesus someone greater than the law had come and that Christians should celebrate the day of Christ's resurrection (the first day of the week) as far more important than the day of God's rest following the completion of creation (the seventh day). In his Catechism, Luther emphasizes that the Third Commandment is not concerned with the legalistic observance of a particular day, but with the joyful hearing of God's word on any and every day.
All of this now raises a difficult question. How does one decide which Biblical regulations still apply and which do not? By what right and on what principles do we say that Leviticus 19:19 (forbidding the interbreeding of different kinds of animals and the mixing of various seeds, as well as the blending of different fabrics) no longer applies, and that Leviticus 19:20 (requiring a guilt offering for intercourse with a female slave) applies only in part, at best? How can we argue that Leviticus 19:13a (against stealing and defrauding) still applies but 19:13b (paying labourers before sundown) does not? What allows us to say that Leviticus 19:18 (the instruction to love one's neighbour and not to take revenge) is still in force, but 19:26 (eating any meat with its blood) is no longer? We agree that one should not cause one's daughter to become a prostitute (Leviticus19:29), but we disregard the instructions against shaving (Leviticus 19:27) and tattooing (Leviticus 19:28). It seems that we are just following our own intuition as we pick and choose to obey whatever commandment appeals to us.
It has been customary to deal with this conundrum by distinguishing between cultic and moral laws. It was said that the cultic laws, those which have to do with worship, are no longer in force, while the moral laws, those regulations which have to do with community responsibilities, continue to be obligatory.
By and large this is a useful distinction, but it is not always a helpful one. Very often cultic regulations have moral dimensions and moral laws have cultic implications. One cannot neatly distinguish between worship and moral life. Furthermore when we examine the list of commandments and prohibitions in Leviticus, it becomes clear that there are even some moral laws which we now regard as no longer binding. For example, we no longer insist on paying a labourer before sundown, as Leviticus 19:13b demands. We expect that people are able to budget so that there is no longer any need for paying the wage every day at quitting time.
What is more, the biblical writers certainly did not distinguish between cultic and moral laws. That is evident already from the way in which they mix the two categories of laws in almost helter-skelter fashion (read again Leviticus 19:11–19). Anyway, where is it ever stated that cultic law is abrogated while moral law is not? How useful are the adjectives "cultic" and "moral" when applied to rules for living? The terms certainly are not biblical. On what basis, then, do we declare some regulations in force and others not?
However the main point is that all of us do consider some regulations as still binding and others as superseded. Assuming that scripture prohibits homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13), is this to be regarded as a timeless or as a temporally limited prohibition? While Leviticus 18:22 forbids homosexual behaviour, it also prohibits sexual intercourse with one's wife while she has her period. Would anyone be prepared to argue that sexual intercourse before the completion of the menstrual period is still to be regarded as an offense against the will of God? If not, should one then be consistent and plead for the toleration of homosexual behaviour as well? The matter is far from simple.
In a 1973 article in Christianity Today, "Homosexuals and the Church," Harold Lindsell is afraid that if you let one sin go, all sins will become acceptable. The Church must not admit those whom God excludes. Therefore Lindsell maintains that homosexuality must be rejected. To be logical he should also exclude such things as intercourse during the menstral period and the interbreeding of horses and donkeys.
The other passage which rejects homosexual behaviour (Leviticus 20:13) also forbids liaisons which we would still avoid today, and it imposes the death penalty for all of these affairs (Leviticus 20:10–16). Yet even here very few of us would be ready to follow the regulations to the letter. Hardly anyone today would still punish both the adulterer and the adulteress with death, in spite of the clear instructions of Leviticus 20:10.
Some conclude that if we begin to tolerate what formerly was prohibited in the Bible we are no longer faithful to the Scriptures. Others argue that these scripture passages were not intended to be applied literally at all times. Who is right? And what does all of this have to say about the question before us? What ought to be a Christian's attitude toward gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons? Even if scripture does reject homosexual acts, does this mean that such acts must always and under all circumstances be rejected? How does one interpret the imperatives in the Bible? That is the question.