Homosexuality, Tattoos, & the Sabbath



(The FreeThinking Theist)


June 27, 2016

In a television episode of The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) is aggravated by a conservative female talk-radio personality who defends calling homosexuality an “abomination” by citing Leviticus 18:22 — “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This aggravates the liberal president who later notices her in the crowd at a speech he is giving and proceeds to ask her a few sharp and sarcastic questions as he compares homosexuality to other Old Testament laws:

I like how you call homosexuality an abomination… I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleaned the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?

Here’s one that’s really important ’cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town—touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean—Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?

Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?

I recently encountered several arguments demeaning the moral values of Christians like the ones previously mentioned. Typically this is due to the stance most evangelical churches have taken against gay marriage. Arguments, like Martin Sheen’s character offers, must be dealt with, and it raises an important question: How does the law given in the Old Testament apply today? In this essay, I discuss and defend two of several Biblical views a Christian might take towards these questions.

Preparation for this essay involved reading several books regarding this issue, including Five Views on Law and Gospel, edited by Wayne G. Strickland; From Sabbath to Lord’s Day by D.A. Carson; From Creation to the Cross by Alfred Baylis; Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan; Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World by Sean McDowell; and I also reviewed William Lane Craig’s articles regarding this topic from an apologist’s perspective. Two of the most common approaches to this subject are examined in detail in the “Five Views” book, edited by Strickland.

A Reformed Perspective

The first approach is called the Non-Theonomic Reformed View. This is essentially the stance I held before beginning this study. It states God’s moral law is unchanging, unveiled at creation, and continues to this day. The Old Testament Mosaic Law was an expression of God’s moral will, but was exclusively contextual to Israel as a nation. According to this view, when Jesus came to Earth He fulfilled only a portion of the law having nothing to do with morality; only laws particularly given to the Israelites. These laws are called “ritual laws,” or more specifically, “ceremonial and civil laws,” as well as the penal code that accompanied them. Jesus fulfilled this aspect of the Mosaic Law; however, He clarified and reiterated the moral law expressed in the Ten Commandments. The moral law was recorded in the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) and incorporated into the Mosaic Law. The ritual law has been fulfilled by Jesus and is no longer binding to Christians, however, the Decalogue still applies to us today.

This view holds that we are free from the Law of Moses, as it cannot condemn Christians because keeping the law does not justify us. Only the atoning work of Christ exhibited in His life, death, and resurrection, is sufficient for our justification.

A Modified Lutheran Perspective

The fifth view offered in the “Five Views” book, is the other covered in this essay called the “Modified Lutheran View.” Subscribers to this view contend the Law of Moses was a part of salvation history (one God, one plan, in one people, unfolding in successive and distinct stages) preceding Christ, and that if the Mosaic Law would have been kept perfectly, it could have offered salvation. Keeping the Law perfectly, however, was impossible, and therefore, only hypothetical. When Jesus came on the scene, He fulfilled the law. Jesus made no distinctions between the moral, ceremonial, and the civil laws. He simply stated He fulfilled the law. Therefore, followers of Christ today are set free from that law — all of it! The essence, character, and nature of God is unchanging; therefore, His morality and moral law is unchanging as well. This view clarifies that the moral law is not necessarily the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments as many church-goers assume. However, ninety percent of the Ten Commandments do reflect the moral law of God. This is because the New Testament reaffirms the Decalogue, sans the fourth commandment regarding the Sabbath.

Great moral commands are also reiterated by Jesus and found in the Mosaic Law but not in the Decalogue. For instance, consider what is known as “the Second Greatest Commandment.” This moral law says to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but this is not found in the Decalogue; it is right smack dab in between such commands as: “Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of materials.”[1]

The Modified Lutheran View states the Law of Moses revealed God’s character, and therefore, demanded humans conform to it. It revealed sin in our lives, and, therefore, enslaved humanity to the law, which Jesus later liberated us from as He fulfilled the law and set us free. Accordingly, followers of Christ do not look to the Mosaic Law to discover objective morality. Now we are bound to the law of Christ, provided by His teachings and examples, as well as those of His apostles in the New Testament. The Mosaic Law, however, is still important as it is useful for clarifying the principles of Christ’s law to His followers. In essence, for guidance in how a Christian ought to live, we only need to look at what is taught or exemplified in the New Testament by Jesus, His disciples, the Apostle Paul, and the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit.

These differing views each offer several salient points to consider. As I studied these contrasting approaches, I wrestled with what view ought to be inferred as best. Each option can clearly refute “the President’s challenges” presented at the beginning of this essay. Namely, how can a Christian condemn the act of homosexuality and not be hypocritical by, eating bacon, playing catch with the football without gloves, and even wearing a t-shirt made of cotton and polyester. Not to mention the rest of the “Levitical Laws!”

What about Tattoos?

In my early twenties, many people my age were getting tattoos. I was intrigued, wondering how, as a Christian, could I justify getting a tattoo myself. After all, Leviticus 19:28 specifically prohibits tattoos. I was perplexed. Many of my Christian friends were acquiring this body art. Were they in sin?

I called my pastor and asked him if getting a tattoo would be sinful. For the first time, I was offered an explanation for how the Old Testament law applies to me as a Christian today. His position was similar to the first view presented in this essay. That is to say, that the Law of Moses was divided into three different categories: moral, ceremonial, and civil laws. He told me the moral law was the Ten Commandments, and the ceremonial and civil laws were specific to the Israelites in order to protect them during their “forty-year camping trip” in the wilderness, as well as to separate them from the influence of pagan cultures.

He further explained that Jesus fulfilled the law through His atonement. Therefore, we are free from the Levitical laws. If I wanted a tattoo, I was free to get one! (I wound up getting five!) Moreover, he told me the only laws reaffirmed in the New Testament were the Ten Commandments, and we are even free from keeping those as they are powerless to acquire salvation, and therefore not keeping the law cannot take our salvation from us. However, we can still look at the Decalogue to make moral judgments; what is objectively right or wrong apart from our subjective opinions and emotions.

According to this doctrine, there is nothing morally wrong with getting a tattoo, eating bacon, wearing garments made of more than one material, or any of the other “weird” requirements that made the Israelites “unclean” in the Old Testament. Moreover, we can make definitive statements that murder, theft, lying, and adultery (which is then clarified by Jesus and Paul), is objectively and morally wrong! This explanation not only allows tattoos, but would also sufficiently correct the “Presidents” pompous challenges.

What about the Sabbath?

I liked this straightforward analysis. It made sense to me. However, I was confused as to what to do with the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” If the Decalogue is the unchanging moral law of God, how does one deal with the fact that Jesus seemed to change it? Many hypotheses have been offered. For example, Seventh Day Adventists believe we must continue to keep a day of rest on Saturday. Many evangelicals feel that the Sabbath is now to be observed on Sunday since that is the day of Christ’s resurrection. Others feel that since Jesus said in Mark 2:27, “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man,” we are not bound to a specific day, but we should rest one day per week not only because God “rested,” but also because it is good and healthy to do so. Basically, saying that keeping the Sabbath is wise, but not keeping it is not necessarily sinful.

Before delving into this topic, I had never heard of the “Modified Lutheran view,” advocated by Douglas Moo in the fifth chapter of “Five Views on Law and Gospel.” This view answers these challenges convincingly. Initially, I was uncomfortable with this view and that the Mosaic law is not divided into the three distinctions of moral, ceremonial, and civil laws. Upon deeper reflection however, this doctrine appears sound. After all, Jesus did not say He fulfilled only the ritual law, He said He fulfilled THE LAW! Each of the Mosaic Laws could be categorized into one of the three divisions according to their functionality; however, the Bible does not make any distinctions as to what specific laws Jesus supposedly abrogated.

If this is the case, we are not bound to the Ten Commandments! So, the question is raised: if this is so, how do Christ followers take a moral stance on any issue? The answer is found in the teachings and example of Jesus and His apostles. The Christian is free from the Mosaic Law including the Decalogue. However, Jesus and His apostles clarified and raised the standards of ninety percent of the Decalogue. Therefore, if we truly are Christ followers, we should follow Christ’s teachings. The one commandment Jesus did not reiterate was the Fourth Commandment regarding the Sabbath. Jesus never commanded anyone to keep the Sabbath. In fact, Scripture records Jesus doing many things on the Sabbath, but never “resting.” Consider the following example in Matthew 12:1-2: “Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’” Was this really the case?

Jesus never sinned, so obviously He did not morally break the Sabbath, or even allow His disciples to sin, by “harvesting” grain for an afternoon snack. However, according to the Law of Moses, in Exodus 34:21, the Sabbath seems to apply to this act. Therefore, the Pharisees must not have understood the Scriptures correctly. Jesus set them straight hermeneutically in Matthew 12:3-8, as He provided the example of David entering the house of God and eating the priest’s showbread, which was unlawful, yet David was never condemned for this act. Moreover, Jesus correctly pointed out that the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, yet they are deemed guiltless because they are doing something even more important than the Sabbath in their temple work. Jesus followed that analogy with a powerful statement in verses 6-8, “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.”

Additionally, in Matthew 5:17, Jesus 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.” If Jesus fulfilled the law, He fulfilled all of it. If He did abrogate the entire Mosaic Law, we are no longer bound by it. So how then shall we live? Do we have a “moral compass” to live by? Yes we do! We are free from keeping the Old Testament law, but as I mentioned earlier, if we are indeed “Followers of Christ,” then we ought to follow His teachings. Jesus said as much in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” This is known as “The Law of Christ.”

Jesus fulfilled and abrogated the law of the Old Testament, but the New Testament gives hundreds of commands given by Christ and the Apostles. In fact, it provides a high standard of morality that a Christ follower ought to live by; however, the New Testament never affirms the Christian must keep the Sabbath. Moreover, it never commands that we keep any of the “weird” laws that the “West Wing President” arrogantly challenges us with by comparing those laws to the Christian’s position that homosexual acts are objectively wrong.

What about Homosexuality?

Jesus made many commands, and in Matthew 19:18 He said, “You shall not commit adultery.” One could argue that adultery does not necessarily apply to the act of homosexuality. William Lane Craig responded to that argument:

The above also shows how silly it is when some homosexual advocates say, “Jesus never condemned homosexual behavior, so why should we?” Jesus did not specifically mention lots of things which we know to be wrong, like bestiality or torture, but that doesn’t mean he approved of them. What Jesus does do is quote from Genesis to affirm God’s pattern for marriage as the basis for his own teaching on divorce. In Mark 10.6-8, He says, “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become one flesh. Consequently, they are no longer two, but one flesh.” For two men to become one flesh in homosexual intercourse would be a violation of God’s created order and intent. He created man and woman to be indissolubly united in marriage, not two men or two women.

In addition, Paul makes it clear three times in the New Testament that the act of homosexuality is morally reprehensible in Romans 1:24-27, 1 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 6:9. Again, one could argue that Jesus never explicitly spoke against homosexuality, and therefore, who cares what the Apostle Paul says? However, in the New Testament, Luke wrote not only the Gospel of Luke, but also the continuation of that book in Acts. In Acts 9, Luke records Paul’s conversion to Christianity on the Road to Damascus. On that occasion, Jesus Christ Himself calls Paul to follow Him. “If Paul and Jesus are not in agreement, why would Jesus call Paul to be his apostle? Jesus is God in the flesh and would therefore know, and be aware of, all things in His risen state. Jesus would certainly have known what Paul would teach (God’s “middle knowledge”) which, it seems, is one of the reasons Jesus called him.”[2] Therefore, what Paul teaches is the “Law of Christ.” The Old Testament Law is still valuable, even though we are not bound by it any longer. It more fully illuminates what the New Testament reaffirms as moral law.


This final view is not only Biblically sound, but it also logically demonstrates how one can make statements about objective moral values like murder, lying, stealing, and homosexuality, and still not be bound to keeping the Sabbath, refraining from bacon and football, and even having the freedom to get tattoos.

This knowledge was invaluable recently when I met with some gay college students attending our church. I was able to speak the “truth in love” as I explained that the act of homosexuality is sinful according to the Bible, but their sins were no different in God’s eyes than the sins other church-goers may struggle with on a daily basis. I told them Jesus loved them and desires a personal relationship with them as they follow Him and are transformed by the Holy Spirit. I invited them to continue attending our church if they sincerely desired to follow Jesus. They felt grace as I explained why the homosexual lifestyle was sinful, but still invited them to follow Christ by my side. God is at work changing lives, and when we correctly understand how the Old Testament Law applies to Christ’s followers today, we are able to live more like Jesus in a world desperately needing to experience His love and grace.

Stay reasonable (Philippians 4:5),

Tim Stratton


[1] Albert H. Baylis, quoting Scripture from Leviticus, “From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the first Half of the Bible” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1996, page 126

[2] http://carm.org/questions/other-questions/did-jesus-and-paul-teach-same-thing (accessed 11-25-11)


About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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