Morality Ch. 2: Finding Fixed Morals for a Changing World

New Testament Christians act differently from Old Testament saints, so how can we know what is right for modern-day Christians? We can work it out, case by case, from the historical and biblical context.


The main question of this book is, Can we use the Bible as a basis for morality? Society and technology change so fast that any set of rules quickly becomes outdated. So how can a book that was written to be relevant a few thousand years ago provide rules that still apply today?

If you are someone who likes reasons and overarching theories about how things work, read on. If your mind works better with examples from real life, you might prefer to skip this chapter. You can always come back to it when you want to consider general principles.

Saying that the Bible is inspired doesn’t solve the problem. You may believe that the books of the Bible were written by clever people helping their own society to follow God. Or you may believe (as I do) that these writers were given supernatural help. In theory they could have been told what society would be like thousands of years later. But if they included rules for every society in every culture in every age, this would produce a very large and strange book. There would be too many ifs and buts!

Here’s an example of a Bible rule that seems clear at first glance but may require deeper scrutiny: Paul’s command for women to cover their heads in worship (1 Cor 11:5). An Australian told me about the surprise his friend had when he first preached in rural churches of Papua New Guinea, where they cope with the heat by wearing very minimal clothing. Some churches had a row of Western women’s hats just inside the door, so he got used to seeing topless women wearing incongruously ornate hats during the service in obedience to Paul’s command. Other churches didn’t have these hats, so the women, similarly topless, took off their skirts and put them over their heads when entering the church. They believed that all of God’s commands in the Bible are timeless, and there isn’t any specific command in the Bible about covering anything except the head.

We clearly need some way to identify which commands in the Bible should be obeyed at all times and which ones need to be adapted in different cultures.

6-minute summary

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Rule of love

Some people think that we can throw away all the commands in the Bible except one: love. Of course Jesus, Paul, and Augustine all said that love is a good summary of the commandments, but this didn’t stop Jesus from listing the Ten Commandments (Matt 19:18-19 = Mark 10:19 = Luke 18:20) or stop Paul from giving his congregations lots of specific teaching.

In the modern world, Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics argues this position well.1 He says that in every situation whatever results in the greatest love (which he equates roughly with justice and benefit to people) is what we should do. There are no set rules or commands that we can glean from the Bible because every situation is different, and specific rules will always be changeable. This sounds great until you get to specific, complex moral issues, or a situation where following the normal rule would have unintended bad consequences for other people. And it tends to result in a moral code that “feels right” to the individual because, after all, what seems more loving than free love?

Trying to identify timeless categories

For those of us who regard God’s revelation in the Bible as important, we need to find some way to distinguish commands that were made for a certain time or culture from those that are timeless – the ones that apply in every culture. We don’t want to pick and choose the commands we’d like to obey; we want to know which ones we should obey and which ones don’t apply to us now. So we need a rule by which we can decide which commands are timeless.

One common method is to divide Bible commands into different categories, such as
1. Social rules for behavior, which warrant shame if broken
2. Religious observances, which warrant a sin offering (and perhaps punishment)
3. Criminal laws, which warrant punishment by the state

We wouldn’t expect the social rules to be timeless because they depend on the norms of society. And we know that religious observances aren’t timeless because the Old Testament rites were fulfilled by Jesus. However, we do expect criminal laws to be timeless because things such as murder are always wrong in any society.

So far, this looks like a good, objective method for identifying timeless commands. But this neat solution breaks down as soon as we attempt to put particular commands into those categories. Here are some examples that we’ll be looking at later, from both the Old and New Testaments:
1. Social rules: honoring parents, deference to older people, women’s head covering
2. Religious observances: Sabbath rest, sacrifices, no idolatry, Jews marry only Jews
3. Criminal laws: polygamy, adultery, rape, manslaughter, charging interest, slavery

We can immediately see some problems. We would expect the social rules to vary in different societies, but even this short list includes two that we’d expect to find in absolutely all societies: honoring parents and deference to older people. We would also expect religious observances to vary in different cultures, but these include commands that we’d expect everywhere, such as prohibiting idolatry. And we would expect criminal laws in the Bible to be timeless so that they would apply in every culture, but the Bible includes laws that regulate things we wouldn’t want to promote in any culture, such as polygamy and slavery.

Perhaps we can solve this by refining our selection process. We could, for example, decide that the New Testament determines whether a command is timeless. In that case, we could assume that social and religious laws become timeless if they are reaffirmed in the New Testament, and that criminal laws are only regarded as timeless if they are reaffirmed in the New Testament.

In that case, our refined selection would leave us with:
1. Social rules: honoring parents, deference to older people, women’s head covering
2. Religious observances: Sabbath rest, sacrifices, no idolatry
3. Criminal laws: adultery, slavery

This refinement to our selection process has solved a lot of our problems, though not all of them. We wanted to include honoring parents and deference to older people as rules for every society, and this succeeds in doing that, because they are affirmed in the New Testament (Matt 19:18 = Mark 10:19 = Luke 18:20; 1 Pet 5:5). However, this new selection also includes women’s head coverings, so by this selection process we’d have to accept this as a timeless command because it is affirmed in the New Testament (1 Cor 11:5-6, 10, 13).

With regard to religious observances, the New Testament refers to worship on the Sabbath by Christians (Acts 13:14, 42; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). Also (surprisingly), Temple sacrifices were still being used by at least some Christians in the New Testament. Christians such as Peter continued visiting the Temple, and Paul even made the sacrifices needed for ending a Nazirite vow, paying for these sacrifices for some other Jewish Christians (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 18:18; 21:26). Paul and others said it was wrong to rely on sacrifices for salvation, but there was clearly nothing wrong with using sacrifices as a way to worship God (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:10; 5:3-6; Heb 10:1-10). So, seeing that sacrifices are commanded in the Old Testament and carried out by New Testament Christians, by this selection process we’d have to conclude that sacrifices are included in the timeless commands from God.

We have similar results with criminal laws. If we refine their selection by saying that they need to be reaffirmed in the New Testament, this removes some problems but not all of them. Polygamy isn’t affirmed in the New Testament – indeed, Jesus abrogates it.2 And the law against charging interest isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, so we don’t have to close all our bank accounts because we can conclude that this law isn’t timeless. However, the New Testament doesn’t mention the Old Testament laws against rape and doesn’t distinguish between murder and manslaughter, which would imply that these laws aren’t timeless either (Deut 4:42, 19:4-5; 22:25-27). Yet I can’t imagine any society where these laws aren’t needed.

No doubt we could continue to tinker with the selection criteria until we are finally left with a sensible list of timeless commands. But the more tinkering we do, the more it would become obvious that we are choosing which ones to keep and then fixing the criteria in order to select them. In other words, we are cheating, because we are doing the same as picking and choosing the ones we like best.

In this book I will attempt to use another method. This method also aims to be objective, but takes into account the cultural context for the commands.

Bible commands in their context

This book will seek to find out which biblical commands are timeless by examining their effect in the culture of the time in which they were given. Having done that, it should be possible to work out how to achieve those same purposes today. Discovering the purposes behind the commands is really important, because we can assume that God’s purposes are eternal, though the means by which to carry out a given purpose in different societies may vary.

We can discover the purpose of a command by looking at the original culture. In particular, we see that some commands are countercultural – that is, God’s people were expected to live differently from other people in that same culture. But other commands reflect the best of the current culture – that is, they identified and commended the good rules and norms of the society that these believers lived in. This difference is important, because we’d expect countercultural commands (such as rejecting idolatry) to be timeless, but culture-reflecting commands (such as women covering their heads) would not necessarily apply in another culture. This method is being increasingly used by those working with Bible ethics, partly because it takes the background of the Bible seriously and partly because it works.3

Some quick examples will help to illustrate this. The various chapters in this book explore many other examples in detail.

Countercultural commands. An example of a countercultural command is the one against idolatry. The Bible consistently forbids idolatry throughout both Testaments, and this contrasted with the prevailing cultures throughout Bible times. The societies surrounding Israel in the Old Testament and the Roman society in which New Testament Christians lived were full of idols and their worshipers. This is a command that we would expect to apply in any culture, whether other people agreed with it or not.

In most Western societies it is easy to obey this command, because hardly anyone worships idols in the way that ancient people did. However, it can be very difficult in some rural African societies, because rejecting idolatry and the associated religions will cut you off from the witch doctors, and they may be your only source of herbs and medical advice in a rural situation.

In general, countercultural commands are timeless. If believers were called to make a stand against the culture they lived in by doing the opposite of what most other people were doing, then this is likely to be very important to God’s purposes. Believers should regard this as God’s message to them that they should stand up against those who do not obey this command.

Universal, culture-reflecting commands. The Bible has many commands that reflect the cultures of both Old Testament and New Testament times and also cultures in our own times. For example, all these cultures have rules against theft, murder, adultery, and so on.

Societies might define these things differently, of course. Some cultures do not consider it murder if you are avenging the murder of a family member, and some cultures expect the leader of a family to carry out a capital sentence on family members – the Roman society of New Testament times expected this. Similarly, some cultures do not regard it as stealing if you take something from a thief who has stolen from you, but this could land you in jail in most modern societies. Adultery is considered wrong in almost all cultures, but few today would regard it as a criminal offense.

Nevertheless, putting aside these differences in detail, we will find that if a command in the Bible agrees with that found in all societies, including our own, it is timeless. We should regard it as part of God’s natural revelation to the whole of humanity, which we should always obey.

Identifying commands that are not timeless

The commands in the two groups above (countercultural commands and universal, culture-reflecting commands) are all likely to be timeless. Commands that are already universally followed by all societies will no doubt apply in all future societies. And we would expect countercultural commands to be timeless because if God asked his people to act completely differently from those living around them – a difference that might even endanger them – we’d expect this to be important enough to apply in every society.

The only possible exception would be if a countercultural stand achieved a purpose in that society that could be achieved in a different way in another society. For example, the Methodists and Salvation Army took a countercultural stand against alcohol when it was ruining society, with the purpose of helping prevent addiction, but many would argue that this stand no longer achieves that purpose. This stand against alcohol was not, of course, commanded in the Bible, but it shows that it is possible that a countercultural command may not be timeless. I can’t think of an example in the Bible, but we should be aware that this is a theoretical possibility.

Commands that don’t fit into either of the two categories above are the most interesting ones, because they are likely to not be timeless. To decide whether they are timeless, we have to carefully consider their purpose in the original culture and ask whether they still fulfill that same purpose in our culture.

Nonuniversal, culture-reflecting commands. A command may reflect one set of cultures, but not others. For example, dress codes vary dramatically even within the modern world. In many parts of the world it is indecent for a woman to show the skin of her legs or arms, but in other countries it is OK, and on most beaches she can show almost all of her skin.

It is clearly a good idea to follow the dress codes of the culture you live in. Western women who visit traditional Arab countries are expected to cover up, though not necessarily to the same extent as locals. If you are hoping to evangelize in those countries, you will certainly want to fit in with the culture as much as possible so that your message isn’t rejected out of hand as a “foreign” religion. If this kind of culture-reflecting command did exist in the Bible, we’d certainly want to follow it in cultures that this command reflected.

But would a command that reflects some cultures in Bible times always apply in other cultures? In this case, if there were a culture-reflecting command in the Bible that a woman may not reveal any of her leg or foot, would all Christian women have to wear trousers and socks? This is a live and contentious issue because Paul tells Corinthian believers that women should cover their heads (1 Cor 11). This reflected the Roman culture of the time, so it could be regarded as a nonuniversal, culture-reflecting rule. But it might also be one that should be applied universally – how could we decide?

Before looking at the method used to solve this, let’s acknowledge another set of commands that cause problems: the changeable ones.

Changeable commands. Sometimes God appears to change his mind, as we saw in the previous chapter. In the Old Testament, believers could marry more than one wife or volunteer to be a slave. But in the New Testament Jesus argues against polygamy, and Paul says you shouldn’t seek to be a slave (1 Cor 7:23).4

The biggest group of changeable commands are those concerning how to worship God and how to live in holiness. The Old Testament commands about sacrifices and purification rites such as immersion and sprinkling with blood are clearly not commanded in the New Testament. Christians were allowed to continue sacrificing in the Temple while it remained standing, but no sacrifices were commanded. Christians didn’t have to bathe before worship, even if they had been in the same building as a corpse or if they had touched a menstruating woman. Even the food laws lapsed.

If we assume that God didn’t actually change his mind, this means that these commandments didn’t represent the actual purpose that God wanted to achieve. They were the means toward achieving another purpose.

For example, the worship of God changed from outward rites to inner spirituality. The reason was the Holy Spirit: as a result of Jesus’ death, believers could be clean enough to have the Holy Spirit within them. So the emphasis shifted from outward purity to inner purity by moral lifestyles and by immediate confessing of any sins that did occur. These different sets of commands in the Old and New Testaments achieved the same purpose: believers could worship God in the closest and most personal way possible at the time.

Similarly, the changing laws of polygamy achieved a consistent purpose – they enabled the maximum number of people to find comfort and security in marriage. In the Old Testament there were too few men, especially during times of war, so without polygamy many women would have been left unsupported. By New Testament times, the numbers of men and women were roughly equal. This meant that rich men could have more than one wife, and many poor men were left on their own. Forbidding polygamy put that right. So the command had to change when the circumstances changed, otherwise it wouldn’t achieve God’s changeless purpose.

How do we decide the commands for our culture?

Timeless commands are therefore
1. Countercultural commands, by which believers are told to stand out and live differently from the culture around them
2. Universal, culture-reflecting commands, by which believers are told to emulate the universal moral rules found in all cultures

Other commandments are not timeless, although the purposes of God that they attempt to promote are timeless:
1. Nonuniversal, culture-reflecting commands, by which believers are told to emulate some aspects of the culture they live in that aren’t found universally in all cultures
2. Changeable commands, by which the Bible’s teaching changes from one time or place to another

When commands aren’t timeless, we can still look for the timeless purpose of God behind those commands. This is the method that is applied in later chapters of this book. All believers want to achieve the purposes of God, but this can’t be done by blindly following whatever was commanded in the past in different circumstances and cultures. If that same purpose is still achieved by following the same command, then it still applies, but if the same purpose is achieved by a different route, we should consider that.

For nonuniversal, culture-reflecting commands, we have to look at each one on a case-by-case basis. This isn’t straightforward, but it isn’t too difficult either.

For example, if a command did exist in the Bible about covering women’s legs, the context might indicate that this conformed with a common code of decency, so it would hinder evangelism if that rule were ignored. If this were the purpose, and God’s purposes don’t change, we’d have to consider whether that command still fulfilled the same purpose in our culture. It seems very unlikely that evangelism would be aided if all Christians dressed in strange clothing. So, in this hypothetical example, it seems unlikely that this command should be followed in all cultures.

For changeable commands, we can also assume that God has an unchanging purpose that can be achieved by different commands in different contexts. Here too, we have to identify the purpose that those commands were achieving in their original context and discover which command would achieve that same purpose within the context of our culture.

The two tests for timelessness

We now have two tests that we can apply to any command we find in the Bible. We can ask
1. Is this command expressed or implied in the same way throughout the Bible?

In practice this usually means comparing the Old and New Testaments. Sometimes the absence of the equivalent command in one or the other will be incidental, but we have to be open to the possibility that its absence indicates that it no longer applies. The absence of a law against rape in the New Testament is probably because no one needed to be told that this was wrong, but the absence of laws about leprosy implies they no longer apply.

If a command is found in both Testaments, it is most likely a timeless command, especially if the answer to the second question is also positive.
2. Is this command countercultural in at least one situation?

The command may be countercultural only for ancient Israel, or only for New Testament Christians, though usually it will be countercultural in both situations. That God’s people are expected to follow this command in spite of the culture they are in implies that they would be expected to follow it in every other culture.

This process of asking two questions sounds simple, and often it is. But there can be disagreements about what the purpose of the command was in the original culture. Sometimes the Bible does not tell us enough about the culture – after all, why should it, seeing as it was originally written for people who were living in that culture and didn’t need to be told? So we often have to do some work and research that culture.

So it is both easy and hard, exciting and frustrating – but it is worth doing if we want to fulfill the purposes of God.




1^ Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).
2^ See chapter 11, “Jesus Outlawed Polygamy.”
3^ See Volker Rabens, “The Bible and Ethics: Pathways for Dialogue,” In die Skriflig 51, no. 3 (2017) (TinyURL.com/BibleEthics).
4^ Some people did this in order to become a Roman citizen after being freed from slavery.



This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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