Moral Questions

Moral Questions of the Bible:

Timeless Truth in a Changing World

How do we determine which moral rules are for a specific culture, and which ones are applicable in all cultures, including ours? Charting differences in Old and New Testament laws reveals God's unchanging purposes in the context of different societies. We can then identify ethical rules that achieve those same purposes today.

Practical ethics are based on moral principles, such as equality, individual rights, avoiding cruelty etc, and they don't change. Biblical laws and Christian preaching are crafted to move people from the way they act now to how they should behave. Because circumstances change, these methods will change.

Laws in the Old Testament are sometimes different from those in the New Testament, because they are designed to influence societies separated by a millennium or more. But they all have the same purpose, because God's purposes don't change with time. To discover the timeless moral principles in the Bible, we need to understand the lifestyles of those for whom the Bible's message was first written.

Two questions reveal whether a rule in the Bible is meant to be timeless or not:
Does the rule change within the Bible itself?    - If not, we should assume it is timeless.
Does the rule stand against the culture of its time?  - If so, we should assume it is timeless.  
This book applies these questions to a wide range of issues facing us today. 


Taking the Bible Seriously

• Can God's Law Change?

God doesn't change his mind, but he sometimes has to change his methods to achieve the same purpose. Laws that worked in the Old Testament world can have a detrimental effect today.

• Finding Fixed Morals for a Changing World

New Testament Christians act differently to 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.

• Focusing on the Purposes Behind the Laws

The Psalmist loves God's commands, but they can become a burden when applied wrongly. Jesus criticised Pharisaic stringency, but the church soon started down similar paths.


• Abortion and Infanticide

In Bible times, babies were killed just after birth instead of just before. Newly converted Gentile Christians were given only four absolute moral prohibitions – including a condemnation of this practice.
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• Rebellious Children

Paul disqualified church leaders whose children were disorderly. Unlike Roman parents, we are no longer responsible for legally punishing crimes by those in our household. So what is our role when children rebel?
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• Childlessness

The Bible appears to be full of miraculous babies, but there is also childlessness. Unlike other literature of the time, the Bible doesn't blame the parents, but recognises their sadness. Jesus proposed a solution which helps, but doesn't remove the sadness.
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• Should Girls Be Educated?

An educated woman in NT times was regarded as haughty and most probably immoral. Christians therefore had to be circumspect about educating women. If Paul and Jesus hadn't encouraged this, would the church be like the Taliban?
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Sex and Marriage

• Sexual Immorality

Can a converted sexual hedonist ever feel clean again? Most New Testament converts came from a more licentious lifestyle than a porn star. They found a solution.
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• Homosexuality

The Bible strongly condemned same-sex hedonism and changing one's sexuality. What would it have said about same-sex faithfulness practiced today and about people born different?
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• Sex During Singleness

The Rabbis, like most religious leaders, warned against masturbation. Chad Varah who founded the Samaritans controversially counselled it as a release for sexual frustration. What does the Bible say? Actually, nothing!
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• Jesus Outlawed Polygamy

Jesus used the same Old Testament text to teach monogamy as used by the Jews of the Diaspora and at Qumran. Polygamy had been useful in times of war for childless widows, but now it was causing hardship.
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• No-Fault Divorce

Jesus was asked about divorce for 'Any Cause' – a new popular type of no-fault divorce. Jesus rejected it, but he didn't reject the Old Testament grounds for divorce: adultery, abuse and abandonment.
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• Marrying Nonbelievers

Many in the Old Testament married non-Jews, but Paul clearly forbade marrying non-believers – perhaps because all Romans had to share the religion of their spouse. Does this rule still hold today?
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• Wifely Submission

Rebellion against the patriarch was considered immoral in Roman society, so Christian wives and slaves were told to submit for the sake of the gospel. The situation has changed, so should Christian lifestyle change?
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Church Problems

• Female Leaders

Paul concluded that females were uneducated and thereby too gullible to lead a church. His conclusion was sensible, and so was his proposed solution: to educate them. He'd be surprised that women are now well educated, but they are still kept out of leadership.
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• Self-Promoting Leaders

Jesus and Paul severely criticised those who liked important titles and advertised their impressive achievements. This is uncomfortable in today's corporate life and professionally-written CVs.
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• Conversion or Tolerance?

The Bible appears very intolerant of other religions, and urges them to convert. Actually, it only condemns dangerous and destructive aspects of other religions. Though, admittedly, Christians want everyone to find Jesus.
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• Church Discipline

Paul told Christians to avoid Roman courts, so modern child-abuse went unreported. Jesus showed the true role of church discipline was to help reform and prevent exclusion, not to deal with criminals.
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Personal Vices

• Racism

Moses was almost deposed by a race-riot when he married a black woman. Jesus' sermon at Nazareth concerned racism. The church listened, and the first gentile convert was black. And yet very few sermons today address racism.
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• Alcohol and Other Drugs

Drink is common in the Bible, but it only condemns drunks. What about those who can't cope with moderation? And what about other drugs? The Bible has some clear guidelines.
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• Is Gluttony a Sin?

In the Old Testament they killed gluttons and in the church it became a 'mortal sin'. So why doesn't the New Testament take it so seriously, and why don't we?
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• Can You Ever Tell a Lie?

Do we criticise the Magi for not telling Herod about the baby, as they'd promised? Ananias & Sapphira's lie got them killed. Is perjury different? Must your Yes always mean Yes?
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• Crude Language

The Bible has many phrases we can't translate literally because they'd cause offense or giggling. Some authors, like Paul, also use offensive language we'd consider too strong today, though they don't use gratuitous violent or sexual terms merely to shock, as is common today.
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For the Sake of Others

• Visiting Prisoners

Jesus listed visiting prisoners among the marks of a Christian life. Many people seek God in prison, but few Christians consider this a suitable place to work for God.
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• Disappearance of Hospitality

Roman houses were designed as much for guests as for residents, and Jews regarded hospitality as a moral necessity. Early Christians encouraged each other to excel in this. And now we barely invite anyone in for coffee – has something gone wrong?
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• Ending Slavery

Old Testament laws allowed slavery (within limits) and the New Testament allowed slave ownership (but not slave trading). However, the context shows God pushing society at each stage in one direction – towards abolition.
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• Jesus' Effeminate Hair

Flowing wavy locks were popular among promiscuous homosexuals in parts of Roman society, so Paul had to tell Christians to keep it short. Jesus probably did have long hair, but we can't be sure. Is there a rule that we should follow now?
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• Improper Fashions

The Bible implies that some fashions are immoral. It appears to condemn tattoos, jewellery and much more. Is this culture-specific, or are these things still banned?
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• Eating Animals

Paul advised some Christians to become vegetarians because meat might come from animals killed as a sacrifice. Are there different issues today that might give a similarly bad impression?
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• Work, Even in Retirement

Our modern concept of retirement can make people feel useless. Paul encouraged the elderly to do useful work for their family or church.
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