Walk into one of the old Episcopal churches on the East Coast, and once your eye has adjusted to the light slanting in through the clear glass windowpanes onto plain white walls, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is the writing on the eastern wall behind the pulpit. Step closer and you’ll see it’s a placard with the Ten Commandments in flowing script. In 1604, this placarding of the Decalogue became a canonical requirement for Anglican parishes. A posting of the Commandments was to be “set up on the East end of every Church and Chapel, where the people may best see and read the same.” Right above the communion table, in view of all sermon-hearers, the Commandments were to issue their silent implication: These ancient words remain the word of God for the people of God.
Nor was this Anglican practice unusual by wider Christian standards. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “In fidelity to Scripture and in conformity with Jesus’ example, the tradition of the Church has always acknowledged the primordial importance and significance of the Decalogue.” Luther wrote in his Large Catechism that “those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.” Luther was merely summarizing what was by his time a catechetical commonplace. The Decalogue was, as he wrote elsewhere, “eternal.” The Ten Commandments were not a time-bound, culturally-limited expression of a superseded ancient society but were instead the abiding word of the God who had eventually been revealed as the God and Father of Jesus Christ.
None of this classic Christian perspective, sadly, is on display in Atlanta pastor Andy Stanley’s recent sermon on the place of the Old Testament in the life of contemporary Christians. Expositing the scene of the apostolic roundtable in Acts 15, Stanley declares, “Here’s what the Jerusalem Council was saying to the Gentiles: ‘You are not accountable to the Ten Commandments.’” Part of a threefold sermon series titled “Aftermath,” Stanley’s sermon went viral after the Christian Post website ran a story about it on Wednesday with the headline, “Christians Must ‘Unhitch’ Old Testament from Their Faith, Stanley Says.”
Stanley’s motive is straightforwardly evangelistic. He wants to convince those who have lost or are in the process of losing their faith that the difficulties they may have with the perceived violence and legalism of the Old Testament need not prevent them from coming to Jesus. Alas, most of the 39-minute talk can really only be described as an elaborate and educated flirtation with the old Christian heresy of Marcionism—the belief that the Old Testament is not authoritative in matters of Christian doctrine and morals.
The gospel of Jesus, says Stanley near his sermon’s climax, “is completely detached … from everything that came before.” Summarizing that gospel, he says that “God has done something through the Jews for the world.” And then he drops this bombshell: “But the ‘through the Jews’ part of the story is over, and now something new and better and inclusive has come.”
As the biblical scholar Francis Watson has noted, contemporary versions of the error of the early Christian heretic Marcion (c. 85–160) don’t usually take the form of positing two ontologically distinct divine beings, as the historical Marcion did. They instead involve “Christian unease about the status and function of the Old Testament” and a willingness to entertain the view that “the Old Testament is not to be regarded as part of Christian scripture.”
Stanley’s error is more subtle still. The Old Testament is “divinely inspired,” he insists. But—following centuries of anti-Judaic interpretations of early Christian history, in which Jewish parsimoniousness is ranged over against Christian liberality—Stanley reframes the Old Testament as narrow, exclusive, hidebound. “I’m just not there yet,” he has the Jewish apostle Peter, clinging tenaciously to his Torah observance, say when asked, “What about God loves everybody?” Calling the Old Testament “God’s contract,” Stanley sums it up as a tit-for-tat economy: “It’s ‘I will if you will.’” By contrast, now that the “stand-alone” Jesus-event has erupted onto the scene, “God’s arrangement with Israel should now be eliminated from the equation.” A more complete supersessionism is hard to imagine.
It is wearyingly predictable where all this ends up. Zeroing in on the so-called apostolic decree narrated in Acts 15, in which the Jerusalem apostles asked Gentile Christians to refrain from sexual immorality, Stanley concludes:
This was a general call to avoid immoral behavior[,] but not immoral behavior as defined by the Old Testament … [rather,] as defined by the apostle Paul. … The apostle Paul was explicit and specific about sexual immorality but he did not tie it to the Old Testament. … The old covenant, law of Moses, was not the go-to source regarding sexual behavior for the church. … The Old Testament was not the go-to source regarding any behavior for the church.
Above all, this is bad exegesis. New Testament scholars such as Markus Bockmuehl have demonstrated that the rules for Gentile converts outlined in Acts 15 themselves go back to the Old Testament’s guidelines for Gentile sojourners in Israel. And Brian Rosner and Richard Hays have shown, for instance, how Paul’s moral instruction for the church in Corinth was modeled directly on Deuteronomy’s legislation, so that, in Hays’s words, “Paul seems to have translated and transferred the basic disciplinary norms of Israel’s covenant community over onto the church. … Paul in effect addresses the Gentile Christians as Israel. God’s word to Israel has become God’s word directly to them.” One cannot pit Paul’s sexual ethics against the Ten Commandments, from which they stemmed.
It is striking how frequently flirtations with Marcionism are aimed at revising Christian teaching on sexual morality. Though he doesn’t walk through it himself, Stanley’s sermon opens the door to this revisionism. He says that Paul tied sexual behavior not to the old covenant, not to the Ten Commandments, but to “one commandment that Jesus gave us: that you are to treat others as God in Christ has treated you.” He recasts this idea in a contemporary idiom:
So when Paul talked about relationships, he said stuff like this: “In your relationships to one another … have the same attitude as Christ Jesus. Any questions?” Huh, that kinda covers it, doesn’t it? It means I gotta put people before me, yeah. “In your relationships with one another, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And so is hers. And so is his. Any questions?” No, I think that about covers it.
This is true as far as it goes—Jesus and Paul both agree that the heart of the law is love and that the whole law can be summed up in the twofold command to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves—but it misleads by what it leaves out. In a fallen world, talk about love can mask a kind of relativism. This is why the catechetical tradition of the Christian churches has been united in its use of the Ten Commandments: precisely because it has recognized that we Christians so often fail to discern what real love amounts to, and we need the Old Testament’s commandments to shine a spotlight on our slippery self-justifications. We may intend to treat a sexual partner as God in Christ has treated us, we may try to act toward them out of self-giving love, but the distorting effects of sin mean that we must be told what love looks like in action if we’re not to get it wrong. That divine telling, sadly, is what Andy Stanley’s sermon would keep us from hearing.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.