Subdividing the Law: Moral, Civil, Ceremonial?

I’ve been studying the Parasha (portion of scripture) for this week, which is called Mishpatim (“Judgments” or “Ordinances”) and is from Exodus 21:1 – 24:18. As I studied, an issue came to my mind that I have discussed scores of times with various people and with groups.

There is a view of the Law, associated mostly with Reformed tradition but also widely held by many as a simple “solution” to the problem of the Law. What do I mean by the “problem of the Law”? I mean that the Law is supposed to be good, since God gave it, but it is also allegedly obsolete. So how can it be good?

One way of harmonizing these irreconcilable notions is to say that God gave a Law with three kinds of commandments: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The civil and ceremonial laws were only for Israel and were only temporary. The moral law remains valid today. This is also a way to understand what Yeshua was saying in Matthew 5:17 (a troubling passage demanding an explanation which will still abolish the Law though Yeshua said not to). Sorry for the sarcasm.

Note that subdividing the Law into three categories is historically the solution of Reformed Christianity and is not exactly the same as the Lutheran view, the Catholic view, or the widely held Dispensationalist view. The Dispensationalist view, which I will not discuss today, is that the entire Law is abolished. Usually Dispensationalists see the commandments of the New Testament as the New Law (the Law of Christ)–this despite the fact that the New Testament is a collection of biographies and letters, not a legal corpus!!

Well, back to the Reformed view–that the Law has three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial.

How do we decide which of God’s Laws are moral and which are ceremonial and civil (and thus obsolete)? The answer: we decide if the laws make sense, seem permanent, and seem moral to us.

Now, there is a problem with this. It assumes that morality is greater than God. I have many friends who are Reformed (even five-point Calvinists) and, let me tell you, these are intelligent people. So let me appeal to your intelligence if you are a Reformed Christian (Presbyterian, Reformed Baptist, etc.)–this process of deciding which of God’s laws are moral is judging God. It is saying that morality precedes the Godhead (and maybe even the decrees of God–that’s for you serious Calvinists out there).

What I mean is this: if right and wrong are categories independent of God, then God is not the source of right and wrong. Right and wrong are standards by which we may judge God’s Law, and thus, God.

Let me put it another way. If God says, “Hey, Israel, don’t eat pork, shellfish, or creepy-crawly things,” then who are we to say, “That’s only ceremonial and we don’t have to do it”? If God says it, it is immoral to disobey. Morality is not a standard independent of God. God decides what is right and what is wrong.

Let me use another angle. The Sabbath is a great issue. Reformed Christianity has a history of interpreting Sunday as the Sabbath (the New Testament changed it, don’t you know). Let’s just allow the day-change for a moment for the sake of argument. Here is my point: many Christians feel the Sabbath is a moral issue and many other Christians feel it is irrelevant to morality (thus, it must be “ceremonial,” since it seems irrelevant). So, see what happens when you decide to judge God’s Law? How do you know if you are right? If you are at McDonalds eating a cheeseburger after Sunday church, are you sinning? (Most Christians who believe Sunday is the Sabbath seem unaware that God forbids buying and selling–Nehemiah 13:15).

My point is simple: the Law (Torah) of God cannot be subdivided into these three categories. The truth is far more complex–but we lack time and space to delve into it all here. Perhaps future posts…

Well, I’ve gone on quite long. I will paste some more information below, things from Parashat Mishpatim that led me to think of posting this in the first place. You need read further only if the subject interests you.
Consider how the Torah mixes commandments without any division or separation:

Exodus 23:9-11 You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt. “You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

Vs.9 is clearly a moral issue (not oppressing foreigners), but it is immediately followed by what many would call a ceremonial regulation (letting the land have Sabbaths). The Torah makes no distinction. Furthermore, this raises a philosophical question: what makes something wrong? Is right and wrong defined by God or does it define God? If God defines right and wrong, then isn’t it just as immoral to violate a Sabbath year as it is to oppress and stranger?

Are the Torah Laws Irrelevant in the New Covenant?
In the Dispensational view of the Torah, all of this covenant is now obsolete after the coming of Yeshua. Only commandments repeated in the New Testament are valid for Yeshua followers. Yet consider laws that are not repeated in the New Testament, but which very obviously continue to reflect God’s will, such as:

Exodus 21:33-34 If a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it over, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his.

This law concerns responsibility for the property of others. The New Testament does not address such situations. Does this mean that God’s commandment is invalid for Yeshua followers? Shouldn’t we be responsible for damage done to the property of others through our neglect?

Food for thought from the Torah . . .

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Messianic Jewish, Theology, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Subdividing the Law: Moral, Civil, Ceremonial?

  1. bzaremsky says:

    Excellent post. Really made me think about the times when I discuss the Torah and it’s application today with non-Messianic Jews. I often miss the fact that Christianity has so many differing positions, so when I try to show different Christian viewpoints and how they do not seem to jive with Scripture, I come of as being all over the place. Maybe that is typical of Jews who are not familiar with the differences between the branches of Christianity.

    While I do not know exactly how Torah applies to my life today (it is part of my walk with G-d), I do know that the idea that it is gone or certain parts of it are gone do not fit with Scripture, nor with an unchanging G-d.

    I especially like the last point about the law speaking to the responsibility for damage done to the property of others. Those are the kind of inconsistencies that I see when I sit down in prayer and pray about what G-d wants from me. Thanks for the post. this looks like a great and informative site that I will return to often.


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  3. Peter Sanlon says:

    Thanks for your comments – I agree that the reformed distinctions are not sustainable in light of the nature of God and the scriptures themselves.

    I was wondering – do you by any chance know who the first person in the history of Christianity was to suggest such a distinction? I am keen to find out for my studies, so far have drawn a blank!

    ping me an email if u know –


  4. eyko says:

    I really like your blog. I’ve always wondered why the divisions, if the law itself is not implicitly divided. Do I call that reasoning? There’s a problem with people trying to uproot all reasoning from theological exploration (whatever that should mean). Anyway, the law is one, and from there a good dialogue can begin :-).

  5. "A Simple Jew" says:

    For all those who think the Torah is easily subdivided in these categories, I recommend a brief session of Talmud study. Here is just one among many links that explain how the Talmud is organized.

  6. icelollies247 says:

    If you had a temple again, would you still sacrifice animals? If that is the ONLY reason you do not do those anymore… what did Jesus die for? Then you are basically saying what he went through for us was NOT ENOUGH. Jesus says himself that he did not come to abolish the law, but to FULFILL it. Jesus is our rest now (our Sabbath). Jesus is our sacrifice, the final and PERFECT one. Read the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23. Paul WAS a Jew! Also, in Colossians 2:16-23. I know you might think the credit of the NT is not as sound as the OT, but I tell you to show me proof that it is incorrect. You say that God is unchanging, which is true. But it is not a matter of GOD changing, but God loving in different ways and helping us in different and new ways. Think about all of the new “ideas” he came up with to save us. (10 Commandments and the other laws of Moses) Then something changed in the world… JESUS CAME!!! In a way He changed the structure of our lives for OUR SALVATION, not to confuse us. His character NEVER changed. Those laws may be okay to practice still, but you are not bound by them, not required. They are merely laws for things that will pass away. They were created for the Jews to be set apart from the Gentiles. Now, because of Jesus, we are all the same. Jew and Gentile alike.

    I say these things to bring peace, not more arguing among us Jews and non-Jews. Jesus died for us ALL. So we must believe in his sacrifice, and that it was ENOUGH to save us.

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  8. eimidoulos says:

    This post is frustrating because it is simply you stating your oppinion. You state that for these categories to exist, that morality must be greater than God. You assume that it is simply obvious to everyone that if these three categories are legitimate, that morality must obviously be greater than God… but I honestly can’t understand how in the world you came to that conclusion. If God gave certain laws intended for theocratic Israel, and other laws which are eternal, how does that make morality greater than God?
    As side note, do Messianics stone adulterers? If not, you are being hypocritical. ;) I’d love to hear a response to these concerns.

  9. eimidoulos:

    Yes, we are all bondslaves (nice internet handle).

    You make a cogent argument. I wrote this post a long time ago and it needs reviewing and rewriting. I would say some thing differently now. Perhaps a new post will grow out of it. Thanks for challenging.

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