“Christianity is not true because some of God’s commands are petty and arbitrary.”
Christians obey God’s commands. God commanded petty and arbitrary things. So if you don’t oppose eating shellfish or wearing mixed fabrics, you’re being inconsistent and white-washing your view of God so that it doesn’t appear contradictory. So do you wear mixed fabrics?
It can be a bit disarming for Christians at first, because the answer (for most of us anyway) is “No, I don’t.” If a Christian hasn’t heard this argument before, then it can seem bizarre and out of the blue, and if they haven’t been aware that these commands are in the Bible, then the fact that the skeptic points this out as a tenet of Christianity that they aren’t following can be discouraging and confusing.
But, of all the bad arguments against Christianity that I’ve tackled, this one is probably the worst.
Reason #1: They Aren’t Christian Commands
There may be exceptions to this that I’m unaware of, but generally speaking, all commands that follow this format come from the Old Testament, not the New Testament. Why does that matter, you ask? It’s simple: that means it isn’t a part of Christianity.
Please, do not mistake that as being the same as irrelevant to Christianity. But put simply, the commands of the Old Testament were part of a covenant that was specific to the Jewish people, prior to the coming, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Seeing how Jesus Christ is where the name “Christian” comes from to begin with, the difference should be readily apparent. But just in case it isn’t, let’s dig into that a little deeper.
The initial promise that God made which Jesus fulfilled is made to Abraham in Genesis 15. In that passage, he promises three things: that he will make Abraham a great nation, give him a land, and bless the entire world through his seed. Those first two promises are fulfilled through the nation Israel in the land of Canaan. But the third still hasn’t been fulfilled at that point, because God’s special relationship is still exclusive to the nation of Israel (though this doesn’t mean he shunned the other nations or people completely, as exhibited through character such as Melchizedek and Rahab).
The point at which that third promise is fulfilled is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s referenced many places in Scripture, but the most pointed is perhaps Galatians 3, wherein Paul says we are “not under law, but under grace” (speaking of the Mosaic Law). And if something as big of a deal to Jews as circumcision isn’t a command Christians have to follow (which is the point of the entire book of Galatians), then eating shellfish and wearing mixed fabrics certainly isn’t.
Reason #2: God Has the Right to be Arbitrary
Even though a Christian can distance himself or herself from the commands of the Old Testament, that doesn’t mean that those commands are distanced from God himself. After all, he still commanded those things, so the skeptic’s charge that God commands things that are petty and arbitrary apparently still stands.
Petty is certainly a problematic word. But is arbitrary? So what if God decides to be arbitrary? If he’s the supreme creator of the universe, as well as the one who gave his own son to save us from eternal condemnation, can we really complain if he makes some commands that seem really weird, or does anything we don’t get for that matter?
This is a significant part of Paul’s point in Romans 9:20-21 when he says “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” In the direct context, Paul is speaking to the doctrine of election, but his point here still stands, which is that God can do what he wants, even if it doesn’t make sense to us.
Now this is not, of course, the same as saying that anything God could theoretically prescribe would not contradict with his character. But the claim that certain of God’s commands are arbitrary or, more appropriately, appear arbitrary to us, does not contradict anything about his character. Nothing about having arbitrary commands contradicts God’s being loving, compassionate, graceful, and desiring that everyone be saved. The term “petty” might, but that is a value judgment of the commands themselves rather than a specific claim to contradiction between God’s character and the aforementioned commands.
Reason #3: A Christian’s Inconsistency Doesn’t Prove Anything about God’s Commands
The biggest and most obvious problem with this argument is that it’s a clear non-sequitur. Even if ignore reason #1 and grant the skeptic that Christians ought to oppose eating shellfish and wearing mixed fabrics, you have proved nothing about the truth or lack thereof of Christianity. All you have proven is that most Christians are inconsistent in their Christianity. But there is no reason at that point to think that Christianity is not true. It could still very much be the case that Christianity is true, and both the skeptic and the believer ought to be passing on shellfish and refraining from wearing mixed fabrics.
In the end, this is little more than an emotional argument. It’s an attempt to make Christianity look foolish by appealing to commands that 21st century Americans think are foolish. But it ultimately fails not just because it betrays a drastic misunderstanding of Christian covenant theology, but because it doesn’t even touch any issues that have to do with the actual objective truth of Christianity.
How Apologists Should Respond
Like with many claims, the skeptic is making his or her charge indirectly. He or she is challenging you, but without stating explicitly the supposed problem. The goal in dealing with this issue should first be to get them to state the charge directly. They mean something like this: These commands prove that God is petty and capricious, which conflicts with your view of God as gracious and loving. Therefore, your view of God is incoherent and white-washed, which means that Christianity is contradictory and therefore false. You want them to state that (or something like it) so that you can deal with it via the three aforementioned reasons (though I would say that reason 3 is the most compelling).
This should be done by asking questions. The best questions of course are frequently “What do you mean by that?” but I would also suggest “Why do you bring that up?”, “What do you think that proves?”, or “What do you think that means about Christianity?”
In short, the skeptic thinks these commands make God capricious. It doesn’t, for the reasons listed, but the apologist needs to draw that out of the skeptic before it can be dealt with appropriately. Once it is, he will hopefully see that his qualm, if he were consistent, would be with the same people Paul criticizes in Galatians 3, and not with practicing Christians.