The passage reads, in the New King James Bible: “One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”
Before we address the questions whether this passage is still in force and effect today, and whether it applies to the Church of God, let us try to determine what the passage conveys, as worded.
Several translations, including the Authorized Version, the Living Bible, the Revised Standard Version, Lamsa, and the Elberfelder Bible translate the Hebrew word “mamzer” (“of illegitimate birth” in the New King James Bible) as “bastard.” First, what is meant with the word, “mamzer”? The Broadman Bible Commentary explains that the “meaning of the Hebrew word [“mamzer”] translated ‘bastard’ is not really clear. Rabbinical interpretation points to the offspring of mixed marriages such as are mentioned in Nehemiah 13:23.”
Soncino points out: “Some Rabbis defined the term as the offspring of an incestuous marriage, others as non-Israelite (without any reference to illegitimacy). It means, ‘stranger,’ i.e. one whose descent is unknown.”
The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible defines the Hebrew word, under #4464, as “a mongrel, i.e. born of a Jewish father and a heathen mother.” [Of course, Strong’s makes the common mistake to equate an “Israelite” with a “Jew.”] Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible defines the Hebrew word as, “mixed” or “spurious.” It is also used in Zechariah 9:6.
The Nelson Study Bible equates the word with an illegitimate birth and points out that “it may refer to the offspring of an illicit cultic union, such as the child of a temple prostitute (vv. 17, 18).”
The Tanakh renders this word as “misbegotten,” and explains that the meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain; but that in Jewish law, it has received the meaning of the offspring of adultery or incest between Jews. The New Bible Commentary:Revised defines the word as “the offspring of an adulterous or incestuous relationship or marriage.”
As quoted above, the New King James Bible renders the Hebrew word as, “one of illegitimate birth.” The New International Version states, “born of a forbidden marriage.” The New Revised Standard Version states, “born of an illicit union,” while the New American Bible has here, “of an incestuous union.”
The next question is, what is meant with the statement that the person shall not enter into “the assembly of the LORD.” (The Authorized Version says here that the person shall not enter “into the congregation of the LORD.”)
The Broadman Bible Commentary explains that “the assembly of the LORD… is the official gathering of qualified citizens for purposes of annual religious feasts, war, or the determination of justice involving tribes… It also… presumed circumcision as a sign of covenant participation.”
The Nelson Study Bible adds: “In Deuteronomy the word (for assembly) often refers to those gathered before Sinai (5:22; 9:10; 18:16). Exclusion from the assembly means restriction from full participation in religious rites.”
Based on these explanations, some have concluded that the instruction in Deuteronomy 23:2 only forbade the particular person from holding a public office in the nation of Israel or the congregation (compare Matthew Henry’s Commentary).
Whatever the exact meaning of the passage, it is clear from the reasons given below that it is no longer in force and effect today, and that it does not apply to God’s Church. While Israel was a physical, unconverted nation, which did not have God’s Holy Spirit, the Church of God is a spiritual organism, composed of all those who have received God’s Holy Spirit, after genuine repentance and baptism. God does not exclude ANYONE from His Church, merely based on nationality, gender, upbringing, descent or offspring. The sins or mistakes of the parents are immaterial, when God calls a person. God looks at the heart and mind of those whom He calls — not at the actions in which the parents might have engaged.
The Bible makes it very clear that God is not a respecter of persons, and that all persons from all nations are acceptable to Him, when they repent. Acts 17:30 tells us that “God… now commands all men everywhere to repent.” Titus 2:11 adds that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” Peter stated in Acts 10:28, 34-35: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean… In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.”
We also read in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Even in Old Testament times, this future understanding regarding those who would be called to salvation was already revealed. God raised up Jephthah to judge Israel for six years. Jephthah will be in the Kingdom of God (compare Hebrews 11:32), but he was “the son” of Gilead and “of a harlot” (Judges 11:1); that is, he was an “illegitimate child.” Furthermore, The Broadman Bible Commentary adds the following in its discussion on Deuteronomy 23:2: “One passage in Isaiah suggests that in the future of Israel these restrictions will be lifted so that the eunuch and the foreigner will be welcome (cf. 56:3-8).”
This is indeed the case today. Nobody is excluded from the Church of God, the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Ethnic, cultural or similar backgrounds of the persons are immaterial, once they repent and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.
The passage in Deuteronomy 23:2, and similar passages, are no longer valid today, nor can they be applied to the Church of God. They served their purpose for the carnal, physical nation of Israel, but they have been superseded by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ Who has opened a new way to God the Father, based on personal responsibility and conduct of those who are called today.