Ian Paul, who is a staunch defender of the traditional view, thinks that my modest proposal regarding the relevance of the deliberations of the Jerusalem Council for the seemingly intractable controversy over same-sex unions is a “bizarre misreading of the narrative”. My sense is rather that he has misread my post, but since that could be my fault rather than his, I want to try and clarify the reasoning.
So the argument is not:
- James advocates acceptance of Gentiles who have received the Holy Spirit and proposes a set of rules for co-existence between Jewish and Gentile believers;
- therefore, the church should affirm same-sex relations and should institute a set of rules to help gay and non-gay Christians co-exist.
I am not suggesting that the whole biblical narrative is pointing towards the affirmation and inclusion of same-sex relations. In fact, I think that the complex challenges faced by the church in this secular age are off-the-map as far as the biblical narrative is concerned. My argument is rather:
- if there are single and married gay people who believe in Jesus and have received the Spirit of God; and
- if there is a modern subset of same-sex relations (loving, life-long, egalitarian, etc.) that is sufficiently different from the ancient conception, in ethical and religious terms, as to fall outside the purview of the biblical prohibitions; that is,
- if we are having to work with a different understanding of human nature because of secular rationalism; then
- James’ proposal, though devised for a different controversy, may provide a useful pragmatic model for enabling and managing relations between gay and non-gay believers.
That is the basic argument. It begins not with the biblical narrative but with two conditions—two “if” clauses. If the conditions are met, then the proposal of a minimal set of ethical-religiouis rules may help the two communities get along with each other. If the conditions are not met, if we don’t agree with the two-part premise, then the model becomes irrelevant. That’s all I’m saying. There is no “other agenda” at work.
That said, having looked more carefully at what James says in Acts 15:14-21, I think there may be more to be made of the biblical analogy.
And what was James on about?
Ian makes the point that “James’ solution relies on finding clear scriptural precedent”. I said as much in the post: “James found scriptural justification for the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of faith.”
The scriptural precedent for thinking that God has visited the Gentiles and taken “from them a people for his own name” is found in Amos 9:11-12. James’ quotation of this passage is closer to the Greek Septuagint than to the Hebrew text:
After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord… (Acts 15:16–17)
On that day I will raise up the tent of David that is fallen and rebuild its ruins and raise up its destruction, and rebuild it as the days of old in order that those remaining of humans and all the nations upon whom my name has been called might seek out me, Says the Lord. (Amos 9:11–12 LXX)
In the Hebrew text the nations do not seek out YHWH; restored Israel possesses the nations.
What James claims is not that there is biblical precedent for the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people. YHWH has taken from the Gentiles a distinct “people” for himself, consisting of those Gentiles who “seek the Lord”. In the Old Testament it is fully expected that following the restoration of Israel—indeed, because of the restoration of Israel—the nations will come to seek the Lord, pay homage to him, and learn from his ways. But the nations that come to seek the Lord do not become part of Israel, so the difficult boundary between Jew and Gentile remains in place.
This, I think, is the sort of situation that James has in mind. I noted in the previous post that the letter sent to the Gentiles assumes that they are in the position of “sojourners” in the land. From the perspective of the Jewish apostles in Jerusalem these believing Gentiles are not Israel; they are incoming foreigners; they are a remnant of the “other” that is seeking the Lord and manifesting in their pilgrimage the classic signs of the indwelling Spirit of God.
So the holiness requirements set out in the letter are not absolute; they are circumstantial; and in the light of history they look distinctly provisional. I don’t think it is so clearly the case that James found biblical precedent “in the ultimate, rather than penultimate, purposes of God”, in Ian’s words.
The restoration of Israel was not an ultimate reality, in any case; it was an event in history. Paul considered the faith of Gentiles a contingency to make Israel jealous before it was too late. But that’s taking us too far afield…
The conditions noted above still apply, but I am struck by the parallels between the two narratives, especially once we start thinking historically.
As then, we are faced with the claim—in effect—that gay and lesbian people are seeking the Lord and are manifesting in their pilgrimage the classic signs of the indwelling Spirit of God, that God has taken a people for his name from the gay and lesbian community.
As then, there is a strong element of contingency or provisionality to the development—at least, according to my narrative-historical eschatology the end of Christendom and the triumph of secular rationalism mark a transition as significant as the end of second temple Judaism and the conversion of the empire. I don’t see gay marriage as a passing fashion. It has its roots in the Enlightenment; and it’s difficult to see Western secular society rescinding it—other than by abolishing marriage altogether.
As then, it may be better, for the time being, to accept the duality and find ways to manage it better.
Or maybe not. As I say, I don’t have “another agenda”.