The purpose of this post is, first, to register the fact that J. Daniel Kirk has used Acts 15 to argue for the affirmation and inclusion of gay Christians in the church. I hadn’t seen these before—thanks, Andy, for pointing it out:
Kirk thinks that the “inclusion of Gentiles” constitutes a compelling narrative paradigm for the inclusion of LGBT believers in the church.
The power of this paradigm is that it represents a seminal moment when the identity of the community itself redefined what being part of the faithful people of God entailed. Words like “sinner” and “righteous” took on new meaning as these outsiders were included without making them adopt the practices of the majority in-group.
Moreover, the basis for their inclusion and the manner of their inclusion was not that the biblical texts either demanded or allowed it, but that God has already included these people.
He explains this last point by quoting from his book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?:
The Spirit of God was the determining factor, leaving the church to make a decision–not the decision of whether to include these other people or not, but the decision of whether to recognize that God had already included them.
I have some sympathy for this line of thought, but it goes a step further than my argument with regard to the Jerusalem Council.
Kirk holds that the disruptive and disorienting inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God provides a paradigmatic—and in some sense legitimising—antecedent for the disruptive and disorienting inclusion of LGBT believers in the church on the basis of the same “difficult sexual ethic of life-long committed partnership”.
My argument is only that if we embrace LGBT believers on these terms, there is perhaps something to be said for establishing a set of rules to manage the tensions comparable to James’ proposal.
But in relation to the outlook of the apostles in Jerusalem, I’m not sure Kirk’s approach does justice to the narrative trajectory. This needs looking at more closely.
Kirk addresses the counter-argument that Acts 15 cannot be used to support the full inclusion of LGBTQ people because there is a “trajectory for Gentile inclusion in the Old Testament”. There is no comparable trajectory for the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Old Testament.
Kirk accepts that the expectation of Isaiah 2:2-3 is that “Gentiles will become part of Israel in response to proclamation of the Torah, and by means of adopting the Torah of Israel”. But he argues that this is precisely not what happens in the New Testament, where Gentiles are included in renewed Israel without having to keep the Jewish Law.
It is this discrepancy between Old Testament expectation and the actual manner of Gentile inclusion through faith and the work of the Spirit that makes possible the analogy with the inclusion of LGBTQ people.
I don’t think this is quite accurate. What Isaiah describes is not the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people but the coming of the nations to Zion to learn the ways of the God of Israel:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Is. 2:2–4)
When YHWH restores his people, mount Zion will be elevated above all other mountains. Jerusalem will be the pre-eminent city in the region, greater than the imperial cities of Nineveh and Babylon.
The nations will come to Zion, to the rebuilt temple, to learn how to walk in the ways of the God of Israel—just as later the nations would turn to Athens to learn philosophy, or to Rome to learn jurisprudence and warfare.
But the nations do not become part of Israel. They go home again. They continue to be the nations, oriented now towards Zion as the imperial hub rather than towards Nineveh or Babylon.
The God of Israel will judge the nations, just as he judges his own people. He will settle their disputes, which is why the nations will have no further need for their weapons and may reforge them as farming implements: when YHWH judges between the nations, there will be no more war.
Presumably to James’ way of thinking the “conversion” of Gentiles across the oikoumenē is the beginning of the fulfilment of the geo-political vision of the Old Testament. The “tent of David that has fallen” is being rebuilt and restored, and the nations are beginning to respond positively to this “eschatological” event.
The new Davidic king, however, reigns not from Jerusalem but from heaven, so there is no need for believing Gentiles to make pilgrimage to Zion to learn the ways of Israel’s God; and it appears that they are learning by the Spirit rather than through study of Torah.
But as I said before, they remain a distinct people taken from among the nations. They do not become part of Israel; they are kept at arm’s length. So a minimal set of requirements are drawn up to manage the tensions along the holiness boundary.
The conclusion I would draw from this is that the participation of Gentiles is part of the Old Testament trajectory, but it’s more complex than is usually assumed:
- the manner of Israel’s restoration is radically reconceived: the Jerusalem below is destined for destruction and will be replaced by a Jerusalem above, from where Jesus will reign as king;
- the Gentiles learn the ways of YHWH not from the Law but by the Spirit, who writes God’s ways on their hearts;
- Gentile converts remain distinct from Israel as representatives of the nations but are nevertheless part of the same eschatological movement;
- the conversion of Gentiles as James knows it is not the final state of play; these Gentiles are a prophetic vanguard for the eventual conversion of the nations in terms much closer to the vision of Isaiah 2:2-3; they are predictors of the coming empire of YHWH, the rule of his Son over the nations—Christendom, as we call it.
So this seems to me to be the problem with Kirk’s argument: there is greater continuity between the apostle James and the Old Testament narrative than he allows, because James is still essentially a Jew trying to accommodate Gentile believers on Jewish terms. James is the mediating figure in the debate between the believing Pharisees and Paul. He may even be less concerned about Jewish believers than about relations with the synagogues in every city across the empire, in which Moses is proclaimed every sabbath (Acts 15:21).
Paul’s own position will be more radical. His approach will be not to accommodate Gentiles to Israel on the basis of the Holiness Code but to argue that both Jews and Gentiles alike, in the end, will be justified only by their faith in the risen Lord, for which the antecedent is Abraham’s seminal act of belief in the promise of God.