Some years back I wrote a book called Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul. I took the view that both sides of the debate at the time were misreading Paul in their pursuit of polemical advantage, but I came down nevertheless on the egalitarian side of the fence. I think that male headship in Paul is a social construct having to do not with authority over the woman, and certainly not with an innate authority over the woman, but with social prominence. Sadly the debate still goes on in the modern church, but as far as I am concerned there are good biblical reasons for moving beyond the historical patriarchalism both of scripture and of the church.
I’m not sure that I can settle the debate over same-sex relations—even for myself—in the same fashion. The Bible has a lot of good things to say about the ministry of women, and I would argue that the creation accounts give us a solid egalitarian anthropology to fall back on. The Bible has nothing good to say about same-sex relations.
So it seems to me that we are in rather different hermeneutical territory. Yes, it may be the case that the modern notion of loving, non-abusive, enduring relations between people who by nature have a same-sex orientation falls well outside the categories of behaviour condemned in scripture. But that simply makes the point: scripture knows what a woman is; it doesn’t know what a “homosexual” is. So how can we find a biblical solution to the problem?
I have been wondering whether the deliberations of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1-21 suggest a pragmatic way to move beyond the current impasse.
The Jerusalem council
The council was convened in Jerusalem to consider whether converted pagans should be “circumcised according to the custom of Moses”. Paul and Barnabas brought reports of what God was doing among the Gentiles, but some believers from the party of the Pharisees insisted that they should be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15:3-5).
There is extensive and no doubt heated debate, but eventually Peter argues on the basis of his own experience that the hearts of Gentile believers have been made clean by their belief that God raised his Son from the dead; that God has given them the Holy Spirit for that reason; so there is already no distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers. He asks the Pharisees: “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). The Jews will not be saved by works of the Law; they are in the same position as the Gentiles: they will be saved (note the future tense—this is an eschatological argument, it’s not about personal salvation) through the grace of the Lord Jesus.
The assembly gives Paul and Barnabas a hearing, and James pronounces his verdict on the matter. After quoting a selection of prophetic texts he proposes that they should not trouble Gentiles who turn to God but should write to them with a minimal set of requirements—to abstain from the things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating what has been strangled, and from blood (Acts 15:19-20).
The purpose of these four restrictions was to enable Jewish and Gentile believers to co-exist in their local communities. The arrangement presupposes the Jewish point of view. As Fitzmyer says: “James thus appeals for a sympathetic understanding of Jewish Christian sensitivities.”1 The underlying idea is that Gentile believers are in the same position vis-à-vis Jewish believers as foreigners were in the land of Israel—they are “sojourners”. The restrictions appear to derive not from the so-called Noachic regulations, as commonly supposed, but from the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-18. For example, Leviticus 17:10 reads:
If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. (Lev. 17:10)
So we can summarise the main stages of the debate as follows:
1. Gentiles are coming in increasing numbers to believe that God has raised his Son from the dead and has put him in control of all things.
2. Pharisaic believers in Jesus understandably are of the view that Gentile converts should be circumcised and should observe the Law of Moses if they are to be part of the commonwealth of Israel.
3. Paul, Barnabas and Peter argue that Gentiles are already demonstrably part of the people of God and should not be required to keep the Law.
4. James proposes a pragmatic solution that allows Jews to be Jews and Gentiles to be Gentiles and for the two groups to live and worship as part of the same body of Christ. Presumably James expected the arrangement to hold good until the end of the age of second temple Judaism.
Now, can we tell a similar story about the current division between heterosexual believers and same-sex believers?
A pragmatic model
This is only roughly drawn, it oversimplifies, it makes some unstated assumptions (some I’m probably not aware of), and it is not meant to give the impression that the two situations are theologically equivalent. Acts 15 cannot be used as a direct argument for the inclusion of same-sex couples in the church, but it may provide a model that will help us to think constructively about the dilemma posed by the normalisation of LGBT lifestyles in the secular West.
The story would run something like this:
1. There are gay and lesbian people who believe that Jesus is the Son of the living creator God, who worship and pray in his name, who manifest in their lives the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Modern anthropology recognises homosexuality not as a perversion of normal heterosexual behaviour but as a natural and legitimate expression of human identity. If we accept this—we may not—then the faith of same-sex people is a new phenomenon, much as the faith of Gentiles was a new phenomenon in the first century.
2. Traditionalists do not necessarily question the faith of gay and lesbian people, but because scripture prohibits same-sex relations, they insist that they must cease from same-sex activity: they must renounce it, be “healed”, or adopt a celibate lifestyle.
3. Others might argue, however, in defence of same-sex believers, that loving, egalitarian, life-long same-sex relationships—not “relations”—are not what is condemned in scripture, and that their faith and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives are evidence that God has already accepted them; there is, therefore, no difference in Christ between non-gay and gay.
4. We then need a James figure, who allows both sides of the argument to stand, who recommends not troubling same-sex believers, but who proposes a contextually appropriate modus vivendi, a way of co-existing, a minimal set of requirements to be imposed on the new group of believers for them to live well amongst or alongside the established community.
It’s worth noting the relevance of the Holiness Code for the argument. It might be said that at the heart of non-affirming opposition to same-sex relations is some sort of moral equivalent to the Jewish Holiness Code. James constructs a set of rules from Leviticus 17-18. Non-affirming Christians today invoke Leviticus 18:22, by way of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Romans 1:26-27. It is by no means a straightforward analogy, but the centrality of the Holiness Code to both these issues is suggestive.
A letter to same-sex believers?
So what might the requirements be in this case? Here are some initial thoughts.
1. There may be some point in requiring same-sex believers to abstain from—dissociate themselves from—those aspects of same-sex culture that may be regarded as “idolatrous”, as ideologically and blatantly opposed to the biblical account of faith in the one, true, living creator God. I’m not convinced that the Leviticus prohibitions have solely male cult prostitution in view, but second temple Judaism in general and Paul in particular certainly made the connection between idolatry and same-sex relations. It would be harder to define what “idolatry” means in the modern context. It may be appropriate to require some sort of affirmation of male-and-female as a creational norm—as an appropriate expression in this context of faith in God as creator (cf. Rom. 1:20).
2. This would no doubt be controversial, but I get the impression that two issues lie at the heart of the Jewish critique of male same-sex behaviour: penetration of the male and effeminacy. It may be unworkable, it may be considered unethical, but for the sake of argument a modern James might require gay men to abstain from anal penetration as being “degrading” and from marked effeminacy, out of respect—from their point of view—for the “sensitivities” of the non-affirming Christian community.
There probably needs to be a contextual dimension to such behavioural “rules”. In an age of globalisation and migration it has to be recognised that some traditional communities have much stronger “sensitivities” than others. Overt expressions of affection, for example, will be more tolerable in some settings than others.
3. Same-sex couples should be required to do “marriage” more or less on the same terms that other-sex couples do marriage. It seems to me that the legalisation of marriage in the West now gives us solid grounds on which to hold same-sex couples accountable to the same standards of love and commitment as other-sex couples.
I should make it clear that this is about church, it’s about membership of the covenant community, it’s about concrete forms of fellowship in Christ as in Acts 15. I’m not suggesting that missional relationships should be subject to the same rules.
The scope of the analogy should not be overstated. James found scriptural justification for the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of faith. The modern narrative is driven in the first place by socio-cultural developments and not simply by the proclamation of the gospel in a new context. It was pretty clear from the Jewish perspective what a Gentile was; the modern categories (“same-sex”, LGBT, etc.) are shifting all the time. There is no individual or organisation with the authority of James today to advocate the compromise.
But the pragmatic orientation of the argument may recommend it; and when the tide of cultural change is flowing firmly in the direction of liberalisation, there is perhaps something to be said for explicitly requiring concessions from same-sex believers for the sake of the practical unity of God’s people. It allows the core theological question to remain somewhat unresolved, and it shifts the focus towards dealing with the intra-communal relational problem generated by the modern normalisation of LGBT identities.
As it turned out, the decision of the Jerusalem Council became redundant as the church established itself in the empire as a fully Gentile entity. A similarly managed co-existence between same-sex and other-sex believers may also be only provisional while we wait to see where history takes us.
- 1. J.A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (1974), 556.