Same-sex same solution? Does the Jerusalem Council suggest a way forward?

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.

What a bizarre misreading of the narrative! James’ solution relies on finding clear scriptural precedent, and he does so in the ultimate, rather than penultimate, purposes of God. These are purposes which are affirmed by both Jesus and Paul.

So on same-sex relations, are you suggesting that the whole Scriptural narrative *really* is pointing to the opposite of what it actually says? And that, on this point alone, Jesus and Paul were simply ignorant of God’s purposes in affirming OT sexual ethical norms…?

Or is there another agenda at work here…?!

peter wilkinson | Thu, 11/17/2016 - 10:17 | Permalink

Thanks Andrew, and there will no doubt be more on this. My response is provisional, but also driven by a 16 month stand-off between myself and my church, from which I have lost my job (I resigned), and which started by my saying on Whit Sunday last year that I approved of the outcome of the Irish referendum on equal marriage. My problem has not been with the church’s response, but insecurity and lack of experience in overall leadership.

So this is more than an entirely academic matter for me, as it is for thousands whose lives it affects, and that in the church alone. You are correct in saying that scripture has nothing good to say about same sex relations. Actually, the only form of same sex relations in scripture identified with the Levitical prohibition, as you know, is male shrine prostitution. However, this does not remove the fact that the same sex relations we are considering today are given no clear parallel or example in scripture.

it’s interesting that you raise the question of anal penetration in male same sex relations (no mention of women in your overall account, by the way). The thought of a ‘compromise’ in which same sex believers in relationship are urged to abstain from this practice is to me somewhat comical. First, I find it strange that heterosexual believers who are ‘non affirming’ are often fixated on the practice. However, if the practice were to be proscribed in any kind of Jerusalem 15 type of compromise, I wonder who would police it and how. It might also raise the question of unhealthy sexual practices among heterosexual couples, including anal penetration.

I think what the church has to face in the first place (just as in its own way society is having to) is homophobia, and that lurking beneath the surface of its presuppositions in scriptural interpretation. The fear is not simply to do with same sex attracted people per se, of course, but same sex attracted people who act on their attraction by entering physical relationships.

For instance, one of the fears I have heard expressed in the church is the one you identify: that same sex couples might engage in physical displays of affection in public in our churches. What if they came into a meeting and started ‘kissing and cuddling’? When I heard this actually said by a member of our church eldership/leadership team, I could only respond by asking what his response would be if a heterosexual couple came into a meeting and did the same. If the latter, why not the former?

The question reveals a prejudice and a fear: that same sex couples are driven by uncontrolled desires which they cannot refrain from exhibiting in public. They are little more than beasts, and there will always be the mental fear of the ultimate horror to which it all might lead: anal penetration.

A further, unspoken fear is twofold. Some equate same sex attraction with paedophilia. There is a short jump from the question whether allowing same sex relationships will also give permission to paedophilia, and then to saying that same sex attraction will also entail paedophilia — even though the (male) paedophile is as likely to be attracted to girls as boys.

I would however agree with you by having a baseline which affirms that God’s basic general and universal design is for marriage between couples of the opposite sex, and that between one man and one woman. However, as a baseline it also needs to be pointed out that this general design is not itself without variation in scripture, and polygamy was not only practised but under certain circumstances commanded and approved in scripture — such as the levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5) and God’s gift of Saul’s wives after his death to David, “into his arms” (2 Samuel 12:8). These are not the only examples. This is not to make a case for polygamy today, but simply to show that the catchphrase ‘marriage is one man and one woman’ is more political than scriptural.

If there are scriptural variations in what might be described as God’s general universal design for marriage, could such variation encompass same sex relationships? On the basis of my research, I would say that it must. Others would say that scripture provides no sanction at all for such a possibility.

At this point, I think the church needs to look more carefully at its presuppositions for interpretation of scripture. You have already mentioned one: that major changes in interpretation of the binding commands of the Torah were brought about in the first place not by scriptural interpretation, but by experience in the light of what the Holy Spirit was perceived to be doing. It would be very difficult to imagine anyone getting to the place of freedom from the works of Torah which Paul enjoyed without the component of the experience of the Holy Spirit driving a radical reinterpretation. What safeguards could there be to prevent abuse of such a dangerous appeal to subjective experience?

For me, the example of how Jesus interpreted scripture is the paradigm. It’s not that he intensified the law by extending it to heart and motive (as he did), but even the law was made relative to the greater law of love — Matthew 22:34-39. This seems to be a constant in the letters too — eg Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8. Yet this paradigm of love had some strange manifestations in Jesus. He went out of his way to be provocative to the Pharisees, to show that there was a higher law than rigid adherence to the laws of the Torah. Did he need to heal a man on the Sabbath, and use it as a text from experience to challenge the Pharisees over their adherence to the law over other Sabbath issues? Did he need to confront the Pharisees over picking and eating wheat from a field on the Sabbath, and to do so citing the example of David eating the show-bread which isn’t even to do with the Sabbath?

The heart of the matter between Jesus and the Pharisees is very like today’s argument in the church over same sex relationships. It’s perhaps provocative, but it seems to me that Jesus’s strictures against the Pharisees for neglecting “the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” are apt for today. We can obsess about a kind of scriptural interpretation, which is really a seeking after laws to guide our beliefs and practice. This has emerged with the use of the phrase “moral absolutes” in the argument, which really means one viewpoint leaves absolutely no room for another under any circumstances. So we seek “absolutes” and “laws” over personal behaviour yet ignore the church’s guilty collusion by silence in a very recent history of miscarriages of justice. Convicted gay men in the 1950s have only recently been pardoned, and even that does not remove their original offence from the statute book.

Worse than this, I fear, is a continuing but unexamined prejudice fuelled by homophobia. That I am convinced of this is because of my own experience in the church, where there has been no open discussion, no presentation of an affirming side of the argument, and worst of all, no willingness to meet and talk to those about whose lives we are making judgments.

As ever, there is no scriptural interpretation from nowhere; no supposed “neutral ground” of impartial understanding. We are all driven by presuppositions. Which might raise the question of my own. I don’t really know, except that I have been talking over many years (15 at least) with those at the heart of the debate, and listening very carefully. My own views have changed as a result. I read scripture very differently over this issue as a result. My own methods of scriptural interpretation have been challenged and have changed. My difficulty is with those who show complete unwillingness even to contemplate dialogue on the issue. But as with slavery, women in church leadership, and divorce and remarriage, I have no doubt we will change, and find a better way of reading and interpreting scripture.

I’m with Ian Paul. I find this bizzare and a real stretch, to put it mildly. We see nothing in Scripture regarding homosexual relationships anything remotely like God’s words to Peter about Gentiles “What God has made clean, do not call common.” As Webb demonstrates clearly in his book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, the entire trajectory of the Scriptural witness regarding homosexuality is away from any sort of approval, in the NT just as strongly as in the OT.

In addition, Forston and Grams, in their book Unchanging Witness, present abundant historical evidence for the following claim:

Scholars who contended several decades ago that only in modern times did people discover the concept of orientation have been proven wrong, as the evidence has accumulated over time… There are clear examples of adult males and females involved in homosexual relationships in antiquity. These people did not just perform homosexual acts. Their passionate love of one another, their long-term same-sex desire, and even, on occasion, their marriage or cohabitation with one another are discussed in the sources we have. There is, in short, nothing distinct about contemporary conversations concerning homosexual orientation.

I recently wrote a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality. Here is the final post, focusing on theological questions. I invite you to read it, as well as the earlier posts that focus on historical evidence.

Grace and peace, Dwight

Dwight, thanks for this. I agree that there is no trajectory in scripture in the direction of the approval of same-sex relationships. I also agree that there is some notion of same-sex orientation in antiquity, though I would say that it was nothing like as pervasive or foundational for anthropology or ethics as the modern scientific-libertarian understanding on which endorsement of same-sex marriage is based.

But I do think 1) that our eschatological horizon is very different to the eschatological horizons that accounted for the severe opposition to same-sex activity in the Old and New Testaments; 2) that the evangelical church in the coming years will have to work out how to accommodate good and faithful people in long-term committed same-sex relationships; and 3) that there may be strong pragmatic grounds for finding in the Jerusalem council story a useful analogy for that accommodation.

For the full argument, and more, see my book End of Story: Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission. You could ask Wipf & Stock for a review copy!

I also think it very unlikely that Jesus would have defended same-sex sexual activity if someone had asked him about it. If a man caught in the embrace of another man had been dragged by the Pharisees before him, I imagine he would have said what he (may or may not have) said to the woman caught in adultery: I don’t condemn you, but don’t do it again.

I am not persuaded, though, that homosexuality would have come in the category of adultery/porneia. I don’t see any reason in principle why aselgeia (BDAG: “lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable, self-abandonment”) could not have been used for the excessive desire that spills over into homosexual behaviour, but I don’t know of any Hellenistic-Jewish text where this connotation is evident. I lean towards the view that male homosexuality was regarded as a form of “uncleanness” rather than as porneia, which I think is always heterosexual. But thanks for the link.

Andrew, how does one claim to be a Jesus-follower while also (a) affirming (as you did) that Jesus would not approve of homosexual relations and yet (b) saying that the evangelical church will need to do so? How do you get from (a) Jesus didn’t approve of it to (b) Christians today should?

I am not aware of any other ethical point where the same is true. On all other new covenant changes, Jesus planted seeds that led to whatever “overturnings” occurred later in the apostolic church. To my knowledge, on no other matter of practical ethics did the church directly contradict the beliefs of Jesus.

I also confess I don’t understand what you mean by this: “our eschatological horizon is very different to the eschatological horizons that accounted for the severe opposition to same-sex activity in the Old and New Testaments.” The opposition in Scripture to same-sex activity was rooted primarily in the creation distinction between male and female (not primarily in any surrounding contextual factors for same-sex relationships), a distinction which was later revealed to be a paradigm for the relationship between Christ and the church. Nothing in our new covenant eliminates this creation sex distinction prior to the return of Christ (when Jesus said we will be as the angels), and the Christ-and-church relationship toward which sex and gender distinction point are eternal realities. So the foundational biblical reasons for opposition to same-sex activity are rooted realities that will last at least as long as this heaven and earth last.

Last comment for now: You say “I don’t see any reason in principle why aselgeia (BDAG: “lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable, self-abandonment”) could not have been used for the excessive desire that spills over into homosexual behaviour, but I don’t know of any Hellenistic-Jewish text where this connotation is evident.” However, consider this from my blog post (


In fact, there is one place in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:7) where the word ἀσέλγεια is used explicitly to refer to the actions of people who were homosexuals. Hobson again:

Second Peter uses ἀσέλγεια more than any other NT document.  It links ἀσέλγεια explicitly with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, picturing Lot (2 Pet 2,7) as “greatly distressed by the licentiousness (ἀσέλγεια) of the wicked” around him.


It is clear to me that any approval today of same-sex activity by a minority of the global church does not spring from any innate trajectory of biblical witness, but rather is an attempt to reverse the biblical testimony on sexual ethics to accommodate it to contemporary culture. Given both the biblical witness and the continued faithful witness of the majority of the Christian church worldwide on this topic, I don’t think there is any solid foundation for the claim that “the evangelical church in the coming years will have to work out how to accommodate good and faithful people in long-term committed same-sex relationships.” Some will do so, certainly. Others will stay true to the biblical witness.

Thanks for taking time to respond to my initial comment. I’m not pushing for a long discussion, just expressing my honest and heart-felt concern both as a biblical student and as a Jesus-follower.

1. Call me pedantic, but I do not claim to be a “Jesus-follower”. People who followed Jesus while he was alive were then sent by Jesus to proclaim the coming kingdom of God. People who believed their testimony did not then follow Jesus. How could they? He was dead. But they confessed him as Lord—over Israel, over the nations, and of history. No one in the New Testament talks about following the risen Jesus.

2. I think that a narrative-historical eschatology such as I argue for here encourages us to take seriously the large-scale epochal changes that have made the modern world what it is. Whatever the superficial similarities, our anthropology and ethics are built on very different scientific and libertarian premises. We do not think about the world in the way that the ancients did, and that gap will only get wider. I think that it is helpful to use the modern validation of same-sex relationships as a lens through which to examine the much broader challenges of telling the biblical story in a world that is fast moving away from its Christian past.

3. My argument in the book is that Paul’s critique in Romans 1 is aimed not at humanity as a whole but quite narrowly at the “Greek” world. He grounds his analysis not in the creation texts but in a civilisational repudiation of the creator in favour of idols; and he looks forward to a day in history when this whole idolatrous civilisation will be overthrown (wrath against the Greek). This does not reduce the force of his opposition to same-sex sexual activity, but it does make us take account of historical context. This is not our “eschatology”, so I think it is important to ask about what has changed.

4. This is a minor point, but it’s not correct to say that in 2 Peter 2:7 “ἀσέλγεια is used explicitly to refer to the actions of people who were homosexuals”. For a start, Hobson only speaks of the “sins” of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom was accused of a much broader range of sins than the attempted homosexual rape (Gen. 19:13; cf. Ezek. 16:49-50). And notice that Peter’s focus is on the day-to-day experience of wickedness in Sodom, not on the assault against the angels:

he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard)… (2 Pet. 2:7–8)

In fact, I think you could make a case here for thinking that aselgeia does not refer to the attempted homosexual rape. At least, this was regarded only as one incident among many.

Do we need a new James figure, a new council, and a new verdict?

The original council wasn’t determining whether or not aspects of Gentile behavior were right or wrong. It was determining whether or not Gentiles must convert to Judaism and thereby place themselves under the Law of Moses.

Gentile Christians had more freedom than Jewish Christians since according to the Jerusalem Council they could do things Jews were forbidden from doing.

But could they do anything as long as they ”abstain[ed] from the things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating what has been strangled, and from blood”? 

I think first-century Jews would have argued that natural law prohibited all people from murdering, stealing, bearing false witness, etc. Gentiles did not need the Torah to know these deeds were wrong because their God-given consciences did so.

But what about homosexuality? I think a very strong biblical case can be made for classifying homosexual acts as “sexual immorality,” something forbidden by the Jerusalem Council.

So while I think an appeal to the ruling of the Jerusalem Council makes sense if we’re talking about eating bacon or wearing clothing with mixed fabrics, I don’t think it can be used to justify homosexual behavior, regardless of whether or not this behavior occurs within the confines of a loving relationship.   

So while I think an appeal to the ruling of the Jerusalem Council makes sense if we’re talking about eating bacon or wearing clothing with mixed fabrics, I don’t think it can be used to justify homosexual behavior, regardless of whether or not this behavior occurs within the confines of a loving relationship.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that the Jerusalem Council can be used to justify homosexual behaviour. It is that if we think on other grounds that same-sex relationships must be accommodated in the life of the church, the story may provide a paradigm or methodology both for understanding the dilemma that the church faces and for wisely managing the accommodation.

The “other grounds,” in my view, are not biblical. My argument in End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission is that our story now includes a radical revision of our understanding of “nature.” Perhaps it is still a contentious point, but it seems to me that the church in the West now shares an anthropology that regards same-sex attraction as “natural” for a small proportion of the human population and—perhaps less certainly—an ethics that says that same-sex attracted people have a right to intimate companionship. For reasons that I set out in the book, I don’t think that celibacy is a viable solution to the problem.

It’s somewhat beside the point, but I also don’t think that same-sex sexual behaviour would be classified as “sexual immorality” or porneia in scripture. It better fits the category of uncleanness. But that’s another issue.