how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

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…?!

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.