Same-sex same solution (simplified). And what was James on about?

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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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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:

  1. if there are single and married gay people who believe in Jesus and have received the Spirit of God; and
  2. 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,
  3. if we are having to work with a different understanding of human nature because of secular rationalism; then
  4. 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”.

Your rationale is one I have appealed to in my own mind. I could not write off those people who had done so much for me. I could not judge against them because of their own fruitfulness in their own way. I could not take their Christ from them when Christ had clearly to me (even in my own confusion and limited understanding) given them to me as my associates and teachers. The apostle James is much more distant from the personal aspect of this than I can allow myself to be, but the council does leave room for waiting. Even Gamaliel’s argument could apply — if this is not from God, then it will not last.

Also, wherever I read in Tanach, I find suggestions that traditional language has made us complacent towards the universality implied of Yahweh’s work which turns what we see as ‘sin’ into his righteousness. I have to misread a huge number of examples to allow myself to see sheep and goats as separate sets of ‘people’. Just the other day I was pondering Malachi 3:18 (Hebrew) And you will turn and you will see a righteous one for a wicked one, a servant of God for one who does not serve him. Admittedly here I am not rendering the construction בין ל but is this implying that the ל should be read as a distinction or as a transformation? I could add ‘to discern’ in each case. But I am still pondering…

@Bob MacDonald:

But what do you make of the verses that follow Malachi 3:18?

For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 4:1–3)

Isn’t this a classic Jewish dualism between the righteous who will ultimately flourish and the unrighteous who will be destroyed—sheep and goats, in effect?

@Andrew Perriman:

It is a classic separation of good from evil — yes. But what part of it speaks of an integral individual good person tramping down a separated individual evil person? Or even a corporate good nation, tribe, band, or people trampling down a separate corporate evil one?

It may be that people would interpret this as good person vs evil person rather than good and evil being separated in the one person or among the attitude of the many and the evil destroyed. I have never met such an individual in my life, nor am I such a person. I am a mixed bag and I need correction. And so is my nation. The sun is a good metaphor for such correction. A walk in the sun is one of the last refuges of the aged. Think of its healing of sore shoulders but wear your hat and sunglasses, especially when trampling down those enemy branches or leaves blown down by the prior evening’s wind.

Some will object to my rejection of the integrity of the individual, but what thing was ever accomplished by one person? And when I look at what I think is a good tendency: determination to find the good in a story for instance, even this Scriptural story, in which is portrayed so much that is evil, I am astonished by my dependence on so many other people from farmers to software engineers, of all tribes and peoples of the world. Millions of people I do not know. They are not me and not like me culturally, but without them I would not have done my work nor even known my own evil that I might correct it by the mercy of God.

Everywhere I look in Tanach from the story that is in the Psalms to the music that grips the whole of the Hebrew canon and is written as an art song into its syllables one by one, there is an appeal to the separation of our sheep from our goats, not of us as sheep from the other as goat. I can only concentrate on one small part at a time of course, and it is possible to take any such passage or verse out of the story. For instance there is a strong individual focus in a few verses of Deuteronomy 29, but it quickly escalates into the consequence of the individual’s impact on the land. The individual’s ‘goat’ has a negative impact on the intent and purpose of Yahweh. The land becomes barren, the farmer can no longer work, and the whole people suffer exile. The covenant is such that it leans on even the one who resists, and its full force backfires on the whole social structure. (v22 Hebrew) “Pitch and salt incinerating, all toward the land. It is not sown and it does not grow and no herb comes up in it, as Sodom and Gomorrah were changed, Admah and Zeboim that Yahweh changed in his anger and in his heat.”

The exile colours the Hebrew Scripture from start to finish, and also the restoration, when all who have breath praise the work of Yahweh, who brings healing. As there was cost to the corporate so there is final wholeness. But in case we thought this was from individual goodness and then interpret the covenant of Torah that way (from Genesis to Deuteronomy), Job stands as a counterweight. The opening music of Job mimics the opening music of Genesis (my new book, released last Wednesday, The Song in the Night, on the music in the Hebrew text gives this as an example, one of many). And the plagues of Deuteronomy set up Job as a cipher for Israel, (not to mention Leviathan!) but I must stop for a comment cannot hold this — and I will be accused of wearing rose-tinted glasses anyway.

As someone who has followed your posts for a while, now, including the ones where you discuss this issue, I think you have done more than your share to take seriously the negative statements about homosexuality in the Bible as well as ascribe a healthy level of tentativity to your thinking through the contemporary issue.

I can understand someone disagreeing with your train of thought, but the idea that what you have said with all the heavy qualifications and acknowledgements and “maybes” constitutes some kind of agenda is sort of comical. With all due respect, if you’re trying to force a contemporary social agenda onto the church’s exegesis, you’re really doing a terrible job at it.