4: “…and the Holy Spirit”

If Jesus turned the religious world upside down while he lived among us, things did not settle down after he left.  It is recorded in The Acts of the Apostles: Pentecost was just the beginning of a revolution.  The Holy Spirit blew into the room with the sound of wind, the appearance of fire, and the chaos of several languages chattering at once.

Jesus’ friends were so inspired they didn’t let the authorities stop them from preaching the gospel and healing people.  Even imprisonment and death didn’t scare them off.  Then the Holy Spirit got downright pushy, forcing Philip and Peter to admit that Gentiles were legitimate members of God’s family.  And Saul went from killing Christians to becoming one of them.  There’s no mistaking that God was up to something big.

One of the pieces of the story gets too easily overlooked.  When Philip got sent to help an Ethiopian man with his Bible study on Isaiah, we are told the foreigner was also a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).  Such a man was considered safe to work with the women in a royal household, having had his manhood rendered inoperative.  In fact his sexuality violated the ancient purity codes (Leviticus 21:17-21; Deuteronomy 23:1).

But the Holy Spirit thrust Philip into his path to see a man who was seeking God.  When the man asked to be baptized, there was no demand for repentance, no required statement of faith.  His faith was enough.

While this story does not amount to an affirmation of the man’s sexuality—a cancellation of the purity laws—neither does it condemn him.  I would contend that the story is included precisely because his sexual identity is significant, and the Spirit was constantly revealing the truth about God’s inclusiveness in those days.  Why else would this incident be reported?

Paul is a prominent character in the books of Acts.  In a previous post I briefly addressed Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality.  In fact, the use of that word in modern translations of his letters cannot be supported, because the word itself did not exist in Greek, and the modern concept of same-sex, lifelong, monogamous relationships was culturally unacceptable back then.  Same-gender sex was a practice employed by wealthy men who could afford to exploit younger men.  Of course Paul was against that.  At the same time, slavery was common practice and not considered barbaric as it is today.  Paul told slaves to be obedient to their masters.

We have learned a lot about human dignity since Paul’s time, but we still have so far to go.  We are suspicious of foreigners.  Racism is still pervasive and deadly.  Prejudice against the LGBTQ community wields deadly force as well.

It’s time to listen to the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said the Spirit’s job is to remind us what he said.  “Love one another, as I have loved you” comes to mind.

#3: “Then There’s Jesus”

Jesus was popular with masses of people not only because he healed some of them, but also because they sensed that he spoke with authority.  From our (Christians’) perspective, we know why he had that authority: he is one of the Godhead, the Son himself.  Because he is divine, and we believe the radical claim that he became human and lived among us, what he said and did ought to have the most weight in considering what God wants for us and expects of us.

Jesus vexed the respected religious leaders of his day by violating Sabbath laws publicly.  He disregarded the laws about purity by touching lepers, conversing with women, and eating meals with people known as “sinners”—tax collectors and prostitutes among them.  By his actions, he indicated that people and their well being mattered more to him than legalities, even the Sabbath laws that were fundamental to the life of God’s chosen people.

Several stories are provided for us to show how Jesus cared more for people than for upholding and enforcing rules.  One is his conversation with a woman of Samaria (John 4), in which he listens to her views about religion.  A Jewish man was not supposed to speak with a woman nor a Gentile, let alone give her credit for having a brain.

Another story is an almost comical situation where Jesus heals a man born blind, but then the temple leaders simmer and then boil over with fury because they cannot make the blame stick on this man or his parents, and their accusations at Jesus resound with bluster and hypocrisy (John 9).  An unschooled man ends up pointing out the holes in their logic, so they dismiss him in frustration.  Jesus goes on to tell these self-appointed gate-keepers that he is not just a gate-keeper, he is the gate and does not need their help, thank you very much (John 10:7-9).

In case stories like these are not enough to show us Jesus’ values and authority on legal matters, there is the point-blank question posed to him, asking which commandment is most important.  Jesus replies that loving God with all of one’s being and loving the neighbor as oneself is the best guideline we can follow.  (Matthew 22:34-40)  He never said anything about loving the wrong person.

See, Jesus didn’t simply throw out the old laws.  In fact, his Sermon on the Mount made it clear that his standards are even higher.  He cares about the condition of our hearts that lead us to behave the way we do.  (Matthew 5:17-48)  Motives matter.  It’s no wonder he cited love as the bottom line.  Love is hard!

Nobody knew this better than Jesus.  He went all the way to the cross to embody his love for us, to let himself be tortured and crucified for the sake of laws he himself never violated.  But his silhouette hung starkly against the sky to show us what our legalism ultimately leads to: killing the God who loves us.  He would not let any sin—nor our judgments of one another—keep us from his love.  And that love could not be snuffed out; He lived on to forgive and to heal, and to enable us to do the same for each other.

Jesus talked about bearing fruit, and that was about love too.  (John 15:1-17)  I’ve seen a lot of good fruit from all kinds of people, both gay and straight.  He said we can detect good people by their good fruit.  (Matthew 7:15-20)

Still, we think we can put ourselves in the position of judging what sin is, and like the Pharisees, think we are justified in declaring whom God approves of and those God doesn’t.  Which part of “do not judge” don’t we understand?  (Matthew 7:1-5)  I am not pointing fingers, tempting as it is.  I am as guilty of it as anyone, compulsively judging people who do not agree with me on matters of faith.  Jesus calls that the plank in my eye while I’m searching for the speck in someone else’s.

I hate that.  I want to feel right, and righteous.  Don’t we all?

Jesus comes to us and says, “Don’t get worked up about that.  Just love each other.  Okay?”

#2: “But the Bible Says…”

This is the second of several posts addressing the debate about homosexuality that will soon take place at the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America (June 7-12, 2018).  To see earlier posts, scroll down.  

Before I continue, let me say that every single statement I make in these posts is backed up by many hours of study and thought and dialogue.  I could provide lots of footnotes, but I am just going to ask you to trust that I have done my homework in the Bible, in scholarly resources I trust, in relationships and conversations. If you want a bibliography, I’ll be happy to furnish one.  More than anything else, I am trying my hardest to follow Jesus.  That doesn’t mean I’m right.  It just means I’m earnest.

The first consideration that has to be addressed about affirming or not affirming LGBTQ persons as full and legitimate members/leaders in the Christian church is the Bible.  The arguments using biblical texts for either stance reflect the speakers’ understandings of how and why the Bible was written and what it means for us today.

For that reason, in my own exploration of what the Bible says about homosexuality, I had to ask myself the question, “What is the Bible for?”  Did Moses, or Paul, or anyone else think that what they were penning would be scrutinized two or three thousand years later for evidence in ethical debates?  It seems unlikely.  Nor did those who prayerfully determined the biblical canon (the writings included in the Scriptures) anticipate fundamentalism many centuries later, when people would consider every word in the Bible equal to every other word in weight and meaning.  (See, that idea is pretty young.  Christians didn’t play “my text can beat your text” for many centuries, probably because they were dealing with things like the plague, war, slavery, stuff like that.)

Here’s what I think about the Bible.  It is a record of people’s understanding about God that evolved over centuries.  It was not one-sided; God was active in the process.  But it seems that God let people deduce things about the divine that weren’t so great (like God annihilating people out of wrath) because it was all on the way to revealing the bigger (truer?) truth, but one step at a time, each one through the lens of anthropology at the time.  These are big things to teach, and God is patient.  So… there’s a story of God calling Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopping it so he could learn that God doesn’t operate that way even though the religions of the time thought God did.  There are so many other examples, but I’ll leave it at that.

Did the Holy Spirit inspire it all?  I think so, because that’s what the Holy Spirit does.  How that happened was probably as different as each writer was to each other.  Are there things in the Bible that no longer apply?  I think that’s true too, because the Holy Spirit is dynamic and involved in our progressive understandings of God and what it means to follow God, from four thousand years ago until today.

Am I wise enough to know which things still apply in original form and which don’t?  Well, I do have a God-given brain to help me with that.  But thinking we can tell everybody else precisely which text is timeless and which is contextual is a weighty responsibility that pastors can fumble even when we take it seriously.  We need to offer one another grace about it instead of spending all our time debating, because too often the people whose lives we are discussing end up suffering collateral damage.

So we have Paul telling the early Christians that people who lusted after their own sex were sinners, because back then, there’s a good chance that older men taking advantage of younger men is what that meant (pederasty).  Nowadays we have a different understanding of what homosexuality is.  It’s good to have Paul’s example of discerning what it means to follow Jesus, because that is what we should be doing.  But assuming that Paul’s advice two thousand years ago was meant to be a static ruling for all time seems to me to be an insult to the Holy Spirit, who expects us to pay attention to the factors at play in our time, in light of what we know about God.  Then we can determine how we are called to love each other, the driving ethic for followers of Jesus Christ.

And frankly, Paul had a background of killing people over rules, and we can’t expect him to shake that impulse completely.  He had his dark side just like the rest of us.  He also wrote about grace, and about love being the bottom line, so I am willing to give him a pass on a few comments in his letters.

Then there is Jesus.  I have to give his words and witness more weight than anything else, because he said himself that he is the only one who has been in both places (in the full presence of God and here among us), so he ought to know what he is talking about.  But that’s for another day.

In case you are wondering which texts people have been arguing over, here’s the list.  I’ll take you to a few others in the next few days, so stay tuned.

Noah and Ham (Genesis 9:20–27)

Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1–11

Levitical laws condemning same-sex relationships (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)

Two words in two Second Testament vice lists (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10)

Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 1:26–27)

I believe that these texts do not refer to homosexual relationships between two free, adult, and loving individuals. Legitimate (non-condemning) interpretations of these texts include rape or attempted rape (Genesis 9:20–27, 19:1–11), cultic prostitution (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), male prostitution and pederasty (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10), and promiscuity and/or the Isis cult in Rome (Romans 1:26–27).

Will Your Church Be Inclusive?

I think it is important for the people of Reformed churches to know what is happening in your denomination that will have a direct impact on the life of local congregations.  In June this year—less than two weeks from now—the General Synod of the RCA will meet in Grand Rapids, Michigan and vote on overtures that include:

1) Whether to enable each classis*—the body that has authority over the local pastors, consistories**, and congregations—to deny ordination to an LGBTQ person

2) Whether to enable each classis to discipline a pastor who is living in a same-sex relationship or who marries a same-sex couple or his/her congregation that allows it to happen.

3) Whether anyone with an affirming*** stance on LGBTQ persons will even be allowed to serve in any agency, commission, or task force.

In addition, there are attempts—and some actions already taken—to disband affirming classes and to allow the formation of non-affirming classes in order to gain more voting power within the denomination, both at the classis level and at the General Synod.  This would enable non-affirming entities to virtually control what remains and is changed in the Book of Church Order, to which all congregations and pastors must adhere.  Obviously this is good news for some and troubling news for others.

If you have questions about this, please ask your pastor about it.   You can see the entire workbook for the General Synod this year at this link:  https://www.rca.org/rca-basics/general-synod/general-synod-2018-workbook

I intend to write several posts this week to explain why I affirm LGBTQ persons as full members and legitimate leaders in the Christian church.  I do not intend to provoke debate or disharmony.  I merely want to share the views that have formed in my own mind and spirit over the past few years as I have studied and wrestled with the biblical texts, the life of the church, and a theology of humanity.  Very few church people in my acquaintance are able to undertake the study it takes to give these a fair treatment.  Since there are plenty of advocates for the non-affirming side in northwest Iowa and online, I want to present the other side of this contentious and important topic.

If you want to read about the two main groups that are taking a stand on the subject of LGBTQ persons, you can go to their websites:  https://roomforall.com/ and http://thegospelalliance.com/

*A classis is a group of churches and their ordained leaders.  It is somewhat equivalent to a Lutheran conference or a Presbyterian presbytery.

**A consistory is the group of elected leaders (elders and deacons) along with the pastor who govern the local congregation.  It is somewhat similar to a Lutheran church board or Presbyterian session.

*** The use of “affirming” and “non-affirming” is problematic, I know.  However, these are the ones I am choosing for the sake of simplicity and clarity.