This is the eighth part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” Click here for my previous post on this topic. I will put the links to all previous posts together in one forthcoming blog post.
As Rev. Purdue winds down his blog post arguing for changing our United Methodist doctrine on sexuality, he appeals to the example of the early church in Acts 15, which ruled that Gentile believers do not have to first become Jewish before becoming Christian. He writes:
No matter where we stand on issues of homosexuality, the Acts of the Apostles offers our church a way forward!… Core Christian ideas like forgiveness, kindness, love of God, and love for neighbor wove two very different lifestyles and practices together. More than ideas, the very presence of the Risen Christ united diverse theological camps into one church…
The Jerusalem Council does not ask the Mother Church to serve pork at their pot-luck, but makes room for an experimental new branch within the mother vine. Paul calls the Gentiles “a wild olive shoot” and an “engrafted branch” (Romans 11). The new Gentile-inclusive church was a challenge. The Gentile-inclusive church dragged the Jewish Mother Church to uncomfortable new places where the Gospel was preached. Issues like sorcery, shrines, meat offered to idols, weird non-kosher food, un-circumcision, Sunday worship and other struggles bubbled up. The Jewish Mother Church welcomed this engrafted theologically diverse expression of Christian faith. No doubt, many old guard Christians shook their never shaven sideburns (Leviticus 21:5) and wondered what was happening to their church. Yet, a church united in diverse theology presented a witness that people who disagreed could stay together…
Some may see the inclusion of an “engrafted wild olive shoot” as a division in the body of Christ. The Apostolic church saw culturally-Jewish and Gentile-inclusive congregations as different expressions of the same Christian faith—two branches of the same Christian tree.
Notice his emphasis on theological diversity: “diverse theological camps,” “theologically diverse expression of Christian faith,” “diverse theology.”
Is Purdue right about this? Does Acts 15 affirm theological diversity in the early church?
In fact, it utterly rejects theological diversity. For Purdue’s analogy to hold, we would see the Jerusalem Council ruling that it’s O.K. for the Jerusalem mother church to teach that Gentiles must be circumcised and follow other aspects of Jewish ceremonial law, while it’s also O.K. for Paul and his fellow missionaries teach Gentile converts that they don’t need to follow these laws. These are as theologically incompatible ideas as the UMC’s both endorsing and forbidding gay marriage and clergy rights.
Instead, it asserts that the one “theological camp” in which all orthodox Christians must live is the one that teaches that Jewish ceremonial law is irrelevant to the gospel. Whether or not Jewish Christians continued to follow it was a matter of adiaphora (theological indifference), but they must not think that by doing so they are being faithful to God.
Besides, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, LGBT-affirming Christians, like Luke Timothy Johnson, who use Acts 15 as an example for the church as it debates homosexual practice, rarely mention or analyze one aspect of Old Testament law that was still binding on Gentiles: their avoidance of porneia, “sexual immorality.” In the comments section of a previous post, I wrote the following about Johnson’s argument:
As for Dr. Johnson’s argument, what can I say? I’m classically Protestant. No argument that contradicts the plain meaning of scripture, properly exegeted and interpreted, will persuade me. It’s ironic that Johnson uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as part of his argument: while the council “reinterpreted Scripture in light of the experience of God,” they reaffirmed the proscription against porneia (sexual immorality), which the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have understood (without controversy) to include homosexual practice (alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality).
He refers to vv. 20-21 (without quoting it) as a “compromise” made for the sake of Jewish Christians, but he can’t mean that, can he? He surely isn’t saying that the proscription against porneia, however one interprets it, isn’t a crucial aspect of holy Christian living!
By all means, the Jerusalem church is seeing that some parts of Old Testament law have fulfilled the purpose for which they were given; that they’re no longer binding on people who are now part of Christ Jesus. Interestingly, one part of the law that is still binding is that part that deals with sexual immorality—which, again, in context would have included homosexual practice.
Finally, it’s worth considering how we know for sure that Gentiles no longer have to follow Jewish ceremonial law. We don’t have to resort to a vague “sweep of scripture” argument, or a “Jesus tea-strainer,” or arguments from silence, or unprincipled picking-and-choosing to arrive at this conclusion: we have the plain words and meaning of scripture. That’s why this theological position involves no guesswork and isn’t controversial at all.
If the Holy Spirit wanted to tell us, though God’s inscripturated Word, that homosexual practice was permissible in the same way as uncircumcised Gentile inclusion, why didn’t the Spirit do so?