Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

GLBT Persons in the Church: Today’s Gentile Inclusion?

In the second post in this series, I gave some guidelines for the use of Scripture in Christian ethics–a beginning, but not an ending. I have written several articles on this topic (and reviewed more books on hermeneutics, biblical authority, etc. than I could count in a day) and may one day write a book on the topic.  But, for our purposes (and to help bring this series to a long overdue close), I will try to draw out the similarities I see between this debate and the 19th C. debate over slavery–and the first Century debate over including Gentiles in the Church without circumcision and without requiring adherence to Levitical purity laws (see esp. Acts 10).

  • In the 19th C., almost all the actual texts of Scripture were on the pro-slavery side of the debate–the morally wrong side.  The abolitionists could and did argue that biblical slavery was not race-based–and try to argue against the racist use of the story in Genesis of Noah’s cursing of Ham and his son Canaan which slaveholders (mis)used to justify singling out Africans for perpetual chattel slavery.  They could argue that the Exodus and the liberating work of Jesus undermined slavery.  They could point to Paul’s attempt to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus.  But there are no actual statements claiming that slavery is always and everywhere wrong. From Genesis to Revelation,  the owning of some humans by others is assumed.
  • This was the first crisis of biblical authority in U.S. Christianity.  Modern biblical criticism that began mostly in Germany in the 19th C. barely penetrated the awareness of U.S. seminaries until after the Civil War–certainly not as a widespread phenomenon.  But slavery was another matter–as it was earlier in the British empire.  The moral high ground was with the abolitionists–but the letter of the biblical text was with the slaveholders. 
  • The debate over slavery and biblical interpretation has often been compared to the debate over the equality of the sexes and women’s roles in church, home, and society. (See, e.g.,Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women:  Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation [Herald Press, 1983].) And there ARE similarities. In the New Testament, for example, the biblical texts which are used to support the subordination of women in church, home, and society are usually the very same texts which were used to support slavery!
  • But there are also strong differences which those who are egalitarians regarding women and men, but not affirming of GLBT persons (folk like Catherine Clark Kroeger, David P. Gushee, Ronald Sider, Richard Hays, the late Stanley Grenz, Marva Dawn, etc.) point out with some frequency:  In the case of women’s equality with men, there are also strong texts that clearly support egalitarianism whereas, at best, this is ambiguous regarding both slavery and GLBT folk.
  • In both the 19th C. debate over slavery, and the current debate over “homosexuality,” the traditionalists employ a “flat Bible” hermeneutic which claims to place all direct commands on the same level unless they have been specifically repealed. (In practice, the literalism is far more selective and piecemeal, with little guiding it accept the biases of the traditional culture.)
  • In both debates, the traditionalists seem to use a hermeneutic of “control,” even of domination. Abolitionists and inclusivists, instead, are guided by solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.

Can we find a new path? I want to argue that it matters not only HOW we read Scripture, but with WHOM. Reading Scripture with the poor is different from reading with bankers and Wall Street day traders.  If white Christians had been reading their Bibles with Black Christians during segregation, could white churches have continued to support it? (The same could be asked of white Christians in South Africa under apartheid.) Reading Johannine texts about “the Jews” is different once one has celebrated a Seder meal with Holocaust survivors.  Reading divine promises to Israel concerning the Land sound different when read with Palestinian Christians whose families have been Christian since the first C. and whose homes and farms were lost in 1948–or plowed under more recently to make room for THE WALL.  Likewise, I began to change my views on “homosexuality” when some Christian friends I had known for years “came out” to me as gay and when I began reading the handful of texts in Scripture used to justify exclusion in the presence of these friends–some of whom can never go back to their home churches or even their biological families since coming out of the closet. Some have lost jobs, been falsely accused of child abuse, been denied access to partners in critical care units in the hospital (reserved for “family members,”), had children taken from them as “unfit parents,” lost housing, been denied the right to adopt, received hate mail or death threats–and so much more.

A clue from Acts 10.  Peter is given a vision of animals that are ritually unclean and told to rise, kill, and eat. He refuses, keeping the dietary laws (kosher) of Judaism, as he has done all his life.  After the vision, he is summoned to the house of a Gentile (a god-fearer, near-convert, who had gone so far as to build a synagogue and had a good repute from the entire Jewish community), an occupying Roman soldier named Cornelius.  It was considered taboo even to enter the house of a Gentile (but Peter, following Jesus, had already begun to question such purity concerns–he is staying in the house of Simon the tanner–and tanners were considered unclean because they handled dead animals), but Peter does it.  Cornelius is converted in the middle of Peter’s sermon and the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles (they speak in tongues as proof)–without waiting for circumcision or anything. So, Peter figures he might as well baptize them since they ALREADY HAVE the Holy Spirit.

He is called before the Jerusalem council to answer for his actions and says, in effect, “Yeah, I know what the Bible (Moses) says, but I tell you I saw these perver–er, I mean Gentiles, receive the Holy Spirit–the same as we did!”

The decision of the early church to include Gentiles without requiring circumcision, as people from Ken Sehested to Jeffrey Siker have argued, should be a major clue to how the contemporary church should welcome gay and lesbian Christians–without adding burdens by demanding a higher sexual ethic (mandatory celibacy) of them than we do for heterosexuals.  The risk those early Jewish Christians took in deliberately setting aside the clear word of Scripture for the demands of the gospel was no less than we face today regarding GLBT folk.

My next post will conclude this series with some suggestions on distinguishing between civil issues and issues for the church and suggestions for a single standard sexual ethic for all of us.

July 24, 2008 - Posted by | GLBT issues


  1. I believe that the argument of analogy from Gentile inclusion in Acts is the strongest part of your argument.

    I met Ken Sehested at a meeting of the Methodist Federation for Social Action at the Western NC annual conference several years ago. He gave a talk on the spirituality of nonviolence, and it was outstanding.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | July 24, 2008

  2. GentIle inclusion. I thought you wrote gentle inclusion and like that title, too.

    Comment by john shuck | July 24, 2008

  3. I think this analogy is spot-on. However, it won’t satisfy those who believe that God’s faithful people needed the additional revelation of the NT but who also believe that the canon – and theological development – is/are closed.

    Comment by PamBG | July 25, 2008

  4. Thanks, Jonathan, John, and Pam. Pam, I agree, but that perspective denies that God is living and still guiding the church, today.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 25, 2008

  5. We always hear the adage about how sinners are free to receive grace without first cleansing themselves of sin. Even those who say homosexuality is a sin should do themselves a favor and don’t insist gays straighten up (no pun intended) before they come to fellowship.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 25, 2008

  6. Michael,

    Do you have any plans to discuss Gen 2:24? This seems to be a central text for Grenz and others who argue that God’s “creative intent” does not allow for homosexual behavior of any kind.

    In the meantime, I haven’t seen any traditionalist arguments that mention, let alone attempt to refute, Gentile inclusion as an argument in favor of GLBT inclusion so I’m wondering if both of these are points where both sides are talking past each other rather than actually engaging in dialog.

    Comment by haitianministries | July 25, 2008

  7. The early church did not “set aside” Scripture when it included Gentiles. James quotes Amos in Acts 15. And there are scholars who equate the requirements for the Gentiles with what the Torah commands for the ger.

    Comment by James Pate | July 25, 2008

  8. Daniel, I wish you had brought up Gen. 2:24 earlier. I had finished my biblical work and didn’t want to do another addendum, but this seems to be something that should be addressed. Sigh. (I am really wanting to finish this series and move on.)

    James, I was referring to the requirement that Gentiles be circumcised before being included “in the congregation of Israel.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 26, 2008

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