Monday, August 26, 2013

Gay Marriage: The Scripture Everyone Seems to Forget

As I'm sure you might be aware, the gay marriage debate is a pretty lively one in our world today. I have written about the topic a few times before, and I think all of them are worth reads:

  • In this article, I argue that Christianity's lax attitude toward other sexual sins in marriage (fornication, adultery, divorce) have left us without much of a leg to stand on in this debate;
  • In this article, I argue that both sides of the debate are filled with arguments that make no sense and in fact derive from Greek philosophies rather than Christian ones;
  • In this article, I argue that boycotting a company because you disagree with their stance on gay marriage (or any other topic) is silly and ridiculous and counter-productive; and
  • In this article, I examine the Scriptures that pro-LGBT Christians like Rob Bell claim are misinterpreted to see if he's right. (Spoiler alert: he's not.)

But still, my wife reminds me that one of my key arguments about homosexuality--and in my opinion the most devastating one--has still not been posted. I think it is time to fix that.

One of the most common things you will hear skeptics (or even believers) say is this: "Why do you follow Levitical prohibitions of homosexuality, but not eating shellfish or other ritual purity acts?" Indeed, this popular (if silly) article over at Buzzfeed makes exactly this common claim, and many Christians even make the same argument.

The basic sense of the argument goes like this:  since Gentiles are not held to the Law post-Jesus, then why do we still follow Leviticus 18, when it condemns homosexuality?

To a lot of people, this argument makes sense. Sadly, too few Christians are Biblically-literate enough to know that there is a very relevant New Testament passage to answer this precise question.

The Background

If you've read my post here, then you can probably skip this section. But if not, let's briefly cover what happens in the first half of the book of Acts.

After Jesus is resurrected and spends time with His apostles, He leaves to go to heaven until His Second Coming, and instead gives the apostles the Holy Spirit to guide their decision-making. These apostles begin to form a synagogue of Messianic Jews in Jerusalem, preaching Jesus as Messiah. For three or four years, Christianity existed merely as a Jewish sect. (They did not call themselves Christians yet; they called themselves Jews who followed "The Way of Yeshua", or "The Way/Path of Jesus".)

Then, sometime around 37 AD, Peter gets a vision to preach to the Gentiles. He begins spreading Christianity among the Gentiles, and--much to everyone's surprise--these non-Jewish people start receiving the Holy Spirit too! This Gentile movement continues as a small side-thing for several years, until eventually Paul and Barnabas in 48 AD start their missionary journeys. Paul and Barnabas start preaching to the Gentiles as well, and find the Holy Spirit spreading like wildfire among them--without them converting first.

Why is this important?

Well, by 49 AD this had kicked off the first doctrinal controversy in the early Church. The question was: what to do with Gentile believers? Some, called the Judaizers, believed that the Gentiles must first convert to Judaism and follow the Mosaic Law--then and only then can they be true Christians. Others, like Paul and Barnabas, taught that they were not Jewish and therefore should not have any of the Law's demands.

Eventually, it erupted into such a controversy that a council of leaders was called in Jerusalem, in 49 AD. The purpose of this council was to answer a single question:  are Gentile believers in any way bound to the Mosaic Law of Leviticus and Deuteronomy? Note that this is the same question Buzzfeed and others asked above!

How in the world this Scripture is not studied and memorized by Gentiles, I'll never understand: it is a key part of the New Testament for us, perhaps the most important part other than the whole "Jesus being resurrected" thing. This section of Scripture details out exactly the manner in which Gentiles are allowed to join the faith of Christ. It should be memorized in every youth group and church in America. But I digress.

The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15)

The head of the meeting was James the Just, Jesus' brother and head of the church at Jerusalem. He, John, and Peter meet together in a private meeting to hear the testimony of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:2-12, Gal 2:4-10).

These men--in other words, all of the key church leaders who had spent years studying under Jesus--pray and fast and review the testimonies of Peter and Paul. Upon reviewing the testimony, Peter argues that since the Gentiles are not descended from Moses, they should in no way be burdened with the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:7-11). James agrees, seeing this as compatible with Jesus' teaching and the Old Testament prophesies (Acts 15:13-18). 

The Council decides that Gentile believers don't have to take on the weight of the Mosaic Law. They say that only the universal parts of the Old Testament apply to Gentiles: specifically, we are told to avoid idolatry/blood worship, and sexual immorality (Acts 15:19-21).

One of the most key passages in all Scripture for Gentile believers is this:

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” (Acts 15:28-29)

This confirms what most Christians discern from the Gospels and teachings of Jesus regarding Gentiles:  we are still bound to the covenant of Noah (so no murdering or idol worship), and we are bound to the code of sexual immorality, which is universal in nature.

What does this have to do with gay marriage?

Well, this means that we Gentiles are only held to two parts of the Mosaic Code: the Noahic Laws, and the Jewish sexual immorality laws. Which are what, exactly? Well I'm glad you asked: Leviticus 18, that's what.

You see, we Christians still follow one chapter--and only one--of Leviticus because that is what the New Testament commands of us in Acts 15. We are told that these two codes are the universals which bind us.

And thus, we reject bestiality, sex outside of marriage, incest, adultery, and--yes--homosexuality.

Far too often this is left out of our teaching in churches, and Christians skim this section of Acts without understanding its importance: and if we do not know, how can we teach the world?

So no, Christian: we do not arbitrarily choose just one chapter of the Mosaic Law to follow and ignore the rest just because it's inconvenient. We don't do it to annoy those who are gay. We don't do it because we're homophobic or old-fashioned.

Our religion is based upon freedom from sin and remarkable grace, and we are only asked (as Gentile believers) to do some VERY basic things with regard to the entire 600+ commandments of the Mosaic Law:  avoid idolatry, avoid murder, avoid sexual immorality as defined in Lev 18. That's it--it isn't arbitrary, it is explicitly commanded of us. There is no argument around Acts 15 that I have ever heard.


  1. Replies
    1. I agree, this is a Grand Slam point! I had never drawn this connection/conclusion.

    2. Thanks both! I covered this in our youth group this summer, it is very rarely used by Christians in arguments...which makes me think most haven't ever thought/heard it before. Hopefully this can help some!

  2. Good post, my standard retort has always been that ritual purity laws are exclusive to Judaism and don't apply to Christians, while moral law does; but this is more concise and effective. Thanks!

  3. Insightful. I can't understand why I haven't heard this passage invoked in this context before this.

  4. To begin with, I agree with the general premise of your post. I believe that you are on the right track in distinguishing moral laws from purity laws and the implications for homosexual behavior. I did, however, notice an addition and an omission in your own list of sexually immoral behaviors as compared with those listed in Leviticus 18. I don't engage in either of these behaviors, so I am not trying to justify a personal sin. Neither am I trying to be crude or snarky. I do hope that you could clarify these points to further the discussion and perhaps strengthen your assertions.

    1)You included polygamy as a prohibition. Based on Leviticus 18 alone, I do not see that this is specifically forbidden. Moses himself was apparently married to two women, Zipporah the Midianite and the unnamed Cushite. Certainly, the New Testament holds a one husband to one wife ideal, but I do not see this in the Leviticus passage.

    2) Your own list did not include the prohibition of marital intimacy during menstruation. In all my years in church, I have never heard a sermon go anywhere near this. I do recall the subject being addressed during a "Nearly-Wed" Sunday School class. The question of "okay-ness" was submitted anonymously by an attendee. The male teacher simply said that there were no safety issues from a hygiene standpoint, therefore it would be okay. He proceeded to the next question as quickly as he could.

    It seems that many current pastors condone intimacy during menstruation when you consider all the gimmicky marriage series and books that encourage couples to engage in intimacy on a daily basis for a certain number of days. Unless the wife has reached menopause, the couple would need to quickly and prayerfully discern their consciences on the issue.

    I may be wrong, but my opinion is that the menstruation issue would fall under the purity code and not the moral law. I base this on Jesus' miraculous ability to make what was ceremonially unclean into something clean. He touched lepers. He touched dead people. He did not chastise the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage for touching him but healed her, affirmed her faith, and called her "daughter." Lastly, Jesus turned the kosher laws prohibiting the consumption of blood on their heads when he grabbed a cup at the last supper and declared the wine to be the new covenant in his blood.

    I would greatly appreciate your feedback (or push back, if necessary).

    Laura S.

    1. These were points I was curious about too. I'm interested to hear your take on them as well.

    2. Laura - actually you are dead on right, and I got that feedback from others as well. What I did wrong here was that I was writing in response to the Levitical post on Buzzfeed and then right at the end I expand the scope to include other sexual ethics without explaining where it came from.

      What I'm going to do is edit the above slightly so that it is more "in scope" for that argument, and then write a follow-up post that explains #1 above (as well as the Christian view of divorce, which is tied up with sexual ethics as well).

      As I do the edit, I will address #2, which I interpret EXACTLY as you do, including the relevant verse.

      Sorry for the delay in responding--was at Disney on vacation. :) Will get to this ASAP.

    3. All:

      I have just posted a new post as a follow-up to this one. Please check it out...hope it helps!

    4. Thank you so much, Michael! I appreciate the expansion and clarifications you made in your follow-up post, which must have taken a lot of time and thought. You gracefully treaded where the squeamish dare not go.

      God bless,
      Laura S.

  5. Is it not significant that, out of this small list of prohibitions -- coming from the Holy Spirit, no less -- Paul crosses one of these off the list: in 1 Corinthians 8:4-13, he makes it clear that one may eat meat food sacrificed to idols if one is not troubled in their conscience by doing so. Could this not mean the same applies to the other items on this list? That is, that this list is not meant so much as a list of moral "thou shall nots" as it is a list of social-etiquette, "lets keep the peace by choosing not to do these" things.

  6. Michael.

    What a great post for such a hot button issue in ministry today. I've had so many people pose the same question to me as to why the other Levitical codes are not followed. I appreciate you taking the time to really study the Scriptures and see what they have to say. Homosexuality, like all other forms of sexual immorality, have been declared sin from the start, and will always be.

  7. This is great clarity for those of us who have struggled with the issue in discussions when urged to PROVE our claims against the avid thrust of sexual immorality in mainstream media. I've always been taught that anything that goes against the natural design of God is a sin. This helps bring it all together for me.

  8. This is great stuff, Michael. You're right, I never considered Acts 15:28-29 before. Thanks so much for the conversation.

  9. Thank you for your continued efforts to depict something you have no personal experience with. It is much appreciated.

    1. You're welcome. :)

      Understand that I am merely responding to requests of readers, who wish to know how to properly understand what the Bible says about this subject. What is relevant is how properly I am applying exegetical principles to the passage--that is, am I properly interpreting it? My personal experience is irrelevant. I don't need to be a murderer to analyze what the Bible says about murder. I don't need to be a Jew to understand Jewish theology. I don't need to be a Nicolatian to analyze Revelation passages.

      That said, I at least hope you will find all of my articles to be thoughtful, respectful, and kind. I never judge the person, nor say that homosexual sin is in any way worse than my own. But neither will I pretend, out of an attempt at kindness, that the Bible says something it does not say. Love is more than mere kindness.

  10. Here is the thing I don't understand. If you are right, then essentially God singles out some individuals with a curse. I have a friend that never has been heterosexually attracted to others. So essentially this goes beyond the normal sin we all have to cursing a person to never have love in their lives. We have seen clearly the failure and damage of "praying the gay away". So my question is, why are some people singled out in this horrible way?

    1. Good questions, and I appreciate them. First, one thing before I get started on your main question though--I have never been a supporter of the "pray the gay away" concept. As you can see in my other articles about homosexuality, I see it as no different than any other sin, and to pretend as though there is some prayer or action or training which can remove temptation entirely is not a Christian approach. Rather, we try to learn to deal with sin, be freed from sin, and avoid falling to the temptations...not as though someone who is gay can become un-gay.

      And that brings me to your key question, which is not understood even by most Christians: why does God single out some individuals? The answer: He doesn't. WE (Christians) have singled out homosexuality compared to other sexual sins. As this article shows, sexual sin is a big deal to God, because sex is so intimate, so tied up with our spiritual and emotional and physical desires, etc. But the reality is that Christians have been too harsh on the gay community.

      What I am not saying is that homosexuality is not sinful; it is. But it is no more or less sinful than any other sexual sin: lust, pornography, adultery, sex before marriage, etc. All of these are sexual sins equal to homosexuality. The error in our society today is the belief that homosexuality must be binary: either it is the worst sin ever, or it is not a sin at all. Both are false.

      The fact is that I am tempted sexually every day. It is different from the sexual temptations of the homosexual, but no less pervasive: I am tempted by attractive women on TV, on the street, in the workplace, on my computer, etc. And I cannot simply "pray away" that temptation; I must struggle with it and conquer it. The same is true of those who are tempted to sleep with their fiancée before marriage, or cheat on their spouse, or have gay sex. Being gay--that is, being tempted by the same sex--is not a sin! Acting on it is a sin.

      What breaks my heart for the homosexual community is that it is such a harder struggle than other sexual sins. I can be tempted by other women but married to a woman and thereby find some relief; it is obviously much harder for the homosexual, who has no such option.

      And that is the proper response for the Christian: it should be heartbreaking, because this is a person who is no worse than us, whose struggles are no different...but who has a tougher time handling it. We should be helping, not judging.

    2. Sorry, I had to break it into two parts.

      One final thought, though: at the beginning you say, "If you are right." I have nothing to do with it. If you change your thoughts one way or the other based on me, you make a bad mistake! I'm nobody.

      The key question in history is simply this: did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead? If so, then we must follow that conclusion where it leads; if not, then none of this matters. Start at the Tomb. If Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead then He is God and we must deal with what He says (and by the way He talked about heterosexual lust very firmly). If He did not rise from the dead, then He is of no more importance than other would-be messiahs like Simon Maccabbee, and need be paid no mind.

      The Resurrection is the key event. Study it, make a firm decision. Everything else proceeds from that.