Series overview – Understanding the Bible’s teachings on same-gender sexual activity

Signs at Indianapolis Art and Nature Park

 

In the midst of massive cultural shifts in recent decades Christians have begun to revisit the question of God’s perspective on same-gender sexual activity, especially sexual behavior within committed long-term same-gender relationships. Though this topic has been approached from a variety of directions, the purpose of these posts is to help Christians develop convictions that are deeply informed by relevant Bible passages.

Careful and honest interpretation of biblical texts should govern a Christian’s opinions and conclusions about how God views sexual activity among same-gender partners. Christians have valued the Bible as divinely inspired and authoritative revelation throughout church history, and Scripture itself carries the stamp of “Thus says the Lord.” Appeals to personal experiences, common sense, traditions, and even general theological principles, apart from engagement with the detailed discourse of actual passages of Scripture, can be too subjective and too easily influenced by personal preferences and biases or the winds of the broader culture.

What do the Scriptures in their parts and whole demonstrate about the legitimacy of same-sex practices (whether inside or outside a committed relationship)? To determine this we need to investigate relevant passages with the goal of discerning the original meaning intended by the divine and human authors (who were working in concert to disclose God’s truth). Fee and Stuart (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 18) insist that “[t]he test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text.” These posts are designed to help the reader make the best (and most honest) sense of the passages that address the topic of same-gender sexual activity.

 

This is an important issue

We will find that God’s prescription for marriage is not an arbitrary or peripheral matter, biblically or theologically.

Genesis 1-2 presents marriage between man and woman as central to God’s creation and his plans for humanity. Jesus appeals to this same definition and insists on its relevance to life for Christians (Matthew 19 and Mark 10). Marriage is thus tied to a central doctrine of the Christian faith: creation.

Ephesians 5 shows that marriage is related to both creation and redemption. Marriage between a husband and wife (specifically among Christians) is a sacred mystery that points to the union of Christ and his church, as a result of Christ’s sacrificial love for the church that was demonstrated on the cross.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 includes same-gender sexual activity among the vices that exclude people from inheriting the kingdom of God. 1 Timothy 1 places same-sex activity among the lawless practices that Christians must leave behind. Thus sexual practices are among the first-order issues for Christian ethics.

 

Contents of the posts that will follow

Section 1 – Overview (current post)

Section 2 – Marriage in Genesis, the Gospels, and Ephesians

Section 3 – Sodom and Gomorrah throughout the Bible

Section 4 – Leviticus 18 and 20

Section 5 – Romans 1:18-32

Section 6 – 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1

Section 7 – Matthew 7:15-20 – A Tree and its Fruit

Section 8 – Summary

 

Cautions

Bullying of any form should never be tolerated among Christians. Speaking hatefully or with contempt for people is condemned throughout Scripture. Our words reveal our hearts, so hostile speech reveals animosity in our hearts. That animosity needs to be rooted out by the Spirit.

Christians should be confident in what the Scriptures teach about same-gender sexual activity, but for the right purposes. We want to know God’s perspective on this issue to encourage growth in intimacy, love, and holiness with God and others. We don’t use biblical truth as a weapon to prove a point but as life-giving words that give Christians the courage to pursue abundant life under God’s reign.

Christians should be careful to differentiate between attractions and behaviors. The Bible speaks most directly about sexual sins as actions. That is the focus of these articles. The church should not despise or ostracize believers who experience same-gender attraction. A study of 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 shows that church discipline (confronting believers over sins) is reserved for sins involving clearly observed actions that are in blatant contradiction to the will of God. When there are no behavioral grounds for church discipline (nor any persistent dismissal or distortion of the basic theological heritage of the Christian faith), any believer in Christ ought to be welcomed wholeheartedly within the church family.

Certainly, all believers are called to tend to their attractions and desires so that these desires do not become the lustful thoughts that are condemned by Jesus (Matthew 5:27-28). Our common struggle as believers is to walk each moment in the Spirit, living out our identity in Christ by putting off the old self and putting on the new self. That includes being vigilant against sins in thoughts, attitudes, and actions (see James 1:14-15). But no one should be marginalized because of the specific nature of that process of sanctification.

Christians should adopt a different approach with those who engage in same-gender sexual activity and do not claim to follow Christ. Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 5:12 that Christians should not “judge” (confront) unbelievers about their sexual sins. In other words, Paul does not expect someone outside the faith to live according to Christian standards. The issue for all unbelievers is instead, “how will you respond to Jesus Christ, who died for your sins and rose again?”

 

A Note about Sources

I put these posts together after reading Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian. The purpose of these handouts is not to give a line-by-line response to the arguments of that book, but to educate readers about the passages Vines discusses in his book.

I refer to the standard dictionaries for Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) in the handouts. HALOT is the abbreviation for The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner). BDAG stands for the 3rd edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich).

Most of the notes on the posts are from my own first-hand interaction with the biblical passages and biblical resources, but I did consult two works that delve deeply into this topic: one chapter (“The Witness of Paul and Deutero-Paul”) from Robert A. J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics as well as John Stott’s essay on homosexual partnerships in his book Issues Facing Christians Today.  I also refer occasionally to other biblical and theological resources when they offer pertinent or quotable perspectives on a passage.

Sections 2-7 of this series will follow in upcoming weeks – stay tuned . . .

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The First Christians – Servants of God and Christ

John the servant

A stroll through the books of the New Testament reveals a common expression for how the earliest Christians viewed themselves: as servants of God and Jesus Christ:

Romans 1:1 – “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus”

Titus 1:1 – “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ”

James 1:1 – “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”

2 Peter 1:1 – “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ”

Jude 1:1 – “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James”

Revelation 1:1 – God gave his revelation to “his servant John.”

Five different Christian ministers – Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and John – identify themselves as servants of God and Christ. Two (James and Jude) were likely Jesus’ own brothers! Still, they didn’t play the “brother-of-Jesus card” but represented themselves as his servants. Peter, the apostle to the Jews, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and John, the last surviving apostle, each adopted the title “servant.” All five disciples placed this label front and center – at the beginning of their letters or writings.

The title “servant” captured the early Christians’ complete, undivided loyalty to Christ. The term comes from the Greek word doulos and typically referred to an actual slave in the Roman era. The Holman Christian Standard Bible actually insists on translating the term as “slave” in the verses mentioned above.

Christians serve the Lord exclusively. They buy into his lordship and kingdom, and they respond to his call. They make it their goal to know how to serve him through prayer and a careful study of Scriptures. They recognize the privilege of serving him, and they love to bring glory to his name. In the end, they long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

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Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom

Taylor University Prayer Chapel

Taylor University Prayer Chapel

Proverbs 3:13-18 identifies wisdom as the most valuable treasure in this world. Here is the passage in the NIV:

“Blessed are those who find wisdom, 
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.”

Notice the exhortations to actively pursue wisdom: “find wisdom . . . gain understanding . . . take hold of her . . . hold her fast.” With these words the father is appealing to his son, “make this your life quest!” And why? The passage makes it clear: an investment in wisdom pays great dividends, contributing to a life of shalom (peace) as well as fruitfulness in work and health.

What a great word for college students. The goal of a college education is not simply to become employable, to make lifelong friends, or to enjoy four years of enriching experiences. Those goals become meaningful only when aligned under a greater goal: growing in wisdom and understanding about God and the world he created.

How does one proceed on this journey towards wisdom and understanding? Proverbs 9:10 gives the starting point: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” And in the wake of the new covenant, Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

A truly wise life emerges only from a right relationship with God, in Christ, by the Spirit. I’m so glad that learning at Taylor is experienced within a context of faith and discipleship, so that growth in wisdom can take place!

 

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Ancient Sermon for Easter

Chinese believers refer to Easter as “Resurrection Day” (fuhuojie in Mandarin pinyin). On Resurrection Day we celebrate the world-changing event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. His victory over death secures victory over death for all who believe in him.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher - likely site of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher – likely site of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

An ancient Greek sermon, often attributed to John Chrysostom, captures much of the beauty and power of Resurrection Day. It invites “successful” and struggling believers alike to celebrate glorious life in Christ and revel in the victory Christ accomplished over the grave. Note especially the allusions to the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16), the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and 1 Corinthians 15:20-26,54-55. Here is the sermon:

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

This English translation of this sermon is found at anglicansonline.org, and the original Greek sermon is included in the Patrologia Graeca Series by Jacques-Paul Migne. For a brief discussion about the association of the sermon with John Chrysostom, see Roger Pearse’s post and links.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!flowers in waterA

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What would the Apostle Paul say to us?

I gave my Pauline Epistles class this exercise on the final day of class: in 20 minutes write a brief letter in which you imagine what Paul would say to the community of believers at Taylor University. Here were the instructions:

  • Write a theologically rich greeting/intro.
  • Give thanks for something good Paul sees at Taylor.
  • Address a problem Paul observes at Taylor.
  • Conclude with a brief benediction.

After each group read its letter to the class, we voted for our favorites (the ones that reflected both Paul’s heart and the needs at Taylor the best). The following two letters tied for the most votes. Students in these two groups gave me their permission to post the letters, along with their first names.

Apostle Paul

First group: Katie, Jessica, Vivi

This letter is from Paul, an apostle appointed by God and Jesus Christ. To the saints of Taylor University. Grace and peace to you! I long to see you soon, but these chains hold me back.

We thank God whenever we remember your unity in Christ and community with one another. We know you Gentiles have come from diverse backgrounds with various traditions and yet you remain faithful to Christ and one another. When I heard that you had established a communal time three times a week to worship God and spend time as the body of Christ I was greatly pleased. I pray that you will remain faithful to God and each other during those times.

I want you to know that I have agonized deeply concerning your commitment to academics and activities. I do not mean to say these things are bad – on the contrary! You have come to this institution to study and make friendships. What concerns me is the devotion you have for these things. When given a choice to pray or spend a whole day studying, why do many of you choose the latter? It is to your advantage to place God at the forefront of your life to ensure the salvation of your souls. You must not forget, brothers and sisters, that these four years are still a part of the race for the prize, so stay strong!

Greet our fellow brothers and sisters, including Dr. Habecker and Dr. MaGee, for me. Grace and peace to you all. Amen.

(Editorial notes: the letter refers to Taylor’s chapel services, which are held three times a week, and Taylor’s president, Dr. Habecker).

IMG_1199

Second group: TJ, Ryan, Erin, Andrea, Kamra

Paul, an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ; grace and peace to all the brothers and sisters at Taylor University. I am able to write to you because of the mercy of Christ Jesus, who was resurrected by the Father and also brings us eternal life.

I have not stopped giving thanks for your continual fellowship. The household of MaGee has reported to me your intentional community as well as your integration of faith and learning. Others use knowledge to build themselves up, but you, my brothers, show genuine concern for using your knowledge for the edification of the ekklesia.

However, it is said among you, “ring by Spring,” but do you not realize that some of you pursue this desire at the expense of practicing full devotion to God? I tell you it is better for you to be single when you graduate than to wed before you attain a maturity that comes from knowing Christ only.

Give my greetings to Randy, Eugene, and Bill, who are the very reason I was able to preach among you. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you forever.

(Editorial notes: “ring by Spring” describes the urgency some Taylor students feel about getting engaged while they are at Taylor. Randy, Eugene, and Bill are beloved leaders at Taylor University. Ekklesia is the Greek term used to describe the church or gathering of believers in the New Testament).

It seemed like everyone enjoyed this assignment, and all groups did a great job with the 20 minutes they were given for the exercise.

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Moral clarity and mission in Ephesians

Blending inOne of the most difficult issues for Christians to navigate in our generation (and in any generation) is how to engage faithfully and constructively with people who don’t share our Christian beliefs. If our approach is too strident, we make enemies unnecessarily, but if we lose our sense of identity and mission while we are immersed in the surrounding culture, the distinctive beauty of our Christian witness is diminished.

Three passages in Ephesians offer help in clarifying how a Christian living in the light can shine within a dark world.

Ephesians 4:17-19 foreshadows teaching on putting off the “old self” and putting on the “new self” by exhorting believers to leave behind the non-Christian attitudes and practices that characterized their former lives. Their old selves were permeated by “the futility of their thinking,” and being “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” They were marked by “ignorance” (of God’s good will), hardened hearts, a loss of “all sensitivity” (to God and his work), and various moral vices.

Ephesians 5:8-14 uses the imagery of light and darkness to highlight the drastic change of the believer’s spiritual situation. “Light” is grouped with belonging to God, living a morally fruitful life, and pleasing the Lord. “Darkness” is associated with fruitless deeds, shame, and hiding. Christians are called to separate themselves from participation in darkness while shining brightly in the dark environment around them.

Ephesians 6:10-12 depicts the Christian struggle to live for God in the world as warfare. Paul is careful to specify that our enemy is not “flesh and blood” though. The devil and all other spiritual rulers, authorities, powers, and forces of evil in “this dark world” are the ones who oppose God’s people. Christians must stand strong in their identity in Christ and all of the divine resources God has made available to us in this supernatural struggle.

Two key truths emerge from these three passages:

1. The light/dark contrast and stark difference between believers and unbelievers alerts us to the need for moral clarity and discernment in our lives. It is a false dichotomy to say that Christians in their relationships and behavior can be either loving or holy. A sloppy line of reasoning among some Christians goes like this: A) it is wrong to be moralistic and legalistic – concerned with only outward behavior and being pure; B) therefore, just love other people and don’t be concerned about moral excellence. Our engagement with the world is characterized by both love and light. It is interesting to note that in 1 John, two things are said about God: “God is love” (4:8,16) and “God is light” (1:5).

2. Spiritual battle is a reality in our lives, but we must be sure to identify the correct enemy: Satan and the forces under him, not the unbelievers we encounter. We need to be spiritually and morally vigilant in our resistance to Satan’s agenda and values. But we should be careful about adopting a cultural warrior attitude against people who don’t believe in Christ. Our posture towards others should be that of an “ambassador” (Eph 6:20), looking for opportunities to represent God well as we share the light of Christ  with those who don’t know him.

Unlike the lizard (at least I think that’s what it is!) in the opening picture, Christians are called to stand out within our environment. We are not driven by hostility towards those around us but motivated with a desire to shine the light of the gospel in dark places.

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Renewal in Christ, part 2 – New Creation, New Community

Waterfall in the Rockies

Christians enjoy a transformation in their lives that changes them from the inside out and touches every part of their existence. From last time, we saw that Paul unfolds the foundation for and process of renewal in Christ, in Colossians 3:1-10. For this post, we will observe the outcome and community of renewal in Colossians 3:10-14.

How does the daily process of living out our union with Christ through leaving behind the old self and growing into the new fit into God’s eternal plans for our lives and our world?

The outcome of renewal in Christ is that believers are “renewed in knowledge after the image of our creator” (Col 3:10).

The very word renewal in English and Greek (ανακαινοω) implies a return to an initial, ideal status. Along these lines, the pairing of “image” and “creator” takes us back to Genesis 1:26-28, where humans made in the image of God are commissioned as creators and rulers under God. Against this Scriptural background, Paul pictures Christ-formed believers creating and ruling under God in the new creation, in parallel with the original creation ideal. This should engender a sense of wonder, creativity, and responsibility among those who are being renewed in Christ.

Ultimately, our renewed lives will be lived out in a renewed creation of the new heavens and new earth (see Revelation 21-22). But in our current lives renewal towards that goal can still be experienced in all areas of life. The depth of renewal is as limitless as the depths of the riches of Christ (see Col 2:3), and the scope of renewal is as wide as all of creation, particularly in the vocations to which we are called. The process of Christ-centered formation is not somehow cordoned off from “real life” and limited to private spirituality but is at the core of an integrated renewal that touches all areas of creation and new creation.

One other implication of the outcome of renewal in Christ is that through the process of putting off the old self and putting on the new self we are being restored to our authentic selves. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that God somehow wants us to abandon and be untrue to our authentic selves when we grow as disciples. But the new self we embrace through renewal in Christ is a return to the original, authentic vision God has for humanity. It is the distorted and temporary false self that is being cast aside when we put off the old self and are made new in Christ.

Finally, the community of renewal is the body of Christ in all of its diversity (Col 3:11).

Believers all share a common union with Christ. We partake in a common renewal, from old to new, as we are being restored to the image of God. Rigid categories that separate us are eliminated – “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.” Christ’s work of renewal does not eliminate diversity but secures equality in Christ among those diverse believers, so that  “Christ is all, and in all.”

The “new-self” practices Paul identifies in Col 3:12-14 are community/corporate practices, encompassing relational virtues such as compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, along with habits of forgiving and loving one another. We see some of these in action in Paul’s letter to Philemon, where Paul challenges Philemon to live out the implications of this equal status in Christ with his slave Onesimus. It is in the closeness and messiness of real relationships that renewal into the image of God is experienced.

With Christ at the center of our identity and renewal, we grow together towards the original vision of humanity God gave to us, and toward what we will enjoy together with him, eternally, in the new creation.

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