The most divisive question facing the early Church was whether it was necessary to observe the entire Mosaic Law—including circumcision and the dietary laws—in order to be a disciple of Christ.
Today, some of the most divisive questions facing the Church concern our response to same-sex attracted Christians and whether to bless same-sex marriages. In response to these divisions, some have suggested that the Apostles’ decision to set aside circumcision and the dietary laws provides a precedent for today: that we should set aside traditional interpretations of the Bible which forbid homosexual acts, and bless same-sex marriages.
In this post, I want to question a simplistic way that the New Testament narrative is applied to contemporary debates. I want to point out first, that the authority claims in the two cases are quite different; and second, that the New Testament approach to sexual ethics is very different from its approach to circumcision and the dietary laws.
My own judgment is that these two differences are significant enough to rule out any real parallel between contemporary arguments for blessing same-sex marriage and New Testament debates over circumcision and the dietary laws. But even if that position is too strong, the differences are significant enough that Christian same-sex marriage advocates need to do a lot more to deal with the differences if they want to invoke the analogy in a theologically coherent way.
It’s important to begin with some understanding of the situation that the Church found itself in during the decades immediately following the death and resurrection of Christ, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the foundation of the Christian Church as a religious body distinct from the Jewish people.
Christ was a Jew, born under the Mosaic Law, and circumcised on the eighth day. He preached primarily to His fellow Jews. During His earthly ministry, Jesus did not challenge the applicability of the Mosaic Law in a systematic way, though He did at times relativize ceremonial aspects of the law. For example: “is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11); and “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Although Jesus prioritizes outreach to the Jews (see, for example, his response to the Canaanite woman who asks him to heal her daughter in Matthew 15:21-28), there are also clear hints that His incarnation has a broader meaning. This begins with His birth, where Magi from the east come to worship Him (Matthew 2:1-12). This outreach continues in His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well—which led, through her witness, to preaching to and converting her whole village (John 4:1-42)—and in His healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). The clearest indication of the future trajectory of Gospel preaching is found in His last words to His Apostles:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Despite the wider mission of the Great Commission, the Apostles originally preached the Gospel primarily to the Jews. Then the Centurion Cornelius sent for Peter, who had been prepared for this request by a vision. Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, and they believed and received the Holy Spirit. Seeing that they had received the Holy Spirit, Peter baptized them (Acts 10).
Another important event was the conversion of Saul the Pharisee, who became the Apostle Paul and was sent out to preach to the Gentiles. All of these efforts showed the Holy Spirit at work among the Gentiles, and created divisive disputes about whether Gentile Christians had to submit to the entire Jewish way of life in order to become followers of Christ. At the first Council of Jerusalem (recorded in Acts 15), the Apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, taught authoritatively that the Gentiles did not have to submit to the ceremonial requirements of the Jewish Law in order to become Christians.
The key text here is in the letter the Apostles write to Gentile Christians following the first Council of Jerusalem:
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. Farewell. (Acts 15:28-29)
Some Interpretative Difficulties
This passage from the Apostles’ letter must be surprising for modern Christians: we do not think it matters whether our food contains blood or if it has been strangled. And so far as I know, this is not a quirk of modern Christianity: I do not know of any Christian writer outside the New Testament who treats this prohibition as authoritative. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, the Apostle Paul explicitly states that it is ok to eat food offered to idols.
There is thus some lack of clarity in the New Testament regarding exactly how far the Church intended to go in repudiating the Old Testament’s dietary laws (regarding circumcision, the witness is more consistent, though Paul adopts different strategies in dealing with Timothy and Titus).
Nevertheless, it seems to me that, with regard to food, two conclusions can be stated with some clarity. First, that the Apostles were clearly committed to the view that Christians were not bound by the strict rules of the Mosaic Law; and second, that there was some disagreement about just how far Christian freedom extended with regard to food. For this reason, there are several passages (1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14, for example) that deal with the need to show charity toward Christians whose beliefs about food differ from your own.
At the same time, it was clear that the authority of the Apostles stood on the side of those who denied the authority of the Mosaic Law with regard to food. It was not that both positions were equally valid. The need to observe the dietary laws of the Old Testament was not a “disputable matter,” in the sense that the Apostles treated the propositions “Gentile Christians must obey the Jewish dietary laws” as “true” for some people and “Gentile Christians need not obey the Jewish dietary laws” as equally “true” for other people. The Apostles clearly repudiated the Jewish belief that Gentile Christians were bound by the dietary rules of the Mosaic Law; but because this change was difficult for many Jewish Christians to accept, everyone was exhorted to treat each other with charity, and to avoid becoming a stumbling block to others.
The Problem of Authority
Thus, each of the “camps” in the first century Church drew their beliefs from publicly recognized divine revelation. In the case of those who believed that Gentiles must submit to circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws, they relied on God’s revelation to Moses, whom He had chosen as the lawgiver. On the other hand, those who believed that the Gentiles were not bound by these laws relied on revelation given to Apostles chosen by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Thus, even if we focus only on the context of the food laws themselves, we see a significant difference between modern debates about gay relationships and the ancient debates about the Jewish dietary laws. In the ancient case, both the “conservatives” and the “progressives” appealed to direct divine revelation given to the recognized leaders of the People of God.
In this case, however, there is no possibility of new revelation to change what was revealed in the New Testament.
In an earlier version of this post, as a way of suggesting what might make the present situation like the situation in the New Testament, I offered the following hypothetical:
God could have appeared to Pope Benedict XVI, given him a vision of a same-sex couple descending from heaven, and told him, “What I have blessed do not call disordered.” Or for those with more Evangelical leanings, He could have knocked James Dobson’s car off the road on his way to an anti-gay marriage rally, and asked him, “James, James, why are you persecuting me?”
I suppose that such experiences would be very controversial in the Church today, as Peter’s vision and Paul’s conversion and later theological claims were controversial two thousand years ago. But at least that sort of claim would make the case for same-sex marriage in the Church something like the case that Gentiles need not follow the ceremonial and dietary requirements of the Mosaic Law.
However, my friend Aaron Taylor pointed out that “Its not just that [new Apostolic revelations of the kind leading up to Acts 15 have] not happened, though, but that it cannot happen. Mainstream Christianity has always believed that Divine Revelation finished with the death of the last Apostle (usually believed to be St. John, but it’s not important who). So there is no possibility of further publicly recognized divine revelation. That doesn’t mean that Christians cannot discuss the morality of gay sex and relationships. But the discussion really has to be centered around different understandings of the existing data of revelation. If Benedict XVI or James Dobson did claim that God had appeared to them, it actually would not be relevant to the discussion.”
I agree with Aaron. There can be no new revelation which would alter what God revealed definitively in the New Testament.
The New Testament Treats Sex Quite Differently
I want to return to the letter the Apostles wrote to the Church at the first Council of Jerusalem, quoted above. Even as the Apostles repudiated circumcision and relaxed the dietary provisions of the Mosaic Law, they exhorted the Gentiles to shun sexual immorality.
We have already noted the way that Jesus, in His public ministry, tended to relativize the ceremonial and dietary aspects of the Mosaic Law. When it came to sex, however, we see two rather different ways in which His approach diverged from that of the Pharisees.
First, as His interactions with the woman at the well and the woman taken in adultery dramatically illustrate, His teaching and pastoral practice was at odds with the Mosaic Law in His willingness to offer forgiveness and a second chance to those guilty of sexual sin.
Second, however, though His concrete dealings with those who had divorced or committed adultery were marked by great compassion, at the level of precept, He preached a more demanding discipline than that required by the Mosaic law. In the Sermon on the Mount, He said:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)
And when the Pharisees asked Him about divorce, He challenged them:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matthew 19:4-6)
The Pharisees then ask, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” Jesus replies:
Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:8-9)
As with the food laws, we find here a conflict between the Mosaic Law, on the one hand, and Christian teaching on the other. However, in the case of the food laws, Christian teaching prescribes much less than the Mosaic Law, while in the case of sex, Christian discipleship is generally more demanding. There is, admittedly, some uncertainty about just what the Christian teaching on sexual ethics is. In Mark’s version of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees about divorce (Mark 10:2-12), Jesus offers simply a blanket prohibition on remarriage after divorce in all circumstances. In Matthew’s version, divorce can be allowed in cases of sexual immorality, and Paul seems to allow divorce in cases where an unbelieving spouse initiates the separation (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).
Nevertheless, in the case of the food laws, we are uncertain just how much of the Mosaic Law is being repudiated, while in the case of sex, we are uncertain just how far the New Testament goes in repudiating the concessions to human weakness found in the Mosaic Law.
Moreover, in the case of food laws, Christ relativizes them but does not explicitly repudiate them: Christians are not bound by them because of the Apostles’ claim that the Holy Spirit had led them to that conclusion. In the case of sexual ethics, however, it is Christ Himself who explicitly sets the new course, with its greater focus on the need to aim at sexual virtue.
At first, it seems plausible that the basic template that the Church used for responding to the divisive questions associated with including Gentiles in the Church can be applied to today’s divisive debates about sexuality. In each case, a rule seems to exclude a group, or at least make it more difficult for the members of that group to be part of the Church.
This seems to provide a biblical justification for relativizing Biblical passages which are usually interpreted to prohibit sexual intimacy between two men or two women.
On examination, however, there are significant obstacles to drawing this parallel.
First, there is the question of authority. In those Churches which claim apostolic succession, nothing like the apostolic revelations which led the early Church to shift its belief have occurred. Thus the situation we find in the New Testament debates about food, with publicly recognized divine revelation on both sides of the debate, does not appear in modern Christian debates about sex.
Second, the relationship between New Testament sexual ethics and the sexual ethics of the Mosaic Law is very different from the relationship between New Testament attitudes toward food and drink and the dietary codes of the Old Testament law. In fact, almost nothing in the New Testament is less like the loosening of the dietary laws than the way that the bar was raised for sexual ethics.
It is, of course, true, that many conservative Christians have reacted to gay and lesbian Christians with more of the harsh legalism of the Pharisees than with the forgiving welcome shown by Jesus.
The Christian solution to this, however, is not to put forward a more relaxed moral rule as a concession to human weakness. It is, in fact, the Pharisees who defend the relaxed rule on divorce, and Jesus—who reached out in love to the five-times-divorced Samaritan woman—who reminded His hearers of God’s plan in creating human beings male and female, and called husbands and wives to a more radical fidelity to that divine plan.
None of this is an argument for a specific theological or pastoral approach to gay and lesbian Christians. But I think these considerations give us very good reasons to be skeptical of the claim that, because the Apostles did not demand that the Gentiles be circumcised or submit to the Old Testament dietary laws, contemporary Christians should reject the long-held understanding that homosexual acts are incompatible with Christian discipleship.
Those who struggle with and fall short of the demands of Christian teaching about homosexual acts should be received with grace and encouragement (as Christ received the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman taken in adultery). But absent an authoritative theological mandate to change Church teaching of the kind the Holy Spirit gave the Apostles, we should pause for a long time to reflect before invoking the early Church’s example to overturn a long-held theological conviction which is rooted both in our understanding of Scripture and in the long-standing pastoral practice of the Church.
Whatever we do needs to be seasoned by deep reflection on and fidelity to the grace and truth found in Jesus’ own teaching and pastoral practice.