Eunuchs and “Full Inclusion”

One of the points proponents of same-sex marriage in the church often make is that the Bible’s trajectory is toward greater, not lesser, inclusiveness. Gentiles, women, eunuchs, “sinners” of various stripes, etc.—all these are, by the time we arrive at the end of the New Testament, clearly at the heart of the kingdom of God, pulled into the sphere of Christ’s church from the margins they occupied under the old covenant (Ephesians 2:11-12).

I hope to say more about this theme later in the week here on the blog, but for now I wanted to focus briefly the claim that the case of the “full inclusion” of eunuchs in the early church is analogous to the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church today. As the argument goes, eunuchs were “others,” outsiders, and not fully included in the people of God under the old covenant (see Deuteronomy 23:1). But now, in Christ, they are (see Acts 8:26-39). Likewise—so goes the progressive case—gay and lesbian people too, formerly not fully included (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), ought to be included now, in Christ, welcomed and wholly affirmed in their faithful, monogamous loves.

Earlier this week, I was discussing this progressive argument over email with a friend, and I made the comment that the analogy doesn’t quite hold. I think it doesn’t hold because what the New Testament envisions is the full inclusion of all persons but not a concomitant endorsement of all those persons’ previous cultural ethics and practices. (Thus, a “traditionalist” Christian would say categorically that all are welcome in Christ’s church — Jews, Gentiles, eunuchs, women, straight and gay and queer and trans people alike — but that all are also summoned to a transformative discipleship that will leave none of their felt or chosen identities fully intact.)

With my friend’s permission, I wanted to share his reply to me, which I thought was especially insightful and well-put:

The eunuch is such an illuminating case. The trajectory progressive writers rightly see toward greater inclusion of eunuchs is tightly correlated (in Isaiah 56:3-5 and the New Testament) with the expansion of Israel’s mission to other nations. For while Israel was categorically forbidden to make eunuchs (via castration), other nations around Israel did so.

So now, in the New Testament context, there are persons (like the Ethiopian eunuch) from other nations who are worthy recipients of the gospel. The person is welcomed without reserve. But there is not the slightest hint that now it would be allowed, or even tolerated, for Israel or the church to make eunuchs as other nations did. Who can doubt that, had the issue come up in the first century, the apostolic teaching would have been resoundingly against the actual castration of individuals. (That did come later in the worst excesses of asceticism, and was ultimately rejected as heresy if I’m not mistaken.)

Except for a fascinating turn in Jesus’ own teaching! Where he says that some have made themselves eunuchs “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12). But far from being someone who has conformed themselves to the dominant cultural practice, these are people who themselves have made a radically countercultural choice (in the Matthean context, where all men would normally aspire to marry, they are ones who have decided it is “better not to marry,” as the disciples put it).

So the persons are categorically welcomed, whatever their cultural history (with its attendant ethic) from which they come. The church is not invited to actually adopt that cultural ethic (in the sense of physically castrating individuals). But nonetheless, eunuchs—whether “born that way,” made so (in violation of God’s covenant norms for his people) by others, or metaphorically so as a countercultural advance guard, now become signs of the kingdom. Amazing and revolutionary—far more revolutionary than mere “inclusion.” That which had no honor now has honor.

I so wish more sexual minorities heard anything close to this about their personhood from the church.

In short, the New Testament’s vision of the full inclusion of eunuchs is indeed a powerful analogue to the message the church brings to us gay folks. But the analogy, by the same token, doesn’t seem to do all that my progressive friends need it to do for their case to be fully persuasive. As I say, I hope to write more on this theme of “inclusion” in the New Testament later this week.

7 thoughts on “Eunuchs and “Full Inclusion”

  1. Isaiah 56:3-8 may also be worth exploring in terms of how the eunuch analogy can actually support the cost of discipleship required by the traditional argument for marriage, while also saying something powerful about inclusion.

    Isaiah speaks to the foreigners who bind their lives to the Lord and yet worry that they will be excluded from his people and to the eunuchs who complain “I am only a dry tree,” that they will, in fact, be given a place within God’s people. Not only that, they’ll be given special honor in God’s kingdom: “a memorial [within the temple walls!] and a name *better than sons and daughters.*

    The foreign eunuch has no family line, no one to remember him when he’s gone, except for the ruler that he has bound himself in service to. Presumably, the cost of joining God’s family–including the demand to choose what pleases God, hold fast his covenant, keep his sabbaths (56:4)–is to sacrifice that one and only familial connection, that one hope of being remembered and not forgotten on the earth. Any kind of romantic love, whether with the opposite sex or the same sex, shares something of this desire to known and remembered–and certainly the desire for children that bear our name is also a desire to extend a piece of our selves into a future for which we will not be present. And that’s why it’s all the more striking and beautiful that not only are these eunuchs given assurance of inclusion, but also a promise that the familial connection and honor they sacrifice by joining God’s family will be replaced by a “memorial and name better than sons and daughters.” They’ll still be eunuchs in God’s kingdom without hope for marriage and personal family line, they will have sacrificed any earthly hope of being remembered by a ruling family, but they’ve been given a heavenly promise of being remembered and honored into eternity (56:5).

    I think this passage can speak to the experience of celibate and single Christians, especially LGBTQ individuals who sacrifice real familial connection and also the kind of romantic love that aspires toward the eternal when they take on the costs associated with the traditional sexual ethic. And perhaps even more so when we consider the “outsider status” of eunuchs given verses like Deuteronomy 23:1. It’s not a perfect analogy, I might be forcing it a bit, but I think this passage is worth exploring further.

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  3. The concern I have with this discussion is that it leaves the concept of “heterosexuality” largely unexamined. In evangelicalism, we have too often come to assume that the 1950s-era social narratives for normative masculinity and normative femininity are somehow “biblical” and not therefore in need of any redemption. That’s flatly wrong. As I mentioned in another thread, I came to experience greater attraction to the opposite sex once I moved out of the evangelical subculture and could experience attraction to someone of the opposite sex for reasons that didn’t necessarily conform to heteronormative assumptions about opposite-sex relationships that prevailed within the evangelical subculture.

    So, yes, even if the church were to consider affirming same-sex committed relationships, I don’t see why that should necessarily be an unqualified affirmation. And, yes, many of the more common narratives for same-sex dating fall quite far from anything that the church could ever embrace. But I don’t think anyone’s asking the church to embrace the Grindr culture. So, that largely goes without saying.

    Even so, the church tends to embrace “heterosexuality” without much qualification, and, in many cases, has even sought to pass it off as “the biblical way” of doing marriage and family. Abigail Rine described this as the “sex romp” view of marriage in her piece last fall in First Things.

    Throughout history, some 10-15% of the population has remained single. And, of those who married, most did so for pragmatic reasons rather than for love. During the recent era of “compulsory heterosexuality,” we forced plenty of people to marry who probably didn’t want to marry, and we forced plenty of married couples to conform their relationships to some Freudian myth as to what a “normal” relationship was supposed to look like. Even now, research shows that very few people experience exclusive emotional, aesthetic, romantic, and sexual attractions to the opposite sex at all times. Nevertheless, we’ve established exclusive opposite-sex attraction as the definition of “normal” and have declared all else to be “abnormal,” thereby forcing people to lie to themselves and their partners as a condition of maintaining their relationships. That’s insane. And we should stop it!

    I have long believed that the impediment to embracing committed same-sex relationships in the church has little to do with Romans 1 and other like passages (although those may pose legitimate impediments). Rather, the bigger impediment is that it forces people to admit to how facile the concept of “heterosexuality” actually is. And because too many people have built their entire lives on a foundation of heterosexuality–however shaky that may be–they fear what would happen if heterosexuality were to pass away as an ordering principle. So, a kind of protection racket evolves to ensure that we keep propping up heterosexuality, so that we can avoid admitting to how fragile it really is. After all, even single adults face a fair bit of discrimination within evangelical contexts, even if they’re living in ways that are otherwise in accord with Romans 1. The elephant in the room is not Paul; it’s the fragility of heterosexuality as a principle for social organization.

    So, it’s fine to have the discussion about whether the eunuch issue should make us think of Romans 1 differently. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Romans 1 is probably not the *real* reason why most evangelicals object to admitting same-sex couples into the church. After all, for most evangelicals, pointing to Romans 1 is merely a post hac rationalization for a conclusion they’ve reached for reasons that have little to do with what all said.

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  5. Interesting that Mattthew’s Gospel verses 19:12-13, which mention “eunuchs, so from their mother’s womb”; are rejected by people like Ian Paul, because of what he claims is their inconsistency with the gospel of Mark. That’s hardly a ‘Sola Scriptura’ argument, designed to outlaw any possibile connection with the intentional inclusion by Jesus of loving same-sex relationships. For S/S scholars, every word of Scripture, they say, is ‘God-breathed’.

    One could note that Jesus seems to make no value judgement on the 3 types of eunuchs that are described in this passage; whereas he does – in the same conversation in Matthew – take pains to criticise the infidelity of heterosexuals

    Not that I think that gays should be allowed to engage in promiscuity, but should be allowed to celebrate their faithful, monogamous relationships in the Christian community – on a par with those of faithful, monogamous heterosexual couples..

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