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.