The Transformation of the Gentiles

In my last post on eunuchs in the New Testament, I promised a follow-up:

One of the most prominent arguments for the so-called “full inclusion” of LGBTQ people in the church is the analogy of the early church’s inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles. In the book of Acts and in the Epistles in the New Testament, Gentile people—despite their ongoing violation of the clear biblical command for those in the covenant family of Abraham to be circumcised—were welcomed and affirmed in the church precisely in their uncircumcised state. In Christ, as St. Paul says, Abraham became “the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (Romans 4:11). Likewise—so the argument goes—LGBTQ people today, despite their ongoing violation of supposedly clear biblical precedent, are also included precisely as sexual minorities. They don’t need to “become straight” (always a losing battle) or give up having sex with a partner of the same sex in order to be full-fledged members in good standing in Christ’s church.

One of the clearest statements of this argument that I’ve run across recently is by the New Testament scholar J. R. Daniel Kirk, which you can read here.

Many traditionalists have offered thoughtful responses to this argument—please do go have a look at this one by my friend Ian Paul—but one of the traditionalist (sorry to keep using that unwieldy word; I still haven’t found a decent alternative) arguments that I think is often underappreciated is that the inclusion of Gentiles in the early Christian community altered what it meant to be a Gentile. There’s no question that the progressive view gets one thing right: The Gentiles were included in God’s family as Gentiles, without having to change their status to “Jewish proselytes” by getting circumcised, keeping kosher, and observing the Sabbath. But as the Gentiles were thus included, their Gentile identity—their culture, their habits, their way of being in the world—was dramatically transformed.

Consider, for instance, Paul’s statement to his Gentile church in Corinth: “You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak” (1 Corinthians 12:2). Notice that past tense: “when you were pagans.” Obviously Paul is writing to people whose Gentile DNA hasn’t been magically reconstituted by their baptism, but that doesn’t stop him from labeling them as former pagans. When they got submerged in the baptismal waters, in other words, something happened to them that forever altered their identity. They were still, in a very real sense, Gentiles: Paul continues, for instance, to address the Roman Christians that way (see Romans 1:13-15). But, by the same token, they had to reimagine their entire way of being Gentiles, discarding much of what formerly seemed essential to their Gentile-ness and accepting much of what they would have formerly disdained as backwards Jewish strictures. They were now sons and daughters of Abraham by adoption (Galatians 3:27-29).

As a result, the New Testament invites Gentiles to recognize how differently their lives must be lived now that they are included in Christ:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge…. You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme. But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 2:11-12; 4:3-5)

I don’t mean to oversimplify what has become an enormously intricate conversation among students of the New Testament—how we go about handling the complexity of race and ethnicity in earliest Christianity—but I do think it’s worth pointing out, once again, that the New Testament never seems to envision Gentile inclusion without an accompanying radical transformation of characteristically Gentile passions and behaviors. The Gentiles remain Gentiles when they become Christians, but they don’t remain Gentiles in the same way they were before they became Christians.

What does this mean for our contemporary conversation about the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church? Primarily this, I think: In our ongoing debates about what it means to be gay in Christ, we must talk deeply and concretely about what gay transformation looks like. As Steve Holmes has memorably put it, the “story of warped desires being disciplined and re-ordered seems to me to be somewhere near the heart of a biblical theology of sexuality”—and, Steve adds, that means all sexualities, heterosexual not least among them. To be gay in Christ cannot mean that Christ simply confirms the gay life I’m already living, whatever its shape and content. Thus, as I see it, the question isn’t whether we gay Christians must find our gayness disciplined and re-ordered; the question is how.

For a progressive like Kirk, this disciplining and re-ordering can happen in same-sex marriage or voluntary (not mandated) celibacy:

I am not surrendering the notion of sexual ethics, but inviting LGBTQ people into the same difficult sexual ethic of life-long committed partnership that Christ has called me to. Or, offering myself as a fellow traveler for LGBTQ people who follow Christ through the difficult route of celibacy, as some of my straight friends are also walking right now.

For a traditionalist like me, though, this won’t do because it holds out an option for gay people—same-sex marriage—that I think the New Testament doesn’t support. So I’m interested in exploring how my gayness can be disciplined and transformed in and through sexual abstinence and sublimation, how my love for men can be sanctified and purified in chaste friendship, community, and service. The point is: I don’t stop being gay (or at least I haven’t, nor have many of my other same-sex attracted Christian friends), but neither do I remain gay in the way my culture tells me to be gay. I’m fully included in the church, I trust, as a gay man; but I’m not thereby exempted from the call to a costly discipleship that will leave no corner of my gayness untransformed.

16 thoughts on “The Transformation of the Gentiles

  1. I really appreciate this! So much of the conversation at SF, understandably, just assumes the traditional view and is more focused on fleshing out the “what now?” question for gay Christians. But it’s important for us to have a good understanding of why we believe the way we do. So it’s nice to see another article that serves to actually make the case for Side B and addresses the opposing view in a way that’s respectful and intellectually honest.

    What I particularly like about this article is that it simultaneously gives an answer to the progressive argument (its primary goal) and to the “don’t say gay” crowd on the other end of the spectrum.

    All that said, I become more and more interested in analyzing why celibacy is assumed to be the calling of a gay Christian once same sex marriage isn’t on the table. But that’s a conversation for another time and, perhaps, another blog post.

    Thanks for writing this!

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  4. I’m not sure that I follow. The “gentile inclusion” (GI) argument doesn’t require the church to embrace committed same-sex relationships on the secular terms set forth by the secular culture. In fact, I think it goes without saying that those relationships would take on a very different narrative. In that sense, the relevant question revolves around what the exact nature of what that transformation involves. So, I would agree that GI doesn’t require the church to embrace committed same-sex relationships on the secular culture’s terms. Even so, GI does preclude the church from refusing to embrace committed same-sex relationships merely because the relationship involve two parties of the same sex. It’s a question of evidentiary sufficiency. Pursuant to GI, the church cannot reasonably judge a committed relationship as sinful merely because the parties to that relationship are of the same sex.

    Of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that the church has long embraced committed opposite-sex relationships on the secular culture’s terms without peering too deeply into the nature of the relationship. In fact, when an opposite-sex couple seeks to join the church, we rarely sit down with them and ask uncomfortable questions about their sex lives to see if their sexual activities conform to biblical standards. We simply assume that the marriage conforms to Christian ethical standards.

    Also, as a Protestant, I don’t get too hung up on word “marriage.” I believe that the procreative mandate was fulfilled in Christ, and that “marriages” today are little more than contractual relationships whose contours are governed principally by pragmatic considerations. If we’re going to preclude committed same-sex couples from using the word, then we need to do the same with opposite-sex couples who have failed to live up to the procreational mandate that’s inherent in the pre-Incarnation construal of the institution of “marriage.”

    • I’ve commented over there, but for here I’ll just say that I don’t think I’ve seen a more completely _non-sequitur_ ial compilation of arguments in a blog before. Daniel’s argument just don’t correspond to the logic and trajectory of the New Testament texts–they are altogether derived from hopeful reasoning and non-christian cultural desires. Reversion to non-christian, which is to say pagan (sorry, but culturally this is what it is), perspectives and arguments really doesn’t get us to where we need to be, which is submitted to the teaching of Jesus as conveyed to us through the apostles and New Testament authors. I understand the desire (I’ve been there myself) but not the commitment (I do my best to repent and follow the New Testament teachings) to see things in the new light of contemporary circumstances (which are humanly speaking no different from that of biblical times), but keep coming back to Jesus, who said that in the beginning it was not so, but …. a man and a women would become one and stay that way according to the will and desire of God over against the will and desires of us. Otherwise, the most obvious option, and the one argued for by “progressives” on this issue, is “not thy will but mine be done.”

      • Your response its’t an argument; it’s just a list of conclusions wherein you set forth your unsubstantiated opinions. Perhaps Daniel’s argument is confusing because it’s an actual argument.

        I’m not saying that I concur with everything he concludes. But at least it functions as a legitimate argument. If conservatives are losing this battle, perhaps it’s because they can’t seem to do anything except proffer conclusory statements that principally rely on post hoc reasoning.

  5. I appreciate the wrestling with Scripture going on. I think I am a “traditionalist” and not a “progressive” in the way I try to interpret Scripture. However, I find I end up believing that many time the conclusions of the “progressives” are correct, but not the way they (or in this case, Dr. Kirk) try to get there.

    The fundamental question as I see it this: Does Scripture correctly interpreted in context teach that every homosexual act is a sin or that some are, similar to heterosexual acts. To go a bit further, is it required by a believer trying to be a faithful interpreter of Scripture to come to the conclusion that every homosexual act is a sin; as this is often the implied claim, not just that the speaker thinks all homosexual acts are a sin, but that every faithful believer must agree with them on this.

    I recently learned about how Acts 15 ties into Lev 17-18 and am working on incorporating that insight into my thoughts.

    In any case, if you wish to discuss, I am willing.

  6. I think the gentile inclusion as presented by Daniel Kirk is a valid argument for understanding how LGBT persons can be received by the church. Whenever people are oppressed and denied their humanity, and they call out to God, history and the Bible proves that something (and some of us we believe it is God’s will) sets in motion a way to save them. The gospel is more than the forgiveness of sins. It is the call of all people to God’s love and reconciliation and further to that it is a call to free those in bondage. The gospel is the hope of broken chains for all who are cast down in body, spirit and soul. The gospel, in my understanding, is an invitation to let God’s light shine on your heart and reveal your true self, in order to know God authentically, through having a relationship with him. Jesus not only provided a way but set the example for forgiveness and mercy.

    The predicament for LGBT persons has been the association of sin with their attractions. I am taking a risk here but have to say what’s on my mind. As far as behaviour goes, even when a LGBT person is having sex in an opposite sex marriage they are still having LGBT sex. The behaviour has not changed their attraction. By way of comparison we are not required to be circumcised anymore because circumcision is of the heart and was always supposed to be from the heart. And so should our relationships be from the heart. When I married a man I chose to behave against the grain of my attractions. Over time the focus on my spouse gave some comfort and blessings. But my sexuality did not change. I simply focused my sexual desire on my spouse. At the same time there are those in same sex marriages who have faith stories and are focusing faithfully on their spouses. Either way it is a choice and my knowledge of God’s love tells me he blesses our relationships.

    Some other thought that occurred to me. The parallel Gentile Inclusion part, then, would be: the LGBT person would not be required to adhere to the old rules of traditional male and female marriage, as handed down by the custom and laws of the Bible, just like the laws of circumcision are not required by the Gentiles. Just like all the customs and laws are done away with, which have caused people to be subject to man made authorities or which made them unclean.

    Now we are all free and clean… and still we are women and still we live in oppressive societies and still we are ethnically different and still we are in jails or live in poverty and still we are LGBT. We are not excluded from the body of Christ because of these traits and characteristics or situations we find ourselves in…nor are we required to perform any rite of passage to become a christian.

    It’s nice the see Spiritual Friendship broadening the discussion!

    • I agree. There’s a fair bit of working-out that we need to do yet. But I appreciate Wes’s decision to engage the argument. After all, most “traditionalists” seem to content to click the heels of their ruby slippers together three times and hope that it will transport them back to the 1950s.

      • The clicking of the heels seems to be mostly on the part of progressives who want to go back to Kansas instead of forward to the Kingdom of God. Going back to the 1950s? If we want a biblical basis for what we do and think we need to go back to the 1st Century. If we aren’t willing to go back to the apostles’ teaching and what they say Jesus said then we are altogether on our own, without forgiveness, and without hope in this world.
        I appreciate Daniel’s efforts to marshall theological arguments because they at least use scriptural history as a launch pad to fly to new heights of rationalization. Finding good reasonable arguments for doing what we think is right instead of accepting what God has said is right is what human seem to do best. Getting back to how things were when I was a baby around 1950 isn’t relevant to the discussion. Getting back to what the apostles taught is what it has always meant to be the Church. Departing from what God has said through them, including what was said about gentiles avoiding sexual immorality (as defined by God in Torah) was what the Holy Spirit said we gentiles should do (Acts 15). You may have ideas different from that of God as revealed through Jesus and the apostles, but I still haven’t seen good reasonable arguments for doing so.

      • Yes, Evan, and hi again. Yes! while religious thinkers are still fleshing this out LGBT people are living their lives, working, eating, loving, creating beautiful things; and many of us who simply believe in Jesus and want to go to church to worship and fellowship; to be real about ourselves, are still having a hard time jumping through all these hoops and still finding closed doors and conditional love.

        LGBT people who have-not been conditioned by doctrine or raised in a church cannot connect the idea of same sex love with sexual immorality. To call me sexually immoral because I have a crush on a girl is perplexing. And then to say it’s okay to have those feelings but you can never express love in a faithful and committed way is further perplexing.

        It suggests to me Christianity has failed to understand something about the nature of sin when focused exclusively on behaviour. We make non-sequitur judgements about someone’s heart. If a person has sex outside of the criteria we have established as – God only approved sex- then it does not necessarily follow that person is immoral. Sex was made for humans to enjoy not for humans to figure out how to properly enjoy it. The only criteria I understand God consistently requires us to follow is faithfulness in relationships.

        Just some more thoughts I have. I always enjoy your contributions.

      • Kathy,

        I always enjoy reading your comments too. These are complicated issues that are not so amenable to black-and-white answers. I’m not suggesting that the church should embrace same-sex relationships on the same terms as set forth on the pages of Advocate. Even so, the mindless foot-stomping of certain traditionalists seems to belie the fact that they know of their argument’s inherent weakness.

      • Not sure who you are claiming to be mindless, but you contradict your own comment by calling it fact that they know their argument’s weakness. If they know something they can’t be mindless.

      • Richard,

        The tone of this blog is generally cordial. And those who comment here generally identify somewhere in the LGBTQA spectrum. Perhaps you’d be better served by returning to your role as the resident antigay troll on Daniel’s blog.

      • Cordially critically yours, always happy to oblige, but but but I am not quite feeling that generally cordial spirit….Or is that just a one way street? 8>)

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