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.