By Alan Bean
What is the Bible? Is it a book of rules? Pick it up. Select a passage at random. Does it sound like a book of rules?
So if the Bible isn’t a rule book, what is it. Sociologist/theologian Christian Smith puts it this way: “The Bible is not about offering tips for living a good life. It is about Jesus Christ who is our only good and our only life.”
When I find the time, I will write a post about the growing number of evangelical scholars who are breaking ranks with the Christianity-lite world of popular evangelicalism. In the meantime, I commend Fred Clark to your attention.
By Fred Clark
In comments a few days back, I see there was a question regarding whether I believe “that homosexuality is objectively immoral.”
It’s my fault if I haven’t been as clear as I need to be on that point: No. I do not believe that homosexuality is objectively immoral.
But that’s not strong enough. It’s more than that: I believe that denying LGBT people full legal equality is objectively immoral. I believe that excluding LGBT people from full inclusion, full participation and full equality in the church is objectively immoral — and objectively unbiblical.
Such civil discrimination and religious exclusion violates core principles of biblical Christianity — principles as pervasive and essential as the Golden Rule.
More specifically, I would point to Acts 10:1 – Acts 11:18 as a compelling argument that followers of Christ must not “call anyone profane or unclean.” This story teaches us that appealing to biblical law in order to declare another person or group of people as “profane or unclean” is not legitimate, even if we think we can make a strong case for interpreting the law in this way. The biblical laws regarding circumcision were not ambiguous or optional, yet such clear commandments regarding Other People’s Genitals were not to be allowed to exclude the uncircumcised from being baptized.
Let me be clear on that point: God commanded Peter to disregard those laws, commanded him not to allow those laws to exclude others. Peter wasn’t told that he now had the option of welcoming those who had been excluded. Peter wasn’t told he might maybe kind of sort of “tolerate” these people as second-class members of the community, “as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed” the gift of the Holy Spirit.
No, Peter was told that he must welcome them, fully and openly as equals. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Anything short of full acceptance would itself constitute disobeying a command from God.
I’ve been preaching this sermon from Peter’s vision in the book of Acts for many years now (for a few examples, see: “The Abominable Shellfish: Why some Christians hate gays but love bacon,” “Slavery, seafood, sexuality and the Southern Bible” and “Selfish Gentiles and ‘Shellfish Objections’“). I think it’s important. I think it’s very important, because right now, throughout most of the American church, across almost all denominations, we Christians are calling profane those whom God has made clean.
And I believe that is objectively immoral.
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter asks. LGBT Christians have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. To withhold the water for baptizing them, to call them profane or unclean, is wrong — it is disobedient, unloving, hurtful, harmful, unbiblical. It’s a sin.
It’s particularly astonishing that the very same American Christians now excluding LGBT Christians from full inclusion and full participation in the church are, overwhelmingly, Gentiles. We Gentile Christians would, ourselves, be excluded if it were not for that lesson Peter learned in Acts 10:1-11:18. Freely you have received, freely give. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
I’m very pleased to see an increasing use of this passage as the case for full equality — in the church and under the law — gains momentum. (“Who am I to Think That I Could Stand in God’s Way?” Mal Green asks in arguing for marriage equality in New Zealand.) I expect that this will produce some backlash — likely an attempt to reinterpret Peter’s vision to mean something other than what Peter himself said it meant (as both Al Mohler and Timothy Dalrymple have done recently).
There will always be a Jonah Faction in Christianity — a group that shakes its fists at God for “abounding in steadfast love” toward even the Ninevites whom that faction despises. They seem driven by the fear that if God’s love and mercy are extended even to include the Ninevites, then there will be less of them left over for us. From the perspective of the Jonah Faction, salvation is a zero-sum game.
Peter’s vision is a rebuke to Team Jonah, so that faction will eventually have to come up with a way of explaining away its expansive, explosive message. They will try to say, somehow, that this passage from Acts is only about Cornelius, or only about dietary law. They’ll dissect this passage with a lawyerly eye, studying the finger while refusing to look where it is pointing.
I’m sure they’ll find a lot to say about the finger, but it will all be beside the point.