Tag Archives: ethics

Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (6 of 6)

Do Christians today need to agree with the historical Jesus on the question of homosexual activity? In my last post I presented this conclusion: the total available historical evidence fits only with the hypothesis that Jesus—the historical Jesus of Nazareth—did not approve of homosexual behavior. Nearly all Christians everywhere have always believed this. But should Christians today feel bound to affirm the sexual teachings of rabbi Jesus who lived nearly 2000 years ago in ancient Judea?

Could Jesus have been mistaken about homosexuality? Hiding his true beliefs? Awaiting a time when further revelation would be possible?

This is part of a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

    1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
    2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
    3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
    4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
    5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
    6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

William Witt offers an informative article about various “attempts to reconcile the endorsing of same-sex practices with the authority of Scripture.”1 Witt identifies three ways people try to do this:

  • The first approach (“selectivist”) argues that the Bible is mistaken on some matters that reflect ancient social values, and that the more “positive” themes in the Bible call us to embrace liberation and love.
  • A second approach (“revisionist”) argues that “Scripture does not condemn loving committed same-sex relations, and loving committed relationships are the only kind of sexual relationships the modern advocate is interested in endorsing.”2
  • A third approach (“ecclesial dispensation”) argues that “although the Scriptures prohibit same-sex activity, nonetheless, the Church is free not to be bound by these proscriptions in the same way that it has recognized that it is not bound by other prohibitions in the Bible.”3

Though I won’t follow Witt’s three categories, I will explore some of these ideas in this post.

Adapted from an image belonging to Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing, used with permission from Free Bible Images.

Is Jesus Okay With Homosexual Activity?

What if Jesus was indeed okay with homosexual behavior, but could not say so because he lived in a homophobic society? Or, to suggest a similar possibility, what if Jesus knew that homosexual activity was not acceptable yet, under the Law of Moses, but would be after the new covenant was inaugurated by his death and resurrection?

Jesus did indeed remain secretive about some beliefs that he knew would be explosive for his Jewish hearers. A famous example that scholars talk about is his “Messianic secret”—how the Synoptic Gospels show that Jesus avoided publicly saying that he was the Messiah. This parallel falls flat, however, for several reasons. First, Jesus clearly told his inner circle that he was the Messiah (Matt. 16:16-17). Second, even in public he used “code language” that was later understood to mean much the same thing (“Son of Man”; cf. Dan. 7:13). Neither is true, however, of any supposed secret belief of Jesus that homosexual behavior was okay.

On ethical matters, in fact, we often see Jesus openly challenging the assumptions and practices of the Jewish religious leaders. On some points he indicated they were too strict (washings before meals, Matt. 15:1-20; Sabbath laws, Matt. 12:1-8). At other times he called for greater strictness (divorce, Matt. 19:1-9; use of the temple, Matt. 21:12-17). If Jesus had thought the Jewish leaders were too legalistic (cf. Matt 23:23-24), too oppressive (cf. Matt. 23:4), or too hypocritical (cf. John 8:7) regarding their stance against homosexual activity, he could have said so.

The same evidence weighs, too, against the idea that homosexual activity is now acceptable under Jesus’ new covenant—as if Jesus “is” okay with homosexual behavior now though he “was” not then. Though Jesus apparently lived faithfully under the Law of Moses (cf. Rom. 15:8), he left hints that its era was almost over. He challenged the Jewish animosity toward Gentiles (Luke 4:24-28) and foretold their full inclusion (John 10:16; Matt. 28:19). His teachings laid the groundwork for eliminating at least two of the primary boundary markers of ancient Jews—food laws and the Sabbath4—and his apostles soon understood that the third—circumcision—was also lifted, at least for Gentile converts.5 When it comes to sexual ethics, however, Jesus left no hints that they would loosen under his new covenant, and his apostles came to no such conclusions.

When we examine Scripture as a whole, there is no trajectory from rigidity toward laxity regarding sexual ethics. True, there is at least one OT sexual restriction that may not be in force under the new covenant—the prohibition on sex during a woman’s menstrual period (Lev. 20:18), which may have hinged on ceremonial blood taboos. And the maximum temporal penalty for sexual sin changed. Christians no longer inflict the death penalty but rather, in fulfilment of the death penalty, “hand over to Satan” those within the church who persist in unrepentant sin (1 Cor. 5:5; cf. esp. 1 Cor. 5:13 with Deut. 22:21-24).

Being handed over to Satan is actually more serious than being put to death, however, and the general pattern of the NT is that sexual sin is taken even more seriously than in the OT. Jesus racheted up sexual standards regarding lust (Matt. 5:27-30) and returned the question of divorce to its creation pattern (Matt. 19:1-9). The OT pattern of God largely overlooking polygamy is challenged in the NT, so that being a “one-woman man” is now the standard for a godly man (1 Tim. 3:2).6

Jesus’ apostles repeatedly warned against all sorts of sexual activity outside of male-female monogamous marriage. DeYoung makes this point clearly:

It cannot be overstated how seriously the Bible treats the sin of sexual immorality. Sexual sin is never considered adiaphora, a matter of indifference, an agree-to-disagree issue like food laws or holy days (Rom. 14:1–15:7). To the contrary, sexual immorality is precisely the sort of sin that characterizes those who will not enter the kingdom of heaven. There are at least eight vice lists in the New Testament (Mark 7:21–22; Rom. 1:24–31; 13:13; 1Cor. 6:9–10; Gal. 5:19–21; Col. 3:5–9; 1Tim. 1:9–10; Rev. 21:8), and sexual immorality is included in every one of these. In fact, in seven of the eight lists there are multiple references to sexual immorality (e.g., impurity, sensuality, orgies, men who practice homosexuality), and in most of the passages some kind of sexual immorality heads the lists. 7

The pattern regarding homosexual activity in particular is similar. William Webb, in his influential book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, suggests eighteen criteria for determining whether a given teaching of Scripture should be applied at “face value” or whether it needs to be reinterpreted through a “redemptive-movement framework” before we can apply it correctly in our own culture. He argues that, when it comes to slavery, there is a trajectory within the Bible toward greater redemption—a trajectory that should make “the abolition of slavery and its many related injustices… a passionate value of modern Christians.”8 Similarly, he argues that the biblical witness regarding women nudges us away from the “hard” forms of patriarchy seen at places in the OT toward a “complementary egalitarian” approach.9

Regarding homosexual activity, however, Webb sees no such trajectory. This is what he does see:

Biblical tradition moved the cultural norms on homosexuality from a significant amount of tolerance and acceptance to non-tolerance and non-acceptance within the covenant community… Scripture thus sets a clear direction… on the homosexual issue… When one comes to the New Testament, there is no softening of the Scripture’s negative assessment of homosexuality found in the Old Testament10

The women texts, like the slavery texts, are generally “less restrictive” or “softening” relative to the broader culture, while the homosexuality texts are “more restrictive” or “hardening” relative to the surrounding environment… 11

We have no biblical texts that suggest that “there is neither homosexual nor heterosexual in Christ.” Nor do we find any biblical text that suggests that homosexuality might be acceptable in some form or another12

Virtually all of the criteria applicable to the issue suggest to varying degrees that the biblical prohibitions regarding homosexuality, even within a covenant form, should be maintained today. There is no significant dissonance within the biblical data. 13

Webb’s explanation of why the biblical writers opposed homosexual behavior is also worth noting. Their basic reason does not permit any ethical change or development:

The issue that the biblical writers have with homosexuality is not really about covenant or the lack of it; it is not really about the equality or lack of equality between the two individuals. The deepest issue for the biblical authors was the breaking of sexual boundaries between male and female. Until God redesigns the physical/sexual construction of male and female, this distinction or boundary continues to influence our contemporary world. 14

Some claim that “sexual orientation is a new concept, one the Christian tradition hasn’t addressed,” and that Paul “doesn’t have long-term, loving same-sex relationships in view.”15 Therefore, it is argued, the Bible does not speak directly to our modern homosexual experience. But “Paul witnessed around him both abusive relationships of power or money and examples of ‘genuine love’ between males.”16 He also, like other ancient writers of the time, was familiar with what we today call homosexual orientation. Ancient explanations for the causes of sexual orientation were varied and debated, underscoring that the concept itself was well known.

Forston and Grams present abundant historical evidence for the following claim:

Scholars who contended several decades ago that only in modern times did people discover the concept of orientation have been proven wrong, as the evidence has accumulated over time… There are clear examples of adult males and females involved in homosexual relationships in antiquity. These people did not just perform homosexual acts. Their passionate love of one another, their long-term same-sex desire, and even, on occasion, their marriage or cohabitation with one another are discussed in the sources we have. There is, in short, nothing distinct about contemporary conversations concerning homosexual orientation.17

And again, even if sexual orientation were a new idea, the basic issue the biblical writers had with homosexual behavior (“the breaking of sexual boundaries between male and female”) does not allow for any such loopholes or future ethical development.

The pattern of biblical evidence is consistent and strong: Neither Jesus nor any biblical author imagined that any form of homosexual behavior is ever ethical. Nor did they leave any clues hinting that they imagined it would ever become acceptable in some future context. In short, it is contrary to the biblical witness to propose that Jesus is okay with homosexual behavior today.

Must We Agree With Jesus?

This, then, is the crucial question: Must Christians agree with Jesus about homosexual behavior? Amazingly, an increasing number of professing Christians are answering no.

A variety of explanations are offered. Many, such as Roman Catholic NT professor Luke Timothy Johnson, note that Christians have never followed Jesus perfectly in other matters—so why make such a fuss about not following what it says about homosexual behavior?

Christianity as actually practiced has never lived in precise accord with the Scriptures. War stands in tension with Jesus’ command of nonviolence, while divorce, even under another name (annulment), defies Jesus’ clear prohibition.18

Such an argument is embarrassingly fatalistic. Why not try to obey all of Jesus’ teachings (Matt. 28:20) instead?

Some argue that Jesus was just plain wrong—that he was “a product of his time and his culture” who was “conditioned to believe that Gentiles were dogs” (Matt. 15:22-26).19 The Gospels do indeed contain hints that there were limits on the earthly Jesus’ knowledge, such as Jesus’ statement that he didn’t know the time of his own coming (Matt. 24:36). But there are no hints that anyone—Jesus, his apostles, or the Gospel writers—believed that Jesus’ ethical teaching was fallible. On the contrary, the risen Jesus insisted that his apostles must teach “all nations… all that I have commanded”—and this because he possessed “all authority” (Matt. 28:18-20).

Once Jesus is seen as fallible on matters of ethics, then other authorities are given the deciding vote. Many appeal to experience—whether human experience or what they consider to be their experience of God’s Spirit speaking a new word. L.T. Johnson again:

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us…

If the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.20

Such an approach pits “the living God” against Jesus. It is hard to square with the author of Hebrew’s foundational claim that “in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2). Worse, it runs aground on Jesus’ own claim:

The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. (John 12:48-50)

It is Jesus’ own word (including his word on adultery, πορνεία, and ἀσέλγεια) that will judge us on the last day—the word he spoke by command of the eternal Father—not some subsequent word that someone professes hearing from the Spirit.

Richard Hays, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, draws “implications for Christian ethics” from on the life and teachings of the historical Jesus:

If God really did raise Jesus from the dead, everything that Jesus taught and exemplified is vindicated by a God more powerful than death. He must therefore be seen as the bearer of the truth and the definitive paradigm for obedience to God.21

At this point I cannot help slipping briefly into preacher mode:

Know that if you reject the historical, biblical Jesus to create a Jesus of your own imagination, then you have also forfeited the historical, biblical salvation and must create one on your own.

But how can you be sure you have the real Jesus if you have adapted his portrait in the Gospels to suit the winds of the twenty-first century? And how can you know be confident of real salvation unless you have submitted to the real Jesus?

Do not attempt to fashion your own Jesus unless you are confident you can also fashion your own salvation. Do not reject the terms for eternal life that the biblical Jesus laid out unless you are ready to forfeit the eternal life he offered. Do not imagine you can claim the love the historical Jesus offered unless you are willing to enter through the narrow gate he described. Do not imagine you can change his paradigms of love and truth and still enter his kingdom.

History matters. Who Jesus really was and what he really taught, as preserved the very best historical accounts we possess—the documents of the New Testament—is eternally crucial. On the last day, you will not stand before a Jesus of your own imagination. You will stand before the same Jesus who walked Judea and Galilee in the first century, and you will be judged by the word that he spoke then, not by some revision of that word that you now prefer.

If you think you are wiser than the ancient, historic, narrow-minded Jewish Jesus of the Gospels, then he will be too wise accept you into his kingdom. If you reject the ethics of the Jesus who rose from the dead, then don’t imagine he will grant you the privilege of sharing in his resurrection.

If you come to the historical, biblical Jesus only to deny who he really was before the world around you, then the historical, biblical Jesus will deny you before his Father on the last day.

But if you come to the real Jesus on his terms, submitting to his historical portrait in the Gospels, the you will find the real Jesus immeasurably meek and gentle of heart, with a welcome warmer than you could ever hope for, a love greater than any of us deserve.

Yes, we must agree with Jesus. If our Christianity is not rooted in history, then it has no future, either.

What, Then, Is the Loving Thing To Do?

It is clear to me that history and theology agree: we are building on straw if we argue that Christians today can rightly affirm homosexual activity. Historical evidence shows that Jesus did not affirm homosexual behavior and that the pattern of Scripture consistently contradicts it. And from a theological perspective, the words of Jesus (preserved in historical accounts) do not allow us to affirm what he denied, either. Jesus’ own theological understanding of his own authority forces any honest follower of his to stay true to the ethics he taught.

What, then, should a faithful follower of Jesus do? I suggest two responses.

First, we should hold fast to what followers of Jesus have always believed about homosexual behavior. Here the book Unchanging Witness by Fortson and Grams is incredibly helpful. They devote 137 pages to discussing what the church from start to present has taught about homosexuality. Nearly half those pages consist of lengthy quotes from primary sources. (To read excerpts from those quotes, see the appendix at the end of this post.)

Given the evidence from church history, Fortson and Grams are well able to make the following claims:

Both the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of Christian tradition have uniformly taught the same thing: homosexual practice is sinful. We agree with Saint Vincent of Lerins (AD 434) in his approach to determining heresy in the church. Heresy is that which is neither biblical nor universally taught… We believe the evidence is clear: both Scripture and the church universal (“everywhere, always, by all”) have taught that homosexual practice is sin. Those who teach otherwise are teaching heresy….

The issue is not, after all, whether the Bible addresses homosexual practice: it does. It is not whether diverse interpretations on this issue have existed in the history of the church: they have not…. Both Scripture and the church have clearly and consistently said the same thing. The issue comes down to this: the authority of Scripture and the relevance of the church’s teaching…. That is the point at which some in the church in the West are dividing from the rest of the church universal, from the teaching of the church in other centuries, and from what must indeed be considered the teaching of all Christians.22

“The teaching of all Christians?” From within the echo chamber of our own generation such a statement can sound jarring and unbelievable. Isolated individual congregations and church leaders have occasionally publicly affirmed homosexuality for over a century. Now non-denominational pro-gay organizations are multiplying within Western churches, even within evangelical ones. A growing list of self-professed or former evangelicals have come out in support of homosexual relationships as well—people such as Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, Mark Achtemeier, Jim Wallis, David Gushee, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Danny Cortez, Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans, Joshua Harris, and more.

Yet the fact remains that only a tiny minority of today’s professing Christians belong to denominations that affirm homosexual behavior. According to the best evidence I can find, not until about the past fifty years did any denomination ever affirm homosexual behavior. The Metropolitan Community Church began in 1968 specifically around the cause of affirming homosexuality and “is comprised mostly of former Protestants and Catholics who could not find affirmation of their gay lifestyle in traditional Christian churches.”23

In the early 1970s, a growing number of leaders in many mainline Protestant denominations began bucking the official positions of their denominations by blessing gay ordination or same-sex unions. Not until 1978, however, did the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (today part of PCUSA) officially welcome practicing gays and lesbians into church membership, while still restricting them from ordination.24 Not until 1985 did the General Synod of the United Church of Christ adopt an “Open and Affirming” resolution on homosexuality.25 As recently as 1991 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America “reaffirmed its historic position on gay ordination,” and not until 2005 was the denomination suspended from the larger Anglican Church because they persisted in including “sexually active homosexuals in all ministries of the church.”26 Only in 2007 did the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American “finally” encourage its leaders not to discipline ministers who were in a “mutual, chaste, and faithful committed same-gender relationship.”27 The United Methodist Church is currently badly torn over the issue of homosexual relationships, but still today their official denominational position is that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”28

German theologian Wolfhart Pannenburg warned in 1996 that any church that would cease “to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm… would stand no longer on biblical grounds but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture.” It “would cease to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”29

Panneburg’s claim is, on a quantitative level, simply true, whether measured by the church of the past or the present. The vast majority of Christians alive today, especially in places where Christianity is growing fastest, strongly affirm the Church’s historic position on homosexual behavior.

Will this consensus hold? I do not know. But even if it doesn’t, we will always have the witness of nearly 2000 years of church history. Rightly or wrongly, the Church has argued for centuries over questions such as the authority of the Pope, infant baptism, whether Christians can use the sword, gender roles in the church, interpretations of biblical prophecy, and even the humanity and divinity of Jesus. But almost none of these same Christians ever had a moment’s difficulty understanding God’s will regarding homosexual behavior.

The historic rejection by Christians of homosexual activity has been consistent and uncompromising. The historic responses of professing Christians to homosexual behavior, however, have varied. They range from the utterly tragic—castration or even at times death—to the exemplary—such as some pastoral advice found in modern Roman Catholic and Orthodox sources.

As an example of the latter, consider these words from Orthodox theologican Thomas Hopko:

The homosexual Christian is called to a particularly rigorous battle. His or her struggle is an especially ferocious one. It is not made any easier by the mindless, truly demonic hatred of those who despise and ridicule those who carry this painful and burdensome cross; nor by the mindless, equally demonic affirmation of homosexual activity by its misguided advocates and enablers.30

Hopko’s words lead naturally to my second suggested response for those who want to follow Jesus.

Second, we should offer “truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) about homosexuality to our neighbor. Here is Webb again:

So the real question is, what is the loving thing to do? If a particular behavior incites God’s anger to the point where habitual participants are susceptible to banishment from his kingdom, then what is the loving thing to do? In this case, it should be obvious. The loving thing to do would be to rescue the individual from destruction (negatively) and to invite them into the glorious kingdom of Christ (positively). The continued practice of bestiality and adultery, as with sustained homosexual activity, places one’s participation in the kingdom at risk… If some action… has the potential for kingdom banishment, let alone divine displeasure, then loving my neighbor becomes a painful and tension-charged action. Silence is not love. A “live and let live” distancing is not love. Loving one’s neighbor in this instance means caring for their entire well being—temporal and beyond—even if such an act of interactive love has an extremely painful and straining side.31

In that vein, I want to end with a handful of pastoral comments followed by a list of additional resources.

Pastoral comment #1: If you experience same-sex desires and perhaps have even been acting on them, know this: Jesus loves you! He, too, battled the weakness of his own human flesh (Matt. 26:41; Luke 22:44). He knows your longing for intimate relationship. You are not alone. You are not less-than. Jesus wants you to experience his love. If this is a message you long to hear, please listen to the conversation my friend Asher Witmer recently had with his new friend Ken Brubacher, titled “Does Jesus Love Homosexuals?” Prepare to be encouraged as Ken tells his story of being transformed by Jesus’ love!

Pastoral comment #2: “Getting saved” from homosexuality is not the same as becoming heterosexual. Heterosexuals need saving just as surely as homosexuals do. The creation standard for ethical sex is not merely heterosexual orientation, nor even loving heterosexual relationships, but monogamous, loving, till-death-do-us-part heterosexual marriage—and almost every post-puberty person alive has fallen short. Further, “getting saved” from homosexuality does not necessarily or merely mean achieving a heterosexual orientation. Rather, as with people of all sexual experiences, it means living in line with Paul’s bracing and comforting words: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13).

Pastoral comment #3: Each of us must settle this question in our minds: Who or what do I trust as my basis for determining truth? If I live by the “truth” of my body, I will sacrifice the Lord. If I live by the truth of the Lord, I will present my body as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). If I live by the “truth” of my body—that wondrous, insatiable, selfish, sickly sack of fickle, fading flesh—my actions will declare that I do not believe the Lord’s promise of eternally glorious resurrection bodies for his children. If I live by the truth of the Lord and his resurrection promise, I will plant my current dying body as a seed in the ground, confident it will spring up as a glorious, imperishable, powerful body when Jesus returns (1 Cor. 15:35-55). Which do you trust? Your body? Or the Lord? The wonderful Christian hope is that, if you trust the Lord, you will find that the Lord is indeed “for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13).

Pastoral comment #4: Church, if your evangelistic message is “God hates you,” then your message is not God’s message. If your opening salvo to people with same-sex desires is “God hates fags,”32 then please don’t claim Jesus’ blessing when you are “hated by all” (Matt. 10:22). We read of Jesus that “sinners were all drawing near to hear him” (Luke 15:1)—this even as he called them to repentance (Luke 5:32). Eventually most sinners rejected Jesus, but not before many of them had been drawn by his loving invitation. Similarly Paul warned clearly of wrath to come, but emphasized that God’s present stance toward sinners is one of “kindness” (Rom. 2:4-5).33 God’s children should be rich in kindness, too!

Finally, here are some additional resources on homosexuality that Christians (or those exploring Christianity) may find helpful. Some deal mostly with biblical exegesis, some more with pastoral issues, and some with both.

  • The Powerful Witness of Same-Sex Attracted Christians,” an article by Emily Hallock. “People with same-sex attraction who want to follow Jesus may be among the most important witnesses of our time. They are taking a brave, uncompromising stand for the gospel that requires great personal sacrifice…. The church needs to be there for people like my dad.”

I’m sure I’ve skipped some of your favorite resources, but I wanted to keep this list short and mostly limited to resources I’ve personally used.

Conclusion

My main goal in writing these posts has been simple but crucial: to convince readers that agreeing with Jesus and affirming homosexual behavior are incompatible. I believe it is intellectually inconsistent and disastrous to the church of Jesus to try to combine the two.

I think you need to make a choice, and I hope with all my heart that you choose Jesus.

The burden that drove me to write this series has been delivered. Where my words have been imperfect, I ask for grace from you and from God. If you have something to add, please share it in the comments below.

May the grace of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ be with each of you. And may our churches become places where those with homosexual desires find a feast of love and truth!


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Appendix:
Witnesses From the Historic Church

The following quotes are an extremely small representation of the evidence shared by Fortson and Grams in their book Unchanging Witness. They also provide counter-evidence to claims that medieval vows of spiritual friendship effectively sanctioned homosexual unions.34

Neither fornicators nor male prostitutes nor homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God. (Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians 5, ca. 155, quoting Paul)

I should suppose the coupling of two males to be a very shameful thing. (Tertullian, Against the Valentinians 11, ca. 200)

Offenses which be contrary to nature are everywhere and at all times to be held in detestation and punished; such were those of the Sodomites…. Divine law… hath not so made men that they should in that way abuse one another. (Augustine, Confessions 3.8, 397)

If any ordained person has been defiled with the crime of sodomy… let him do penance for ten years, according to the ancient rule. (Pope Gregory III, Penitential Regulation, ca. 731-41)

If blasphemy is the worst [crime], I do not know in what way sodomy is better…. While the sons of Israel were led into captivity for blaspheming God and worshipping idols, the Sodomites perished in heavenly fire and sulphur. (Peter Damian, Book of Gomorrah, ca. 1048-54)

A man who sins with another man as if with a woman sins bitterly against God and against the union with which God united male and female… And a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in My sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one in this evil deed. (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias 2.6, 1179)

They [Sodom and Gomorrah] departed from the natural passion and longing of the male for the female, which is implanted into nature by God, and desired what is altogether contrary to nature. Whence comes this perversity? Undoubtedly from Satan… (Martin Luther, “Lecture on Genesis,” ca. 1535-45)

Thus it is written by Paul: …Adulterers, whoremongers, perverts, effeminate… will not inherit the kingdom of God unless they repent. (Menno Simons, The New Birth, 1537)

He [Paul] brings as the first example, the dreadful crime of unnatural lust… they not only abandoned themselves to beastly lusts, but became degraded beyond the beast, since they reversed the whole order of nature…. Paul… calls those disgraceful passions, which… redound to the dishonouring of God. (John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 1540)

Divine law… excludes from the kingdom of God not only unbelieving, but the faithful also (who are) fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, liers with mankind… and all others who commit deadly sins. (Council of Trent, 6th Session, XV, 1545-63)

The seventh commandment forbids: adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy and all unnatural desires. (Westminster Larger Catechism, 1648)

In Sacred Scripture they [homosexual relations] are… presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God… This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved. (Persona Humana, 1975, approved by Pope Paul VI)

The position of the Orthodox Church toward homosexuality has been expressed… beginning with the very first centuries of Orthodox ecclesiastical life…. The Orthodox Church believes that homosexuality should be treated by society as an immoral and dangerous perversion and by religion as a sinful failure. (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, 1976)

The moral prohibitions against homosexual behavior in the Old Testament are pointedly repeated in the New Testament… We must hold no malice toward, nor fear of, homosexuals—such attitudes are not of Christ. At the same time we must not condone sexual behavior that God has defined as sinful. (Assemblies of God, 2001)

As black preachers, we are progressive in our social consciousness, and in our political ideology as an oppressed people we will often be against the status quo, but our first call is to hear the voice of God in our Scriptures, and where an issue clearly contradicts our understanding of Scripture, we have to apply that understanding. (Gregory G. Groover Sr., African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Boston, explaining why AME preachers had just voted at the AME national convention in 2004 to forbid ministers from performing marriage or civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples)

Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and other passages throughout the Bible specifically identify homosexual behavior as sinful… In this area of our lives [moral purity] as in all others, God call[s] us to be obedient to his revealed moral rules, in no small part because these moral laws are given for our own good. (National Association of Evangelicals, 2012, still current)

The sacrament of marriage consists in the union of a man and a woman…. Acting upon any sexual attraction outside of sacramental marriage, whether the attraction is heterosexual or homosexual, alienates us from God. (Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States, 2013)

Homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle.” The Bible condemns it as sin. It is not, however, unforgivable sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They, too, may become new creations in Christ. (Southern Baptist Convention, current undated)

  1. William G. Witt, “The Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Practice: A Summary and Evaluation,” online article, Mar. 4, 2012, http://willgwitt.org/hermeneutics_of_same-sex_practice/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019.
  2. Witt, ibid.
  3. Witt, ibid.
  4. Jesus’ teaching about what does and does not defile a person effectively eliminated the Jewish category of unclean foods (Mark 7:19), and he proclaimed himself lord of the Sabbath, thus establishing a basis for understanding it as fulfilled in himself rather than in a weekly day of rest (Mark 2:27-28).
  5. A few people argue that Jesus himself made a subtle hint that circumcision was ending.  Carson: “Jesus’ healing of the whole man… becomes a fulfilment of Old Testament circumcision” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991, 316). Glass argues this point more forcefully (and questionably): “John’s Gospel attacks circumcision in three ways. It contrasts Jesus’ healing, which makes a man every bit whole, with circumcision, which chops a bit off. It downgrades circumcision from a command of God to a practice of the ancestors. It does so in the Greek language and therefore in a cultural setting that saw circumcision as an obscene mutilation” (Michael Glass, “The New Testament and Circumcision,” Oct. 2001, Circumcision Information and Resources Page, http://cirp.org/pages/cultural/glass1/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019). What is clear is that Jesus’ apostles soon came to understand that mandating circumcision for Gentiles was contrary to Jesus’ new covenant (Acts 15; Gal. 5:2-12; 1Cor. 7:18; cf. Rom. 2:29; 4:11-12).
  6. I doubt this requirement was aimed in a limited way against polygamy, but it almost certainly was assumed to include it.
  7. Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway),74, emphasis added. DeYoung’s book is an excellent popular-level book, readable and based on good scholarship.
  8. William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuality: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 247.
  9. Ibid., 250. While I question some of Webb’s assessments and conclusions, especially regarding the “women” part of his topic, his book is a stimulating and valuable read.
  10. Ibid., 82, emphasis added. Note: I wish Webb would have distinguished here between (a) people who experience homosexual desire and (b) homosexual activity in these statements. Elsewhere he clearly discusses how Christians must have “compassion for those who struggle with homosexual feelings and behavior” (Ibid., 252).
  11. Ibid., 83
  12. Ibid., 88, n. 36, emphasis added.
  13. Ibid., 250, emphasis added. Webb says other things also worth noting: “While the garden” of Eden “presents sexuality (monogamous heterosexuality) as normative, no one would use this pattern to condemn sexual abstinence… But to argue for homosexuality from these abstinence cases (as some do) produces a considerable leap in logic. It is one thing to abstain from heterosexual relationships; it is quite another to find sexual fulfillment through means outside of heterosexual relationships. Abstinence cases break from creation pattern, but they do so by limiting one’s sexual fulfillment. Homosexual cases break from the creation pattern by broadening the scope of one’s sexual fulfillment (as bestiality would broaden one’s sexual fulfillment options beyond the creation pattern),” p. 132. “Alternative options” to monogamous heterosexual marriage “existed in the surrounding cultures, and a negative assessment of the practice” of homosexuality “by biblical authors sets up dissonance with the acceptance of the practice by many in other cultures. This increases the possibility that the author of Genesis understood the creation story as a statement about normative sexual patterns being heterosexual,” p. 133. “The concern with homosexuality was much broader than simply a violation of covenant or simply an issue of the participant’s passive/active status… With bestiality, as with homosexuality, one is breaking the ‘boundaries’ of biological design and sexual order. Reproduction of species does not take place between and animal and a human; nor does it take place between two humans of the same sex. With bestiality one crosses the boundary between human and animal; in the act of homosexuality one breaks the structural boundaries between male and female. It is also these boundary lines, not covenant, which were important in the incest laws,” pp. 177-78. “At most, homosexuality advocates have demonstrated that some features of biblical sexuality are cultural,” such as semen-emission and menstrual intercourse laws. “Their case would have been much stronger if they had demonstrated through ‘closely related issues’ that certain components of a biblical development of ‘homosexuality’ (not just ‘sexuality’) were cultural. Thus the one-category-removed approach makes the homosexual case extremely weak. Ultimately, it is not persuasive,” p. 171. “The continued survival of a species depends upon heterosexual activity. This is why homosexuality remains an anomaly within any species where survival is viewed as a good value,” p. 217. ”
  14. , Ibid., 200, emphasis added.
  15. “A Brief Biblical Case for LGBTQ Inclusion,” online article, The Reformation Project, founded by Matthew Vines, https://www.reformationproject.org/biblical-case, accessed Oct. 6, 2019.
  16.   Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 452. Here is a fuller quote: “Many also argue that abusive pederasty was the standard form in which Paul encountered male intimacy. But Wolff shows that this is far from the case. Paul witnessed around him both abusive relationships of power or money and examples of ‘genuine love’ between males.”
  17. Fortson and Grams, ibid., 304, 312, bold added.
  18. Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” online article, Commonweal Magazine, June 11, 2007, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0, accessed Oct. 5, 2019. Johnson’s later comparison of homosexuality with slavery also falls flat given the observations of Webb summarized above; there is a trajectory in Scripture away from the heartless forms of slavery accepted in the cultures around God’s people toward an ethic that commands masters to treat slaves as they would want to be treated themselves, but there is no such trajectory in Scripture toward affirming homosexual activity in any form.
  19. Sarah Bessey, “Penny in the Air: My Story of Becoming Affirming,” blog post, June 5, 2019, https://sarahbessey.com/penny-in-the-air-my-story-of-becoming-affirming/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019. A much better explanation of this account in Matthew 15 is offered by Derek DeMars: “As interpreters have long pointed out, Jesus’ words to the woman are tinged with irony. He was speaking (as wisdom-teachers of the time often did) with a challenge or riddle intended to draw wisdom out of the other person. That’s why his final response to the woman is, ‘Because you have answered this way…’ (Mark 7:29). He was testing her.” Derek DeMars, “Was Jesus a Bigot? A Response to Sarah Bessey on Affirming Homosexuality,” blog post, Aug. 13, 2019, https://derekdemars.com/2019/08/13/was-jesus-a-bigot-prejudice-and-homosexuality/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019.
  20. Luke Timothy Johnson, ibid. Bessey gives a similar role to experience in her narrative of how she came to affirm homosexuality. She tells of her relationship with a woman who prayed for her, comparing her own change of understanding to that of Peter with Cornelius: “Eventually I learned that in addition to being a powerful and mighty woman of God, in addition to being an anointed pastor, in addition to being a devoted follower of Jesus, in addition to being kind and bold, faithful and content, funny and compassionate and godly, she was also a lesbian. And just like that, the penny dropped. All the study, all the footnotes, all the scholars, went from being a jumble of intellectual opinions to a lived experience in one encounter with the Holy Spirit alongside a beloved sister in Christ” (Sarah Bessey, ibid., emphasis in original).
  21. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996), Kindle Edition, location 4692.
  22. Fortson and Grams, ibid., 3-5. Bold added.
  23. Fortson and Grams, ibid., 11.
  24. Ibid., 156.
  25. Ibid., 144.
  26. Ibid., 149-51.
  27. Ibid., 154.
  28. “2016 Book of Discipline,” United Methodist Church, shared on the official denominational website, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-is-the-denominations-position-on-homosexuality, accessed Oct. 13, 2019.
  29. “What Wolfhart Pannenburg Says About This Debate in the Church,” Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, 37, emphasis added. Quoted by Fortson and Grams, ibid., 162-63.
  30. Thomas Hopko, “The Homosexual Christian,” Orthodox Church in America, https://www.oca.org/reflections/misc-authors/the-homosexual-christian, accessed Oct. 7, 2019. Here is another helpful example, this time Roman Catholic, shared by Fortson and Grams: “While the church teaches that homosexual acts are immoral, she does distinguish between engaging in homosexual acts and having a homosexual inclination. While the former is always objectively sinful, the latter is not” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care, 2006).
  31. Webb, ibid., 183, bold added.
  32. This, of course, is the message that Westboro Baptist Church famously declares, and even the URL for their church website: https://godhatesfags.com/. A (former) insider’s view of this church is available through the recent book Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Phelps-Roper. You can read an excerpt here. I have not read the whole book.
  33. It is true, properly understood, that God hates not only sin but also people who persist in sin (Ps. 5:4-6; 7:11-12; etc.). But nowhere in Scripture do we see this message proclaimed in evangelism. The evangelistic message of the early church was not that God hates sinners, but that God desires “to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:26). “The Lord… is patient… not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
  34. All but two of the following quotes come from S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 27-163. The exceptions are the AME quote (which Fortson and Grams summarize) and the SBC quote (not included in their three pages of SBC quotes).

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Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (5 of 6)

In this post I want to summarize our findings about Jesus and homosexuality from my last three posts and evaluate three possible counter-arguments from the Gospels. Did Jesus say some people are born gay? Did he heal a centurion’s male lover? And what about Jesus and his “beloved disciple”?

I will finish answering the question “Was Jesus okay with homosexual behavior?” Then my final post will address the question “Is Jesus okay with homosexual behavior now?”

Notes: 1) I decided to divide my “final” post into two, so there is one more after this. 2) Nearly half of this post is footnotes. You won’t see them if you received this by email. Click through to the website for the full experience.

This is part of a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

    1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
    2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
    3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
    4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
    5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
    6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

In this series on homosexuality, I have focused on Jesus, discussing other biblical witnesses primarily in relation to him. There are at least two reasons for this focus.

First, I believe that being a Christian starts with following Jesus. It certainly does not end there (see my “Red Letter Reductionism” essay), but it is never less: “Whoever says he abides in him [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). If we can learn directly from Jesus how we ought to think and act regarding homosexuality, let us do so.

Second, Jesus is often seen as the “weak link” in the Bible’s stance against homosexual behavior. If the idea that Jesus approved of “loving same-sex relationships” turns out to be historically unbelievable, then this illusion of a weak link is removed, and the witness of all of Scripture is seen to be consistent.

In discussing Jesus’ views of homosexual behavior, I have also presented much of the other biblical evidence on the topic. But I have not directly asked valuable questions like “Must Christians obey the Leviticus laws against homosexual behavior?” Nor have I attempted a detailed exegesis of Paul’s teachings against homosexual activity. Rather, I have placed these biblical passages alongside other ancient texts and looked for consistent patterns, with one guiding question: What light do these passages shine on what Jesus himself believed?

What, then, did we find?

Our Findings So Far

First, we examined Jesus’ apparent silence on homosexuality. Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day who mentioned homosexual behavior consistently condemned it, and it was nearly unknown among Jews at the time. It was something “out there” that non-Jews did, and no Jewish rabbi had to stake out his public position on the topic. If any rabbi had been suspected of disagreeing with this Jewish consensus, he would have been rapidly rejected by fishermen and Pharisee alike.

Given this historical evidence, there was little reason for Jesus to specifically mention homosexual behavior, and every reason to assume he agreed with the Jewish consensus.

Second, we asked if Jesus’ emphasis on love is proof that he approved of loving homosexual relationships. Does “love your neighbor” mean Jesus affirmed “gay love”? Ancient Jews saw no contradiction between commanding neighbor-love and condemning homosexual activity (see Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 19:18). Paul likewise paired these teachings in his letters to Rome and Corinth (e.g. Rom. 1:24-27; 13:9). Unlike our culture, the New Testament actually contrasts love and sexual indulgence (e.g. Eph. 5:2-3). In Jesus’ view, “Love your neighbor” is the “second” commandment, subordinate to the “most important” commandment, “Love the Lord your God” (Mark 12:28-31). Thus, it is not truly loving to help your neighbor violate God’s will.1

Given this ancient context, Jesus’ emphasis on love is not proof that he approved of “loving homosexual relationships.” If anything, it is the opposite.

Third, we considered three ways that Jesus’ original Jewish audience would have understood him to be addressing the topic of homosexual behavior, despite never explicitly naming it. Jesus taught “You shall not commit adultery” (Matt. 5:27; 19:18), a command that was understood by ancient Jews to also prohibit, by implication, all other unlawful sexual behaviors. Jesus taught against πορνεία (porneia, “sexual immorality,” Matt. 15:18-19), which “was universally understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse2 And Jesus warned against ἀσέλγεια (aselgeia, “debauchery,” Mark 7:21-22), “a word that Jesus… could easily turn to as a synonym for homosexual activity and other similarly shocking behavior forbidden by the Jewish law,”3  a word used in 2 Peter 2:7 to describe the “filthy conduct” (NKJV) of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

What might Jesus’ Jewish listeners say if they heard the claim that Jesus said nothing about homosexual activity? “Of course he did! We clearly heard him mention adultery, πορνεία, and ἀσέλγεια!”

But Is There Counter-Evidence?

Despite this evidence, some still point to several events in Jesus’ ministry as proof that Jesus affirmed homosexual behavior, as long as it was loving and consensual. Here are three examples that are perhaps most often mentioned. It is my impression that relatively few scholars find the following arguments significant, but some do, so I will address them.

Counter-argument 1: Jesus said some people are born gay. (Matt. 19:12)

This argument uses Jesus’ words about eunuchs:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Matt. 19:12)

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626. (From Wikimedia Commons.)

Clearly Jesus affirmed that some people are born as “eunuchs.” But what is a eunuch (ευνούχος)?

Here it is easy to get lost down a deep, dark hole, exploring all the ways that the word ευνούχος was used. The first thing I want to say is that, yes, the word ευνούχος (eunuch) may sometimes have been used to refer to someone who experienced same-sex desires (scholars do not all agree).4 However, ευνούχος was not a word that specifically referred to homosexuals, and most eunuchs were not homosexual.

BDAG, probably the most respected dictionary of New Testament Greek, lists three uses of the word ευνούχος, matching them to Jesus’ use in this passage:

1. a castrated male person, eunuch. Mt 19:12b…
2. a human male who, without a physical operation, is by nature incapable of begetting children, impotent male… Mt 19:12a…
3. a human male who abstains fr. marriage, without being impotent, a celibate Mt 19:12c…

Here we need to remember that, in any given circumstance, a word means what it means in that specific context, not necessarily what it sometimes means in other contexts. Linguists warn of a word study fallacy called illegitimate totality transfer. Blomberg’s definition of this fallacy is on point, particularly the second half:

Assuming that a word carries several or all of its possible meanings in each of its appearances when in fact the most probable meaning of any word is that which contributes the least amount of new information to the overall context.5

So what does the context indicate Jesus meant by ευνούχος (eunuch) in Matthew 19:12?

Well, Jesus actually uses the word in three different-but-related ways. That is, each occurrence of ευνούχος has its own immediate context (“from birth,” “made… by men,” “made themselves”), yet they all share the same larger context within Jesus’ discussion. The immediate context for each use is relatively clear; but how does the larger context constrain and specify what Jesus means here (in all three uses) by ευνούχος?

In the larger context, Jesus is responding to a question of the Pharisees about divorce. Jesus responds by affirming the creation model of male-female marriage with its “one flesh” sexual union (Matt. 19:3-9). His disciples, dismayed at the strict limitations Jesus places on divorce, suggest a second option: “not to marry” (Matt. 19:10).

Jesus’ comments about eunuchs occur within his response to this second option, “not to marry.” Jesus and his disciples, as good Jews, do not imagine any third option; the two options are male-female marriage or “not to marry.”6 Eunuchs, in Jesus’ discussion, fall into the latter category—no marriage and therefore, in the Jewish worldview Jesus shared, no sexual union.

Thus, despite the differences between the three categories of eunuchs Jesus describes, the common ground for all three that makes Jesus’ illustration work is that they are people who are not engaging in sexual relationships.

Other issues like sexual orientation or even reproduction are not the subject of conversation in this passage.7 Rather, Jesus is saying that some people fall into the “not to marry” category for three possible reasons: they were born with conditions that leave them unsuited for marriage;8 they were castrated; or they voluntarily give up marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”9

So, did Jesus say that some people are born gay? Not really, although his words do indicate that not every male is born suited for marriage. More importantly, however, his words indicate that for everyone, whatever their sexual desires, there are only two options: faithful male-female marriage until death or “not to marry.”

Gagnon’s summary is on point:

Jesus’ comparison of men who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven with “born eunuchs” shows that Jesus categorized “born eunuchs” as persons not having any sex (Matt 19), for certainly Jesus was not giving the disciples permission to have sex outside of marriage and thereby avoid his newly enunciated standard for marriage. So, from that standpoint, any argument that is made about “born eunuchs” including homosexual persons (with which I would agree) leads to the view that Jesus did not give homosexually oriented persons the option of sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. 10

Jesus’ words about eunuchs are not a blessing on same-sex relationships, but they are a clear reminder to the church to honor those whom, whatever their condition as “eunuchs,” are faithfully celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.11

Counter-argument 2: Jesus affirmed a gay couple—a centurion and his “boy.” (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)

This argument is based primarily on a story, one historical fact, and two Greek words. The story is the account of Jesus healing a centurion’s servant. The historical fact is that, in ancient Greco-Roman culture, it was not uncommon for a master to have a servant who also functioned as his male lover. In addition, the term παῖς (pais), found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of this story, can mean “boy” and was sometimes used to refer to such a lover.12 Finally, Luke’s account describes the servant as being ἔντιμος (entimos) in the eyes of the centurion—a word that can mean “dear.”

Some who promote homosexual relationships among Christians go far beyond these facts (see here, here, and here). Jesuit priest John McNeill, for example, translates the centurion as talking about “my beloved boy” and proposes this interpretation:

Here we have the most direct encounter of Jesus with someone who would today be pronounced ‘gay,’ and Jesus’ reaction was acceptance of the person without judgment and even eagerness to be of assistance to restore the ‘pais‘ to health, and by implication to restore the loving relationship of the two, making possible the renewal of any sexual activity which they would have enjoyed together prior to the illness.13

The centurion with his sick servant. (Image copyright www.LumoProject.com. Used with permission from Free Bible Images.)

There are multiple problems with this interpretation. First, παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever; only other contextual clues can provide this meaning. When used of human relationships in the New Testament and other early Christian literature, παῖς refers either to a boy, a son, or a servant/slave.14 There are no sexual connotations in any of the other places παῖς is used in the NT.

Later in Matthew, in a quote from Isaiah, Jesus is described as being God’s beloved παῖς: “My servant… my beloved” (ὁ παῖς μου… ὁ ἀγαπητός μου; Matt. 12:18). Clearly, a παῖς can even be described as “beloved” without there being any necessary sexual connotations, or else such language would not have been used by God about his own servant.

Second, in neither Matthew nor Luke do we find the centurion talking about “my beloved boy” (McNeill’s expression). What we have instead is the narrator Luke saying that the centurion’s δοῦλος (slave/servant) was ἔντιμος in the eyes of the centurion.

Much has been made of how the terms παῖς and δοῦλος are used in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, but no explanation is sure enough to strongly determine our interpretation of the passage.15 More clearly, ἔντιμος fails to support the case for a homosexual relationship. Though the term can be translated “dear,” the two main senses of the word in the NT are “honored, respected,” and “valuable, precious.”16 “Dear,” in fact, is related to the latter sense; it can imply an emotional attachment based on value, without the presence of sexual desire. Most English translations of this verse use a term such as “highly valued.” Similarly, Luke’s only other use of ἔντιμος is usually translated as “distinguished” or “honorable” (Luke 14:8).

Some argue that it is unreasonable to imagine a Roman centurion would plead for Jesus to heal a mere servant unless that servant were his lover. But are we willing to argue that sexual interest is the strongest possible motivation? If this centurion could possess a faith greater than Jesus had found in Israel (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9), why could he not also possess a great (non-sexual) concern for a  valued servant? If the centurion who called for Peter was “a devout man who feared God with all his household,” “gave alms generously,” and had “a devout soldier… among those who attended him,” (Acts 10:2, 7), why could this believing centurion not likewise sincerely care for “those who attended him”?

Third, if we take into account Luke’s assessment of how valuable (ἔντιμος) the servant was to the centurion, then we must also consider Luke’s report of how valuable the centurion was to the Jews. Luke reports that elders of the Jews “pleaded… earnestly” with Jesus on behalf of the centurion, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5). If “a deeply observant God-fearer [Gentile proselyte] would not practise paederasty,”17 surely a pious Jew would avoid supporting it. Perhaps this centurion was not a God-fearer but only a benefactor; nevertheless, can we really imagine Jews in Jesus day offering such high praise for someone they know is practicing pederasty? Can we imagine them pleading with Jesus to heal a pederast’s “beloved boy”? Can we imagine the Jewish crowds standing quietly by as Jesus took an active pederast and “preached him into the kingdom” (Matt. 8:11-12)?

In contrast to such scenarios, Green’s assessment of the centurion’s possible motives is refreshingly reasonable:

His desire to see his slave returned to health need not imply an extraordinary humanitarian concern on his part, since care for sick slaves was advised in Roman antiquity as a way to prolong their usefulness. At the same time… Luke’s language suggests that the centurion not only regarded the slave as useful, but actually esteemed him. There is no socio-historical reason to doubt that, as an urban slave in the home of a wealthy master, this dying man might might have enjoyed friendship with the centurion.18

The hypothesis that Jesus affirmed a gay couple by healing the centurion’s “boy” creates far more problems than it solves.

Counter-argument 3: Jesus had a homosexual relationship with his “beloved disciple.” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20)

The disciple “whom Jesus loved” is first mentioned in John’s account of the Last Supper. There we read that “one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side” (John 13:23). A more word-for-word translation could read “reclining on the chest of Jesus,” but “the position of the Beloved Disciple is not to be understood as resting ‘on top of’ Jesus.”19 We know this disciple was very close to Jesus, yet not actually on top of him, because later when he wanted to ask Jesus a question (John 13:25), “the easiest way for him to address Jesus was to lean back until his head literally rested”20 on Jesus’ “chest.”21

This physical proximity may make us uncomfortable. Scholars, however, point to abundant evidence that such practices were normal and non-sexual in Jesus’ day. For special meals like the Passover, people reclined next to each other on couches to eat.22 If this Last Supper meal followed standard banquet procedure, three people were reclining at the head table—including Jesus and beloved disciple, leaning on his left elbow, just to Jesus’ right.

In this image of the Last Supper, Peter (foreground) is addressing the beloved disciple (left), who is next to Jesus (center), with another disciple (Judas?) on Jesus’ left. If the beloved disciple wanted a private word with Jesus, he would lean back till his head was next to Jesus’ chest. (Image is property of Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing. Used with permission from Free Bible Images.)

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus similarly describes Lazarus lying “on the chest” of Abraham (Luke 16:23). “One might also lay one’s head on another’s bosom, which in that culture, far more tactile than our own, had no necessary sexual connotations.”23

Klink reminds us of our own cultural biases:

The Western reader must be immediately reminded that such physical closeness was (and is) quite different in an Eastern context. In many parts of the world today, men walk down the street holding hands as a sign of friendship, not as a sign of homosexuality. This is an especially common practice between two men operating together in a business relationship, reflecting mutual respect and trust. With this in view, the actions of the Beloved Disciple become wordless communication that shows mutual trust and respect.24

Some point to an event during Jesus’ crucifixion as more evidence that Jesus had an erotic relationship with “the disciple whom he loved”:25

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)

Keener, however, points to multiple ancient Greek texts in which people either promise to take a friend’s mother as their own if the friend dies or entrust their mother to the care of a friend.26 He also points to texts which “described a disciple’s virtue in terms of caring for the teacher’s family.”27 In this case, there was an additional motivation for Jesus’ choice:

Most important, because Jesus’ brothers did not believe (7:5), Jesus entrusted his believing mother to a disciple… This model suggests that the ties of the believing community must be stronger than natural familial bonds, a moral amply illustrated by the Jesus tradition (Mark 3:33-35; 13:12).28

How, then, do we explain this disciple’s special title as the one Jesus “loved”? First, the beloved disciple was probably the apostle John, who was indeed part of the “inner circle” of three disciples closest to Jesus. Second, he was probably also the author of the Gospel, and may have used this term as a form of authorial modesty and gratitude for receiving Jesus’ love.29 Third, his anonymity invites the reader to interact with him not just as an historical figure, but as an “ideal disciple” to be imitated.30

Whatever the reasons for this title, we should note that John also records Jesus as having special “love” for Lazarus (“he whom you love,” John 11:3, 36) and for his sisters Mary and Martha (John 11:5).31 Further, “the verbs agapaō and phileō and their cognates”—the words used for “love” in all these passages—“nowhere in John’s Gospel have a sexual connotation.”32

As Keener writes, “given John’s Jewish context, any implied sexual relationship” between Jesus and the beloved disciple “would be impossible without the Gospel somewhere indicating a lifting of Jewish sexual taboos.”33 If John’s readers would have protested at the idea, so would have Jesus’ other disciples.34

The problem with all homosexual interpretations of Jesus and the beloved disciple is revealed clearly in this assertion by Anglican priest Paul Oestreicher: “It would be so interpreted in any person today.”35

But Jesus didn’t live “today,” and not in Oestreicher’s Western culture, either. When we read these texts within the historical context of Jesus’ own ancient Jewish culture, it becomes clear that no one then saw any reason to come to any such homosexual interpretation of Jesus’ actions. Why should we imagine we can understand their own culture better than they did?

Was Jesus Okay With Homosexual Activity?

I have discussed the big picture arguments regarding Jesus’ “silence” about homosexuality and his ethic of love. I have also evaluated three details from Jesus’ life and ministry that have been used to paint a pro-homosexual Jesus. More importantly, we have examined all this evidence within the larger historical context of Jesus’ own time and place.

I believe the evidence points clearly in one direction: The total available historical evidence fits only with the hypothesis that Jesus—the historical Jesus of Nazareth—did not approve of homosexual behavior.

This fact is not surprising, for it appears that Jesus built his sexual ethic on the Genesis 1-2 creation account, as is seen in Matthew 19:3-8. The structure of Jesus’ argument in this passage (drawing on God himself) is that because God made humans male and female they become one flesh in marriage. Jesus used this creation reality to forbid the separation of male-female one flesh unions. But it is equally relevant to the question of homosexual unions, for the basis given in the creation account for becoming “one flesh” is the same-yet-different duality of male and female.

According to Genesis, Eve was taken from Adam and made to be “a helper” who was “corresponding to him” (Gen. 2:20, CSB). Another male would not “help” Adam, nor was Eve designed to “correspond” to another female. Thus, male-male and female-female unions have no foundation in God’s creation design, but actually contradict it. The fact that Jesus drew on this “from the beginning” creation design (Matt. 19:8) as the foundation for his answer to divorce strongly indicates he would have done the same in his answer to homosexual behavior—just as other Jews in his day in fact did.

Conclusion

At this point some readers will be more than content, believing that it is clear what Christians today should believe about the ethics of homosexual behavior. Other readers, perhaps agreeing with much of my historical analysis, will nevertheless feel the question of Christian belief and practice is still open. For the latter readers, I have one more post addressing this question: Is it okay for Christians today to affirm homosexual behavior?

For now, however, we should pause to reaffirm what we already know: While individual pieces of evidence can be used to paint a pro-homosexual Jesus, the total available historical evidence fits only with the hypothesis that Jesus did not approve of homosexual behavior.

Have you puzzled over the three details of Jesus’ life that we examined in this post? Have I missed other possible counter-evidence that seems strong to you? Are you finding this series helpful? Troubling? Am I scratching where it itches—without merely satisfying itching ears (2 Tim. 4:3)? If you have a comment, please leave it below. And thanks again for reading!


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  1. This is what someone like David Gushee misunderstands when he makes the following statement: “I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors” (David Gushee, “I’m an evangelical minister. I now support the LGBT community — and the church should, too,” Nov. 4, 2014, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/04/im-an-evangelical-minister-i-now-support-the-lgbt-community-and-the-church-should-too/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019. Gushee’s sentiment is also why I have placed little emphasis on “all that parsing of Greek verbs” in this series. I contend that the basic stance of the Scripture on homosexual activity is clear when simply placed within its overall historical context, without a lot of parsing of individual words. The individual words can only be understood correctly when this larger context is clear.
  2. Robert Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues,” 2003, online article based on an interview with Zenit News Agency, March 21 and 28, 2002, pub. by OrthodoxyToday.org, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/GagnonHomosexuality.php, accessed August 28, 2019.
  3. G. Thomas Hobson, “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 21 (2008), 65, 67, 70, bold added. See here for the full article: https://www.academia.edu/31907497/ASELGEIA_IN_MARK_7_22, accessed September 2, 2019.
  4. For a positive conclusion, see Robert Gagnon and J., “Jesus, eunuchs, and the allegation of a ‘gay Jesus,'” email correspondence with links, dated 1/18/07, http://robgagnon.net/AnswersToEMails.htm, accessed September 28, 2019. However, much of the evidence shared in J.’s link refers to ancient concepts of eunuchs in cultures and languages far from Jesus’ context, and not specificially to the use of the word ευνούχος itself. For a contrasting opinion, see this article by A. Phillip Brown, III, which claims that “the Greek term eunouchos is never used to denote a person with intact sexual organs who is intersex, transgender, or engages in homosexual behavior.” If ευνούχος should indeed be understood to include people with same-sex attractions, it is still a matter of scholarly debate whether such persons were equivalent to what we today call a “homosexual.” I agree with Fortson and Grams (in Unchanging Witness) that the ancient world did have understandings of sexual desire effectively equivalent to our modern category of homosexual orientation. For a contrasting opinion, here is France’s commentary on what “born a eunuch” means: “In the context of modern discussions about homosexual orientation it might be suggested that it also includes those who are psychologically disinclined to heterosexual intercourse and thus debarred from fatherhood, but evidence for such an understanding of homosexuality in the ancient world is hard to find. Most references to homosexual behavior in the ancient world are to what we now call bisexuality, the choice of some who are capable of heterosexual intercourse to find sexual fulfillment also (or instead) with members of their own sex. Such a choice could hardly be described as being ‘born a eunuch,’ and the idea of an innate and irreversible homosexual orientation belongs to modern Western psychology rather than to the world in which Jesus lived.” R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 724-25.
  5. Craig L. Blomberg with Jennifer Foutz Markley, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 136.
  6. I am indebted to Hugenberger for this observation: “What is notable for our discussion is that as far as Jesus is concerned, there is no THIRD option! One must either be chaste (“a eunuch… for the sake of the kingdom”) or one must be faithful in a heterosexual marriage (“male and female” “united to his wife”). Surely if Jesus wanted to affirm life-long committed homosexual unions, here is where he needed to do it because his own disciples were astonished at the radical and difficult requirements he seemed to set before them. But Jesus did not allow that third option” (Gordon Hugenberger, “Homosexuality,” June 15, 2004, https://www.parkstreet.org/teaching-training/
    articles/homosexuality (now a dead link), quoted by Aubrey Spears in “The Great Exchange: Same-Sex Sex Attraction,” sermon,  https://clovermedia.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/7572d4795b/attachments/Great_Exchange__The__Incarnation__2018.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019).
  7. It is true that, just as a minority of males “born eunuchs” have homosexual desires, so a minority of males who are castrated experience a change in sexual orientation or desire (. 2016 Mar; 4(1): e51–e59. Published online March 2, 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.esxm.2015.11.001.). In both cases, however, homosexual orientation is not the experience of most eunuchs. Thus, given both physiological realities and the literary context of Jesus’ conversation, it makes little sense to interpret his words as meaning, “Some are born with homosexual orientation, some are made homosexual by others, and some choose for themselves to be homosexual for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Context similarly suggests that Jesus and his disciples are not narrowly concerned with ability to reproduce, either, as if Jesus were saying, “Some are born unable to reproduce, some are rendered unable by others, and some choose for themselves to not reproduce for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is not discussing varied sexual experiences (fertility vs. sterility) within marriage; rather, he is discussing the option that does not include sexual union: “not to marry.”
  8. Here is a sample of explanations of this first category of “eunuch” in commentaries: “The impotent” (Hagner); “those born without sexual organs or impotent” (Osborne); those “born without the capacity for sexual relations, such as those born without properly developed genitalia” (Wilkins); “people without fully functioning sexual organs” (Blomberg); “those who are physiological incapable of procreation” (France); “those who were born without sexual organs” (Keener); “those who are naturally impotent” (Luz). See Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33b (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995), comment on Matt. 19:12; Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament, Kindle Edition, comment on Matt. 19:12; Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, Kindle Edition, 645; Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, The New American Commentary (B&H Publishing Group), Kindle Edition, 294; R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 724; Craig S. Keener. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.(Eerdmans), Kindle Edition, comment on Matt. 19:10-12; Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 501.
  9. Almost all English Bible translations that avoid the word “eunuch” (or the older equivalent “gelding”) in this passage are in essential agreement with my paraphrase here. Bible Gateway lists seventeen such translations (of sixty total in English). About seven of the seventeen mirror the NABRE: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Another five differ mainly by focusing on reproductive ability, as with the NCV: “There are different reasons why some men cannot marry. Some men were born without the ability to become fathers. Others were made that way later in life by other people. And some men have given up marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” Another four simply use “chaste” or “celibate” as in GW: “Some men are celibate because they were born that way. Others are celibate because they were castrated. Still others have decided to be celibate because of the kingdom of heaven.” The final one, The Message, is just plain wonky on this verse!
  10. Robert Gagnon, from email to “J,” January 16, 2007, shared at “Answers to Emails,” http://robgagnon.net/AnswersToEMails.htm, accessed September 26, 2019, emphasis added.
  11. The following comments by Wilkins are timely: “Those who have chosen to remain single as the expression of the way that they believe they can best serve God need us as their community of brothers and sisters. Jesus declares that celibacy is an acceptable lifestyle for those for whom it is given by God. Paul expands on Jesus’ statement to indicate that if one remains unmarried, one is in a position to be undistracted by the amount of work that goes into taking care of one’s family responsibilities, and the kingdom of God receives benefit (1 Cor. 7:27, 39–40). Unfortunately, many of our churches endorse marriage as a sign of maturity, and those who are married tend to get the more ‘responsible’ ministry opportunities in the church. Single people are seen as those who have not ‘settled down’ yet. We should reevaluate the way we view and value single people within our ministries.” Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan), Kindle Edition, 658.
  12. Mader explains: “Within the institution of paederasty, pais had a rather specific reference to the younger, passive partner in a paederastic relationship” (Donald Mader, “The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10,” online article, Greek Love Through the Ages, https://www.greek-love.com/antiquity/matthew-luke-loved-boy-pederasty, accessed September 28, 2019). Mader’s entire article is worth consulting, though I question some of his critical assumptions and disagree with his final conclusion. One factor he fails to consider is how the Jewish elders implored Jesus on behalf of the centurion. See below for more on this.
  13. John J. McNeill, Sex as God Intended: A Reflection on Human Sexuality as Play Including Festschrift Essays Celebrating the Life and Work of John J. McNeill (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2008), 63, 65. As quoted in Fortson and Grams, p. 22.
  14. These are the three uses listed in BAGD, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., by Walter Bauer et al. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 604.
  15. In both accounts the centurion always refers to his sick slave as a παῖς but refers to another servant/slave as a δοῦλος. Matthew always calls the sick servant a παῖς, while Luke always call him a δοῦλος. It is hard to know what to make of these patterns. On the one hand, it shows that the two terms have considerable overlap in meaning. On the other hand, it may be significant that the centurion always refers to his sick servant by the term that can imply more emotional connection. Those who argue that a homosexual relationship was present make much of this fact, but παῖς could simply hint at a non-sexual closeness. What about the choices of the Gospel writers? It is possible that Matthew, as a Jew writing to a primarily Jewish audience, was able to use παῖς to suggest the feelings of a God-fearing centurion toward his servant without considering any possible connotations of pederasty. Luke, however, was probably a Gentile, as were many in his audience; they probably shared a greater familiarity with Greco-Roman practices of pederasty than Jews did. Thus Luke may have chosen δοῦλος to avoid any connotations of pederasty for his readers, then added ἔντιμος to retain a sense of how the centurion valued his servant. I am indebted to Mader (ibid.) for pointing me in this direction, though the conclusion is my own.
  16. These are the glosses provided in BAGD, ibid., 268-69.
  17. Mader, ibid. Mader states this despite arguing that the account “suggests an attitude of toleration toward a non-exploitive, caring paederastic relationship.” He tries to evade his own observation about God-fearers by arguing that either this God-fearer was not deeply observant or that the factors suggesting piety were added (invented) by Luke.
  18. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 286.
  19. Edward W. Klink III, John, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan), Kindle Edition, comment on John 13:23.
  20. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 474.
  21. Here the ESV has “leaning back against Jesus,” which does not translate the Greek word στῆθος (“chest”), but does correctly convey that the beloved disciple was now actually touching (“against”) Jesus.
  22. “It is important to note that meals in the ancient world did not involve tables with chairs but involved reclining on couches, usually U-shaped (called a triclinium) around a low table. Participants would support themselves on their left elbows and eat with their right hands” (Klink, ibid.)
  23. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. II (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 915, n. 184; cf. 915-16, also 900-901. Other scholars agree. Gagnon: “A text in Pliny’s Epistles refers to a senator named Veiento who ‘was reclining… on the chest’ of the emperor Nerva, again without any sexual connotation (4.22.4)… I wrote Dr. Katherine Dunbabin, professor of classics at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) and author of The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), and asked her whether the paragraph above reflected her own understanding of the matter. She responded (reproduced with permission): ‘I think the Pliny passage shows incontrovertibly that there is no necessary sexual connotation involved in a diner reclining “on the chest” of another; there is no suggestion whatsoever that Fabricius Veiento had any sort of sexual relationship with the emperor Nerva! What the passage does imply is intimacy; here in the sense that Veiento (whose past history was extremely shady) was being received as a favoured associate of the emperor/host'” (Robert A. J. Gagnon, “Was Jesus in a Sexual Relationship with the Beloved Disciple?” essay, Feb. 10, 2008, http://robgagnon.net/articles/HomosexBelovedDisciple.pdf, 5, accessed Sept. 30, 2019).
  24. Klink, ibid., comment on John 13:25, emphasis added. Carson: “Westerners may recoil at the physical proximity of two men. In many parts of the world, of course (e.g. the Philippines, the Arab world), men walk down the street holding hands. This is a sign of friendship, not homosexuality. Men and women in such cultures may not hold hands in public: that would be a sign of licentiousness.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 474.
  25. Jennings asserts, “The plain sense of this episode is to buttress our hypothesis that Jesus is to be understood as having a lover…. The relationship is depicted by the text as a homoerotic one, which is here acknowledged as entailing a loyalty that has consequences even beyond the death of Jesus. … This scene should be read as underlining not Jesus’ love for his mother (which is suggested nowhere in this or any other Gospel) but Jesus’ love for his beloved.” Oestreicher similarly misreads this text as indicating that “John becomes unmistakably part of Jesus’s family.” But the text actually says that Jesus’ mother went to live in the beloved disciple’s home, not that the beloved disciple joined Jesus’ family. See Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2003), 26-27, quoted at https://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/SF/jesus.html, accessed Sept. 29, 2019; Paul Oestreicher, “Was Jesus Gay? Probably,” online article, The Guardian, Apr. 20, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/apr/20/was-jesus-gay-probably, accessed Sept. 29, 2019.
  26. Keener, ibid., 1144.
  27. Keener, ibid., 1145.
  28. Keener, ibid., 1145.
  29. “If we wonder why the beloved disciple chooses this form of anonymity, two answers are suggested by the emphases of the Fourth Gospel. Just as ‘the beloved disciple,’ if a self-designation, implies not arrogance (as if to say ‘I am more loved than others’) but a profound sense of indebtedness to grace (‘What a wonder—that I should be loved by the incarnate Word!’…), so the silence as to the identity of the beloved disciple may be a quite way of refusing to give even the impression of sharing a platform with Jesus… At the same time, the author thus serves as a model for his readers: becoming a Christian means a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, such that he receives the glory.” Carson, ibid., 473.
  30. “The anonymity functions as a literary device that forces the reader to engage with the Beloved Disciple primarily by his narrativized identity. For the reader then, the identity of the Beloved Disciple is not simply who he is (behind the narrative) but what he is (within the narrative). The anonymity of the Beloved Disciple depicts the “ideal disciple,” one having special access and intimate relationship with Jesus… This in no way minimizes the historical reality of the Beloved Disciple, but creates alongside his historical identity a narrativized identity and role that is significant to the message of the Gospel.” Klink, ibid., comment on 13:23.
  31. Gagnon: “It is interesting that Mary and Martha tell Jesus about their brother Lazarus’s serious illness in these terms: ‘Lord, see, the one whom you love (phileis) is sick’ (11:3). Two verses later we read that Jesus ‘loved (ēgapa) Martha and her sister and Lazarus.’ He loves all three but nevertheless Lazarus can be referred to simply as ‘the one whom you love’ (hon phileis). This sounds a great deal like the reference in 20:2 to the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’ (hon ephilei ho Iēsous), which singles out a specific disciple even though the broader context makes clear that Jesus loves all his disciples (13:1, 34; 14:21-23; 15:9-13). If Jesus’ special love for Lazarus is not understood in a sexual sense—otherwise, Jesus would be having sex with more than one person, contrary to his own teaching about monogamy in Mark 10 and Matthew 19—how can his special love for one disciple be understood in a sexual sense? When ‘Jews’ saw how Jesus wept for Lazarus and said, ‘See, how he loved (ephilei),’ they obviously were not drawing the conclusion that Jesus was in a sexual relationship with Lazarus. Rather, Jesus loved Lazarus as
    though he (Lazarus) were his own brother. The same applies to the references to the beloved disciple.” Ibid., 4.
  32. Gagnon, ibid., 3.
  33. Keener, ibid., 917.
  34. Gagnon: “In the context of early Judaism, where homosexual practice of any sort would incur a capital sentence, how likely is it that Jesus would have had sexual intercourse with a male disciple and have done so without apparently raising an eyebrow among any of his other disciples?” Gagnon, ibid., 5-6.
  35. Oestreicher, ibid.

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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (7): Conclusions and Questions

How should we live today, as children of the Reformation? Should we celebrate the Reformation, looking to its heroes as a foundation for our churches? Should we continue debating and dividing among ourselves in our search for truth, emphasizing our post-Reformation denominational distinctives? Should Anabaptists read the Christian world primarily through an “Anabaptists are not X (especially Protestant)” lens?

Should we see the Reformation primarily as a tragedy, dividing the seamless robe of Christ, cutting his Bride in two? Should we focus our efforts on reuniting the broken Church, looking for common ground? Should we set aside secondary theological matters as we join arms with all who name Christ’s name, trying to undo the damage triggered by Luther?

Should we—as some today seem to be doing—try to do church as if the Reformation never happened? Is it ancient history that we are wisest to ignore, acting instead as if our parents or grandparents lived among the apostles? It has been almost 500 years since the Reformation; may we safely forget it as most of us have forgotten other momentous events in church history (such as the division of Eastern and Western churches, the decline of Christianity in the Middle East, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, or the tragedy and glory of European colonization)? After all, we who are Anabaptists are just biased in thinking that the historical period of our birth was exceptionally important, right?

While some of these questions are deliberately off-balance, I don’t think a simple yes or no answer will suffice for any of them. History abounds with reactionary responses to history.

This post is a (very belated) final installment in our series surveying the ecclesiology of the reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See the introduction to this series and posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , Calvin, Simons, and Tyndale.)

In this post I want to do two things: (1) Quote some of George’s summary reflections on Reformation ecclesiology and (2) add a random and non-representative sample of some of my own questions and conclusions.

Summary Reflections from Timothy George

The abiding validity of Reformation theology is that, despite the many varied emphases it contains within itself, it challenges the church to listen reverently and obediently to what God has once and for all said (Deus dixit) and once and for all done in Jesus Christ. How the church will respond to this challenge is not a matter of academic speculation or ecclesiastical gamesmanship. It is a question of life or death. It is the decision of whether the church will serve the true and living God of Jesus Christ, the God of the Old and the New Testaments, or else succumb to the worship of Baal. (Kindle Locations 8173-8177, emphasis added)

I agree: The Reformation helped to refocus the church of Christ upon Christ himself, not only in its soteriology (theology of salvation) but also in its understandings of the definition of the true church. This lesson must not be forgotten. This next quote underscores the same theme:

The different Christological nuances among the reformers were substantial and significant, but Menno’s favorite text (1 Cor 3:11) could serve as the basic theme for each of them: the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the only foundation, the only compelling and exclusive criterion, for Christian life and Christian theology. (Kindle Locations 8253-8255)

A second essential lesson of the Reformation is that Scripture—the Scripture that in its entirety gives witness to Christ—must be given primacy over both church tradition and personal experience:

In the sixteenth century the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture was not a matter of dispute between Catholics and Protestants. All of the reformers, including the radicals, accepted the divine origin and infallible character of the Bible. The issue which emerged at the Reformation was how the divinely attested authority of Holy Scripture was related to the authority of the church and ecclesiastical tradition (Roman Catholics) on the one hand and the power of personal experience (Spiritualists) on the other. The sola in sola scriptura was not intended to discount completely the value of church tradition but rather to subordinate it to the primacy of Holy Scripture. Whereas the Roman Church appealed to the witness of the church to validate the authority of the canonical Scriptures, the Protestant reformers insisted that the Bible was self-authenticating, that is, deemed trustworthy on the basis of its own perspicuity [clarity]… evidenced by the internal testimony [i.e., witness in our hearts] of the Holy Spirit. (Kindle Locations 8278-8286, emphasis added)

This emphasis on Scripture carried practical results for church life, resulting in a biblicism that has been both incredibly freeing but also—given (a) human interpretive fallibility and (b) pragmatic retreats to other sources of authority—a trigger point for much unfortunate division:

The reformers… were convinced that the proclamation of the Christian church could not be derived from any philosophy or any self-wrought worldview. It could be nothing less than an interpretation of the Scriptures. No other proclamation has either right or promise in the church. (Kindle Locations 8300-8302, emphasis added)

The second of the “Ten Conclusions of Berne” (1528) [Reformed] expresses this positive biblicism that governed, albeit with different results, both Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiology: “The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God.” (Kindle Locations 8292-8294, emphasis added)

To the above I say a hearty “Amen,” while affirming with Paul and others (Acts 16:6-10, etc.) that the belief in the still-speaking Spirit is also “grounded upon… the Word of God.” (The Bible provides guidance for the church of all time; the Spirit continues to give more specific, limited guidance that is in full agreement with the new covenant gospel Word found in the Scriptures.) Let us press on to ever more faithful biblical interpretation and living, while also extending gracious patience toward those who disagree on what should be identified as “human traditions.”

The following excerpt gives George’s summary of the Reformation definition of the church, followed by a lesson he draws for us today:

In the perspective of the Reformation, then, the church of Jesus Christ is that communion of saints and congregation of the faithful that has heard the Word of God in Holy Scripture and that, through obedient service to its Lord, bears witness to that Word in the world. We should remember that the church did not begin with the Reformation. The reformers intended to return to the New Testament conception of the church, to purge and purify the church of their day in accordance with the norm of Holy Scripture. Even the Anabaptists, who felt that an absolutely new beginning was called for, retained–even as they transmuted–more of the tradition and theology of the church of the Fathers and the creeds than they imagined. While we must not forfeit the hard-won victories of the reformers in the interest of a facile ecumenism, we celebrate and participate in the quest for Christian unity precisely because we take seriously the Reformation concept of the church–ecclesia semper reformanda, not merely a church once and for all reformed but rather a church always to be reformed, a church ever in need of further reformation on the basis of the Word of God. (Kindle Locations 8294-8300, emphasis added)

George also summarizes some Reformation church practices—changes, especially in worship practices, that resulted from changes in their theology:

As a part of their protest against clerical domination of the church, the reformers aimed at full participation in worship. Their reintroduction of the vernacular was itself revolutionary because it required that divine worship be offered to almighty God in the language used by businessmen in the marketplace and by husbands and wives in the privacy of their bedchambers. The intent of the reformers was not so much to secularize worship as to sanctify common life. (Kindle Locations 8315-8318, emphasis added)

In discussing these worship practices, George acknowledges differences among the reformers but seeks common ground:

We have seen how the reformers pared down the medieval sacraments from seven to two. We have also noted how, with regard to these two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, differences among the reformers became a major obstacle to unity among them. The Anabaptists insisted that baptism be consequent to faith and further denied that infants could be the proper recipients of faith whether presumed (Luther), parental (Zwingli), or partial (Calvin). Thus they returned to the early church practices of baptism as an adult rite of initiation signifying a committed participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ecumenical significance of the Anabaptist doctrine of baptism is recognized in the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry statement of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. While admitting the validity of both infant and believer’s baptism, it is stated that “baptism upon personal confession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.”1 (Kindle Locations 8320-8327, emphasis added)

George discusses lessons we can learn about baptism from the reformers:

As a corrective to the casual role assigned to baptism in much of contemporary church life, we can appropriate two central concerns from the Reformation doctrines of baptism: From the Anabaptists we can learn the intrinsic connection between baptism and repentance and faith; from the mainline reformers (though more from Luther than from the others) we can learn that in baptism not only do we say something to God and to the Christian community but God also says and does something for us, for baptism is both God’s gift and our human response to that gift. (Kindle Locations 8330-8335, emphasis added)

…and laments that baptismal differences still divide the church:

Even for many churches that are able mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism, full participation in the Eucharist can only be hoped for as a goal not yet achieved. There is no easy side-stepping of this serious ecumenical problem, nor is it possible to ignore the scars that remain from the sixteenth-century disputes over the meaning of “hoc est corpus meum [this is my body].” (Kindle Locations 8340-8343, emphasis added)

George also draws lessons from the Reformation about the Lord’s Supper. Again, a desire for unity helps shape George’s discussion:

What can we learn from the Reformation debates on the Lord’s Supper? First, we need to reclaim a theology of presence The Lord’s Supper is not “merely” a symbol. To be sure, it is a symbol, but it is a symbol that conveys that which it signifies…
Second, we need to return to the practice of more frequent Communion. The earliest Christians may have celebrated the Lord’s Supper daily (Acts 2:42, 46), and they certainly did so weekly… If the Lord’s supper is given to us for “daily food and sustenance to refresh and strengthen us” (Luther); if it “supports and augments faith” (Zwingli); if it is a “spiritual banquet” (Calvin); the “Christian marriage feast at which Jesus Christ is present with his grace, Spirit and promise” (Menno); and if it is the “spiritual food and meat of our souls” (Tyndale), then to neglect its frequent sharing in the context of worship is to spurn the external sign of God’s grace to our spiritual impoverishment.
Third, we need to restore the balance between Word and sacrament in Christian worship. The reformers did not invent the sermon, but they elevated preaching to a central role in the divine service… [Since] Vatican Council II (1963)… many Roman Catholic congregations have emphasized the decisive importance of the Liturgy of the Word in Christian worship. At the same time many Protestant congregations have regained a new appreciation for the central role of the Eucharist in Christian worship. Each of these trends is an encouraging sign. (Kindle Locations 8345-8375, emphasis added)

I find myself agreeing with most of George’s comments here about church worship practices. For example, I wish our churches weren’t so lackadaisical (or fearful?) about observing the Lord’s Supper more often.

George’s reflections about the ethics of the reformers are also relevant:

There is a kind of adulation of the reformers of the sixteenth century that divorces their theology from their ethics. This perspective rightly recognizes the reformers as great heroes of the faith but fails to discern their prophetic role and their revolutionary impact on society.  However, Reformation faith was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with the religious or spiritual sphere. (Kindle Locations 8388-8391)

I am tempted to launch a very Anabaptist-style critique of George at this point. I notice that in his subsequent discussion of Reformation ethics (four lengthy paragraphs, one each for Luther, Zwingli/Calvin, Menno, and Tyndale) he focuses to a large extent on what each man said about ethics, not what he actually did. This is natural in a book about theology, yet it is also a potential weakness, one we Anabaptists are keen to point out as we contrast the Luther of the Peasants’ Revolt with the Anabaptists who refused to bear the sword. In fact, George’s paragraph on Anabaptist ethics does indeed focus on deeds as much as on words, and he observes that “the Anabaptist vision is a corrective to the ethics of the mainline reformers. It reminds us that to sanctify the secular must never mean simply to sprinkle holy water on the status quo but always to confront the culture with the radical demands of Jesus Christ” (Kindle Locations 8417-8419, emphasis added). So I’ll end my brief critique and acknowledge that George shares my concern.

After summarizing the ethical emphases of various reformers, George continues:

Which of these ethical directions is right for the church today? No one of them is sufficient alone, for each is susceptible to its own distortion. The Lutheran emphasis on the priority of faith to works can degenerate into mere formalism because pure doctrine without holy living always results in dead orthodoxy. The Reformed emphasis on involvement in the world can turn the church into little more than a political action committee or a social service organization, while the Anabaptist critique of culture can lapse into a sterile separatism that has forgotten its sense of mission. We have much to learn from each of these traditions, but we are bound to none of them. We are bound only to Jesus Christ. The church is communio sanctorum, a communion of saved sinners, founded on the gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, sent into the world for which Christ died, ever to confront that world in witness and service with the absolute demands of Christ. (Kindle Locations 8427-8433, emphasis added)

Several things are noteworthy to me in the above excerpt. First, we see again George’s admirable desire to learn from everyone and to seek common ground in Christ. George’s ecumenical friendliness, though rooted strongly in devotion to Christ, probably makes some of us at least slightly uncomfortable at times. (George not only “chairs the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance,” but he also “is active in Evangelical-Roman Catholic Church dialogue.” See here.) But I think George’s keen sense of the unity of all true believers is sorely needed in our conservative Anabaptist churches. His account of the Reformation provides healthy balance to the narrower Anabaptists-focused story we usually hear.

Second, the above excerpt provides George’s own definition of the church. It is a remarkably good definition. I might quibble with his use of the word “sinners” to describe Christians (it depends in part on what you mean by “sinner”). But I like how George’s definition (a) is structured around repeated references to Christ, (b) is rooted in the gospel of grace while also affirming good works, (c) distinguishes the church from the world based on the “absolute demands” of Christ, and (d) emphasizes both word and deed as part of the church’s responsibility to the world.

Random Conclusions and Questions

One reason why it took me so long to write this final post in this series is because I feel utterly unqualified to properly “wrap up” this subject. I am only a student, and a very part-time and forgetful one! So, at the risk of repeating a redundant redundancy, let me remind you that what follows is only random thoughts that have popped into my head that I managed to write down before they flew.

First, some of my own conclusions:

  • It is inaccurate and unfair to describe American evangelicals today by quoting Luther. Some conservative Anabaptists regularly lament that we are so different from the first Anabaptists. Yet some of these same people regularly summarize Luther on church-state relationships or Calvin on predestination and imply that evangelicals today believe essentially the same thing, unchanged across 500 years. The truth is, some do and most don’t. One example: most American evangelicals today are roughly half way between Luther and the early Swiss Brethren (Grebel and Mantz, etc.) on the relationship between church and state. They have inherited ideas on this topic indirectly from both and also from a host of other sources. In fact, Luther might not even consider most evangelicals today to actually be true Christians! (Calvin would have his concerns about many American Christians, too.)
  • Our assumptions about church are powerfully shaped by our historical and ecclesiological contexts. The obvious lesson here is that we should be humble. We should intentionally allow our assumptions to be tested by others from different times and church traditions. This means that I, as a 21st-century Anabaptist living in the microcosm that is my local church—a very tiny slice of Christ’s church across time and space—this means that I must hold onto Christ and the Scriptures tightly but hold onto my particular ways of doing church lightly. It also means that I would be wise to listen regularly to voices from outside my own church heritage.
  • I am thankful for my Anabaptist heritage. Everyone grows up somewhere, and denying our roots does not make them disappear.  I think my various Anabaptist predecessors were wrong on multiple points: Conrad Grebel should not have forbade singing in church, Melchior Hoffman was wrong to predict the date of Christ’s return, Dirk Philips was too rigid in his application of the ban, and Menno Simons was confused about the incarnation. Anabaptists since have added other errors, some of which remain entrenched to this day. But I am deeply grateful to have been born into a stream of Christ’s church that clearly teaches believer’s baptism and a believers’ church, suffering love and nonviolence, and brotherly love and accountability. I want to humbly rejoice in such blessings while identifying with all of the people of Christ.
  • Christ must be central in everything, including all efforts to unify the church. Any true unity, any true theology, any true understandings of the church, any true brothers and sisters—all will be found in increasing measure only as we draw ever nearer to Christ. Ephesians 4:1-16 is so helpful here, with its description of two aspects of church unity: First, we must eagerly “maintain the unity” that the Spirit has already created between all who are in Christ, nurturing the bond of peace between us (v. 3). It is already an established fact that there is only “one body” (v. 4); we don’t have to create that reality! Second, we must also harness all the Spirit-given gifts (vv. 11-12), each member working properly (v. 16) and speaking theological truth in love (v. 15), all with the goal of “building up” the one “body of Christ” (v. 12) until we all “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Maintain unity… attain unity. Both tasks are essential. And both truth and love are essential for both tasks. And both tasks occur with Christ as initiator and Christ as goal (vv. 5, 7, 13, 15).

 Finally, here are some questions that I think we should be asking—some rhetorical, some open-ended:

  • What can I do to imitate the reformers in testing all my received understandings and practices by Scripture? (I have heard that the first self-identity of the Swiss Brethren was “Bible students.” That is an Anabaptist identity that I eagerly embrace.)
  • What intentional steps can I take to both “maintain” and “attain” unity among all of Christ’s disciples who live in my local town or community, regardless of denominational affiliation?
  • How can I help other people groups worldwide enjoy the biggest single blessing of the Reformation–the Bible in their own language?
  • Am I wise and bold enough to know the right times to confront error within my own church, ready to “stand alone on the… B-I-B-L-E” when necessary?
  • Am I wise and humble enough to learn from my brothers and sisters, expecting Christ to teach me through them?
  • How can we restore greater room for the priesthood of all believers, giving more trust and voice to individual members during times of gathered worship and decision-making?
  • Given our Anabaptist emphasis on believer’s baptism, how can we do a better job of teaching our children to believe and welcoming them into our churches? Does our theology equip us to understand the needs of children, or only of adult converts?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, then should we change our baptismal practices so that not only all who are baptized believe, but also all who believe are baptized? Do we have a biblical basis for withholding baptism from those who believe? If the church is the school of Christ (to borrow Calvin’s term), is baptism the entrance ticket or the graduation certificate?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, replacing infant baptism as the entrance into the true church, then should we change our church membership practices so that not only all who are members are baptized, but also all who are baptized are members? Or is baptism not that significant after all?
  • How can we capitalize on the blessings of freedom of religion that the early Anabaptists lacked (open doors for evangelism and extended biblical study, to name only two) while also regaining the fiery zeal that marked the words and deeds of the martyrs?

My last question is more complicated, so I’ll present it in paragraphs:

Is it possible to divide Christ’s church by treating “marks of a healthy church” as if they are essential “marks of the true church”? The magisterial reformers identified a handful of key marks of the true church; typically correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments are cited, although Luther mentioned as many as seven. Calvin’s heirs added church discipline, which the Anabaptist also affirmed. Menno Simons listed “six marks by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word” (George, Kindle Locations 6431-6436).

More recently the 9Marks ministry has identified “nine marks of a healthy church,” citing preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, discipline, discipleship, and leadership. On the website these nine marks are called “the nine marks,” but I know I’ve heard founder Mark Dever explain that he actually prefers to leave the “the” off, for this list was not intended to be exclusive. In other words, there are additional things that a healthy church will also focus on, besides these nine marks. And I am certain Dever does not intend for this list to be marks of the true church; rather, he knows that many churches are weak in some of these areas. They may be weak churches, but they are still expressions of Christ’s church. (See here and here for more on marks of the church, past and present.)

I’m saying all this to return to my initial question. Clearly, there is a difference between a list of marks of the true church and a list of marks of a healthy church. After all, in Revelation we see a list of churches that were still part of the true church, but not currently healthy! This means, therefore, that any list of marks of the true church should be shorter than any list of marks of a healthy church. Thus, some questions: Which kind of list was Menno’s list? How “unadulterated” and “pure” must a church’s “doctrine” be for that church to be part of the true church? How full an “obedience” must her members demonstrate? How much “oppression and tribulation” must they endure? And what about our lists, written or unwritten, of the true church today? Are we confusing the two kinds of lists? And does our confusion ever cause us to reject as “untrue” any part of Christ’s church that might be merely “unhealthy” and in need of nurture rather than isolation?

I think I’ve written enough to tip my hand: I’m a child of the reformers, and I pray that we will be continually reforming our churches to better follow Christ and honor his written Word.

I’d love to hear from some of you. What questions do you think we should be asking ourselves, in light of our Reformation heritage? Maybe we could compile a longer list! What conclusions for today do you draw from your reflection on our history, Anabaptist or otherwise? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


PS: If you have enjoyed this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I shared here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. Leith, John H., Creeds of the Churches, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 610.

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