Tag Archives: Tertullian

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 arguably 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 he said 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 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 with 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. 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.

  • A Christian Perspective on Homosexuality,” an article by William Lane Craig. This is a good addition to this list for two reasons: (a) it includes a philosophical discussion of finding the basis of right and wrong, and (b) it surveys recent medical evidence of the damaging effects of homosexual lifestyles.
  • A Gospel for Failures,” an article by Matt Moore, written after he left his gay lifestyle and just before he married John Piper’s daughter last month. “Humility requires that I not seek to make myself look better than Jonathan Merritt described me in the Washington Post, because the truth is that the public doesn’t know the half of how sinful I am….I will, however, defend the truth of the gospel. “
  • 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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When the Church Was a Family — Hellerman (Review)

Hellerman, Joseph H. When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2009). 240pp. Publisher’s description and author video. (Amazon new price: $14.79 paperback, $0.99 Kindle) Buy on Amazon.

I just finished a book that I underestimated. Sometime over the past months I snatched up When the Church Was a Family on Kindle for 99 cents. Between the low price and the warm photo on the cover, I somehow assumed this was another one of the hundreds of hastily-written, opinion-packed popular-level books on church that are being produced these days. I was wrong.

When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community Buy on Amazon When the Church Was a Family is indeed as inviting as its cover, and accessible to a wide range of readers. But it is also based on solid scholarship. On page 156 I finally discovered why Joseph H. Hellerman, the author, is able to speak with such confidence: “I researched and wrote my UCLA [Ph.D.] dissertation about the church as a family.”

“Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community.” This brief opening line captures the thesis of the book. But in order to support this thesis, Hellerman covers an impressive amount of ground. In this review I’ll simply summarize each chapter of this book, providing a few excerpts and a little commentary.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the family bonds of the ancient NT world. Since our family is considering major decisions at present, Hellerman’s discussion of decision-making struck home:

Collegians and young singles are well aware that the choices they make in the three areas outlined above [vocation, spouse, residence—we’re currently evaluating 2 of those 3!] will radically affect every area of their lives—for the rest of their lives. But this makes the process all the more painful, and it generates a certain theological dissonance as well because the Bible says almost nothing about making the kinds of decisions that face young adults. One cannot find a passage detailing a series of criteria for choosing a mate or a text that will help a collegian decide which major to pick. God’s Word is relatively silent on these topics. And we should not be surprised. For all its timeless relevance, the Bible remains a collection of strong-group documents written by people who shared a collectivist worldview. People in biblical times simply did not make major life decisions on their own. An ancient Israelite, for example, typically did not have to determine whom he was going to marry, what he was going to do for a living, or where he was going to reside. All these decisions were made for him by his community, that is, by his family and the broader society to which he belonged. (p. 24. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

At the end of chapter two, Hellerman provides these summary principles:

Principle #1: In the New Testament world the group took priority over the individual.
Principle #2: In the New Testament world a person’s most important group was his blood family.
Principle #3: In the New Testament world the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings. (p. 50, Kindle Edition)

At this point you would be forgiven for wondering, as I was, whether Hellerman is arguing that our biological families should look more like families in Jesus’ day. But Hellerman explains why he has taken this “excursion into the realm of cultural anthropology and kinship analysis”:

We have sought to make sense of ancient family systems in order to understand what the early Christians meant when they used family language to encourage healthy relationships in their churches. (p. 50. B&H Publishing)

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with NT data about family and church-as-family, focusing first on Jesus and then on Paul. Hellerman makes some fascinating observations about specific Bible passages in these chapters. For example, he examines the passage in Mark 1:14-20, where Jesus does two things: (1) Preach the good news of the kingdom of God and (2) call his first disciples. Hellerman comments:

It is no accident that Mark, writing under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, placed the material in vv. 14–15 before the story of the call of the fishermen. The two passages are to be read together. The behavior of Simon, Andrew, James, and John is intended to illustrate the proper response to Jesus’ message in vv. 14–15. Apparently, leaving one’s father and following Jesus constitutes for Mark a paradigmatic example of what it means to “Repent and believe in the good news!” Again, exchanging one family for another is at the very heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.(p. 68. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Hellerman provides a very helpful synthesis of Jesus’ contrasting teachings on family, arranging them in a triangle: his Pro-family Teachings (e.g. Matt. 15:3-6; 19:3-9), his Anti-family Teachings (e.g. Matt. 8:21-22; 10:34-38; 12:46-48), and his Faith-family Teachings (Matt. 12:49-50; 18:15-35; Mark 10:28-30). The tension between the first two teachings, Hellerman observes, finds its solution in the third group of teachings:

Jesus strongly affirmed the commandment to honor father and mother. Yet He challenged a potential follower who wished to do precisely that to “let the dead bury their own dead.” How do we harmonize these apparently contradictory sayings? The answer lies in the Faith-Family Teachings, which I have placed at the top of the triangle. Jesus’ establishment of His followers as a surrogate family created a potential conflict of loyalties between a disciple’s natural family and his new surrogate family of faith… A person simply could not express equal allegiance to two families in the social world of Jesus and the early Christians. Those who joined the family of God that Jesus was gathering around Him had to wrestle with their ongoing commitment to their natural families. To which family should they assign priority? The Anti-Family Teachings serve to resolve this conflict in favor of the Faith Family… When a conflict of loyalty occurred, a follower of Jesus aligned himself with his church family as his primary locus of relational solidarity. (p. 72. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman’s key point here is that following Jesus involves more than just following a “personal Savior”:

Jesus did not simply intend for His followers to substitute a personal commitment to Him for ties of blood family loyalty. He intended for them to exchange their loyalty to one family for unswerving loyalty to another—the family of God. (p. 71. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman examines Paul’s family imagery under four headings:

1. Affective Solidarity: the emotional bond that Paul experienced among brothers and sisters in God’s family
2. Family Unity: the interpersonal harmony and absence of discord that Paul expected among brothers and sisters in God’s family
3. Material Solidarity: the sharing of resources that Paul assumed would characterize relationships among brothers and sisters in God’s family
4. Family Loyalty: the undivided commitment to God’s group that was to mark the value system of brothers and sisters in God’s family (pp. 78-79. Kindle Edition)

Paul, despite operating partly in a contrasting Gentile world, shared the same concept of Jesus’ followers being a family:

Unfortunately, most Western readers treat “brothers” in Paul’s letters much as we would a punctuation mark, or perhaps as some sort of aside with little theological import. Such an approach is clearly untenable in view of what we have learned about the importance of sibling relations in the New Testament world.(p. 78. Kindle Edition)

Here I would have liked more analysis on Hellerman’s part of how ancient writers and speakers used the term “brother.” Hellerman believes Paul’s use of such familial terms indicates Paul say his churches as family units. Undoubtedly this is true, yet we also see Paul using “brother” language to describe his unsaved fellow Jews (Rom. 9:3; Acts 22:1). How close or exclusive a bond did this word imply?

But my question must not detract from Hellerman’s strengths. Again, helpful insights into individual passages abound. For example:

I just opened my NIV Bible to 1 Corinthians 7 and found that the editors have placed the heading Marriage above the chapter. Aha! This is precisely how we teach this chapter again and again in churches all over America: 1 Corinthians 7 is about marriage. But this is simply another clear-cut example of us reading our priorities—the nuclear family—into a passage that is concerned with God’s priority—the church family. This chapter is not about marriage, at least not about marriage in isolation. It is about the status of marriage as a secondary priority in view of what God is doing to grow his eternal family in the world. (p. 90. Kindle Edition)

I will have to evaluate Hellerman’s discussion of this chapter more closely as I consider Paul’s instructions regarding divorce in the future. For example:

Paul assumed a paradigm that would have had long-standing implications for Christians in the ancient world: unbelievers are not truly family to begin with. All marriages involving a “brother” or a “sister” with an unbeliever are necessarily and ultimately tentative: “For you, wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Or you, husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor 7:16). (p. 94. Kindle Edition)

Jesus and Paul shake up our Western priorities:

Neither Paul nor Jesus can be cited in support of a life-priority list that generates a false dichotomy between commitment to God and commitment to His group in order to stick natural family relations somewhere in between:

(1st) God — (2nd) Family — (3rd) Church — (4th) Others

For both Jesus and Paul, commitment to God was commitment to God’s group. Such an outlook generates a rather different list of priorities, one that more accurately reflects the strong-group perspective of the early Christians:

(1st) God’s Family — (2nd) My Family — (3rd) Others

(p. 94. Kindle Edition)

Chapter 5 is full of fascinating stories of how the early church functioned as a family. Here Hellerman emphasizes that ideological reasons (attraction of monotheism, etc.) alone cannot explain the growth of the early church. Rather, a primary reason for the church’s growth is because Christians were deeply devoted to each other as family. Tertullian’s claim was only mild exaggeration:

We call ourselves brothers. . . . So, we who are united in mind and soul have no hesitation about sharing what we have. Everything is in common among us—except our wives. (Apologeticus 39.8–11, italics added by Hellerman; quoted p. 108. Kindle Edition)

Chapter 6 is entitled “Salvation as a Community-Creating Event.” Here Hellerman starts preaching to the American church:

Due to the individualistic tendencies of our culture, and the correspondingly loose connection in our thinking between soteriology and ecclesiology, it is not uncommon to encounter persons who claim to be followers of Jesus but who remain unconnected to a local faith community.
In contrast, we do not find an unchurched Christian in the New Testament. Nor do we find one in the ensuing generations of early church history. It is not hard to see why this is the case in light of what happens from God’s perspective when we come to Christ. Paul and the other New Testament writers made it quite clear that getting saved and becoming a member of the people of God are inseparable, simultaneous events: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
In the New Testament era a person was not saved for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal relationship with God. Indeed, the phrase “personal relationship with God” is found nowhere in the Bible. According to the New Testament, a person is saved to community. (pp. 123-124. Kindle Edition)

Despite his preaching, Hellerman uses a lot of theological language in this chapter. This is where he introduces his own new theological term, one I am tempted to add to my vocabulary:

Just as we are justified with respect to God the Father upon salvation, so also we are familified with respect to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And this familification is no less a positional reality than our justification.
It would follow from this that just as we need to increasingly actualize the positional reality of our justification in the spiritual formation process, so also should we long to increasingly actualize the positional reality of our familification, as we grow into the image and likeness of Christ. Indeed, as we have seen throughout our discussion, we simply cannot separate the two. To be sold out to God (and thereby actualize our justification) is to be sold out to God’s group (and thereby actualize our familification). (p. 132. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman notes the obvious—Americans have preached a very individualistic salvation. But then he astutely makes additional observations:

As long as America’s traditional social glue of relational commitment and integrity continued to hold people together in their marriages, their churches, and their communities, an individualistic “bar code” gospel could be preached and little damage done. In fact, great good was accomplished as converts took their “personal relationships with God” back into their church and family settings.
Until the late 1960s, social pressure alone was sufficient to keep people married, and it was sufficient to keep church members committed to one another in local community life. Society frowned upon divorce, and it highly valued commitment to church and civic organizations. We could preach an individualistic gospel, ignore the sociological aspects of biblical soteriology, and rely on the pressures of society to keep people in community. And for a season it worked.
But in recent decades the inherent weaknesses of such an approach to the gospel have become increasingly apparent. As we are now painfully aware, the social values that once exerted pressure in favor of relational commitment are gone. The glue that held American society together for nearly two centuries is irredeemably cracked and brittle. Now that American society has become relationally disconnected, the poverty of our “group-less” gospel is glaringly manifested.
The practical ramifications of all this for our lives and for our churches are enormous. By separating salvation from church involvement, in a culture that is already socially fragmented and relatively devoid of relational commitment, we implicitly give people permission to leave God’s family when the going gets rough—to take their “personal relationships with Jesus” with them to another church down the block or, worse, to no church family at all. And this is precisely what they do…
So here is the tragic result of driving a wedge between soteriology (salvation) and ecclesiology (church). We have removed from the gospel what the Bible views as central to the sanctification process, namely, commitment to God’s group. In doing so, we invariably set ourselves up for the relational shipwrecks that happen in the lives of countless Sunday attenders who opt for individual satisfaction over loyalty to God’s group…
Thirty years of church ministry—combined with constant immersion in the conceptual world of the early Christian church—has convinced me of an important truth. To leave God’s family is to leave the very arena in which God manifests His life-giving power and hope to human beings in the world in which we live. (pp. 135-136. Kindle Edition)

As Hellerman emphasizes that familification is intrinsic to salvation, he draws lessons both for individuals and for churches. I was intentionally listening for both, because sometimes those who emphasize church bonds seem to place all the responsibility on individuals, without considering how the social implications of the gospel should inform our church structures and practices. Here is a lesson Hellerman draws for the church as it relates with individuals:

During my earlier years in the pastorate, I conceived of this process as a linear one: (1) conversion, followed by (2) involvement in a local church, where (3) biblical education would characterize the continuing life of the believer. After all, this had been my own experience when I became a follower of Jesus at 23 years of age in 1975. I am now discovering that the “1→2→3” of discipleship often looks more like “2→1→3” in twenty-first century southern California where I minister. In other words, non-Christian newcomers to Oceanside Christian Fellowship first tend to establish relationships with our church members. Then they make decisions for Christ months or even years later. In this process of spiritual formation, it is the quality of the relationships our newcomers make with our regular attenders—and the quality of the relationships they observe among the members of God’s family—that ultimately leads these folks to give their lives to Jesus. (p. 137. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Hellerman connects this “2→1→3” discipleship approach with observations about theories of the atonement. He notes that different images of salvation have resonated more deeply at different times and places throughout history. For example, sometimes people have been most eager to be saved from moral evil within; at other times they have most feared external evil. Hellerman says he sees a shift happening in Western culture that suggests a change in our evangelistic approaches:

[In our] introspective, individualistic orientation of modern Western society…, until recently, the New Testament image of individual justification through the forgiveness of sins—a message dealing specifically with internal evil—has proven to be the key “facet of the jewel of the atonement” drawing men and women into the kingdom. I included the phrase “until recently” in the previous sentence because I believe that we have observed a shift in our culture that renders yet another biblical image of salvation more relevant for contemporary society. The image I have in mind is the New Testament picture of the atonement as reconciliation—an image drawn not from the temple, the marketplace, the courtroom, or the battlefield, but one drawn instead from the family. (p. 138. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman’s examples of “2→1→3” discipleship stretch me. For example:

For nearly a year Brian played his guitar on our worship team and vicariously enjoyed the benefits of Christian community before he finally became a child of God… It happened like this. One Sunday Brian approached me to let me know how much he was enjoying our church and to express his appreciation for how much Oceanside Christian Fellowship had done for his marriage and for his family. I was greatly encouraged. But then Brian remarked that he needed answers to some intellectual questions he had about Christianity before he himself would join the party. Here is how Brian expressed it: “It sure is warm and cozy in this hot tub here, Joe, but I just want to make sure the water’s clean before I jump in.” …Shortly thereafter Brian joined his wife and kids as an eternal member of the family of God. We baptized them together as a family at the beach the following August. (p. 142. Kindle Edition.)

Two things stretch me here: Brian’s participation on the worship team prior to his conversion, and how the baptism of Brian’s wife and children were delayed until after Brian’s conversion. But whatever we make of those particulars, I appreciate Hellerman’s point: when the church is a family, this changes not only the way that the individual relates to the church, but also the way the church relates to the individual. We may debate how much this family warmth should be extended to unbelievers, but (a) I think it is possible that we confuse the NT teachings about how (not) to relate with apostates with how we are to treat spiritual seekers and (b) we certainly underestimate how much family warmth should be extended to some members of Christ’s family.

 Chapter 7 is called “Life Together in the Family of God.” This chapter includes multiple stories from Hellerman’s own life. We hear stories of familial bonds within his local church, which serves as a kind of lab for experimenting with the fruits of Hellerman’s research. We also hear a fascinating description of how his own natural family has been expanded—for the sake of the church family—to include an older single lady who lives with them. Here is the outline for this chapter:

Four New Testament family values will serve as our roadmap:
1. We share our stuff with one another.
2. We share our hearts with one another.
3. We stay, embrace the pain, and grow up with one another
4. Family is about more than me, the wife, and the kids.
(p. 145. Kindle Edition)

This paragraph about church unity demands further thought:

I am not suggesting that there is never a legitimate reason for leaving a local church, but I find it rather striking that neither in the midst of the Galatian heresy nor in the context of divisiveness and immorality at Corinth did Paul instruct his readers to leave the community in order to find a healthier group of brothers and sisters. Instead, he challenged them to stick it out and partner with God to make things better. (p. 153. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

As do these about church discipline:

Most of our churches struggle with exercising church discipline. We are overly hesitant to deal with sin in the church. And when finally we do attempt to correct a hurtful person, we often bumble around and handle the confrontation in a less-than-loving manner.
Perhaps we need to begin with the social context in which Jesus expects us to work through our conflicts and disagreements. The people involved in Matthew 18 are not simply members of an impersonal institution that assembles for a large meeting on Sunday, which we happen to call “church.” They are brothers—brothers who share their stuff with one another and brothers who share their hearts with one another. The point here is that Jesus assumes an intimate relational context for the exercise of church discipline. He assumes a family context. (p. 154. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

In Chapter 8 Hellerman addresses “Decision Making in the Family of God” by describing a situation where his church advised a couple to delay their wedding until they first received counseling:

Recall the list of relational priorities with which our own church culture is so familiar:

(1st) God — (2nd) Family — (3rd) Church — (4th) Others

Working from this list, Nick and Tina could have reasoned just like so many other couples do when they are faced with the same dilemma: “How dare the church [3rd] tell us what to do! We each have a personal relationship with God [1st]. And God is in our relationship with one another [2nd]. We can ignore Pastor Joe’s and Pastor Steve’s advice [3rd] without being unfaithful to God [1st]. After all, family [2nd] is more important than church [3rd]. We need each other, and the kids need a mother. Let’s just get married in December.” Fortunately, Nick and Tina did not respond like this… (p. 167. Kindle Edition)

Here is the main point of this chapter:

In my 25 years of church ministry, I have observed a general principle that I believe we can take to the bank when it comes to making major life decisions. I have blocked it off in the text in order to emphasize its importance:

The closer a Christian group approximates the strong-group, church family model that characterized early Christianity, the better the decisions that are made by the group’s individual members and nuclear family units. (p. 170. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Hellerman cautions that reaching this goal is not easy:

But teaching our people about the church as a family will not suffice to alter deeply ingrained patterns of behavior. We must also reevaluate the social contexts of church life, the ways in which our ministries are executed. The priority most churches place upon the success of the Sunday service subtly but powerfully communicates the message that this impersonal, once-a-week social environment is quintessentially what “church” is all about. After all, this is where most church leaders count heads, and this is where we collect the money.
As a result, the one event preeminently identified with the word “church” in most congregations finds our people seated side-by-side, facing forward, with little or no interpersonal interaction with persons to the right or to the left. A fellow sitting next to me in Sunday church might have lost his job—or his spouse—that very week. Tragically, however, I would never know it. (p. 177. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Simply promoting a small-group program as a second option during the week is not enough. These relational settings must become central to the values of our church culture.
You might try what I did on a Sunday morning some time ago. I preached a sermon entitled “Why Sunday A.M. Is Not Church” in which I compared early church family values and practices with the way that we do church on Sunday morning… I proceeded gently but firmly to inform my people that many of them—some of whom had attended on Sunday for years—had never been to church! Then I encouraged them to begin going to church, that is, to start attending one of our home-group settings where they could cultivate the kind of surrogate sibling relationships that God intends for His children to enjoy with one another.
Some months later, I gave a presentation about Christian community at a gathering of our church’s top-level leadership team of 20 or so people. I still recall the rather horrified look on the face of a member of our stewardship committee (these are the precious people who track Sunday attendance and Sunday giving at our church) when I informed the group that, if I had to choose, I would rather have our people attending a home group than sitting in our Sunday morning service.
Genuine spiritual formation depends upon such priorities. (pp. 178-179. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

Chapter 9 is called “Leadership in the Family of God.” Here Hellerman acknowledges that the NT model of strong-group familial churches can, apart from good leadership, lead to abuse:

Cults like Tizer’s [called “The Community”] give us serious reservations about the strong-group approach to community life, whether Christian or otherwise. It is important to remember our description of the collectivist church model from chapter 2:

The person perceives himself or herself to be a member of a church and responsible to the church for his or her actions, destiny, career, development, and life in general. . . . The individual person is embedded in the church and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with church norms and only if the action is in the church’s best interest. The church has priority over the individual member.1

Substitute “The Community” for the word “church,” and you have a pretty accurate description of Tizer’s cult group. (pp. 183-184. Kindle Edition)

Hellerman summarizes the problem and proposes a two-part solution:

We need some checks and balances that allow us to move ahead with the early Christian approach to community but that at the same time prevent the group—and especially group leaders—from exercising authority in a destructive way. (p. 185. Kindle Edition)

A biblical, strong-group church family led by a team of persons who exercise their authority as servants of their brethren will have no problem with abuse and manipulation. Plurality and servant leadership are designed to be central to God’s model of the church as a strong-group family.(p. 186. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)

The rest of this chapter focuses on these two themes. Hellerman’s treatment of these themes is solid, but neither theme is unusual or new to me, so I won’t comment further.

The Conclusion systematically summarizes the book but also introduces new concepts. For example, Hellerman describes “two essential values”:

…Values that gave the ancient church much of its social capital and relational integrity, values that ought to characterize any community that seeks to identify itself as Christian…
I call the first value “robust boundaries”—boundaries that served to distinguish those who belonged to the local Christian community from those who did not…
“Relational solidarity” is what I call the second social value… I have in mind here the way in which the early Christians took care of one another—like family. (p. unclear, Kindle edition, emphasis added)

[Note: from here on my Kindle edition has neither page numbers nor Kindle locations, so they will be missing from the rest of my quotes.]

Hellerman is most concerned about the first value:

…The future looks quite bright for relational solidarity. There is a fresh wind blowing among a new generation of believers who are intentionally seeking to recapture the relational integrity of the early church in ways that baby-boomer Christians have not.

But the idea that we might also need to have robust boundaries in place to define the contours of an authentic Christian community does not particularly resonate with our culture. And I get the impression that this key social value of the ancient church does not particularly resonate with some of our emerging church leaders either.

I am both happy and dissatisfied with Hellerman’s discussion here. I agree with his emphasis on the need for robust boundaries, and I agree with his suggestions about what these boundaries might look like:

Issues that served to delineate the robust boundaries of the New Testament church included sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:1–8), lack of repentance when sinning against a brother (Matt 18:15–18), unwillingness to forgive a repentant brother (Matt 18:21–35), the propagation of false doctrine (2 Tim 3:1–8), divisiveness (Titus 3:10–11), and even sloth (2 Thess 3:6–15). People who lived their lives according to community standards remained part of the family of God, but those who did not were excluded. (emphasis added)

My dissatisfaction comes from what is left unsaid. Earlier I noted that it is important to ask not only about the implications of the NT church-family model for the individual (in relationship to the church), but also for the congregation (as it relates to individuals). I think Hellerman could do a better job of asking this second question here in his conclusion.

For example, in his discussion of robust boundaries, Hellerman might also ask about the dangers of creating boundaries that divide members of Christ’s family from one another. He doesn’t address the question of whether it is suitable for a local congregation to add boundaries in addition to those biblical boundaries that are provided for the universal church. Is it possible to erect robust boundaries (value 2) that actually discourage relational solidarity (value 1) among God’s children? Hellerman doesn’t seem attuned to this possibility.

This lacuna (failure to address the question of the congregation’s responsibility toward the individual) becomes more evident as the Conclusion progresses. Hellerman correctly notes that “a saving relationship with God and a commitment to God’s group were apparently inseparable in the early church.” And he warns against too hastily concluding that a person who fails to join a church is unsaved. He also has helpful advice about evangelism, suggesting we should “we inform our potential converts in no uncertain terms that commitment to Jesus also involves commitment to God’s group.” But he misses an obvious implication of his own illustration:

An illustration from the natural world will drive the point home. Under normal circumstances, babies are born into families. The social chaos characterizing America in recent decades has generated, among its various casualties, unwanted newborn babies who are left in dumpsters to die. These babies are obviously not born into families. It has become tragically clear to anyone who follows news stories like these that babies who are not born into families do not have a chance for survival.
So it is with Christians who are not born into the local family of God. Receiving Christ as Savior without church involvement is a sure recipe for stillbirth.

The obvious implication is that sometimes Christians, too—new or old—are “left in dumpsters to die.” Not every churchless Christian is churchless by his or her own preference.

To be fair, Hellerman does “put the ball right back in our court” (quote) regarding the church’s responsibility to welcome unbelievers:

Our friends and neighbors often have good reason not to like church. Most of them have never experienced church as we see it functioning in early Christianity. They only know church as an American cultural institution. They only know church as we have designed it.
The solution to this dilemma is readily apparent. We need to cultivate in our churches the kind of social environments where our non-Christian friends can come and experience firsthand Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community.

I wish he did the same more clearly regarding the church’s responsibility to believers.

Another way to frame this is to say that Hellerman could have considered more carefully the implications of his findings on the universal church, not merely the local congregation. He does this from time to time, such as when he discusses how the early church collected offerings for distant Christians. But he could have also considered the relationship of the universal and local church in his discussion of church boundaries.

Why is this important to me? It is important because I have noticed in the past that sometimes conservative Anabaptists take books written by evangelicals, books focusing on evangelical problems and operating with evangelical assumptions, and then use them somewhat out of context to address Anabaptist concerns. More clearly: I have seen evangelical books that rightly promote the need for more church loyalty and church discipline, but that are also written with the assumption that the church has no authority to erect extra-biblical boundaries. In some such books, this assumption is so strong that it is barely mentioned, despite clear teaching about things like servant leadership. Then I have seen Anabaptist churches use such books to reinforce allegiance to extra-biblical boundaries, sometimes in ways that contradict, I am certain, the desires of the authors.

Hellerman is not writing to conservative Anabaptists, so I hesitate to fault him for this lack. But I do think conservative Anabaptists should review Hellerman’s wonderful survey of NT church-family values and teachings, analyzing them for additional implications about how we can better “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).

For my final quote, I want to return to what Hellerman does well—showing the implications of his findings for relationships within the local church. In the following quote he is speaking to church leaders:

…We must answer the question Who are my brothers and sisters? in terms of the people in our own congregations. It will not do for us to share our lives only with other leaders in the broader Christian community, as helpful as that might be on occasion. If a pastor is unwilling to risk openness with a handful of brothers in his church—for whatever reason—then the members will surely do likewise. We simply cannot take our people where we are unwilling to go. We must be willing to go there whatever the cost…
Only when pastors set aside our misled need to father our flocks, and instead share the oversight and instruction of our congregations with other mature brothers, will we tangibly and persuasively communicate to others the absolute centrality of the biblical model of the church as a society of surrogate siblings.

As usual, this has turned into more than a simple book review. Buy this book—it’s a steal at only 99 cents on Kindle! And it comes with glowing reviews from people as diverse as Dan Kimball (author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church) and J.P. Moreland (Christian philosopher and author of many books, including Love Your God with All Your Mind).

Hellerman has written an exceptionally useful book for recapturing the NT vision of church.
I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

What did you learn from this review? How should Hellerman’s insights change the way we read our New Testaments and live as God’s family? Share your questions and insights below!


Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

  1. B. Malina, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986), 19, paraphrased.

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Fun with church history and chastity

(Old Facebook Post)

Church history is fun! Today I learned from St. Augustine what the 3 floors of Noah’s ark might symbolize: 1st floor–chastity (faithfulness) in marriage; 2nd floor–chastity of widows; 3rd floor–chastity of virgins. It’s easy to see which he prized as displaying the highest virtue.

Tertullian’s perspective was even more interesting. He thought it was no great virtue to be a virgin if you had never married–that was only a natural and expected state for the never-married. If you wanted a virginity that counted, you should be a virgin as a widow, after having know the pleasures of sexuality. But if you really wanted a virginity that would really earn some merit… you should live as a virgin while married. Unfortunately for Tolstoy’s wife, that’s what Tolstoy also believed.

As I said, church history rocks! 🙂


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