Homosexual practice and the Scriptures

1. Would Jesus have blessed homosexual practice?

2. How to be inclusive like Jesus was inclusive

3. The voice of the Spirit and the Jerusalem Council on  homosexual practice

4. The meaning of Porneia

5. The seriousness of Porneia/same-sex practice

6. Two key texts: Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:18-32

7. Questions about same-sex practice and the Scriptures

8. What’s wrong with homosexual practice?

Please note: These essays are an inter-Christian discussion governed by the question of whether Scripture approves same-sex activity. I come to the conclusion that the Scriptures forbid and warn against homosexual practice. However, this teaching should never be used as a pretext to hate or degrade practicing homosexuals or those who advocate for them. Also, other than expressing my Christian faith, there is no agenda here to force these beliefs on others, and certainly not in a political context.

William S. Higgins

June 2005/March 2006/July 2013

This material may be shared with others. It may be emailed or printed in its entirety or in part, but may not be altered in any way.

For a shorter presentation of this material see – Same-sex practices and the Scriptures: 21 short points

1. Would Jesus have blessed homosexual practice?

There are seven reasons why the answer to this question must be no.

1. Jesus’ “silence” supports his agreement with the Law. Some say that since Jesus doesn’t mention the word “homosexuality” we can’t be sure what he thought about the topic. It is always risky to make a case from silence, however. For instance, Jesus also didn’t explicitly forbid many things we consider sin today, including incest. Would we want to accept this as well (perhaps an adult consensual form of incest) based on an argument from silence?

Also, Jesus simply disagreed with the oral law (the traditions of the elders) on Sabbath keeping and there is a great deal of record of this conflict in the tradition about him. If Jesus had even implied that the Mosaic Law’s teaching on homosexuality was no longer relevant, there would certainly be some trace of this in the Jesus tradition – either among his own disciples or his opponents, who would have used this against him.

No, Jesus was a practicing Jew. And the Law of Moses unconditionally condemns homosexual practice, for instance Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (For more see Essay #6). Acceptance of same-sex acts was not even an issue in his day among any known Jewish group. It was universally and unanimously condemned in all of its forms.  (Hence Jesus had no need to comment on it.) And since, as we know, Jesus never explicitly condoned homosexuality, his attitude must have been the same. If we can’t interpret Jesus in his historical and religious context on this issue, then how can we on any issue? Or, how can we challenge others who distort Jesus’ identity in various ways through this same procedure? We must resist the temptation to take Jesus out of his context and make him into a modern, Western, enlightened, progressive thinker. Jesus was a first century Jewish prophet. He was more than this, but he was certainly this.

2. Jesus was not silent: He upheld the Law in his teaching and example: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” – Matthew 5:17-18. He taught his disciples to uphold the Law. Not one small part of it will pass away. This would include the Law’s prohibition of homosexual practice. (For how this works out for Gentile followers of Jesus see Essay #3.)

3. Jesus was not silent: He taught that marriage was exclusively for one man and one woman: Jesus said, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh”-  Mark 10:6-8. This not only forbids adultery, the context of his discussion with the Pharisees, it also by the same logic forbids polygamy (one man and one woman), incest (leave your family), and all forms of homosexual unions (a man and a woman). Jesus presents this Genesis material as prescriptive, that is, this is not just a narrative story, it presents God’s will to us on these issues. Read in this way Genesis forbids homosexual practice and so does Jesus.

4. Jesus was not silent: He forbade “Porneia” (sexual immorality) a word that covers any form of unlawful sexuality, including homosexual practice. (See Essay #4). Jesus said, “For from within, out of the human heart, come evil thoughts, Porneia (sexual immorality), theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” – Mark 7:21-23.

Jesus classifies Porneia (which includes homosexual practice) as evil and teaches that it defiles us before God. [Note also that the apostle Paul connects his teaching on Porneia in I Thessalonians 4 to the traditions of the teaching of Jesus –  “For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from Porneia” – I Thessalonians 4:2-3.]

5. Jesus considers Porneia, and thus homosexual practice, as a breaking of the seventh commandment. The ten commandments, especially #6-#9, were often used by various Jewish writers as topical headings to classify kinds of sin. When this is done the seventh commandment against adultery includes under it all Porneia offenses. This kind of categorizing and connecting of offenses shows up in the New Testament, for instance in I Timothy 1: 9-10. The Law is “for those [sixth commandment] who strike (kill) their fathers and mothers, for murderers, [seventh commandment] the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, [eighth commandment] enslavers, [ninth commandment] liars, perjurers . . ..” Here Porneia stands in for adultery and includes homosexual practice.

Jesus uses this technique in Matthew 15:19, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, [sixth commandment] murder, [seventh commandment] adultery, Porneia, [eighth commandment] theft, [ninth commandment] false witness, slander.” Thus, Jesus categorizes Porneia as a breaking of the seventh commandment.

6. When Jesus does deal with Porneia, we do not find him diminishing the teaching of the Law, we find him expanding the scope of Porneia. It now covers the lustful look, and remarrying a wrongfully divorced wife – Matthew 5.  His “perfecting” of the Law does not lead him to do away with any Porneia restrictions. He increases them. The trajectory of Scripture is to increase and intensify the Porneia restrictions.

7. While offering mercy, Jesus still required repentance from those involved in Porneia offenses. Even as Jesus increases the Porneia restrictions, he also simultaneously increases the offer of God’s mercy to those who practice Porneia. He reaches out to them. He associates with them. He offers them God’s mercy. But salvation requires repentance, or turning away from Porneia. For instance, the sexually immoral woman in Luke 7 has her sins forgiven. Jesus gives her mercy. But her actions still require forgiveness. They are sin. The story of the adulterous woman in John 8 is instructive. Instead of promoting her death for this offense,  Jesus spoke up for her and everyone left her alone. Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). She receives mercy, but also the call to repentance.

2. How to be inclusive like Jesus was inclusive

Jesus the Troublemaker

Everyone agrees that Jesus stirred up controversy through his actions, especially his welcome of outcasts. He shook things up by upsetting the status quo. Those already judged and neatly dismissed as condemned were no longer dismissed, but were the special focus of his attention and who he kept company with. Let’s look at Jesus’ acceptance of outcasts and learn from him how to be inclusive. What are we called to do?

Context: The Kingdom of God

The context of Jesus’ actions is the announcement of the presence of the kingdom of God. A part of this is a special call to those who are downtrodden and outcasts. In other words, God is acting with great mercy now that his kingdom is coming. Everyone gets another chance to be a part of God’s people.

The Pattern of Jesus’ Mercy

Jesus embodied this kingdom mercy in his encounters with outcasts. And there is a pattern that shows up. We will look at three examples: eating with tax collectors and sinners – Matthew 9:12-13; Luke 19:1-10; healing a leper – Matthew 8:1-4; and forgiving a sinful woman – Luke 7:36-50. It will be helpful for you to read these texts before proceeding.

1. There is an initial welcome that can involve scandalous behavior: This comes from Jesus’ understanding that God is seeking the lost and is acting in mercy toward them. Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” – Luke 19:10. So Jesus is open and welcoming to all outcasts. He does not condemn them or dismiss them as judged and set aside. The situation is not hopeless.

An aspect of this initial welcome is that it involves some kind of breaking or bending of rules, whether of social etiquette, human traditions, or sometimes lesser parts of the Law of Moses. This was all done because Jesus prioritized mercy over other actions, even over lesser Mosaic commands. Jesus said in Matthew 9:13, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” God commands both sacrifice and mercy, but mercy is more important than sacrifice.

So if mercy – reaching out to outcasts – conflicts with social etiquette or human traditions they are set aside or broken, and even lesser Mosaic commands are suspended for a time, in order to allow for outreach.

Examples: 1) Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners which exposed him to impurity and in general didn’t look good. 2) Jesus touched the leper. He did not keep separation, which is the point of Numbers 5:1-4. 3) Jesus allowed the sinful woman to kiss his feet while he was dining at a Pharisee’s house, even though she had the reputation of being a prostitute.

2. There is an invitation to repentance and wholeness: Jesus shares the good news of the kingdom of God. Jesus invites the outcasts to experience this through healing, exorcism, and/or the call to repentance and forgiveness, depending on the situation. This is an invitation to be reintegrated into the people of God and to receive the blessings of God. Examples: 1) The tax collectors and sinners are seen as “sick” and Jesus is the doctor, come to make them well. Jesus came “to call sinners” to repentance and his table fellowship was a means to this end. 2) The leper sought Jesus out because of his reputation of making people whole. 3) The woman seems to have had some previous contact with Jesus, which she is responding to in our story.

3. There is a display of faith/repentance: The person will display an acceptance of this invitation by showing faith in Jesus or by evidencing in some way repentance of sins. Examples: 1) This shows up in Matthew’s life and also in Zacchaeus’ story. Zacchaeus said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 2) The leper had great faith. He said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” – Matthew 8:2. 3) The sinful woman displayed repentance in her crying, and her love for Jesus in washing his feet. 

4. There is a transformation experience: Jesus imparts to them God’s power and grace. The people are made whole/forgiven. Examples: 1) Zacchaeus displayed the transformation of his heart in his bold statement of repentance. Jesus responded, “Today salvation has come to this house” – Luke 19:9. 2) The leper was made whole. 3) The woman’s sins, which were “many,” are forgiven. Jesus said to her, “your faith has saved you” – Luke 7:50.

5. There is a full welcome/celebration: The outcasts are acknowledged as a part of God’s people. They are brought back into the fold of the people of God to receive God’s blessings. Examples: 1) Jesus said this about Zacchaeus, “he also is a son of Abraham” – Luke 19:9. He is now an inheritor of the blessings, a part of the people of God. In general, Jesus’ meals with sinners became celebrations of the return of outcasts, just as in the parable of the prodigal son. The father said, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again, he was lost, and is found.” So it is time to kill the fatted calf and celebrate! They are celebrations of repentance, forgiveness and restoration. 2) The leper was told to follow the Mosaic procedures for being reintegrated into the community of Israel, the people of God.  3) The sinful woman was told, “go in peace” – Luke 7:50, an expression of acceptance and blessing.

Kingdom Mercy is Transformative Mercy

The pattern of Jesus’ mercy holds together two realities: 1) Mercy that risks breaking or bending rules in order to invite and welcome outcasts into the Kingdom and 2) Transformation – the call to repentance and wholeness, and the necessary response to this and the experience of the work of God within. So there has to be mercy, but also transformation of the person toward a new life of righteousness.

There is a tension between these that must be held together. For if we lose the tension we get a warped view of Jesus’ ministry. Some Christians set aside Jesus’ merciful actions. They judge outcasts as beyond God’s efforts. There is no initiation of contact and willingness to risk to welcome them. There is only a desire to keep to the rules. “If outcasts want to be a part, let them clean up their act first,” they say. If anything is clear it is that we must have the same kind of radical mercy that Jesus had. And the church has a lot to learn here, because more often than not we are the Pharisees in these stories, who want to keep separation from outcasts. This is especially true in relation to practicing homosexuals. This is a widespread and serious deviation from the way of Jesus.

Other Christians set aside Jesus’ call to transformation and repentance. They think that we are to welcome outcasts simply as they are. The initial welcome is confused with the full welcome and so steps #2-#4 are left out.

But Jesus’ mercy always has with it the call to repentance and wholeness; there is transformation, and then full welcome. We need to understand that Jesus’ mercy may break or bend some rules, even a lesser rule from God, out of mercy, for the sake of outreach, but the goal is to have the person come fully under God’s rule and do his will. Jesus never unequivocally sets aside God’s Law. For instance, Jesus did not say that the leper was not actually unclean. He upheld the law even as he went beyond it, to make the leper clean. He temporarily suspended it, for the greater law of mercy. But he did not do away with clean and unclean for his Jewish disciples.

Another example is Jesus’ outreach to the tax collectors. Even though many of these were involved in massive economic exploitation of the poor, contrary to Mosaic Law, he reached out to them. Yet all the while he preached against exploitation and even raised the standard of Moses with regard to sharing wealth.

Regarding same-sex practice, as with the case of the sinful woman, he does not tell her that her sexual immorality is now alright. Her sins were “many” and needed to be forgiven. She repented of her immorality. Sexual immorality is not a lesser law of God that can be suspended, even for a time. The rule he broke here was that of staying away from an immoral person. Rather than suspending or lessening God’s commands on sexual immorality, Jesus himself intensifies these and makes these stricter than the law of Moses (Matthew 5:27-28; 31-32).

How to be inclusive like Jesus was inclusive

If we want to practice the kind of inclusiveness that Jesus practiced with those who engage in same-sex activities, we need to hold together the tension that Jesus held together between mercy and transformation: We must practice a kind of mercy that initiates relationships, even if it gets us into trouble by breaking some rules. But we must also boldly call all to experience God’s transformation that brings repentance, forgiveness and wholeness. The initial welcome may be scandalous, but the full welcome embraces a person who is being transformed and is committed to God’s righteousness.

 3. The voice of the Spirit & the Jerusalem Council on homosexual practice

There has always been confusion about the role of the Law of Moses in the life of a Christian. Didn’t Jesus change things? Didn’t Paul do away with it? The following will look at the solution that the Jerusalem Council came to on this point. We specifically look at its relevance for the issue of homosexual practice. Is the prohibition of homosexual practice in Leviticus 18:22 still binding today? (This is an adaptation of the essay: Should Christians Keep the Law of Moses?)

Jewish Christians continue to submit to the Law

Jesus himself was Law observant and he taught his Jewish disciples to continue to submit to the teaching of Moses (Matthew 5:17-19; 23:2-3; 23:23). Jesus rejected the human traditions which the Pharisees used as their guide for keeping the Law (Matthew 15:1-9). He rather showed how to keep the Law in accordance with the righteousness of the Kingdom of God, which goes even beyond Moses. So Jesus taught his Jewish followers to keep the Law, but to do so according to his teaching and example. For instance, his Jewish disciples should keep the Sabbath, but recognize that mercy has priority (Matthew 12:9-14).

It is clear that the apostles and the other Jewish Christians did keep the Law, including Paul. James, the brother of Jesus, was famous for his strict observance of the Law. And he bears testimony that Paul also kept the Law in Acts 21:20-24. These Jewish believers did not keep the Law in order to be saved by it. They did so because Moses was the authority that God had placed over them, and so they continued to submit to him, knowing that the Law will not pass away until the Kingdom is fully established on earth (Matthew 5:18).

Gentiles do not submit to the Law

But what about Gentile believers? There was a debate about this because Jesus did not leave any instructions on this point. Jesus’ mission was to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6; 15:24). This is one of those places that Jesus must have had in mind when he said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). And, in fact, it is the testimony of the apostles in Acts 15:28 that the Spirit guided them in their decision on this matter.

The book of Acts tells us that some taught that Gentiles must be circumcised and become fully Law observant Jews before they could be accepted before God (15:1; 5). The apostles gathered together, with the elders of the church of Jerusalem to discuss this issue, and decided that the Gentiles were already participating in the Kingdom of God, for they were righteous Gentiles, following Jesus and they had received the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8). Therefore they should not be forced to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses (Acts 15:13-19). Gentiles are acceptable to God on the basis of the salvation that Jesus brings.

Three essentials

However, it was also decided that there was one portion of the Law that they should observe. We see this in what is called the apostolic decree: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28-29).

This letter lays out three essentials: 1) do not eat idol food, 2) do not eat blood, 3) do not practice Porneia (sexual immorality). These essentials refer back to Leviticus 17-18, which talks about these issues in the same order that we find in the apostolic letter: 1) Leviticus 17:1-9 – idol food, 2) Leviticus 17:10-16 – eating blood, 3) Leviticus 18 – Porneia. So the decision of the Jerusalem council is that Gentiles do not need to submit to the Law of Moses, except for a particular part of it – Leviticus 17-18.

The Porneia Restriction and Leviticus 18:22

The word Porneia, or “sexual immorality,” refers to any kind of forbidden sexual activity. In a Jewish context it means forbidden according to the Law of Moses (See Essay #4). In the case of the apostolic decree Porneia is used to refer to the offenses found in Leviticus 18:

  • Marrying close relatives (incest) [v. 6-18]
  • Sexual relations during menstruation   [v. 19]
  • Adultery [v. 20]
  • Offering seed to Molech [v. 21] Using sexual expression with the intention of giving the seed/child over to an idolatrous ceremony.
  • Homosexual practice – Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
  • Bestiality [v. 23]

So the result of the apostolic decree is that homosexual practice is forbidden to all Christians. The Jewish Christians would already have held to this, and here we see that the Gentile Christians also were instructed, at the Spirit’s urging, to keep this standard, along with the others. Leviticus 18:22, along with the rest of it, is binding on Christians.

The binding nature of the apostolic decree

That the decree is meant to be binding on all (Gentile) Christians can be seen from the following: 1. These three essentials were chosen because they teach a ‘creation righteousness’ that is incumbent even upon the Gentiles. That is, these commands are not Jewish specific, but apply to all people, everywhere.

  • We are not to eat food sacrificed to idols because God is our creator and our only Lord (Genesis 1:27). Therefore we are to have no participation with idolatry, including idol food (I Corinthians 10:14-22; Revelation 2:20).
  • We are not to eat blood or strangled meat from which the blood has not been drained. In the creation account God allowed only vegetation to eat. God gave permission to Noah to eat meat, but only without the blood (Genesis 9:4). Thus this command applies to all the children of Noah; all people. This prohibition is connected to the teaching that the life is contained in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). The blood therefore is God’s since he is the creator of all life.
  • We are not to participate in Porneia, for God, as our creator, has sovereignly established the boundaries between what is right and wrong sexual behavior. The boundaries are set within the relationship of a husband and wife (Genesis 2:24). Leviticus 18 gives further stipulations. As Leviticus 18:24-30 makes clear, the Gentiles in the Land of Canaan were held to this standard.

2. The decree represents the voice of the Holy Spirit on this issue – Acts 15:28.

3. The decree represents the conclusion of a truly ecumenical and apostolic council. This was a highly unusual and unique event that cannot be replicated. If any council’s decision is binding it is this one.

4. The decree was sent to the churches. It was not just a local decision. Paul delivered this to his congregations – Acts 16:4.

5. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, also taught this to his congregations in his teaching on idol food and Porneia (for instance – I Corinthians 10:14-22 and I Corinthians 6:9-11). (There is no recorded discussion of eating blood in Paul’s letters).

6. The teaching of the decree was followed in Gentile churches for centuries as is evidenced in various church manuals and other writings:

  • No idol food: Didache 6:3; Apostolic Constitutions 7:2:21.
  • No eating blood: Irenaeus Fragments xiii; Tertullian Apology 9; Apostolic Constitutions 7:2:20.
  • No Porneia: The Apostolic Tradition 16:20; Apostolic Constitutions 6:5:28 forbids homosexual practice, bestiality, intercourse during menstruation, etc. and appeals to Leviticus 18.

7. The decree is apostolic teaching, found in the canonical Scriptures, to which we bind ourselves as Christians. It is authoritative.

4. The Meaning of Porneia

This essay looks at the meaning of Porneia. It is an overview of the various kinds of Porneia, but makes the connection between Porneia and same-sex practice.

 A definition

The meaning of Porneia in Greek dictionaries is straight forward – “any kind of unlawful or forbidden sexual activity.” It is usually translated as “fornication” or simply “sexual immorality.” I use the transliteration “Porneia” because sometimes the translations unduly limit the meaning of the word in our minds. For instance, sometimes we think that fornication (Porneia) refers to premarital sex and adultery refers to extra-spousal sex after marriage. But this is incorrect. Porneia is a word that covers every form of sexual immorality, including adultery, as we will see.

The word Porneia in historical context

The word is rare in classical Greek. It means “fornication or licentiousness” or more broadly “extra marital intercourse.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittel, volume VI). There is at least one instance where it is connected to same-sex practice (Demosthenes – Oration 19, 200).

The Greek Old Testament (LXX) uses Porneia mostly with reference to prostitution (the root idea of the word group Porn-). Some of this prostitution is cultic and so it is connected to idolatry. Porneia is also used for adultery. It also takes on a metaphorical use in reference to the unfaithfulness of Israel’s idolatrous practices in relation to her commitment to Yahweh.

In the context of the various kinds of Judaisms that existed in the late SecondTemple period the word becomes more explicitly connected to specific examples of unlawful sexuality, including incest and homosexual practice (e.g. Jubilees 16:5; 20:5; Testament of Benjamin 9:1). The word Porneia comes to embrace all the forbidden sexual practices of the Law of Moses.

The Rabbinic material (most of which would be after the period of the New Testament) uses Porneia to refer to prostitution, any kind of extra marital intercourse, incest, bestiality, homosexual practice, pederasty, as well as other prohibited forms of sexual expression as determined by the Rabbis.

So by definition, in its historical (especially Jewish) context, Porneia refers to a class of sexual sins including adultery, incest, and prostitution. Specifically, Porneia included in its meaning homosexual activity. Porneia can be used generically to refer to all of these sexual sins and more – all together, or it can be used to speak of a specific one, when the context makes this clear. This is the context in which the New Testament was written and the background to its use of the word Porneia.

The word Porneia in the New Testament

Paul speaks of Porneia as a class of sins in I Corinthians 5:1 – “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality (Porneia) among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.” So there are different kinds of Porneia, and this one is a particularly outrageous one, according to Paul.

But what constitutes Porneia according to the New Testament itself? We will look at this from three angles: 1) By definition – is it a forbidden sexual activity in the New Testament? 2) Is the sexual activity connected to the word Porneia in a New Testament context? 3) Is it included in the Apostolic decree’s use of the word Porneia to cover the contents of Leviticus 18? (See Essay #3). Any one of these criteria is enough to classify an activity as Porneia. We will look at same-sex practice last.

1. Incest. This refers to sexual relations with close relatives. Since this is not often taught on I will give the definitions of incest as laid out in the Law of Moses. Is incest Porneia according to the New Testament?  1) It is a forbidden form of sexual expression. John the Baptist condemns Herod for having his brother’s wife – Mark 6:18. In I Corinthians 5:1-3 Paul condemns it in the strongest possible way. 2) In this last reference Paul also clearly labels incest a Porneia offense by using the word to refer to it. 3) Incest is included in Leviticus 18, which the Apostolic decree of Acts 15:28-29 calls Porneia and forbids to all Christians.

2. Prostitution. 1) This is forbidden in I Corinthians 6:15, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” 2) Paul calls this Porneia in I Corinthians 6:18.

3. Pre-marital sex. 1) This is forbidden in I Corinthians 7:2, 9. Sexual activity is only allowed in a marriage context. 2) It is connected to the word Porneia in two contexts. First, Paul excludes pre-marital sex as Porneia –  I Corinthians 7:2, 9. (See also I Thessalonians 4:3-8). Second, when the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being born of Porneia, they are alleging that Mary, Jesus’ mother was sexually active before her marriage was consummated with Joseph – John 8:41.

4. Adultery. This refers to breaking your marriage commitment by having sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. 1) This is forbidden in numerous places, for instance,  Matthew 15:19. 2) I Corinthians 7:2, 9 also excludes adultery as Porneia. (See also I Thessalonians 4:3-8).  3) Adultery is included in Leviticus 18:20 which the Apostolic decree of Acts 15:28-29 calls Porneia and forbids to all Christians.

5. Adulterous remarriage after a wrongful divorce. Jesus classifies this as adultery. If your first marriage is not already broken by Porneia, and you consummate another marriage, this is considered an act of adultery. Jesus said in  Matthew 19:8-9 – “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Thus this is Porneia just as regular adultery is Porneia. (Things are a bit different if your spouse was an unbeliever and left or divorced you. In this case you are free of the marriage, even if the marriage is not broken by adultery – I Corinthians 7:12-16.)

6. Sex during menstruation. This is not directly mentioned in the New Testament. It is forbidden in Leviticus 18:19 and also Ezekiel 18:5-9 (“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right—  if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife orapproach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.”) This does qualify as Porneia for Christians according to the third criterion, since the Apostolic decree of Acts 15:28-29 calls Porneia all that is in Leviticus 18, which includes this.

7. Bestiality. This refers to sexual contact with an animal. This is also not mentioned in the New Testament. Leviticus 18:23 says, “And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.” This also qualifies as Porneia for Christians according to the third criterion.

8. Other: If we look at the positive standard of sexual expression,  one man and one woman in a committed life-long relationship (Matthew 19:4-5) then by implication anything outside of this would be considered Porneia, including polygamy and pedophilia. 

Is same-sex practice Porneia?

We know that same-sex practice is seen as Porneia especially in Jewish sources at the time of the New Testament. But what about in the New Testament itself? 1) Clearly same-sex activity is forbidden in the New Testament: Romans 1:26-28; I Timothy 1:10; I Corinthians 6:9-10. (See Essay #6, Essay #7, question #6)

2) The connection of the word Porneia with homosexuality is made in two ways in the New Testament: First, in I Timothy 1:9-10 a literary device is used to connect Porneia and homosexual practice. As I said in Essay #1: “The ten commandments, especially #6-#9, were often used by various Jewish writers as topical headings to classify kinds of sin. When this is done the seventh commandment against adultery includes under it all Porneia offenses. This kind of categorizing and connecting of offenses shows up in the New Testament, for instance in I Timothy 1: 9-10.  The Law is ‘for those [sixth commandment] who strike (kill) their fathers and mothers, for murderers, [seventh commandment] the sexually immoral (Porneia), men who practice homosexuality, [eighth commandment] enslavers, [ninth commandment] liars, perjurers . . ..’ Here Porneia stands in for adultery and includes homosexual practice.” Just as murderers and those who strike their fathers and mothers are connected together under the sixth commandment, so Porneia and same-sex practice are connected together under the seventh commandment. Just as killing parents is a specific kind of murder, so same-sex practice is a particular kind of Porneia.

Second, Jude 7 connects the homosexual behavior of the residents of Sodom with the Porneia word group – ekporneo, a verb which means to engage in Porneia.

3) Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Acts 15:28-29, alluding to Leviticus 18, calls this Porneia and forbids it to all Christians.

So, yes, same-sex practice is Porneia, not only according to the meaning of the word in the first century, but also according to the New Testament. 

5. The seriousness of Porneia/same-sex practice

The following includes New Testament texts that directly reference homosexual practice, that allude to it, or that deal with “Porneia” the word for sexual immorality that includes in its meaning, among other things, homosexual practice. They all focus on how serious this issue is and the dangers involved in practicing any kind of Porneia. (Porneia is translated as sexual immorality below)

Porneia/homosexual practice is a sin:

Mark 7:21-23 – “For from within, out of the human heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Galatians 5:19-21 – “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

1 Timothy 1:8-11 – “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.

2 Corinthians 12:21 – “I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.”

1 Corinthians 5:11 – “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”

Revelation 22:14-15 – “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”

Commands to refrain from Porneia/homosexual practice:

Acts 15:28-29 – “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (the Apostles and Elders) to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

Romans 13:13 – “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

1 Corinthians 6:13 – “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

1 Corinthians 6:18-20 – “Flee from sexual immorality. . .. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

Colossians 3:5 – “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

Ephesians 5:3 – “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.”

I Thessalonians 4:3 – “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . ..”

Homosexual practice is an evidence of God’s judgment on a society:

Romans 1:24-28 – “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”

Porneia/homosexual practice brings God’s judgment:

Jude 1:6-7 – “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”

1 Corinthians 10:8 – “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

6. Two key texts: Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:18-32

I. Leviticus 18:22

This verse says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” But is this a qualified prohibition? Is there some context that limits the application of this commandment? 1. Can this refer to Pederasty? The general term “male” is used, not boy.

2. Does this only restrict anal penetration, not other forms of same-sex expression like fondling etc.? One can only make this case if  the same is said about incest or bestiality.

3. Is this meant to forbid contact of semen and excrement? There is no mention of excrement (compare the case of sex with a menstruating woman – 18:19). If this were the concern, why is there no prohibition of heterosexual anal sex, since under this logic this too would be an abomination worthy of death (Leviticus 20:13)?

4. Is it forbidden because it was a procreative dead-end; a waste of seed? If this were the chief concern one would expect strong prohibitions of sex during pregnancy, heterosexual anal sex, and male masturbation, since under this logic these too would be abominations worthy of death (Leviticus 20:13).

5. Is this forbidden because of its connection to idolatry? 1) The word for male cult prostitutes – “qedesim” (consecrated ones) is not used here. 2) Although it follows the prohibition of giving seed to Molech in verse 21 (which is connected to idolatry) same-sex practice is mentioned again in Leviticus 20:13, where there is no Molech-idolatry context. It is preceded and followed by prohibitions of  incest. So there is no necessary connection between the prohibition of same-sex practice and the Molech-idolatry context. 3) If the Molech context is applied to same-sex practice, so that only idolatrous same-sex practice is forbidden, does this mean that only idolatrous child sacrifice is forbidden, thus allowing for other forms of child-sacrifice?  4) Even if the focus of this prohibition was male cult prostitution, it would still forbid all same-sex practice, because in the Ancient Near East male cult prostitution was the most acceptable form of same-sex practice.

Leviticus 18:22 stands without qualification in the text. It is what it seems to be, a straightforward and clear prohibition of male same-sex intercourse.

Does this Levitical legislation have any relevance for Christians? 1) Paul uses words from Leviticus 18 (LXX) in his discussion in Romans 1: “indecency” (Romans 1:27) is used 24 times in Leviticus 18; “uncleanness” (Romans 1:24) is used in Leviticus 18:19. 2) The phrase Paul uses in I Corinthians 5:1 –  a man has his “father’s wife” (referring to incest) echoes the language of Leviticus 18:7-8. 3) The term that Paul uses (coins?) for the active partner in a same-sex relationship comes from the phrase for same-sex activity in Leviticus 18:22 (I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10). 4) The apostolic decree of Acts 15 refers back to the sexual practices of Leviticus 18 and forbids them to all Christians. Leviticus 18, and specifically verse 22, was seen as relevant and binding in the New Testament.

II. Romans 1:18-32

First a brief exposition of this text and then a look at several possible qualifiers to Paul’s statements on same-sex practice.

The Human Exchange: The Dishonoring Of God – vs. 18-23

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” The primary focus here is idolatry. The “unrighteousness” of the last phrase is a reference to idolatry. But idolatry is the root of all other sins. So by suppressing the truth of the one true creator God, humanity is free to pursue all manner of other sins – “all ungodliness and unrighteousness.”

19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The knowledge of God as the creator is obvious. God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen in the creation. No human-made idol could accomplish such a feat. Only one who is greater than what is seen/what is created could do this. So they are without excuse for their idolatry.

21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Here is the great exchange. Although the nations knew God, they chose to give their honor and thanks to idols resembling humans, birds, animals and reptiles. This was futile thinking, the product of darkened hearts. They saw the choice as a product of their wisdom, but they showed themselves to be fools. They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for dead idols. Verse 25 refers to this exchange as well, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” This is also referenced in verse 28, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God”

The Divine Giving Up: The Dishonoring Of Humanity – vs. 24-32

God’s basic response to the human exchange is to allow humanity to have its own way. This is the punishment for now. (The eschatological judgment awaits later.) The phrase, “God gave them up” is repeated three times (v. 24, v. 26, v. 28) and thus forms three subsections of this passage. Each of these phrases is explicitly connected to the human exchange of God for idols (verse 24 “therefore” in reference to verses 18-23; verse 26 in reference to verse 25; verse 28 to the first part of verse 28). So each of these three subsections explicates how God responds to the human choice of idolatry.

The emphasis in each of these is on the dishonoring of humanity. This is the punishment (the wrath of God – v. 18) for the human dishonoring of God through idolatry.

24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” This is a general statement about sexual expression. The phrases , “the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” “the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” point to general practices of sexual immorality. The connection between idolatry and sexual immorality in Jewish thinking was clear and persistent. God gives them up to this to dishonor themselves through their sexual practices, just as they have dishonored God.

26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” This is a more specific statement about same-sex practice, which Paul calls “dishonorable passions.” Paul references both lesbianism and male same-sex practice. In the first instance Paul contrasts “natural relations” (male-female) with “those that are contrary to nature” (female-female). This was a common Jewish technique for contrasting heterosexual and same-sex practice respectively. In the second instance, Paul speaks of men giving up “natural relations” and engaging in same-sex practice. It is unnatural in that it is not in accord with the creation in which males and females were made for each other.

There is a strong emphasis on dishonor is these verses – “dishonorable passions,” “shameless acts.” When humans dishonor God by exchanging the true God for an idol, God responds by giving them over to be dishonored – here, again in terms of their sexual practices.

28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” In this third sub-section the net is cast much wider than specifically sexual practices. This pick us from verse 18, “all ungodliness and unrighteousness.” As he says in verse 29, “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness . . ..”Again, dishonor is a focus. They are given up “to a debased mind to do what ought not be done” v. 28.

Are there qualifications on verses 26-27? 1. Some say Paul was only referring to pederasty. This was an abusive form of homosexual activity. It was the practice of some wealthy men, who would become a sponsor to a younger boy in exchange for sexual favors. This was the most common form of same-sex practice in ancient Rome. There are two obvious problems with this explanation, however. Paul never uses the fairly common Greek word for pederasty when he speaks of homosexual practice. And he refers to female same-sex activity, which doesn’t fit the pattern of pederasty. In fact, the prevalent expression of lesbianism was non-abusive, between two consenting adults. Yet Paul condemns it.

2. Was Paul only concerned about exploitative same-sex activity?  There is no mention of a context of exploitation. What is mentioned is that it is “contrary to nature,” a straightforward rejection of all same-sex practice. Again, the lesbian example doesn’t fit the exploitation explanation. They tended to be consensual. Also, the relationships sound consensual. Paul says they “were consumed with passion for one another” – v. 27.

3. Some say Paul would not have known of same-sex activity in a committed and caring relationship . Yet there were many different forms of male same-sex expression in Paul’s day, including committed caring relationships. These were commonly known and written about in the ancient world. Certainly Paul would have known about these – and yet he condemned homosexual practice in the most general terms possible in this and other texts.

4. Some say Paul wasn’t aware that some people might have an orientation toward same-sex desires. Whether or not there was a concept of orientation in Paul’s day is debatable. But this misses the point. When Romans 1 and other texts forbid same-sex practice, they forbid the actual activity of same-sex intercourse. It does so because it is seen as intrinsically wrong. So whether there is an orientation or not would make no difference. Ultimately the source of the desire, as well as the motivation or the circumstances of the act (whether loving and committed or exploitative) doesn’t matter,  just as it doesn’t ultimately matter why someone engages in incest or adultery. The acts themselves are regarded as inherently wrong.

5. Is Paul’s attitude toward same-sex practice based on the idea that all sex should be procreative? Many Jewish writers take this position (e.g. Philo), but Paul doesn’t restrict sexual activity to a procreative purpose –  I Corinthians 7:2-5.

6. Some say Paul only saw same-sex practice as “dirty,” a Gentile practice, but it is not sinful. There are several problems with this idea: 1) Paul classifies same-sex practice under the category of “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” –  v. 18. 2) It is connected contextually to verse 28 which speaks of other acts that are sins worthy of death. 3) There is no history of other Jewish writers making this distinction. For them the category of uncleanness in this case was not exclusive of the concept of sinfulness. 4) Paul uses purity language in other places to describe sexual sins – I Thessalonians 4 and  I Corinthians 5. 5) This section of Romans is a part of Paul’s larger case that “all are under sin” – 3:9.

7. Does this only condemn  same-sex practice that is literally connected to idol worship? The connection between idolatry and same-sex practice is not that if an individual worships an idol they will begin to engage in same-sex practice. It is a broad connection familiar in Jewish thought between idolatry as the source of all other sins, and especially sexual sins. Paul himself in this text is not talking about individuals per se, but broadly about the nations and the development of same-sex practice in this context. When the nations turn to idolatry (whether there are literal idols or not) there is a general giving over to sexual sins including same-sex practice, as well as other sins. Also, just as it would be inappropriate to say that the other sins in verses 29-31, or the sexual sins of verse 24 are only wrong if they are specifically a part of an idolatrous practice, so it would be wrong to say this of same-sex practice – vs. 26-27. Both same-sex practice and these other sins are a part of the giving over due to idolatry, but they do not have to be directly related to idol worship to be wrong.

8. Does this refer to heterosexuals who exchange their natural desires to engage in same-sex practice? For Paul, same-sex practice is wrong because it is “contrary to nature,” not because it is or isn’t coming from inborn desires.

[*Two important sources for these expositions: Robert Gagnon – The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Texts and Hermeneutics – Chapters 1, 4 and 5. Richard Hays – The Moral Vision of The New Testament – Chapter 16. I am also indebted to these and other writers at various points in these essays.]

7. Questions about same-sex practice and the Scriptures

#1. What is the most important issue in this discussion of same-sex practice? The most important issue connected with same-sex practice is a pastoral one: the church must learn to welcome and care for those who have same-sex desires and those who act on them. The problem is that the church can’t get to this issue without first talking about whether same-sex practice can be blessed by God or not. This, obviously, determines how one proceeds on the pastoral issue. What it means to welcome and care for the practicing homosexual is framed by this. The answer to this previous question ‘Can God bless homosexual practice?’ provides the answer to the question, ‘Where can we accept the person as is and where should we call for transformation?’

#2. Are there good reasons to bless homosexual practice? On one level there are some really good reasons to bless those who practice same-sex activity. They are part of our families. They are our friends. They are a part of our churches. They are good and decent people. They are not bothering anyone. They are often put down and hated by society. These are good reasons, but none override our obligation to speak out what the Scriptures teach on this. But we do it in a way that doesn’t empower those who want to hate and harm them.

#3. If we take the position that homosexual practice is wrong according to Scripture, doesn’t this mean that we have to take a political position to oppose or outlaw this in our country? The primary concern of the Christian is with the people of God, not this or that country – all of which are passing away. We look to the Scriptures to see what God’s will is for us and then we order our community by this. As Paul says, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” – I Corinthians 5:12-13. It is not our job to coerce non-disciples to do righteousness. It is not our job to coerce others to adhere to our standards on sexuality with regard to same-sex practice, any more than we do on divorce or adultery. Yes, we witness to the nations about God’s righteousness regarding same-sex practice and let them choose, but we also witness to God’s mercy and compassion that does not promote hatred or violence.

#4. Isn’t Sodom and Gomorrah really only about issues of hospitality? It is true that this story condemns a lack of hospitality. Ezekiel 16 notes this as does Jesus in Matthew 10:15. The residents of Sodom were wealthy but did not help the weak, in this case the traveler. But a part of this lack of hospitality was that they sought to rape their guests, and to do this in a way that shamed them sexually through same-sex practice. So there are a number of issues going on here.

That a part of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah had to do with Porneia is clear from several Jewish texts as well as Ezekiel 16:50 (“commit an abomination” appears to refer to same-sex practice echoing Leviticus 18:22). Also, Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6-7, 10 connect what happened in Sodom to Porneia.

#5. Isn’t the real issue of sexual practice whether it is consensual-adult, monogamous and covenanted? As we saw in Essay #6, lesbian practice could be all of these things, but Paul condemns it in the most general way possible. But Paul’s answer to this comes out even more clearly in I Corinthians 5:1-13. This involved a case of incest – “a man has his father’s wife.” The man in question has most likely married his step-mother. The word Paul uses “has” refers to marriage in I Corinthians 7:2, 29. In Mark 6:17-18 this word is paralleled with the word “married.” But even if it is an arrangement short of formal marriage, it implies a lasting union of some kind (John 4:18).  

So here we have two consenting adults in a monogamous, committed relationship, yet Paul strongly condemns this incestuous sexual expression. For Paul the essential issue is not whether the sexual expression is consensual-adult, monogamous and covenanted, it is whether the sexual expression is forbidden by God as intrinsically wrong; whether it is Porneia or not.

#6. Are the words used in I Corinthians and I Timothy for homosexual practice correctly translated? These texts use two specific words in “sin lists” that have been translated in various ways to refer to same-sex practice. Arsenokoitas is used in I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10. Malakos is used in  I Corinthians 6:9.

“Arsenokoitas,” is coined out of the phrase in Leviticus 18:22 (LXX) that forbids male same-sex practice: arsenos (male) + koiten (bed or lying). The latest edition of the standard reference – A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG 3rd) defines it as “a male who engages in sexual activity with a person of his own sex.” It refers to the “one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity opposite malakos.” That it refers to any kind of male same-sex activity  beyond prostitution, exploitation, or pederasty can be seen in this word’s connection to the Mosaic Law and its unconditional prohibition of all same-sex intercourse. The word itself comes from Leviticus 18:22, as we saw, and the context in I Timothy 1 ties it to the Law of Moses, specifically the seventh commandment against Adultery/Porneia. (Rabbinic usage is similar. It uses the Hebrew – Mishkav Zakur – “lying with a male,” from Leviticus 18 to speak of same-sex practice.)

“Malakos” literally means “soft ones.” It has a broad range of meaning in Greek literature, something like the word “effeminate.” It can refer to males who have so-called feminine characteristics, as well as to those who dress and groom as women or even castrate themselves to make themselves sexually attractive to men. That it refers to the passive partner in same-sex intercourse in I Corinthians can be seen in how it is used in the context of  I Corinthians 6:9-11. It comes in the sin list after adulterers and before Arsenokoitai – a context of immoral sexual intercourse. The same Lexicon defines it as “the passive partner in a same-sex relationship.” Also, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Paul, uses this word and  doesn’t restrict it simply to male prostitution or pederasty. Given its use in this sin list, the passive partner here is a consenting partner, rather than someone who is exploited.

These two words, paired together as they are in I Corinthians 6:9 mean respectively the passive and active partner in male same-sex activity(see also the translation note in both the ESV and the NIV).

#7. Doesn’t Acts 15 set a precedent for receiving those who have an experience of the Spirit, so that if any who practice same-sex activity have the Spirit, they should be accepted? Jesus teaches that one’s fruits or deeds are the true test of acceptance before God, both now and on the final day. The presence of the Spirit is not a true test – Matthew 7:15-23. These deeds refer specifically to the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount – Matthew 5-7, which includes teaching on, among other things, sexual immorality.

Acts 15 is quite specific in its precedent. It shows that a Gentile who is a follower of Jesus, does not have to become a Jew (taking on the extra commands given to Israel) to be accepted into the promised kingdom that Jesus has brought. It does not teach that the presence of the Spirit blesses or legitimizes all the behaviors in the one who has or claims to have a Spirit experience.

#8. Based on the model of Acts 15, shouldn’t we be open to receiving a new, clarifying word to accept practicing homosexuals? This particular text teaches that same-sex activity is wrong, under the direction of the Spirit (se Essay #3). But even if we set this aside for discussion’s sake, we are to test the spirits by the standard of what is taught by Jesus and the apostles. As John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” – 1 John 4:1. If we accept a revelation that nullifies what Jesus and the apostles teach then we are no longer followers of Jesus, but of some other spirit.

 #9. Doesn’t the fact that there are Gay and Lesbian Christians in the church show that same-sex practice can’t be wrong? It is true that there are a number of fine and otherwise outstanding Christians who are also practicing homosexuals. But we all also personally know of otherwise outstanding Christians who practice things they shouldn’t – drunkenness, militarism, nationalist idolatry, wealth idolatry, hatred of enemies, and other forbidden things. That a Christian practices something doesn’t make it right. And just because you are a Christian doesn’t mean you are a faithful Christian. The Scriptures, which teach us God’s will, are our standard, not the experience of this or that Christian.

#10. Doesn’t the precedent of slavery show we can change what the Bible teaches? The Bible allows for slaves, a practice we no longer believe is God’s will. The case of slavery is quite different than the example of homosexual practice. Whatever we may think of slavery today, which mostly comes from a very abusive form of it in America, the Scriptures do not regard slavery as inherently wrong. It does guard against abusive forms of it (and thus condemns the kind that was practiced in America) and the New Testament condemns those who forcibly enslave others (I Timothy 1:10). But it is recognized that in some societies and in some circumstances, slavery was an arrangement that could keep a person from starvation. Thus slavery is never condemned outright. Some forms of it were permitted, but it was regulated. Homosexual practice, however, is unconditionally condemned and warned against. It does not depend on the circumstances or the abusive nature of it. It is intrinsically wrong.

#11. The Bible forbids women to be church leaders, but we have set this aside and allow it now. Why not do this for monogamous same-sex unions? If you really think that the Scriptures teach that women should not be leaders, then you should live by this, not set it aside and then look for other areas to set aside as well. I do not think that this is what the New Testament teaches and so I welcome women elders and leaders. But the point is that we bind ourselves to live by apostolic teaching. We don’t pick and choose what fits our tastes and the views of our day. We find out what the New Testament teaches and then we put this into practice.

#12. How can this be seen as a big issue, only a few texts talk about it? The texts that talk about it are clear and consistent. This was not an issue that needed discussion so that it would show up in many texts. Also, when you include the texts that talk about “Porneia” (sexual immorality), a word that also includes in its meaning homosexual practice, then there are many texts that talk about this.

This is a big issue, because if the Scriptures are right, then those who practice same-sex activity will not enter the kingdom of God  (I Corinthians 6:9-10). So to seek to bless their activity is to cause them to stumble, which is disastrous for them and for those who encourage them. (Matthew 18:6).

#13. If you are born with same-sex desire, how can it be wrong? It must be God’s will for you. Our natural birth is not the same as the original creation. According to our natural birth we are born into all kinds of brokenness which does not reflect God’s perfect will for us. We have physical and emotional disabilities, mental illnesses and so forth. The creation, however, does reflect the original pattern that God intended for humanity, which is why Jesus appeals to this.

For those born with homosexual desires (or with desires for bestiality or adultery or a propensity to alcoholism or a lack of revulsion for incest) this is not a cue to embrace, cultivate and bless these desires as God-given. This is an evidence of the brokenness of the creation which God seeks to heal in the new creation. [Notice I am not saying same-sex desires are a form of mental illness or that they are otherwise like addiction, only that to be born with a condition, any of these, does not make it God’s will.]

#14. How can it be fair to ask someone with same-sex desires to remain celibate, if God does not give them heterosexual desires? Clearly this is a more difficult call than most have to deal with. But we have to recognize that we all come from different places to follow Jesus. We all have different weaknesses and issues we have to deal with to be a follower of Jesus. Some have to deal with more, some less.

For instance, the person who is wealthy will have a more difficult time. As Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” – Matthew 19:23-24. In other words, it is next to impossible to enter the kingdom, because to give up so much wealth is very hard to do. Also, the call of Jesus to the person who has a career in the military will be harder. This person may well have to give up much more than most of us in obedience to the teaching on loving enemies.

So the demands of discipleship don’t hit us all with equal force – the wealthy, the military person, the one with same-sex desires. For some of us we have a harder road of discipleship. The question is not whether it is fair, but whether this is what God calls for.

#15. Is it right to require celibacy in this case, when we don’t require this of anyone else? Here is a person with ingrained, inborn desires, but is given no righteous way for these to find expression.

But the church does require just this kind of celibacy in several other cases:

  • The person who cannot find a spouse due to a lack of available partners. For some this will be a life-long situation.
  • The person who cannot find a spouse due to life-long physical or mental disability.
  • The one who struggles with desires for incest, or bestiality.
  • The one who is in a sexless marriage due to the physical or emotional disability of their partner.

In each of these cases, there is inborn desire and no foreseeable change in the situation, so that there is no righteous way for these desires to find expression.

Regarding the difficulty of the call to celibacy in all of these situations, perhaps the word of Jesus about the difficulty of the wealthy being able to enter the kingdom applies. The disciples ask, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” – Matthew 19:26 (NRSV). God makes it possible for us to be righteousness, even when it seems impossible by the human standards of our culture; even when it seems impossible in these difficult situations of sexual desire (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 with emphasis on v. 11). And, of course, this is what makes any of us able to follow Jesus, wherever we are coming from. This is what makes it possible for any of us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, losing our lives in this world to gain them in the kingdom.

8. What’s wrong with same-sex practice?

Those who argue that homosexual practice should be accepted often point out that in monogamous, responsible and loving relationships, homosexual activity does no one any harm. And if this is true, then what’s the problem? But as Christians we are not bound simply to the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not enough to say that our actions don’t harm others. Even though our culture holds this up as the ultimate ethical norm, it is not adequate for followers of Jesus. We must also submit all of our behavior to the first commandment, “Love God” – Matthew 22:37-38. And there are some issues of discipleship that only relate to the first commandment: no idolatry, no idols, honor God’s name and so forth. So an action is not automatically right if it simply doesn’t hurt others – the second commandment. It is not enough to ask about our sexual expression, ‘Is it adult, loving and consensual?’ or ‘Is it causing harm to others?’ We also have to see if it goes against the first commandment.

And in fact, very few of the restrictions that govern sexual expression have to do with the second commandment. Most are governed by the first commandment. They are based exclusively on submission to God and boundaries that he establishes. For instance, if we only judge by the second commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” what then is wrong with:

  • Responsible pre-marital sex? We have birth control now so this is no longer a determining factor. We are certainly made with an inbuilt desire for it. And if it is done responsibly, why not? Perhaps it is a better way to go than just jumping into a lifetime commitment at the start? Done responsibly perhaps it would lead to a better covenanted relationship in the future. This is what our culture argues by and large.
  • Multiple covenanted spouses? There is actually biblical precedent for polygamy. But why is the original pattern one man and one woman? And why does Jesus hold this up as the standard? Many men would testify to inborn desires to have more than one sexual partner and I am sure there are also women who would claim this. And there have been and still are cultures in which this is not offensive or (it can be argued) harmful to the participants.
  • Consensual adult incest? What is wrong with covenanted consensual adult incest? Is this not an exact parallel to the case for homosexual practice? There are some who have no innate sense that this kind of sexual expression is wrong. So, as long as there is no harm to others (as the logic goes) this should be seen as a legitimate expression and this should be accepted and blessed. There are those who are fighting for the legitimation of this even now.
  • Humane bestiality? I do not raise this to offend. This is a real desire for some people and biblically this shows up along with homosexual practice. These people testify to a natural desire for sex with animals. And what harm does it do to the animal if it is done humanely? If we hold the right to kill animals to eat them, why not this?

The arguments for acceptance of same-sex practice can, by and large, be applied to each of these instances as well, because they don’t factor in the first commandment, thus giving too low a threshold for our sexual ethics.

From a Christian point of view, same-sex practice is wrong because it is a breaking of a fundamental boundary of creation. God sovereignly chose certain sexual boundaries for the greater good of humanity. Genesis one and two lay out some of the basic ground rules:

  • Species boundaries – Among the animals there was “not found a helper fit for him” – 2:20. Bestiality crosses this boundary.
  • Family boundaries – Adam is to “leave his father and mother” – 2:24.  Incest crosses this boundary.
  • Gender boundaries – They were created male and female – 1:27; the woman is created as a fit partner – 2:18, 23; the man is to “hold fast to his wife” – 2:24. Homosexual practice crosses this boundary.

According to Jesus this created order (Mark 10:6-9) or what Paul calls “natural relations” (Romans 1:26-27) show us what Gods’ will is. And we are called to honor and submit to these out of our love for God.

Now, we cannot fully say why God establishes the boundary of no same-sex practice, only that he does. But we also cannot fully say why he set these other sexual boundaries, which we do not question. And we also recognize that there are many areas of the Christian life where God does not fully explain himself to us. We don’t always know why things are as they are. In all of these areas we need to learn to trust God and continue to honor and submit to God’s will for us The unbeliever will dismiss this and often with scorn. But the believer is called to trust.

What we do know is that God loves us deeply, no matter what our struggles are. And this certainly applies to whatever sexual struggles we may have. And we can trust that the God who made us and loves us has our best interests in mind, as well as those of broader society, in the boundaries he establishes. And we know that God will help us as we seek to honor him and follow his way, even if it is extremely difficult for us.

Same-sex practice and the Scriptures: 21 short points

[This is a partial summary of the longer series of essays, Homosexual practice and the Scriptures]

1. I want to say first off that the most important issue connected with same-sex practice is a pastoral one: the church must learn to welcome and care for those who have same-sex desires whether they act on these desires or not. The problem is that the church can’t get to this issue of welcoming without first asking, ‘Can same-sex practice be blessed by God?’ Because what it means to welcome and care for the practicing Gay or Lesbian person is framed by this question.

Now, I realize that for some even raising this question is offensive, but as Christians we have to raise it given the nature of the Scriptures that we are rooted in as a Christian community. So we have to ask, ‘Where can we accept a person as is, and where should we call for transformation?’ This is a question we have to ask, not just in this case, but with all who come to the church, ‘What are the demands of discipleship?’  

Much more could be said about:

  • practical aspects of welcoming and caring for those with same-sex desires, looking to the example of Jesus
  • opposing wrong attitudes and actions in the church toward those with same-sex desires, including repentance for a history of failure
  • or the demands of discipleship on heterosexuals in the area of sexual practice

But in this presentation the focus is on what Scripture teaches regarding the acceptability of same-sex practice, and specifically (except for the next point) I am looking at the New Testament.

The following is what I confess, this is my best understanding. As you will see, I hold that Scripture forbids all same-sex activity. But I am certainly open to discussion and challenge, as I am on any topic.

2. Leviticus 18:22 forbids (male) same-sex activity.This text says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” There have been several attempts to limit the meaning of this prohibition. Here are two examples (for more see the longer essay).

  • It is not forbidding same-sex practice because it is a “waste of procreative seed.” If this were the chief concern one would expect strong prohibitions of sex during pregnancy, heterosexual anal sex, and male masturbation, since under this logic these too would be strongly forbidden.
  • It is not only forbidding idolatrous forms of same-sex practice. Although it follows the prohibition of giving seed to Molech in verse 21, which is connected to idolatry, same-sex practice is mentioned again in Leviticus 20:13, where there is no Molech-idolatry context, but rather an incest context. So there is no necessary connection between the prohibition of same-sex practice and an idolatry context. Also, even if the focus of this prohibition was idolatrous male cult prostitution, it would still forbid all same-sex practice, because in the Ancient Near East male cult prostitution was the most acceptable form of same-sex practice.

Despite these and other objections, in its historical and Scriptural context this prohibition stands without conditions.

3. Paul forbids male and female same-sex activity in Romans 1. Romans 1:26-27 – “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

Again, I see no reason to limit this to a specific context or kind of same-sex practice.

  • It is not pederasty (an older man and a pre-adolescent boy) since that word is not used and lesbianism has nothing to do with pederasty.
  • It is not more generally exploitative same-sex activity, since lesbianism was most often a mutual consenting relationship. Also the text uses consensual language, “consumed with passion for one another.”
  • It is not because there was no such thing at this time as caring and committed same-sex relationships. They existed and were commonly known and written about in the ancient world. There is no reason to think that Paul would not have known of this.

Romans 1 presents just what it seems to present, an unqualified rejection of same-sex practice.  

4. Same-sex practice is forbidden in I Timothy 1:10 & I Corinthians 6:9. Both of these passages list out a number of sins. According to 1 Corinthians 6:9 those who practice any of these are “unrighteous” and “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  According to 1 Timothy 1 they are “lawless and disobedient,” “ungodly and sinners,” “unholy and profane,” and live “contrary to sound doctrine.”

Two words are used in these lists to speak of same-sex practice:

  • The first word “Arsenokoitas, is used in both texts. It is coined out of the phrase in Leviticus 18:22 (LXX) that forbids male same-sex practice: arsenos (male) + koiten (bed or lying). The latest edition of the standard reference – A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG 3rd) defines it as “a male who engages in sexual activity with a person of his own sex.” It refers to the “one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity opposite malakos.” Not only does the word come from Leviticus, in 1 Timothy 1 it is connected to the Mosaic law and thus to its broad condemnation of any kind of (male) same-sex activity.
  • The word “Malakos” is used in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Although it can mean more broadly “effeminate,” in this passage it comes right after “adulterers” and is followed by “Arsenokoitas” – a context of immoral sexual intercourse. The same Lexicon defines it as “the passive partner in a same-sex relationship.” Also, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Paul, uses this word and  doesn’t restrict it simply to male prostitution or pederasty.

These two words, paired together as they are in I Corinthians 6:9 mean respectively the passive and active partner in male same-sex activity.

5. The word Porneia, usually translated “sexual immorality” (or “fornication”) is a word that refers to any kind of forbidden sexual activity.The meaning of Porneia in Greek dictionaries is straight forward, “any kind of unlawful or forbidden sexual activity.” Especially in a Jewish context this included same-sex practice because of the teaching of the Law. In terms of historical context, both before and after the writing of the New Testament the word Porneia is connected to same-sex activity in Jewish writings. And this is also the case for the use of the word in the New Testament. [See the longer series of essays for more.]

6. Jesus explicitly forbids Porneia, thus also forbidding same-sex practice. Jesus was not silent on this issue. He says, “For from within, out of the human heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality (or Porneia), theft, murder, adultery . . .. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” – Mark 7:21-23. Jesus calls Porneia, among other things, evil and defiling. This would also apply to same-sex practice.

7. The strong warnings against Porneia, also refer to same-sex practice:

  • 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 – “Flee from sexual immorality. . .. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
  • 1 Corinthians 6:13 – “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
  • Colossians 3:5 – “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
  • I Thessalonians 4:3 – “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . ..”
  • Ephesians 5:3 – “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.”

There are other similar texts that could be cited.

8. The apostolic decree of Acts 15 forbids same sex practice when it forbids Porneia.Acts 15:28-29 – “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

This decree looks back to Leviticus 17-18. Leviticus 17-18 refers to 1) eating food sacrificed to idols, 2) ingesting blood and 3) Porneia or sexual immorality. The apostolic decree refers to these same three issues in the same order, and through its use of the word “Porneia” refers to all the Porneia restrictions found in Leviticus 18, including the prohibition of same-sex acts.

So according to the decree the Jewish Christians would continue to observe the Mosaic Law’s prohibition of same-sex activity, as they always had, and the Gentile Christians would also make sure to do the same.

9. This prohibition of same-sex activity was the work of a genuinely ecumenical apostolic council and represents the voice of the Spirit on this issue. The apostolic decree says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (Acts 15:28). So, the Spirit has spoken on this issue and has forbidden all forms of Porneia. Also, if there ever was an ecumenical council that has authority it is this one. Its ruling on Porneia still stands.

Now to a little different track.

10. We should not be reductive in the scope of our ethics. Righteousness is not just about loving our neighbor. We also have the greatest commandment. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” – Matthew 22:37-38. And there are some issues of discipleship that only relate to the first commandment: no idolatry, no idols, honor God’s name and so forth. So an action is not automatically right if it simply doesn’t hurt others – the second commandment. It is not enough to ask about our sexual expression, ‘Is it adult and consensual?’ or ‘Does it hurt others?’ We also have to see if it goes against the first commandment.

11. Sexual ethics are invariably rooted in the first commandment. They are rooted in boundaries that God draws. For instance, if we only judge by the second commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” what then is wrong with:

  • responsible premarital sex? (mutual, caring experimentation that might lead to a more stable covenanted relationship later)
  • adult consensual incest?
  • humane bestiality? (sexual gratification with an animal that does not harm the animal in any way)

The arguments for acceptance of same-sex practice can, by and large, be applied to each of these instances as well, because they don’t factor in the first commandment, thus giving too low a threshold for our sexual ethics.

12. If we ask, “Why is same-sex practice wrong?” the answer is that it is a breaking of a fundamental boundary of creation.God sovereignly chose certain sexual boundaries for the greater good of humanity. Genesis one and two lays out some of the basic ground rules:

  • Species boundaries – Among the animals there was “not found a helper fit for him for the man” – 2:20. Bestiality crosses this boundary.
  • Family boundaries – Adam is to “leave his father and mother” – 2:24.  Incest crosses this boundary.
  • Gender boundaries – They were created male and female – 1:27; the woman is created as a fit partner – 2:18, 23; the man is to “hold fast to his wife” – 2:24. Homosexual practice crosses this boundary.

13. Jesus agrees with these creation boundaries for sexual practice, which exclude same-sex practice.Jesus says in Mark 10:6-8, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.” Jesus presents this material from Genesis as prescriptive, that is, he takes it as defining right sexual practice. Thus it is clear he agrees with these creation boundaries.

14. Taking all this into account my conclusion is that Scripture forbids all kinds of same-sex practice. This scriptural testimony is to me, clear, consistent, strong, and serious in terms of the intensity of the disapproval. It is much stronger than for most biblical points that we hold to as Mennonites and confess with vigor: our rejection of infant baptism or our commitment to enemy love. So for me, to welcome and care for the one who engages in homosexual practice has as a part of it also a call to transformation.

But now let’s turn to some other considerations – other Scriptures, or ideas that are often raised that might seem to negate this Scriptural teaching.

15. Don’t Jesus’ actions toward outcasts set a precedent for receiving those who engage in same-sex practice?The most famous example, is, of course, Jesus’ relationship with tax collectors. Jesus shared fellowship, but he also called to repentance. And as a part of this call he taught a higher standard than Moses against economic exploitation of the poor – which was their chief sin.

Jesus also shared fellowship with those involved in Porneia. But he also saw it as sin that needed forgiveness (Luke 7 and John 8). And he also taught a higher standard on this topic than Moses. So yes, there is an initial welcome that breaks rules, but Jesus never sets aside the Porneia restrictions of Moses, indeed he increases them in his teaching on the lustful look and on divorce and remarriage.

16.  Doesn’t the fact that there are Gay and Lesbian Christians in the church show that same-sex practice can’t be wrong? It is true that there are a number of fine and otherwise outstanding Christians who are also practicing homosexuals. But we all also personally know of otherwise outstanding Christians who practice things they shouldn’t – drunkenness, militarism, nationalist idolatry, wealth idolatry, hatred of enemies, and other forbidden things. That a Christian practices something doesn’t make it right. And just because you are a Christian doesn’t mean you are a faithful Christian. The Scriptures, which teach us God’s will, are our standard, not the experience of this or that Christian.

17. Doesn’t Acts 15 set a precedent for receiving those who have an experience of the Spirit, so that if any who practice same-sex activity have the Spirit, they should be accepted?

Jesus teaches that one’s fruits or deeds are the true test of acceptance before God, both now and on the final day. The presence of the Spirit is not a true test – Matthew 7:15-23. These deeds refer specifically to the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount – Matthew 5-7, which includes teaching on, among other things, sexual immorality.

Acts 15 is quite specific in its precedent. It shows that a Gentile who is a follower of Jesus, does not have to become a Jew (taking on the extra commands given to Israel) to be accepted into the promised kingdom that Jesus has brought. It does not teach that the presence of the Spirit blesses or legitimizes all the behaviors in the one who has or claims to have a Spirit experience.

18. Based on the model of Acts 15, shouldn’t we be open to receiving a new, clarifying word to accept practicing homosexuals?This particular text teaches that same-sex activity is wrong, under the direction of the Spirit. But even if we set this aside for discussion’s sake, we are to test the spirits by the standard of what is taught by Jesus and the apostles. As John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” – 1 John 4:1. If we accept a revelation that nullifies what Jesus and the apostles teach then we are no longer followers of Jesus, but of some other spirit.  

19. If you are born with same-sex desire, how can it be wrong? Doesn’t this mean it must be God’s will for you? Our natural birth is not the same as the original creation:

  • According to our natural birth we are all born into all kinds of brokenness which does not reflect God’s perfect will for us. We have physical and emotional disabilities, mental illnesses and so forth. And more generally we all have a disposition to sin.
  • The creation, however, does reflect the original pattern that God intended for humanity; God’s will, which is why Jesus appeals to this.

So for those born with homosexual desires (or with desires for bestiality or adultery or a propensity to alcoholism or a lack of revulsion for incest) this is not a cue to embrace, cultivate and bless these desires as God-given. This is an evidence of the brokenness of the creation which God seeks to heal in the new creation. [Notice I am not saying same-sex desires are a form of mental illness or that they are otherwise like addiction, only that to be born with a condition, any of these, does not make it God’s will.]

20. How can it be fair to ask someone with same-sex desires to remain celibate, if God does not give them heterosexual desires? Clearly this is a more difficult call than most have to deal with. But we have to recognize that we all come from different places to follow Jesus. We all have different weaknesses and issues we have to deal with to be a follower of Jesus. Some have to deal with more, some less.

For instance, the person who is wealthy will have a more difficult time. As Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” – Matthew 19:23-24. In other words, it is next to impossible to enter the kingdom, because to give up so much wealth is very hard to do. Also, the call of Jesus to the person who has a career in the military will be harder. This person may well have to give up much more than most of us in obedience to the teaching on loving enemies.

So the demands of discipleship don’t hit us all with equal force – the wealthy, the military person, the one with same-sex desires. For some of us we have a harder road of discipleship. The question is not whether it is fair, but whether this is what God calls for.

21. Is it right to require celibacy in this case, when we don’t require this of anyone else? Here is a person with ingrained, inborn desires, but is given no righteous way for these to find expression.

But the church does require just this kind of celibacy in several other cases:

  • The person who cannot find a spouse due to a lack of available partners. For some this will be a life-long situation.
  • The person who cannot find a spouse due to life-long severe physical or mental disability.
  • The one who struggles with desires for incest, or bestiality.
  • The one who is in a sexless marriage due to the physical or emotional disability of their partner.

In each of these cases, there is inborn desire and no foreseeable change in the situation, so that there is no righteous way for these desires to find expression.

Regarding the difficulty of the call to celibacy in all of these situations, perhaps the word of Jesus about the difficulty of the wealthy being able to enter the kingdom applies. The disciples ask, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” – Matthew 19:26 (NRSV). God makes it possible for us to be righteousness, even when it seems impossible by the human standards of our culture; even when it seems impossible in these difficult situations of sexual desire (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 with emphasis on v. 11). And, of course, this is what makes any of us able to follow Jesus, wherever we are coming from. This is what makes it possible for any of us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, losing our lives in this world to gain them in the kingdom.

William S. Higgins

April 2006/July 2013

Reflections On The Lord’s Prayer

[Calvary Mennonite ChurchPNMC Prayer Conference – 9/2004]

I have to start with a confession . . . it wasn’t until about six years ago that I first started taking the Lord’s prayer seriously. It’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s just that I didn’t know what most of it meant . . . ! I didn’t know how to pray it!

But there were also larger factors at work, I think, that shaped my low view of this prayer. It’s a sad fact that the Lord’s prayer has been marginalized in the church. It has been marginalized by two competing extremes:

  • One extreme is the tendency to ritualize it so that it merely becomes the rote repetition of requests. Sometimes it even takes on a magical quality – a formula – that’s supposed to get results. You don’t know really what it means but you know its important and so you keep mindlessly repeating it week after week.
  • The other extreme is the teaching that all prayer should be spontaneous – straight from the heart; most definitely not repeating formulas. In this context the Lord’s prayer doesn’t receive much attention at all – it seems too liturgical. This is the attitude I had picked up in the circles where I ran.

These two competing extremes force us to choose sides, as it were. But either way we choose we are lead away from meaningful use of the prayer of Jesus. And so it remains marginalized in the church.

But, what I discovered six years ago is that, when you actually come to understand what this prayer is about, and begin praying it regularly, it will absolutely transform your practice of prayer. It did mine.

Now we don’t have time to go through this whole prayer. Although, I do have a little booklet that briefly does this on the back table. Feel free to take one. In my time with you this morning I want to share with you more generally six things I have learned from this prayer and from praying this prayer that have transformed my prayer life, that I think will also be beneficial to your prayer lives as well.

1. Jesus intends that we pray this prayer two to three times a day

This conference is entitled, “Prayers of the past shaping prayers for the present.” We need to learn from those who have gone before. But this prayer is different. It is not just supposed to shape our prayers, it is to be our prayer and at the core of our total prayer life. We are to pray it two or three times a day.

Now praying at several set times during the day has strong biblical precedent.

*For instance in Psalm 22:2 we see the twofold pattern of praying in the daytime and in the evening. “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”

*In places like Psalm 55:16-17 and Daniel 6:10 we see a threefold pattern of morning, afternoon and evening. Psalm 55 says, “But I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening, morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.”

*This pattern of set prayer times also shows up in several prayer phrases that we are all familiar with: praying day and night = morning prayers and evening prayers; and also praying without ceasing = you never cease to pray for a thing in your set times of daily prayers.

There is also strong precedent for having set prayers – a specific list of petitions – to use during these times.

*We know from the historical record that these kinds of prayers were being developed in Judaism, even in Jesus’ day. (The 18 Benedictions)

*We learn in Luke 11:1 that John the Baptist gave his disciples a prayer to use in their prayer times – which is why the apostles ask Jesus to give a them a prayer as well.

So Jesus is speaking to this context when he gives the Lord’s prayer. In Luke 11:2 he says, “when you pray, say . . .,” that is, during your set times of prayer in the morning, afternoon and evening – when you pray – offer up these five petitions. This is how you should pray.

The early Christians understood this. The Didache, a very early manual for Christians, recommends that the Lord’s prayer be prayed three times a day (8:3).

So what I am saying is that when Jesus gives us his prayer, he is assuming the Hebrew context of daily prayers and is telling us what to pray for during these times of daily prayer. In other words, Jesus wants us to pray his prayer day and night; he wants us to pray it without ceasing.

But how do we do this without it becoming a dead ritual or just plain boring?

2. We need to pray this prayer of Jesus in our own words, with the help of the Spirit

The fact is, we have two versions of this prayer – one in Matthew 6 and one in Luke 11. And although they are essentially the same, there are verbal differences between them. This tells me that the point is not to repeat the prayer verbatim – word for word or rote repetition.

Yes, it is good to say exactly the prayer in one of its two forms, but it is also good simply to understand what the requests mean and then pray them in our own words. Because when we do this we make the prayer our own.

Jesus did just this as he prayed in Gethsemane:

  • He prayed the second petition “your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” when he prayed – “not my will but your will be done.”
  • And he prayed the last petition “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” in these words, “remove this cup from me.” This is the same petition – in different words.

But not only are we to pray this prayer in our own words – or from our hearts, we are also to listen to the Spirit as we pray this prayer. Jude 20 says, “pray in the Holy Spirit.” Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:18 that we are to pray at all times in the Spirit. So we allow the Spirit to lead us as we make this prayer our own. The Spirit works in us to pray this prayer and bring it to life each time we pray it.

So, the dichotomy we began with: set prayers verses spontaneous prayers – at least in this case – is a false one and we should reject it. You can have a set prayer and also be led by the Spirit, and pray it from your heart.

But you say, “OK, I pray it in my own words and let the Spirit guide me, but how much variety can there be here – to pray this prayer meaningfully – without ceasing?”

3. This prayer is so deep that you will never exhaust it

You will never wear this prayer out. You will never get to the bottom of it. Let me give you one example from the first petition – “Hallowed be your name.” The basic meaning of this petition is for God to be glorified, that God’s name will be seen as holy – or set apart above all other names.

A Variety of Angles. But there is more to it than just this. There are a number of angles to this request that show the depth of meaning in it, and thus shows the variety of ways in which it can be prayed:

– Angle #1: Not only is this a prayer for God’s name to be regarded as holy, this is also a prayer for God to act to make this happen. This petition is a divine passive – a deferential way of speaking of God that uses a passive construction, (hallowed be your name) but has an active meaning (Father, hallow your name). So we are praying for God to act to bring glory to his name – “Hallow your name, Father, by doing great deeds.”

– Angle #2: This is also a prayer for God to make himself known. Someone’s name stands for their character and identity. It has to do with their reputation. So we are praying – “Father, act to increase your reputation in the world. Show your true character. Show who you are through your acts. Make yourself known.”

– Angle #3: This is also a prayer for the church. God’s name is connected to his community. We bear his name. We represent God to the world. When people see God doing great things among us, it reflects back on God’s name in a good way. So, to ask God to act to increase his reputation is also to pray that God will act for us and through us. So we pray – “Act in us, for us and through us, to make yourself known in the world.”

– Angle #4: This is also an evangelistic petition. The biblical background for this petition is the context of idolatry – Ezekiel 36. Who is the real god? We too live in a world where most people don’t know God. So we pray for God to act to make himself known, so that all the peoples of the earth will come to know him, and honor him; that they will hallow his name instead of false gods. We pray, “Father, act so that more and more people will come to know you and worship you.”

So there are a variety of angles or depth of meaning to this petition.

A Variety of Tenses. We can also pray this prayer in different tenses:

Future tense: Pray that God will bring about the final day, when every knee will bow before Jesus and give glory to the Father – Philippians 2:1-11

Present tense, which is what I have been emphasizing: Pray that God will glorify his name now; that he will act to make himself known and cause people to come to know him now.

A Variety of Spheres. We can pray this in different ways in the present tense: You can pray that God will act to make himself known and cause people to come to know him

– through your own life

– through your local church

– through the church worldwide.

A Variety of Language. We can also use alternate scriptural prayers that ask for the same thing in different words:

– Psalm 57:5 – “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth.”

– Habakkuk 2:14 – Pray “for the whole earth (to be) filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

– John 12:28 – “Father glorify your name.”

I share all this with you to say that there are so many different ways to pray this pray that it should never be seen as tedious. Now this isn’t to say that this makes prayer easy. It still takes time and discipline and it takes care to hear the Spirit. But once you get to know this prayer’s depth, you will see that boring or ritualistic are not words properly connected to it.

4. God really is concerned about our needs, problems and weaknesses

This is not some lofty prayer. It’s very down to earth. Just think of the last three petitions. They deal with real life as we experience it, day in and day out.

The bread petition: This deals with our struggle for a livelihood and to feed our families; our worries and concerns about our financial needs. We ask for God to care for our needs.

The forgiveness petition: This deals with the fact that we struggle with temptations and sometimes fail as followers of Jesus. And so we need God’s grace in our lives.

The testing petition: This is an interesting one, for even though we are told that we will be tested – Jesus tells us to pray to be spared testing. We learn why we should pray this from the words of Jesus to his disciples in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). We say, “God please don’t listen to Satan, who wants to test me so that I will fail – because I might fail and bring dishonor to your name.” We are fully aware of our weakness when we pray this request. God be merciful because we are weak! God wants us to remind him.

God knows our weaknesses and is concerned about them. So he teaches us to pray constantly for his caring provision, his grace to forgive and his mercy to spare us difficult situations that test our faithfulness to him.

5. God’s Agenda Takes Priority in Prayer

What is the most important thing to pray for? We see Jesus’ answer in the structure of the prayer itself:

The first two petitions deal with God’s agenda – his name and his rule.

 The last three petitions deal with our needs.

God’s agenda comes first – then our needs. The very structure of this communicates the priority of God’s agenda.

We can also see this prioritization in how Jesus prayed the final petition. In the garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “remove this cup from me” – the last petition. In other words, “Don’t lead me into testing; that is the cross.” But then he prayed the second petition “not what I will, but what you will, Father.” Also, in John’s gospel, as Jesus faces the cross, he prays the first petition, “Father, glorify your name.”

So we see clearly that the first two petitions trump the final one. We pray, “don’t lead us into testing” but then we also pray, “Father, not what I want, not what is easy for me – I want what most glorifies your name – I want what is according to your will.”

This example clearly shows us the priority of the first two petitions. God does truly care for our needs, but we are to focus most of all on his agenda.

6. Finally, Prayer is to be Community Forming

All we have to do is look at the pronouns to see this point. Everything is in the first person plural – “our” or “us.” So even when we pray this as individuals – we are never just praying as an individual. We always have in mind our brothers and sisters in our local congregation, and spread throughout the world. So our prayer is always – at the same time – both personal prayer and intercession.

It is not just, “Father give me this day the bread that I need” It is – “give us this day our daily bread.” “I need bread – and my sisters and brothers need bread, Father.”

I don’t just pray that I will be spared testing and persecution, I pray for believers throughout the world – who are often in much more difficult situations than I am – “Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the tester.”

So whenever we pray this prayer, it reminds us of our Christian community And as we pray for ourselves and for them, it bonds us closer together. Our hearts are knit together as we constantly pray for one another day by day.

Scriptural teaching on ministry to children (2007)

Jesus was very concerned that children be valued and ministered to by his people. I’m not sure there is anything more important than tending to the children among us – from our own families and from the community as well.

Yet among Christian groups there are different, even conflicting ways of approaching ministry to children. So we are called to discern how we will sort  through these issues; how we will minister to the children of this congregation.

As Elders we have been working on this, and we now invite you to enter into the process. That’s what this meeting is all about. I will give a presentation tonight on our understanding and our recommendations. It is our intention to move toward common understandings and practices on these issues – policies if you will.

We invite your feedback. Think of this as a Sunday School class. Stop me and ask questions or make comments. Some of this may be controversial or maybe not. I don’t know. What is important is that we let the Scriptures guide us in this.

The first thing I want us to look at, and what underlies much of what follows, is that Scripture teaches that

1. Children are a part of the kingdom of God

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” – Mark 10:14. This comes from the story of Jesus blessing the children. In the last part of this verse Jesus teaches that children “belong to the kingdom of God.” This teaches us that we do not need to worry about the destiny of children, at least in terms of their immediate status with God. They are a part of the kingdom of God; the realm of God’s blessing and salvation. Or to put it plainly they are saved; they are safe in God’s grace.

But what is the age of these children who are a part of the kingdom? The first clue comes from Luke’s version of this story. He specifically notes that “they were bringing even infants to him” – Luke 18:15. The second clue comes from the word that Jesus uses for “children” – “paidion.” Based on its use in the New Testament this word refers to children from birth (e.g. Luke 1:59 – 8 days old) to puberty (e.g. Mark 5:39-42 – 12 years old). So the reference here is roughly to any child 12 or below – preadolescent children.

This is cruical for what follows. Jesus teaches us here that we should not think of our children simply as small adults:

Unlike adults, who need conversion to enter the kingdom, and are thus baptized as a sign of their conversion, the kingdom already belongs to children.

2. Children are not mature

A child in Scripture means one who is not mature. Along these lines it is used figuratively to refer to adults who are not mature in some way (e.g. I Corinthians 3:1). Literal children are not mature in many ways, but the focus here is on their inability to discern and choose between right and wrong for themselves.

  • Deuteronomy 1:39 talks about “ . . . your little ones . . . and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil . . ..”
  • Isaiah 7:15 speaks of maturity in these terms: “when (the child) knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”
  • Hebrews 5:13-14 defines maturity in this way – “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

3. Children are born with “fleshly desires”

Not only are children not mature in terms of being able to make moral and religious choices, they have an inborn tendency to resist righteousness. As we know, they often do not do what is right. Like all humans, no matter what age, children must struggle with the desires of the flesh; our natural desires that lead us to do what we want instead of what God wants.

  • As Jesus said, with regard to doing God’s will – “the flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38.
  • Paul said, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law – Romans 8:7.

4. We are to train our children

Given the condition of children, the task of parents and the people of God is to train, shape and form them in the way of the Lord. Moses said to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:7 – “You shall teach my commandments diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Paul says in Ephesians 6:4, Christian parents are to raise their children in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

In practical terms this means teaching them:

  • what is right and wrong according to God
  • the contents of Scripture
  • about faith and helping them to learn to trust in God
  • about repentance and forgiveness when they do wrong
  • how to pray
  • how resist temptation

We are to teach them all this and more through both word and perhaps most importantly example – as they see us live out the Christian life.

The church also has a role in this training of children given its commission by Jesus to “make disciples” of all peoples (Matthew 28:19). We strive to do this through our various programming for children, especially Sunday school.

5. Childhood faith is good and should be honored

When we train our children in the way of the Lord they will most often come to have a childhood faith in God and Jesus. Even though the faith of children is different from adult faith (see below) it is loved by God and should be honored by the church.

  • Samuel served God as a child – 1 Samuel 3.
  • At age 12 Jesus knew God’s way better than the adults – Luke 2:42-50.
  • As Jesus said, God accepts and loves the praise of children – Matthew 21:15-16.

6. Adult faith is different and is the goal of our training

A child’s faith is dependent on what parents or others teach them. Since they are not fully able to discern and choose for themselves this is appropriate to their situation.

Adult faith, however, is different. It is a choice based on the person’s own discernment of what is right and wrong. And even though an adult’s faith will continue to grow and mature – the ability to discern for oneself and choose is what makes adult faith fundamentally different than the faith of a child.

So the goal of our training is that when our children are mature (past the age of childhood acceptance before God – see #1) they will be ready to begin to discern and choose to enter the kingdom of God for themselves. As Paul writes to Timothy– “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” – 2 Timothy 3:14-15. Our training is meant to equip our children so that when they are ready and able they will choose salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. For those with childhood faith this may well be a smooth and seamless transition.

7. Children and baptism

That baptism is for adults can be seen in several ways:

The symbolic meaning of baptism involves, among other things, the choice to leave the world and sin behind in order to walk in Jesus’ way. Or, to use the similar imagery of Romans 6  – baptism has to do with dying to your old life of sin and being raised to a new life of righteousness. But children are still a part of the kingdom of God, not the world. They have not yet even entered this adult world of choosing and discerning for themselves – along with culpably sinning before God. To apply this symbol to them is inappropriate in that it doesn’t properly reflect their status before God. They aren’t leaving the world and sin behind. They are already in the kingdom.

In Scripture, baptism is uniformly connected with adult kinds of responses: hearing the gospel, understanding it, and choosing faith and repentance in response to the message. But by definition children are not able to discern and choose to have faith in Jesus for themselves. The faith that they have is dependent on what parents and others have taught them.

Finally, Jesus connects baptism with discipleship, or “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” in Matthew 28:19-20. But children are not able to make the serious, adult kinds of choices that Jesus requires of all disciples. Jesus calls us to obey his hard teachings, to submit to church discipline and to sacrifice our lives for the kingdom.

Given this, baptism should not be applied to preadolescent children – even those who have a childhood faith in Jesus. Baptism is meant to be the marker of adult faith in Jesus. It is the way that Jesus chose for adults to publicly identify with him as a Christian and as a disciple. So baptism should be reserved for those who are able to have adult-faith; for those who are (roughly) 13 or older.

For those with childhood faith, baptism should be looked forward to as the symbol of transition from childhood faith to adult faith.

What we need, and are proposing, is a ritual for those who come to childhood faith, to affirm and support their faith, allowing us to reserve baptism for its proper role with reference to adults.

When our child matures to the point of making adult choices in relation to God – they may well be ready for baptism, or their childhood faith may continue on for a while, or they may discern and choose not to follow Jesus. We should be careful in this transition time not to pressure them into baptism. To be genuine, it must come from their own initiative, discernment and choice, although it is always appropriate to invite them to make this decision.

8. Children and the Lord’s supper

Symbolically the Lord’s supper represents much of what baptism represents.

The bread, coming from the Passover meal, speaks to leaving behind our old lives of bondage and despair in the world (just as Israel left Egypt behind). As was noted above under baptism, this is not an appropriate symbolic statement about where children are in their status before God. The bread also assumes an adult type choice to leave behind the world and sin in order to follow God. Each time we partake we remind ourselves of this commitment that we made to God at the time of our baptism.

The cup, coming from the covenant ceremony of Exodus 24 (where Israel agreed to obey all that God commanded), has a covenant context. It assumes that we have covenanted with God through baptism and it calls us to remember this adult type commitment – to do all that Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19).

So the Lord’s supper is a meal for those who have made the adult kind of commitment that is required to be a disciple of Jesus – baptism. Those with childhood faith should be taught to look forward to their baptism, when they too will be able to take part in this discipleship meal.

9. The blessing of children

Jesus is very clear that we are to “receive” children in his name. Jesus said in Mark 9:37 – “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Jesus is also very clear that we are to “let the children come” to him – Mark 10:14. We are not to be like the disciples who tried to hold back the children from Jesus; who made Jesus angry.

But if baptism and the Lord’s supper are not the way to do this as a church, what is? The Gospels answer this question by telling the story of Jesus blessing the children.

“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.. . . And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them” – Mark 10:13-16.

So, to “let the children come” to Jesus (Mark 10:14) is defined in this story in verse 16. And what it means to receive children in Mark 9:37 is explained here in Mark 10:16.

When Jesus ministered to children he did not baptize them or give them the Lord’s supper. He took them, prayed for them and blessed them. He took the time to receive them and care for them and to minister God’s blessing into their lives. This is also what we should do.

10. A summary of practical outcomes

1. We should have a continued focus on training our children: Sunday school, bible school and girls’ clubs. And we should seek to equip and support our parents as teachers of their children.
2. We should continue to have a service of blessing for our babies upon their presentation to the church and we should be ready to pray for God’s blessing for children, whenever they or their parents seek it out.
3. We should reserve baptism for adolescent young people and older.
4. We should provide a public ceremony to affirm and support the expression of childhood faith in our children.
5. We should reserve the Lord’s supper for those who are baptized.
6. We should provide a special time of blessing for children each time we celebrate the Lord’s supper so that they are included and are able to be ministered to by Jesus.
7. For the preadolescent children among us who are already baptized, we would like to walk with them, invite them to catechism classes, as needed when they are ready, and in general encourage them to own their faith as young adults as well.

The way Jesus died shows us how to live

Jesus rejected the sword and took up his cross. But was this only necessary because of the particular set of  circumstances that Jesus encountered? After all, Jesus had to die to save us! Or maybe this only teaches us what to do in a situation of persecution. Is the cross really the example that guides us in dealing with all kinds of enemies?

The example of Jesus’ path to the cross

First we will look at the example of Jesus. There are three steps in the way of the cross:

1. Jesus endured suffering: Jesus could have returned harm for harm. He could have fought back. He could have called upon his disciples to fight for him (John 18:36). He could have called upon the angel armies of heaven to fight for him (Matthew 26:53). But he freely chose to endure the harm and not strike back. He refused to take up the sword himself and he forbade his disciples to take up the sword. He said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

  • He endured betrayal by Judas (Matthew 26:47-49).
  • He endured an unjust arrest (Matthew 26:50-56).
  • He endured desertion and denial from his disciples (Matthew 26:56;75).
  • He endured an unjust trial before his people (Matthew 26:57-66).
  • He endured mocking and beating (Matthew 26:67-68).
  • He endured humiliation from Herod (Luke 23:6-12).
  • He endured injustice from Pilate (Matthew 27:11-26).
  • He endured abuse from Roman soldiers (Matthew 27:27-31).
  • He endured crucifixion (Matthew 27:32-44).
  • He endured death (Matthew 27:45-50).

As I Peter 2:23 says, “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten . . ..” Jesus endured harm, but did not return harm to anyone.

2. Jesus looked to God for justice: Jesus did not take up the sword to find his justice. He looked to God for his vindication.

In the narrative itself we see this as he cries out on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken  me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is not simply a cry of desperation. It is a reference to Psalm 22:1 and it brings to mind the whole of Psalm 22, where the one who suffers unjustly calls upon God for vindication.

Jesus did not look for justice from the people or political institutions of his day. As I Peter 2:23 says, “he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” He looked to God.

3. Jesus loved his enemies: Jesus returned good for evil. He was kind to his enemies and submitted to the unjust authorities that put him to death.

  • He spoke gently to Judas even as he betrayed him (Matthew 26:47-50).
  • He returned submission for oppression to both Jewish and Roman authorities.
  • He healed the ear of the servant who came to help    arrest him (Luke 22:51).
  • He prayed for his killers, that God would have mercy on them (Luke 23:34).

Jesus expressed genuine love and concern for his enemies.

But Jesus had to die! We don’t!

But some will say, “Jesus set aside the sword and took up the cross because he had to in order to save us. He had to die because this was God’s redemptive plan. We are not in this situation, so we can take up the sword.”

1. We all must take up our cross: Jesus is clear on this point. It is not just God’s will for him to take up the cross. It is God’s will for all followers of Jesus to take up the cross as well. After Peter tried to persuade Jesus to forsake the cross and suffering, Jesus told all of his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life from my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

The cross is not a unique demand placed only upon Jesus. It is placed upon each of us. We each have to choose – “Will we lose our lives by means of the cross, or will we try to preserve our lives by means of the sword?”

2. Our suffering also has a purpose: Jesus’ suffering is unique and our suffering can never do what his did. But we can participate in the “fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). For instance, Paul says, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). The idea here seems to be that God has set a certain amount of suffering that must take place before he acts to bring about the end of all things and the vindication of his people (Revelation 6:9-11). So our suffering does have a redemptive aim. It moves forward the purposes of God for this world. It fills up what is still lacking.

So, although we are not dying to save anyone, our suffering does play a role in God’s redemptive plan, as did Jesus’. And just as God’s plan would have been foiled if Jesus took up the sword, so too God’s plan is foiled when we seek to avoid suffering and the cross and take up the sword to preserve our lives.

But Jesus’ enemies were persecutors!

But did Jesus take up his cross only because this was a situation of persecution? Should this give us guidance in dealing with all of our enemies, or only those who cause us to suffer for our faith?

It is certainly true that the example of Jesus’ death guides us in the context of enemies who persecute us (Matthew 10:34-39). But his example also guides us in dealing with all kinds of enemies.

This is confirmed in I Peter 2:18-25. This text is one of the most detailed references to the cross of Jesus – used for ethical guidance. Yet it is applied to a situation of general oppression. This is dealing with enemies who are not mistreating Christians because of their religious beliefs or practices. These enemies are simply evil people that oppress others. The example of Jesus in going to the cross is used to give these Christians guidance for how to treat these enemies:

  • They are to endure: “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. . . If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval” (vs. 18-20). They are to be like Jesus. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered,  he did not threaten” (v. 23).
  • They are to look to God for justice: Peter tells them to be like Jesus, for “he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (v. 23).
  • They are to give good for evil: Peter tells them, “accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (v. 18).

Conclusion

Jesus’ example show us how to respond to any enemy. No matter what the situation is – personal conflict, issues handled by the criminal justice system, or matters of war, the cross is our guide, not the sword. We always endure harm without striking back. We always look to God for our justice and vindication, not the sword. We always love our enemies despite the evil they do to us.

__________________________

This may be shared with others. It may be emailed or printed in its entirety or in part, but may not be altered in any way.

 

William S. Higgins – 2003

 

26 Anabaptist distinctives

These are distinctives of the three Anabaptist groups that survived the initial period of Anabaptist formation (1525-1575) – The Swiss Brethren, The Dutch-North German Mennonites and the Hutterites.

1. Scripture Alone: Scripture is the supreme authority over the church. Catholic popes, councils or traditions are not the authority. Theologians like Luther or Zwingli are not the authority. City or national governments are not the authority.

2. The Precedence of the New Testament: The Bible is not flat. The teaching of Jesus and the apostles takes precedence over the Law and Prophets. We come to understand the Old Testament through Jesus and the apostles. The Old Testament has the character of promise. The New testament is all about fulfillment. Now that the promises are being fulfilled this should be the primary focus – especially the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount.

3. The Bible is Accessible: The literal meaning of Scripture is available to the common person – Matthew 11:25. Although learning is not bad, there is no need for elitist popes or scholars to dictate to all what the Scriptures teach. On the other hand, all interpreters must rely upon the Spirit and desire to obey the Scriptures to truly understand them. Only these are truly qualified to interpret Scripture.

4. Biblicism: The end of all Bible study is to do what it says. We literally do whatever Jesus and the apostles teach, whatever the consequences.

5. Restorationism: The goal is not so much reform as it is a restoration of the apostolic/New Testament church. It is not enough to take the medieval church and tinker with it (Luther, Zwingli). One must get back past the fall of the church with Constantine and restore the practices of the New Testament church. This is all that is important.

6. Salvation by Grace through Faith: Salvation is a gift of God’s grace, based on what Jesus has done, that must be received by faith. Salvation is not based on deeds we do, religious or otherwise. Anabaptists learned this from Luther. But they emphasized that this grace, if it is real will produce acts of righteousness. Only the one who does the will of the Father in heaven will ultimately be saved – Matthew 7:21.

7. Human Choice: Although all people are sinners, God makes it possible for all to choose to have faith and be saved. Luther’s concept of predestination is  wrong. People do have a choice. God does not predetermine everything. Also Luther’s idea of total depravity is overstated. We are sinful, but by God’s grace we can choose to turn to God.

8. Spirit Regeneration: The one who believes is born of the Spirit. Believers are new creations in Christ and are thus able to do God’s will. We are not simply forgiven sinners, who continue in sin. We are forgiven and transformed by the Spirit so that we can obey God. For Luther God’s grace is best emphasized when we see God as accepting us despite our continued sin. This keeps us from thinking we can earn our salvation. For Anabaptists God’s grace is best emphasized when we see God’s grace powerfully transforming us. All the good we do is a testimony to God’s powerful work in us.

9. Non-Sacramental Ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are simply outward signs of God’s grace working in you by the Spirit. A sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” In Catholic thought the visible sign conveys the invisible grace by the mere performance of the act. There are seven Catholic sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Ordination, Confirmation, Penance, Marriage, and Extreme unction. It is through these acts that God’s grace (salvation) is given to people. For Anabaptists, the two outward signs do not convey the grace. They are a means by which a person testifies to the presence of grace already within them.

10. The Lord’s Supper: This is a memorial of the death of Jesus and is only for baptized believers who are committed to obedience to Jesus. The idea of the supper as a memorial was learned from Zwingli and/or the Dutch Sacramentists. The bread and wine are only bread and wine. They do not change in essence as in Catholicism. They point to the death of Jesus.

11. Believers’ Baptism: According to the New Testament baptism is only for believers. It is the pledge of a believer to live a new life as a part of God’s community. It is about discipleship. Since the water is only water, it does an infant no good. The scriptural pattern is always that faith precedes water baptism. Baptism is like a monastic vow. All who choose it commit to walk according to Jesus’ teaching. It is the beginning of a life of discipleship, set apart from the world.

12. Children are Innocent: On the basis of texts like Matthew 19:14 children should be seen as innocent. There is no need for a sacrament such as infant baptism that can wash away the effects of original sin for them. They are not punished for sin until they come to the age of accountability. Therefore they should wait and be baptized as believers.

13. A Visible Church: The church is not invisible – made up of those with faith in their hearts alone. One’s inner experience of God (if real) will show up in an outward conformity to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Thus the true people of God will be marked by baptism and a godly life. The spiritualists thought that inner spirituality was enough. Anabaptists insisted that the inner and the outer are connected. Real disciples are known by their fruits – Matthew 7:16.

14. Two Kingdoms: The church is a separate social entity from the rest of society which is “the world.” These two kingdoms have different standards. You are either among the people of God or you are a part of the world. There is no neutral ground. The dividing line between these two kingdoms is believer’s baptism. This is a rejection of the Christendom conception of a church that is fused together with the state into one social entity, living by one standard. True disciples who live by the teaching of Jesus will not fit in with the world system around them.

15. Political Nonconformity: Followers of Jesus must be faithful to the teaching of Jesus, even if this brings them into conflict with the political authorities placed over them by God – Acts 5:29. The church is a prophetic voice to the powers that be of the new way of Jesus. It also calls governments to account for their actions of injustice that go against God’s will for governments. This was especially the case when governments persecuted the Anabaptists.

16. Voluntarism: Each person must decide in their conscience what they will believe and should not be persecuted for this. Each person should be able to choose what they believe without coercion or pressure. If someone wants to be baptized, let them choose it. If not, that is their choice.

17. Localism: Each local congregation is qualified and responsible to decide what should be taught in it. They should also call, support and discipline their own pastors. Luther thought that political leaders should decide what the faith of their people would be. Anabaptists taught that each congregation should decide for themselves – not the state or the clergy or the scholars.

18. Community Egalitarianism: Within the congregation there is no sharp difference between leaders and  followers. Anabaptists did not like the Catholic scheme whereby priests are placed on a higher level because they mediate God to the people. They taught that God is no respecter of persons. They had leaders, but they were common people from the congregation who seemed gifted and called to serve the rest.

19. The Ban: When a person breaks their baptismal pledge to follow Jesus the church is to call them to repentance. If they do not repent, they are placed out of the church – Matthew 18:15-20. This is the proper way to purify the church, not persecution and death. The Christendom model either overlooks issues of immorality or it uses the criminal justice system to kill people for matters of faith.

20. Enemy Love: Disciples are literally to love enemies and not to resist evildoers – Matthew 5:38-48. This means that Christians cannot be political leaders or in the military. This separates all disciples from the world system which demands warfare and violence.

21. No Oaths: Disciples are literally not to swear oaths – Matthew 5:33-37. This also meant that Christians could not be a part of much of the civic and economic life of the day which required oaths.

22. Common Goods: Disciples must share what they have with those in the church who have needs. This has more recently been called – “Mutual Aid.” This comes from the teaching of Jesus (Luke 12:33) and from the example of the early church in the book of Acts. Salvation encompasses one’s economic practices. Hutterites went on to say that there could be no private property, but everyone in the congregation must hold all goods literally in common. Other Anabaptists simply held a common treasury, used for those in need in the community.

23. Suffering: Disciples must be prepared to suffer for their faith. The true church is characterized by suffering. Anabaptists experienced this from both Catholics and Protestants. There were thousands of Anabaptist martyrs. This helped spread Anabaptism as others saw that their faith was real. But it also caused great distress and eventually quenched the movement. The leaders were killed and the rest went underground.

24. Mission: The church must spread the gospel and establish communities all throughout the world. Protestants and Catholics felt that the great commission had already been finished. Anabaptists saw all of Christendom as a mission field. They set up extensive itinerate systems for evangelism. They were very successful for a time, threatening to become the dominant group. But intense persecution counteracted this.

25. Non-Speculative Theology: One should accept traditional orthodoxy, but the real business of the church is that of forming disciple communities through catechism that uses biblical categories and terms. Anabaptists used the apostles creed. They were orthodox in their understandings of the Trinity and Christology. (Although some early Dutch Mennonites had a distinctive Christology.)

26. Apocalyptic: Jesus will return at any time to judge the world, and save his own people. The world can be seen in the terms of apocalyptic according to the Anabaptists: the beast and the whore (the persecuting state and the unfaithful church) verses the saints of God. This reinforced their two kingdoms outlook. It also placed their suffering in the wider cosmic context of God’s plan for all of creation.

William S. Higgins – 2003

How to respond to disciples who take the sword

This essay looks at Peter’s espousal of the way of the sword and Jesus’ espousal of the way of the cross. The contention is that in these narrative episodes we find guidance for how disciples who take the way of the cross should respond to those who teach and practice the way of the sword.

Jesus’ disciples and the sword

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus had to resist Satan’s pressure to take the way of worldly power – the way of the sword instead of the way of the cross. He refused to listen to Satan (Matthew 4:8-10). This test occurred again when the crowd wanted Jesus to be their earthly king. He hid himself from them (John 6:15).

But, perhaps the greatest opposition came from his own disciples, who did not understand his way. In Matthew 16:21-22 Peter had just declared that Jesus was the Messiah. So he could not at all understand why Jesus would start talking about suffering and being killed. Peter thought of the Messiah as a warrior who would establish an earthly kingdom. He held to the popular view of who the Messiah should be. That is why it says, “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord!’ This must never happen to you’” (v. 22). He was focused on “human things” (v. 23) – human glory and power as opposed to the shameful death that God willed for Jesus.

In Matthew 20:20-28, James and John wanted to be at the right and left hand of Jesus when he came into his kingdom. It is clear that they were thinking of an earthly kingdom, where Jesus would rule as an earthly king rules. From Jesus’ response we see that they were thinking in terms of how the Gentiles hold power over their subjects by the power of the sword. James and John wanted to be great like these rulers are great.

In Matthew 26:31-35; 47-51 the disciples were ready with swords while they were in and around Jerusalem (Luke 22:38). Peter said that he would never desert Jesus. Even if he had to die with Jesus, he would not deny him. All the disciples said this (vs. 33; 35). They were thinking of fighting in a battle next to Jesus with their swords. They were ready to die a heroic death fighting for Jesus’ cause. And sure enough, when the Jerusalem officials came to arrest Jesus the disciples asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22:49). But before Jesus spoke, Peter took out his sword and wounded one of the men (v. 51; John 18:10).

The disciples clearly had bought into the idea that you either fight or you flee. These were the only two options in their minds. For once they saw that Jesus did not support their fighting, they fled; one left so quickly that he ran away naked (Matthew 26:55; Mark 14:51-52). They did not understand the way of the cross which involves neither fight or flight.

What to do when other disciples pressure you to take the sword

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’”

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?’” – Matthew 16:21-26

What happened to Jesus in this story still happens to his followers today. The most notable, the most famous, the majority of Christians say to us today – “No!” They rebuke us for walking in the way of the cross. “God forbid it” they say, “this is not right!”

In this episode Jesus gives us a model for how to respond to this kind of pressure to take up the sword.

1. Tell them to Stop: Jesus told Peter to stop saying these words to him. He heard in Peter the same voice of Satan that had tempted him earlier. This was a stumbling block to him, to get him focused on human things and not on God’s will for him.

We must also tell disciples today who pressure us to  believe in the way of the sword to stop. They must stop offering to us a temptation to give up the way of the cross. No one wants to suffer or be lowly. It is not easy or desirable. This is why their voice is a “a stumbling block” to us, counseling us to do exactly what Satan wants us to do. Satan wants us to take the easy way and not the hard way that God calls us to walk in.

2. Teach them the way of Jesus: After rebuking Peter Jesus taught him again about the cross. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (vs. 24-25). Jesus then continued to teach the disciples, as we saw in Matthew 20:20-28. Instead of seeking and using earthly power, they are to serve others and sacrificially give their lives for them. Instead of the sword they are to take up their cross.

We should also patiently teach disciples who advocate the sword the words of Jesus. We teach them that:

  • The cross is the only way to follow Jesus. He neither taught nor bore the sword (v. 24).
  • The cross is the only way to find our life. We find our life by losing it, not by fighting for it (v. 25).
  • We should not be ashamed of Jesus’ words or his way (Mark 8:38).

What to do when other disciples use the sword

“While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.’ And he came up to Jesus at once and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you came to do.’ Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?’  At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples left him and fled.” -Matthew 26:47-56

What happened in this story of Jesus’ arrest still happens today. Jesus’ disciples still fight with the sword, claiming to represent or defend his cause. Like Peter they strike without first listening to Jesus. We must follow Jesus’ example here as well.

1. Tell them to Stop: The disciples show once again how clueless they are as to what is going on around them and what Jesus is up to. This becomes painfully clear when Peter actually uses his sword. Jesus is clear – don’t do this! It is enough! Put your sword away!

This is also what we must do. We must tell these disciples to put their swords away. They must learn to live according to the teaching of Jesus.

2. Teach them the way of Jesus: Jesus once again taught them. He said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (v. 52).

We must teach disciples today that those who take up the sword will die by the sword, but those who walk in the way of the cross will find their lives (Matthew 16:25).

3. Help heal the damage: After Jesus rebuked Peter for cutting off the man’s right ear, “Jesus touched (the man’s) ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51).

In the same way when others suffer violence by those who claim the name of Jesus, we should minister to their needs. In this way we preserve the true witness of Jesus before the eyes of the world.

The importance of our example

There is nothing more useless than piously talking about the way of the cross when we are not yet taking up our cross. But there is also nothing more powerful and convincing than to see it in action. This is what truly persuades others that the way of the cross is the way that God has chosen to work in the world.

This is what finally convinced Peter and the others to lay aside the sword and take up the cross – giving up their lives just as Jesus did. They saw that God overcomes evil and evildoers in this way. They saw that God vindicates those who take the cross and gives them justice. They had to see it in action in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the same way, our example of overcoming through our suffering is the best possible testimony for the way of the cross.

This may be shared with others. It may be emailed or printed in its entirety or in part, but may not be altered in any way.

William S. Higgins – 2003

A Call For Renewal

This is a call for a “Jesus renewal” in the church.

  • It is simple. We must once again put into practice the teaching of Jesus, our Lord.
  • It is also radical. For no matter what tradition or denomination we are a part of, it will require a drastic transformation.

The Church Is Adrift

The movement that Jesus of Nazareth began has spread now for many centuries. And although there has always been a faithful remnant, many who have claimed to be a part of his movement have barely understood what he is about. This is still true today:

  • We don’t know what his agenda is
  • We don’t know what his demands are
  • We don’t understand his teaching and example

We are functionally illiterate when it comes to  Jesus. Thus, we are adrift.

This is certainly the case with the church in the United States. We are divided, confused, ignorant, weak, unfaithful and bloated with wealth. We bring dishonor to the reputation of God, as unbelievers see that our actions do not line up with what we profess. So they conclude that what we profess must not amount to much; that our God must not be real or worth knowing. (Romans 2:24).

It doesn’t matter which tradition or denomination we are a part of, or if we try to escape all this by being independent – the church of Jesus needs a  reorientation.

A New Direction

The answer is not to emphasize the old continuums – Catholic or Protestant, Conservative or  Liberal. These are a distraction from the real problem because neither end of these continuums addresses the real crisis.

The answer is to go back to the foundation –  Jesus, our Lord. In the parable of the two foundations Jesus compares his teaching to the sure foundation, which, if we build on it will even  survive the storm of the final judgment (Matthew 7:24-27). This is the same foundation that Paul speaks of  in I Corinthians 3:11.  “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

What the church needs is to rediscover Jesus –

  • not just as the means of our salvation – our savior
  • not just as one whom we have a relationship with – our friend.

We need to rediscover Jesus as our teacher and guide. As Jesus himself said, “You have one teacher – the Messiah” (Matthew 23:10). It is he who instructs his church how to live and move forward with the mission he has given us. This is the way to true transformation and blessing. We can learn greater faithfulness to God, and as we gather around Jesus become more united.

This is the challenge of this call to renewal. This is a call to take Jesus seriously once again.

Our Hypocrisy

Most people in the church today do not take Jesus seriously.

  • Jesus is the Lord of all creation, we say, but we don’t actually make reference to him in terms of how we live our daily lives.
  • Jesus is our savior, but surely he did not mean for us to take his teaching literally and put it into practice.
  • Jesus sits at the right hand of God, but what he spoke in the Gospels was just for that day or just for certain people.

We marginalize Jesus even as we exalt him. We give Jesus all authority in our formulations and confession, but practically we give him no authority because he has no say in how we live our lives. This is an empty and useless authority.

In reality we follow other teachers. We make reference to other agendas; to other philosophical, cultural or theological systems. These are what actually shape how we live and how we guide the church.

Despite our words that honor Jesus as our Lord and Master, judging by the fruit of our actions, we do not take him seriously:

  • We ourselves do not actually do what he says (Luke 6:46)
  • And we do not teach others to obey everything that he has commanded (Matthew 28:20).

This can only be named for what it is – hypocrisy. Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7).

Learning Again To Take Jesus Seriously

1. Learning to take Jesus seriously requires that we hold firmly to our Lord’s authority to teach us. It means affirming that no one else has the authority to teach us that Jesus has.

His authority is rooted in his identity as the Son of God. John said, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus is the one who can make God known to us.

His authority is also rooted in his mission. God has chosen him to teach us his way. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples . . . teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus has the authority to teach us God’s way. And his authority is such that no other teacher can set it aside:

  • No teacher can add to Jesus’ teaching by making binding what is not binding in the apostolic witness. This is to exalt ourselves as the teacher alongside of Jesus (Mathew 23:8-12). This is to teach mere human commands (Mark 7:6-13). This is to go beyond the teaching of Jesus (2 John 9). Whether we do this based on the authority of the church, or of reason, of tradition, or culture – it is wrong.
  • Also, no teacher can take away from Jesus’ teaching. This directly contradicts his commission to us. We are to teach others “to observe everything that he has commanded us” (Matthew 28:20).

Not even Moses can set aside Jesus’ authority. We revere Moses but Jesus brings to completion and perfection what God revealed through him and the other prophets (the Old Testament). So Moses has authority, but Jesus is our ultimate authority (John 1:17-18; Matthew 19:7-9).

2. Learning to take Jesus seriously also means that we hold firmly to the true Jesus. There are many different versions of Jesus in the world. But it is only the Jesus that we find described in the New Testament – the apostolic Jesus – that has authority to guide us.

We do not submit ourselves to any other Jesus:

  • Not a mystical Jesus of our experience, or someone else’s experience.
  • Not a charismatic experience of Jesus by the Spirit.
  • Not an esoteric, hidden, or recently discovered Jesus, from beyond the apostolic witness.
  • Not the so-called historical Jesus which sets aside the Jesus of the apostolic witness for a speculative reconstruction based on the changing assumptions of this or that scholar.
  • Not the revisionist Jesus of progressive thinkers who see aspects of Jesus that are good and then build from there based on their own agenda.
  • Not traditionalist caricatures of Jesus that are “orthodox” but which really only serve to reinforce certain conservative cultural values.

We cannot be fooled into listening to a replacement Jesus, who is nothing more than a front that seeks to legitimize someone else’s agenda and teaching.

It is the apostolic Jesus of the New Testament texts that is the true Jesus. It is this Jesus who is our living Lord and the Master of all creation. No other so-called Jesus can claim this. No other Jesus holds authority over us. Only this Jesus.

The Real Test

Learning to take Jesus seriously means actually putting his instructions into practice. This is the real test of whether we take Jesus seriously or not. Do we obey him? Do we put his teaching into practice?

Unlike some today, who say we have to look for general principles or try to translate Jesus’ teaching into our cultural context – Jesus actually expects us to do what he said. Every bit of it. According to   Jesus, we are literally supposed to guide our daily lives and order the church according to his teaching.

  • Jesus said, “You have one teacher, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:10).
  • He said, “Let him who has ears to hear, hear” (Mark 4:23).
  • He said, “Make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
  • He said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God – and obey it” (Luke 11:28).
  • He said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them” will survive the storm of the final judgment (Matthew 7:24).

There is, of course, need for discernment to make sure that we are correctly understanding Jesus and the apostles. There is also a need for wisdom as we apply his teaching to our situations. But what Jesus has told us, he meant for us to put into practice.

So whether or not we have regard for Jesus’ authority is evidenced in how we choose to live our everyday lives and how we choose to order our church communities today. As he said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). Why do you say I have authority and then proceed to ignore what I have taught you?

The Fruit Of Renewal

As we begin to take Jesus seriously again we will find renewal.

First, we will become more united. We will not agree on everything, but we will have a common  focus – finding out what Jesus and the apostles taught and then  putting this into practice.

Second, as we begin to hear our Lord’s voice once again, we will be radically challenged to greater faithfulness to God. Our unfaithfulness will become apparent. We will not always agree on the details, but we will be moving in the same direction of greater faithfulness as we put Jesus’ teaching and example into practice.

Finally, as a result of our faithfulness, we will receive God’s blessing once again. The Spirit will rest upon us in fullness and we will know God’s favor, grace and power. We will look more like the church that we see in the New Testament –  empowered by the Spirit to accomplish God’s mission of making disciples of all peoples.

_________________

This may be shared with others. It may be emailed or printed in its entirety

or in part, but may not be altered in any way.

 

William Higgins – 2004

 

Does God’s will for us ever change? Jesus and the fulfillment of the Law of Moses

Does God’s will change?

It depends on what you mean. God’s righteousness never changes. But in the course of time, as we see in the unfolding of Scripture, God has gradually made known his will to us, culminating in the coming of Jesus.

With regard to God’s will for us this means that things change. As God’s plan advances, some behaviors that were allowed are forbidden and some behaviors that were restricted are allowed. For example with regard to food, first, humanity was to eat only vegetation; then with Noah animals were allowed; then with Moses only certain kinds of animals are allowed; then with Gentile Christians it goes back to Noah’s standard.

We will look at the so-called “moral” portions of the Law, since this is where the question is focused. Does God’s “moral” Law ever change?

Change prior to Jesus

There is a change from before the flood to Noah. For it is only with the Noahic covenant that we see God enjoining the structures of government, that include a rudimentary criminal justice system (Genesis 9:5-6). Before this there was, apparently, only personal revenge (see the Cain-Lamech story in Genesis 4).

There are two similar examples of moral change from the Patriarchs to the Law of Moses: 1) Abraham married his half sister (Genesis 20:12). Leviticus 18:9 forbids this as incest. 2) Jacob was married simultaneously to two sisters (Genesis 29:21-30). Leviticus 18:18 forbids this as incest. In the Genesis narratives there is no negative assessment of these marriages. They were allowed. Yet both of these are later called “depravity” by the Law of Moses. They are forbidden.

Jesus and change: The case of divorce and remarriage

We begin with Jesus on divorce. This is an example of change, in several ways. Jesus said, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” – Matthew 19:8. This comes from Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy 24:1. It wasn’t this way in the beginning – Genesis 2:24, but he did this, “because of your hardness of heart” – 19:8. (So this is another example of Old Testament change. Originally there was to be no divorce, but Moses changed this and allowed it.)

Jesus changes things back to God’s original intention. The text reads: “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’” -Matthew 19:3-9.

Jesus makes three significant changes: 1. Moses allowed divorce on fairly vague criteria – because of some “indecency” in the wife. Jesus, however, forbids divorce, with only one exception, if there is sexual immorality. And that because you are simply recognizing that the marriage is already broken, not breaking it through divorce.

2. Moses allowed the husband who divorced his wife (even if there was no adultery) to remarry. Jesus teaches that the husband in this case would be breaking the seventh commandment against adultery – Matthew 19:9. For if the marriage isn’t broken through adultery, he is still married to the first wife in God’s eyes. What Moses allowed, Jesus calls adultery.

3. Moses allowed polygamy. But Jesus forbids polygamy with his teaching. For if sexual union in the context of a second marriage after a wrongful divorce is adultery, then polygamy would be the same; an act of adultery against the first marriage.

So clearly, Jesus has changed the Law of Moses with regard to divorce and remarriage.

Jesus and change: The fulfillment of the Law of Moses

Jesus talks in some detail about change and how his teaching connects with the Law in Matthew 5:17-48. Jesus begins by addressing the issue of whether he was setting aside Moses with his teaching. People could see that he was saying some different things and making some new demands. So the question was naturally raised, “Is he abolishing Moses?”

Jesus responds first of all by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them . . ..”- Matthew 5:17. He is not setting aside the Law. This gets stated in more detail and in the strongest possible way in vs. 18-19, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus neither sets aside Moses nor relaxes Moses’ teaching. In fact, Jesus’ presentation of the Law is more strenuous and demanding than what the scribes and Pharisees promote, based, as it was, on the oral teaching of the Elders. He says in v. 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And this fits with the intention of Jesus. As he says in the rest of 5:17, he has come to “fulfill” the Law and the prophets. He is not abolishing the Law, but perfecting it. Again, as he says in v. 20, he is giving the exceeding righteousness of the kingdom of heaven; something that goes beyond Moses and the various interpretations of Moses in Jesus’ day. Jesus is raising the standard.

Jesus spells out three different kinds of fulfillment; three different ways in which his teaching perfects the Law without setting it aside. These examples are laid out in three sets of two, in an ascending order of apparent tension between his teaching and the Law.

I. Fulfillment as raising the standard to include smaller instances of the same sins. The basic idea in these first two examples is that some things that Moses did not mention are also wrong and will bring judgment.

1) Murder-Anger: vs. 21-26.

The Law: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder [Exodus 20:13/Deuteronomy 5:17]; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’” [Exodus 21:12, 14; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:12; Deuteronomy 17:8-9].

Jesus: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Summary of meaning: The Law says that murder is wrong and the one who does this will be judged. Jesus teaches that speaking angry words that tear another down is another form of murder and thus is also a breaking of the sixth commandment. Therefore make peace with the one whom you have offended in this way. If you don’t you will be judged.

The nature of fulfillment: This example has to do with the movement from an obvious, large sin to a less obvious or smaller example of the same evil. Those that murder are liable to judgment (the obvious). But so are those who use angry words to tear down others (the smaller, less obvious evil).

The standard is raised. Although Moses didn’t mention it, angry words are also a form of murder. So God’s standard now includes the smaller example, without contradicting the original command, since literal murder is still wrong.

2) Adultery-Lust: vs. 27-30.

The Law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” [Exodus 20:14].

Jesus: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Summary of meaning: The Law teaches that adultery is wrong. Jesus teaches that the lustful look is also a breaking of the seventh commandment. So take appropriate and radical action to make sure that you don’t lust after another person. If you don’t you will be judged.

The nature of fulfillment: This example also has to do with the movement from an obvious, large sin to a less obvious or smaller example of the same evil. God forbids adultery (the obvious). But God also forbids something as small as the lustful look, which is also adultery (the smaller, less obvious evil).

The standard is raised. Although Moses doesn’t mention it, the lustful look is also a form of adultery. So God’s standard now includes the smaller example, without contradicting the original command, since literal adultery is still wrong.

II. Fulfillment as raising the standard by forbidding practices that were allowed by the Law. In these two examples we see that some things that Moses allowed are actually wrong according to Jesus.

3) Divorce and remarriage: vs. 31-32.

The Law: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” [Deuteronomy 24:1].

Jesus: “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Summary of meaning: The Law never commands divorce but it does allow it. Jesus, however, no longer allows it, except in the case of sexual immorality. This means that now if you divorce and remarry on any basis other than immorality, you are breaking the seventh commandment against adultery. In the background here is the concern, stated in Matthew 19:4-6, that this practice goes against God’s original intention for marriage as seen in Genesis 2:24.

The nature of fulfillment: The standard is raised in that the Mosaic allowance of divorce and remarriage is greatly restricted.

4) Swearing oaths: vs. 33-37.

The Law: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not break your oath, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’” [Numbers 30:2].

Jesus: “But I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Summary of meaning: The Law did not command the swearing of promissory oaths, that is, making commitments by swearing an oath. They are allowed in order to promote integrity, the motivation being that if you don’t come through on your oath, you will come under God’s judgment. Jesus, however, no longer allows this kind of oath – with God’s name or any substitutes for God’s name. You are simply to keep your word. In the background here is the concern that since we can’t always come through on our promises (“you cannot make one hair white or black”) we should not invoke God’s holy name. To do so is to risk taking it in vain.

The nature of fulfillment: The standard is raised in that the Mosaic allowance of promissory oaths is rescinded.

III. Fulfillment as raising the standard by taking into account the intent and trajectory of the Law and moving it to its completion. In these last two examples we see that some things that Moses commanded don’t go far enough.

5) Nonresistance: vs. 38-42.

The Law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” [Exodus 21:23-25; Deuteronomy 19:15-21; Leviticus 24:17-21].

Jesus: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who demands from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Summary of meaning: The Law says that those who harm others are to be harmed in return, in a proportional way. Jesus specifically applies this to the context of oppression – suffering under evil authorities, where you would return the harm of rebellion for the harm of oppression. Jesus forbids this and commands us to endure the oppression.

The nature of fulfillment: Moses commanded an “eye for an eye” to restrict retaliation. It moves people from unlimited retaliation to limited retaliation. But it nevertheless does command proportional retaliation.

According to Jesus, this restriction doesn’t go far enough. There should be no retaliation. (Again, Jesus is focusing here on resistance to evil authorities, a specific instance of retaliation). So fulfillment means raising the standard from proportional retaliation to no retaliation.

Jesus does this by taking into account the intent and trajectory of the “eye for an eye” command, which is to restrict retaliation. There is movement away from retaliation in the Law and Jesus completes this movement. An “eye for an eye” is not abolished or relaxed, it is fulfilled. Its limitation of retaliation is heightened so that now there is to be no retaliation.

6) Love of enemies: vs. 43-48.

The Law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor [Leviticus 19:18] and hate your enemy.’” [Deuteronomy 23:6].

Jesus: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Summary of meaning: The Law says, you must love your neighbor, but it restricts this to fellow Israelites, and in some cases commands hatred of the enemy who is not an Israelite. Jesus commands us to love even our enemies.

The nature of fulfillment: In the Law, “love your neighbor” was meant to increase the circle of those who are loved – not just your family or clan or tribe – but all of Israel. But it doesn’t include national enemies and hatred of them is commanded in some cases.

According to Jesus, this doesn’t go far enough. The love command must apply to everyone. So fulfillment means raising the standard from limited neighbor love to loving all people, including enemies.

Jesus does this by taking into account the intent and trajectory of the command – “love your neighbor,” which is to increase the circle of those who are loved. Jesus thus expands it to all people. There is a movement toward increasing the scope of the love command in the Law, and Jesus completes this movement. “Love your neighbor” is not abolished or relaxed, it is fulfilled. Its limitation to certain people so that some can be hated is removed so that now all are to be loved.

Conclusion: The logic of fulfillment. Although there is variation in the manner of fulfillment in these three sets of cases, and in other instances in the New Testament, the logic is always the same. Jesus changes some things. But he does not abolish the Law, he always fulfills it. Jesus always raises the standard. And he always does so in a way that, if looked at closely, is in harmony with the Mosaic Law.

Jesus, the perfect revelation of God’s will

God’s plan has gradually unfolded through time. But it has reached its culmination in the coming of Jesus. He is the final and complete revelation of God’s will for us. And as such he takes precedence over Moses. The New Testament makes this point in several ways:

The Son has unique access to the Father: John says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” John 1:17-18.

The Son has more authority than mere servants: Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he created all the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being . . .” The writer goes on to say that we should pay even more attention to what the Son says, than what Moses and others have said – Hebrews 2:1-4. He also says, “Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy ‘on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ How much worse a punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God . . .?” – Hebrews 10:28-29.

With the coming of Jesus a new age has begun and so his message takes priority: Jesus said, “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is proclaimed . . .” Luke 16:16. This refers to Jesus’ message and teaching.

Jesus’ words last forever, Moses’ do not: Jesus said this about the Law, “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” – Matthew 5:18. The Law will remain only until the end of the world. But concerning his own words he states, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Luke 21:33. His words will continue in force on into the full revelation of the Kingdom of God and for eternity.

Jesus is our one teacher: Jesus said, “You have one teacher, the Messiah” -Matthew 23:10. He makes know to us the right way to read Moses and indeed raises the standard of the teaching of Moses. And it is his teaching that we proclaim and teach to the world. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” -Matthew 28:19-20.

This too is in harmony with the Law

It was foretold that when the Messiah came, he would teach the people and they should listen to whatever he says. He is to be a second Moses. Moses said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen.” – Deuteronomy 18:15. The Lord said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” – Deuteronomy 18:18.

This is who Jesus is (Acts 3:22; 7:37). He has spoken out the words that the Lord has given him – v. 18. And just as Moses said, “it is to him you shall listen.” – v. 15.

William Higgins