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Heaven help the person who is just starting the Gay Posts. We’ve covered a lot of territory. Time to ask the big question: Could I be wrong? In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Quite easily, I should think.” Anyone who holds my current view of homosexuality as it relates to Christian faith is bucking the traditional view held throughout much of church history. That alone ought to give a person pause. Add on the obvious bias I have in that I am gay and stand to benefit from a pro-gay God.
Of course, as we’ve seen previously, the issue of bias affects us all (read my post, “Sorry, but we are all biased”). The heterosexual anti-homosexuality Christian has every bit as much bias working on him from the opposite direction. We cannot eliminate biases. We can only try to control for them so that they do not unduly influence our decisions. Admitting our biases is the first step, so I fully acknowledge mine. I also acknowledge, as I have before, that I am not certain I am right. How could I be? Among my main points in the Gay Posts has been that I don’t think the Scriptures are crystal clear on the matter, so I’m having to set a course in the absence of a perfectly obvious path.
And then there’s the problem of the pendulum. Any time a person’s view on a critical matter changes as sharply and swiftly (if two year’s time is swift) as mine has, you have to wonder if it at some point there will be a correction. When will the pendulum swing back the other way? It’s possible I’ll return to the subject five or ten years from now, thinking, “What is this drivel I’ve written?” But I feel that corrections of that sort usually happen because the person made a huge shift in their beliefs without thinking things through. No one could possibly accuse me of that. So, yes, a pendulum correction is possible, but not likely, I think.
Bottom line, I could be wrong, and probably am on at least some of my points. With as much ground as we’ve covered, I’d think that’s almost a certainty. Maybe my definition of sexual immorality is off. Maybe my standard for determining what is sin and what isn’t is off. Maybe arsenokoitai means just what the NIV translators think. Maybe, for reasons unbeknownst to us, God simply is nauseated by homosexuality. It’s possible. There are things that sicken me for which I cannot give a reason. I simply don’t like them, and that is that.
I could be wrong, so what are the consequences if I am? Perhaps a better question to ask is, what are the consequences for the two sides in the disagreement, since one is wrong, and since it stands to reason there would be consequences for whichever side is.
First, I have to think grace holds, regardless. I find no scriptural reason for thinking ignorance and wrong-thinking are unforgiveable sins. They aren’t blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, after all. They aren’t unbelief. They are imperfect belief. They are just “getting it wrong.” Unfortunate, but not unforgiveable. Despite the suggestion of some, I am not simply trying to justify sin. I’m trying to understand. If my understanding is wrong, my position as a son of God is secure, if grace is in fact full and free. The same for you, whatever your view of homosexuality. But what about more temporal consequences?
If gay relationships are not biblically sound, nothing much changes for my having been in one and advocated for them. No one has been hurt, as far as I can tell. I’ve seen no evidence that gay relationships negatively affect society.
If, on the other hand, I maintain that God is or may be offended even by gay relationships that are marked by sacrificial love and commitment, when in fact he is not offended by them, the temporal consequences are pretty terrible. I would be guilty of A) speaking falsely about God, B) putting people under a harsh law of lifelong loneliness that God never intended they live under, C) contributing to a mindset that feeds oppression in the form of ballot initiatives outlawing same-sex marriage and other rights, D) fueling self-hatred in gay adolescents trying to come to terms with their differentness, and E) adding to the already-damaged reputation of the church and the Gospel throughout the world.
And what about the practical matters of gays in the church? What would I do when a gay couple with kids comes to my church and wants to serve? Am I really going to tell them no because it’s possible their relationship displeases God, but I can’t be sure because there’s a dispute among theologians as to how exactly to translate arsenokoitai and how exactly to interpret Romans 1, and so, just to be safe, maybe they should divorce their spouse and break up their family, and then they can serve? If I’m not going to say that, what is my reason? If I really think they might be living in sin, don’t I have to tell them that before letting them lead in the church? And if you would say, “Well, a gay couple with kids would never come to my church anyway,” I hope that keeps you up at night.
The risks and consequences exist regardless which path you take in this debate since either path could be wrong. While I humbly and fully acknowledge the possibility that I’m wrong, good common sense and the Scriptures, unclear as they may be on the issue, seem on the side of accepting gay relationships that are marked by the same self-sacrifice and commitment that we look for in a heterosexual relationship. If I am wrong, God knows I am sincerely wrong, having thought this thing to death. I remain ready to reverse my thinking if God tells me to, if new information I hadn’t considered comes to my attention. For now, I’ve exhausted what I can know about the matter, and this is where I stand.
Over the course of the Gay Posts, I’ve received a couple similar responses from folks I know, people who once were my good friends, many, many years ago. The most recent comment said, “I guess if one tried hard enough they could explain away and justify adultery, lying, murder …” The not-so-veiled suggestion, of course, is that I’m simply trying to justify my sin. I couldn’t possibly have a good motive in what I’m attempting with these posts, and somehow the person making the comment knows this. Another previous comment was even more pointed. It said, “When you’re done justifying your sin, I’d like you tell me how I can justify my lust because that’s easier than repenting.”
These responses are so shocking they literally take my breath away for a moment when I first read them. It’s not just the awfulness of the comments. It’s that I know these people! They’re people I went to college with. We prayed together. Worshipped together. Laughed and enjoyed life together. Now, this is all that remains because one of us took a non-traditional view of a moral issue. These comments, while more shocking when coming from “friends,” would be totally inappropriate for any Christian.
They are arrogant.
Somehow the authors of these statements are blessed in their own minds with an ability to know my true motives in writing these posts, and to know that those motives are evil. They are able to tell what even my closest friends cannot. They know that I am simply justifying my sin. And they know this, having had no contact with me in years. They know this, having not sat beside me a single day as I poured over thousands of pages on the culture and context of Scripture. And they know this, having had not a single conversation with anyone who has walked with me in the last ten years of life. If they had, they would know or at least strongly suspect that my motives are better than that.
They are unkind.
Even if you thought someone was simply justifying their sin, would it ever be appropriate to respond in a snarky manner? When Paul encountered people living in sin, his response was not, “Hey, let me hop on Facebook and see what clever retort I can fire off.” Instead, he wrote, “I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame” (Philippians 3:18-19, emphasis, mine). Paul was clear about what he saw as the final destiny of such people, but he wasn’t happy about it. He wasn’t vengeful or rude, either. He was sad. He was grieved. He wept! He certainly didn’t make nasty, unkind comments. How is that going to turn anyone? Paul said, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25-26, emphasis, mine).
And even as I write this, I am painfully aware of my own cheeky attacks I’ve made in the past which I’ve fired off in anger or self-righteous zeal, reaping a quick hit of dopamine at my clever turn of phrase—and grieving God’s heart in the process. For these moments of selfish pleasure, I repent.
My last post was all about how one determines what instruction in the Bible is cultural (not intended for all times) and what is eternal (unchanging). I said, “It’s not as simple as one might think–or hope.” A few days later, I received this comment:
“It is simple … you just have to believe what God says in His Word and quit believing everything the world tells you is moral. We are in the last days of this age and the Bible says that in those days, good will be called evil and evil will be called good. Just use your good common sense.”
My first reaction is to want to beat my head against a wall, but that would hurt, and the reader who posted the comment no doubt was sincere and meant well. Also, the comment is a very common response in the Bible-belted south, where many of my readers find themselves, so I guess we should talk about it.
“It is simple … just believe what God says in His Word …” Of course this comment came without any “simple” instructions on how to answer the questions I raised in my last post. How do you determine which of the many things the Bible says are for today and which aren’t? Should women wear head coverings to church “because of the angels”? The Bible says so. Should women be silent in the church because Eve was the one first deceived, not Adam? The Bible says so. Is it “disgraceful” for a man to have long hair? Doesn’t “the very nature of things” tell us so? The Bible certainly does. If you’re going to set these commands aside, as do most churches, including (I assume) the church the commenter attends, we ought to have a reason, don’t you think? Or is it just as “simple” as believing what God says in His Word? If it is, well, ladies, get out your doilies.
“… Quit believing everything the world tells you is moral.” As though it were only “the world” telling me gay is okay. As if I’m so shallow and unthinking as to have based my beliefs on what Lady Gaga says. It’s a tad condescending. Unintentionally, perhaps, but condescending nonetheless. To think that I have the Bible figured out and others who have a different take on things are just “believing everything the world tells you is moral.” Most, if not all, of the books I read on the topic of Christian faith and homosexuality during my two years of study were written by committed Christians who were members (and often leaders) in the church. Their arguments were based on their understanding of Scripture, not the moral whims of contemporary culture. Most of my arguments here in these blog posts have been based on my understanding of the Bible, not my opinions of what today’s culture thinks. There are many issues Christians disagree over, not because they’ve been hanging out in Hollywood too long, but because they honestly, in good faith, cannot see eye to eye over the Bible. Pope Santorum and fellow Catholics think the use of condoms is immoral. Clearly, God gave us sex for procreation, so to intentionally thwart that process is sinful. At the other end of the spectrum, protestants regularly have vasectomies. They and the Fellowship of the Snip-snip see sex in Scripture as more than a procreative process. For them, sex is a beautiful picture of the two-made-one and a legitimate expression for husband and wife even when they do not wish to have children. People of both opinions get their beliefs from the Bible (and their condoms from Walgreens). It’s just not as simple as “quit believing everything the world tells you is moral.” Sometimes the confusion is homegrown. It’s origin is in the church, in the Bible, and “the world” is just a scapegoat.
“We are in the last days of this age and the Bible says that in those days, good will be called evil and evil will be called good.” I think that’s a pretty good description of all days, not just the last days. But how do you determine what is evil and what is good? Follow the Old Testament’s laws? Paul says we’re not under them anymore. Follow the apostles’ instructions? Again, ladies, the doilies, please. Love God and love people, then? I think that’s probably about right, but then why would a gay relationship be a problem if it is marked by sacrificial love and commitment?
“Just use your good common sense.” What would be the need of common sense if “the world” were always wrong and the church always right (and the Bible always clear)? The commenter seems to have unwittingly conceded in the last sentence that indeed things are not always as simple as “just believe,” and that indeed common sense judgement is often necessary to distinguish between good and evil.
Hopefully, I have displayed good common sense here in these posts. If the fruit from the traditional stance on homosexuality is bad, and I think it is; if the scriptures are unclear on the matter, as I think they are; if same-sex couples are coming to Christ and bringing their kids with them; if same-sex relationships are at least as healthy as opposite-sex relationships (and I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary); if no demonstrable harm has come to states and cultures where gay marriage has been embraced–then perhaps our view on the matter needs to shift.
Of course, I could be wrong. Despite all my reading and thinking on the matter, despite my best efforts at exercising good common sense, I may be just plain wrong. What then? We’ll chat again soon.
How do you determine what in the Bible is a cultural principle (meaning it applies to the culture the author was addressing, but not necessarily to us) and what is a moral principle (meaning it applies always, in every culture)? It’s not as simple as one might think–or hope. Take the whole women in ministry issue. Or, heck, just take women in the church, period. The apostle Paul certainly says some difficult and, to our 21st century ears, downright offensive things on the topic.
1 CORINTHIANS 14
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
It isn’t just wrong for women to speak in church, the apostle says. It is “disgraceful.” Sounds an awful lot like the language Paul used in Romans 1. So why do some think Paul is making a cultural argument here, but not there? Some have argued that because women were uneducated in Paul’s day, he wanted them not to disrupt the service by constantly asking questions of their husbands when they could just wait till they got home, but there is nothing in the passage to indicate this. It’s pure speculation. And why would asking a question out of ignorance be “disgraceful”? Seems a little harsh if all Paul was worried about was disruption of a service. And anyway, this is not the only passage wherein Paul speaks of the woman’s need for submission and silence.
1 TIMOTHY 2
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
Here Paul gives us a little insight into his reasoning on the matter of women in the church, and what he gives us is not a cultural argument, but a moral argument, suggesting that he thinks what he is saying applies to all cultures in all times. So why do many churches, including many theologically conservative churches, say this passage, which contains no cultural argument, is culturally bound and therefore not applicable to us today, while Romans 1, loaded as it is with cultural clues about idol worship and Roman sexual practices, still applies?
Some have argued that because we find exceptions to the rule in Scripture, times when Paul commends women deacons and possibly even a female elder, that Paul could not have been laying down a moral principle, but merely a cultural one that is not always binding. Exceptions, however, do not usually negate rules. And if the point then is that Paul may be speaking culturally even when he uses a moral argument as the basis of his instruction, how then can anyone say that Romans 1 is definitely binding for all times when Paul has filled that passage with cultural clues that would suggest otherwise? It’s just not consistent.
And what about those pesky head coverings?
1 CORINTHIANS 11
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
Here Paul at least acknowledges that man is not independant of woman, for both came from God, but his conclusion remains the same, that a woman should be in submission. If she is not going to shave her head, which for some reason would be a disgrace (that word again), then she should have her head covered. Paul’s reason? “Because of the angels,” whatever that means. Whatever it means, it sounds like a theological, or moral, argument, and not a cultural argument. Paul seems to be saying that because of the very nature of things, the very structure of the unseen world, a woman should have her head covered. Paul even adds, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God.” This was not just the practice of a church, but the church. And you’ll find no exceptions mentioned anywhere in the Bible. So why do so few women grab a doily on the way out the door to church on Sunday?
It is, of course, possible that Paul is simply talking about hair length, that a woman with long hair has a natural head covering, so the doily would be superfluous, a head covering for the head covering. Either way, the point and the result remain because we do not enforce hair length standards in most of our churches today. But why? We somehow concluded this passage doesn’t apply to us today. How? And why would a blanket prohibition against even the most loving of gay relationships apply, even though, as we’ve seen, such a prohibition is anything but clear in Scripture?
What is your consistent standard for determining what does and does not still apply to Christians today? How do you decide what is merely cultural teaching that we may do away with, and what is moral teaching that we should ever enforce?
I would argue that the only consistent standard you will find in Scripture is the principle of love. Is “X” loving toward my neighbor, for the entire Law is fulfilled in keeping just the one command to love your neighbor as yourself (Galations 5:14). And the fruit should speak for whether “X” is loving or not. If the fruit is bad, probably not. If the fruit is good, then what’s the problem? As Jesus said, “Wisdom is proved right by her children” (Luke 7:35).
If you disagree with my standard, with what would you replace it that is more consistent?
Some folks have taken issue with my standard for determining what is and isn’t pleasing to God, what is and isn’t sin. Some folks feel I have neglected the first commandment—love God—for the second—love people, so let’s look at it.
Twice that I know of Paul says the Law is fulfilled in one command: Love your neighbor as yourself. Just that one command. Obviously Paul is not excluding the first command to love God. For Paul, the first command is implied in the second.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
“Whatever other command there may be” is included in the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.
“This one command …” In some way, Paul seems to believe that to love God is to love people.
The apostle John also sees a strong correlation between the two. He says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives”—for him? No, “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). To love God, to show gratitude to him for how he has loved us, is to love people in the same way. The love of God is implied and fulfilled in the love of people.
Where did John and Paul get this? I think they got it from simply observing Jesus, John in person and Paul in retrospect. Jesus lived during a time when religious folks like the Pharisees were obsessed with doing all the right things to prove they loved God. They had rules, rules, and more rules to ensure they loved God really well and didn’t do anything that might offend him.
Jesus wasn’t impressed.
In all the Pharisees’ efforts to love God, they had neglected to love people, and thus had failed at loving either people or God. Jesus told a parable one day to illustrate this. He spoke of a king who separated the good people from the bad, the sheep from the goats.
41 “Then [the king] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Dang. The most religious, the most apparently in love with God, had failed the most at loving God because they had failed at loving people. These were the pure! These were the devoted, the faithful, the in-synagogue-every-Sabbath. These were the ones who, in Jesus’ words, traveled over land and sea to make a single covert, only to make him twice the son of hell that they were. They did not love people, so they did not love God. The first command is implied, and therefore fulfilled in keeping, the second: Love your neighbor as yourself.
This is why Paul could say with confidence, “whatever other command there may be”—all is fulfilled in keeping just that one command, to love people. And that is why I feel I can confidently say that whatever does not promote love of people is sin, and whatever does is not. This applies to homosexuality as much as to anything else.
Incidentally, I also think this “love of people” command is the only truly consistent standard for separating the eternal principles from those that are merely cultural, both in the new testament and the old. And that is where we shall head next.
I once was skeptical of people who talked too much about the love of God. Love this, love that. As a friend of mine says, it all sounded a bit too “hippie-liberal.” Where in such talk was the judgment and justice of God? Where was his wrath? His anger for sin? These are certainly aspects of God’s character, too. One can hardly believe the Bible and not acknowledge this. But one can just as hardly read the Bible for very long without seeing how often love comes up. Jesus talks about it:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34 – 35).
Paul talks about it:
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10).
“… Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
And, of course, John:
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
God is not merely loving. He is love itself. He is so utterly defined by love that it is fair and accurate to simply say he is love. Then, in the absence of any written Law—for again, we have been freed from the Old Testament’s demands in the Mosaic Law (Galatians 5:1)—love is the goal, since that is God’s nature, and sin would be anything that violates or opposes that nature.
I assume that would go for sexual sin as well. When I worked in college ministry, I’d get questions sometimes from students that went something like this: “How far can we go? At what point are we sinning? Can I touch her breasts but not her … well, you know?” Such questions are missing the point because they seek a law (perhaps the Law?), but the only law is love because “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). “God is love,” so what is the most loving thing I can do in any situation, sexually or otherwise? That is the only question that matters because “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
I have a friend who decided to have sex before marriage. He and his fiancé talked about this and decided it was best. They talked with their spiritual mentor, and he agreed. You see, my friend is primarily attracted to men but had decided to marry a woman. He was completely upfront about this with his then-girlfriend (and eventually fiancé and wife). While primarily attracted to men, he was attracted to his girlfriend and wanted to marry her, for good reasons, I think, which I won’t get into here. But could he have sex with her? More the point, could he have sex with her and it be truly her he was making love to, not the images of men he had stored up in his mind over the years? If he couldn’t, and they didn’t discover that until after they’d said “I do,” she might be in for a long and sexually unfulfilling life with plenty of bitter self-examination: “Am I not desirable? Maybe if I were just a little prettier? What is wrong with me?” And on and on. Rather than potentially put his eventual wife through that, my friend decided it was best for them to have sex before marriage. She agreed, and that was that.
Did my friend violate some rule about sex before marriage? Maybe, but he did the most loving thing he knew to do, and so I have to think he fulfilled the intent of the Law, if not the letter—NOT because he had to (it can’t be said enough: we are free from the Law in Christ), but because God is love, and “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:12).
My friend’s story stands in contrast to the man who simply wants sex without a commitment, who pressures a woman to go all the way when she really doesn’t want to and isn’t ready to. I suspect that man doesn’t really love a woman. He loves sex. Certainly he loves himself, but he is oceans away from both Jesus and Paul. “Love is not self-seeking … it always protects” (1 Cor. 13). The man who will not wait for no other reason than he doesn’t want to, sins, I think, even in the absence of any Law, for he is violating the nature of God, which is self-sacrificing love.
Sexual sin is the same as any sin in that it is and seeks the opposite of love. It is self-seeking rather than self-sacrificing.
Yes, this approach leaves us open to self-deception. We may tragically distort what love is. We may convince ourselves something we want is okay to have right this second because we really, really want it, even though it’s not best for us or for someone else who will be affected by our getting what we want. But grace is always open to abuse, intentional or otherwise. When there is no law, when we are free to figure things out with the help of the Spirit, there always exists the possibility we’ll get it wrong. But seriously, read the Old Testament. Even with an extremely thorough, detailed Law, people got it wrong all the time, so it isn’t clear that a set of rules makes life any easier.
What, then, is sexual sin? I would think it is any sexual behavior that seeks only its own good at the expense of what is best for another. Sexual sin is selfish rather than loving. Sex with children will always be sinful because it manipulates the emotions and uses the bodies of vulnerable people for one’s own selfish lust. Adultery will always be sinful because it is taking sexually what is not yours to take, doing great harm to relationships.
But homosexuality? If two people love each other and sacrificially choose to serve each other for life, for better or worse, in sickness and in health—how does this violate the nature of God which is love? This, the context of the passages that mention homosexuality in the New Testament, and an understanding of first century pagan sexual practices (which often involved prostitution and sex with minors), is why I suspect Paul is condemning some abusive or exploitive nature of homosexuality in his culture, and not mutually loving and respectful gay relationships in ours. If sexual sin—if sin, in general—is anything selfish and unloving, then it seems to me that it’s simply not honest to make blanket condemnations of homosexuality when nothing about gay sex is inherently unloving.
If I am dead to the Law, does that then mean I can do anything I want? After all, if I am free from the Law, then nothing is against the Law. Paul got this question a lot, it seems. The Gospel is always open to this accusation, if it is in fact the Gospel. If the Good News doesn’t sound a little too good, it’s probably not the Good News at all. I know I’ve struggled often with actually believing and then asserting that we are truly and completely free from the Law and its demands. It just sounds too simple, too good, and too open to abuse: someone might say, “Well, then, anything goes! Do whatever you want because you’re ‘free’ in Christ.”
Not so fast, Paul says.
1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? …
10 The death [Christ] died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires … 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
But again, what is sin if there is no Law? What is against the Law in the absence of a Law? Another way of asking this is to say, what pleases God and what does not?
I go back to what Jesus said about the Law before we died to it, before he fulfilled it perfectly. He said,
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
If the Law and the Prophets are summed up in two “simple” commands to love, then I assume God’s heart is that we love him and love people even in the absence of any Law. What this does is free me from thumbing through the Old Testament’s nearly-innumerable commands and prohibitions, trying to figure out which ones still apply and which don’t. I can simply approach each decision in my life with one question: Is the action I’m about to take loving toward God and people? Am I hurting anyone with what I’m doing? Am I offending God? And what seems to offend God most is how we mistreat people, which probably is why Paul sees the greatest commandment implied in the second:
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh [flesh here refers to a power in opposition to the Spirit of God, not literal human flesh; Paul often used the term flesh this way]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.
For Paul, there is only one command: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If you do that, you’ll be pleasing (loving) God, so the first and greatest command is implied in the second.
He says this even more sharply in Romans, his great treatise on the Gospel.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
“Whatever other command there may be …” The sum of the whole thing and the final word is, love.
So, can we simply cut loose now that we are free from the Law. Nope. Paul says we were called to be free, but never free from love. Love is the one command that never dies. We are under grace, thankfully, for we fail at love constantly, but love is the goal.
Again, then, I am free from picking and choosing from the Old Testament Law to please God (this never really was an option anyway; how much less so now that we are dead to the Law?). I am free now to ask myself one simple question in each and every life situation: Is this a loving action? Am I doing to my neighbor what I would want him or her to do to me? If not, it is sin, for whatever is not loving is against the Law, even in the absence of any law.
It ought to be obvious by now how I suspect Paul would answer the question, what is sexual sin, why I think gay relationships are not inherently sinful, and why I think malakoi and arsenokoitai must speak to some abusive aspect of the homosexual conduct Paul witnessed, and not simply to homosexual relationships in general. But we’ll talk more about it on the morrow. Don’t y’all go nowhur, now!
So what do we do with the Law? I think Paul would say, “Die to it!” And if you are a Christian—that is, if you are “in Christ”—he would say you already have! You are dead to the Law, and it is dead to you. Period.
1 Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? 2 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. 3 So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.
4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
This is the message throughout Romans and throughout the New Testament. You are dead to the Law. You are no longer “married” to it. When Jesus died, you died, if in fact you are in him. And if you are, then you are no longer bound by that old Law to which you died. There is a new way of living.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
We are justified, made right with God, by grace and apart from the works of the law. Period. You cannot mix the two, grace and law. You cannot say, well, yes, we need Christ for salvation, but also our own good works. For, not only are you dead to the law, but …
10 … All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us …
The Law does not contain (nor has it ever contained) a pick and choose option. If you choose to remain married to the old Law instead of to Christ—if you choose to trust your ability to obey the Law versus his, your righteousness instead of his which comes to you by faith—then you are obligated to keep all of the Law, and to keep it continually and perfectly. And that means you are doomed. Destined to fail. Under a curse.
Paul and James sound very different in their letters, but on this point they are singing the same tune.
10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
When someone points to a verse in Leviticus as reason why homosexuality is an abomination, I like to take them on a trip through the letters of Paul and James. Things don’t end well for the person who insists on keeping the Law. A curse is a heavy thing to bear. You must keep the entire Law to succeed at keeping any of it. So Paul says, forget it! Let go of it! You are dead to it anyway and have taken on another “spouse,” Jesus. And if you insist on mixing obedience to the Law with faith in Christ, you make Christ of no value to you because he died to free you from that very Law.
1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised [according to the Law], Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
So forget the Law. Let it go. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
It seems that we have a choice. Either the Law shall be of no value to us, or Christ shall be of no value to us. Take your pick.
But what is sin, then, if not a violation of the Law? Does being free from the Law mean we can just cut loose? What is sexual sin? What do I do if I’m honestly just not sure what God thinks about homosexuality? Y’all come back now, yuh hear?
The apostle Paul said it best, I think. “The Law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Timothy 1:8, emphasis, mine). IF one uses it properly. And people before and since have been debating how exactly one does that. During Jesus’ time on earth, the Pharisees thought they had this figured out, as do some churches today. The Law says what it says. We should do what it says. If we would do what it says, God would be pleased, and pleased to send the Messiah. Strict obedience to and enforcement of the Law would garner God’s approval.
Jesus seemed to disagree. Strongly. The Messiah was already among the Pharisees, though they couldn’t (wouldn’t?) recognize him, and Jesus appears to say that strict obedience to the Law had led to unjust treatment of the “innocent.” (Remember, the “innocent” were technically guilty of violating the Law concerning the Sabbath. See my post, “Homosexuality: Jesus on the Law”.) Unless I’m misunderstanding Jesus, if there is ever a choice between sacrifice and mercy, between obedience and mercy, mercy wins. “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “’I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). So a strict enforcement of the letter of the Law does not seem to be a proper use of the good Law, and it does not seem to bring God’s approval.
Jesus could say this because of how he viewed the Law as a whole. He says in Matthew 22,
37 … “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Again, I’ve added the italics. What a radical statement! ALL of the Law and EVERYTHING the Prophets preached—all of it; every single bit of it—hang on fulfilling two “simple” commands: Love God; love people. Any use of the Law that does not promote these two things is not a proper use of the Law—hence why Jesus could say those who’d technically broken the Sabbath Law were innocent, and hence why I think the commands in Leviticus concerning male homosexuality, and the terms malakoi and arsenokoitai in the New Testament, must refer to some abusive or exploitive aspect of homosexuality. A strict prohibition against even loving gay relationships does not seem to promote love of God or mercy toward people. A prohibition against slavery, prostitution and religious sex rites would.
But anyone who’s tried fulfilling even those two “simple” commands—love God, love people—knows how simple they are not. I like how Paul puts it in Romans 7.
“I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting … Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good [i.e., the Law] to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”
So the Law, far from helping us love God and love people, only serves to show us how incapable we are of successfully doing either! We don’t love God, not very well anyway. And we don’t love people, particularly when those people are people we don’t like very much.
Basically, the Law points out our failure. It doesn’t help us live well. It doesn’t help us love. And if we’re not loving, then I think Jesus would say we’ve missed the whole point of the law in the first place, for ALL the law and the prophets hang on the two commands to love.
So this Law that is good accomplishes nothing good in us. Why then do some insist on turning the Law into a rule book for life and then judging how good we are by how well we succeed at the law? That is a recipe for misery and self-loathing, for the law only points out how utterly awful we can sometimes be. No wonder Paul says all who depend on the law are “under a curse” (Galatians 3:10)! His words, not mine. If you insist on trying to keep the strict letter of the law to gain approval from God or to simply be a good person, and if you insist on others doing the same, you are under a curse, and you are putting others under a curse. Could that be why Jesus said one day to the Pharisees,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).
I wonder how many of our churches are worthy of such a rebuke.
One of my favorite contemporary authors is Andrew Farley. He has a passion for Christians understanding their freedom from having to futilely try keeping the law. (And in case you’re wondering, Farley is not in favor of gay relationships, so I am not getting my theology only from people who agree with me on this issue.) Farley says Christians should have “no relationship with the law.” No relationship at all. That sounds outrageous, and outrageously far from what some churches teach. It also sounds, at least to me, very much like what the apostle Paul taught, and so in the next Gay Post, we’ll look further at what Paul said concerning the Law.
I received an email from a reader. It reminded me of questions I said we were going to address:
“‘We have some serious questions to consider: what then does the Bible mean by sexual immorality? What sexual behavior is acceptable to God and what isn’t, given that the passages on homosexuality are unclear at best? What was Jesus’ approach to applying the Old Testament Law to our New Testament reality? What is sin if not the violation of a hard and fast rule that always and continually says ‘no’? And for me, and for all gay Christians, if the Scriptures aren’t crystal clear on how we should view and respond to our sexuality, how do we proceed in life? Much to discuss as we continue on from here.’”
The email went on,
“I think about these issues a lot and I was wondering if I had missed any further writing you had done on this particular subject, concerning the subject of sexual immorality as a whole. Having struggled with sexual sin for most of my adulthood, I find it a difficult subject to seek support for within Christian groups … In the past, I have had … Christian peers shun me or treat me with disdain upon discovering my lack of purity.”
I appreciate the email. I do intend to give my take on all the questions above. In fact, I had every intention of doing that this week, but the week has been quite busy. Good, but busy. You should listen to WDAV.org this Sunday afternoon at 5:00 EST. I’ll be hosting “Reel Music: At the Oscars.” We’ll sample music from this year’s nominees for Best Original Score, and I’ll play some Oscar-winning favorites from years past. Seriously, you should listen, even if you think I’ve lost my mind with this gay stuff. It’ll be fun.
But about that busy week … Things have finally slowed down, so I was going to write today, but I’m soooo sleeeepy. Ever had a day where you just can’t wake up? You feel like you’re walking around in a mind fog? All your thinking is fuzzy? Yeah, well, that’s me today. Not exactly the proper frame of mind to attempt blogging about such ultimate questions as, oh I don’t know, WHAT IS SIN? Or, what is it that makes sex in some contexts immoral? Or, if we’re dead to the Old Testament Law, as Paul says we are, why do some insist I still follow its requirements? And if I don’t have to follow its rules, then, well, back to the beginning: WHAT IS SIN?
Ah, so many good questions. Unfortunately, my brain went walking through a poppy field this morning, and I just shouldn’t attempt writing today. Soon, I promise. Soon.
Thanks for checking in and reading these posts. I’m thankful for anyone who will take the time and exercise the humility to consider anew these ultimate questions. They matter. A lot.