Gentiles, Homosexuality, and Grace in the Body of Christ

We must carefully listen to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who confess faith in the gospel.

As the church wrestles with whether women and men who practice homosexuality ought to be embraced into the full life of the church, it is important to remember that the church has struggled with questions of membership from the very beginning. The primary conflict in the life of the early church had to do with another question: Should Gentiles, who do not keep the mosaic law, be received into the fellowship of the body of Christ?

The church embraced believing Gentiles, but only after an intense conflict that featured breaches of fellowship (between Peter and Paul, among others), intense argument (Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans, among others), and even a major church council (the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15). It took testimonies of special revelation (Peter’s visions in Acts 10), indisputable signs of the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles (Acts 10-11), and careful study of Old Testament prophetic texts to determine that the Spirit was indeed calling believing Gentiles and believing Jews to be united in one body.

In the end, the apostles determined that to deny Gentiles membership in the body of Christ was to deny the gospel. It was to commit the heresy of saying that salvation comes by the law rather than by grace through faith.

Should the church use the same process of discernment to determine whether or not to receive our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends, and family members into full church membership?

It is an important question because nothing less than the graciousness of the gospel is at stake. To exclude a gospel-believing person from the church because she is same-sex attracted is to abandon the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, without question. And does the exclusion of such a person, if she refuses to give up the practice of homosexuality, also amount to an insistence on salvation by works of the law? What if she confesses the faith of the gospel, as did the Roman centurion Cornelius, who heard Peter preach in Acts 10? What if her life evidences the fruits of the Spirit, as did the Gentiles who experienced their own Pentecost at Antioch (Acts 10)?

A lot is at stake. As Paul put it in Galatians 5:4, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”

On the other hand, we must flee the sort of cheap grace that claims justification apart from the fruits of the Spirit. In the same letter Paul warns that those who practice “the acts of the flesh,” including “sexual immorality,” “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21).

So we have got to get this right. How exactly did the early church discern that Gentiles, despite their infidelity to the law of Moses, had received the Spirit of Christ? And what would it look like for the 21st-century church to discern whether gay and lesbian men and women have also shared in the blessing of grace?

The early church’s discernment process consisted of six dimensions.

First, certain apostles received special revelation from God that key elements of the mosaic law were no longer binding. Most famously, Peter experienced a vision in which God commanded him to eat animals that were unclean according to the law. God told Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15); Peter eventually grasped that God was calling him to receive believing Gentiles into the church.

Second, the Gentiles responded to the preaching of the gospel with faith. The apostles reasoned that if salvation is truly by grace through faith, then that is as true for Gentiles as it is for Jews (Acts 15:9; Gal. 3:8).

Third, God immediately poured the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles, manifesting his presence within them by enabling them to speak in tongues (Acts 10:44-46). Peter quickly grasped the significance: “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47).

Fourth, believing Gentiles began to practice the fruits of repentance. The apostles recognized that “even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

Fifth, the church met as a council to hear the reports of Peter and Paul that the Gentiles were embracing the gospel in faith and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to consider whether or not these Gentiles should be forced to keep the law of Moses. The apostles and elders came to a decision in unity as a body: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” (Acts 15:28).

Sixth, the church carefully reconsidered the teaching of Scripture. Upon hearing the experiences of Peter, Paul, and the Gentiles who had received the Holy Spirit, the apostle James grasped that he had heard of this phenomenon before. Where? In the Old Testament prophets. As James put it, “Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written . . .” (Acts 15:14-18). James goes on to quote Amos 9:11-12, and it is on this basis—the explicit teaching of Scripture—not merely on the basis of the experiences of his colleagues and fellow Christians, that James concludes, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). The upshot? They should be required to demonstrate the fruits of repentance in accord with faith (including the command to avoid “sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28), but otherwise set free from the burden of the law.

We would do well to follow this same process of discernment as we wrestle with questions concerning the inclusion of gay and lesbian men and women in the church today. We have no right to force others to keep the law as a condition of salvation if we ourselves have been saved by grace through faith. We must carefully listen to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who confess faith in the gospel, testify to the work of the Spirit in their lives, and practice the fruits of repentance. And finally, we must submit their testimony to the witness of Scripture.

Does Scripture prophesy the blessing of homosexuality as it explicitly prophesies the inclusion of Gentiles within the church? Does it prophesy the blessing of same-sex marriage as it explicitly prophesies that women, like men, will exercise the gifts of ministry (Joel 2:28-29)? Finally, what does it mean for gay and lesbian Christians to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18), and what are the implications of Paul’s warning that men who practice homosexuality “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10)? Why does Paul affirm that some of the Corinthian Christians had practiced homosexuality, “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”? We cannot flippantly set these injunctions—rooted in the gospel, not the law—aside.

In the end, we can only claim the name of “church” if we remain rooted in the grace of the gospel of Christ. And the gospel is that all people—including people who are gay and lesbian—are saved by grace through faith alone, and that the wonderful fruit of grace—for all people, regardless of sexual attraction—is the ongoing life of repentance through the work of the Holy Spirit.

 

Questions for Discussion

  1. If you were a first-century Jewish Christian, why and how might you struggle with the inclusion of Gentiles into your religious community?
  2. How does your local church currently provide pastoral guidance to Christians who have same-sex attraction? Do you think it could or should do more?
  3. Professor Tuininga listed six dimensions to the early church’s discernment process. Do you think these six dimensions are equally important, or are some dimensions more crucial than others? Why or why not?
  4. How does remaining rooted in salvation by grace through faith alone and in an ongoing life of repentance manifest itself in each of us?

About the Author

Matthew J. Tuininga is the assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. He blogs at matthewtuininga.wordpress.com.

See comments (12)

Comments

This is a fascinating way to frame the question, even if it doesn't provide the answer.  The one distinction I would note in what is here juxtaposed is that in the case of the early NT Gentiles, the question was whether they, without consideration of what they did, should be included in the church.  Once that was answered "yes," the Gentiles were yet required to act as Christians (Jesus didn't come to eliminate the law but to fulfill it after all, even if that's a nuance packed thing to say).

Being gay -- or heterosexual for that matter -- does not require that one engage in sexual activity.  Even is we are saved by grace, we are yet expected, admonished, to live lives worthy of the grace that saves us.

I don't think the CRC has ever been of the position that gays cannot be saved by God's grace every bit as much as anyone else.  The question, which was a question in Acts 15 too, relates to how then should they live.  Both gays and heterosexuals (and the litinany of others represented in that ever growing acronym of designation, LGBT...) must decide how to live every day of their lives.

I’m deeply concerned over the comparison that Rev. Tuininga makes between the entrance into the church of the Gentiles with the entrance of same sex oriented and practicing people. I feel it is filled with all sorts of flawed hermeneutical issues. First, throughout the Gospels we have a variety of situations where Jesus personally praises the faith of gentiles. Also, the apostolic writers in their epistles repeatedly quote Old Testament prophecy concerning the gentiles eventually worshiping their God.  In other words, the biblical ground work was well laid before the Jewish church in Acts 15, from the Old Testament, that the gentiles would eventually become fellow believers of their God. It is quite another thing then to claim that this same biblically laid ground work found throughout the Old Testament concerning the faith of gentiles could therefore be transferred to accepting into the church homosexuality and same sex marriage? It is simply not there. Plus, it is a very dangerous thing to claim that this revelation or prophecy to accept the gentiles as fellow believers came without some clearly documented Old Testament support. In other words, this “prophecy” of the gentiles entering the fellowship of Jesus didn’t just come out of thin air. It was a confirmation of an Old Testament promised. Finally, what ever happened to holiness? Aren’t we to be holy as God is holy? This is the question I find missing in most discussions on this issue. How could a practicing homosexual be considered holy before God by any biblical measure? This should be the first question to be answered on this subject.

Your effort to have the CRC look more deeply, with a more open attitude, into the question of inclusion of lesbian and gay Christians, by attempting to draw an analogy with the early church question of Gentile inclusion, is helpful. I also thank you for your courage in doing so as mean that one is subject to having their Identity as Christian questioned, sometimes viciously. That said, I cringe at the term "practicing homosexual". It singles out gay and lesbian people in a rather ridiculous way - no one says "practicing heterosexual" . The exclusionary nature of the term, the us and them set-up inherent in it, also operates more subtly. The term implicitly upholds the current stance of the CRC which effectively forbids a gay or lesbian person from even holding the aspiration to " fall in love and get married" simply because of who they are, because they would inherently imagine their future spouse to be someone of the same sex/gender. Heterosexual people are not subjected to this prohibition. I don't believe for a minute that this was your intent. I meant to underline that the terms used may convey a double standard which is hard to shake off, meaning that even open debate on it is often skewed at the outset.

I understand what you are saying but there are other considerations that make finding a term that is inclusive difficulty.  Some homosexuals believe that it is wrong to engage in sex and intimate relationships with other homosexuals.  They are gay - but not "practicing" and some resent being included into the sex and marriage debate.  

I for one would love to see the church get away from the assumpton that all heterosexuals are looking for marriage and children.   There are many single women and men who are content with who they are without marriage regardless of whether they are homosexual or heterosexual.  

The third criteria (God pours his Spirit out in a revivalistic way upon the newly ingrafted people) is an interesting one to explore. Considering that some denominations have embraced active homosexuals for decades, we are in the place to ask if there has been biblical revival in those churches. Looking to Scripture and history we could say Holy Spirit revival will yield an acute awareness of sin ("What must I do to be saved?!"), preaching that relentlessly and powerfully points individuals to place their faith in Christ for their salvation, and an outbreak of biblical piety (devotion to prayer and examining the Scriptures, caring for the poor, observance of the Lord's Day, etc.). Have we seen this revival in denominations that celebrate homosexual unions? While I recognize the movement isn't monolithic, I think it has failed to meet the criteria of biblical revival. This is most often seen by a replacement of the true Gospel with the social gospel, all but totally withdrawing the need for personal repentance and salvation through the atoning work of Christ.

Someone might turn this around and ask if the CRC is seeing such revival. Who are we to criticize?! I would agree that we are not in a season of denominational revival, but the solution is not to ignore the biblical\historical circumstances that precede revival AND the biblical\historical criteria for what said revival will look like.

Thanks, Matthew, for an enlightening article.  I think we’re moving in the right direction with such thinking.  As one of the commenters suggested, the CRC has never suggested that gays cannot be saved like anyone else.  Well,if one is saved by God’s doing (grace), that simply puts him/her inside the church (the body of Christ).  Now it’s up to the CRC to decide if they want to allow them into our CRC institution.  Thanks, again.

Good thought Victoria S.  The state (government) has afforded homosexuals the wonderful right of marriage, the same as heterosexuals.  Should homosexuals desire to abstain from sexual relations (or even such talk), they can and should remain single (just as committed single heterosexuals).

So often this discussion falls into the trap of creating a straw man argument that pits two false gospels against each other and then calling for the church to choose which false gospel it will embrace as it struggles with acceptance of gay and lesbian adherents. 

 

In the author's historical example of the Gentiles, he seems to argue that requiring them to be circumcised before allowing them into the church amounted to a false gospel of salvation based on works. He suggests that our acceptance of homosexuals only if they cease practicing their sin may be the equivalent heresy.

 

He then turns around and claims that the “graciousness of the gospel” requires us to accept without any requirements or restrictions practicing homosexuals into our church fellowships. The modern jingle is, “We must be inclusive.” The exclusion of such a person, he says, amounts to an “insistence on salvation by works of the law.”

 

Two false gospels- salvation by works of the law, or unqualified acceptance of anyone claiming to have faith in the gospel. Make your choice.

 

But the true Gospel is neither of these. The true Gospel is the work of a Sovereign God choosing, for His Glory and according to His perfect plan, to implant His Holy Spirit in some men thus giving them new birth. These men then respond in faith to that new birth and begin to evidence that new birth by a change in their lives as they obey God’s commands out of gratitude for what He has done in their lives.

 

The graciousness of the Gospel is not turning a relativistic, post-modern eye on sinners and their sin, but rather, it is to tell them, in the face of their certain and eternal judgement at the hands of a Holy God, that that same God has graciously provided complete atonement for their sins through His Son Jesus Christ.

 

Unfortunately the church in our day has abandoned its role as salt and light in the culture. Instead of standing firmly on God’s eternal truths and ordained principles revealed in His Word, she has fallen victim to the siren call of post-modernism, allowing the subjectivism of the culture to bully her into irrelevance.

Steve, it’s too bad the reality doesn’t match the theology of your “true gospel.”  We both know the assumption of a changed life is empty or near empty talk.  You suggest that these elect (chosen ones) begin to give evidence of a new birth.  Even Christians assume that sanctification is a life long process, and most (if they are honest) will admit little progress down that road of sanctification.  It’s more talk than reality.  So perhaps Matthew’s perspective comes closer to reality than you care to admit.

Roger-You state, “it’s too bad the reality doesn’t match the theology of your “true gospel.”” Are you implying there is a problem with the Gospel, or that I didn’t accurately characterize it? In either case I would welcome additional clarification.

I would contend that the problem is with sinful men who either are not re-born but think they are, or they are less than diligent in their calling to work on their sanctification (Phil. 2:12; Col. 1:9-10; 1Pet. 2:9).

I would also lay some blame at the feet of  the Church for its failure to hold men accountable to their calling to work on their sanctification; its failure to educate and encourage believers in their walk; its failure to discipline when needed, and for lowering its standards and expectations for God’s elect.

The results of these failures has been twofold. First, it has allowed Satan, pretenders and evil men into the flock (Acts 20:28-29; 1Pet. 5:8).

Second, it has resulted in the Church abandoning its role as salt and light in the culture. As I said, instead of standing firmly on the eternal truths and ordained principles revealed in God’s Word, she has fallen victim to the siren call of post-modernism, allowing the subjectivism of the culture to bully her into irrelevance (Matt. 5:13; Phil 2:15).

There was a time when the Church had requirements for those wanting to join it. The Didache, the first-century catechism, listed what pagans were expected to give up once they entered the church.

It begins with these words, “There are two ways: one of life and one of death—and there is a great difference between the two ways.” (cf. Josh. 24:15)

The pagan converts are then confronted with a list of commands for Christians to reject pedophilia, fornication and homosexuality, abortion, and infanticide. The list also commands, “You will not make potions,” a prohibition against widespread practices in the Roman Empire which included potions that stopped conception or caused abortion.

Not very inclusive, affirming or warm and fuzzy by today’s standards, but, with help from the Holy Spirit, it helped Christians in that day to raise their game, to strive for a separation from their pagan culture, as well as provide a basis for discipline of those who were unwilling to conform to God’s commands.

 

 I just read and reviewed "Love Thy Body" by Nancy Pearcey.  It's a new book coming out.  In it

 a Christian and former lesbian, Jean Lloyd (page 175) gave clear insights worth noting:

 

      "Over the years, many pastors have gone from fiery sermons on homosexuality to declarations of love.  All well and good. But some of those pastors have gone further and rejected biblical sexual morality itself as oppressive, unreasonable, or unkind.  Hence, loving homosexual persons also comes to entail affirming and encouraging them in same-sex sexual relationships and behaviors.

      Please recognize that is not the loving response. What is genuinely loving is a response that helps me honor my body by living in accord with the Creator's design.  I was born this way: female.  God did create me a woman.  Please don't fall into the gnostic dualism that divides my spiritual life from the life I now live in my body.

     I should be credited with the same moral agency and responsibility as everyone else in the Christian community.  If unmarried heterosexuals are called to celibacy and are presumed in Christ to have the power to live out His commands, then so should I be.  To treat me according to a different standard is to lower my dignity before God.  I too am called to be holy.   

     I began to trust the One who knew the truth of my identity more than I did, who wrote His image into my being and body as female, and who designed sexuality and set boundaries upon it for my good." 

 

Love Thy Body is a book that all church leaders should read.  I was shocked to learn the historical development of the postmodern sexual revolution, and the extent and implications that this worldview will have on my grandchildren and future generations.  

 But thankfully, I also read of hope and the encouragement for churches to be "places of refuge," to "celebrate a wide diversity of God-given personality types, even if they do not fit current stereotypes."  Welcoming the stranger, radical hospitality, long term support, care and healing, love and acceptance, and inclusion are the recommended actions for the church that are developed in this book.  The ways and means of doing this should be the focus of the CRC church's study committee I think.

I recommend this new book and wish Nancy Pearcey would be invited to present her thoughts at the January Series next year! 

Thanks Steve for your comment and clarification as to why the reality most often doesn’t fit the theory or theology of your said gospel.  You asked if I might be implying that there might be a problem with your gospel?  You realize that within “classical” Christianity there is little agreement as to a proper definition of the gospel.  What you had described in your earlier comments would be a conservative Calvinistic definition (without being a hyper Calvinist), which is not the predominate position held by Christians within the classical camp.  There are less stringent Calvinists who hold to a less rigid form of the five points of Calvinism (maybe three or four point Calvinists).  There are varieties of Arminians who hold to a greater involvement of sinners in their salvation.  These also fit into what is normally called “classical” Christianity.  And all these varieties will use the Bible to support their point of view on the gospel.

You, Steve, put a greater weight on God’s sovereignty and working than many other Christians seem to.  You say, “The true Gospel is the work of a Sovereign God choosing, for His Glory and according to His perfect plan, to implant His Holy Spirit in some men thus giving them new birth.”  This sounds like the perfect plan, if only it actually worked, this sovereign imparting of God’s Spirit to newly reborn sinners.

You give many reasons or excuses as to why this wonderful gospel doesn’t work, why God is not able to pull off this sovereign gospel, finding fault in either Christians, so called Christians (in name only) or in the church.  It seems to start out as God’s sovereign plan but ends up a human failure.

And so it seems obvious that “the true gospel” that you describe doesn’t stack up to human experience or reality.  Furthermore, the gospel you describe in this last comment, sounds more like a legalistic or Pharisaical gospel than one of grace and love.  So I think Matthew’s original article may be more on track than many care to admit.

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