Saturday, March 23, 2013

Homosexuality and the Bible: Acts Speaks Louder than Words….

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
 
The issue of homosexuality has become an incredibly painful and divisive one among Christians, even among Quakers who have a reputation for being peace makers. Most recently, Indiana Yearly Meeting—which has a long history of conflict between its conservative and liberal wings—has split into two because one of its meetings declared itself “welcoming and affirming.” This Christ-centered pastoral meeting didn't go so far as to support same-sex marriage; it simply affirmed that gay and lesbian members would be treated as equal to straights. For this openness, this meeting was condemned and essentially forced to separate from the Yearly Meeting. As a result,  dozen other monthly meetings are leaving and forming a new entity called “A New Association of Friend.” Like divorces, such splits can be excruciating. As one who has been through a traumatic divorce, I am holding these Friends in the Light, praying that they will find peace and new spiritual insight after their split up.
I have come to see the issue of homosexuality in a new, biblical light. During this past year, I have had numerous conversations with Evangelical Christians (including my wife) who are good, kind-hearted people who love Jesus and the Bible. They believe that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is not what God intends, but that Christ commands us to love our homosexual brothers and sisters as much as we love ourselves. As a result, I have looked into the bible to find out what Spirit says to me about how we are to treat those who are sexual minorities. I'd like to share my biblical perspective on homosexuality, based on the story of Philip and the eunuch from the Book of Acts. I realize that there are many viewpoints on this topic, some of which I list at the end of this piece. I especially want to lift up Tony and Peggy Compolo, Evangelical Christians who have different views on homosexuality and have had the courage to share their differences publicly. They prove you don't have to agree to love each other! See http://www.bridges-across.org/ba/campolo.htm
When it comes to matters of religion, I am convinced what we do is often more important than what we say we believe. That's why I turn to the Book of Acts which describes an encounter between an Ethiopian eunuch and Philip, an Evangelist who was one of the Seven Deacons chosen to care for the poor of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Note that Philip is called by an angel of the Lord to go on a mission to a “desert place,” an unpopulated area. The angel’s command made no sense, but Philip (like many other early Christians, and like early Friends) listened and obeyed whenever the Lord gave a command, however illogical or counter intuitive it might seem.
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”[b] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Acts 8:26-39 English Standard Version (ESV)

Footnotes:

  1. Acts 8:26 Or go at about noon
  2. Acts 8:36 Some manuscripts add all or most of verse 37: And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

What an amazing story! Philip, the evangelist, sent by an angel of the Lord, encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, baptizes him, and makes him a joyful Christian. What good news! I have shared this story many times this past year as I have tried to explain to my Evangelical Friends how I, as a Christian Quaker, feel about homosexuality.
I am aware that the Old Testament condemns homosexuality and so does Paul. But the Torah condemns many things, including eating lobster, that Jesus’ gospel of love no longer condemns as contrary to God’s law.
So what biblical warrant do we have for accepting gays and lesbians into full fellowship in the body of Christ?
I think the story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a powerful example of how the early church treated those who were sexually “different.” I am convinced the Book of Acts deserves to be taken very seriously, perhaps even more seriously than some of Paul’s theological statements, since it describes how early Christians actually put in practice (in their best moments) the teachings of Christ. According to the Book of Acts, they shared things in common so “there was no poor among them.” They offered health care for free (unlike most mystery cults which charged money for healing). And they accepted people of all races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, including “eunuchs.”
Let’s begin by exploring what the Bible meant by “eunuch.” Jesus makes it clear this word was used to mean many things, perhaps even homosexuals:
For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. To him who can comprehend, that is enough.” (Matthew 19:12)

The word “eunuch” literally means someone who has been sexually altered. But clearly in this passage it has a wider, metaphorical meaning. To be a eunuch from birth implies a man who has no sexual desire for women, which suggests homosexuality. It is clear from this passage that like Isaiah, Jesus did not condemn eunuchs. Since Jesus didn’t marry, unlike most rabbis (and most of the apostles), he even seems to have identified with them. By not marrying, he is one of those who “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” I realize he is probably talking about celibacy, but if so, it's significant he equates celibacy with being a sexual outcast, a “eunuch,” or perhaps even a homosexual.
This was a radically prophetic teaching. Eunuchs (whether they were “from birth” or not) weren’t permitted to enter the “assembly of God” and become full-fledged members of the Jewish community, as Deuteronomy makes clear:
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)
But the prophet Isaiah, who was a source for many of Jesus’ radical ideas, offers hope to eunuchs:

Thus says the Lord: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. ... (Isaiah 56:1-12)
According to Isaiah, there is hope for the foreigner and for those who are sexual outcasts. This prophecy was fulfilled in the story of Philip and the eunuch. The eunuch was an Ethiopian Jew, a high-ranking official, who came to worship in Jerusalem, but probably would not have been allowed to enter the Temple since he was a foreigner and a eunuch, and hence an outcast. But he followed God’s teachings (the Torah), and wanted to learn more about the prophecies of Isaiah. When he asked Philip to teach him, Philip shared the good news that the Messiah had come in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy. The eunuch, who knew how to read Hebrew and was well versed in the Bible, was probably wondering: How does this apply to me? Will I, a eunuch, be accepted into this new movement? Hence the eunuch’s bold, yet poignant question:
“What prevents me from being baptized?”
A rabbi or priest might have responded, “Why are you asking that question? You know the answer!” It was risky even to ask since it opened up the possibility of rejection. Imagine if Philip had responded, “Christ came to save everyone, except for eunuchs.” Or if he had said, “Well, you’re saved. But don’t expect to be baptized. That’s just for those who are sexually ‘normal.’” After all, baptism was a big deal in the early church. It meant that you were washed clean of all your sins and a full-fledged member of the community. Many would-be Christians went through a long initiation process in order to become spiritually ready for baptism.
The eunuch wasn’t willing to wait, however; he was impatient as well as bold. He “commanded the chariot to stop,” and Philip went down to the river and baptized him immediately.
In an instant, the eunuch became a full-fledged Christian. His sins were forgiven. He was a new man. He had an “everlasting name that would never be cut off.” What a glorious moment!
Then Philip mysteriously disappeared. I don’t know what this mysterious disappearance means. Perhaps it means that this baptism was a spiritual one, divinely sanctioned; certainly it was supernatural. We do know this baptism transformed the eunuch’s life. He “went away rejoicing.”
According to legend, this eunuch went back to Ethiopia and became an evangelist. He is credited with founding the Ethiopian church!
This story suggests to me that the early church was inclusive and open to everyone, people of different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations. All were welcome, as long as they loved God and sought to live faithful lives in accordance with Jesus’ teachings. This was and still is good news!

For more on eunuchs in the bible see:



For a discussion of the range of views on homosexuality among Friends, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_and_Quakerism




 

7 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. Well-written and well-reasoned.

    It is sad to see how this issue is splitting the church. But we must remember this is far from the first issue to have done so. In the end I trust that the Spirit will lead us to truth.

    peace

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  2. An interesting piece and the first I've seen that uses "eunuch" in these controversies. It seems to me that identifying "sexually altered" or "sexual outcast" in the case of the eunuch with "sexual orientation" is not convincing. Interpreters on all sides generally agree that the Bible does not address sexual orientation, and my study leads me to agree with that.
    It's too complicated for a short response, but I suppose you recognize that interpreting OT law and Leviticus in particular requires more than just dismissing it all because Christians don't eat kosher and don't continue OT ceremonial practice.
    Blessings on your thoughtfulness.

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  3. When it comes to music and other etherial aspects of worship, pastors don't mind acting more like Philip.

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  4. Thank you for your thoughtful article. I would like to make some pointed comments, if you would allow me. The argument you advance is "biblicist," that is, it takes a modern phenomenon and tries to find Bible passages that might address the phenomenon. These sorts of arguments necessitate broadening the application of a particular passage to include the modern phenomenon. Here, the kingdom includes eunuchs, which is broadened to all who are "sexually different," esp. persons who are involved in same-sex intimate relationships. These sorts of arguments are usually only convincing to those who agree with the author's position before reading the argument. Alas, I would put your article in that category. It is not likely to convince anyone not already on the author's side. I would question, though, the biblicist approach that lies behind the article . . . and that lies behind almost every discussion of "Homosexuality and the Bible," no matter where the author comes down on the present-day issue in our churches and meetings. I would want us to look at the power dynamics in the current debate, esp. in the use of the Bible. For example, this article represents a "heterosexist" perspective: Homosexuals are "sexually different," but we, like God, love them anyway and accept them as equal (sort of) "members" of our meetings and churches . . . as long as they "live faithful lives in accordance with Jesus' teachings." Is that really good news? It is . . . at least to us good liberal heterosexuals who refuse to look at how we use our own biblical interpretation to solidify our power.

    I fear that my words have been overly harsh. I apologize for their tone. I ask that they be received with grace.

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  5. Michael, I very much appreciate your comments. As a liberal Quaker, I regard the Spirit, not the Bible, as the ultimate source of authority. For me, the "golden rule" (treating others as you would like to be treated, with love and respect) is the most important ethical principle and is grounded in the experience of worship--where all are equal in God's sight. Having said that, I also see the Bible as an important source of truth for many people (including myself) and I want to share my understadning of a story that has not received the kind of attention I feel it deserves. My hope is that my interpretation of this story will help "people of the book" to have a more compassionate and open attitude towards those who are "sexually different." Having said that, I want to address your objection that I write from a position of power as a straight male. This is true. I also write from the position of one who has not always lived his life faithful to Jesus' teachings, as someone who needs grace and forgiveness. I don't consider myself in any way superior to my gay and lesbian friends. Some have lived lives that are far more faithful and loving than mine. I have learned much from them and appreciate that my branch of the Religious Society of Friends has been open and welcoming and affirming to all.

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  6. WHAT HINDERS ME FROM BEING BAPTIZED?

    When the Ethiopian eunuch said "what hinders me from being baptized," did he mean what hinders me from being immersed, poured, or sprinkled?

    Acts 8:36 Now as they went down the road, they came to somewater. And the eunuch said, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" (NKJV)

    Acts 8:36 As they were going down the road, they came to somewater; and the eunuch said, "Look! Here's some water! Is there any reason why I shouldn't be immersed?" (CJB-Complete Jewish Bible)

    Acts 8:36 And , as they went on their way, they came to certain water; and the eunuch said, Look, here is water; what is there to hinder me from being immersed? (TBVOTNT-The Better Version of The New Testament by Chester Estes)

    There are no translations of the Bible that translates Acts 8:36 as..."What hinders me from being poured or sprinkled."

    The only place water baptism is expressed as sprinkling and pouring is in books written by men. Do preachers, pastors, priests, and the early church fathers have the authority to change immersion to sprinkling or pouring?

    If preachers, pastors, priests, and the early church fathers have been given the authority to change immersion to sprinkling or pouring, then why can they not change water to olive oil or milk. The example of a man-made verse of Scripture. (Acts 8:36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some olive oil or milk. And the eunuch said, "See here is olive oil or milk. What hinders me from being poured or sprinkled?")

    God has not authorized any preacher, pastor, priest, nor the early church fathers to change immersion to poured or sprinkled.

    God inspired one book, the Bible.

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG.http:steve-finnell.blogspot.com

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