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original cover art for Studies on Homosexuality and the Church

 

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Study Four: What If There is No Word from the Lord

Sometimes we must face moral issues which the Bible did not address, most likely because they were not issues at the time. We look in vain for answers to the problems posed by genetic engineering, space travel, cloning, reproductive technology, and the like. In these matters the Christian community, guided by the Spirit, can deal with the new challenges in innovative ways which are more or less in keeping with the spirit of the gospel.

In our exegetical studies, we have considered the possibility (many would consider it a certainty) that when the Bible speaks about same-sex relations it is not talking about what we today understand by the term "homosexuality." If that is so, then we must grant that the Bible does not address the subject with which we are concerned today. If so, we have no word from the Lord on the questions that perturb us. What are we to do under such circumstances?

In a unpublished 1999 essay "Homosexuality: A Study Paper on Biblical/Theological Considerations," David Schroeder, a Mennonite theologian, points out that Paul faced two situations which called for moral decision in matters that had not been adequately addressed in any of his sources. Neither the Old Testament, nor the known words of Jesus, nor the tradition of the Apostles, yielded the sort of directive that would be necessary to deal with some of the issues that arose in those early days after the resurrection of Jesus. Paul was compelled to deal with each situation in his own way. The way in which these two situations were handled may give us some clues about how the matter of homosexuality in the church might be dealt with today.

Application

In the first situation which called for the application of the gospel (1 Corinthians 8:1–13), Paul affirmed that Christians are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols. But he added an important qualifier. The Corinthians were to refrain from such eating if they found themselves in the presence of Christians who were likely to take offense at such an interpretation of the biblical tradition. Schroeder concludes that we are "to take the situation into account when applying the gospel to life situations."

New understanding

The second situation involved a new understanding of the nature of the gospel. On the mission field, Paul had received the special insight that "the nature of the gospel was such that it did not require Gentile Christians to be circumcised." This was such a departure from tradition that Paul's decision needed to be ratified by a special gathering of the church at Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15, Galatians 2) was called to deal with the issue. It can provide a useful model for addressing unanticipated moral dilemmas in the church. In this case the oral tradition about Jesus was insufficient and scripture was not clear. The church had to devise a new modus operandi. The matter was referred to trusted leaders of varying persuasion. These church leaders gathered and presented their various conflicting convictions. The assembly evidently listened, debated, and prayed, and eventually reached a consensus, confirmed by a handshake.

When the leaders published their conclusions in the form of a circular letter, they felt justified to say that the new ruling "seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). They were confident that the Holy Spirit had lead them to reach the consensus which had materialized after what must have been a lengthy and heated debate.

Especially noteworthy here is the fact that the consensus left room for two practices to co-exist in the church. The council legitimized a "gospel of the circumcision" (which evidently allowed the Jewish custom of circumcision to continue among Jewish Christians) and a "gospel of the uncircumcision," evidently legitimizing the practice of not circumcising new converts on the Gentile mission field.

In reaching this decision, the early church was in fact speaking a new word to the people of God. In his article "A new Word on Homosexuality? Isaiah 56:1–8 as Case Study" in Word & World, Frederick Gaiser suggests that the church may have the right and the obligation to speak in such authoritative fashion even today. Gaiser appeals to Luther himself who, in his Theses Concerning Faith and Law (1535) writes as follows:

  1. For if we have Christ, we can easily establish new laws and we shall judge all things rightly.
  2. Indeed, we shall make new decalogues, as Paul does in all the epistles, and Peter, but above all Christ in the gospel.
  3. And these decalogues are clearer than the decalogue of Moses, just as the countenance of Christ is brighter than the countenance of Moses [II Cor. 3:7–11].

Luther realized, of course, that the church could be "torn to pieces" if various individuals or groups were to arrogate to themselves the right to speak for the whole church. Only the "universal church" can exercise such a function, Luther states in thesis 61.

Gaiser concludes: "Thus, from Luther, we learn of the possibility of speaking an entirely new word, against scripture, in the spirit of Christ, but also of the danger that 'the church be torn to pieces' through the exercise of this authority. Thus it is consigned by Luther only to the 'universal church.'"

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