This is the ninth and final post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here. A discussion of relevant Hebrew Bible texts is here. A study of Romans 1:26-27 is here. A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be found here. A discussion about marriage in the Bible is here. A few notes about gender in the Bible can be found here. A discussion about biblical interpretation and use is here.
In this last post discussing issues around homosexual practice in the scripture, I want to look at the early church. Specifically, how did the early church, using Jesus’ example and teachings, address the issues that threatened to divide it, perhaps similar to the ways that Christians are dividing themselves today. Afterwards, it seems to be prudent to use the positive and lasting examples of the early church and apply the same process in our context.
Keys of the Kingdom
In Isaiah 22:21-22, we find the words “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” Now, in the original context, this referred to a person named Eliakim. However, in the time between testaments, many Jewish teachers believed that this verse applied to the one would rule over God’s people, or over the “house of David.” This distinction gets blurred and in the New Testament, we see the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven” being used more often.
This person, the heir to the key of David’s Kingdom, would have the authority to “open and shut.” This opening and shutting became synonymous with the Hebrew ideas of “binding” and “loosing.” More on that in a bit. This is relevant, because Jesus, upon hearing Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, says this to his disciples, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Binding and Loosing
According to Jewish Talmud: Chagigah 3b, the power to bind and loose was the power to forbid and permit. This was the ability to say a certain act was permitted for the people of God or forbidden. This even applied to laws that were in the Torah itself. One example that Jesus gives is when the Pharisees were cross with Jesus for not making his disciples wash their hands. He turns the tables on them and says that they allow people to dishonor their fathers and mothers by making sacrifice more important. In essence, they have “bound” the rules of sacrifice, and “loosed” the command that we should honor our fathers and mothers. Jesus does not condemn this binding and loosing, but rather condemning that they have acted out of selfishness.
According to Josephus, the authority of binding and loosing was indeed claimed by the Pharisees. They could admit people or banish them, as well as bind certain days to be holidays.
Further, there is precedent that when those with authority permitted or forbid something, that these decisions would be honored by God (Talmud Makkot 23b).
So, with that context in mind, read the words of Jesus himself, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matt 18:18-20)
What Jesus is doing here is radical. He is indicating that the power to bind and loose, to permit and forbid actions, is being given to his disciples. This does not mean throwing out the law, but properly binding and loosing for their contexts, just as others had been doing before them. And whatever they decide, even in a group as small as “2 or more,” will be honored, because Christ himself will be among them. This of course, does not mean that mistakes won’t be made or corrective “binding and loosing” wont have to happen further, but it does give Jesus’ followers the authority themselves to decide how best to serve God and follow the way of Jesus in the best way possible, without fear.
Binding and Loosing Observed
It seems that the disciples (and their disciples, etc..) took this responsibility very seriously. In fact, from Acts forward, the scripture is full of this binding and loosing activity. The first one is actually in Mark 7. Jesus told his followers that it isn’t what goes into a persons mouth that makes them unclean, but what comes out of their heart. In a parenthetical statement, the author of Mark notes that the church understands this to mean that no foods are unclean any longer. Is there any doubt that this was a breech of precedent? Was there any indication in the Hebrew Bible that God wanted dietary restrictions to be temporary? No, there wasn’t. Yet, the disciples of Jesus took the words of Jesus, applied them to their contexts and “loosed” the laws around food. And bacon lovers rejoiced.
This wasn’t the only time though. Acts 10 records for us that Peter had a dream, the result of which was that God told him that “he should call no person unclean.” And thus, against his people’s laws, he went into a Gentiles home, and contrary to conversion laws and Jewish precedent, baptized a family of non-Jews because he could see that the Holy Spirit was moving in them. Peter simply made the call. He bound. He loosed.
Acts 15 records that after the above incident, many gentiles were coming into the church, and there were people insisting that they get circumcised and become Jews. Contrary to any conceivable teaching beforehand, the group decided that no gentiles should be forced to follow ANY law in the Hebrew Bible except for 1) abstain from food sacrificed to idols, 2) don’t eat blood, 3) don’t eat from the meat of strangled animals, and 4) don’t fornicate. And the reason they gave? Verse 28 – “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” In other words, they prayed about it and felt authorized to make that call.
Do you worship on Sunday? Do most Christians you know worship on Sunday? Why? The Sabbath in scripture is Saturday. The reason is because some Christians bound and loosed it.
Do we condemn anyone for not staying home on the Sabbath? Do we hold rallies against people who are doctors on Saturdays/Sundays? We bound and loosed that one as well.
What about Paul’s condemnation of women teaching? Thankfully, we realized Paul was binding and loosing, for his context, and many churches have loosed that one as well.
Food, circumcision, non-Jews as God’s people, Sabbath laws… You would be hard pressed to think of any more important laws in the Old Testament. And yet, when unity was threatened, these Christians, due to the teaching and example of their Rabbi Jesus, felt approved, and indeed, responsible, to bind and loose, forbid and permit, and as a result, kept unity in the church.
Ask yourself, what did Jesus bind? He said the most important laws are to love God and love others. Those two can’t be unbound. Everything else, if the early church is any example, is up for negotiation. Not willy-nilly. Not without struggle. Not without God’s Holy Spirit. But nevertheless, it is our responsibility to do as the early church did. We must bind and loose today.
Ask yourself, how often does the Bible talk about unity? Compare that to the times it even comes close to addressing homosexuality. That alone should solve the majority of our problems.
I suggest, borrowing from our Methodist friends, that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral can be helpful here. In trying to seek what the church binds and looses, we seek God through scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. In all of these, we seek the Holy Spirit. And we act. We don’t be afraid to make wrong decisions, because we can always bind and loose again. But to not act, or to simply outsource our responsibility of binding and loosing to what the ancients did, or even the scripture itself, is to make idols out of things not God.
As a result of the last 9 discussion posts about the scripture, gender, marriage, interpretation, and homosexual practice, I have reached a conclusion. For myself, at this moment. I am only one person, and so this can’t and won’t be authoritative for anyone. Yet, I will be having these discussions at my church, and we will decide together how, or if, to bind and loose faithfully.
As a result of studying the scriptural verses around homosexual practice, I don’t think that the Bible condemns homosexuality at all, outside of pagan worship, orgies, or exploitative sex. Each instance of laws regarding homosexual practice in the Bible are one of these, and just like their heterosexual counterparts (straight pagan worship, straight orgies, and straight exploitative sex), they are condemned in that context. Monogamous, married homosexual union is never addressed in the Bible.
Marriage itself is a fluid thing in the Bible. Various variations on the one man-one woman theme are present in the scriptures, and either not condemned or allowed as normative alongside traditional marriage. This was mainly due to cultural realities and societal understandings. Homosexual marriage need not be any different due to our societal understanding today. Acceptance will neither hurt nor undermine traditional unions anymore than the variations present in the scripture did.
Gender roles in the scripture are quite fluid. There is no seemingly right or wrong way to be a Godly man or woman. God, through Jesus or the Holy Spirit, seems to treat each person as an individual, not as a member of a particular gender. And as such, there in neither “male nor female” in Christ. So there should be no problems with a homosexual person acting more like whatever traditional (or non) gender role they feel comfortable with, as God sees them as individuals first.
Jesus, not Paul or any other person, is our teacher. Jesus shows us God. Everything we need to know about God is reflected in him. He is the “image of the invisible God.” As such, when anything, even scripture itself, flows against that revelation, it is not thrown out, but it must be reinterpreted in light of Jesus. Those of us who are non-violent and believe the Kingdom of God is too, have already done this a million times. Joshua told of How God ordered the slaughter of women and children. I say it wasn’t God. I say it was the interpretation and writing of someone who was chronicling the events around God’s people and assumed it was God’s will. Well, it wasn’t. Jesus doesn’t mention homosexual practice. One assumes that if it was that important to him (who knows the future) he might have mentioned it. But our teacher didn’t.
Last, our binding and loosing authority gives us the freedom and responsibility to act in love. Love for God and love for others. Those are bound, not by us, but by God through Christ. They can’t be undone. As a result, when I look out on how LGBTQ persons have been treated, when I see the studies that suggest no vast health difference in gay and lesbian families and their straight counterparts (for children or adults), and when I see how that there are indeed many many LGBTQ persons that seem to have had the Holy Spirit fall on them, just as it has me, I am left with no choice but to advocate for full acceptance of LGBTQ persons in our churches. As members, visitors, deacons, elders, and ministers. Openly gay or closeted. And I advocate we perform homosexual marriages. Not with caveats. And not later. Now. Regardless of what our denominations say, regardless of what the law of the land says. Let’s aim to misbehave.
In all of these things, I protect and honor the responsibility and authority of others to partake in the same process, studying, seeking God, and binding and loosing. And if there are differing conclusions, which there surely will be, that is ok. But we must remain unified. Act according to your conscience, as it is “neither right nor safe” to do otherwise. I will always be your brother in Christ, but in any case, the above seems good to me and the Holy Spirit, and now you, and I, know where I stand.