The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Binding, Loosing, and a Conclusion

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.

How?

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.

In conclusion

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.

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Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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10 thoughts on “The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Binding, Loosing, and a Conclusion

  1. I can’t decide if I liked the subtle Mal quote or the “seems good to me” reference better. Both made me smile.

    The most important thing I’m taking out of this, the thing that blew my mind, is how I’m understanding the concept of binding and loosing. Correct me if I’m interpreting this wrong, but it seems that binding and loosing isn’t a privilege or a right; it seems to me like a duty. It is the only way we can escape and fix laws that are only being followed for tradition’s sake. If we don’t change them, we effectively turn a concept into an idol… and binding and loosing is the way out of that.

    Did I get it right?

    And regarding the series topic itself, thank you. You answered a long-lived prayer by diving so deeply into this, and I want to share it with everyone I know! That’s not a compliment; it’s just something that I think should happen.

    • Steph, I think you have the right of it. Of course, we must be diligent and cautious about our binding and loosing. We must respect tradition unless there is a reason not to, because tradition exists for good reason.
      But yes, if we abdicate our responsibility to bind and loose responsibly, then the Spirit and the Kingdom move on without us.

  2. How I would love to have the time and energy to engage this post (and series) fully… In lieu of that, here are just a few scattered thoughts for you (and your readers) to ponder. My major sources are recommended at the bottom.

    First, you are correct about the definitions of “binding” and “loosing.” However, when you look to Jesus to find what he bound and loosed, you come away with the idea that Jesus bound us to love God and each other and that everything else is up for negotiation. On the contrary, Matthew 5:17-20 ensures us that Jesus fully endorsed and practiced the Mosaic Law, using the same kind of unambiguous technical language you discuss here (in this case, uphold/destroy). Matthew 23:2-3 further teaches us that Jesus interpreted this law largely within the same framework as the proto-Rabbinic “scribes and Pharisees.” The controversies Jesus had with the Pharisees tend to follow the same rules of engagement as other intra-Jewish disputes of the time period; i.e., the interpretation of the Torah was up for discussion, but its continuing validity was not. There is a growing body of scholarship that indeed sees Jesus as having a relationship to the Torah that is entirely similar to that of the Pharisees; i.e., it is valid and binding on every Jew, though interpretations on exactly how it is to be applied may differ. “Binding” and “loosing” refer to these very kinds of interpretive decisions, i.e., “is it okay to ride in a car on Sabbath or not?” Not “is the Sabbath still the same day?” One familiar with Jewish law will see at once the vast qualitative difference between these two questions. The first is acceptable and even expected. The second is off limits; it is a closed issue.

    So to argue that because homosexual activities of one kind or another are not addressed by Jesus specifically, and that therefore he must be leaving it up to us to decide how we approach these issues, is to ignore the well established fact that Jewish sexual mores in Jesus’ day were incredibly rigid and not open to interpretation–not in the Jesus-believing community or elsewhere. It is in this light, the plain light of the Jewish religion and culture within which Jesus and his followers initially existed, that we must interpret Romans 1, as Robert Jewett for example makes clear in his commentary (as do many others). In the same way when we are seeking input from the OT as we analyze what the NT has to say on this subject, we must also read the Leviticus passages concerning forbidden and permitted sexual relations in light of Second Temple Jewish interpretation–simply because that is the light in which Jesus and the Apostles themselves would have read them. I have seen lots of interpreters, some very educated, analyze Hebrew and Greek words and phrases to their utmost ability and emerge with ideas that make no sense in the culture that produced the text. We can only come to the conclusions you are coming to by reading these texts outside of Judaism and examining them naked, away from the culture which produced them. In doing so we give ourselves far too much leeway with the text.

    To say more on the Torah itself, in reference to which you repeatedly reference Christianity’s abandonment of the Sabbath and dietary laws: the issues at hand in Acts 10 and 15 are not whether the Torah is still applicable or whether believers in general can eat ham. It is whether the Torah’s authority extends to the non-Jewish believers. The apostles decided that non-Jewish believers could indeed become God’s people without becoming Jewish (this is in fact a use of their power to bind and loose). For that reason non-Jewish believers are not required to eat kosher, etc. As Acts 21:17-26 makes clear, the early Jewish believers continued to observe the Torah scrupulously, Paul himself included.

    However, this does not mean that non-Jewish believers are loosed from all of the Torah’s commandments, as I am sure you will agree we are still not allowed to murder, steal, etc. So Paul reinforces in letter after letter the standard which he expects his churches to hold themselves to, and in letter after letter he reinforces Jewish sexual mores. This naturally includes the prohibition on same-sex sex as it is one area in which Judaism differed greatly from Greco-Roman culture, and I think we could make a good case for this even if he hadn’t mentioned it specifically, but I believe he does… arsenokoitai does not appear in the LXX, as you claim it does. Its first recorded use is by Paul and it appears to be a portmanteau, referencing the LXX translations of the Leviticus passages universally interpreted in his time to be forbidding homosexual activity.

    I am fully aware that most believers have not been introduced to this stream of thought regarding the Torah and its intended role in the NT and in the life of the believer. It is relatively new on the scene and is mostly restricted to academic circles right now (under the names “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus” and “Radical New Perspective on Paul”). So your first reaction will probably and understandably be skepticism, especially as I am sure my explanation here does not do it justice. I would heartily recommend that before you engage this topic further, though, you read a few books which do a particularly good job of uncovering the Jewish social, religious, and cultural context of the NT and pave the way for coming to biblical conclusions in this area (or any other). On the academic side, Mark Kinzer’s Postmissionary Messianic Judaism contains several chapters devoted to the subject. David Rudolph’s A Jew to the Jews, is a remarkable window into this subject, if you can find a copy. Peter Tomson’s Paul and the Jewish Law is also very good and very pointed, and also unfortunately difficult to find reasonably priced. A few of the books which have brought this subject closer to earth (both in writing style and in cost) are God-Fearers, by Toby Janicki, and Restoration, by D. Thomas Lancaster; also his short commentary on Galatians, which is brilliant. And, if you are really interested, anything by Mark Nanos, Amy-Jill Levine, J. Brian Tucker, Magnus Zetterholm, Pam Eisenbaum, and perhaps Richard Bauckham would, I think, be eye-opening. Maybe Markus Bockmuehl, too.

  3. I actually agree with pretty much all of what you said. I agree that Jesus maintained a traditional relationship with the Torah, as evidenced by a number of his sayings, and the idea of binding and loosing, not as a new idea, but as the disciples having that authority in the way the pharisees were said to. I also agree that the 1st Century Jewish context of Jesus and his people would have included a rather much more strict interpretation of many things in the Torah, as opposed to our context today.

    In regards to aresenokotai in the LXX, i did not say it was used in the LXX, I said there was a word that was translated similar to arsenokotai. I have changed it in the previous post to be clearer. Thanks for the feedback.

    Also, I did not mean to imply that Christianity has abandoned the Sabbath or dietary laws (although the proof is in the pudding for that one). I only meant that those early Christians, when faced with uncertainty, felt that they could, even if only for gentiles, bind and loose those laws. I in fact noted this in the acts 15 portion above, that it was only for Gentiles.

    Again, I agree with most of what you wrote. The 3rd Quest and New Perspective on Paul are favorite topics of reading for me. However, I stand by my personal conclusion, and I am thankful that you felt comfortable enough to engage the conversation pleasantly.

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  6. Wow. Just. Wow. Great writing – like the way you broke it down. I don’t have much more personally to say about the concepts you discuss other than it gave some firmer grasp of ideas I was already loosely forming in my mind already.

    My biggest joy though was the “aim to misbehave” part… Brother, quoting firefly (or was that from serenity… can’t remember now) in the context of this fairly academic look at the topic was just wonderful.

    Grace and Peace,
    Your brother in Christ and fellow browncoat – Zach

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