I am a child of the Protestant Reformation. And so I was raised in a church environment where the Bible has served as the final appeal in debates over doctrine and ethics. I carry that upbringing within my very being.
Along with this high respect for the authority of the Bible, I was also taught that the Holy Spirit and the Bible are always in agreement. I suspect this conviction has roots in the Reformation, too. Reforming agitators like Thomas Müntzer claimed the Spirit’s authority for actions that Martin Luther and others believed contradicted Scripture. They argued then that the Spirit does not move in directions contrary to the word of Scripture. God cannot contradict himself.
I am not sure I fully agree here with Luther anymore. I wobble on his conviction precisely because of the witness of Scripture. In my previous posting (“Sexual Outsider Becomes Spiritual Insider”), I argue that God cannot be caged in our theological or other expectations of how God must act. At times God moves freely, it seems to me, beyond the literal letter of Scripture.
In discussing the examples of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) and in the Spirit’s leading to incorporate Gentiles as equal members in the church, I think we can argue that that is what God is doing. God does not confine himself to the letter of Scripture, or at least not to our interpretation of the letter of Scripture.
Equality in the Church over Sexual Orientation
If my argument is valid, then I must give a serious listening to those voices in the church today who argue that God is leading us to accept gay and lesbian Christians as equals with straight Christians in the community of faith.
Opponents appeal to the Reformation principle that the Holy Spirit never leads in a way that contradicts God’s word in Scripture. Then they appeal to the several passages in the Old and New Testaments that condemn homosexual behavior as a sin.
I agree that all the references to homosexual behavior that we find in the Bible are uniformly negative. That seems to me to be a fact, however we choose to deal with that. Appealing to the Reformation principle, then we would have to say that the Holy Spirit cannot be behind any of the movement to welcome gays and lesbians as equal members into the community of faith. The Spirit does not move in directions that contradict Scripture.
But as I argue in my last posting, I am not so sure of that Reformation principle anymore. It seems that it contradicts the witness of Scripture. God does indeed move in ways that break out of the strict letter of the written word.
And so I must give a serious hearing to those who argue for the equality of gays and straights before God. Indeed, what is going on in the Christian world with its contentious debate over homosexuality may be more than an accommodation to secular culture, as conservatives argue. Some of that may be happening. But maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit is at work in this movement as well.
The Relevance of Gamaliel’s Rule
How do we decide where the Spirit is at work? I have begun to believe that an appeal to the letter of Scripture cannot always be the decisive arbiter. Instead I think the more important arbiter in this particular debate must turn out to be the rule of Gamaliel.
Gamaliel was a highly respected Pharisaic rabbi in Jerusalem when the infant church was just beginning its life. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Judaism.
The evangelist Luke tells a story in Acts 5:12-39, how the Sanhedrin called in Peter and the early apostles and admonished them on their active preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They order the apostles to desist from preaching in the name of Jesus. Peter and the other apostles refuse, saying, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
The council is enraged and seeks a way to kill them. But Gamaliel stands up in the council and advises restraint. Citing examples of other social and religious movements that blazed for a moment and then faded away, he concludes his argument by saying (in Acts 5:38-39):
So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!
Notice, Gamaliel does not appeal to Scripture in his advice to the council. Instead he appeals to history. Let the new Christian movement alone. History will ultimately reveal whether it is of God or not.
Making Appeal to the Judgment of History
After listening to all sides of the debate over how Christians should respond to homosexuality, I have come to the conclusion that an appeal to Scripture cannot definitively settle the debate. Instead I think we must adopt the rule of Gamaliel. History will be the arbiter.
Let us be willing to consider that the Holy Spirit may indeed be at work in this movement. However, only time will tell whether our consideration is right or wrong.
As equality between gays and straights becomes a practice in the life of the church (as it seems to be doing in my own denomination), where does it lead? Does it lead to greater wholeness not only in the life of individuals and couples, but also in the life of churches and communities? Does it produce good fruit? If so, that can be a strong indication that the Spirit is indeed at work in this movement.
If it leads to a breakdown in the life of families and individuals as well as in the life of churches and communities, if it produces bitter fruit, then that can be an indication that Christians advocating equality chose the wrong road.
Gamaliel’s rule echoes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. How do you recognize false prophets? By their fruits. “A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, or a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:18). We will recognize the leading of the Spirit or the lack of leading by the historical results of the decisions that churches make today.
The problem with this appeal to history is that the answer to our question is not likely to be clear in the life of this or the immediate generations to come. History seldom delivers its judgments quickly. Because they will have some distance from the heat of present debates, future generations may have more objectivity in assessing the current debate than we can.
And so I am willing to accept the argument for equality, but on the basis of a fundamental humility. Both sides in the debate, I believe, must be willing to accept that they not only may be right, but also they may be wrong. We await the judgment of Gamaliel’s rule.