Gamaliel’s Rule and Christian Debates over Homosexuality


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. 

A Prayer for All Peoples

Bible text: Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4

At the heart of Christian piety lies the prayer we traditionally call the Lord’s Prayer. It is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. Its words are designed to guide us in wording our own prayers.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen

Through centuries of use, this prayer has embedded itself deep into the European and American consciousness. I was fascinated to recognize that when I was watching the funeral of Princess Diana on TV back in 1997.

At one point in the service, a bishop started leading the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. The TV cameras showed nearly everyone in Westminster Abbey and among the crowds assembled outside reciting the words. In a world where fewer and fewer people attend church, still a large proportion of the secularized crowds around us know and can recite this prayer.

It is startling, however, to notice that there is nothing distinctly Christian about this prayer that has been central to the Jesus movement ever since Jesus taught it. The prayer does not invoke the name of Jesus, as do most other Christian prayers when we add on to the end, “in Jesus’ name.”

The language is not distinctly Trinitarian. Yes, the prayer invokes God by the name Father, but this prayer precedes by a couple of centuries the Trinitarian meaning Christians were to later give to the word Father.

In fact, the most Christian element in the prayer is probably this naming of God as Father. This language reflects Jesus’ own practice of calling upon God as his Father. The Aramaic word he used was Abba, which can be translated as Daddy. Jesus’ usage expresses the intimate relationship that Jesus seems to have felt with God. He wanted others to share that intimate relationship as well.

What I find notable about this prayer is that I imagine most Jews and Muslims would also feel comfortable in speaking this prayer. Calling God Father was not the most favored usage in the Hebrew Bible, but I don’t imagine any Jew would feel he or she was compromising his or her faith in addressing God as Father. And phrases like “hallowing the name of God” and praying for the coming of God’s kingdom are very distinctive Jewish themes.

I am not familiar with common usage among Muslims, but I again doubt that most Muslims would feel they compromised their faith in speaking this prayer. And probably many others of others faiths might feel the same.

So this prayer that many Christians regard as distinctly theirs proves to be a prayer whose wording allows people of many different faiths to join in a united invoking of God. Is it not characteristic of Jesus that in creating a model prayer, he should choose language that unites rather than divides?

Prayer on the Temple Mount

Scripture texts:  Isaiah 56:7, Mark 11:17

In reading Isaiah, I find what God says in Isaiah 56:7 a haunting verse. God speaks into the future—the age of salvation—and declares that in that time, his temple shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Eunuchs and Gentiles who have been excluded from the temple will be welcomed in. It is another one of the Bible’s amazing visions of inclusivity.

In Mark 11:17, Jesus cites this verse as sanction for his driving the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. His citation implies that the future age of salvation has arrived. The temple needs to be opened as a place of worship for all nations. It must be cleansed of all that distracts from the supreme work of prayer.

Yet the spirit of exclusion remains 2,000 years later. Jews lament their destroyed temple at the Western Wall. Muslims lay claim to the site of the temple with their Dome of the Rock. The temple mount remains a locus of conflict and competing demands, not a place of prayer for all nations.

Playing the what-if game, I have long wondered what it would be like if the Dome of the Rock were to be opened as a house of prayer for all peoples. The mosque sits upon the very site of the Israelite temple. Here Abraham prepared to offer up his son. Here undoubtedly Jesus walked the pavements surrounding it. And here Muhammed began his visionary night ascent into heaven.

What if the mosque were to become an open place to all people who wish to draw close to God? What if people of all three religions—indeed of all faiths–were welcomed to use the mosque as a place to draw near to God? Would not then the vision of Isaiah and Jesus be fulfilled? The Dome of the Rock could become a symbol of the most profound inclusivity.

This is not to propose an amalgamated religion, composed of elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam combined. I believe the three faiths share much in common as children of Abraham, but each is also different. We must never try to erase the differences in a naïve belief that amalgamation will ensure peace. But in the act of prayer, people of faith (despite their different theologies) can be spiritually one in acknowledging the sovereignty and compassion of God.

As I see it, each of the three Abrahamic religions could and should retain a special site in Jerusalem that is hallowed to their unique faith. For the Jews that would be the Western Wall. For Christians the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And for Muslims the All Aqsa mosque at the south end of the temple mount. But the Dome of the Rock would become a place serving all of humanity as an open place of prayer.

I realize that in the present heated religious and political climate of the Middle East, such a proposal is totally unrealistic. It would take a great act of condescension on the part of Muslims to open the Dome of the Rock as a place of prayer for all faiths. And fundamentalists in all three faiths would vehemently oppose any such convergence of the three faiths in this way.

But one can still dream. And there remains God’s promise that one day this site will indeed be a house of prayer for all nations. May that day come quickly.