Preliminary manuscript, subject to revision.
2 Kings 5:15-19
In Acts 15 we read about a huge debate in the early Christian church. Did Gentiles who wanted to join the Christian community have to be circumcised and observe all the other life style rules and traditions of the Jewish people? They held a general conference, a gathering of the leaders of the church. Debate was intense. Finally, Peter stood and made a speech. “Look, you all know that God chose me to be the first to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And God clearly demonstrated his approval by giving them the Holy Spirit the same as God gave to us. God made no distinction. So why on earth are you trying the patience of God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?”
To summarize: Peter used two arguments. First, the spiritual life of new Gentile believers was just as good as the spiritual life of Jewish believers. Second, the experience of the Jewish people with their rules and regulations argued against the validity of those very rules and regulations. The Jewish people had found them burdensome and impossible. So why impose them on new believers?
Note, Peter did not quote the Bible in his argument. And for good reason. There was no biblical basis for dispensing with circumcision. In fact, to the contrary. The Bible was crystal clear. Circumcision was obligatory.
There are repeated statements in the laws of Moses, mandating kind treatment of foreigners. Foreigners were to have the same rights in court as native born people. But when it came to religious practice, there was an emphatic distinction. Foreigners were prohibited to eat the Passover. This celebration of the fantastic deliverance from Egypt belonged to the Hebrew people alone. No foreigners were permitted. If a foreigner wanted to participate in the Passover, he was required to first be circumcised. No exceptions (Exodus 12:43-49).
The early Christians understood themselves to be the “true Jews.” They were the authentic inheritors of the spiritual heritage of Abraham. So obviously, Christians had to be circumcised. That was Bible. Advocates of this belief could cite chapter and verse.
But Peter dismissed all this with a wave of the hand. In essence, Peter said, “I don’t care about your Bible verses, we know from experience, both from the long experience of the Jewish people and from the immediate experience among us as Christians that it is time to let go of this circumcision rule. Let it go, and welcome the Gentiles the same way that God welcomes them.”
Today, we Adventists imagine ourselves as the inheritors of the spiritual heritage of the apostles. We are the true apostolic church. And the temptation is to prove our authenticity by rigorously enforcing every rule and tradition we associate with the early Christian church. Just as for the early Christian church a rule associated with sexuality epitomized “faithfulness to all the laws of God,” so now Adventists (along with other conservative Christians) focus on ancient rules associated with sexuality as a symbol of their full devotion to God.
Against the clamor of this tradition, I stand with Peter and say, God has clearly shown his disregard for our boundaries. God has demonstrably gifted people outside our boundaries. Single people, women, homosexuals, divorced people have all demonstrated noteworthy spiritual gifts. Women evangelists contradict our notions of “male-only ministry.” Many homosexual musicians have served as highly effective ministers of music. All sorts of people other than married men have exhibited the generosity and kindness of God. They have demonstrated God’s lack of pickiness when it comes to choosing whom he calls into service. Further, we have had long experience with trying to squeeze everyone into a particular mold. Over and over and over we have seen people damaged by our efforts to make them conform to our narrow expectations. We have seen church rules and traditions alienate our children from God. It is time to join with Peter and say, “Enough.” If God draws people who are we to turn them away in our devotion to anachronistic applications of ancient rules.
The theological justification of letting go of the requirement of circumcision we read in the writings of Paul came after the conference in Acts 15. The church moved forward because of Peter’s speech which cited the evident moving God in the experience of the people of God. The theology came later.
I am going to cite some Bible stories in support of letting go of some of our ancient rules, rules that are based on actual Bible texts just like the Bible support of circumcision. But let me be clear, I’m citing these stories in support of a truth that God has already made abundantly clear in our experience.
In the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) we read: Do not make any images. Do not bow down to any images. The command is repeated several times in the Books of Moses. Perhaps the starkest, harshest expression of this prohibition is the law that states that if a friend or relative secretly invites you to participate in worship of another god, you must report them. Even if the person is your own spouse, you must report them and then when the community comes together to stone the idolater, you must throw the very first stone.
Do not bow. If anyone even hints that they are prepared to bow, kill them. That’s the law.
Then we read the story of Naaman. Naaman was commander of the army of Syria. He came to Samaria and was healed of leprosy by the prophet Elisha. In gratitude, Naaman pledged himself to worship the God of Israel from then on. “But I have one problem,” the general told the prophet. “Back in Damascus, when my king enters the temple to pray, as part of my duties, I must accompany him. And when he bows, I must also bow. Is that going to be okay?” The prophet answered, “Go in peace.”
Bowing in the temple of Rimmon was obviously not the ideal worship life. But it was the right accommodation to the real life situation of Naaman. It was holy.
The Gibeonites were a Canaanite tribe. God had ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites. Completely. Obliterate them. Genocide. The divine order was crystal clear. The Gibeonites were terrified and decided to try to side step the divine order. They tricked Joshua and the Hebrew leaders into thinking they were not Canaanites and persuaded them to sign a non-aggression treaty. When Joshua’s army learned they had been tricked, that the Gibeonites were, in fact, Canaanites, the army insisted that Joshua obey God and destroy the Gibeonites.
Joshua refused to obey his army. Joshua refused to obey the very clear, direct command of God. Joshua protected the Gibeonites. Joshua did not just “tolerate” the Gibeonites. When other Canaanite tribes threatened the Gibeonites, Joshua and his army protected them.
The parallel between the situation of the Gibeonites and homosexuals in the church today is obvious. Those who wish to exclude homosexual couples from church membership can cite direct statements in the Bible just as Joshua’s army could cite direct statements by God ordering the exclusions and even annihilation of the Gibeonites.
But in this story, Joshua is symbolic of Jesus. Joshua and Jesus are, in fact, different forms of the same name, like Juan and John. If we are going to be the church of Jesus, we will follow the inclusion of Joshua, not the holy blood lust of his army.
What was Joshua’s justification for sparing the Gibeonites even though God had said to annihilate them? Joshua cited the ordinary human value of honoring his word. I signed a treaty, I will not violate it. I promised. I will keep my promise. Joshua did what any decent human being would do.
When we face the question: how shall we treat our LGBT children, we don’t go first to some sentence in the book of Leviticus. We act instinctively out of our identity as mothers and fathers. We build a house that will be a safe place for our children to grow up in. That is simply what decent parents do. Good parents do not attempt to squeeze their children into some predetermined mold. They respond to the children who are actually alive right there in front of them.
Peanut butter sandwiches are perfect food. But we do not give them to children who are allergic to peanuts or have a gluten sensitivity. Tomatoes are marvelous. But if your daughter hates tomatoes, what do you do? You serve something else. That’s what good parents do. We bend and adapt to the real children in our homes. We don’t imagine they are the theoretical children in a book.
At our house right now, we have an illustration of the collision of Adventist tradition and taking care of a real, live person. In our kitchen, there is a whole collection of foods for Joel. High fat yogurt. High fat cookies. Heavy cream. Peanut butter. Coconut oil. Butter.
When we feed Joel vegetables, we soak them in butter. When we make cookies for him, we use coconut oil. When we serve him oatmeal, we smother it with butter and heavy cream. Why? Because he is dangerously underweight and has been for a long time.
I’m not going to write a book on nutrition for children and begin advocating ice cream, heavy cream, and lots and lots of butter as an ideal diet for infants. But if someone tried to insist that “the best diet” for our grandson was a vegan diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables I would laugh in their face. Joel is different. He is not normal. So we don’t treat him normally.
Since we are an outpost of the kingdom of heaven, our life together is shaped by the principles of the kingdom. Jesus gave very high moral challenges:
Do not hate. Even people who are hateful.
Do not worship while reconciliation is languishing.
Do not damage your enemies.
Practice radical honesty.
Practice radical sexual restraint.
Don’t be too attached to money.
Practice regarding every human being, especially the needy, as the incarnation of God.
Be a neighbor.
Allow the needs of others to become your problem.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
This is an exalted ethic. A challenge. A beckoning. A dare. It is far higher, and far more challenging than mere obedience to rules. It requires us to first understand one another before we begin attempting to prescribe how to live. After all, that’s what we would want for ourselves.
Let’s embrace this radically. Let’s practice listening long before we speak. Let’s be careful not to prescribe for someone else a pattern of life we are not following.
When someone attempts to use ancient rules and texts in Leviticus and Romans to exclude our children, let’s stand with Peter and say, “Enough.”
Let’s stand with Jesus and say, “Let the children come.”