Leviticus (18:12; 20:13)

(Fifth post on same-sex relationships.)

There are two verses from Leviticus that figure in the debates over the Bible and homosexuality. First, Leviticus 18:22, which says:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

The wider context (Lev. 17-26) for both texts is often called the holiness code where stipulations are given with regard to holiness, on being pure. That section includes what one eats (Lev. 20:25), tattoos (Lev. 19:28), and wearing clothes from mixed fibres (Lev. 19:19). That concept of holiness brings us into a strange world.

Holiness, as defined in this wider passage is essentially ensuring that Israel will be distinct from the wider world, her pagan worshipping neighbours. To be different, set apart, pure, Israel must not assimilate to the surrounding cultures.

Sexual prohibitions are also included in this ‘holiness’ section, and given a) the importance of the body and b) the repeated warnings regarding sexual sin in the NT, we cannot simply ignore them in the same way that we ignore prohibitions regarding food, tattoos and clothing. Although we do not ignore the sexual prohibitions, a strong case can be made to suggest that there is an element of false worship that sits as the background, so that we are not simply reading prohibitions against certain sexual practices but against sexual practices tied to religious worship. The opening context of verse 3 places the prohibitions against the background of the other nations:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes.

This pagan cultic background could well indicate that the prohibition is aimed at the situation where male shrine prostitutes were an intrinsic part of worship to pagan gods and goddesses. There is repeated rhetoric against these shrine prostitutes at different parts of the OT (see Deut. 23:17; 1 Kings 14:24 (linked with abomination), 15:12, 22:46, 23:7).

A further point is to look more closely at the chapter where the prohibition against lying with a male is placed at the end of a series of prohibitions regarding incestuous relationships. It is possible that the male / male is continuing the theme of sexual relationships within the family.

The second text in Leviticus is in 20:13

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

We again have the two contexts of foreign worship practices and of incestuous sexual relationships. The context cautions us from suggesting that these verses are a blanket prohibition against all same-sex relationships.

n the Hebrew text we have perhaps an interesting aspect. For we read if a man (ish) lies with a male (zkr). This has (and with the context being of prohibitions against familial sexual relationships) suggested to some that the term ‘male’ could be translated here as ‘male family member’. It is certainly interesting that we do not have the parallels of either ish / ish nor zkr / zkr; either parallel would imply a general situation of two (equally defined) males being together; the non parallel usage suggests something different. We can further comment that there does not seem to be an inference to the creation narrative as there (Gen. 1:27… created ‘male and female’) we have ish (male) and ne.qe.vah (female) whereas here we do not have ‘female’ (as per Genesis) but ‘woman’ (ish.shah). With no inference to creation and no parallel structure in the sentence we should not read that what is being condemned has any connection with God creating them as ‘male and female’.

Leviticus 20 does not seem therefore to be written against a creation background, but a cultural, cultic and familial setting. It would be pushing the text (and the one in Leviticus 18) too far to suggest that the prohibition applies to all same-sex relationships. In a similar way to the money-lending / mortgage example suggested that those are not in the same category so I suggest that we have to allow these texts to be approached in the same way. Abusive interest rates and mortgages / other loans are not in the same category, hence the prohibition against money lending cannot be used to become a blanket prohibition against all money lending; and in the same way the prohibitions here cannot automatically become a blanket prohibition against all same-sex relationship.


1. There are other arguments advanced, including one that suggests what is being prohibited is two males having intercourse with a woman. Joanna Töyräänvuori argues for this (“Homosexuality, the Holiness Code, and Ritual Pollution: A Case of Mistaken Identity.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45, no. 2 (2020): 236-67). The spectrum of interpretations (and that spectrum, of course, includes a blanket prohibition against all same-sex relationships) should caution us from making our interpretation the right one.

Creation and two cities

(Fourth post on same-sex relationships.)

Creation: male and female

In the two creation narratives we encounter exactly that, namely narrative. We do not encounter a set of commands and prohibitions. The central question that we have to answer is whether these accounts are prescriptive or descriptive. Regarding the sexual bond that we read of in those narratives there is a limit that restricts such a bond to hetero-examples. If, however, we were to make these texts prescriptive we would then run into all kinds of issues.

Be fruitful: but what about couples that are childless (indeed in some Jewish commentaries a husband was obliged to divorce his wife if they were childless after 10 years – NB the patriarchal perspective, with the husband able to divorce the wife!)? And the ‘be fruitful’ mandate hits a huge barrier of application to those who are single. If the narrative is to be understood in a prescriptive manner we hit those immediate issues.

Better to take it as descriptive. God created humanity1; humanity carrying the image of God. If we were tempted to suggest that there is in the text a binary definition of humanity (either male or female) we immediately run into difficulty with the language within these passages regarding other aspects of creation, for in the wider context we read God that created night and day… this does not imply that s/he only created night and day, and that dusk and dawn owe an origin to another source other than God! This use of two contrasting examples we also use in English: ‘I searched high and low’ does not imply that I would have found the lost item if only I had searched at a level other than high or other than low. High and low mark the two ends and include everything in between. This is what is termed a merism.2

God blesses those who marry and move out from their parents and have children, but God can, and does, also bless those who don’t fit that particular pattern. There might be a norm (in the sense of majority experience) but to suggest a norm does not imply something that does not fit the ‘majority-norm’ is therefore automatically an aberration, nor to suggest ‘less in the image of God’. The creation narratives are better taken as being descriptive, and we would push them too far to use them to restrict expressions that do not fit with the ‘norm’.

Sodom and Gomorrah: Genesis 18, 19

The story is fairly well known. Two angels arrive on a mission to the city of Sodom. Lot, Abraham’s nephew lives there and he welcomes them, persuading them to stay the night and so he offers them hospitality. News gets out that they have arrived and are staying with Lot, and the men of the city come out saying:

Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them (Gen. 19:5).

It is all but universally accepted that the reference to knowing the men (angels) is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.
The situation is resolved by the angels intervening and the inhabitants being struck blind. (A strange side-note is that Lot had sought to resolve the situation by offering his (virgin) daughters to satisfy the men.)

There is clearly a major reference to the desire of these male inhabitants to have sex with these men, but it is interesting how other biblical texts refer to this situation. There are a few texts that refer to Sodom and the main one in the OT is Ezekiel 16 with central verses being vs. 49 and 50.

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

There might be a reference to sexual sin in the phrase ‘abominable things’ but this is certainly not the central focus of the critique. At the centre is the injustice and oppression of the poor.

There are some clear parallels with Judges 19 where we read of the demand for sex was met by the gang-raping of the Levite’s concubine. Both texts are horrendous, and the issue in both situations is that of gang-rape. From the texts it is not possible to suggest that the homosexual element adds anything to the judgement, and as mentioned that aspect is not picked up by the other texts.

In Matt. 10:14-15 and Luke 10:10-12 we have a reference to Sodom and that the judgement on the cities that did not offer hospitality to the disciples (those sent on a mission) will be stronger than the judgement on Sodom.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (Matt. 10:14-15).

Hospitality was an expected cultural norm of the middle east, and it is this aspect that Jesus drew out from the Sodom and Gomorrah situation. They not only did not offer a welcome to those who visited but they sought to abuse them.
If we narrow in on the homosexual aspect of Sodom and Gomorrah we are centring on something that the rest of Scripture does not focus on. Injustice, oppression of the poor and a refusal to open their hearts with hospitality are at the centre. The sexual sin that was threatened was likewise an oppression, that of threatened gang rape, the powerful against the powerless.

In Jude 6, 7 it says that Sodom pursued sex with ‘unnatural flesh’. In the immediate context this is compared to angels having sex with women (Gen. 6) and as the book of Jude is heavily dependent on the book of Enoch that elaborates the strange myth that we read of in Genesis as being a story of 200 angels who took humans as wives, so the reference to strange flesh is probably not a reference to something homosexual but to desiring sex with angels. The context and background suggests that we are reading of a condemnation against Sodom and Gomorrah for attempting to have intercourse with angels, just as angels were condemned for having intercourse with humans.
Sodom and Gomorrah then is a critique (along with injustice) to imposed, forced sex, to rape and in the situation to gang rape, and to extend it beyond that is to go beyond the biblical testimony.


1. We could say that a person is ‘created’ by the sexual intercourse between the parents, and I am not using the term ‘God created’ in the sense of creationism vs. evolution, but that God is intimately involved with each person. Neither am I using the term ‘created’ to suggest that the origins of humanity were across a spectrum from male to female, but that humanity, in the image of God, is across a spectrum, and that humanity cannot be neatly restricted to a binary expression. An individual can appear anywhere on the spectrum and that where they ‘sit’ on that spectrum does not increase or decrease how they reflect that image.

2. I use s/he as in a paper on sexuality it seems more sensitive, God being non-sexual (both in terms of ‘biology’ and gender).

3. Other examples are God / Jesus as ‘the alpha and omega’, the ‘first and the last’.

Usury… charging of interest (an important aside)

(Third post on same-sex relationships.)

In later society ‘usury’ came to mean the action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest, but in many historical societies including ancient Christian, Jewish, and Islamic societies, usury meant the charging of interest of any kind, and this was considered wrong, and even in some situations it was made illegal. The texts of the Old Testament are clear:

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them (Exod. 22:25).

If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you (Leviticus 25:36–37).

You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess (Deut. 23:19–20).

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
… who do not lend money at interest (Ps. 15:1, 5).

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right… does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest… such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God (Ezek. 18:5-9; see also 18:13, 17 and 22:12; apologies for the male language, such was the culture and the language of the day).

Interest was not allowed among the covenant community, which allowed space for Jews to loan money in a later period when they were dispersed throughout Europe. They became the money-lenders, to the Gentiles.

This prohibition to charge interest continued to carry weight within the Christian community. The most recent and relatively complete papal discussion of usury occurred in Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical of 1745,

The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract … [which] demands, by its very nature, that one return to another only as much as he has received. The sin rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given…, but any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious.
One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully…

As can be read in this encyclical there is a ban on interest, with the only legitimate return being that of receiving back as much as was loaned.

If we apply the law, what we read, as being the guideline for us in our society we could argue the following:

A: Money lending that charges interest is wrong.
B: Mortgages that enable a person to buy a property fit the above criterion of money lending.
C: (Therefore) mortgages are evil and are to be condemned, and anyone with a mortgage is in defiance of God’s law.

That would indeed be a-not-inappropriate application of the law, but one that would condemn many who seek to follow Jesus! We have an appropriate application of the law if B and A are in the same category; if the prohibition of A also includes what is listed in B. Understandably the prohibitions against charging of interest came to be understood as a restriction on exorbitant rates of interest, or of using money to oppress those who could resort to no other option but to borrow money.1 The understanding of the money-lending prohibitions went beyond a literal reading of the text where the texts were not applied to every money-lending scenario.

I suggest in the sub-title of this section that the consideration of money-lending was an ‘important aside’ within the discussion of same-sex expression. The clear texts prohibiting money lending seem no longer to apply as they formerly did. One could push back against the direction I am implicitly proposing, with the point that usury is commented on within the OT, but there is a lack of NT texts on the matter and that this is unlike the same-sex situation where we have Scriptures suggesting a prohibition in both testaments. I acknowledge this to be the case but the early church writers understood the continuance of the principle, the ‘prohibitive law’ against usury. These include: Apollonius, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and John Chrysostom. In addition, the Apostolic Canons, dating in their final form to around 380, in their 44th canon prohibit the taking of usury by the clergy, as do the Council of Arles in 314 (12th canon) and the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (17th canon), while the Council of Elvira, 305 or 306, the First Council of Carthage in 345 (12th canon) and the Council of Aix in 789 (36th canon) prohibit it to the laity also.

Law ends with Jesus, for Torah law was what was given to the people of Israel, but none of the principles within the law are simply cancelled. They all are nailed to the cross as law, but that which continues as ‘Jesus shaped principle’ remains, often in intensified form (‘adultery’ is re-defined as ‘lust’; ‘murder’ as ‘anger’).

Helpfully, tradition has helped us to see the ongoing principle of the prohibition against money-lending with interest as being a restriction against unbridled use of money in a money-lending context, of money being used to make money through oppression and excessive interest rates.

It appears that it was John Calvin who pushed back against a blanket restriction on charging interest. (Martin Luther condemned charging interest, and if it was found that a Christian had been involved in charging interest they were not given a ‘Christian’ burial.) Calvin replied in a letter to a question posed to him asking if it was ever right to charge interest that pushed back against the text as being the final word, arguing that the context of the biblical texts and the context of the 16th Century were different; he argued that the purpose of the text was to prohibit that which was oppressive, and had to be read in that light. Perhaps the letter did not become public until after Calvin’s death as it was so explosive?

When we come to the texts that we have to consider on same-sex expression2 we need to approach them with some caution if we seek to learn from the above example.

A: The Bible condemns money lending that charges interest / the Bible condemns homosexuality.
B: Mortgages are money lending examples that charge interest / same-sex committed relationships are an example of homosexual practice.
C: Mortgages are evil and all who have them are to be condemned / all those…

The important area is whether B & A are referring to the same; that there is a direct 1-1 relationship between the two examples. In the case of the money-lending / mortgages the consensus of opinion is that they are not; that we are not comparing like with like. This scrutiny regarding the texts on homosexuality has to be applied to them in the same way; we have to consider if we are comparing like with like.

None of what has been written thus far is presented as a conclusive argument, but the various principles that proceed should caution us somewhat as we come to look at some of the pertinent texts.

There is an overarching story that we live under. That story is from Creation through Redemption to New Creation. We cannot simply take texts and force them to be applicable to any and every situation, regardless of culture and context. This overarching story will enable us to understand the word of God but we cannot reduce the word of God to a text, or even a combination of texts; ultimately the truths of God are not simply textual or propositional but revealed in and through the Person of Jesus.

Any understanding of Scripture will be informed by the stories that people bring, those stories will involve God’s activity and acceptance with the stories often coming from the marginalised whose voice has been previously silenced.

Our understanding of Scripture will be challenged in the same way as the prohibition on money-lending has been challenged. We will have to ask what is being addressed in the Scriptures, what practices are being forbidden and how do we apply them into our culture. The money-lending example illustrated those principles that will be important for us.


1. Such an understanding should carry redemptive weight into our economic structures, where money makes money, often simply enriching those who already have resources and enslaving those who lack resources.

2. I will use the term ‘homosexuality’ in the sentences that follow, but it is important to acknowledge that our current understanding of homosexuality is not that which was understood in the biblical period, nor indeed for centuries thereafter.


In writing these posts I do not have a great library to refer to (and would I understand what is in those erudite books anyway??) but did read quite widely when I wrote the original paper (24 years ago!). I acknowledge the help I have found in my thinking by Dr. Jonathan Tallon whose YouTube channel is very informative:

https://www.youtube.com/c/BibleandHomosexuality

Dr. James Brownson has a book ‘Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships’ that seeks do just that. Of course just because a person has the term ‘Dr’ in front of their name does not make them right. Andrew Perriman (who is a ‘Dr’ but does not use it as far as I can tell) has a good review and of the book and pushes back against it:

https://www.postost.net/2015/11/summary-james-brownson-s-argument-bible-gender-sexuality

There are other posts on Andrew’s site that review the book – the above is just one; make a search ‘Brownson’ and you will find others. There are also posts by Andrew on same-sex relationships and he also has a book that is available (‘End of Story?: Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission’).

Slavery, women and…

(Second post on same-sex and the Bible.)

Thankfully the Christian tradition (now) is that slavery and the slave trade are incompatible with the Gospel message. Although there is still, in some quarters, a divide between male and female roles that is defended and as a result certain leadership roles are barred from women, there has been a great move toward a view advocating egalitarianism. With both examples of slavery and women there are ‘difficult Scriptures’ that anyone moving in an egalitarian direction faces. In the former situation (slavery) those Scriptures are effectively ignored;;1 and with the male / female situation there is such a strong internal critique and dialogue (disagreement?) that for writers, such as myself, there is an overwhelming movement toward an egalitarian position. Yes there are challenging Scriptures, ones that can be explained by the historical context and culture, but in reality those Scriptures are simply not relevant to us today. They were for ‘then’ and ‘there’ not ‘now’ and ‘here’. I am very happy to accept that the Bible is patriarchally biased, and that we do not need to submit to that bias, indeed we have to reject that bias… and do so to be faithful to the ‘story’ that is being told..2

Slavery → narratives that do not condemn slavery, laws that regulate but do not condemn etc… But: slave-traders critiqued; Onesimus to be viewed as a brother; and the overall message from Creation through Redemption was of the equal status of all human beings; ownership of another was not sustainable.

Women → many Scriptures place their position in society / home as being at a subservient level; Paul’s ‘household codes’ seemed to give ‘leadership’ priority to the husband. But: there was an underlying egalitarian basis to the Gospel (Gal. 3:28 being central to this); all the household codes can be seen as apologetic in nature rather than representing an eternal order; all of Paul / Pauline texts that seem to restrict women can be understood in a way that brings them into line with egalitarianism – by looking at the cultural background; and finally whatever might be claimed to be representing a subservience of women from creation becomes irrelevant as eschatological humanity in Christ (not humanity in Adam) has to be the basis for any understanding.

But same-sex relationships? The above two examples seek to track with a trajectory in Scripture and also seek to pick up on the intra-canonical debate / dialogue where there might be conflicting messages. Is that present in this third example? It seems not.

With respect to same-sex activity we do not have that same internal dialogue and that was a factor for me when I wrote that former paper. Without that internal dialogue / disagreement we accept the witness of Scripture as giving the final word, but… any final word also has to include a trajectory that would take us beyond the pages of Scripture. Any such trajectory would not be in disagreement to the story line, but could be seen to disagree with specific texts.3


1. With an effective response of ‘that was then in that culture, but we now know that there is something wrong at the core of slavery, of owning people’. Effectively those Scriptures are given no weight.

2. By accepting that the Scriptures have a patriarchal bias is not to take away its authority, but to push us beyond the various texts. The authority of Scripture is in the story being told, and in its unique witness to the revelation of God that was Personal in and through Jesus.

3. Beyond Scripture does not mean we can assume an authority to continue to add books to our canon, but that there is a very real sense in which the story being told is unfinished. There is a gap between the end of the New Testament and the parousia. We are not authorised to write what fits in this gap but it is important that the gap is filled through followers of Jesus who live out faithfully in line with what has gone before. Perhaps those Christian traditions that emphasise the tradition of the church have grasped something that those such as myself have not, but I note that too often the tradition does not simply inform but restrict any new path being discovered.

A different direction

I wrote a paper in 1997 that tried to look honestly at outlining what a biblical perspective on homosexuality was. The conclusion I reached in that paper was what might be termed a ‘traditional’ perspective: namely that marriage was between one man and a woman, same-sex orientation and attraction was in no different category than hetero-sexual orientation and attraction; but that a same-sex sexually-active relationship was outside of a biblical boundary for sexual expression.

I wrote it affirming the reality of, and the acceptance of, same-sex attraction, with the only option for someone of same-sex attraction being that of celibacy. I hope I wrote the paper without being too critical and at the close of it I suggested that a review of the biblical material (as far as same-sex practice) would be necessitated when there was evidence that the Spirit was present within such a setting. Story does not, by itself, have an authority to change theology, but our reading of the Bible has to be challenged by story, and hence our theology also has to be reviewed and if necessary changed. That admission of ‘review’ was in glad response to the methodology that we see in Acts 15. Those present were immersed in the biblical material, they had also been shaped by their traditions, but they first submitted themselves to the stories of what the Spirit was doing and then, and only then, they referred to their holy writings. The stories challenged their traditions and their former reading of their authoritative writings.

An important interlude. As probably can be picked up from the first-two paragraphs this paper will move beyond that effort of 24 years ago, and not simply beyond but in a different direction. I was asked some months back if I was having a ‘Peter conversion moment’ (as per Peter’s vision on the roof-top). I replied ‘yes, and if I go where I think I am headed then I cannot do so in private but have to be public, with any accompanying apology that is appropriate’. If anyone who reads this paper and read the former one and through that paper I caused offence, I present my apology here. I appreciate that writing those previous few words is hardly sufficient, but I have to start somewhere.

Story is important, and over the years since writing that paper I have encountered stories that have caused me to re-think. Initially I had dialogue with people who were same-sex orientation and wished to dialogue with me regarding what I had written. As I listened I could hear their stories, and within a short period of time I no longer made the paper available, as I could hear the pain that a number of them had experienced through their marginalisation. Then came reading of books, listening to those who were both affirming of (monogamous) same-sex relationships and the grace that was on them left me convinced that the Spirit was indeed present with and for them.

Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition what one does with the body is important. The biblical teaching about the body is theological, ethical and also eschatological. The Incarnation is a major ‘vote’ given to the importance of bodily existence, likewise the resurrection of the body (both in terms of Jesus and the original Easter and also the future hope for the believer) marks out how important the body is. This ‘use’ of the body must include sexual activity… and yet, we can make too much of sexual activity, for from an eschatological perspective, there will be ‘no more marriage’. Humans are in the image of God, but there are two aspects that we humans experience that God does not. In God there is no death and there is no sex! We should not fall into the trap of listing ‘sex’ as the major criterion for holiness; there are many other vices that vie for the top spot, vices that are often whitewashed as not being too serious. And once we total up the possible texts that could be critiquing same-sex expression statistically we come to something like .0001% of the entire Bible. Statistics, of course, do not necessarily prove anything but that figure should at least make us a little cautionary in drawing our conclusions.

In putting my thoughts into print I acknowledge there are those who are better equipped, having greater understanding and wider relationships than I have. What is in this paper is simply a contribution.

For some time I have considered that the future will indeed be more ‘messy’ than the past with respectful disagreement among those who sincerely seek to interpret the Scriptures and observe (in order to learn from) society. Honest people will come to different conclusions and so dialogue will be necessary between them, the space between occupied relationally rather than being an empty space across which polemic voices can sound.


I will post here over the next days in sections what I propose I will put eventually together into one paper. I acknowledge that the material is not straightforward, and what I write will represent my understanding.

Another Gospel

I am continuing with some Zooms going through the various volumes of ‘Explorations in Theology’, seeking to emphasise that they are no more than that, and hope that they provoke whoever comes on the Zooms to continue in their journey and convictions. I am convinced that the key for us all is to be connected to Jesus not to a set of beliefs. As I state ‘all theology leaks… I just pretend my leaks less than all others!’ Last night I had (at least for me) a very productive Zoom on chapters 5 and 6 of ‘The Lifeline’. Below I copy Chapter 5 of that book… (All available at https://bozpublications.com in hardback or eBook format).


Chapter 5

Another Gospel

Paul is considerably different to the likes of you and me! (I trust I did not hear any dissent to that statement.) The writer of so much of the biblical material that has shaped Christian faith and practice, a person who encountered the Risen Christ in a most dramatic encounter, who spent years fashioning the Gospel and its implications for his society and beyond. We gladly follow his lead. He carried an authority with regard to the Gospel and that authority meant he could describe certain proclamations as being a ‘different gospel’. We have to tread carefully when seeking to make statements of a similar nature, though it seems clear that not all ‘gospels’ can be harmonised one with another. There are different ‘gospels’ and when the differences are extreme those gospels represent different versions of God, or perhaps they even represent different gods. We are to find unity with all who are of faith, but when a person denies the Gospel by deed or presentation it becomes hard to recognise them as a family member. We should be cautious in coming to a decision, but I have to confess that increasingly with some presentations of ‘truth’ that, by design or by default, dehumanise those being addressed, I find it hard to reconcile the ‘god’ they speak of as being the God that I discern through my understanding of Jesus. If the ‘gods’ are different, are the ‘gospels’ not different? And the inevitable question pops up – are we actually brothers and sisters? Perhaps we are more like estranged family members and in that great age to come when we will see clearly we will see that we were both in part wrong, both advocating a ‘different gospel’. Conviction (my beliefs that I hold to in the light of how I read what I read) and humility (I am more self-critical than critical of others) are needed.

In 2001 I was participating in a conference in Hannover, Germany. At the end of the session in which I had shared, a number of believers from Spain came to me and through an interpreter said that in Spain there was not the history of revival such as could be claimed by the UK, and as I had spoken about the re-digging of the wells of historic revival what should they do. This was not a question I was prepared for and surprised myself when my response to them was:

In Spain you do not need a history of revival. What other nation on the face of the earth can, on the basis of biblical authority, claim to have first century unanswered apostolic prayers sown into the land. Go dig them out.

After the session I had to think about the response I had given and quickly came to understand that Paul’s desire to get to Spain was to proclaim in the Western end of the empire (the ends of the earth?) the Gospel. He was not looking for a holiday on the beach but somehow to make a proclamation in the land. Opinion is divided as to whether he made a trip to Spain. I like to think not, but irrespective, the prayers of Paul are in the land. This does not mean that his prayers are only present in Spain, nor that only in Spain can the Pauline Gospel be recovered, but that something can be done in this peninsula in order to help facilitate the recovery of that Gospel. At one level all other gospels are at best a variation of the one he proclaimed, or at worst they are indeed ‘another gospel’.

In Acts we read Scriptures concerning the early apsotolic proclamation and there are often summary statements of what they proclaimed. We read (emphases added):

Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:35).

Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:20).

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18).

When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:5). 

For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28).

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” (Acts 19:13).

You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jewsh and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus (Acts 20:20, 21).

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus (Acts 28:23).

He proclaimed the kingdom of Gods and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (Acts 28: 31).

In these summary statements of the early Christian proclamation we do not find some of the big salvation words: justification, reconciliation, redemption, substitutionary atonement. What we do find is that the proclamation was about Jesus. When the content is expanded it might include the resurrection (the whole basis on which there is a new world order) or a proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah (when addressing Jews). The summaries are not the totality of what was proclaimed but are a description of what (or who) was at the core of what was being proclaimed. In the context this proclamation of Jesus is best understood as an announcement that the possibility of a different world had opened up through the vindication of Jesus by the resurrection. As outlined in previous volumes this was the true Gospel of which all others, and in particular the Caesar version, were sad parodies.

The Pauline Gospel

In later volumes I plan to look at the biblical perspective on eschatology (or maybe better put ‘my take on it’!) and I have always found it strange the theology that insists on God as creator and also as the one who will destroy it all. As creator he could of course do just that, but the Incarnation (taking on flesh) and the resurrection (of flesh), and the value God places on ‘dust of the earth’ surely indicates that there is a wonderful future for creation. Humanity’s commission for the creation and Israel’s (failed) commission for the world are the reasons for the Incarnation, an intervention in order to get everything back on track.

Everything centred in on Jesus; Paul says ‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ’ (2 Cor. 2:20). Little wonder Acts presents the summary as ‘they proclaimed Jesus’. In Jesus a new world becomes possible; this new world being the current world brought to maturity, not simply through growth toward, but by a final transformation ‘at his coming’. At the resurrection of Jesus a radical ‘time-warp’ occurred. This is not a great surprise as the Jewish hope for the resurrection of the body was that it would take place at the ‘end’. Jesus was raised before the end, and so we might say, in the middle of time. Matthew’s Gospel records that the event was so eschatologically significant that other saints also obtained resurrection ahead of time.

The time-warp means that this new world, though still future, is now also present. It seems to be this that is behind Paul’s language of ‘new creation’. For those who are in Jesus, there is a change of perspective. The old has gone, the new is here. It appears that Paul is suggesting this is more than a way of thinking but that it points to a reality. Experiencing and believing that reality is to be seen in the lives of those who are in Christ and reflected in how they see others. Paul was not simply looking for decisions based on a gospel message that ended with the appeal verbalised as ‘hands up all those who want their sins forgiven and be born again’. The proclamation of Jesus carried much more weight than that, and a response meant a submission to being discipled in the values and ways of heaven. Thankfully this was more than a call to adhere to the teachings of Jesus as opposed to the ideologies of Rome, for those who committed to the Lordship of Jesus received the Spirit of God that connected them not to a set of values but to the very life-source of the universe.

In the Imperial context of the first century those early disciples were challenged ever so deeply concerning their morals and ethics, and they were often opposed and marginalised. They knew, all too well, that, although there was a ‘new creation’, the old was not simply disappearing. Knowing that the final transformation would take place when the same Jesus who ascended to heaven would descend again, they understood that their (at times) small contributions were in fact like seed in the ground that would bring that final irruption of heaven ever closer.

This expectation of this world being transformed, and the language consistently used in the New Testament within the Imperial context of Rome, inevitably meant there was a political element within the message. Not a message that called for allegiance to a party, but a message that shaped how those who believed the proclamation lived and what they wanted to work toward. If, in our setting, the proclamation of the Gospel becomes nothing but politics we can say that is not the Pauline Gospel; but when the message we adhere to speaks out against all kinds of injustices and carries the creative hope for the flourishing of all we are indeed being faithful to Paul’s Gospel.

On the road to Damascus Paul had had his encounter with the One he was previously opposed to. His previous framework of reference was totally blown away. Prior to this he could genuinely categorise himself as ‘righteous’.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Phil. 3: 4-6).

From his post-Damascus perspective he gave no value to what was previously thought as credit-worthy. For Paul, Jesus was not an add on to his previous faith, but the means by which his faith was transformed. That being his experience it is understandable why he was unwilling to shackle any Old Testament stipulation on Gentile converts. Everything was centred on Jesus, and he was the lens through which everything pre-Jesus now had to pass. Righteousness now came through being in him, not through being in ‘Israel’.

Paul, faultless according to the law, but once he was in Christ, ‘the worst of sinners’.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1 Tim. 1: 12-17).

Zealousness and righteousness previously were interpreted as requiring a persecuting of those (Jews) who adhered to faith in Jesus. Post-the-Damascus-encounter he no longer understood that his faith demanded he did God’s work by making sure everything was clean and therefore pleasing to God. He now understood to do so was wrong and if he was a sinner then so were his fellow Jews and, of course, the Gentiles. But as chief of sinners he knew that God could save anyone. As a sinner he was a blasphemer, one who took the name of God in vain, claiming to act for God. He now understood he was opposing God as he had misrepresented the God he believed he was serving; speaking and acting for him, he now understood, was acting on behalf of another ‘god’. The ‘conversion’ at the gates of Damascus did not bring about a minor tweak to his beliefs and practice!

He explains that he now understood that formerly he was a blasphemer because in the name of God he was a persecutor and a violent person. Previously he had no need to ask God (as Joshua did), ‘are you for us or for our enemies?’ The answer was clear! However, what wisdom and insight there is in Joshua’s question. Is God for us or for our enemy? If we align with Jesus, understanding the requirement to love our enemy and even death on their behalf will be sufficient to bring us to a place of humble silence. God is for our enemy!

The Pauline Gospel opens the door to all. Without doubt the whole world is locked in the prison of sin, but God is rich in mercy. Failing to be human might bring about condemnation, but God saw Paul’s activity as due to ignorance and unbelief. Understandably Paul had a desire to proclaim Jesus and present the call to believe in him.

Belief in Jesus is not an automatic response to hearing about him. There is a huge resistance to this taking place.

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4).

Ignorance about God, for the work of the god of this age is to keep God as the ‘unknown god’, and the one who cannot be known, is something that the Gospel addresses. The God that Paul proclaimed was the God who saves sinners. No one beyond the scope of salvation (not Judas who betrayed Christ, nor Peter who denied him, nor Paul who blasphemed him). God, though not human, has a human face, for it was Jesus who met Paul and addressed him personally. God, though in heaven, comes close, so close that the Spirit enters a person. Signs, wonders, miracles all being evidence of the relative ease and frequency of heaven spilling out into this world, of the future invading the present. Exorcisms breaking bondages to the god of this age, for there is only one God present in the ‘new creation’ age.

The Gospel Paul was gripped by started with an explanation of who this God was. Not a God that could be invented, not even one who could be found through the pages of a book, but had to be ultimately discovered through an encounter with the Person who was the ‘image of God’ who truly carried glory. The response to this Gospel was one of faith. The good news had to be believed for transformation to take place.

‘Ignorance and unbelief’ was the soil from which all manner of anti-God behaviour sprang forth. True enlightened knowledge and faith became the soil that would produce fruit that resonated with heaven’s values.

The Gospel was a leveller. What Paul counted as something that he could chalk up on the credit side of his life was eventually valueless. The Gospel did not come with a respect of status and once responded to any such status did not position someone hierarchically in the community of faith, hence the total resistance to Peter, and the freedom with which Paul felt to label him a hypocrite.

The mountains were levelled, the valleys raised. All (Jew and Gentile) sinners alike; all called to repentance, to believe the Gospel that was the power of God to salvation (to the Jew first, and to the Gentile). All of humanity having failed to attain and reveal the glory of God; and all of humanity invited to come through the door to a new creation reality, and to be engaged in a co-operative work with God within the new creation developing. To reduce the Gospel to a set of laws; to fail to understand how it carried a vision for transformation through challenging the status quo; to use the Bible as a set of timeless truth texts; to fail to err on the side of including the formerly defined as ‘unclean’; to consider that we are doing God’s work for him; the list can probably go on. We might never be able to stand alongside Paul and say, ‘we too understand the Gospel as you did’, but the more we align to one or more of the above phrases the more likely it is that we have deviated from the Pauline Gospel, the more likely we have embraced ‘another gospel’, and the more open we will be to be defined (as Paul self-defined his previous righteous life) as a blasphemer.

Who do you want to be like?

Now I’m the king of the swingers rule
The jungle VIP
I’ve reached the top and had to stop
And that’s what botherin’ me
I wanna be a man, mancub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I’m tired of monkeyin’ around!

Oh, ooh-bee-doo,
I wanna be like you-hu-hu
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you
To-o-oo!

No biblical reference to the above… but I had this crazy thought, who do we want to be like?

‘I want to be like you when I grow up’. The advantage that some of us have is we have a lot of growing up to do, so I guess we can still adapt and change as to who we want to be like when we finally grow up! [Not sure if that was a confession or not!]

I am fascinated by the stories in Scripture, and the original Garden one seems to carry a lot of provocative thought within it – and of course it carries so much more weight for me when I read it as story, as original myth that illuminates so much of life. ‘Who do you want to be like?’ is one of those questions in there.

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

I want to be like God… that must have been the appeal that was the hook. The internal response must have been something like, you’ve hit it in one, and if this fruit is the path. Bring it on!

If however we have a warped view of God, and by that I mean a warped view of who God is, not a warped view of what God can do, but of who s/he is we can end up in big trouble. Knowing good and evil, knowing all of that outside of relationship, outside of a life flow, outside of listening… having power like God… but without connecting to God as life… And so on.

A desire to be like God can sound so good, but to take an aspect of God and home in on it without realising WHO God is can be catastrophic.

Being in the form of God he kenosised himself.

OK rough translation, but my point is there is no ‘though / although / in spite of’ in the verse. Jesus does not do something un-godlike, something we would never expect God to do (and if we start there we are likely to take that wrong starting point to the finish point of the cross and have a God who forsakes the Son). There is no ‘in spite of’ but a big ‘being’ / because he is the express image of God he does what God does. He emptied himself, he went down.

The lie of eating the fruit of the tree is not tied primarily to disobedience, as if here is the law and you broke it so out of the Garden you go; it was that the fruit eating experiment was not an ’emptying myself’ path but a ‘filling me up’ path (and no pun intended). Eating the fruit did not change the task but for sure made the task a whole load harder:

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.

The task is still an expanding Garden to fill the whole world… just originally the boundaries were there just to be expanded and moved out; now we move out and find that the Garden hasn’t automatically come with us. Sweat, sweat… but we shall eat!

I am not writing about some path of suffering, of a ‘woe is me I have to go down for there is no worthiness in me’. There is no unworthiness in God… of course we do understand that there is an ongoing sense of suffering, of holding pain in his/ her heart by God, but another level ‘he suffered once for all…’ There is laughter, joy in heaven. There is so much that God does, and invites us to do as well, for the ‘works I do you will do… and greater’. But to focus on what God does, and I want to be like God doing what God does is to miss it some. I want to be like God… and there is a growth that can then take place, there is no overnight fruit that can be eaten and then – look at me I am now like God! As if!

The path is – from a place of security – learning that because we carry something, ultimately we carry the image of God. (There is the irony in Genesis 3 as we read, ‘you will be like God’, but God has already declared ‘image & likeness’; the temptation should have been ever so ineffective; the stories have so much ironic humour in them.) Carriers of the image, with all the seeds to be like God already placed within us we can pour that out taking on the form of a slave. Not becoming a slave with our heads down and all beat up, but appearing as a slave to those who look on who do not understand who God is, and appearing ever so human. Not super-human, human.

Response to temptation in the Garden?

Nah, I think you have missed the mark. I am already like God, the seed is in there, the fruit on offer really will not help, in fact it will throw me off course. So step back and watch the effect as I give my life away, and actually act God-like by emptying myself. Watch as there will be an endless flow from a source that does not dry up. (That is the wonder of emptying the infinite, the effect is simply a flow of life; we can see the flow of life, but miss how it happens.) I will resemble God a lot more, becoming more like God as I grow up. You might only see what God does, you might be impressed, but there is something much deeper.

He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel (Ps. 103:7).

Q & A

Last night I had a dream, maybe not a full on God-dream but one that I woke from energised. It centred around how we tend to approach life with the answers, how we are sure because of our faith, and then we try and make life fit our answers. My little task in the dream was to come to a group who were so sure about everything and tell them that their answers were irrelevant as they did not have the right questions (indeed they did not seem to have any questions; they had left that part of life behind them). As I looked around the whole group I could see they were very content, but evidently in a bubble, they had little contact (and probably little relevance) to what lay beyond themselves.

Pre-fall I guess the path was one of discovery, experimentation and surprise – sounds a great way to live? The instruction was to ‘eat of all the trees’. Try this fruit, what about that one… What a great way to learn and given that redemption brings about a restoration this should become an element in our lives. The freedom of discovery.

Post-fall it seems that questions are key. Before God says anything by way of revelation there are questions that come that penetrate right to the heart:

  • “Where are you?”
  • “Who told you that you were naked?”
  • “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
  • “What is this that you have done?”

Questions continue throughout Scripture. Particularly before revelation comes:

  • ‘What is in your hand?’
  • ‘What do you see?’
  • ‘Who do you say I am?’

If we are not comfortable with questions there will be very little revelation. We have to be comfortable with not knowing… and if we are not comfortable with that we will always have a tendency to resort to eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (hint: not a good idea and one that does not have a good ending! When I first wrote this last sentence I mis-spelt good as ‘goof’, not a bad spelling?).

Putting the two elements of pre-fall and post-fall together we need to consider that discovery (with experimentation and surprise) and questions need to be the tracks either side of the path that we walk down. God is the all-knowing one, we…? Well we are maybe not the all-ignorant ones, but far from being the all-knowing ones!

Questions without answers are not comfortable… but we have to be come comfortable with that feeling. We have to hold this, and learn to live with a big old ‘I don’t know’ as part of of who we are.

Thoughts for the week

Baptism and Mortgages

A couple of thoughts. Thoughts for the week / day? Maybe I could be on to something here with a whole new way of communicating that means everyone logs on and I become famous… Now there’s a thought.

I was in communication with someone this week and as I was praying for them I saw a strange image. Strange in that taken literally I would find what I saw somewhat hard to defend biblically.

We are all aware of the teaching on baptism, and how it acts as a door closing on what had gone before. Believers baptism (my roots) and I also see it for children of believers acting as a door closing to exiting – in other words they are ‘in’ unless they count themselves out – I do think I have some Pauline authority on that one with 1 Cor. 7. Now to what I saw.

I saw this person who I believe has a calling to develop ‘schools of wisdom’ (a play on ‘schools of the prophets’) where those that are developed can both initiate business models and consult into the business realm… and I saw the process beginning by baptising the people being trained, baptising them out of the church! Hold it… don’t throw stones at me yet… for I am not defending it literally. But once we are ‘in’ church it can be really soon that we learn a new language, embrace a new culture, to such an extent that we no longer are able to communicate. Our gospel is incarnational – and not simply ‘fleshed out’ but fleshed in a way that ‘I hear you speak my language’.

So no new doctrinal perspective on baptism coming forth… but a very big invite is being given in this season to have unhelpful packaging that has been placed on (incarcerated) the gospel washed away. This process is under way and involves having our eyes open to see people (I read today someone write that we need to ‘see the human in people…’ must have been reading my book for where else could they have gained that understanding… and then the person went on to say ‘and even the divine in them’… how come I had not written that I ask); eyes to see people and to relate without a judgemental framework, not even a right / wrong framework but a life-defining framework.

A while back I was asked if I was having ‘a Peter conversion experience’. [Plug: read Humanising the Divine, and all will be revealed.] A scenario where ‘do not call unclean…’ what you formerly considered was unclean. Such a conversion has implications. In this process I have been doing some Bible reading, kind of digging into how our hermeneutic has to inform us, but inform us the other side of hearing the stories of where God is at work.

So a little insight in to where I am headed. The Bible pretty much condemns money lending with interest (in history this was a bad sin, the sin of ‘usury’). Those clever people, the Jews, actually profited from this by realising that there did not seem to be a ban on lending with interest to us Gentiles (I even remember ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Shakespeare and Shylock the money lender from my school days), so they found a nice niche business area before all of the Gentiles got freed up to discover this was the way to ‘earn’ money. Many Christians do not seem to have an issue with taking out a loan, or a mortgage… The hermeneutic applied?

A. Money lending with interest is condemned in the Bible and therefore wrong.
B. Mortgage is a loan with interest.
C. Mortgages are evil.

No that is not the hermeneutic applied.

A. Money lending with interest is condemned in the Bible.
B. Mortgages are not in the same category as what the Bible condemns.
C. Therefore we cannot directly use A as a critique of B.

A might inform B but does not condemn all believers with mortgages to burn forever (and of course we would need to work hard on that to turn Jesus’ words about AD70 and the localised situation of Jerusalem under siege, and the historic context of ‘wars and rumours of wars’ to be referring to something beyond that… but another post another day for that, after all my new famous-making ‘thought for the week’ column will need regular content.)

Perspectives