Who Cares? A Newsletter for Caring Pastors and Educators — Vol. 1/No. 3 — July 2011
When God Disagrees with God, Whom Do You Follow?
By Todd J. Leonard
Over the last year or so I’ve become more public in my support of open and inclusive congregations for my LGBT brothers and sisters and in my convictions that LGBT relational behavior, when lived within the spirit of the biblical principles outlined for heterosexual relationships, are compatible with God’s will. This has, of course, led to many discussions with friends and colleagues who disagree with me on the subject. Most of the conversations have been mature and, at the heart, each person I’ve talked with is ultimately concerned for God’s grace and salvation for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals.
But there are two comments that have come up in almost every conversation. They go something like this:
1) “Because multiple places in both the Old and New Testament condemn homosexuality1, and nowhere is there scriptural support for LGBT practice, I must be faithful to God and scripture and view the behaviors as sinful,” and,
2) “I believe that we in the church must show love and compassion to people like gays and lesbians, but we must also be clear that their active practice of the lifestyle is a sin and that we want them to repent and break free of their bondage to that sin. We must love the sinner, but hate the sin”
One of my good friends even said to me (this is a paraphrase), “I really wish the Bible didn’t say that homosexual behavior is a sin, because I just want to accept them without having to condemn their lifestyle. It seems like Jesus would be good friends with gays and lesbians. But there are not any stories of Jesus doing that nor are there any words from him approving their lifestyle. If I’m going to be faithful to God, I have to stick with the only texts that speak to the subject and obey them.” His wrestling with the issue was obvious. His compassionate heart was on his sleeve. And he wanted to find a way forward, but could not.
What do we do when the words of God seem to be at odds with the acts of God? What do we do when we have a clear command from God with a chapter and verse that seems to be at odds with the Spirit of Jesus that can’t be cited chapter and verse?
A casual reading of the Bible will lead you to see story after story of people who start out with one understanding of God and end up with another one based upon what happens in their lives. One such story is where God plays gospel cupid between a Jewish Peter and a non-Jewish Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11.
According to the account, an angel of God visits Cornelius, someone whom a Jewish person would refer to as a “good heathen”—someone who behaved ethically, but still was not one of God’s people. The angel tells Cornelius to request a meeting with Peter (Acts 10.3-6). Shortly thereafter, God gives Peter a vision (10.9-16). In the vision, Peter sees a smorgasbord of non-kosher animals and, in verse 13 he hears the God of Moses tell him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”2 Peter, having received a direct command from God, and who, at the moment, was really hungry and would have probably enjoyed the taste of a good pork chop, disobeyed God by obeying God. He said, “Surely not, Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (10.14). God responds by saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This is a major problem for Peter. For hundreds of years, Jewish people devotedly followed God’s command that they were to not eat anything unclean. Peter was born and raised with this understanding. He followed Jesus for over three years and never observed him before or after his death and resurrection ever eating unclean meat. But now, in this vision, God—and there’s no doubt in Peter’s mind that it is God—tells Peter to enjoy a shrimp cocktail. What does Peter do when confronted with a God who, in Peter’s mind, disagrees with Himself? Three times the voice of God in his vision tells Peter to ignore the voice of God from his upbringing. And each time, Peter goes with the God of his upbringing over the God who was speaking to him right then.
Peter wakes up and gets a knock at the door. Cornelius, the good heathen, was requesting a meeting with him. For a Jewish person, entering the home of a Gentile was a much greater sin than eating catfish. Cozying up to an unclean person was much worse than devouring an unclean animal.3 Peter, who had been reflecting on the vision, started to connect the dots between it and the fact that now he, a clean Jew, is entering the house of an unclean, non-Jew who wants to learn about Jesus. When he arrives at the home of Cornelius, he says, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (10.28). Then, while Peter is in the middle of talking about Jesus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit comes on everyone in Cornelius’ house, before they finished their Bible studies, got baptized, got circumcised, or learned kosher dietary practices. Peter, in amazement at what is happening, says, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (10.47).
Unlike in the vision, Peter, when recognizing the hand of God upon this cross-cultural meeting and seeing the evidence of the Spirit at work in Cornelius’ family, discarded the scriptures taught to him at his mother’s knee that said he was to keep himself separate from unclean Gentiles. He rejected the words of God from the past in light of the acts of God in the present. And, incredibly, so did the early church. They called Peter in to reprimand him for mixing with Gentiles, but after hearing his eyewitness account of God’s Spirit at work with non-Jewish people, they end up saying, “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!” (11.18) 4
Have not faithful followers of God over the millennia had to adjust their understanding of God in light of new revelation? Has not the powerful work of God’s Spirit in the now forced people to re-read the Bible stories of God’s words and actions in the past? We have allowed science to lead us to a reinterpretation of certain passages.5 We have allowed our convictions about human equality to change the way we understand verses about slavery and women’s subjugation. We have changed our understanding of end-time prophecy in light of Jesus not returning when we were convinced the Bible said he would.
If we see evidence of the Spirit of God at work in the life of a gay man, how do we turn our backs and say, “Because of what God said in the past, I am choosing to not believe what He appears to be doing in the present?” If we are struggling to still explain to ourselves why two lesbians in a committed relationship is incompatible with God’s ethics of fidelity and love for one another because we’ve got half a dozen proof texts that say that it’s wrong, no ifs, ands or buts; isn’t it time that we let go of God’s words in the past because of His obvious action in the present? If accepting bisexual and transgendered individuals into our faith communities seems like something Jesus would do, can’t we just go with the Spirit of Jesus? Those of us who hold to the traditional reading of Leviticus 20.13 have already chosen to disobey God’s command to kill practicing homosexuals. Can’t we just disobey the rest of that verse in light of the ministry of Jesus and how the Spirit is working today in LGBT individuals around the world and welcome them into our midst as spirit-filled men and women of God?
It is time to be faithful to God. Not the One whose old words we thought we understood, but the One Who is acting now and is working in your heart and mine. Let us be obedient to the never-ending revelation of God.
1. It is not the purpose of this article to address the linguistic and theological issues related to the “condemnatory” texts in scripture (Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9, I Timothy 1:9-10). The SDA Kinship website discusses these texts and their interpretations and provides resources for further study
2. All scripture quotations, unless noted otherwise, are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, Zondervan, 1984
3. For an example of a Bible passage that Peter was probably taught regarding the need to stay separate from foreigners, see Deuteronomy 7.1-6, part of an important section of the Torah where God gives his laws to the people of Israel again like he did at Mt. Sinai
4. Acts 11.18 is taken from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene Petersen, Zondervan, 2002
5. For the purpose of this article, I am not referring to the current creation/evolution debate. I am referring to simple changes in the way we read passages like Psalm 19.4-6 and Ecclesiastes 1.5 where the sun is described as orbiting a stationary earth. We now read these passages as metaphors rather than literal astronomical descriptions in light of the evidence of the earth as the orbiter rather than the sun.
Todd J. Leonard has been a pastor for 11 years, serving Adventist churches in Georgia and Tennessee. In May 2011, he joined the staff of the Vallejo Drive Seventh-day Adventist Church in Glendale, California as Pastor for Collegiate and Young Adult Ministries. He has been married for 14 years to Robin, mother of their daughters Halle, Abigail and Emma. Todd's 1999 M.Div. from Andrews University helps him focus his passion for creating communities of faith that welcome people from all walks of life and compassionately serve their cities.