Beliefs Are Not Set in Stone, Except for When They’re on Tablets

Rachel Held Evans believes we shouldn’t be too scared about changing our minds on religious questions, as these things aren’t always “set in stone.” Addressing religious believers in light of the SCOTUS decisions on gay marriage, she encourages us to realize it’s possible to shift your beliefs without being a culturally-accommodating flip-flopper. Her biblical paradigm for this? Peter and Cornelius.

Breaking through years of religious training regarding Gentiles, the Apostle Peter included the Roman centurion Cornelius when he encountered his sincere faith, learning to not call impure what God names as clean. Just as the theological conversions of Paul, Augustine, and Luther have been a blessing to church history, Evans encourages us to model Peter’s example of open-mindedness and inclusion–especially as we think about same-sex attraction.  “A person of conviction is not one who is unyielding to change, but one whose beliefs evolve based on new information, new movements of the Spirit, new biblical insights and, yes, new friends.”

In reading Evans’ piece last week, I was grateful for the basic point she made that Christians ought to be ready to have their beliefs challenged and corrected at some point. As we seek Christ, who is the Truth, pilgrims with fallen and finite minds must be open to theological correction; we are still in via, still on the way. As such, shifts shouldn’t simply be chalked up to mere accommodation or calcification. To think you’ve got it nailed when it comes to God at 25, 45, or even 85 is simply hubris.

You’re Not Peter

That said, I’m not convinced Peter’s encounter with Cornelius is an adequate model for Christians reconsidering their position on same-sex relationships within the Christian body. Ironically enough, it highlights a number of reasons for caution against breaking with 2,000 years of the Church’s scriptural teaching on this point:Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius by Fra...

1. No New Revelation – One clear distinction between the two situations is that no special revelation has happened with respect to same-sex relationships. Peter wasn’t transformed by a mere experience of the “sincere faith” of the Other he had despised, but was given a supernatural revelation and confirmation in the form of a vision and the Spirit empowering Cornelius with visible, supernatural signs, so that as an authoritative apostle, he could testify to God’s acceptance of the Gentiles by faith. As far as I know there aren’t any apostles, witnesses of the risen Christ, walking around having experienced new, authoritative revelation on this issue. We should be careful not to act is if there has been.

2. Sexual Attraction is Not Race - Without fully elaborating on this point, the analogy problematically presumes a Biblical equivalence or adequate similarity between sexual attraction and race or ethnicity. I’ll just say that even when inborn, sexual attraction is not equivalent to race or ethnicity. My Arabness is not something I act on in the same fashion as my sexual and romantic inclinations. That is an increasingly common category mistake that does injustice to the complexity of both race and sexuality, especially within a Biblical framework.

3. There Was a Plan For Cornelius 

What’s more, the Scriptures have always testified to the future-inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles within the covenant people of God. Passages could be multiplied ad nauseum, but Isaiah presents us with a vision of God’s plans for the nations:

It shall come to pass in the latter days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2-3)

Being a Gentile was never sinful per se, but only as it was connected to idolatrous practices that inevitably went along with being outside the covenant. In other words, the Israelites were commanded to be holy, different from the Gentiles because of election and the unrighteousness of Gentile actions, not because non-Jewishness was inherently unrighteous.

Peter’s experiences with Cornelius then, are a personal, experiential confirmation of a movement already foreshadowed in Scripture. They are a pointer to revelation, not a contradiction or modification of it, but only of the extra-biblical traditions that had grown up alongside it. As difficult as it is to accept, there is no such prophecy, foreshadowing, or hinting that homosexual behavior is something that will one day be sanctioned and blessed for God’s children.

4. The 1970s Were Not Eschatological - Following this is an insight from Katherine Greene-McCreight: the Sexual Revolution is not a new eschatological event. Cornelius’ inclusion, along with the rest of the Gentiles, was brought about by the eschatological turning of the ages. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the particular covenant with national Israel was fulfilled, pouring forth into the always-intended blessing of Gentiles joining Jews in being built up into Christ. (Rom. 4; 15:8-12; Gal. 3; Eph. 2:11-22) Nothing similarly climactic has happened in salvation history to suggest a new administration of God’s covenant is in place, which includes behaviors clearly forbidden to God’s people in both Old and New Testaments. In that sense, unlike Peter, we’re not standing in a eschatologically-new situation calling for a radical revision of Christian theological ethics. The 1970s were a big deal, but not that big.

5.  About Those Conversions… –  Which brings me to the theological repentance of Paul, Augustine, and Luther. Paul’s conversion of attitude towards the Gentiles was, as with Peter, the result of scales falling from his eyes in light of the Risen Christ, to see past his own religious nationalism. It was an authoritative revelation that shifted his perspective, not a new experience of diversity. Augustine changed his mind on a number of issues, but in his Retractions you see that it’s constantly a process of going back to the Word and letting it correct his earlier Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism. Luther’s theological reformation was an attempt to recover what he believed had actually already been revealed, but was covered over by years of scholastic teaching.

While Paul’s conversion was qualitatively different from Luther’s and Augustine’s, all were transforming encounters with God’s Word, Incarnate, written, or both. Paul’s was inspiration, and we could say Augustine and Luther’s experiences were illumination of what had already been said. We need to make sure that when we change our minds about something on the basis of “new biblical insights, movements of the Spirit, and new friends” we don’t turn God into a confused deity who contradicts himself because he’s changed his mind.

6. Already Included–In Christ – Finally, and this one is probably the most crucial to understand, the New Testament already includes those with same-sex attractions on the same grounds as it does everybody else–union by faith with Christ whose shed blood purchases forgiveness and whose Holy Spirit sanctifies us from all uncleanliness. The Gospel is for everyone. Really. God’s family is open, adopting new sons and daughters with all sorts of struggles and backgrounds. I too shudder at the idea of calling impure that which Christ calls clean. I too think the grace of God extends far and wide–if it didn’t, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

What I also don’t want to do, though, is blunt the Gospel and its promise of new Creation that says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11) I would hate to look at my brother struggling with same-sex attraction and say, “Yeah, that’s true of everything except your sexuality.” No, the Gospel gives us a better, if not always easier, hope than that.

Sometimes God Hands Out Tablets 

Evans quotes Rob Bell from his book Velvet Elvis:

“Times change. God doesn’t, but times do. We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”

The times might change, but God does not. Amen to that.

We need to be careful about who we listen to though, and be a bit wary of too much “morphing [and] innovating” with the times. People trying to hold on to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) in order that they might not be “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14), need to discern whether it is God’s Spirit speaking through his already-revealed Word, or another spirit that needs to be tested.

While not all religious beliefs are set in stone, God put plenty in print. I recall that some of them were even on tablets.

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog, and is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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  • hannah anderson

    So… thanks. And thanks. And thanks again. Read the original piece and a part of me died–we can and must do better than this in the public sphere. Christianity is so beautiful, so compelling, so true that we do not need to simply “adapt” as if this were some philosophical survival of the fittest. If anything, the current debate means we need to think better and think more deeply about why the Scripture teaches what it does. The very existence of these kinds of conversations reveals that we haven’t been doing that.

  • http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/ Alastair Roberts

    Really good piece, Derek. Thanks.

  • Jimmy

    As a Christian who is not convinced the Bible has “clearly forbidden” homosexual behavior outrightly, I must say this has been perhaps the most helpful piece, as far as faith and enculturation go, on the issue I have read thus far (and I did my Master’s Thesis on it, so I have read A LOT.) Thank you for this. It is challenging my faith in the best ways.

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston Yancey

    I’m someone who disagrees with Rachel on this issue, but I want to challenge the image of the tablets here.

    I rest in the old ways, that is I am not troubled that the finger of God could very well have set in stone those words carried down that mountain. But then I must also believe in the God who crouched in dust when a woman was brought to be stoned for her sins. He took his finger there, too, and wrote something in the dust, something that we have no clear sense of what it was except that it resulted in a law of love that brought mercy where previously there had not been mercy. Or, as Peter will rework it, a people once not a people are now a people, a people once without mercy have received mercy.

    I think there is more nuance here than either side has fairly offered. We need to be careful about making claims of belief set in stones, because the God of the stone has revised and revealed and moved at different times and places in new ways. Maybe we’re better off making this argument from sacramentality, from a place of how we understand the world, but from the stones and the dust? I’m not so convinced.

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      For what it’s worth, an image is an image–please don’t make it carry more weight than it’s meant to. You’ll note that none of my arguments actually rested on God writing things on tablets, but mostly had to do with our eschatological position, the relationship between the two testaments, and our own position as recipients of the Word.

      I will also note that mercy itself implies a continued negative judgment on those acts requiring mercy. In the story you’re talking about mercy leads to repentance for something still considered sinful, which is an eminently OT theme. No, I think some of the best ways to think this through are following the larger story of Creation, Fall, Election, Redemption and Consummation.

      I think sacramentality can help, as long as it is covenantally-grounded.

  • Many Horizons

    Having spent most of my time as a Christian around liberal protestants, the concern for homosexual unions within the church isn’t a new to me, whether sophisticated or not.
    My issue, really, is correlating modern notions of the body with Christian theology; trying to get these ideas to fit coherently with classic affirmations about sex, children, and technology. At this time, I can’t find a way to support gay marriage. Your critique’s of Evan’s post was spot on.

    • hannah anderson

      Right. It’s about so much more than law vs. grace. It’s about a cosmic order, a creational impulse that we’ve lost in our modern understanding of the body.

      • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

        “Creational impulse” is a great phrase.

      • Many Horizons

        Thanks much. If we’re going to talk about unions, whether sacramental or otherwise, we need to be talking about the body, procreation, and postlapsarian human nature.
        +Lance
        http://www.manyhorizons.com

  • http://theivorylighthouse.blogspot.come/ SJ

    Beautifully written. This piece could have gone a lot of different ways. I literally just finished reading another blog which was a responce from another writer to another writer which disregarded the arguments of the first author about same-sex attraction with all the Christian bravado we are all well acquainted with. You managed to maintain an argument that didn’t silences Evan’s discussion, instead you added to it.

    On the other hand, I don’t know what to say to the many men and women who have offered up their stories with same-sex attraction and have not met their relief. Are they not “saved enough?” Surely not! Do they lack enough faith? That would make us no better than the false faith healers we despise! Should they live in the anguish of their thoughts and feelings meeting no relief within the ‘God ordained’ sexual expression of marriage? How can this be the kingdom? I don’t have answers.

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      Thanks for your kind words about the post. I hope I was gracious and more importantly, I hope it was true.

      On your questions, I don’t think I have all the answers to those. One book that has helped me think some of them through though was Wesley Hill’s “Washed and Waiting”, his account of being a Christian with same-sex attraction while still holding to classic Christian sexual ethics. It’s quite moving, theologically-thoughtful, and, I think, hopeful without being dishonest. I commend it to anyone thinking about these things.

  • marquito

    Thank you to Derek, and to the commenters as well.

  • Janette Schaafsma

    Thanks Derek for this thoughtful, insightful post – it helps a lot. Within my friendship circle is a Couple who were “married” to each other before it was legal in Canada. I love both these dear women and when I visit them I’m always struck by the ease with which we come to share our common life in Christ as we talk about our everyday challenges (each of us struggles with severely life-impacting health issues), even though I and they remain aware of our differences in viewpoint and belief regarding their lesbian lifestyle. The only way I was able to come to this was to ask my God look upon me with forgiveness and compassion as I erred on the side of love, leaving the just judgement in His righteous hands until the Day we all stand before Him. It’s difficult, this sorting through real-life situations and what we acknowledge to be enduringly true as we accept God’s own words on this difficult issue. Still learning – thanks for the help!

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      That is going to be one of the biggest challenges of the next generation: navigating our relationships with those whom we love, but disagree with on this subject. This is especially the case with our loved ones who are actually personally involved in the way your friends are. I don’t know that it’s a simply answer, or a one-sized response each time even when you’re already “landed”, or settled, on a traditional position. May God be with you as you love your neighbors and discern wisdom in the situation.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Ryan Lunde

    Thanks for this post, Derek!

    While I enjoyed the actual content of your post (particularly #4 and 6), I enjoyed the tone and perspective in which you wrote it all the more! It suggested that though you were primarily contrasting Evans’ response with your own, you were still looking beyond Evans for the actual substance to write on. Most readers will discern this by the lack of combative rhetoric in this post (a good thing in itself) but the greater thing demonstrated is a careful intellect managed by a mature disposition — a combination lacking in most everyone. Thanks again!

  • rj_anderson

    Beautifully said. I particularly appreciate the point that sexual attraction is not race — a parallel that’s often misleadingly made in these discussions.

  • loapalehorse

    Were the ones set in stone not, in fact, to convict us all of our sin? I thought it was the ones that were to be written on our hearts that defined our relationship with God and each other.

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      I think we might be focusing a little too much on the image of something being “set in stone.” That said, I don’t think pitting the commands written on our hearts against those set in stone really works given that they have the same author. Many of those given to us in the Old Covenant are still in effect in the New–not in a condemning function as that has been abrogated in Christ for the believer–but in a didactic/prophetic way. Paul spoke quite clearly about the new covenant, but still issued plenty of specific commands about what is appropriate for those possessed by the Spirit.

      • loapalehorse

        Your choice of imagery, and your choice of emphasis in closing your apologetic. ;-) But I agree in part with your observation. I am not sure that I would agree with some of what gets identified by those who checklist as “commands.” At the same time I would agree that, as James implicates, one’s acts will reflect what is indeed supposed to be prophetic about the believer: one’s fundamental character rooted in the recognition of God for whom God is and acceptance of God’s intended order.

        • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

          Fair enough on the image. On the issue of commands, I’m not sure I’m following your comments. I do think its evident enough that Paul and the other apostles issue prohibitions and exhortations to obedience that can be read in a fairly straightforward fashion as commands.

  • Jason Farr

    Hmm, I’m not scholar. I’m just not so sure about the point made. I’ll just say that our minds are of a fallen intellect. God’s view and principles don’t change. But due to our fallen intellect, if we misunderstand God’s view or principles and take them to mean something contrary to what God actually meant then we do need to change. That I think we agree on. Homosexuality, I believe we do not. The point isn’t about how perfectly categorized sexuality and race are. You can’t change either and that is the common ground. Also, the Bible speaks to gay sex, not the orientation. So at the end of the day what Christians think and intend to be “loving correction” of “homosexuality” still comes off to people in the LGBT community as beating up on them and as condemnation. I strongly suggest we be careful with how we discuss this topic. We are driving away some of God’s children from accepting Him. (psst, I’m referring to how Gays feel shunned and end up not accepting Christ because of it. So maybe we should only talk about how much God loves them before trying to “correct” them?)

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      Jason,

      Thanks for your charitable disagreement. I must say the readership and engagement here has been lovely so far.

      On the points, yes, and yes, to your assumed shared principles.

      On homosexuality I would argue that the situation is more complex when it comes to “change”, although that’s not a premise I’m really relying on. The sources and causes of same-sex attraction are complex and probably vary from person to person, some having sociological, psychological, chemical, or biological moorings. In any case, I do think they are still different as “classifications.” I agree that the Bible primarily speaks to sexual acts and I do hope I was clear that I’m not saying that a certain orientation, attraction, etc. is prohibited–accepting or approving of relationships/actions based on them is what is at issue. Sorry if I was unclear on that.

      Finally, the post was actually written, not to people struggling with same-sex attraction, but those struggling with how to think about it in relationship to God’s will for the Church and human life in light of another proposal on the same subject. I hope that clarifies things.

      • Jason Farr

        I believe you were clear on that. I think we share the heart for loving others. And that is a very encouraging thing to see among Christ followers.
        I don’t agree entirely with there being different reasons some people are gay. I haven’t thought about it that deeply, but if there are sociological reasons for being gay then there are sociological reasons for being straight. Which I’m not so sure I believe.
        And I’m not so sure I agree that being in a relationship is something I’d put in the same category as actions. Actions to me is referenced in the Bible, but companionship in regards to gay people I don’t believe is. So I’m careful to say God said something about it. And I’m doubly careful to talk about it because I don’t want people in the gay community to think I’m saying, “Well, God loves you regardless of whether you’re gay or not. But God does not love that you have a gay companion.” I’m not ready to believe that either. And I don’t know that I will be. Because I’m not so sure that companionship is something God called wrong or sin.
        But I do appreciate that this has been a peaceable discussion amongst you and everyone here. I just want to see people think more about taking the plank out of their eye more. And also focus more on simply pointing people to Jesus and letting God do any work that needs to be done on their heart. Because people, especially in regards to this topic, have really made a mess of trying to do that. Not suggesting you are, just wanted to push loving and learning more than teaching and guiding. God’s Holy Spirit does a way better job of that.

  • ahermit

    One clear distinction between the two situations is that no special
    revelation has happened with respect to same-sex relationships.

    How would we know if there had been a “special revelation?”

    At what point does the experience of living people in a modern culture finally supersede the personal prejudices of an ancient preacher?

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      Clearly we don’t share the same theology of revelation, scripture, etc. because to Christians which I, and hopefully Evans, am speaking, the authors of the New Testament are not merely ancient preachers with “personal prejudices.” They are God’s appointed witnesses to the message of the Gospel, specially-commissioned by the Lord. Their writings are not only their message but God’s message. There is a qualitative difference between our opinions and those of a man who was personally knocked off of his horse by the risen Christ. (Acts 9)

      I’d like to flip the question though and ask, why must I take the experience of living people to be more authoritative than those of dead ones? Does being alive necessarily make you smarter? More justice? Obviously wiser? Have you bought into the myth of progress at the intellectual level, the chronological snobbery, that thinks the later the idea or opinion, the more obviously corrects it’s going to be?

      I’ve written about this elsewhere, but what I’m asking is “Whose Experiences? Which Story?” “What we have in the Scriptures as a divinely-authorized set of interpretations of moral experience. We need to see that in the Bible we have THE normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story get the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited or sinfully twisted like ours. Only his judgments are pure and wholly true, because only he knows the end from the beginning, and the ends for which he began all things.”
      http://derekzrishmawy.com/2013/05/29/whose-experience-which-story/

      • ahermit

        They are God’s appointed witnesses to the message of the Gospel, specially-commissioned by the Lord.

        How do you know this?

        why must I take the experience of living people to be more authoritative than those of dead ones?

        Because they are more relevant to the culture in which we now live. Do you not think we might have made some progress in understanding human behaviour and relationships in the last two thousand years?

        • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

          The first question would require 2 or 3 books to answer adequately. I’m sorry if that’s a cop-out, but that’s simply how it is.

          As to the second, I happen to think that as much intellectual progress as we’ve made (I mean, Lord knows we’re WAY better at killing each other nowadays, destroying marriages, causing depression, etc.), I don’t think we’ve made any significant moral progress that isn’t in some way connected to the Christianization of Western Culture to some degree. That aside Plato is, in many ways, as morally relevant as Peter Singer–actually more. In any case, the NT authors aren’t rooting their moral judgment on sexual relationships on current, cultural understandings of sexuality, but rather in the unchanging theological reality of God’s creation of man and woman as revealed in Scripture (and, I think, confirmed in our bodily nature.)

          Honestly, as flip as this sounds, we apparently are coming from very different theological standpoints. My article presumes a shared moral and theological framework that most Christians have historically-shared. If you don’t share it, the arguments won’t work for you. We’d have to have much different meta-conversations before we even get to this point, and those conversations probably can’t be had fruitfully in this context.

          Best,

          D

  • Momscience

    Why is this written by “guest writer”? Why write a diatribe on your beliefs and not sign it?

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      Well, if you scroll down to the bottom of the article, right below the closing sentence, you’ll note the full name and mini-bio of the “Guest Writer.” It doesn’t put it up top, probably because of blog format issues.

  • Anastasios

    You make very good points, and I agree with you fully.

    However, what if reasons 1 and 4 were to change in the future? Let’s say, for instance, that a 243-foot tall, glowing angelic being appeared on top of the Empire State Building tomorrow and shouted, loud enough for the entire city to hear, and televised worldwide, that the recent increase in “gay” same-sex attraction was part of God’s plan all along and he was now expanding the sacrament/covenant of marriage to include same-sex couples as well. Let’s say that the angel also said that we were entering yet another new covenant (making the 2010s as eschatological as the first century) and that Jesus Christ now wanted us to focus our energy on space travel because there were aliens in the Andromeda galaxy that need the Gospel too, and it is now the Church’s primary mission to evangelize them.

    Now, I’m NOT saying I believe this is going to happen, and I don’t generally lose sleep wondering whether it will. However, if it did, would we have to change our minds about marriage, revelation, etc?

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  • Lorde

    What was the point of this article? All she said was she changed her mind about a few things now that she actually spends time with gay people and no longer has the us vs them mentality she grew up with. Which I’m sure is the case for a lot of Christians.

  • Jedidiah Slaboda

    One other distinction from the experience of Peter and Cornelius: there was a church council about it. Presumably that council meant something to the early church and to Peter. Perhaps the church should be more concerned with the impossibility of such a council today and more anxious about how such fragmentation prevents forceful and compelling witness.

  • Theophilus

    Another point worth raising is that homosexual conduct was common in the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, it is mentioned in many classical sources. Permanent homosexual couples are mentioned several times as well.

    Given the writings of St. Paul and the early Church Fathers, it is impossible to assert that the early church was unaware of this conduct. Yet the Church did not accept this behavior.

    Given the vast number of controversial issues that the early Church did address, it is difficult to argue that the issue was somehow overlooked.

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