A funny thing happened while some evangelicals and Christian conservatives were pitching the “gospel-vs-homosexuality” war as the centerpiece of their purity agenda:
Jesus showed up.
“If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that” (Matt 5: 47).
“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone…” (John 8:7).
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
In the gospels, Jesus fiercely shakes up the ruling elite of Jewish society and calls into question their purity agenda. To be fair, it was God’s call for Israel to be set apart from the defilement of outside pagan culture. It’s true also that the Pharisees weren’t merely externalistic and legalistic in their interpretation and practices of the Law. For them, and the majority of Jewish culture—who deeply respected the Pharisees and their teachings—following Jewish moral code and rituals provided a meaningful way to preserve their identity as God’s chosen (and holy) people. After all, Israel was set apart by God to bless the nations. But maybe the Pharisees forgot about that last part about blessing the nations. That’s what appears to be the case when we look at their encounters with Jesus.
The Hebrew word for Pharisee means “to be separate” (notice a theme emerging?). Granted they were really good at protecting the purity of the Jewish community—a community that for centuries faced the continuous threat of pagan religion and culture. So good, that they were able to essentially create a “law around the law.” Ritualistic and moral purity was at the heart of God’s community under the leadership of the Pharisees. It was their perceived calling as the leaders of God’s chosen people.
“You are responsible for keeping the People of Israel separate from that which makes them ritually unclean, lest they die in their unclean condition by defiling my Dwelling which is among them” (Leviticus 15:31).
Evangelicals—and Christian conservatives alike—are similar when it comes to preserving the biblical definition of marriage and family. God has created the human family—based on covenantal marriage between a man and woman (Mark 10:6-9)—with the express purpose of procreation and good works (Gen 9:7; Ephesians 2:10). And as God’s people, we are called to procreate and cultivate Christ-centered family life for the express purpose of blessing the nations (Gen. 12:2-3). As a person who self-identifies as an open evangelical, I believe God’s people are called to preserve doctrinal and moral purity when it comes to the Bible’s position on marriage and family. And being counter-cultural in this regard should not cause us to be ashamed of Jesus or our convictions. Much like the Pharisees—believe it or not—we are called to preserve our identity in Christ by protecting biblical marriage from the invasion of pagan religion and values. Purity is certainly an important piece when it comes to being God’s people in the world.
But we can’t be like the Pharisees who forgot the very reason they were set apart: to invite outsiders into God’s sacred community.
In Mark 2:13-17, Jesus is accosted by the Pharisees for eating with “sinners.” Now, most Christians today bring certain presumptions into the text when they read the word “sinners.” Often, we think of sinners consisting of those who are moral failures in the world: porn stars, alcoholics, thieves, scam artists, drug dealers, human traffickers, and so on. While this is certainly correct to say that people who partake in such activities are sinners, it does not suffice to say that is primarily what Mark means.
In the NT, there are at least three definitions of the word sinners:
1) Moral definition: Those who fail to meet the moral obligations of the Law.
2) Sectarian definition: Those who fail to interpret and practice the Law in accordance with the beliefs of certain religious factions.
3) Outsider definition: Non-Jews, non-law-abiding people, outsiders to Israel and the promises of God.
When the Pharisees accost Jesus for eating with “sinners” in Mark, they are primarily referring to outsiders and outcasts. Of course, it is implied that these outsiders were morally impure, but that is not the primary definition the Pharisees are conveying in Mark 2. This is important for us to know if we want to understand what Mark is trying to communicate to his audience, including us today.
In the world of the Pharisees, God’s community consisted of righteous insiders who were called to protect the integrity of the community from defiled outsiders. The fence (the law around the law) not only acted to protect insider-Jews from breaking God’s law (a noble cause), but to keep outsiders—non-Jewish, non-law-abiding, defiled people—out of God’s sacred community. But in Jesus’ world, God’s community is called to be holy (set apart) to bless the nations—to invite outsiders into God’s community so that they could be healed, made clean and integrated into God’s coming kingdom.
“I’m after mercy, not religion. I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders” (Matt 9: 12-13).
Evangelicals and conservatives rightly stress doctrinal and moral purity in the Christian life. But what we often fail to see, as did the Pharisees, is that doctrinal and moral purity should not be an end in itself. It is only one side of the coin, half the story as they say. When doctrinal and moral purity act to move Christians to exclude outsiders, we are no longer moving in the direction that Jesus and God’s Word leads us. Jesus moves us in the direction of merciful outpouring to outsiders, that is for sure.
What does this have to do with homosexuality?
Jesus said a whole lot about being merciful to outsiders and spending time with them. He said nothing about excluding people in order to preserve one’s doctrinal purity. In our case, our biblical convictions about family and marriage should not restrict opportunities to show affirming mercy, kindness and inclusion to people who embrace (and subscribe) to homosexuality. When the center of our purity agenda pits the gospel against homosexuality we have, at the least, become overly fixated on homosexuality (for some reason), and at the most, we have propagated a misplaced agenda of factional purity. Evangelical scholars, Stassen and Gushee, in their book Kingdom Ethics, explain:
It is at least arguable from the fact of Jesus’ silence—and the limited discussion in Scripture in general—that the contemporary fixation on homosexuality in some Christian circles is misplaced….Many widely used evangelical ethics texts reflect what we see as a disproportionate emphasis on homosexuality….This lack of proportion helps to fuel the distressing and unfortunate perception, partly grounded in reality, of a conservative evangelical Christian crusade against homosexuality (Kingdom Ethics, 307).
Evangelicals and Christian conservatives are seen by many as moral crusaders, rather than agents of God’s mercy and kindness to those outside the church community. This has to change. The crusades are over. I’m after mercy.
Gushee, David P. and Glen H. Stassen. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003.