There were at least two pillars of what it meant to identify as a faithful Jewish man. The first was to obedience to the Sabbath and the second was male circumcision. Jesus re-imagined an understanding of Sabbath obedience that allowed for non-traditional understanding of Sabbath keeping. Jesus healed on the Sabbath and allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. He even said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, NASB). Jesus was stating that the Sabbath should never be made a burden for people. If people are being harmed by your understanding of the Sabbath, then give preference towards the people. Let them work or help their animal escape from a ditch, even though the fourth commandment states, “You shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:10, NIV). The disciples saw Jesus’ application of the Scriptures repeatedly. What they didn’t realize was that they would soon be put to the test.
I’ve often wondered why Jesus never addressed circumcision in the Gospels since I think he knew it would be the biggest theological hurdle the disciples would face. But now I see it was purposeful. The life and ministry of Jesus showed the disciples how to read Scripture and apply it in a way that doesn’t exclude, but instead offered life to as many people as possible. So even though the disciples knew what Genesis said about circumcision being an eternal sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, the disciples chose to remove the requirement of circumcision. They said that there shouldn’t be a stumbling block for those who choose faith in Christ.
The removal of physical circumcision was an unprecedented theological change that shook the Jewish- Christian community to its core. The disciples were accused of no longer upholding the authority of Scripture. But what the disciples did was merely an extension of the way Jesus taught them to uphold the spirit behind the Law. And in discovering the spirit of grace and love, the Law would be upheld along with faithfulness to God.
So here you have the two biggest things of what it meant to identify as the people of God—Sabbath keeping and physical circumcision. Both of these were re-imagined in order to save life and include those who were excluded. The shift from conservative understandings of Sabbath and circumcision were far greater issues at the time Scripture was being written than our modern questions regarding orientation and gender identity. But the principles we apply to these questions remain the same. How do we read and apply Scripture as Jesus did? Because it’s not so much about what Scripture says, as much as it is about how Jesus applied what Scripture said.
Churches have historically placed a stumbling block before the LGBTQ+ community by their interpretations of Scripture, which have led to exclusion and harm. The same kind of criticism that had been launched towards Peter by the traditionalists regarding the authority of Scripture in excluding the uncircumcised Gentiles living outside the Law is being launched against LGBTQ+ people and their allies who are seeking their inclusion in the church.
Jesus and the disciples set into motion what the church must continue to practice—a hermeneutic that practices compassion that moves toward inclusion. This is the radical nature of the Gospel—when it moves toward accepting people who were previously on the outside and told they were inherently disordered.
Throughout history the church didn’t wrestle with every major doctrine in the infancy of the church. The early church dealt with various heresies and were able to develop a more robust Christology. There was the issue of Modalism and the doctrine of the Trinity. There were also, though, questions about slavery and biracial marriages. These questions were a result of push-back from marginalized and enslaved people that caused theologians to talk through what Scripture might really be saying in regards to biracial marriages and slavery. These wrestlings were in response to people who before didn’t have a voice in the church but were now being given voice to speak. The church as a whole had never seriously questioned its longstanding beliefs around LGBTQ+ inclusion until recently, as more and more LGBTQ+ people are raising their voices.
One of the problems of every generation is the belief that they are the generation that has finally understood the full counsel of Scripture and that our beliefs no longer need to be challenged. But our theological history shows us that this is false. There must always be a posture of willingness to learn and be challenged in our assumptions. The church must always be willing to reform.
Helmut Thielicke said, “He who speaks to this hour’s need and translates the message will always be skirting the edge of heresy. He, however, is the man who is given this promise, [the promise that] Only he who risks heresies can gain the truth.” This is what many generations before us were willing to do— skirt the edge of heresy in order to gain the truth.