On June 26, 2013 the SCOTUS decided US v. Windsor (No. 12307) in a 5-4 decision that overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It held that DOMA violated the equal protection provision of the Fifth Amendment. DOMA had defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman for the purpose of all federal laws.
Rachel Held Evans, writing for the CNN Belief Blog, not only celebrates the SCOTUS decision to rule DOMA unconstitutional but also argues that the Church should join the Court in overturning the traditional definition of marriage. Evangelical Christians, she writes, should not be “unyielding and unwilling to change” but let their beliefs “evolve based on new information, new movements of the Spirit, new biblical insights”. Rachel Held Evans encourages the Church to change its position on marriage using the example of Peter in Acts 10 and 11.
Peter changed his mind, and the church would never be the same.
Despite deeply held religious convictions regarding circumcision and dietary restrictions, he led the way in opening the doors of the church to all who would enter, regardless of ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status or religious background.
We can learn a lot from Peter — not only from his inclusiveness, but also from his willingness to change his mind.
The narrative recounts how Peter led the early church to make the decision to include Gentiles in the church.
In calling for the Church and Evangelical Christians to be willing to change, Rachel seems to imply that she agrees that the Bible defines marriage as between one man and one woman and thus prohibits same-sex marriage. I point this out because some Christians argue that the Scriptures do not prohibit same-sex marriage. They go on to make the case that Christians should not forbid what Scripture does not. Rachel does not take that position in this article.
Instead of debating the interpretation of various passages on marriage and sexual behavior, Rachel asks us to imitate Peter, who was willing to set aside the existing regulations found in the Mosaic Law and change his mind regarding the inclusion of Gentiles. Similarly we are asked to set aside the Scriptural definition of marriage, accept new perspectives, and change our mind regarding the inclusion of married same-sex partners.
This approach is similar to the one taken in the prevailing SCOTUS opinion. The majority acknowledged that DOMA codified in federal law a definition of marriage that has existed throughout history yet calls on the nation to adopt a new perspective.
… marriage between a man and a woman no doubt had been thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of that term and to its role and function throughout the history of civilization. … For others, however, came the beginnings of a new perspective, a new insight.
Even Rob Bell has reminded us that “this is the world we are living in” and we need to change our “ways of viewing the world”.
What can we learn from Peter and his willingness to change his mind and adopt a new perspective?
Should we as Evangelical Christians follow the advice of Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell and change with the times? How can the Church be effective when even the SCOTUS accuses DOMA supporters of acting with a motive of hate:
… [but w]hat has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage.
What can we learn from Peter and his willingness to change his mind and adopt a new perspective?
When I read through Acts 10 and 11, I did not find the same Peter that Rachel did. Peter was not “wrestling with the idea of including Gentiles in the church” nor working through the challenges of building a more inclusive church. I found a Peter ministering to Jewish Christians. A praying Peter who was blessed with a binding, prophetic revelation from God. The vision that God gives Peter asks him to eat unclean animals, which Peter initially rejects because this command violates the Mosaic Law. God, who does not usually let His unwilling prophets off so easy, shows the vision to him two more times, then tells Peter not to reject what God has made clean.This vision leaves Peter confused as to its actual meaning.
As Peter is wrestling with the meaning of the vision, he finds he has visitors sent by a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Again we see Peter initially balking at the request to go and meet Cornelius because it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile. However God intervenes and speaks directly to Peter – another prophetic act – telling him to go and meet with Cornelius.
A confused Peter knows better than to disobey and goes with the men. He shares the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ with the group. As he does this the Holy Spirit is visibly poured out on the Gentiles in a way that all in Peter’s party were able to recognize.
It is at this point that Peter begins to understand the importance of what God has been teaching him:
Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
As Peter tells other Jewish Christians that the Gentiles are to be included in the church he reiterates the main point of the lesson:
What God has made clean, do not call common.
Does this lesson apply to the definition of marriage? Is God working in His church to change the definition of marriage that He has given?
If the Church and Evangelical Christians are going to imitate Peter and overturn the clear definition of marriage given by God and adopt a new definition of marriage then we should make sure that we learn all we can from Peter’s experience.
Is God working in His church to change the definition of marriage that He has given?
Here are some observations on the events surrounding the inclusion of Gentiles.
First we should not forget that Peter is living in a time of great transition. A new era had begun, the Mosaic Law was made obsolete and the New Covenant and the church was born. But these changes were not the result of Peter’s desire to be inclusive or his willingness to change his mind. These was all the work of Jesus. And for those early Christians this was all very new. They had trouble processing the changes that were made. That is why Peter was initially resistant to the changes in dietary laws and the inclusion of the Gentiles.
When God is changing the law which He has clearly revealed He does so through prophets. Peter had the prophetic gift and was told through visions and the direct voice of the Lord what to do. Peter received clear, binding, prophetic vision that he must accept what was previously called unclean and that he must go visit Cornelius. Cornelius received a binding, prophetic promise that he, an unclean Gentile, would receive the message of salvation.
Peter did not decide to inclusive nor willingly change his mind. God was directly telling Peter that God was changing things. God was telling Peter that His plan was to include the Gentiles. Peter when confronted with this truth then changed his mind.
Peter and his traveling companions, along with Cornelius and his household, were given visible and miraculous signs confirming that the changes underway were the work of God. The inclusion of the Gentiles was proven through the visible sign of tongues when the Spirit came upon Cornelius and baptized him into the body of Christ. This act was the same sign that God had given the Jews on Pentecost so that the connection was clear.
God’s message to include the Gentiles was not limited to Peter and Cornelius. Philip was given a prophetic command to go and meet with the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul was met by Jesus Christ on the Road to Damascus and told to bring the message of salvation to the Gentiles, and the Lord was working through the Church of Antioch to reach out to Gentiles.
The inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation was not a new idea that God revealed to Peter and others during the first century. This was a promise God made throughout the history of Israel. It was a change foretold by the Old Testament era prophets. How this would be done was not fully understood. Its fulfillment was a mystery until further revelation was given after Jesus was sent and revealed as the Messiah, but it was still a change that was told about in advance.
In focusing his mission on the Gentiles, Paul quotes Isaiah 49:6
I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
And during the Council of Jerusalem in which the inclusion of the Gentiles was discussed, Amos 9:11-12 is cited:
… that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord …
Rachel ends the article:
Like Peter, God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. And that I should not think so highly of myself as to assume I’ve got this faith thing all figured out.
I certainly don’t think I have this “faith thing” all figured out either. However, before doing what looks right in the eyes of the world and redefining God’s definition of marriage I would want to make sure that God was the one making the changes.
In using Peter as an example what Rachel leaves out of the story is why Peter changed his mind. It was not his new insight, nor any doubts he may have been wrestling with, that caused Peter to include the Gentiles in the church. In fact Peter resisted the changes because they went against what God had already revealed. It was a series of binding, prophetic visions from God, to him and others, that were in turn confirmed through miraculous signs that made it clear to Peter that God was making the change not the world.
I think that the Church and Evangelical Christians should recognize that while the world and the culture are jettisoning the traditional definition of marriage, we should be like Peter. We should be cautious and look for God to be active in this before we conform to the world’s definition and assume it is from God.