The Bible Changes What The Bible Accepts

Matthew A. Rundio

My journey to being fully open and inclusive runs straight through the scriptures, realizing that the Bible itself changes its own rules over time and always moves toward greater inclusion.

I am no longer a Nazarene. I found it unacceptable for me to remain in a denomination that is, in many ways, actively hurting LGBTQIA+ people—so I resigned my ordination credentials. That was a difficult decision because I love my (former) denomination. The Church of the Nazarene has a marvelous history and theology and contains many excellent and admirable people. If this good denomination would become open and affirming, she would become even more beautiful. This paper tells some of how I became convinced that God accepts people who identify as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community and that the church should, too.

For many years, while lead pastor at Scottsdale First Church of the Nazarene, I was a lectionary preacher. The lectionary (a standardized set of readings) assigns four scriptures each Sunday of the year—we would read each of them and preach from one (or several) of them. The readings from Easter, week 5, year C[1] stand out as my favorite because they helped me embrace God’s inclusion more fully. Together, these readings draw us all toward greater and greater love.

One year, as I was reading the passage from John 13, verse 34 struck me: “I give you a new commandment: Love each other…” (CEB). I thought, “New? What is new about the commandment to love? Isn’t that already part of the Bible?” Indeed, Leviticus 19:17-18 already reads, “You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart….you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

Eventually I came to realize that what makes Jesus’ command “new” is in defining one seemingly simple phrase, “each other.” In the Leviticus passage, “each other” or “neighbor” was understood to mean “fellow Israelite.” So with Jesus, the new thing is that “each other” means “everyone,” not just people who are already like me.

As I thought more about this, I realized that Matthew 5:43-48 makes this same point. Matthew’s Jesus knows that people interpreted the “love your neighbor” instruction as “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (v. 43). So Jesus states his version of “love your neighbor” explicitly as “love your enemy.” In fact, that Matthew 5 passage defines “perfection” as loving in the same way God does: God who shows love indiscriminately to everyone and everything, demonstrated when God “makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (v. 45).

This point of loving everyone, even (especially) those considered enemies and outsiders (or evil or unrighteous), is made in these lectionary passages. Jesus’ “new” command to “love each other” in John 13 is coupled with the story contained in Acts 10 and 11. I find this pairing particularly potent.

Acts 10 and 11 is the culmination of a series of stories that depict ever expanding circles of inclusion. Here is a brief overview: In Acts 1-5, all of the first Christians are strictly Jewish (Peter calls them “fellow Israelites” in Acts 2:22, echoing Lev. 19) but this quickly expands to include “Hellenistic” or “Greek-speaking Jews” in Acts 6. You can begin to see the circle expanding—not just the people that look, sound, and smell like us, also the ones who are culturally different. Then, in Acts 8, Philip’s ministry in Samaria continues the expansion. Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch expands inclusion to people previously excluded by biblical law (Deuteronomy 23:1 reads, “no eunuchs can belong to the Lord’s assembly.”). The baptism of a foreigner and a eunuch (but still “Jewish” in a way) would have been controversial because circumcision is demanded in biblical law, yet a eunuch cannot be circumcised. Finally comes the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in Acts 10 and 11. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of these moves, especially the last one.

In Acts 10, Peter has a vision in which the Lord asks him to eat food forbidden by the Bible; Peter refuses (because the Bible says “NO”!) but the voice insists (three times) saying, “never consider unclean what God has made pure” (v. 15); Peter then receives an invitation to visit some Gentiles; Peter would normally refuse to associate with such people (who don’t follow the Bible), but because he just had that vision, he goes (v. 28); these Gentiles—who do not follow Sabbath, food laws, or circumcision, all things commanded in the Bible—hear, believe, and receive the Holy Spirit (without changing their old ways); this surprises Peter who says, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” (Acts 10:47).

Then Acts 11 records a trial—Peter was called before a council to investigate his actions which clearly contradict scripture. Everyone knows how central Sabbath laws are—it is right there in the Ten Commandments! The food laws are clearly stated in the Bible. And circumcision! God makes this part of the covenant with Abraham, told in Genesis 17, to be practiced “in every generation” (v. 9) and calls this custom an “enduring covenant” (v. 13) and that, if someone doesn’t follow this covenant, that person “will be cut off” from God’s people (v. 14, and yes, I assume the pun is intended). This is a big deal. This is all clear teaching in the Bible. And here is Peter, breaking all these rules in the Bible by visiting, eating with, accepting, and baptizing people who do not keep Sabbath, who break the food laws, and who are outside God’s enduring covenant of circumcision.

So in Acts 11, Peter tells his story. (By the way, when the Bible was written—and for many centuries after, when it was copied—writing materials were costly resources. That means if a story is repeated, thus taking up valuable resources, it must be important. The same story is written twice, in Acts 10 and Acts 11, helping to highlight how important it is.) After recounting the story to the apostles, Peter concludes by saying, “When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15-17).

We can probably guess how the council ruled: Peter was clearly out of bounds and going rogue. These people are clearly not following the explicit teachings of the Bible, things that are self-evident and have been upheld for thousands of years. Peter must be expelled, his ordination revoked. These sinners who are not following the scriptures should be kept safely away from true believers until they repent and follow God’s clear standards. And surely we should warn people about Peter and his progressive, woke, teachings. Right?

Of course not. Instead, what the Bible records is this: “Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, ‘So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life’ ” (Acts 11:18). The church recognized that this is the story of God’s love, a love that expands in ever increasing circles of inclusion, and they changed to match God’s love. To this day the church does not require Sabbath keeping (not as it is commanded in the Bible), Christians do not eat kosher, and (praise be) are not required to practice circumcision.

When the leadership and concerned believers heard Peter’s story and, especially, the part that the Holy Spirit fell on the uncircumcised Gentiles, the church decided to agree with God, rather than the Bible.

When the Bible and God seem to be going different directions, we are to follow God not the Bible.

The God of the Bible, in the Bible itself, changes the rules of the Bible, even “enduring” covenants for “every generation.” The Bible changes what the Bible accepts.

The Revelation passage (from the Lectionary texts of Easter 5, year C) includes this line: “Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I’m making all things new’” (Rev. 21:4-5). Part of what God is making new is the Bible’s own expectations and rules. Part of what God is making new is our perception of “in” and “out” and who belongs in which categories. The more we know of God, the more we move to include what God has already included.

In thinking about why the Church of the Nazarene should change its position and becoming fully open and inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, here’s the point that convinces me most: many people who identify as somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum already believe and are already Christians which means, to quote Peter, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” And because God has already accepted LGBTQIA+ people as part of God’s church (again to quote Peter) “then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17). I hope the Church of the Nazarene will say, “Who are we? Could we stand in God’s way? Of course not!”

I’m not convinced that the Bible even addresses LGBTQIA+ issues in ways we intend today. I think passages in the Bible that we take as “anti-gay” are actually speaking against sexual violence and come from a place of patriarchy in the authors. But even if the Bible is against aspects of LGBTQIA+ people and their lives, the story of the inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 10 and 11 would convince me to get out of God’s way.[2] Because God already includes people thought to be outside of God’s perfect plan, so should we. We should learn Peter’s lesson: “God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

The lectionary readings for Easter, week 5, year C help make the point that God’s love and inclusion push beyond our boundaries (and even beyond boundaries we thought God erected). But it is not alone in the scriptures in this regard. The Good Samaritan story pushes us in the same direction. And the Magi’s inclusion in the Christmas narrative is another good example of people, clearly outside biblical laws, norms, and expectations, being included by God when others would have cast them aside as sinners. God’s boundary-breaking love becomes a theme. One we need to hear. We must know and believe that God’s love “goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell.”

Jesus gives us a new command: love each other. So we are to love and include everyone whom God has included, even if they are people who live lives that break biblical standards as we understand them. For the Church of the Nazarene, the new-ness of this command would be to stop harming LGBTQIA+ people and instead love everyone, fully.

I can hear God saying to us: Love each other, everyone. Yes, people who look and sound and smell like you already. But also those who don’t. And those you don’t like. And those you call enemies. And those you can’t categorize on a gender binary. Those who eat, worship, and rest differently than you. Those who don’t follow the rules in the Bible you think are important. Love and include all of them. I get it, this is new, so it’s hard. But this new command is the command: Love each other.

I have stepped away from the denomination that helped raise and loved my children, me, and three generations of family before me. But that denomination was harming people in the name of God and holiness. So I left. I hope that the denomination will change and follow God’s love into greater inclusion. The type of inclusion that is expressed in this song of praise, Psalm 148—another reading from Easter 5, year C. Someday the church will realize. Someday God’s love will soften hard hearts so that we will no longer call people impure or unclean. Someday we, a body made up of all people, along with all things and all beings in all the universe, will together sing praise to the God of love, whose love has no boundary. Let us pray:

Praise the Lord from the heavens!
Praise God in the heights!
Praise God, all you angels!
Praise God, all you heavenly host!
Praise God, sun and moon!
Praise God, all you shining stars!
Praise the Lord from the land,
and even from the deep, even sea monsters!
Lightning and hail, snow and clouds;
stormy wind, fulfilling God’s word;
mountains and all hills;
fruit trees and all cedars;
wild animals and all livestock;
small creatures and flying birds;
kings of the earth and all peoples;
princes and all judges of the earth;
All people, any gender, single and married,
the aged and children:
let them praise the Lord’s name,
for God’s name alone is exalted.
(Psalm 148:1-3, 7-13, my translation )

[1]. The readings are Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; and John 13:31-35. Each of these will be mentioned in this essay.

[2]. I am grateful to New Testament scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk for helping me realize many of these insights from Acts 10 and 11.

Matt Rundio served in pastoral and adjunct professor roles in the Church of the Nazarene for over 20 years. He holds an MDiv and an MSMFT from Fuller Theological Seminary and a DMin from NTS. He currently works as a Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Arizona.

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