This article, A Biblical Case for LGBTQ+ Inclusion in the Church…From Paul, is broken into three parts and explores major themes in Paul’s writing that reflect inclusion. Part one dealt with Paul and circumcision. Part two, this installment, explores how Paul understands God including Gentiles into the redeeming work of Christ. Part three, looks at Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit at work. It will then finish with a few concluding thoughts on how Paul’s treatment of these themes informs our understanding around the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church today. We continue, though, with Paul and Gentiles.
The inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God is another major theme in Paul’s writings. “Gentile” is phrase that, simply put, refers to non-Jewish persons. In the New Testament period it commonly refers to Romans who practiced polytheist pagan religion, “God-fearers” (gentiles who loosely affiliated with a synagogue), or as a general term for anyone outside the Hebrew faith. As such, Gentiles were not considered, at least initially, part of the covenant people of God.
While the history behind Jewish and Gentile relations is complex, the New Testament reflects a generally pejorative initial view towards Gentiles. When God asks Peter to visit the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, in Acts 10, he explains his discomfort, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile…” (Acts 10:28, NRSV) The Gospel of Matthew also paints Gentiles as outsiders. While addressing inner-community conflict, the gospel states that if issues can’t be resolved after several faithful attempts, the person is to be treated as a “Gentile and tax collector”. (Matthew 18:17, NRSV) Gentiles are paired with “tax-collectors”, a group of people seen in a very negative light. Further, in Matthew 10, when Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim good news, he gives clear instructions that they are only to go to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” and to go “nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:5-6, NRSV). In all of these, Gentiles are understood as a people outside the promises of God. Their non-Jewish culture, polytheistic religious outlook, and participation in strange cult rituals made Gentiles suspicious to faithful Hebrews.
This is why Paul’s outlook on Gentiles is so important. Growing up, Paul is linked to a Pharisaic, traditional Jewish upbringing. It is not a great leap to assume that Paul shared a less than positive view of Gentiles. Yet, as Paul encountered the risen Christ, it reoriented his social relationships and his outlook on Gentiles. He came to see that in Christ, God was building a bridge towards people he and others previously understood to be excluded from God’s promises.
This theme of Gentile inclusion pounds like a drumbeat throughout the writings of Paul. Paul came to believe that in Christ Jesus, the promise that all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:3) had come to fulfillment and it would re-order one’s understanding of who was included in God’s redemptive work.
This is the central theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Both Jews and Gentiles are sinners redeemed by the grace of God through the faith of and in Christ Jesus, thereby placing all people Jewish and non-Jewish on equal footing before God. Romans 4 explicitly states that God’s promise to Abraham came before the Jewish Law/scriptures, and Abraham’s faithful response to God was generated through faith, not through the Jewish Law and tradition. As faith was the primary factor, then, those promises include any person who shares the faith of and in Christ Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile.
Gentile inclusion is not a minor point for Paul. It is at the heart of his theology. Thus, it explicitly challenges any interpretation of Romans 1:26-27, one of the clobber passages, that claims Paul’s main point is to show the error of same-sex relationships. No, when we read this passage in the context of Paul’s larger thesis, that Jews and Gentiles are on equal footing before God, we see that all have sinned and fallen short, but all are worthy of grace, no one has an advantage by background or tradition, and all who come to Jesus through faith will be included in God’s redemptive work. The larger theme is about inclusion, not exclusion.
Part three of this article series will be posted tomorrow.