This article, A Biblical Case for Inclusion…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 explored how Paul understands God including Gentiles into the redeeming work of Christ. The last installment, this article, takes a look 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 the Holy Spirit.
This third theme, the Holy Spirit, is important. It is the foundation for Paul’s interpretation of circumcision and Gentile inclusion. It is quite simple. Paul recognized the Holy Spirit in Gentiles. These Gentiles, who Paul long believed were sinners outside the promises of God, were now seen as being filled with the Holy Spirit…and he couldn’t ignore it.
In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13, NRSV) Paul states that the invisible presence of God is moving through all people, not a small, exclusive, or privileged group. The Spirit cannot be contained by any limited beliefs we may hold regarding God’s inclusion.
Further, for Paul, the evidence of the Spirit is not found in strict adherence to the Hebrew scriptures, but rather the dispositions of one’s heart. In Galatians 5, Paul states that whether one is circumcised or not is of little value (even though it is so clearly stated in the Hebrew scriptures). All that matters is a heart of faith that is working through love. (Galatians 5:6) Therefore, evidence of holiness, the Holy Spirit, is seen in things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). These are the markers of the holy life and Paul had seen these things in the Gentiles, even though they had not been circumcised. In essence, Paul is inviting his readers to have a more inclusive view of God’s work, evidenced by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
This great truth also awakened Peter in Acts 10. Here Peter is sent by God to the Gentile Cornelius’ home. As he observes Cornelius’ faith and how God is at work among Cornelius and other Gentiles, Peter asks rhetorically howanyone could possibly withhold baptism since there is already evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in them. (Acts 10:47, NRSV) When Peter returns to Jerusalem and reports all of this he boldly proclaims, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17, NRSV)
Here is where Peter’s story intersects with Paul’s. Later, in Acts 15, when Paul is called before the Jerusalem Council to explain and justify his ministry with uncircumcised Gentiles, Peter rises to Paul’s defense using this exact argument. Peter has seen what God is already doing. God already gave Gentiles the Holy Spirit, the evidence is clear in their faith, and in so doing made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. (Acts 15:7-11) Peter finishes by asking the body why they are now trying to put God to the test by excluding uncircumcised Gentiles? For both Peter and Paul, these Gentiles, that many previously assumed were sinners and outsiders, are now included in the redemptive work of Jesus by God’s own initiative. To exclude the Gentiles would have been tantamount to excluding God, denying the work of the Holy Spirit.
As a pastor, academic, and spiritual pilgrim on the long journey of faith I am tired of being accused of disregarding or ignoring the Bible. I am weary with arguments that begin and end with holding up a few Bible passages that seemingly condemn same-sex practice. As one who does support the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons into the life of the church (including marriage and ordination), I find my foundation in the scriptures. It is not just in a few passing verses, but in the unfolding story of transformation and redemption in the Bible. It is found in the Bible’s own bias for inclusion, welcoming more and more people into the promises of God.
While Paul is often cited as a voice against inclusion, I find the opposite. Paul’s aim is to make the church a more inclusive place, specifically for people who had traditionally been excluded from the salvation of God. With circumcision, Paul reminds that interpretation of scripture is less about strict adherence to the letter and more about capturing the heart or Spirit of God’s gracious work in the world. With the inclusion of the Gentiles, Paul demonstrates how our own attitudes must change as it relates to people to be included in God’s promises. Traditionally LGBTQ persons have been excluded from the life of the church, but in Christ all things are made new and God readily includes people who were previously thought excluded, just look at the Gentiles.
Last, Paul, like Peter, was open enough to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Gentiles. He knew the presence of the Spirit was more important than strict adherence to laws and practices in the Hebrew Scriptures, like circumcision. If God was already working in and through them, how could Paul stand in the way?
As I think back over the years and the many LGBTQ persons who have been a blessing to the churches I have served, I see the presence of the Holy Spirit. When I look at same-sex families in the church I serve now and the love they provide one another and their children, I see the Holy Spirit. When I see LGBTQ+ siblings lead, sing, preach, pray, and so many other things, it is so clear the Holy Spirit is working in and through them. If this is so, who am I, who are we, to withhold their inclusion? By the evidence of the Holy Spirit God has accepted them. Why shouldn’t we?
According to Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has a bias towards inclusion. Rather than trying to discern who should be kept out or restricted in the practice of faith perhaps we should be open to who God wants to make a place for at the table. For any of us, all of us, if we have faith and trust, that is enough. We are included. Indeed, Paul is a most surprising and helpful guide into the inclusion of LGBTQ+ siblings into the church today.