How is disagreement resolved in the Acts 15 Council?

The account of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 has been drawn on in a range of situations where Christians have argued for a radical change in our understanding of the church and salvation. It comes up frequently in the current debate on sexuality, but was cited by Dick France, late Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in relation to the admission of women to ordination in the Church of England, and has been drawn on in discussions of the growth of ‘fresh expressions’ of church in relation to ‘inherited’ church.

The account of the Council meeting itself forms the climax of an extended section of the narrative that began in Acts 10 with Peter’s rooftop vision and encounter with Cornelius, the Roman centurion and ‘God-fearer’. The importance of this episode is highlighted by Luke’s repetition of it in Peter’s recounting the episode in Acts 11. Luke builds the story carefully, noting the development of the distinctive identity of the Jesus-followers in the form of the name ‘Christian’ in Acts 11.25, and he then dovetails the story of the beginning of Paul’s ministry in Acts 13 and 14 before returning to the question of gentile believers in Acts 15.

This is important, since Luke deliberately structures his accounts of Peter’s and Paul’s ministries to mirror one another, so Peter’s encounter with Cornelius is mirrored by Paul’s habit of preaching to ‘Greeks’ (a common term to refer to gentiles, not to actual Greek people; all in the empire spoke Greek) after he has first preached in the synagogue. And, coming at the mid-point of Acts, the Council and its decision become the turning point in the narrative. Up until now, the main focus has been the ministry of Peter and the growth of the gospel amongst Jewish believers. But from now on, the focus is decisively on Paul and his ministry amongst gentile believers. He heads West again on his so-called ‘Second Missionary journey’, and is directed by the Spirit to cross into Europe (Acts 16.7), where he establishes congregations at Philippi and Thessaloniki, then heads south to Athens and Corinth in Acts 18.

Noting this highlights two issues of context which we need to consider when reading the Council decision. First, it is hard to underestimate what a seismic shift it was for the early church to come to terms with the idea that salvation in Jesus was for gentiles who remained as gentiles rather than joining the historic people of God by becoming converts to Judaism. Something of the significance is captured at the start of Paul’s reflection on the Jews in the purposes of God in Romans 9–11:

Theirs is the adoption; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9.4–5)

The Mosaic law, including circumcision and the food laws, were understood to be the Scriptural commands of God to his people. So anyone wanting to join God’s people needed to take on the ‘yoke of the law’ and conform.

The second question of context is the extent to which Luke is here describing a one-off, historical event, rather than setting out principles for the continuing life of the church. This arises in reading every part of Acts. Was the pattern of the shared life of the early believers, having ‘everything in common’, a one-off glimpse of an utopian moment, or an example for us to follow in our church communities? Are the ‘signs and wonders’ something for the apostolic era alone, or might they persist into the present? Are Luke’s accounts of the leaders a record of their actions alone, or an example for us to emulate? Each needs to be considered on its own merits, but there is also a sense in which the answer is ‘both/and’ instead or ‘either/or’.

Luke is clearly recording events (like the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost) which are once-for-all; but these once-for-all events are the threshold of a new age—the age of the end-times gift of the Spirit and the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth before Jesus’ return. This is the age in which we continue to live, and so, in terms of ‘theological time’, we are still in the same era. So on this issue, we are still in the era of both Jews and gentiles believing in the Jewish messiah Jesus, the latter being grafted in to the Israel of God.

What of the decision process in the Council itself? The account in Acts 15 has a number of striking features.

First, there was no attempt to ‘agree to disagree’ or seek ‘good disagreement’. As elsewhere in relation to this issue (for example, in Paul’s correspondence with the Galatians) the clear differences were expressed in ‘sharp dispute and debate’ (Acts 15.2). Nowhere in the NT is unity sought by avoiding issues or agreeing to ‘walk together apart.’ If this had happened on the issue at stake, we might have ended up with a church of Jewish followers of Jesus, and a church of gentile followers of Jesus, which would have fundamentally changed both the nature of the church and the subsequent history of Christianity. All are concerned to be of ‘one mind’ which is the ‘mind of Christ’ (Phil 2.2–5). As Paul reiterates in Ephesians, the two have become one (Eph 2.15) and for both Jew and gentile there is ‘one faith, one baptism’ which reflects the unity of God himself (Eph 4.5–7).

Secondly, Luke’s account suggests that space was given to hear both sides of the debate. In the text itself, more space is given to Peter’s side of things and his account, though I don’t think it is clear what that signifies. Was the ‘new teaching’ given space because the default option would have been to continue as they had been, so they needed to listen more carefully to the advocates for change? Or did this new teaching need greater scrutiny and interrogation? I don’t think we can know.

Thirdly, it is striking that the new teaching has advocates from two quite distinct perspectives. Both Peter, apostle ‘to the Jews’, and Paul, ‘apostle to the gentiles’, who themselves had been on different sides and were potentially the focus of rival groupings (see 1 Cor 1.12) testified in harmony about the new thing God was doing. This work of God transcended the natural boundaries or groupings within the early church; this was not a matter of a power struggle between blocs. This is part of a biblical conviction that we should only believe the testimony of people when two witnesses agree (Deut 17.6, 19.15; compare Mark 14.59, John 5.31).

Fourthly, the testimony that both Peter and Paul share has such a wide appeal as the authentic work of God that the response of the whole group is to fall into ‘silence’. This isn’t just the lack of argument and contention that goes with being teachable, signified by the word hesychia (1 Tim 2.11), but the much stronger response sigao of actually saying nothing (as in Luke 9.36). And the silence was not an act of respect to give space to Paul and Barnabas’s account—it was a response to it as they heard what God was doing. There was unanimous agreement that this was an amazing work of God.

Fifthly, the wisdom of the sage James, brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, who might well have been thought to have an interest in keeping the movement thoroughly Jewish, appears to have been decisive in shaping the final decision.

Sixthly, though in relatively abbreviated form, the citation of Scripture is key. This apparent innovation, this novel act of God, is in fact understood to be something already articulated in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). This is often passed over or misunderstood, since James quotes from the Greek OT, which give an alternative reading suggesting the gentiles will come to worship God, instead of the Hebrew which suggests rather the opposite, that God’s people will conquer or subdue the gentiles. But such ‘alternative readings’ of the OT was widespread in Second Temple Judaism, and the idea James cites can be found in many passages in the OT, not only in the early promises to Abraham, but in the later prophets (particularly the second part of Isaiah, chapters 40 onwards) who express a vision of the whole earth coming to worship the Holy One of Israel who is the creator of and lord over the whole world.

We should also note that the idea that the ministry of Jesus to Israel should spill over to the gentiles is present in even the most Jewish of the gospels, Matthew, where the narrative is punctuated by the appearance of gentile figures who often have a clearer understanding of who Jesus is. The climax of that gospel is Jesus sending his disciples to ‘all nations’; the Council of Acts 15 appears to be catching up with what Jesus has already said!

Seventhly, the potential disruption of this new understanding is minimised by the disciplines that the new gentile believers are asked to live under. There is a strong consensus that the four rules are drawn not from the covenant with Noah (which might look like laws for a universal humanity) but specifically from Torah, rather embarrassingly from Leviticus 17 and 18:

1. No Idols (Leviticus 17:7-9)
They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols to whom they prostitute themselves… 

2. No Sexual immorality (Leviticus 18:6-23)
No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations…[or] your neighbor’s wife…[or] with a man as one does with a woman…[or] with an animal

3. No drinking blood (Leviticus 17:10-12)
… Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood – I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people

4. No eating strangled meat (Leviticus 17:13-14)
Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood

This confluence of revelation from God, testimony of experience, agreement between those of very different perspectives, the apostolic wisdom of a respected leader, the location of the experience in the scriptural account of the purposes of God, and the minimising of disruption and difference, might then offer us some kind of framework for decision-making in the contemporary context when faced with a sharp difference of view.

(It is rather striking that there is a complete absence of appeal to the example of Jesus, and this reminds of us two things in passing. First, Jesus’ teaching in the gospels does look very Jewish, and his mission is consistently portrayed as being ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 15.24) even though there are clear pointers that it might in time develop further. Given the momentous significance of the decision to recognise the gentile mission, this suggests that the gospel writers were not adapting the stories about Jesus in order to answer questions that they had. The reference to the laws from Leviticus also undermines the popular notion that we are to ignore the OT law which has been displaced by the grace of God in Jesus. It is clear in Acts, and the rest of the NT, that we gentiles have been incorporated into the Jewish people of God, even without obeying all details of the Mosaic law, and we are not displacing them or superseding them.)

But, against that, we also need to note that the admission of the Gentiles was seen to fulfil, in OT terms, the ultimate goal of the eschatological purposes of God, indeed the whole point of the story and history of God’s election of a special people for himself in the first place. They were always to be a light to the world, that all people would be drawn to the presence of God enthroned in Zion, and the whole earth filled with knowledge of the glory of God. To that extent, this event is unrepeatable, so the example here needs to referred to with caution. In particular, it means that citing this example as justification for a contemporary change in the church on a specific issue would require us to argue that our issue was one which we can find expressed in the OT as an eschatological goal of God’s purposes in redemption—which is asking rather a lot.

pi_16512_728823d4-3d00-44a8-8899-a34601248e5f_1024x1024There is a good exploration of this episode, as we might expect, in Ben Witherington’s substantial commentary on Acts, though the observations above are my own. Witherington leans heavily on the work in this area by Richard Bauckham.

There is a good and detailed exploration of this in relation to current debates on sexuality in Andrew Goddard’s Grove booklet, E 121 God, Gentiles and Gay Christians: Acts 15 and Change in the Church, which includes a sympathetic comparison between the two situations before drawing conclusions. He notes the significance of the four prohibitions on current proposals:

If this is the rationale underlying Acts 15 then the significance for its use in the current debates over homosexuality is revolutionary. The failure of ‘revisionist’ advocates to consider the limits placed on Gentiles by the Decree has always been a problem in their argument. The seriousness of that problem is now deepened if the Decree is based on Lev 17 and 18 and the prohibition of porneia therefore rooted in Lev 18.26. Among the ‘detestable things’ prohibited by that text are the male homosexual acts described in Lev 18.22. There is now strong evidence that viewing homosexual practice as acceptable for gay Christians is not only to push the analogy from Acts 15 further than it logically can go. To make such a claim would in fact explicitly contradict one of the requirements placed on those Gentiles who entered the church as Gentiles. (p 21)

(Published previously in revised form)

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58 thoughts on “How is disagreement resolved in the Acts 15 Council?”

  1. The obvious difficulty for conservatives is that while we earnestly affirm 1 No Idols (Leviticus 17:7-9) and 2 No Sexual immorality (Leviticus 18:6-23) as applicable to ourselves in the 21st century, we have long since dispensed with 3 No drinking blood (Leviticus 17:10-12) and 4 No eating strangled meat (Leviticus 17:13-14).
    As it happens, we were all fed black pudding at a church men’s breakfast only last week.

    • So, the question that’s worth pondering is whether the Jerusalem Council’s ‘Gentile settlement’ (all ‘four rules’ made in ~48 – 50AD) were applicable for perpetuity, or whether they were concessions to Jews to avoid needless offence against their OT scruples (like Paul’s circumcision of Timothy) and provisional to later and further apostolic clarification (e.g., 1 Tim. 4, 1 Cor. 8, etc.)?

      If the latter, then, we need to read beyond Acts 15 to understand the whole counsel of God in relation to the ‘Gentile settlement’.

    • Jamie – I tend to avoid `mens breakfasts’, because – well – I’m not at all keen on such segregation. If the Word is good, then it is good for the whole congregation.

      I once went to a men’s breakfast, where the topic of discussion was King David, how in addition to being a terrific warrior with huge rippling back muscles, he was also a warm caring sensitive guy who could play the harp and write poetry. Later in the week, when I attended the church bible study, I gave an account of all of this. One lady listened to the account in wrapped attention with eyes wide open – and then asked me if I could give her the study notes so that they could discuss exactly the same thing at the ladies meeting.

    • Jamie, I agree with David S. In the context of the narrative, this is clearly the settlement at the time.

      To understand whether these continue to be binding, don’t we have to do the usual thing of reading the whole of scripture to understand this?

      What is immediately clear is that this ‘new thing’ that God is doing does not discount the OT simpliciter, as so many appear to claim.

      Interestingly, I have Christian friends who do abstain from blood, and others who are vegetarian on the basis of the pre-Noah narrative of creation.

      • Ian – I confess I don’t really understand the prohibitions in Acts 15, because they seem to be different from what the Apostle Paul indicates (Romans) about meat sacrificed to idols – where he indicates that there is nothing necessarily wrong with it in and of itself, but if a `strong’ Christian eats it (using Paul’s terminology), then this may give the wrong idea to the `weak’ Christian – who follows the example, eats it – and then participates in the idol to the detriment of his faith.

        There seems to be nothing of that reasoning in the Acts 15 passage – where the only motivation I can think of is health (strangled animals having unhealthy quantities of adrenaline as a result of the way they are killed – blood is something that goes off very quickly, particularly in a hot climate where there isn’t refrigeration).

        So while the general principle that David and you state looks right, I have some difficulties with it, because it doesn’t seem to tie in with other guidelines that the Apostle Paul gives.

    • I think it worth pointing out that although “No idols” is a principle, that we would agree with today. What the acts 15 councils actually says “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols,” is a something that if a universal decree and command that is clearly contradicted by Paul’s writings.

      • Kyle – I’m not sure that it contradicts Paul. Certainly, the ‘no meat sacrificed to idols’ in Romans is not so much a decree, but rather an application of his principle of the ‘law of love’ – it’s also an exhortation rather than a decree – but it’s quite clear that this is what is expected of Christians. He is talking about things that are neither right nor wrong in themselves, but may cause others to stumble – and with the ‘meat sacrificed to idols’, the person weaker in faith might actually participate in the idol.

        I’m looking back on my own past (I was in California at the time) when one evening I suggested to some friends that I’d rather like a curry for dinner – and was told that the best place to get a curry was at the Hare Krishna establishment in Laguna Beach. We went there for a laugh – and I thought the whole thing a total joke, but the curry was rather nice (it was vegetarian). I now look back on this as something where I absolutely violated the important principle that the Apostle Paul laid out here – someone `weaker’ in the faith might have followed my lead and gone along to the HK’s just for the curry – and then participated in – or appropriated some weird and wacky elements of Hare Krishna – and, according to the Apostle Paul, I would have been responsible.

        • Hi Jock,

          As an example of the principle that Paul laid out, you wrote: “someone `weaker’ in the faith might have followed my lead and gone along to the HK’s just for the curry – and then participated in – or appropriated some weird and wacky elements of Hare Krishna.”

          To be clear, in 1 Cor. 8, Paul isn’t advocating that those who are stronger in faith should curtail their responsible discretion in Christ to ensure that observers unbeknown to them don’t imitate them and unwittingly violate their weak consciences.

          Instead, he is advocating that, for Christians with stronger reliance on dominical and apostolic revelation on this issue, it a small concession, while in the company of Christians with weak consciences, to curtail their dietary discretion.

          This restriction on the exercise of personal discretion is not an inflexible obligation, but, rather a voluntary generous expression of lavish graciousness.

    • Jamie –

      (1) The rule against ‘porneias’ in Acts 15:20, was, in all likelihood, specifically directed against illicit marriages that were deemed incestuous by the Jews, and probably also, by many Jewish Christians. (Lev. 19:6 ff).

      (2) The four rules in Acts 15:20 were formulated not as permanent, doctrinal fundamenta, but as measures designed during a sensitive period, to avoid needless offence to the Jews, and doubtless, to some Jewish Christians. They were acts of Christian love, towards the Jews.

  2. This is a very powerful argument in the current circumstances. It hardly needs saying that not every verse or passage of scripture should be taken to indicate what we Christians must be doing right now in our present time and circumstances. Many biblical events are recorded precisely because of their one off significance within an overall narrative which must be fully comprehended before we have a sure foundation on which we can exercise wisdom for our present time.

    Decisions in churches do have to be made but radical departures from two millennia of understanding, if they are ever to be justified, must surely at least require unanimity of the whole of a church based on something a lot more convincing than the faux democracy of a General Synod. A pre requisite of that level of decision-making must surely be a thorough, formal and widely accepted visitation of the scriptures – something which, despite the years of chatter, we have yet to see here in England.

  3. Doesn’t Paul in Galatians say that in his disputation with Peter, the underlying cause was a Gospel matter; Peter had forgotten the Gospel?
    So the Counsel was agreeing that it was a Gospel matter, both/and, the old enfolded into the new. A question of Life, new life, not worship, making idols, of self.
    To press the point- an OT sacrificial one of blood – life is in the blood- the passover, new covenant, blood of Jesus, His life for ours, ours for his.
    Also, there is the question of Holiness, ( including cleanliness) which infuses the whole topic of the Counsel, fundamental conditions for and of inclusion and separation in the people of God.

  4. Quote: ‘There is a strong consensus that the four rules are drawn not from the covenant with Noah (which might look like laws for a universal humanity) but specifically from Torah, rather embarrassingly from Leviticus 17 and 18’

    This is not the case. Witherington’s commentary is mentioned: he argues that the decree refers to activities connected to pagan worship, and not to the Levitical laws:
    ‘It is more likely that each item in the decree should be taken separately and all be seen as referring to four dfferent activities that were known or believed to transpire in pagan temples’. (Witherington, 1998, 464)

    I, like Witherington, think the case for Leviticus 17 & 18 being the source is weak. As he points out, the social context is wrong (we are not talking about gentiles living in Israel); the term eidolothuton (food sacrificed to idols) does not appear in Leviticus 17-18; and Leviticus does not mention either things strangled, or use the term porneia (sexual immorality). And there is no Jewish parallel to these four commandments as summing up Lev. 17-18 and binding gentiles.

    Or take it from the other point of view. What sexual immorality was extremely common amongst gentiles, but would be unacceptable to the early church? The answer is the use of prostitutes. This was endemic throughout the empire, not frowned upon, and not seen as adultery (which was a much narrower offence). And the root of the word porneia, sexual immorality, comes from the Greek word for prostitute. It makes sense for the decree to be about this type of immorality, rather than the extremely limited list of Leviticus 17-18, which is mainly about incest (which gentiles also thought was wrong) and does not even mention prostitution (or even the most common form of incest, father-daughter).

    In short, there is no strong consensus that the decrees refer to Leviticus 17-18, and plenty of reasons for thinking that they do not.

    • Thanks for the comment. ‘What sexual immorality was extremely common amongst gentiles, but would be unacceptable to the early church? The answer is the use of prostitutes.’ The other very clear answer is ‘Same-sex sexual relations’!

      • You are right, certain forms of same-sex relations (that is, the abuse of boys by married men) was also extremely common.

        • As you know, Greeks did not view that as ‘abuse’, but as a natural part of development.

          But of course the prohibitions in scripture are not in relation to ‘abusive’ relationships, but all same-sex sexual relationships, as a rejection of God’s creation of humanity as male and female. As numerous established authorities in our discipline make absolutely clear:

          It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order (William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality pp 323–4).

          Professor Gagnon and I are in substantial agreement that the biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexual practice condemn it unconditionally. However, on the question of what the church might or should make of this we diverge sharply (Dan O Via, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views p 93).

          Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct (Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible”).

          This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, p 705).

          Homosexual activity was a subject on which there was a severe clash between Greco-Roman and Jewish views. Christianity, which accepted many aspects of Greco-Roman culture, in this case accepted the Jewish view so completely that the ways in which most of the people in the Roman Empire regarded homosexuality were obliterated, though now have been recovered by ancient historians…

          Diaspora Jews had made sexual immorality and especially homosexual activity a major distinction between themselves and gentiles, and Paul repeated Diaspora Jewish vice lists. I see no reason to focus on homosexual acts as the one point of Paul’s vice lists [in 1 Cor 6.9] that must be maintained today.

          As we read the conclusion of the chapter, I should remind readers of Paul’s own view of homosexual activities in Romans 1, where both males and females who have homosexual intercourse are condemned: ‘those who practice such things’ (the long list of vices, but the emphasis is on idolatry and homosexual conduct) ‘deserve to die’ (1.31). This passage does not depend on the term ‘soft’, but is completely in agreement with Philo and other Diaspora Jews. (E P Sanders Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought pp 344, 373).

          The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good (Luke Timothy Johnson).

          Do you explain anywhere how all these (liberal, critical) scholars get their readings so wrong…?

          • Hi Ian
            I don’t have space or time to express here why you and I so profoundly disagree with each other, and indeed with some of the scholars you quote (in passing, I note that, for example, Luke Timothy Johnson believes that a fully scriptural approach should be affirming).
            If people want a fuller explanation, I have a website (, a YouTube channel (Bible and Homosexuality) and a book (Affirmative). These also give a fuller list of the academic scholarship in each area rather than the same few scholars you repeatedly quote.

          • Hi Pellegrino, I’m short of time, and trying not to get too diverted. I have commented at more length in other threads on this website (please do go and search them out). And I have a more detailed longer presentation in the book, YouTube channel and website.

      • It is “clear” if the word “natural” in Romans 1:26 is meant biologically – versus “customary”, as it is meant here (and in parallel uses of the Greek in writings of Aristotle, e.g.). Since there was no understanding of homosexuality as biological until the 19th century – and since Paul in Romans 2 hoists Romans 1:18ff on its own pitard – I can hardly believe that same-sex sexual relations would be unacceptable to the early church. It is my experience with long pastoral experience with LGBTQ persons damaged by such an exposition that yours is an expository leap based more on a church’s prior relational estrangement from LGBTQ persons than it is on sound biblical precepts that would circumscribe their expressions of mutual affection.

        • ‘Natural’ in Pau doesn’t mean ‘biological’, since that term is anachronistic. It is clear from the shape of the argument that it means ‘the world as God created it according to his intention in Genesis’. Philo uses the language in the same way.

          Paul does not ‘hoist himself by his own petard’; in chapter 1 he deploys classic Jewish rhetoric against gentiles showing their sin, then turns the scriptures on his fellow Jews to show, not that Gentiles are fine, but that in their sin Jews are no better. The end result is Rom 3.23: ‘All [= both Jews and Gentiles] have sinned…’

          The idea that there was no idea that ‘homosexuality was biological’ is anachronistic. All the evidence shows that people have always known that a small minority have a settled attraction to their own sex. But of course we do not ‘know’ that homosexuality is ‘biological’; it is not. It is the result of a complex process of psychosexual development, as is all our sexuality.

          Every single respectable scholar is clear: scripture prohibits same-sex sexual relationships of any form.

    • Jonathan – the letter in Acts 15 is aimed at Christians. That is – people who are `in Him’ because their lives have been transformed by the Holy Spirit working within them, who therefore have communion with God through the atoning work of Christ at Calvary. As Paul explains in Romans, for those of us who are `in Him’, we can do whatever we like, but what we like is constrained by the law of love. We therefore don’t have to nit-pick over definitions or over what came from where; whatever we like (if we have truly been transformed by the Holy Spirit) is in line with the commandment ‘love your neighbour’.

      When it comes to having-it-off, it is quite clear that anything at all, outside two people who are able to have children together, who are ready and willing to have children together, does not correspond to an act of love, but instead corresponds to selfish desires for self-gratification.

      They therefore do not have to put more details into it to explain which part of the OT they got it from.

      The other points can also be understood in this context; eating meat sacrificed to idols can cause a weaker Christian to stumble (the weaker Christian following the example of eating meat may be drawn to participating in the idol). Not eating blood or animals strangled (whereby the blood does not leave the animal after it has been killed) can be understood on grounds of health.

      • “ When it comes to having-it-off, it is quite clear that anything at all, outside two people who are able to have children together, who are ready and willing to have children together, does not correspond to an act of love, but instead corresponds to selfish desires for self-gratification.”

        So, what should an infertile married couple or an elderly married couple refrain from sexual intercourse?

        • David – well, we do know that God performed miracles. It’s not for me to say what should (or should not) go on between two people in the privacy of their own household – but I’d suggest that the whole business, without prospect of children is actually an empty experience where the pleasure is purely illusory. It isn’t an act of love; it is an act of pleasure seeking.

          By the way, I don’t go for the ‘should’ or ‘should not’ approach to things – the apostle Paul teaches that when we are ‘in Him’, we can do whatever we like; if we truly are ‘in Him’ what we like will be governed by the law of love (i.e. the best interests of our neigbours).

          But I think you can see clearly that the whole business that seems to be preoccupying the C. of E. recently stems from the basic illusory idea that having-it-off in and of itself (i.e. even without the prospect of children) is something that brings pleasure and is somehow a right. This led to the invention of all those horrible chemicals (which don’t do people any good) to create a situation where people could have-it-off without any danger of producing children. After heterosexual people could do this and having-it-off purely for pleasure became somehow standard, gay people started demanding their rights to similar levels of promiscuity, etc …. etc ….. .

          This is the way-of-the-world and that is why it is now considered appropriate in the UK to have sex education in schools where pornography is rammed down the throats of children. As I understand it, much of so-called sex education is aimed at teaching people how to have-it-off with each other ‘safely’ – i.e. in such a way that they don’t catch anything horrid and they don’t end up getting pregnant.

          We may expect this as the way-of-the-world, but Christians are supposed to be not-of-this-world, so it is very disappointing (but not at all surprising) to see the C. of E. adopting the way-of-the-world.

          • Hi Jock,

            You wrote: “ the whole business that seems to be preoccupying the C. of E. recently stems from the basic illusory idea that having-it-off in and of itself (i.e. even without the prospect of children) is something that brings pleasure and is somehow a right.”

            The fact that the God-given capacity for sexual pleasure can be misused, doesn’t make the case for wholesale disparagement by referring to that gift through pejoratives, like “having it off”.

            To do so betrays a dim view of our physical existence, which, while being an occasion of sin, is not the origin and root cause.

            As humans, we are body-spirit unities. We are not spirits, who must reluctantly accept embodiment.

            Apart from procreation, the good reason for the gift of sexual pleasure in marriage is that it is pair-bonding activity that intensifies mutual empathy and affection.

            The misuse of sexual pleaser does not justify diminishing its importance to marriage as a lifelong covenant.

          • David – well, I’d say I profoundly disagree with you – I’d say that the aspect which you point to, a pair-bonding activity that intensifies mutual empathy and affection, cannot be dissociated from the couple looking forward to the outcome – a new child. You cannot separate the God-given gift of sexual pleasure in marriage from children. Without any prospect of children coming along, I maintain that it is essential empty gratification of the sensual desires.

            As soon as you separate ‘pair-bonding activity that intensifies mutual empathy and affection’ from actually producing children (which is the ultimate pair-bonding activity), you’re actually beginning to make a good case for same-sex sexual activity (why shouldn’t two people who like each other very much intensify their mutual empathy and affection?).

            No – I see the way-of-the-world, the importance of sexual gratification – which, as far as the way-of-the-world is concerned is equated with mutual affection (so that they don’t really understand what affection is). This is taken to its logical conclusion by offering women dangerous chemicals to stop pregnancy, offering men purple pills to make them affectionate enough, because this aspect is deemed to be of utmost importance.

            This seems to be a wrong road – I’m not in agreement with you.

          • Your position on this issue is not orthodox Christianity and borders on Gnostic contempt for physical experience, which resulted in asceticism being valorised.

            Paul exposed and denounced first-century expressions of this ascetic tendency: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.“ (Col, 2:21 – 23)

            Paul’s rejection of this asceticism holds true for the disparagement of the gift of sexual pleasure in marriage: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Tim. 4:4,5)

            You’ve resorted to a slippery slope argument to jump (illogically) from the good of God-given natural pair-bonding sexual activity within marriage to resorting to drugs in pursuit of pleasure at all costs: (“offering women dangerous chemicals to stop pregnancy, offering men purple pills to make them affectionate enough.”)

            That’s a non-sequitur. The former doesn’t have to lead to the latter. Paul explains that distinction: “those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.” (1 Cor. 7:31)

            While a married couple should not be engrossed with sexual pleasure, there is nothing spiritual about advocating the consignment of all post-menopausal wives to celibacy.

            That’s the logical consequence of your position.

          • David – well, as I said, I disagree. Paul makes it clear that for a Christian everything is permitted, we do whatever we want; what we want is constrained by the law of love (i.e. we don’t do anything that will inflict harm on our neighbour, or cause or neighbour to stumble – and we don’t do this because if we have the Spirit living within us, then we don’t want to). I’m not interested in consigning to celibacy people with mutual desire; rather that I don’t understand where the desire comes from, since without the prospect of children it looks (at least to me) like an empty pleasure – although I do accept that many disagree.

            But I want to point out one thing: I find that the ‘slippery slope’ argument is often useful for understanding things. Quite often, when reading Scripture without reference to the real world, we wonder why this, that and the other seems to be prohibited. Then we look at the real world, see what happens when these prohibitions have been ignored – and the wisdom of Scripture becomes completely clear.

            In the case of what the bible seems to be advocating about sex, I’d say that the last 60 years, at least since contraceptives for women became widely available, is very instructive – I think that this has led to an awful lot of harm – also harm within marriage, where men can now demand their ‘marital rights’ (as I once heard one gentleman from a Pentecostal church put it) and pressure women to take these drugs.

            So `slippery slope-ism’ – noting that it has all gone horribly wrong and working out why – can help us to understand the ordinances and instructions of Scripture.

          • Hi Jock,

            You wrote: “ I’m not interested in consigning to celibacy people with mutual desire.” However, in the case of post-menopausal wives or husbands who have been rendered sterile by radiation treatment that is the logical consequence of you declaring that: “You cannot separate the God-given gift of sexual pleasure in marriage from children.”

            The issue with any ‘slippery slope’ argument is that correlation isn’t causation.

            For example, we can agree that some men have exploited contraception to make unreasonable sexual demands on their wives. However, it doesn’t stand to reason to assume that unreasonable sexual demands are inevitably caused when a faithful husband and wife continue to celebrate their decades of enduring commitment and attraction to each other through sexual pair-bonding, but without the purpose of conceiving a child.

            For example, there are long-married Roman Catholic couples who have never used contraception, but still don’t become celibate after the wife has gone through menopause, or the husband os rendered sterile through radiation therapy.

            The truth is that you don’t have “to understand where their desire comes from”. As long as they remain faithful and caring to each other, they are acting within responsible Christian discretion.

  5. Quote: Nowhere in the NT is unity sought by avoiding issues or agreeing to ‘walk together apart.’

    Paul suggests precisely this in Romans 14.

    • Indeed, there are ‘things indifferent’ on which we can agree to disagree. But nowhere in Scripture is sexual ethics and the understanding of marriage one of those.

      Interestingly, I am not aware of anything contributed to the C of E discussions which offer an argument that sexuality should be classed as a ‘thing indifferent’. Are you?

      • Well, you have been happy already to remain part of a church which has ‘walked together apart’ over the matter of marriage, given that there are differences of understanding about the possibility of remarriage after divorce.

        And we are also part of a church which has ‘walked together apart’ over the matter of murder (is it acceptable if you part of the military, or should Christians always be non-violent?).

        • And we are also part of a church which has ‘walked together apart’ over the matter of murder (is it acceptable if you part of the military, or should Christians always be non-violent?).

          I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that murders committed by members of the military (as opposed to legitimate killing in the course of a just conflict) are acceptable. Have you ever seen that suggested anywhere?

          Indeed we have processes for putting on trial solders who commit murder while serving, and while those are occasionally criticised, I’ve never seen them criticised on the basis that it’s okay for soldiers to commit murder.

        • These are ideological positions for which evidence is sometimes treated as secondary. The only reason to agree to disagree would be if the evidence was particularly equivocal.

          I contacted you about Blosnich et al., Turban et al.. When people come to the point of needing counselling that may be because they are at a lowe point, so that the low point precedes the counselling. The figures both gave were for lifetime suicidality, but that is not a significant datum with regard to counselling (despite your treating it as such) unless one knows how much of the cuicidality was prior, how much subsequent, and whether there was improvement or decline after the counselling. That is why I do not understand your point – but there surely is data on prior/subsequent? Once we have questioned the highly questionable imposed language of ‘conversion therapy’, terminology which despite the prior questioning you took up uncritically.

        • It is suggested JT that you are seeking to evade the full force of the questions of:
          1. Sin

          2. Holiness
          2.1 of God
          2.2 being holy as God is Holy

          3 the doctrine of scripture and
          3.1 scripture’s place in the life of the Church and
          3.2 the life of present day disciples of Jesus

          • Hi Geoff, I utterly disagree with your framing. I think sin is important to recognise, I think the holiness of God is fundamental, that we are called to be holy, that scripture is important in the church and in the life of disciples.

          • Johnathan,
            That is mere assertion without content or to repeat – the full force of the questions is evaded.
            You seem to seek to move the goalposts – Ian has expressed the point differently.
            And the overwhelming consensus expressed in the Kigali Commitment opposes the CoE (and you?) on this. It is a walk in different directions, not *together but apart*.

            Applying the “mischief rule of statutory interpretation”, the mischief God opposes is clear, on this. There are no conditions, exceptions, qualifications. And argument from silence will not cut it.

            But it goes deeper, to the heart of the undomesticated attributes of the Triune God of Christianity, it is suggested, which is in contrast to Open/Progressive theology, of which the current but long in the making dispute is but a tributary, it is suggested, in the flow of a river of a different religion from Christian orthodoxy.
            And while I’ve not read it, a recent book seems to start there.
            Here is a sample:

        • Jonathan, I find your approach to argument here rather odd. I point out that nowhere has anyone made the case that sexual morality is a ‘thing indifferent’.

          But instead of answering that, you change the subject to other issues, which might or might not be judged indifferent. On marriage, there are not two views: all believe that marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman. Whether it is possible to remarry after divorce does not indicate a difference of that understanding.

          But even if other things are, or are not, judged ‘indifferent’, you still have not made the case the sexual ethics and the definition of marriage is ‘indifferent’. Have you made that case? Has anyone else? If not, then my claim, that we cannot ‘agree to disagree’ on this, stands.

          • ‘all believe that marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman. Whether it is possible to remarry after divorce does not indicate a difference of that understanding.’

            But it does, because if they divorce and marry someone else, then by definition the union was not lifelong!

            This is simple logic.

          • Peter PC1
            Is not the intention, commitment, ab intitio, in the marriage covenant for a life – long marriage.
            Divorce represent
            a breach of covenant.

          • Peter, it is a lifelong union—but one that is broken.

            Marriage remains a lifelong union. No-one in the C of E says ‘until we change our minds’, they continue to say ’till death us do part’.

          • Hi Ian
            You are right – I went ahead and didn’t show all of my working. So…
            First, all the possible variants of what might or might not count as sexual immorality are not covered in the NT (not surprisingly). We do get clearer discussions over incest and (ab)use of prostitutes, and adultery. These are not ‘things indifferent’.

            I pointed out that there are issues on which we can ‘walk together apart’ and that Paul himself recommended this approach in Romans 14. You suggested that sexual immorality could never fall into this category.

            However, we do currently ‘walk together apart’ over the issue of the remarriage of those who have been divorced, with a conscience clause for those priests who believe it to be wrong.

            This is clearly an issue of sexual immorality: those who do not believe that remarriage is right consider that ‘remarriage’ is a form of adultery. Yet we continue in the same church. And you and I were both ordained priests when the Church of England changed its rules to allow remarriage after lengthy debate (2002).

            In other words, we ‘walk together apart’ over an issue of sexual immorality, and have been doing so since 2002.

          • I said this issue of sexual morality is never adiaphora in scripture.

            Sorry—it is not possible to decide that several issues are all covered by one umbrella term, and since we have disagreements on one issue mean we can agree to disagree on another.

            It is a bit like saying: ‘We don’t need to walk the cat; cats and dogs are both animals; therefore we don’t need to walk the dog.’

            ISTM that often what is lacking in this debate is a simply question of logic!

          • Sorry, I am unclear what you mean by ‘this issue of sexual immorality’ or why you think there is a lack of logic.

            You claimed that nowhere in the NT is unity sought by ‘walking apart together’. I pointed out where it was.

            You then narrowed this to sexual ethics and the understanding of marriage.

            I took from this that you were implying that we today also shouldn’t agree to walk apart together, or treat it as a matter indifferent, over issues of sexual ethics and marriage.

            I pointed out that we were both in a church (and remained in a church that formally decided to) that agreed to do precisely that over the issue of remarriage after divorce. Or, to use other language, in which the CofE agreed to disagree over a matter of sexual ethics and marriage.

            How is any of this against logic? Which statement is factually incorrect?

            Are you saying that we have to discern with each type of disagreement over sexual ethics whether we can agree to disagree?

  6. Ian:
    Excellent article but I’m skeptical about your reference for Rule #4
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    4. No eating strangled meat ( Leviticus 17:13-14)
    Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Leviticus 17:13-14 has no mention of how the animal was killed. Are you assuming that the act of hunting an animal precludes the act of strangling ?
    Thanks – Dave

    • Or he is considering ‘strangled’ (πνικτὸν) to be a metonym for “killed without complete exsanguination” in the same way that ‘pollutions [ἀλισγημάτων] of the idols’ is a metonym for food sacrificed to idols?

      Certainly, the latter metonymy holds for Daniel 1:8 in the LXX, where the related verb, ἀλισγηθῇ, is specifically means defilement by food which Jews were prohibited from consuming.

  7. Ian

    ‘Marriage remains a lifelong union. No-one in the C of E says ‘until we change our minds’, they continue to say ’till death us do part’.’

    But that’s the problem. It is more accurate to say marriage ‘should be’ a lifelong union, but in reality it often is not, and often not down to adultery, but for numerous other reasons. That is why people see hypocrisy in straight Christians, quick to condemn gay people, but not so quick to condemn those who actually go against Jesus’ explicit command.

  8. It appears to me that the Cof E was born out of contentious
    Marital Expediency {and established under Elizabeth 1st.}
    The Cof E has. to my mind. not fully embraced the Reformation,
    and founded on accommodation of factions. choosing instead to be a broad Church.
    Frequently it has been antagonistic towards the developing Reformation.
    I wonder if it’s demise will occur under another Kings’ adulterous behaviour, and the current debacle over SSM and its’ blessing of same
    However, are we just “fiddling whilst Canterbury burns?”
    Already the global south [about 75%] has rejected Welby as it’s head.
    Is it not time to return to first principles [MAT.19 VS.3 – 12 ]
    Jesus reduces the question to the original institution;” But from the beginning it was not so.”
    Corruptions that are crept into any ordinance of God must be purged out by having recourse to the primitive institution. If the copy be vicious, it must be examined and corrected by the original.¬¬¬¬

    Is it not time to rebuild the broken down Alter?
    [1 KINGS 18 VS.21-40]
    Why is the global south flourishing?
    I suggest looking into the history of its development at
    And the current ministry of Daniel Kolenda

  9. Alan Kempson April 28, 2023 at 1:16 pm
    Correction; Some website notifications do not connect to artcle. see instead our story /About us/VISION; Three dreams


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