Acts 8:26-40: Philip and the Sexual Deviant Part 2 — Responding to Alternate Interpretations

This is the second post in a series (Part 1) explaining Acts 8:26-40. This post in particular is aimed at addressing Brian McLaren’s post “Synchro-blogging on Sexuality.” He begins by explaining:

I knew from my many years as a pastor that sexual orientation was not a choice . . . So, I was uncomfortable with the conventional approach, but I was unsure how to construct an alternative that was equally faithful to Scripture and faithful to the reality I saw in human beings who came to me as their pastor, friend, and family member. Over many years, that alternative has become more and more clear, and surprisingly (to some), it was a passage of Scripture that opened the way for me to see it.

He goes on to tell that “Acts 8 was waiting with a story that is more powerful than many have realized.”

What follows is his explanation of Acts 8:26-40 and its implications for our understanding of human sexuality. Prior to addressing his explanation his motivation must be examined. He begins by explaining that he knew, by means of experiential knowledge, that sexual orientation was not a choice. Furthermore he sought out Scripture which would conform to his experience of reality. Yes, Scripture should accurately describe reality; however, we must also recognize what Scripture has to say about reality as we experience it. It is expressly clear from Scripture that the reality which we experience is a world at war. It is a world where man is at enmity with God, where man is at enmity with his fellow man, where man is even at enmity with himself, and where man is at enmity with creation. Within such a world these questions cannot be answered by experience rather they must be revealed by one who is not plagued by the curse which has beset our world. Answers based upon experience are like developing a theory of human sexuality based upon the horrors of D-Day. McLaren’s mistake is that he views his experience within a fallen world as normative. This thought will be returned to in part 3 of this series.

Turning to McLaren’s explanation of Acts 8 there aspects of his argument that we can agree with, although at points necessary critique will be given. Ironically at the outset McLaren makes much of the eunuch’s inability to fit within “the traditional family,” “to become heterosexual,” and to be “categorized in traditional sexual roles” he also notes that the eunuch exists in a “not-part-of-the-created-order sexual category.” This admission has no bearing upon what follows in his argument; although he admits that this man’s sexual identity has been profoundly affected by the fall he does little to speak of how redemption in Christ addresses this issue. McLaren also notes that:

He [the Ethiopian eunuch] has come to Jerusalem to worship God, but has, no doubt, been turned away- first because of his race and second because of his sexual identity: the Hebrew Scriptures explicitly excluded both Gentiles and people in his nontraditional, not-part-of-the-created-order sexual category.

One would have hoped that McLaren would have done his homework at this point and note the greatness of redemption in Christ, sadly he does not. There is no mention of Old Testament prophecy concerning eunuchs and foreigners or of prophecy concerning the coming Messiah whose inheritance is the nations, whose salvation will be made known among the nations, and around whom the nations will gather in praise. Instead McLaren gives the impression that the Old Testament has nothing to offer except condemnation. Furthermore the text itself paints a far different picture that the one given by McLaren. Rather than being turned away from worshipping in Jerusalem it would appear that he actually worshipped in Jerusalem and obtained a fairly costly scroll containing some or all of Isaiah’s prophecy. This mistake is poor exegesis at best or pure eisegesis at worst.

McLaren continues to explain the text as he tells of how Philip ran to the eunuch’s chariot and asked if he understood what he was reading. Then he explains:

The man invites Philip into the chariot and asks if the writer was writing about himself or someone else – a question that suggests this man feels the prophet is talking about him in his sexual otherness: he too will have no descendants; he too has been rejected, misunderstood, despised, shamed … he too has been brought like a sheep or lamb before people with cutting instruments.

At this point McLaren’s exposition is laughable both in his treatment of the New Testament narrative and the Old Testament prophecy. Even a cursory reading of Isaiah 53 lends itself to quite a different understanding of the text than McLaren’s suggested lamentation of “sexual otherness.” The propitiatory tone of the text is unmistakable. Thus the eunuch’s question becomes one which asks “Who is it that has taken our grief, our sorrows, our transgressions, our iniquities, and given himself as an offering for our guilt so that we may be accounted righteous and have peace with God? Is it the writer or another of whom he speaks?” McLaren also notes that like the eunuch this “man of sorrows” had no descendants (v.8). Again McLaren has failed to do his homework. The word here means generation (דור) if Isaiah had intended to speak of His descendants he would have used זרע as found in verse 10. He appears to be using the NIV which poorly renders verse 8 and stands at odds with most other translations by translation דור as descendants. What the text is asking is “Did any of his contemporaries, the people of that generation, consider that he had been put to death for their sins?” The text is not mourning his inability to have children. Even more problematic for McLaren’s translation is that verse 10 speaks of how this suffering servant will see His offspring whose iniquities He has bore and whom He has made righteous. The text is clearly at odds with McLaren’s interpretation.

McLaren continues, “Philip explains that this passage can be read to describe Jesus, and he shares the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God.” McLaren so distains exegetical certainty that he must put words into Philip’s mouth at this point as he notes that Philip explains “the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God” as one of many readings of Isaiah 53. This is a messianic prophecy it is not enough to say that it “can be read to describe Jesus” this text describes Jesus, that is what the text is doing and any reading which does otherwise is not faithful to the text.

Ultimately McLaren concludes:

Neither race nor sexual identity was an obstacle for the apostles in welcoming a new brother into the community of faith. . . That’s why I am among those who dissent from the conventional approach and attitude, appealing back to Philip’s even more ancient church tradition.

Simply saying that “neither race nor sexual identity was an obstacle for the apostles” fails to do justice to the issue as we find it presented in Scripture. These were big issues that they took time to work through as they grasped the nature of redemption within the New Covenant. So we cannot say that these were non-issues it took time for them to understand the extent of redemption in Christ. At the same time we must recognize that ultimately Scripture declares, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The gospel transcends the barriers which previously separated humanity, these barriers are still real and yet they have been overcome by the unity brought about by redemption in Christ. Ultimately, however, McLaren’s conclusion is both incorrect and it belittles the Gospel because of its failure to take into account the pervasive affects of the fall and the glorious riches of redemption in Christ.

In the upcoming and third post in this series we will examine the pervasive affects of the fall and the glorious riches of redemption in Christ as we seek to correctly understand what Scripture has to say on this issue.

Advertisements

Acts 8:26-40: Philip and the Sexual Deviant

I hope the title caught your attention and I hope that this brief post challenges the clean Victorianesque way in which many of us read Scripture and our clean Victorian lives and our clean Victorian churches. Have you ever heard a sermon giving more than a cursory explanation of what an eunuch is? I have not. I have heard the clean version of how eunuchs played a critical role in the government of many nations at that time; how they guarded concubines in the harems and protected the emperors of Rome. At later times they became important figures in the history of music as castrati were renowned for their vocal prowess. What I haven’t heard is a lengthy exposition of how such procedures, which were performed in the early stages of life, had profound physical, physiological, and psychological effects upon an individual due to hormone depravation.

Lest we let our American obsession with power and celebrity affect the way we read this text another reminder is necessary. Yes, the text does indeed note that he was the treasurer for an Ethiopian queen; however, he did not come to this position due to his wisdom or financial savvy. No, rather he has been genetically engineered, in a most primitive way, so that he can perform certain tasks within the government and as such he and those like him were expendable. Yes, he has authority and he has influence but he has been engineered for this role.

With such basic expositions of this text have we truly recognized its significance? Is this merely a cheap incantation to be read before the congregation at baptismal ceremonies? In Isaiah 56 we find that both the salvation of the eunuch and foreigner promised. Later in acts we read the story of Cornelius and see the Spirit is poured out upon this gentile and his household. I mean no disservice to the story of Cornelius but is it not equally profound that God would choose to save this transgender man? Even more amazing is that Irenaeus noted that this Ethiopian eunuch became a missionary among his people, which does much to explain the church history there dating back to the first century.

How do you think this text should challenge our understanding of mission and how are we to go about this mission? How would you respond if God called one of these children to Himself? How would you respond if after having irreversible surgery and hormone therapy God chooses to send one of these individuals out as a missionary? Would your church send the Ethiopian eunuch out as a missionary? Would your church call him as pastor? Aside from the likes of men like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, whose answers are not answers at all, no one seems to be addressing these issues. I am not asking a question with regards to lifestyle here, Scripture both answers that clearly and demonstrates the power of the gospel to change lives. In the age of designer babies (see here) and transgender children (see here) we must wrestle with the fact that while lifestyle change through the gospel is possible undoing physical, physiological, and psychological change rooted in genetic manipulation is a different process entirely.