AD 30 / John T. Baptist
Things have not been easy for Australian Christians this year. As the postal survey on same-sex marriage looms ever closer, some otherwise conservative Christians are seriously considering voting Yes, while many others have uneasy feelings about imposing an explicitly Biblical concept of marriage on those who have not assumed submission to the Bible.
With timing that can only be attributed to the providence of God, a team of archaeologists have uncovered what appears to be a miraculously preserved collection of leather-bound writing journals in a cave near the River Jordan. While some words and phrases throughout have been irreparably lost due to some pretty bad splotches of wild honey, the vast majority of the corpus has been preserved for our edification.
Of particular note is what appears to be an ancient thinkpiece by none other than John the Baptist, the prophet who led the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus. It explains John’s thought process behind his controversial stance on the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias, and was likely intended for publication.
It is truly an honour to be able to publish this gem from the ancient world. Without it, the Christians of Australia might ever be groping about in the dark, uncertain of how to talk about marriage in the public sphere in a way that the Lord Jesus would commend.
Praise the Lord, who always provides us with everything we need!
I want to start a conversation.
As almost all of you are now well aware, the tetrarch Herod Antipas has recently divorced from Phasaelis, princess of Nabataea, to marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Philip.
Herod and Herodias’ marriage (or HHM) has raised some important questions: What is marriage, really? Should followers of Jesus be contributing our views on marriage to the public discourse? Shouldn’t we have somebody other than a man who eats locusts leading the campaign?
There is amongst the followers of Jesus a near-universal assumption that the only faithful way to respond to HHM is to denounce it, an assumption which I want to challenge. I propose that the most God-honouring thing might be to publicly affirm HHM, or simply to refrain from saying anything at all.
The moral versus the political
The first thing I want to clear up is that the question about marrying your brother’s wife is a related (but completely separate) question to the question of the legality of HHM. One is a purely moral question, the other is a political and legal question. The political takes into account the moral, but it also takes into account many other things, and so it isn’t the same.
The Scriptures are clear on sexuality itself and what marriage is. But it is actually silent on how followers of Jesus ought to respond to a nation of unbelievers that want to deviate from the Scriptural understanding of marriage. Believe me, I’ve looked everywhere and I’ve found nothing.
Some amongst us have thought very carefully about this issue, concluding not only from a moral point-of-view that HHM violates God’s intention for marriage, but that allowing it would not be conducive to flourishing for the happy couple, to say nothing of Perea. There have been many followers of Jesus hard at work crafting extra-scriptural arguments for this. For example, some have suggested that HHM might strain the relationship with Herod’s now-disgruntled father-in-law, King Aretas IV of Nabatea. So goes the argument, this could lead to a full-scale occupation of Perea, which Herod’s army would be unlikely to fend off successfully. In my view, this is unfounded and needless speculation. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Here’s the bottom line: Despite going to great lengths to downplay its relevance to the debate, the fact can’t be avoided that we only have an objection to HHM because of Leviticus 20:21. We don’t seem to have learned that, in the absence of that underlying moral objection to HHM, no argument against it will ever make adequate sense to him.
Persuading followers of Jesus
So, Herod is unlikely to be convinced by our extra-scriptural and consequentialist arguments. But how ought these arguments be received by us as followers of Jesus?
One of the overarching problems with all these extra-scriptural arguments against HHM is that it’s not our job as Jesus’s followers to make them. I’m not saying the arguments are necessarily wrong, but God simply hasn’t revealed these things to us.
For that reason, I have never been able to take seriously those Israelites who make arguments from what ”nature itself” teaches, or people who try and interpret the so-called ”signs of the times” or, God help them, those who try and derive their work ethic from watching insects. Anyone could have made these insights, regardless of whether they’re a follower of Jesus or not. And being a follower of Jesus doesn’t make you the best amateur myrmecologist. We are not called to be right about everything; we are just called to be right about who Jesus is.
It is not our job to correct Herod on everything. It’s not our job to tell Herod about insights we have arrived at by our own intelligence. Our job is to deliver to him the message God has spoken.
Followers of Jesus, the world and sin
So how should a follower of Jesus react when pagans endorse and celebrate something that God denounces? We must remember that our citizenship is in heaven, and that we are strangers in this world.
Our job is not to shape Herod into our image, but to conform ourselves to Christ’s image. We are not called to demand that Herod and Herodias act like God’s kingdom, but are called simply to be God’s kingdom and invite Herod and Herodias across the border. I cannot overstate what a mistake it would be to publicly denounce HHM, simply because it does not conform to what we believe God’s design for marriage is.
Of course, sometimes God’s people are called to petition the authorities to act mercifully and justly. But read the Scriptures: this directive was never about holding society to a standard of morality or holiness for its own sake – it was always mandated specifically with a view towards helping the least of these. That is, the goal was not to hold people to account for their evils, but to alleviate the impact of evil on the lives of those affected. We should only step in where there is a victim in need of protection. In this case, nobody has been able to show successfully why any third parties are going to be affected by HHM. The fact is that Herod and Herodias are two consenting individuals. I believe that what Herod and Herodias do with their marriage is not under our jurisdiction; it is not our concern. I don’t think it makes any sense to try to hold them to our standard.
Followers of Jesus versus…
What if, however, the victims will be followers of Jesus?
It bothers me that so many followers of Jesus might think in this fashion. Are we to seek the welfare of our city so in it we can find our own welfare? Are we to pray for kings and those in high positions that we might lead peaceful, quiet lives? I think these questions answer themselves.
It comes across to the world as though we are more concerned about our own welfare than we are with theirs. It seems as though we are we trying to protect God’s people from the world, when it is our job to be a light for the nations.
We can reason with those in power, but we can do that without opposing HHM. It makes it look as though Herod and Herodias are enemy number one. It appears as though we are careful with our lives, but reckless with theirs, willing to prevent them from enjoying the recognition of marriage in order to avoid hardships for ourselves, even though these hardships can be avoided in other ways.
This is pushing Herod away from us, and its hindering him from hearing the gospel. For that reason, it can’t possibly be the best way to escape persecution as followers of Jesus.
The Relationship Priority
We are losing more than a debate
The reality is, we are losing this debate. What’s more, we are losing friendships, not least of all with Herod and Herodias. The relationship between them and the followers of Jesus is entirely occupied with the debate over HHM. The debate about HHM is getting in the way of relationship.
At this point, I must address some pernicious rumours to the effect that I, God’s penultimate prophet to the Israelites and the greatest man ever born to a woman, have become a vocal opponent of the HHM. Let me be clear: this is fake news.
I would hope anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to my ministry would recognise that this is something I would never do. I shudder to think that I would sacrifice a relationship with Herod for the sake of “speaking the truth”, or that I would attribute the current division us to his unwillingness to hear the truth.
I propose that this is actually not a godly way of approaching this. There is a better way. For followers of Jesus trying to reach out to Herod and Herodias, we must remember to become all things to all people so that by all means we might save some. We must be well thought of by unbelievers. And we must live peaceably with all as far as it depends on us. I don’t see how taking these ideas to heart would lead someone to oppose HHM.
The fact that there is such division between Jesus’s followers and Herod is too terrible to accept and to settle for. I believe we are more responsible for this divide than many of us realise. We certainly have not done all we can to live peaceably with Herod. (For example, calling Herod a “fox” is just not on.)
This is not just about what the correct answer is to a philosophical question. This is about people. The fact is, Jesus’s followers are pushing Herod and Herodias away by our insistence on continuing to fight against HHM. We are becoming a hindrance to them discovering the love of Jesus.
What is Herod hearing?
What do you think is the main message God wants to communicate to Herod and Herodias? I think it is clear: God wants to say that he loves them. The main message God has for Herod and Herodias is not about marriage and sexuality. It is the same message he has for everyone: he loves them and he wants them.
What do you think is the main message Herod and Herodias are hearing from us? Unfortunately, they seem to believe that the primary attitude of Jesus’s followers towards them is one of opposition. We are saying “No” to them.
Whether we mean it or not, our fervent opposition to their ability to get married is taken by them as fervent opposition to them as people.
It doesn’t matter if we don’t actually oppose or hate Herod and Herodias as people. If they think we do, we have a problem that we must take responsibility for.
A way forward
I am convinced that the only way to mend the relationship between God’s people and the family Herod is, believe it or not… to stop arguing with them. Stop speaking and acting against their marriage. Stop being an obstacle for them getting this thing that means so much to them.
I believe it is time to stop talking about HHM, and focus entirely on talking to them about God’s perfect, amazing love – until they can forgive us for the harm we’ve caused. Until God’s main message to them can be heard again.
We also need to accept the inevitability of HHM. (I mean, really, it’s happened. Talk about a ship that’s already sailed.) Is this losing battle worth continuing the fight, at the expense of enormous relational damage, just for the symbolic value of not giving in? Was it worth winning in the first place? Is this really what God has commissioned us to do? Are we going to stay in this sinking ship and go down with it, along with any hope of reaching Herod and Herodias with the love of the Messiah? (And won’t somebody think of Salome?)
I want to support HHM because:
- I think it would make Israel feel kinder and safer for them,
- It isn’t the mission of Jesus’s followers to hold the world to our standards on this type of issue, and
- I believe it would end a conversation, one that isn’t doing any of us any good.
My invitation to Christians
Jesus-follower, I can’t tell you how to vote. But I am asking you to seriously consider joining me in publicly affirming HHM. It would be an act of friendship. It would remove an enormous obstacle to our relationship with them.
If you don’t feel that you are able to affirm HHM, I would ask you to consider not saying anything. Just don’t participate in the conversation. You don’t have to take action to prevent HHM from happening.
What do they need to know?
You might be thinking, “Well, don’t Herod and Herodias need to know the truth?”
Firstly, not all true things need to be said all the time. In this case, I would advise you never ever ever to say this particular true thing to them forever and ever amen. Wisdom tells us when to refrain from speaking true things because we understand the consequences of our words.
Secondly, telling someone something doesn’t make them know it. Unfortunately, the field of epistemology is still very much in its embryonic stages, and we are a long way away from making people know things. Look, I’m not even sure how I expect that writing a piece like this will make you know things. (As a full-time prophet, I find this to be a pretty devastating problem.)
Thirdly, the truth they need to know most desperately and urgently is that they are deeply and unconditionally loved by the one who created them. And all this talk about HHM is stopping them from being able to know that truth! People need to know the truth, but they don’t need to know every truth equally. Some truths are more important than others.
We do not need to convert them to a Mosaic sexual ethic. That on its own will ultimately do nothing for them. We need to invite them into a relationship with Jesus. I don’t want Herod to miss out on Jesus because I was pushing him away by talking about something other than Jesus!
The meaning of a vote
Maybe you think that by affirming HHM, you’d be enabling or condoning sin. But firstly, Herod and Herodias are going to do what they’re going to do anyway. This won’t affect their behaviour. Secondly, what someone means when they affirm or denounce something is rather complex.
Consider those who affirm HHM. Some affirm it because they morally endorse and approve of what Herod and Herodias are doing with their marriage. Others, like myself, want to affirm HHM for some of the other reasons I’ve already discussed. It isn’t reasonable to assign only one possible meaning to a vote.
In reading the previous paragraph, some of you might try to apply that same nuanced framework to those who wish to denounce HHM. “Why,” you ask, ”can’t I simply remind people that my denouncement doesn’t necessarily mean I hate Herod and Herodias?” At first blush, this really does seem like a strong argument in favour of Jesus’s followers being able to denounce HHM while still having due love and care for Herod and Herodias. But there is a fatal flaw in that argument. The reason that people ought not take a nuanced approach to HHM opponents is that – (Unfortunately, the rest of this paragraph has been lost due to a wild honey stain on the manuscript. – The editor)
All things considered, I think the best outcome would be to have Herod and Herodias continue in their marriage. Sure, I could be misinterpreted as endorsing their lifestyle. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be worried about being misinterpreted to be condoning sin when he associates with sinners. He seems to care much more about knowing those sinners are loved. Jesus is like a flautist playing the major-key melody of the gospel throughout all Israel. And if Jesus is playing a flute, I don’t want to be the one playing a dirge!
More importantly, opposing HHM can and will be interpreted by Herod and Herodias as expressing hatred for them. How is that better than being interpreted as endorsing HHM?
Hate is sin. In fact, it’s one of the worst sins. Some of you hate the assembly of sinners, and will not sit with the wicked. That’s a sin. If I’m going to be misinterpreted, I would rather be interpreted as violating Leviticus 20:21 than to be hating Herod and Herodias. Not only because hatred is worse than HHM, but because the appearance of hatred on my part would be a hindrance to Herod and Herodias discovering the goodness of God.
Therefore, it is essential that a follower of Jesus never say anything that could even remotely be construed as hating Herod or Herodias, your father or mother, your wife or children – whoever.
What to do with uncertainty
As I mentioned earlier, the Scriptures are silent on the issue of how to respond to a nation that wants to deviate from the Biblical understanding of marriage. There are a lot of complex factors at play, which means that any decision you make will have some amount of uncertainty.
But when things get complicated, I would choose the side of love and compassion. I wouldn’t choose something that seems pious and orthodox but has foreseeable practical costs. God is not a lawgiver. He is our Father. (Note that these are mutually exclusive categories.)
For me, affirming HHM is the best way of seeking Herod’s forgiveness for the long period of hostility between him and us. (Need I mention again the unsolicited “fox” comment?) It is the best way of building a relationship with Herod and Herodias, so that they can finally hear that Jesus loves them. Imagine what would happen if they received that message.
I don’t believe they can hear about that love and hear the Jesus movement opposed to HHM at the same time. We have no mandate to contest against HHM in this world, because our citizenship is in heaven (again, mutually exclusive categories).
The marriage of Herod and Herodias has proven to be a very heated issue amongst the followers of Jesus, and understandably so. All the same, as one of God’s chosen prophets, I would hope that my example should be sufficiently persuasive to help you think through this issue.
In the end, these kinds of issues are just not worth losing your head over.
This piece was originally published on 15 September 2017 on an ad hoc website of mine in response to a blog post by Lachlan McFarlane that was doing the rounds in my social circle. Some trivial grammatical and formatting mistakes have been corrected; it is otherwise unchanged from its original publication.