Peter and the “shellfish” argument

As the Episcopal Church and other denominations have taken positions of that support the full inclusion of LGBT Christians and marriage equality, those in support of that position point out that the ritual law of the Old Testament was suspended after the resurrection, and arguing that Levitical prohibitions are still in force for some things and not others doesn’t make a lot of sense.


Conservative voices in the larger church call this the “shellfish argument” and generally dismiss it. Al Mohler, the leading voice in the Southern Baptist convention characterizes the argument this way:

“Look,” we are told, “the Bible condemns eating shellfish, wearing mixed fabrics and any number of other things. Why do you ignore those things and insist that the Bible must be obeyed when it comes to sex?”

Mohler goes on to dismiss the argument saying that the explicit removal of ritual purity laws in Peter’s vision in the 10th chapter of Acts only refers to things, not people.

Fred Clark, writing on his blog Slacktivist takes strong exception with Mohler’s reasoning.

“But while popular, this view utterly contradicts Peter’s own interpretation of his vision. If Mohler is right, then Peter was wrong. If Peter was right, then Mohler is wrong.

For Peter, his rooftop vision wasn’t about kosher dietary laws — it was about people. He says this explicitly: ‘God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’

That’s a very different conclusion from the one Mohler draws. Mohler says this story — this scripture — is about purity laws. Peter says this story is about God’s commandment that no people should be excluded as impure.

I’m going to have to side with Peter on this one. Peter was right. Mohler is wrong.”

Go check out the full argument and Clark’s reasoning. God does seem to be less worried about how we feed ourselves than how we treat one another.

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21 Comments
  1. John

    Glad to see you linking to “Slacktivist.” It’s a must-read for me.

    John Banks

  2. Peter Pearson

    We go round and round about this and get nowhere. No amount of logic or intentional argument seems to change anything on either side and that’s because it’s the wrong strategy to utilize. Human relationship (inspired by God’s love) is the only thing that will change hearts; that’s really what needs changing here.

    Get to know some GLBT folks.

    Ask about their lives.

    Remain curious and not certain.

    See what God does with that opportunity.

  3. Nicole Porter

    I agree with Mohler. It’s a very poor argument to make when that passage was clearly about dietary laws, not how we conduct ourselves personally. My parish has GLBT members. I also know some gay and lesbian clergy. My beliefs remain intact regardless as I’m sure many others do as well.

  4. Nicole Porter

    “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”-Romans 14:14

  5. tgflux

    “how we conduct ourselves personally”

    Is that all a human relationship is to you, Nicole? Mere “conduct”?

    Try taking ALL PeterP’s advice, inc. “Ask about their lives” and “Remain curious and not certain”.

    If I may amend the last step, I would say “ASK God for more wisdom, and more compassion, and see what happens.” And then repeat, ad eternum! :-)

    JC Fisher

  6. Nicole Porter

    Mr. Fisher, some people just won’t land on your side. That’s life. And I also recognize that this goes both ways. Please do likewise.

    -Nicole

  7. Peter Pearson

    … and if you find that what you think is more important than the people who cross your path, go back to the first step and start over.

    P.S. “Like” to JC!

  8. David Allen

    More importantly, these straw man arguments are no longer needed. There was a time when Christian apologists who sided with GLBTQ folks created these, but today they aren’t necessary. We now have GLBTQ scholars that know the truth and its time that we keep saying it, there are no passages of scripture in either the old or new testaments that condemn homosexual relationships. There is only the continued, willful mistranslation and misinterpretation of what are the historic clobber passages.

    And the simple minded intellectual dishonesty of folks like Mohler who has no concept of the meaning of the passage about Peter’s vision in its English translation, let alone in the original language.

    Brother David

  9. Jeff Mann

    “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10.28)

    Rather than proof-texting from all over the Bible (ala Al Mohler), I’d rather stick with the passage at hand in the article. This passage is the hermeneutical key, which clearly indicates that Acts 10 is not about dietary laws and has everything to do with the radical expansion of the church to include those with whom the Jerusalem church found it scandalous to even associate. If Peter’s vision is not metaphor, what do you do with the rest of the story? If it is all about dietary laws, why do the apostles in Judea get so ticked at Peter for eating WITH Cornelius, a Gentile, in the following chapter of Acts? Perhaps we should also note they do not ask him why he ate this or that.

    Peter does not go to a deli after his vision and have a nice shrimp po-boy sandwich whilst wearing a leisure suit. He meets with people, Gentiles, those who were excluded from the earliest expressions of the Church and they receive the Holy Spirit and baptism. The narrative thrust of the story does not reach its climax with Peter’s rooftop vision, that is merely exposition. The climax of the story is when all in Cornelius’ house are baptized.

    Simply put, Mohler’s exegesis is wrong.

  10. Ann Fontaine

    Of course the passage is NOT about dietary laws. If you read the whole story – Acts 10- it is about the Gentile seeking to join the other Christians, Peter having his vision, and saying truly God shows no partiality == and then welcoming the Gentile. If you only read the vision passage you might be mistaken about the meaning of the story – but if you read the whole story – it is very clear – Mohler is grasping at straws that don’t exist.

  11. Nicole Porter

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The conservative case can still be made in different ways.

  12. David Allen

    There is no conservative case to be made. Since we now know that there are no scriptures that condemn homosexual relations, there is no longer any foundation for any other argument that conservatives have ever tried to make. It was all built on sand and the house has crumbled.

    Brother David

  13. Nicole Porter

    Not really,Brother David. I don’t see an outpouring of mea culpas anywhere. But you’re more than entitled to your opinion.

  14. tgflux

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The conservative case can still be made in different ways.

    …or “Don’t confuse me w/ the Truth, my prejudices rule”? O_o

    At the end of the (cosmic) day, Nicole, I don’t believe there are multiple “sides”. There’s only God’s side, and we’re all included (BY God) in it. It’s a just a question of how soon we (all, not just you and me) realize that, and start treating each other (compassionately) like the Family of God that we are. Ergo, if you keep hanging around the Cafe, prepare to be—in the Name of Jesus Christ— nudged! ;-)

    JC Fisher

  15. Bill Dilworth

    “there are no passages of scripture in either the old or new testaments that condemn homosexual relationships”

    I can’t agree. I think it’s pretty clear that the purity codes of the OT contain some pretty powerful sexual strictures, including forbidding *at least* male/male anal intercourse (mishevei ishah, as historically interpreted in Judaism).

    Nor do I understand why it should be so surprising that a Bronze Age culture had arbitrary taboos like these, or why some gay Christians insist on trying to read them out of the Bible. They are part of the purity codes, and as much a relic of their time as all the rigamarole surrounding menstruation or leprosy. Our understanding of whether or not God approves of gay sexuality simply doesn’t depend on what the OT says. We have simply got to stop trying to beat the Bible thumpers at their own game by trying to reframe the Bible in an attempt to remove anything that couldn’t be heartily endorsed by GLAAD or HRC.

  16. Bill Dilworth

    “It’s a very poor argument to make when that passage was clearly about dietary laws”

    The context of the vision, which takes place just as the messengers of Cornelius reach Peter’s lodging place, make it abundantly clear that it has nothing to do whatsoever with diet, except its use as a synecdoche for the purity code as a whole.

  17. David Allen

    I can’t agree. I think it’s pretty clear that the purity codes of the OT contain some pretty powerful sexual strictures, including forbidding *at least* male/male anal intercourse

    There are plenty of us who read ancient languages now Bill, and the two Levitical passages that you refer to do not forbid “male/male anal intercourse.” The passages in question forbid two men having a sexual relationship within the bed of a woman.

    or why some gay Christians insist on trying to read them out of the Bible.

    If you aren’t a gay Christian then “you don’t have a dog in this fight.” We do, these passages don’t exist in the Bible and it’s important to us that that message is clearly known by all.

    And because they clearly don’t exist, the ridiculous logical gymnastics that some of you do to get around them are no longer necessary.

    Brother David

  18. Bill Dilworth

    Brother David,

    First of all, not only am I a gay Christian, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve been out and associated with the Episcopal Church (well, off and on) since before you were born. Even if I weren’t, though, the idea that only gay people can venture to address gay issues strikes me as ridiculous.

    Secondly, if you go back and read what I wrote, it’s hardly my interpretation of “mishkevei ishah.” The standard reading of mishkevei ishah in Rabbinic Judaism is not “a woman’s bed” but “lyings of a woman” – and the prohibition has been held to apply only to male/male anal intercourse (as opposed to other all forms of male/male sex). Sometimes mishkav can mean bedding, and sometimes it means “lying,” as when it’s used in Numbers 31:17 when the subject is women who have not had sex with a man.

    But again, why the need for gay Christians to reshape the OT into a gay-friendly text? It’s not as if adherence to the commandments of the purity codes were of any importance to us, as it might be if we were Jewish. It suggests an approach to the Bible that mirrors that of conservative literalists; the implication is that being gay is allowed because the OT doesn’t forbid it (as if everything the OT forbids is wrong, and everything it allows is good).

    And it’s not as if, having made the Torah gay-friendly, we’re left with anything like a liberal text. I mean, it elevates genocidal war to the level of divine commandment, allows chattel slavery, and treats most women (in one way or another) as the property of men. Trying to scrub it free of homophobia seems pretty pointless to me.

    It seems much more intellectually honest and mature to say, “Yes, the OT restricts sex to a man and his wife (or some other woman he owns). So what? It also prohibits shellfish, wool/linen blends, lighting a fire on Saturdays and not killing every last Amalekite man, woman and child. Why should I be terribly concerned with OT prohibitions?”

  19. David Allen

    Do you read the Hebrew, Bill, or do you repeat what others have told you the Hebrew says. I read Hebrew. I am familiar with the “layings of a woman” translation and I don’t find it in the Hebrew that is there.

    But for argument’s sake, what if “the layings of a woman” translation was correct. Then the text could read “With a man, do not lay the layings of a woman, it is an abomination…” What is the “layings of a woman?” “The layings of a woman” is the passive roll in penetrative sex. So this would say that it is an abomination for an Israelite man to be the passive partner in penetrative sex with another man. However, there is no proscription against being the active partner in penetrative sex with another man. So in US vernacular, at most, if one were to accept the “layings of a woman” translation, the passage is a proscription against Israelite men being bottoms, and has no problem with them being tops.

    But then that brings up another issue, the word translated man in the passage. It isn’t the ordinary word for man, but many scholars believe that it alludes to a man who is a religious sex worker, or prostitute. So what it could be saying then is that it is an abomination for an Israelite man to be the passive partner in penetrative sex with a religious prostitute.

    Either way, one is hard pressed to get a blanket condemnation of homosexual relationships from the piece.

    The rest of what you have to say is your opinion on the matter and you are free to hold to it. I don’t share it.

    Brother David

  20. Bill Dilworth

    Yes, David, I read Hebrew. But as I’ve said, the interpretation I’m referring to is that historically used by Jewish scholars.

    “The rest of what you have to say is your opinion on the matter and you are free to hold to it. I don’t share it.”

    Huh? The genocidal wars of extermination, the slavery, and the unequal treatment of women in the OT are my opinion? The fact that Christians are not bound by the purity codes is my opinion?

    While it’s nice of you to encourage me in my own opinions, I would really like to know why its so important to establish the approval of the OT on the subject. If such a thing were possible, would proof that the Torah condemned every sex act other than with a man and his wife make any difference whatsoever in your life?

  21. Murdoch Matthew

    Traditions are as prone as translators to give coherent readings to obscure or corrupted texts. Thanks to Brother David for pointing out that the Hebrew expressions in many passages dealing with male sexuality do not make sense when examined word for word. This is important for people who rely on Scripture as Authority, despite the fact that it was written by human beings, translated in different times and contexts, and understood by fallible readers in the present-day.

    Thanks to Bill Dilworth for resolutely declaring that we need to base ourselves on present-day knowledge. Myths can give pleasure and insight, but cannot trump reality. Leviticus and Romans have nothing to do with present-day experience of relationships, and people who try to apply them must twist logic to the extreme. (Gay men do not sleep with men as with women — they sleep with men as with men, not as a substitute for women — and homosexuality is not caused by idolatry — really!)

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