At General Conference this summer, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, two of our most famous UMC pastors, made a motion to change our United Methodist Book of Discipline to say, in effect, “We agree to disagree on homosexuality.” Their motion failed, I’m happy to report. I imagine that very few doctrines of our church enjoy unanimous support. Besides, we don’t require that members agree about doctrine in order to be members in good standing. (By the way, this doesn’t apply to clergy.) “Agree to disagree” is already an implicit part of what it means to be United Methodist.
At the time, I was disappointed that Hamilton made this motion, simply because I thought, based on a chapter in Confronting the Controversies, that he was on “my” side of the issue—which is to support our Discipline‘s traditional understanding of homosexual behavior. I couldn’t imagine that someone on “my” side would want to water it down in this way. It was also disappointing because Hamilton has been committed to reforming the institution of the United Methodist Church. Along with many others, I believe that reform starts by reclaiming Christian orthodoxy. Whatever else it may be, the Discipline‘s language on homosexuality represents orthodox Christian thinking on the subject.
With this in mind, I wasn’t surprised when Hamilton preached this sermon earlier this month, at the end of which he said he was “leaning” toward full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. I admire his courage in saying so, although to say he’s “leaning” is a bit mealy-mouthed compared to the impassioned words that precede this conclusion. If he believes in his argument, how is he merely leaning toward change? Shouldn’t he instead want to storm the barricades of the UMC?
He argues that the Bible is filled with teachings that we Christians routinely ignore because we understand them to be time-bound and cultural. They don’t represent God’s “timeless will” for our lives. He gives examples such as slavery, polygamy, and female subordination. “Do these represent God’s timeless and eternal will—do they reflect his character and his heart—or do they reflect the culture, and the history, and the time?”
He wonders aloud, based on this line of reasoning, whether the Bible’s verses about homosexuality fall into the same category. Not that there are very many verses, mind you. He believes there are only five biblical references to homosexuality. He rejects Sodom and Gomorrah and a parallel story in Judges as not having to do (at all?) with homosexual behavior—and he therefore rejects a reference in Jude, which points back to Sodom and Gomorrah.
For Romans 1 and other references to homosexuality in Paul’s letters, Paul had in mind pederasty, sex slavery, and temple prostitution. “Did Paul have a conception of, or did he understand things that we’re only beginning to understand?” No, Hamilton said. In fact, loving, monogamous same-sex relationships “weren’t on his radar screen.” Paul was, in some ways, a victim of his time and place. It’s too much to ask for Paul to arrive at any other conclusion regarding homosexual behavior.
Hamilton’s revised thinking on homosexuality, however, isn’t simply the result of the Bible: it’s also the result of his pastoral ministry. He’s known too many gay and lesbian Christians who demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. Over the years, he said, parents have come to him with tears in their eyes, saying that their child is gay. “What are we going to do?” “And I tell them, “What do you think you do? You love them. They’re your kid.”
So I think about this. What would I want for my children? Would I tell them, ‘I’m so certain that those five verses fall in this category and not this category—I’m so certain of that—that I have to tell you that for the rest of your life you can never share a love like your mom and I share. You can never have somebody to hold hands with or to kiss or embrace or raise a family with. You can’t have that because I’m so certain that these verses aren’t really about what Paul was thinking in his time but instead are God’s timeless will for our lives. These are questions that I wonder about.
These are powerful and passionate words, delivered with sensitivity and sincerity.
Nevertheless, here are some things that I wish Hamilton had also said on the subject. First, if we’re going to be Methodists, let’s be Methodists all the way. In other words, good “Wesleyan quadrilateral” thinking means that when we approach difficult passages of scripture—such as these dealing with homosexuality—we are not left to our own devices. We stand on the shoulders of the saints who’ve gone before us, and we let them inform our understanding of scripture. Tradition matters to us, in other words, even as we’re not straitjacketed by it.
Hamilton ignores the role of tradition. Instead, he describes several famously strange or horrifying things found in scripture—things that we Christians disregard all the time. Why don’t we own slaves anymore, or have concubines, or prevent women from speaking in church, or—my favorite, which Hamilton doesn’t mention—”greet one another with a holy kiss”? And it’s not as if those of us who oppose changing our church’s traditional stance on homosexuality would condone executing gay people! Doesn’t Leviticus tell us to do that, too?
No, Hamilton argues, we all pick and choose what to believe when it comes to the Bible. Since we all do this all the time, why be hardliners about homosexuality? At the very least, aren’t we being a little hypocritical?
I say no… because we don’t get to interpret scripture willy-nilly, on our own. We rely heavily on tradition to guide us. Given the often chaotic mess that Hamilton makes the Bible out to be, the tradition of the church ought to impress us by its clarity. Despite a verse here or there, the universal church never prevented women from speaking in church. It never made them cover their heads. It didn’t condone polygamy. And, contrary to what Hamilton says, it was only through the church’s witness—reflecting, for example, on the deeper meaning of Paul’s words to the slaveholder Philemon—that slavery was outlawed. Given that slavery was an accepted fact of life before the emergence of Christianity, it’s impressive that it was illegal throughout the Christian West by the Middle Ages.
Obviously, slavery came back later. But inasmuch as parts of the church later condoned African slavery—bearing in mind that the loudest voices against slavery were from within the church—they were being unfaithful to their own tradition—Southern Methodists as much as anyone!
My point is that this same tradition of biblical interpretation—which got so much right over the centuries—stands firmly against Hamilton’s interpretation of these scriptures related to homosexuality. Why did so many Christian thinkers get it so wrong on this issue? Even our beloved John Wesley! Hamilton says that St. Paul was a victim of his time and place. O.K. So what’s Wesley’s excuse? We celebrate Wesley for his outspoken opposition to the English slave trade, even though it was countercultural. Did he, like Paul 16 centuries earlier, also fail to imagine that adults could live in committed, monogamous, same-sex partnerships?
Not that church tradition always gets it right. Hamilton stands on his firmest ground when he discusses the ordination of women. Isn’t it the case that our Methodist church stood against the weight of tradition, relegating the Bible’s patriarchal words about female subordination to the dustbin of history, in order to do what it thought was best?
Yes and no. In fact, I would argue that the debate over female ordination illustrates one important difference from the debate over homosexuality. We have in scripture examples of women like the Samaritan woman at the well, who brings the gospel to her people, and Mary Magdalene, commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the resurrection to Jesus’ male disciples. Mary is literally the first apostle, even though she wasn’t one of the Twelve. We have Paul referring to women in ministry in the Roman church. We have that startling and liberating word from Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
For more on the subject, watch this short interview with N.T. Wright about the biblical case for women in ordained ministry:
Even if you disagree with the argument, give us credit that we are arguing about what the Bible says. This is what good Protestants are supposed to do. The debate about homosexuality is different. Even in Hamilton’s sermon, he argues about what the Bible doesn’t say, or what it would say—if only we knew enough about its cultural context, or its writers knew more about human sexuality.
Regarding ordination of women, he says that it took the church about 1,900 years to “live up to the words” of Genesis 1, which helps us to see that men and women were created equal. He sees something universal in those words. And through these clear words, we should interpret more disputed passages of scripture. I don’t disagree. But why stop there? In Genesis 2, we also have God’s creating male and female for one another. Why isn’t that also universal—that marriage and sexual relationships are, specifically, for a man and woman together? Outside of marriage, celibacy is the rule, whether you’re gay or straight. This has been the teaching of the universal church for 2,000 years.
Hamilton doesn’t mention celibacy as an option for anyone, even though it’s an important part of both the New Testament, tradition, and the experience of many gay Christians. From Hamilton’s sermon, one could infer that without sex we’d all be miserable and lonely. Yet for 2,000 years, many Christians have lived celibate lives, often in community with other celibate people. Of course, many who’ve tried have failed to do so, too—just as many people have failed to stay faithfully married. Yet we don’t talk about abandoning marriage!
Hamilton also fails to mention gay Christians who struggle mightily with their orientation, yet reject Hamilton’s revised thinking on the subject. In July, I blogged about one such Christian, Wesley Hill. In his book, Hill discusses popular devotional writer Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who struggled with same-sex attraction throughout his life. Nouwen describes the temptation to give up on celibacy and have a monogamous homosexual relationship. He chose not to. Or what about Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, who is married with children and struggles with same-sex attraction. (He and his wife discussed this before marriage.) He remains faithful to his wife.
Why do people like these gay Christians, and so many others, who have every incentive to reinterpret and accommodate the Bible to their sexual orientation, choose to remain faithful to the traditional understanding of scripture? What do they have to say about the Bible and homosexuality? (I’ve read what Hill says.) It’s an interesting perspective we don’t hear very often. We’d all agree, I’m sure, that people like them have paid for the privilege of speaking on the subject.
Finally, Hamilton’s words to parents who ask him what they should do about their gay child are exactly right: “What do you think you do? You love them. They’re your kid.”
Of course! What Christian would disagree with that? Hamilton speaks these words as if they settle the question—instead of begging the question: If sin is harmful and destructive, and homosexual behavior is a sin, then it would be unloving not to say so. It would be unloving, for example, not to encourage and promote celibacy for Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction.
These are a few of my thoughts. Listen to the sermon and tell me yours. It’s completely fine to disagree with me. Many of my friends do!