In these days leading up to our United Methodist Church’s General Conference, many Methodist clergy who support changing our Book of Discipline‘s still-orthodox doctrine on sexuality and marriage have become increasingly vocal on blogs and church-related websites. None is more high profile than mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City.
When Hamilton first publicly stated in a 2012 sermon that he now supports changing our doctrine, I wrote about it.
He doesn’t make any new arguments in a blog post he published yesterday, except his tone is more assertive. In his 2012 sermon, he seemed almost circumspect as he shared his testimony about his “conversion” on the subject, after years of towing the traditionalist line. Today, by contrast, he’s far more confident, encouraging his fellow revisionists to hold our denomination together for just ten more years, after which this will become “a non-issue, as even most evangelical young adults in the United Methodist Church see this issue differently from their 40- and 50- and 60-year-old parents and grandparents.”
I suppose, as a 46-year-old theologically conservative evangelical, I should be insulted: What would today’s Methodist teenager or 20-something know about human sexuality that the rest of us don’t? And why should their opinion hold sway? Do they have a biblical case to make on the subject that we haven’t considered before? As even Hamilton would concede—I think—the argument for changing our doctrine must be rooted in scripture.
Maybe Hamilton will get around to making a biblical argument. There’s no evidence of one here.
Instead, he argues about our understanding of the Bible itself. First, he describes a recent letter he received from a group of conservative United Methodists in Nebraska urging him, as a delegate to General Conference, to resist the pressure to change our Discipline. They said, “We believe that the Holy Bible is God’s Word, and that His Word is unchanging.”
These fellow United Methodists seem to be stating that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word, and that it should be applied without question today because “His Word is unchanging.” But I don’t believe this is actually how they approach Scripture. Nor is it the way Christians have generally approached Scripture across the last two millennia.
First, let me say that unlike Hamilton, I do believe that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word. I have no “Bucket No. 3” in my doctrine of scripture. In other words, if it’s in the Bible, it’s there because the Holy Spirit guided its writers to put it in there—for a reason.
But Hamilton would say that if I truly believe that, then I’ll inevitably be inconsistent in my interpretation and application of it.
Then, as if he hasn’t listened to any counterargument from my side over the past 40 years—not to mention in my little blog post four years ago—Hamilton continues to conflate the issue of homosexuality with slavery and the subordination of women: since the Bible got it wrong on those subjects, he argues, how can we be confident that the Bible isn’t wrong about homosexual practice?
Please note: He’s not merely saying that our interpretation of scripture has changed over the millennia in light of better exegesis of the texts; he believes the Bible is simply wrong to begin with. As he said in his discussion of buckets, some scriptures “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”
If you think I’m being unfair, consider the following exchange that Hamilton had on Twitter yesterday after he linked to his blog post:
Does Hamilton really mean to say that we can’t hold the Bible as “authoritative” if we nevertheless believe, for good hermeneutical reasons, that parts of it are no longer binding on us today? I’ve dealt with this in many other blog posts, but this is a good starting point. Among other things, I say the following:
[C]ontrary to what United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton asserts in this sermon, the church doesn’t arbitrarily “pick and choose” which verses reflect “God’s timeless will” and which verses we can throw in the dustbin of cultural context. We would only be picking and choosing if our hermeneutical (interpretive) principles ignored context and said every command of scripture is equally binding for all time. Maybe there are some fundamentalist Christians out there who believe this—although I’ve never met one—but the capital-C Church (not to mention Jesus himself) never did.
If we have principled and logical reasons for believing, for instance, that some commands in Leviticus are binding today and others aren’t, then it’s not picking and choosing. Hamilton knows this as well as anyone. I wish he wouldn’t play dumb. Rachel Held Evans also played dumb about this in her recent book The Year of Biblical Womanhood, which drove me crazy, but I don’t expect as much from her.
We are picking and choosing, however, if, in spite of our principles, we disregard the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality mostly because we don’t like it. I’m not sure I like it, either, but that’s hardly the point.
For more on this “picking-and-choosing” argument, see Glenn Peoples’s post here.
(Seriously… Read the Glenn Peoples’s post.)
I reject Hamilton’s premise that the Bible got it wrong when it comes to slavery and subordination of women. I fully endorse Asbury president Tim Tennent’s “trajectories” argument. And along with N.T. Wright, I believe that the case for women in ordained ministry comes from scripture. Among other things, I believe that Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene as the first apostle in John 20—literally the apostle to the apostles. I believe it’s deeply significant that Paul refers to Junia as an “apostle” in Romans 16.
Does the Bible have any such trajectory away from its condemnation of homosexual practice? Or does the same thinker who wrote, “There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” also warn that homosexual behavior, if left unrepented, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom?
But even if I accepted Hamilton’s premise about slavery and women, his argument is a red herring unless or until he demonstrates that there’s some connection between slavery, women, and homosexuality. You can’t just say, “We were wrong about slaves and women, therefore we’re wrong about homosexual practice.”
Are we also wrong about incest? Or polygamy? Or premarital sex? I ask because I’m sure that Hamilton has many convictions in common with our traditional understanding of sexuality. By his logic, you could say, “Yes, but we were wrong about slavery and women, so… who’s to say?”
Talk about picking and choosing!
I have more to say, but this will have to do for now.