But we don’t love each other enough to have an actual “fight”!

May 11, 2011

You’ve heard it said, I’m sure, that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. I believe it. That’s why family fights are often the ugliest and most vicious fights of all. “You always hurt the one you love,” and all that.

I thought of this when a clergy friend on Facebook pointed me to this article in the New York Times about the mainline Presbyterian church’s decision this week to permit the ordination of gay clergy who are in committed, monogamous relationships. In other words, contrary to the United Methodist Church’s position, if you’re gay and you want to be ordained, you don’t have to be celibate.

In a parenthetical aside, the article says, “The largest mainline Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, is still fighting over the issue.”

My clergy friend said that that sentence doesn’t shine a flattering light on the UMC. Actually, that sentence gives our church more credit than it deserves. If only we were fighting about it! I would love to see that fight—both sides fully engaged in making an actual argument, honoring our primary emphasis on scripture, while also marshaling tradition, reason, and experience. That would be awesome! More importantly, that would be a fully Christian way to move forward on this issue.

I disliked the retired Methodist bishops’ statement earlier this year because it failed to put forth an argument other than “We’re losing members and doesn’t discriminating against homosexuals feel wrong?”—which isn’t an argument. It would have been wise for these retired bishops to convene a meeting with clergy and theologians on both sides of the issue—including those retired bishops who disagree with them—and actually discuss these areas of disagreement. Wesley would call this “Christian conferencing.”

And even if it looked like “fighting” to the outside world, it would be far more loving than tossing a verbal grenade over the ramparts and ducking. That’s mostly all we ever do when it comes to this issue.

7 Responses to “But we don’t love each other enough to have an actual “fight”!”

  1. Susan Martin Taylor Says:


    I join you in yearning for that conversation and conferencing that is our Methodist heritage on the issue of homosexuality. What a challenge to Methodists to use Scripture, tradition, reason and experience for genuine conversation.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, perhaps stating the point in slightly different language, or perhaps as a parallel, you don’t care very much for someone if you let them go their merry way downhill without a confrontation. Of course, we hope that the confrontation is “verbal” and “polite,” but “tough love,” to borrow a phrase, is better than, “Do whatever you like, fine with me.”

    In this particular instance, I find it hard to see what the “counter-argument” to heterosexual monogamy being the required standard for pastors/priests/bishops, etc. could be. This certainly seems to be Paul’s criterion in the only biblical statements on the issue. But perhaps even more importantly, I fail to see any “wiggle-room” when it comes to whether homosexuality is consistent with biblical norms of behavior. Consequently, how can someone who is living in “open defiance” of a biblical standard be the “right person” to “lead the flock”?

    Tom Harkins 05/11/2011

    • brentwhite Says:


      I hear you. This is why we need to have an actual argument. There are well-meaning Christians on both sides of the argument who are trying their best to be faithful to Jesus, to the gospel, and to the Bible. Not that we would know it if we listen only to the loudest voices on the extremes!

      In other words, it’s not the case that people on the pro-gay side simply “don’t believe the Bible” or aren’t taking it seriously. They would say that because they’re taking the Bible seriously, they can’t go along with the church’s traditional stance.

      Likewise, it’s not the case that the people on the other side are simply narrow-minded homophobes. In fact, I would vote for never using the word “homophobia” again! When we throw around words like that, we’ve moved beyond argument into the realm of ad hominem attacks. A real argument starts when we can understand and articulate our opponents’ best argument (rather than attack their worst). I’m advocating a real debate, not talk-radio polemics.

      As I see it, the best argument on the pro-gay side is something along these lines. (Please note: I am not endorsing, defending, or passing judgment on this argument.) “Homosexuality” is a mistranslation or misinterpretation of the words that Paul uses (or are used in the OT) to describe sexual promiscuity or same-sex sexual conduct. The concept of homosexuality—defined as a relatively fixed sexual orientation—didn’t exist until the 19th century. Therefore, Paul couldn’t have had in mind a person’s sexual orientation, since the concept didn’t exist. So we are reading Paul (and other parts of the Bible) through our modern lens, instead of reading it in the context in which it was written, thus failing to be faithful to scripture.

      They would also argue that the kind of sexual activity that Paul and others have in mind does not correspond to that within the confines of a loving, lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationship. Paul didn’t have those kinds of relationships in mind. Moreover, they, along with Paul, would also condemn the kind of idolatrous, exploitative, and even violent sexual activity that (they would argue) the Bible condemns.

      This is an argument, or at least the foundation of one. Proponents of this argument would back up these assertions and defend them in a nuanced way, looking closely at the Greek and Hebrew. Whether it’s a good argument or not, it is a Christian way to frame an argument, because before anything else it’s attempting to take seriously the Bible.

      Obviously, there are counterarguments with which I am sympathetic. I’m simply suggesting that many people on the other side of the issue don’t believe that they are living in “open defiance” of a biblical standard. It’s much more complex than that.

      See what I mean?

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I see the argument. But I seriously question whether it can stand up to biblical scrutiny. For example, without all the chapters and verses, even in the opening book of Genesis Sodom was destroyed, the lead-up point being the townsmen wanted to have sex with the visiting “men” (angels). As Jude put it, “going after strange flesh,” v.7 (KJV & NAS), the fiery destruction giving “an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” (NIV). From which we get the term “sodomites.” Somewhat similarly in Judges, the Benjamites wanted to have sex with the visiting man, but, to prevent such extreme evil, were given the concubine instead, whom they raped to death.

    And, of course, in the most famous passage, Paul in Romans 1 talks about even the women exchanging the natural sex with men to sex with each other, and the men commmitting “indecent acts with other men,” which are “shameful lusts.” v.26-27 (NIV). And of course there are a number of other passages as well, all, in the case of the condemnation of men, very clearly talking about “lying with a man as a man would lie with a woman.” Leviticus 18:22. From beginning to end, the Bible makes clear its authors knew what they was talking about when they referenced homosexuality, and that God condemned it.

    So, I do find it pretty hard to believe that someone who is going to stand behind the pulpit and expound “the whole counsel of God” can do so without “flaunting” what scripture says, if he is a practicing homosexual (or lesbian).

    Tom Harkins 05/12/2011

    • brentwhite Says:


      Believe me, the verses you cite are well-known to the pro-gay side. And they have counterarguments. For example, the townspeople in Sodom wanted to have non-consensual sex with Lot’s visitors. Proponents of gay equality would agree that what the townspeople wanted to do was wrong—just as it would be wrong for these same townspeople to rape Lot’s daughters. We don’t take from this passage that forcible heterosexual sex—not to mention unmarried sex—is O.K. just because Lot offered his daughters.

      If Lot went along with the townspeople’s wishes, it would, among other things, be a gross violation of the conventions of Middle Eastern hospitality—which is why the offer of his daughters (which should be offensive to us as well) would be (according to ancient custom) more appropriate. This would apply to the Judges passage as well.

      Again, I’m not not asking you to “agree” with the pro-gay side. As you can probably tell, I’m not persuaded. I’m simply saying a case can be made, and Christians on that side are not necessarily against the Bible.

      Even if we oppose changing the church’s traditional stance, there’s still plenty of room for compassion and understanding. I have never, as far as I know, been “tempted” to be gay. It just wasn’t something I faced. I never experienced sexual orientation as a conscious choice. Fortunately for me, my sexuality already conforms to what the church says is O.K. Therefore, I can be married and be an ordained pastor.

      Consider Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation. Since I never experienced orientation as a conscious choice, I can only believe them if and when they say that they never experienced it that way, either. (Not that all gays and lesbians say this.) I imagine if they want to change, they would find that change very difficult. And I feel great compassion for anyone struggling in that way.

      I would also add, however, that even my church—the United Methodist Church—doesn’t regard “orientation” as sin. Neither does, for instance, the Catholic Church. It’s the “practice” that’s prohibited. Gays and lesbians are allowed to be pastors. They have to choose to be celibate. Contrary to pop culture propaganda, people aren’t going to die if they can’t have sex!

      This is why, unless my church thoroughly engages this argument before proceeding with a change (which is unlikely any time soon), then we can’t know whether we’re just selling out to a sexually pathological culture. The tail seems to be wagging the dog here. And since our culture is generally wrong about nearly EVERYTHING regarding sex, why do we invest so much trust in them on the issue of homosexuality.

      Anyway… Food for thought, I hope. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Stephanie Says:

    Great post, Brent. I agree with your point that the UMC ought to be leading the way in vigorous debate on this issue.

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