Just tell me what they decide about the gay stuff

April 28, 2012

We are, as United Methodists, in the throes of the quadrennial battle royale known as General Conference. We have some important business to decide—drastically restructuring the church and putting an end to guaranteed appointments for clergy, both of which I strongly favor.

But as has been the case every year since 1972, the single issue that captures the public’s attention is, yes… homosexuality.

I don’t believe believe that anything will change on that front. When the dust has cleared in Tampa, the UMC will continue to support two-millennia of consensual biblical exegesis and tradition and prohibit non-celibate gays from being ordained and clergy from performing gay weddings.

While this position is in sync with the vast majority of the universal Church (our position is congruent with the Roman Catholic Church, for instance) it will continue to isolate us from our fellow mainline Protestant churches. The difference isn’t mostly that we’re being more faithful to scripture; it’s mostly a matter of church polity.

For example, our church is growing rapidly in the southern hemisphere, and delegates from those areas, who stand solidly against changing the church’s position, have an increasing voice at the table of General Conference (as I believe they should). An effort four years ago to divorce the American side of the church from the rest of the church was voted down.

I’m glad that our church’s position likely won’t change. I realize that this stance excludes me from the “cool kids club” of young-ish Methodist clergy who want the church to be “inclusive”—and who had a lot more time than I had last week to follow and tweet about the minutiae of General Conference proceedings. I want to be cool, too, but I don’t know how to reconcile scripture with gay equality in church. If I could, I would. Give me credit for at least trying to have integrity.

While I’ve blogged and preached about this issue before, I’ll use this opportunity to explain myself once again. Feel free to disagree with me in the comments section. I happily disagree with plenty of my colleagues and friends on this and other issues, and it doesn’t mean I don’t love them.

First, let me say that I’m unaware of feeling prejudice against homosexuals. (I probably am prejudiced, but like other kinds of prejudice it mostly exists at an unconscious level.) On the contrary, I agree with people on the other side of the issue that our church’s position feels wrong and discriminatory. To which I tell myself, “So what? My feelings do not constitute an argument.”

Besides, I’ve learned over the years to distrust my feelings. While I’m unaware of being prejudiced against gays, I’m acutely aware of my own capacity for self-delusion when it comes to sin.

One friend who disagrees with me recently asked me if I’d read a Walter Wink book on the subject. I have not. I read a Wink article once in which he argues against the traditional interpretations of the Bible’s famous “clobber texts” against homosexuality. I no longer have the article at hand, but as she well knows, plenty of contemporary Bible scholars (including N.T. Wright and Duke’s Richard Hays, among others) disagree with Wink. There are also plenty of celibate gay Christians who disagree!

People on the pro-gay side often accuse Paul of failing to imagine monogamous, loving, same-sex relationships because that category of thought didn’t exist in the first century. But that’s wrong on history (at least according to Wright; I haven’t read Greek philosophy). Greek philosophers like Plato exalted same-sex monogamous relationships as ideal. Paul was well-educated and imaginative. If there were a Christian way to be gay and sexually active, I’m sure he would have told us about it.

But there is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a way to be gay and Christian, although it’s deeply counter-cultural: it’s called being celibate. Popular culture teaches us that we’ll all die if we don’t have sex. Paul, by contrast, taught that celibacy was a viable way of being Christian. By all means—lucky me—I don’t have to make that sacrifice. But I have to make other sacrifices for the sake of my faith. It comes with the territory of being a disciple.

But let me explain my interpretation of one of those clobber texts: In Romans 1:26-27, Paul is saying that there is a distortion at the center of our being, and he’s using homosexual behavior as a representative symptom. This, in my view, speaks to God’s intentions for Creation. All of us, gay or straight, share this distortion, although it manifests itself differently from one person to another. I don’t believe Paul is picking on gays because as a pious Jew, it offended his sensibilities. He’s thinking of homosexuality in a more deeply theological way than that.

Which leads to another flawed argument: “We’re all sinners, and you get to be ordained (and married) even through you’re a sinner, too.” I agree. Absolutely! But when I got ordained, I was supposed to renounce my past sin and actively work to repent of known sin as I become aware of it. The premise underlying the “we’re all sinners” argument is that homosexual behavior is a sin, too. If that’s the argument that the pro-gay side wants to make, then we have very little to disagree about!

I’m extremely skeptical of all arguments “from science”—like genetics or biology. We are, as post-Enlightenment people, enthralled by these arguments. We are biased toward reducing everything to genes. But as renowned evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould said, genes can only influence behavior; they can’t determine it. And so it is with homosexual behavior.

A secular sociologist named Michael Kimmel discusses our culture’s scientific bias in his book The Gendered Society. He speaks at length against the idea that homosexuality is biologically determined. Among other things, he says that we always hear about scientists isolating the “gay gene,” only to have that study later discredited. The study that discredits it doesn’t make headlines, of course.

Kimmel compares the “gay gene” argument to arguments for why men are better than women at math and science. It’s not biological, but we’re always inclined to see it that way.

And if we view sexual orientation in this reductionist way, we often go a step further: “God made me this way, and God doesn’t make mistakes.” I wonder if people who say things like this really mean what they say. What about children born with horrible birth defects and deadly congenital illnesses? Surely they wouldn’t say that God made them that way (I guess Calvinists would, but we Methodists are Arminian). Bad stuff happens—and for any number of reasons. If I believed that there is a gay gene, which I don’t, I would respond the same way: bad stuff happens.

Besides, I worry that the “gay gene” argument is just another way of saying, “There’s nothing wrong with the way I am.” But we know that isn’t true. The “way we are” is precisely the problem that Christianity is supposed to solve, right?

A worse argument is that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality. An argument from silence fails because we have no idea whether Jesus said anything about it—one way or another. But we do know for sure that same-sex sexual behavior was prohibited in first-century Judaism. Jesus’ “silence” on the issue could as easily be an endorsement of the status quo. He spoke against divorce, after all, which went against the status quo.

The worst argument of all is that the UMC risks losing “young people” over the issue. As I am surrounded in Alpharetta by thriving mega-churches that are conspicuously conservative on social issues and attract a disproportionate number of young people, I would love to see the evidence. But who cares? We’re supposed to be faithful to Jesus and let the chips fall where they may.

There are many complex reasons for the UMC’s decline (along with the rest of the Protestant mainline), but it’s not from failing to accommodate the shifting winds of culture. We mainliners have done that better than anyone, and where has it gotten us?

4 Responses to “Just tell me what they decide about the gay stuff”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    All excellent points, Brent. People want preachers to preach “easy things,” as opposed to being confronted with their sins. I sin too, but I recognize the sins to be sins, am disappointed and disgusted with myself when I fall into them, and virtually always make a pledge to fight harder next time.

    Everyone has to “sacrifice” things for Jesus–that’s part of what it means to be a Christian. “If any man would come after me, let him TAKE UP HIS CROSS, and follow me.”

  2. Good work Brent. Loved your piece. While I am choosing to be ‘vague’ (and I’ll gladly take the shots for that), it has been disturbing to see any dissent towards condoning LGBT lifestyle as mere prejudice.

    Thank you for expressing yourself in a humble and insightful way. Please keep up the good work and furthering the conversation so well.

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