About Adam Hamilton’s recent sermon on homosexuality

September 27, 2012

Have you noticed that I dress like Adam Hamilton?

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!

25 Responses to “About Adam Hamilton’s recent sermon on homosexuality”

  1. khargaden Says:

    A very prominent English evangelical vicar, Vaughan Roberts, has joined Wesley Hill and others in admitting same sex attractions and yet dedicating themselves to the alternative patterns of life inspired by Scripture and orthodoxy. You might find it interesting:

    It seems like madness for Hamilton to argue that a Roman citizen raised in Greek lands like Paul would not be aware of stable, long-lasting homosexual relationships. The argument that Romans 1 is just about (what we are still glad to call) “deviant” behaviour, is handled really well by Tom Wright here: http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/word/wright.htm

    As far as the pastoral argument goes- as a pastor I have sympathy. But our job is to shepherd people in the ways of life and it is a dereliction for us to avoid hard conversations in favour of easy answers. There are many more greedy people in my congregation than there are people engaged in homosexual activity. Does that mean that Adam and I should refrain from directly challenging materialism and avarice?….

    Oh wait. We have largely stopped doing that! In which case, if we want renewal, let’s take orthodoxy seriously again and challenge sin in all the ways it brings death- sexually, financially, emotionally, intellectually… in all the areas of our life.

    (Sorry for ranting!)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks for the rant! I had read this Wright interview before. I would underline these words for my fellow Methodists:

      “What can you still say, of course, and many people do, is that, “Paul says x and I say y.” That’s an option that many in the church take on many issues. When we actually find out what Paul said, some say, “Fine, and I disagree with him.” That raises all kinds of other issues about how the authority of scripture actually works in the church, and at what point the authority structure of scripture-tradition-reason actually kicks in.”

      I often think these exegetical gymnastics that people play are disingenuous. For my friends who disagree with me on this issue, I want to ask: is there anything at all that the Bible could say about homosexuality that would change your mind? Of course the answer is no. That being the case, contrary to what Hamilton says in this sermon, it does come down to the authority of scripture.

      • mike Burchfield Says:

        And my friend, where in scripture does our Lord Jesus Christ say one word about homosexuality?

      • brentwhite Says:

        That’s an argument from silence, which is fallacious. I could argue from silence, for example, that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexual behavior because he affirmed the status quo of first century Judaism, which outlawed homosexual conduct. He spoke against the status quo of marriage and divorce. Why not homosexuality? See what I mean? He does talk about sexual immorality, which his listeners would have interpreted to include homosexual behavior, and several other things mentioned in Leviticus.

        Moreover, he affirms marriage as a union of man and woman in Matthew 19 and elsewhere. From what Jesus does say, I would argue that we can discern where he stood.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Also, I’m unaware of some doctrine of scripture that says we get to disregard what the other parts of the Bible have to say on the subject. Jesus himself didn’t do that. In fact, he mostly amplified the requirements of the law, as in, “You’ve heard it said… But I say to you.”

  2. khargaden Says:

    I would agree with you again Brent.

    I wish that the Bible gave me more wriggle room (or just total freedom) with respect to sexual ethics. It is a hard thing for me to let reason guided by faith over-rule my natural inclination. Holding the orthodox position isn’t homophobic. It isn’t violent. It isn’t held because that’s secretly how we want the moral world to be constructed.

    It is instead consistently the product of serious, fully committed exegesis.

  3. snewton Says:

    A little snide and unnecessary to suggest Hamilton should “storm the barricades” of the UMC. He is simply bringing us thoughtful, sincere and passionate discussion of the issue, which you yourself called for on this blog several months ago. “Storming the barricades” rarely accomplishes anything except violence and more misunderstanding. Whatever you think about Hamilton’s position, he is speaking about the issue with honesty, compassion and self-admitted struggle and I applaud him for that.

    • brentwhite Says:

      You give him more credit than I do, Steph. He’s aware that there is another side regarding these passages of scripture that are in dispute. He knows that there are strong exegetical arguments to be made on the other side. Yet he doesn’t share these in his sermon. He reads N.T. Wright. He’s aware of what Wright said in this interview (or in several other places). Why ignore all that? This sermon is far from an evenhanded presentation. Given the evidence that he marshals (if it weren’t so disputable), I find his conclusion to be some weak tea.

      My point is, even if he’s carefully considered all the evidence, he hasn’t let us, his listeners, in on that. All we know from his sermon are these “facts.” Given that, his conclusion doesn’t follow.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Besides, in a way he did storm the barricades by introducing (seemingly out of nowhere) that motion at General Conference. That came as a shock to a lot of people.

  4. snewton Says:

    No, he did not storm the barricades. He merely operated within the system we have in the UMC. Thankfully, we are a denomination that provides for disagreement and dispute in a very rational, democratic way. He simply presented a motion and it failed. Whether he “shocked” anyone is irrelevant. He is not defying the church by officiating gay marriages or anything else that the book of discipline forbids.

    His sermon was not meant to be a debate where both sides are presented. It was a sermon: his thoughts, opinions, insights. (literally preaching to the choir here…) You certainly didn’t give the view from the “other side” in your sermon on Romans last year and I wouldn’t expect you to. It’s your job as a preacher to impart what you feel the Holy Spirit has told you to communicate.

    So disagree with his position all you like, but stop attacking the manner in which he did it.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Stephanie, that was one sentence in a 2,000 word essay! He’s a big boy, not to mention a public figure. He can handle the criticism. I’d be happy for him to read it and respond to it, if he thinks it’s unfair.

      As far as my sermon goes, although I made reference to the arguments from the other side, it hardly matters. I didn’t say I was “leaning” against changing the Discipline. I made it very clear where I stood. Hamilton is probably too afraid to alienate conservative members of his congregation (and the evangelical public at large), so he talks about “leaning.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        It was one sentence in a long essay in which, I think you’ll agree, I fairly represented what he said before launching into my rebuttal.

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    I think we get in dangerous territory when we “get away” from scripture, even based on tradition. Of course, tradition can “inform” us about a correct interpretation simply because we have respect for the interpreters as a matter of their general “talent” at properly understanding difficult things (such as, perhaps, with N.T. Wright or C.S. Lewis in our own time period).

    So, what about things which we “no longer follow” which scripture talks about? Typically we can keep our course by noting other scriptures which keep the difficult passages in context WITHIN SCRIPTURE ITSELF. Thus, we see that Hebrews (within scripture) tells us that the old sacrificial system is no longer in effect because the purpose of that was to point toward Christ, and Christ has now come. Peter was told all foods are now clean. And Paul tells us that ritual circumcision is no longer required. Paul also suggests that slavery is at least not an “optimal” arrangement in Philemon. There are a number of things as to which “old things have passed away, all things have become new,” not in spite of what scripture says, but consistent with its general principles and guidance.

    (With respect to the “hot button” item of women in clergy, we have to be careful about whether we are trying to understand scripture on that point as opposed to jettisoning it in favor of current popular opinion. Even if “tradition” is properly invoked, certainly in the vast majority of Church history women were not “in the pulpit.”)

    Well, what about homosexuality? Is that too something that “general principles” of scripture suggests is passe? The major difficulty on that score is that scripture is entirely consistent with holding it to be unacceptable from Genesis to Revelation. It is also inconsistent with the purposes of marriage, the two separate types (male and female) becoming “one flesh” and generating “godly offspring” (Malachi). There is simply not one thing anywhere in scipture which would suggest that the prohibition of homosexuality is something that “passes away.” As Brent notes, what else would scripture have to say to make the point any clearer?

  6. Arbie Wool;sey Says:

    I agree with the tom Harkins response to the Hamilton sermon ..

  7. robert wright Says:

    Revelation 3:16
    So then, because you are luke-warm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.

    • robert wright Says:

      In your article, it says there are only about five references on this topic.

      How many times does the Bible have to say “no”?

  8. Karen DeRieux Says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! It is so encouraging to hear someone in authority speaking to hold fast to the inerrant word of God!

    We are in a UMC Sunday school class, and in a study of “where Christians get it wrong” video series, addressing why young people turn from the church. My husband and I were appalled at the implied message from Hamilton that maybe The Word does not mean what it says!! I tried to argue (calmly/as possible) that you base your truths on what IS stated in the word. We felt like We were out numbered. Mainly, crickets chirping quiet, but a few who grasped on to just “love” & “no judging”. What happened to love is truth! As you said! My thoughts & comments have always been, What greater love is there than to save your loved one or others from the fire. If you are 1, that has some doubt about the meaning from scripture on the subject, are you willing to stake your salvation on it?

    I also feel (dont know this) that Hamilton’s purpose is to place doubt in the mind of the young people , that he says he is trying to find out why they are turning away. I’m 57 yrs, w three children & have been in “the church” all my life & it is very typical for young people to go through a stage of “independence” from organized church. They come back usually when they marry & have children. I would like to suggest why not push an effort of what the church does right? And how good things come from a walk of faith including protection from temptation!

    I am a person that does not like conflict, but am fed up w fear of offending keeping us from being “soldiers of the cross”.

    God bless you, and keep you and may He make you strong to stand up for His word.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks so much for the encouragement, Karen!

    • Brian Giselbach Says:

      Bravo Karen! I am a minister in churches of Christ. I find it fantastic that so many “scholars” are abandoning the Scriptures for the sake of “love” and “not judging.” “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love.” — Jesus (John 15:10)

  9. Janice Says:

    Yes, keep speaking the Truth and relying on the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We all need to rely more on the input from God’s Holy Spirit as we search the Scriptures. He has come to teach and lead us in the right direction. Hold fast to God’s Truth!


  10. Satan comes as an angel of light. He has always been shown to pervert scripture as a means to persuade. It’s handy with new and/or unstudied Christians, but also very successful with older, but tired Christians. I say tired in the sense that Satan is inexhaustible when it comes to temptation. Yes, he’ll leave for a season, but he returns over and over with the same mantra…”did God really say…”

    This is exactly the mantra used in modernity to wear down otherwise enlightened Christians. The constant rebelling against traditional scriptural interpretation, fueled by an exponential growth in scientific knowledge (or, how God actually made things) that seems to have removed the “mythology” of supernatural interventions and substituted it with “natural” law, frustrates Believers in their ignorance of the Word of God.

    What we need is a supernatural show of God’s truth. But is there faith remaining in the contemporary Church to act in such a way? Jesus considered the same question in remarking on His return to this world.

    Only prayer and fasting will bring about the kind of faith that will supernaturally destroy the arguments and constructs of apostasy. Will Jesus find faith on the earth when He returns?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thank you, Rick. I agree that pastors like Hamilton are victims, in part, of spiritual warfare. I believe Satan has done remarkably effective work here.

      I don’t know if you’re United Methodist, but Hamilton cut his teeth in our denomination as a conservative evangelical reformer who was leading the charge to bring us back to God’s Word, back to Christian orthodoxy. And now this…

      He’s gone on—surprise, surprise—to reject an orthodox doctrine of scripture, saying that there are entire passages of the Bible that are simply wrong, which never reflected God’s will or purposes for our lives or the world.

  11. ROBERT TEAGUE Says:

    If the apostle Paul’s writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit why would the Spirit have not revealed same sex marriage as holy and acceptable? His vision and revelation on the road to Damascus were very clear. It was also in direct opposition to his understanding of God’s word. Yet he was transformed on the spot and his understanding grew through revelations from the Holy Spirit. So was it God’s purpose to keep Paul in the dark regarding this matter, thus allowing false teaching from his chosen apostle to the gentiles. I don’t think so.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree. Many revisionists would say, however, not that Paul was wrong, only that we’ve misunderstood him. And then what follows is some incredibly convoluted exegesis in which plain words no longer mean what we think they mean.


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