Despite my uncanny resemblance to the man (or is it Rob Bell? I can’t remember), I continue to “agree to disagree” with my fellow United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton on his recently revised stance on human sexuality. I only mention my disagreement again because of his recent op-ed in the Washington Post.
Some prominent United Methodist clergy, including Asbury Seminary president Timothy Tennent and pastor Maxie Dunnam, have weighed in on it here and here. While Hamilton doesn’t add anything to the argument in his sermon last fall, which I wrote about in some depth, his emphasis in this piece is on the analogy to the biblical treatment of slavery (and, he adds parenthetically, “the place of women”). Regarding those many verses in the Bible that seem to condone or justify slavery, Hamilton writes the following:
Abolitionist preachers argued in their sermons that the verses related to slavery in the Bible were a reflection of the cultural context and times in which the Bible was written and did not reflect God’s endorsement of slavery. They argued that there were “weightier” scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery. This was the position that Lincoln himself adopted.
One day soon, he says, most of us Christians will view the church’s stance toward homosexuals the same way.
Both Tennent and Dunnam argue (as I tried to) that this analogy, powerful as it seems at first blush, doesn’t hold water. As Hamilton has surely preached before on numerous occasions, the Bible’s “clear trajectory” moves away from slavery and female subordination. Hamilton knows, for example, that if slaveowner Philemon takes Paul’s words to heart—that Philemon should treat his runaway slave Onesimus as a fully equal brother in Christ, who is master of us all—and all Christian slaveowners do likewise, then the institution of slavery is subverted from within until it no longer exists. This is, in fact, exactly what happened: by the Middle Ages, slavery was illegal in the Christian West. (Yes, it tragically reemerged with African slavery, but those parts of the Church that endorsed it weren’t being faithful, first of all, to scripture itself, not to mention tradition.)
Since Hamilton knows all this—and has surely preached and taught it before—don’t you think it’s disingenuous for him not to say so? In other words, contrary to his argument, it’s not merely “‘weightier’ scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery,” it’s also scripture’s direct words about slavery itself that destroyed the institution—again, my colleagues in ministry have it right when they talk about a clear trajectory.
No such trajectory exists for homosexual behavior. On the contrary, those verses that speak against same-sex sexual behavior (“five or eight depending upon how one counts,” Hamilton writes) move in the opposite direction.
As he did in his sermon last fall, Hamilton continues to stress the relatively few verses related to homosexual behavior, over against the “100 plus verses on slavery.” If the Church can set aside those hundred-plus verses in order to declare that slavery is immoral, he argues, surely it can do the same with those few verses related to homosexuality.
I don’t know why he thinks this is a good argument.
How many times does the Bible have to say, “Do not covet,” for us to know that coveting is wrong? How many times does it have to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for us to know that we really ought to do so? Unless Hamilton believed that those “five to eight” verses were insufficiently clear, then he’s not making his point.
See, he knows what those five to eight verses are clear enough: that’s not his argument. Although I accept that there are eight verses rather than his five, Hamilton is too good a student of the Bible to go on one of those flights of exegetical fancy in which he pretends words no longer mean what they plainly seem to mean, as I described here.
No, his argument is that those verses, though clear enough, are cultural and time-bound and don’t reflect God’s timeless will.
He also offers this:
In my own life, it was both reading the Bible’s passages on same-sex intimacy in the same light as passages on slavery (and violence and the place of women) and coming to know gay and lesbian people that led me to see this issue differently, particularly children who grew up in my church who loved God and sought to serve Christ. As I listened to their stories I saw that they did not fit the stereotypes I had been taught about gay and lesbian people… And their faith was as authentic as that of anyone else in my congregation.
You mean gay and lesbian Christians can also love and serve Christ as well as the rest of us sinners? Their faith is as “authentic” as straight people’s faith? Who said otherwise? A handful of fundamentalists? Westboro Baptist? What kind of straw-man argument is this?
Will the many gay and lesbian Christians who nevertheless accept and abide by the Church’s traditional teaching and remain celibate appreciate that Hamilton realized—rather late in life, apparently—that they, too, are authentically Christian? Of course, Hamilton doesn’t allow for the possibility that such Christians exist—or that celibacy could ever be a viable option for anyone, even though both Jesus and Paul clearly endorsed it!
One final problem with his article occurs in the final paragraph. He conflates the church’s stance regarding homosexual behavior with preachers “decrying the rights of homosexuals today.”
Not so fast! The question of “rights” is strictly a political question. And if you want to talk about political remedies for unjust discrimination against homosexuals, I’m all ears. I stand alongside our Book of Discipline in opposing discrimination. But this is entirely a separate question from whether the church itself should endorse same-sex marriage or ordain non-celibate homosexuals. None of us, gay or straight, has any “rights” before God.