About Adam Hamilton’s recent Washington Post op-ed

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 They argued that there were “weightier” scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery.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.

12 thoughts on “About Adam Hamilton’s recent Washington Post op-ed”

  1. Excellent response in every way. Rights language moves the discussion away from theology to politics. I wish we could have a theological discussion about this in the church. For all our talk about conferencing we don’t talk theology very well. Adam is a better student of the Bible than this. I want to know where he would stop with this hermeneutical move. One could use it to affirm all kinds of issues related to sexuality that scripture & tradition do not affirm.

    1. Thanks, Clay. No, we do not talk theology well. I almost wish Albert Outler had never coined the phrase “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” I fear that many of my fellow Methodists (even clergy who should know better) imagine that personal experience trumps the Bible—or at least has an equal voice at the table. Wesley would roll over in his grave!

  2. How many times must the Bible tell us that coveting is wrong? Twice. Well, it is. How many times must the Bible tell us that homosexuality is wrong? A hundred verses would not be enough, because it isn’t, and God allows us to recognise that. We interpret the Bible with our moral understanding and God-given conscience.

    I doubt we are going to agree on this, ever, but you should have more respect for your opponents. They are people of good will, intellect and respect for the Bible. It is not good for the United Methodist church to crumble.

    1. I would have more respect for my opponents if they were as candid as you are here: it doesn’t matter what the Bible says on the subject, there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality.

      Granted, your argument has moved from where you started. You started by saying that the Bible has been misinterpreted. Now you seem to be saying that the Bible, rightly interpreted, is wrong on the subject, just as it’s wrong on slavery.

      1. No, no, no, not at all. The Bible is equivocal. Most translations far extend the verses against homosexuality, far beyond their original meaning. The Bible condemns sex in idol worship, possibly, or possibly that Romans passage is satire: first Paul says “He’s sinful and he’s sinful and they are sinful” to demonstrate how useless such ranting is, and then gives the killer line “And such were some of you”. In other words, “Don’t judge”, yet again.

        People go into incredible detail on both sides, and the result is you actually get to choose your side. You do not have to be against gay people having life-long relationships. It is your choice.

      2. Why do we know better? Because we do. Human beings get better. Better able to understand morality. Better able to make decisions. Far better at building communities, now we have mega-cities of tens of millions of people. We know more, we know better. We know that it is wrong to reject another because of the colour of his skin or the orientation of his sexuality, a concept which did not exist even in the time of Wesley. Thank God, the Bible is readable in a way which ordinary teenagers do not find absolutely abhorrent, as condemning all gay people would be.

      3. I’m having a hard time understanding where “take up your cross and follow me” fits into your theological outlook. I don’t care what teenagers think of self-denial and self-sacrifice; it’s what Jesus teaches. No one is condemning gay people, by the way. Gay or straight, celibacy is the rule outside of marriage, which by definition is between a man and woman. Jesus can ask us to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel but not our sex drives? Please!

      4. Well, so do you. Personal for vast numbers of humans, but still personal. And not required by the bible. And not required by any sensible moral argument. And not required by God.

        Why does this matter to you? Because homosexuality is The Issue which proves you Obey God and take the Bible Seriously? Or because you really care about gay people getting to heaven, and not going to hell because they make love. Wevs, dude.

  3. Your first paragraph goes back to my initial comment on the other blog post: Suppose what you’re saying about Romans 1 were true. Paul is being satirical or he only means to condemn idolatry, etc. Why is it that no one for 2,000 years ever interpreted Paul that way, including well-educated people who spoke Greek natively and lived in that time and place? Why do we, living 20 centuries later, know better than they?

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