By far my most widely read blog post is this one from 2012, responding to United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s change of heart regarding our church’s traditional stance on human sexuality. I won’t rehash the arguments I offered there. I believe that I fairly represented his viewpoint, and I also believe I offered substantial reasons for rejecting it.
Hamilton used this week’s breaking United Methodist news to promote a forthcoming book he’s written about biblical interpretation called Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. In it, he argues that there are three “buckets” into which scriptures fall. As he puts it,
- Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
- Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
- Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.
I wouldn’t adopt this interpretive strategy—and I would be extremely reluctant to say which scriptures “never fully expressed the heart, character, or will of God.” (Does Hamilton still consider himself evangelical?) Nevertheless, if you are going to adopt it, you’d better have some very principled reasons for deciding on which scriptures belong in Buckets 2 and 3.
So, in which bucket does he put scriptures concerning homosexual behavior? Hamilton is being coy. He writes:
Consider Leviticus 20:13 in which God is said to command: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Anyone who has a child that is gay would rightly ask, “Did God ever really command that gay and lesbian children be put to death?” They might also ask, “Does God really see my child, or the love they share for their partner, as an abomination?”
First, we know God doesn’t “see my child… as an abomination,” because that’s not what this verse says, as Hamilton surely knows. Scripture condemns homosexual behavior in the strongest possible terms, but not the people who engage in it. Inasmuch as two homosexuals “share love”—authentic love—then, no, God doesn’t condemn that, either. God condemns homosexual behavior—which would include same-sex intercourse and lust, neither of which relates to “love” or the state of one’s being.
My point is, let’s not move the goal posts here.
I’m guessing Hamilton would put the Bible’s endorsement of capital punishment in the case of homosexual behavior in Bucket 3. (Jesus himself rejects capital punishment for the woman caught in adultery—”Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”)
I’m also guessing he would put the Bible’s words about homosexual behavior being a sin (including not only Leviticus but the New Testament as well) in Bucket 2. About this bucket he writes:
Bucket two scriptures, those that expressed God’s will for his people in a specific time and circumstances but which do not express the timeless will of God, include the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law. The Apostles, in Acts 15, determined that most of the laws like these were no longer binding upon Christians.
I’m glad he mentioned the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. This scripture is exactly on point when it comes to the discussion of homosexual behavior. The council met to decide the extent to which Gentile Christians had to first “become Jewish” in order to be fully Christian. Do Gentiles have to be circumcised? Do they have to observe Jewish dietary laws? The council ruled in Acts 15 that they don’t. But the church affirmed some parts of Old Testament law. They said Gentiles must abstain from “pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood.”
So, the church said that Gentile Christians must obey the Old Testament’s prohibition against “sexual immorality.” The Greek word is porneia, which alludes to Leviticus 18:6-23, which prohibits incest, adultery, intercourse between males, and bestiality.[†]
Hamilton wouldn’t argue that Leviticus’s words about incest, adultery, and bestiality fail to express God’s timeless will—in other words, that they belong in either Bucket 2 or 3. By what principle, then, does he argue that Leviticus’s prohibition of homosexual behavior belongs in Bucket 2 or 3?
I don’t blame anyone, in this day and age, for feeling like the Bible is wrong to condemn homosexual behavior. Opposition to homosexual behavior is as countercultural as it gets! But feelings aren’t an argument.
As I said above, if you’re going to adopt Hamilton’s interpretive strategy—not to mention to loudly trumpet your commitment to being a “biblical Christian”—you better have principled biblical reasons for deciding which scriptures belong in these different buckets.
By citing Acts 15, Hamilton shows, by his own logic, that he doesn’t—at least as it relates to homosexual behavior!
† My colleagues on the pro-gay side often speak as if the meaning of porneia is impossible to fathom. According to Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, however, it’s beyond dispute that first-century Jewish Christians would have understood porneia to include homosexual behavior—alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality. See, for example, Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 435-6.