Adam Hamilton’s bucket list

March 12, 2014

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,

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. 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.

23 Responses to “Adam Hamilton’s bucket list”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I agree with almost everything you say here. I particularly cannot fathom God taking any position in scripture that he never agreed with! (I wonder if Hamilton came up with this whole analysis to justify homosexuality.)

    I might venture out on a limb, however, with respect to your statement: “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.”

    I agree that in the first instance God extends his love toward everyone–that is why he died on the cross. However, we either respond to that love positively or negatively. Which one we choose (and to what extent) ultimately determines how much of this extended love we “keep.” Jesus said something in John to the effect that if we love him, we will keep his commandments, and if we do so, he will love us and the Father will love us. Again, there is the general love offering that goes to everyone, but we have to “obey” to keep that love. Obviously we don’t obey completely, but the point is that some people reject the idea of loving God, or keeping his commandments, altogether. Such people end up in Hell! So, it is hard for me to see how God could still be “loving” them at that point. “As for those who rejected me from being king over them, bring them in and kill them before me,” Jesus says in one parable.

    So, as applied here, I have some problem with the concept that God “hates the sin but loves the sinner.” Again, in the first instance, this is true. But, I think, in the final instance, or the final analysis, that is no longer the case. A person who clings to his sin, such as homosexuality, in defiance of God eventually does become an “abomination” to God, I think. Well, I know this is controversial, but really “sin” is something that people “do,” and as such is hardly totally “distinct” from the person who does it.

    • Clay Knick Says:

      He so needs to read Richard Hays’, “The Moral Vision of the NT.” Perhaps he has and disagrees. It would help him a lot whether he likes it or not, whether he agrees with him or not. I’ll read Adam’s book, but I’m sure to prefer other options along the way, I do do suppose.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I’m reading Robert Gagnon’s book right now. He cites Hays throughout—although he disagrees with Hays, interestingly, on the severity of homosexual behavior. He thinks it is a more serious sin than many others.

        But, yes… It was an interview I read with Hays many years ago that first encouraged me to rethink my Candler-inherited understanding of the homosexuality debate.

        I only knew of one prof at Candler at the time who was conservative on the issue! (I’m sure there were others, but they were a silent minority.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom, I disagree on the issue of God’s love. As love is at the core of his character, God will only ever be loving—alas, even condemnation must result from his love.

      Still, I think it’s important, especially as it relates to homosexuality, to distinguish the sin from the sinner. Simply having same-sex attraction for someone is no sin, nor has the church ever taught otherwise. The issue is acting on this attraction, either through lust or sexual behavior.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I totally agree that “God is love,” so that everything God does flows out of his love. However, I guess what I am saying is that love, by its very nature, is something that is “conditional.” As a weak analogy to this, consider that temperature is the presence or absence of “heat.” Heat is the “thing,” but there may be more of it or less of it, and, eventually, the “temperature” can (theoretically) reach “absolute zero.” So with love–it can be greater or lesser, though it is always on the “scale” of love. Therefore, it is possible for God, on the scale of love, to eventually reach the “level” of hatred. Again, this is not ultimately in contradistinction to God being love–it is just understanding what love IS by love’s very nature. And what makes love to be greater or lesser is the degree to which it is “returned,” and obedience is part of what is a “return” of love to God. Anyway, that is my understanding of it, and I especially feel this to be the case in light of eternity in Hell for all who reject the sacrifice of Christ for them.

    • Eldon J. Gray Says:

      I believe all humanity will have to wait for our reunion with GOD to know what HE/SHE really reveals on this matter and all our speculation is just that!!!

      • brentwhite Says:

        I disagree. For those of us, including United Methodists, who profess to believe that the Bible is God’s primary revelation, it’s not a matter for speculation. God has already revealed his will on this matter: marriage is a lifelong, monogamous commitment between a man and woman and homosexual behavior is a sin.

        Are we arrogant in saying that? No, we’re consistent: We believe the Bible when it comes to so many other things. Why not when it comes to homosexual behavior and marriage? For about 1,950 years, it was perfectly clear to the church what the Bible said on these issues. What’s changed? Not the Bible.

  3. Gary Bebop Says:

    Adam Hamilton seems never to pause to think his positions through. Like William Willimon, he’s on a pace to publish his every thought. He’s the Dollar Store in this department, and his substance must be heavily discounted.

  4. Margie Says:

    Nice job, Brent White. I too felt like it was a opportune time for Hamilton to promote his book. And, good catch on the Acts 15 piece. While two sides bickered away, a compromise was attained and there were stipulations with the Greeks that included sexual morality.

  5. Karl Says:

    I also wonder where Hamilton would draw the line on human sexual behavior that should be placed in bucket 1. Would he place polygamists there? Adulterers? On what grounds? His position leaves no grounds as far as I can tell for condemning any sexual aberrance.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree that it’s arbitrary to “sanctify” homosexual behavior and no other sexual sin mentioned alongside it in Leviticus. Hamilton says there are only five verses (as if!) related to homosexuality. How many are there about other sexual practices? How many references are there to incest, for example, outside of Leviticus? How can we be certain that incest is a sin?

  6. revwrm Says:

    Great post. Well thought out. You could also make the case that because we are grafted in through Jesus (who was a faithful Jew and through Him the law is satisfied) that everything is still applicable in the Old Testament, it’s just that Jesus has satisfied it.

    • brentwhite Says:

      You’re welcome! Although I agree that we Christians become part of God’s people Israel (alongside Jewish Christians) through Christ, we couldn’t say that everything is still applicable. This was the very issue that the early church dealt with in Acts 15, for instance. Not to mention Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s letters. Whether we disregard ceremonial aspects of the Law, however, has no bearing on the Bible’s strong condemnation of homosexual behavior as a sin.

  7. greg calko Says:

    Is it just me or do the buckets seem eerily similar to the colored balls used by the misguided folks of the Jesus seminar?

  8. bghelverson@yahoo.com Says:

    I believe in another post earlier you referenced several of your colleagues who resigned from the UMC due to their “enlightenment” regarding homosexuality. Why is Adam Hamilton allowed to still be a UMC pastor when he clearly is not in line with their doctrine?

    • brentwhite Says:

      There have been a couple who have resigned, although if clergy are unwilling to abide by our Book of Discipline, by all means, there are other options available to them. They can become United Church of Christ, Lutheran (ELCA), Episcopalian, or Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastors.

      You can remain a UMC pastor and disagree with the church on the issue, so long as you don’t break church law. The problem right now is that many of my colleagues are breaking church law.

      Having said that, all candidates for ministry are asked if they agree with church doctrine and have to answer many questions about it. In the North Georgia Conference, we are asked specifically about our church’s stance on homosexuality. I wouldn’t ordain someone who disagrees with the church on this matter—but I know for sure that some of my colleagues aren’t completely forthcoming on the issue, if you know what I mean.

      • Christina Says:

        I guess I’m having a difficult understanding how pastors are getting ordained when they disagree with this doctrine and why it is accepted period. As I am very new to Methodism, I find myself not wanting to tell people where I attend because I don’t want unbelievers to think I agree with the UMC as a whole. Another issue is tithe. I do not want my tithe being given to a church that supports homosexuality, let alone a homosexual pastor. Just curious how you resolve these issues.

  9. brentwhite Says:

    Well, in my experience, they’re getting ordained by saying as little as possible about their convictions regarding homosexuality. And they’re not telling “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but” when they tell God, the bishop, and the Annual Conference at ordination that they believe in the doctrines of the church. I don’t know if they cross their fingers behind their backs or not.

    I know that I didn’t cross my fingers, which is one reason this issue drives me crazy.

    The church doesn’t support homosexuality—and there are good reasons why the UMC won’t go the way of its mainline Protestant sisters on the issue. Church law on the matter likely won’t change. What’s happening now is that some bishops and clergy, having failed to convince the church at large that their side is right, are engaging in civil disobedience. As a matter of principle, if they can’t abide by church law, they should resign.

    As for your tithe, the money isn’t supporting or condoning homosexual behavior, so there isn’t any worry there. Besides, please remember that all churches are filled with sinners—like me, for instance—regardless of their stance on this one issue. I’m glad that the church pays my salary even though I’m a sinner, too. So keep tithing!

  10. Carleene Says:

    Christina: I’m in the exact same position that you stated here. However, I disagree with a later statement that the “money isn’t supporting or condoning homosexual behavior … ” As a result, I’m currently paying my tithe to UMCOR Advance Specials. I’d love to support individual ministries in my local church, but if there’s a unified budget, some money would be going to the General Church’s positions.

    I’m weary of my local church’s continual pushing of Adam Hamilton’s books. In my estimation, he has become apostate.


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