I’ve blogged at least a few times about the analogy that Adam Hamilton and others have tried to draw between slavery and the ordination of women on the one hand and church’s traditional stance toward homosexual conduct on the other. If the church disregarded or reinterpreted scripture in the former cases, why can’t they do the same in the case of homosexual conduct?
The difference, as I’ve said, is that the Bible itself offers a trajectory away from slavery and female subordination. If every slaveholder in the first century treated their slaves as fully equal brothers in Christ, the way Paul urges Philemon to treat his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery would be undermined. (If you don’t believe me, read Paul’s crafty letter to Philemon. It’s a short book.) As for women, the Bible is replete with positive examples of women in leadership. We have, for example, Mary Magdalene serving as (literally) the first apostle, commissioned by the resurrected Lord to bring news of the resurrection to the other, male disciples. We have Paul’s praise of female coworkers, including the identification of Junia, in Romans 16:7, as an “apostle.”
And for both slavery and women, we have Paul’s liberating words in 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.”
I hope that even my fellow Christians who disagree with the United Methodist Church on female ordination can at least agree that we are making a biblical case. That’s what good Protestants ought to do: the Bible is our primary authority guiding Christian doctrine and practice. The UMC, along with most of the universal Church, doesn’t believe that such a case can be made for acceptance of homosexual behavior.
But what about divorce? Hasn’t the church jettisoned the New Testament’s clear teaching that divorce is wrong? Yet don’t we permit divorce and remarriage all the time?
Even yesterday, in the wake of World Vision’s reversal of its policy on same-sex marriage, many critics complained that the organization hires Christians who are divorced and remarried. Isn’t that hypocritical? In February, Andy Stanley made the same point about Christian cake bakers who refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings. “Jesus taught that if a person is divorced and gets remarried, it’s adultery. So if (Christians) don’t have a problem doing business with people getting remarried, why refuse to do business with gays and lesbians?”
Are Andy Stanley and these other critics right?
My first response is, it doesn’t matter. If they are right, it only proves that many people who believe that homosexual conduct is a sin are hypocrites, not that homosexual conduct isn’t also a sin.
Regardless, Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tackles the question head-on in his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. I find this very helpful.
(Gagnon, writing mostly for his fellow mainline Protestants, accepts the scholarly consensus that Matthew himself added Jesus’ divorce exception for “sexual immorality.” Since it’s in the Bible either way, it hardly matters.)
For example, on the question of divorce, there are New Testament authors that moderate Jesus’ stance. Jesus’ words were so radical that both Matthew and Paul found ways to qualify them. Matthew allowed for the exception of “sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32; 19:9; agreeing with the school of Shammai), while Paul permitted divorce for believers married to unbelievers who wanted to leave (1 Cor 7:12-16). Of course, one could also point to the availability of the option in the Old Testament (Deut 24:1-4). These kinds of qualification at least provide a basis for further exploration of the issue. Some divorce is permissible for some biblical texts so that one cannot say that the Bible has achieved a unanimous position on the subject. Alternatively, one could argue that the church has become too lenient on the issue in recent years and needs to do what Jesus did: stand against rather than with the culture.
There are other factors that make divorce a very different issue than that of homosexual intercourse. First, few in the church today would argue that divorce is to be “celebrated” as a positive good. The most that can be said for divorce is that in certain cases it may be the lesser of two evils. Second, unlike the kind of same-sex intercourse attracting the church’s attention divorce is not normally a recurring or repetitive action. For the situation to be comparable to a self-affirming, practicing homosexual a person would have to be engaged in self-avowed serial divorce actions. Third, some people are divorced against their will or initiate divorce for justifiable cause against a philandering or violent spouse. Such people should be distinguished from those who divorce a spouse in order to have love affairs with others or to achieve “self-fulfillment.”[†]
† Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 442-3.