Is the Church wrong?

May 19, 2014

Owen Strachan and Andrew Walker don’t waste a single sentence in this excellent First Things piece, “The Church Is Wrong,” an assessment of gay Christian advocate Matthew Vines’s new book. 

Vines’s argument is nothing new. In fact, I’d say it’s the most popular one, especially among my many United Methodist colleagues working to change our church’s traditional stance on sexuality. When Paul and the other biblical authors (not to mention every Christian thinker who lived prior to around 1970) condemn homosexual practice, they couldn’t have imagined two men, or two women, in a consensual, monogamous lifelong partnership (a blindly optimistic goal of today’s Christian revisionists, given how seldom gay men practice monogamy, even in “marriage”). These authors weren’t condemning homosexual practice, per se, only the non-consensual, idolatrous, and pederastic forms of it.

As you probably know, I’ve argued at length on this blog against this stance.

A few times I’ve asked revisionist clergy colleagues this question: Could the Bible say anything to make you change your mind about your understanding of homosexual behavior?

I guess they think I’m being a smart-alec, but I’m not. If the answer is no, then let’s not bother arguing scripture at all. Right? There’s no sense telling me that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with homosexual behavior, that Leviticus equates homosexual practice with eating shellfish, or that Paul was only talking about pederasty, temple prostitution, and sex slaves in Romans 1:26-27. Appeals to scripture are irrelevant if the biblical writers couldn’t have imagined homosexuality as we know it today. The Bible is always ever silent on the issue: because no matter what the Bible says, it’s talking about something else entirely, not what we understand as homosexual practice today.

Do you see the problem?

Suppose the Holy Spirit intended to inspire the biblical authors to make clear that homosexual practice was sinful—which seemed sufficiently clear to the Church for nearly two millennia. How could he have done it, except using these words that we find in the Bible?

If the revisionists were right, however, then I’d worry about trusting the Bible at all: it is, after all, a very obscure book whose ancient words rarely mean what they seem to mean. Why take for granted that we understand the meaning of  “love,” “grace,” “forgiveness,” and all those other words and concepts that we happen to like? Does anyone apply the same exegetical scrutiny to them?

Regardless, here’s much of Strachan and Walker’s post:

Let us be clear, according to Vines, the tradition and reliability of the Church’s teaching throughout the ages on sexuality are both wrong. Not only are the Scriptures and the historic interpretation wrong, they are both active purveyors of injustice meted out towards homosexuals.

As one of us wrote in our review of Vines’s book,

It’s rather appalling that Vines’ organization is called “The Reformation Project,” a title synonymous with the movement of Martin Luther, because there’s a simple, yet glaring error in how he understands the reference to “Reformation.” Luther never believed the church had been in error from its beginning. He wasn’t calling for the rejection of long-held beliefs; instead, Luther was reaffirming the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints.”

Vines, in contrast, is calling for Revolution, the type consistent with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Vines believes the church has been wrong for 2,000 years. The early Church Fathers—wrong. Augustine—wrong. The Roman Catholic Church—wrong. Luther, Calvin—all wrong. But I wonder if Vines is willing to accept the alternative—that he’s wrong?

We ask because if Matthew Vines is correct, Jesus is wrong, because Jesus—the Incarnate and Risen Lord—is not aware of his own patriarchal biases in Matthew 19:4-6. One would think that a member of the Trinity who saved sinful humanity would possess sufficient foresight and divine wisdom, but apparently not.

It is a key plank in Vinesian exegesis that the writers of the New Testament lacked a modern comprehension of individuals with a same-sex orientation. But this approach to interpretation defies how the Scripture understands itself and distorts any credible doctrine of inspiration. If the Church—a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim: 3:15)—has been wrong on homosexuality, what else has she been wrong on?…

Yet it is not the theology of the progressive Millennial Protestants that most take our breath away. It is the hubris. Matthew Vines, a young twenty-something with no formal theological training, believes with all starry-eyed optimism that he has the authority to correct the apostle Paul in his doctrinal particulars…

Put it this way: If we’re faced with a choice between a precocious twenty-something with lots of neat new ideas about sexuality and gender untested by the scholarly community on the one hand, and an apostle gored by a Roman sword because the Holy Spirit spoke through him in tones ancient authorities considered hostile to imperial rule on the other, we’re banking on the latter.

18 Responses to “Is the Church wrong?”

  1. Dave Nuckols Says:

    Speaking as a lay and theologically progressive “UMC colleague working to change” the Book of Discipline so as to be fully inclusive of LGBT people, I see the Matthew Vines book as something new indeed. Most past gay-affirming books and blogs written by UMCers have been written from a progressive theoloical viewpoint. And this has been tough for gay kids (and parents) from evangelical UMC backgrounds because their lived experience tells them BoD is wrong but their listening to progressive and traditional “experts” arguing past each other leaves them without a fitting spiritual home. Matthew Vines — in spite of his Presbyterian background — shows them a new way of understanding and then reconciling with their home church. Matthew grew up and continues to live according to a high view of scirptural authority. Paul’s words in the canon are every bit as authoritative to him as the rest of the New Testament. The Old Testament is every bit as inspired to him as the New Testament. He takes the Bible very seriously, and just because you disagree with him, doesn’t mean he’s not a very sincere and very traditional evangelical in the most meaningful sense.

    When I read Strachen and Walker in First Things, my first reaction was “Did they even read the book?” and second reaction was “Have they no stronger criticism than ad hominem attacks and overheated reaction?” I mean, really, it is hard to take them seriously when they say “If Matthew Vines is correct, Jesus is wrong.” That’s why I didn’t comment to them directly. But you are a UMCer whom I respect and whom I enjoy reading.

    I do grant your point, Brent, that when conservative gay-affirming Christians like Matthew argue that the “clobber passages” do not condemn same-sex marriage such as we see in modern society, it stakes out some rhetorical ground that feels stacked against the traditional non-affirming view. And I grant that, in this respect, Matthew reaches a conclusion shared by progressives such as myself. But the exegetical path he takes to get there is true to his conservative tradition. But it is historically accurate to point that today’s same-sex marriage per se did not exist then. That does not mean “appeals to scripture are irrelevant.” Certainly, that’s not what Matthew says, and it is unfair for to portray Matthew’s very serious approach so frivolously.

    Matthew signicantly advances the discussion not just by “knocking down” the traditional interpretation of the so-called “clobber passages” but also by building up a scripturally sound understanding of why same-sex marriage is the honorable path for gay Christians vs. unattainable and unscriptural forced celibacy. Their living openly and forming health same sex marriage commitments produces “good fruit” far preferable to the “bad fruit” that issues from societal homophobia and the unhealthy lives that closeted poeple experience as a result of external and internalized oppression.

    I’d encourage you to re-read Matthew’s book and thoughtfully engage with the approach he actually takes. And then criticize if you must. But deal with the reality of his argument and not the Strachen/Walker caricature of it.

    I offer you two challenges especially about his book:

    (1) Support with evidence or disavow the Strachen/Walker charge that Matthew says both “Scriptures and the historic interpretation wrong” about sexuality. Of course, he does argue that the historic — or if you will traditional — view of homosexuality is wrong. But he argues that Scripture is right, inspired and fully authoritative. And let’s acknowledge that we’ve reversed course vs. tradition at other times as Church broadly speaking and as the UMC specifically. It’s is okay to have a sincere and well-thought out argument to revisit tradition interpretation, but it is wrong to say that those who do so necessarily believe Scripture is wrong.

    (2) Support with evidence or disavow the Strachen/Walker charge that Matthew “is calling for Revolution, the type consistent with the sexual revolution of the 1960s.” Where exactly does Matthew say that? In contrast, he is arguing for a conservative Christian sexual ethic calling for chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage which should be applied to gay and straight alike. As a happily married father proud of my two college kids — one gay and one straight — I completely agree on this standard, and I welcome fresh young voices such as Matthew Vines to this debate in support of a wholesome traditional view.

    Lastly, I’d really appreciate having you explain why the last 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian teaching about heterosexual marriage is such a sacrosanct barrier to same-sex marriage? Look at the many forms of marriage once accepted and now rejected: Polygamy. Levirate marriage. Rape marriage. Concubinage. Arranged marriage. Marriage as property. Patriarchical man-in-charge / woman-submissive marriage. Next, look at the taboo-rich sex-negative view that held sway through the ages and through Puritan and Victorian times too. The Roman Catholic church still opposes birth control, but not the UMC. The UMC affirms “sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons” within monogamous heterosexual marriage. And we UMCers have stopped identifying what consensual heterosexual acts are to be “off limits” within marriage. So across the many years, there has been a lot of liberalizing of marriage (and sex within marriage) for heterosexual Christians only. Why the double standard for gay Christians seeking loving, commited, monogamous same-sex marriage? In a world so wiling to give heterosexuals these “liberal things”, why can’t we give gay folk this one “conservative thing” called marriage?

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and kind words, Dave. I’ve written a lot about these arguments elsewhere. See, for instance, this blog post (https://revbrentwhite.com/2012/09/27/adam-hamiltons-recent-sermon-on-homosexuality/). Or this: https://revbrentwhite.com/2013/07/22/on-leviticus-and-the-classic-shellfish-argument/. Type “homosexuality” in the blog’s search field for more.

    In your last point, you write the following:

    “Look at the many forms of marriage once accepted and now rejected: Polygamy. Levirate marriage. Rape marriage. Concubinage. Arranged marriage. Marriage as property. Patriarchical man-in-charge / woman-submissive marriage.”

    Theologian Glenn Peoples has an excellent blog post on this, which I can’t point to right now because his blog isn’t loading for some reason. His point is that each of these “many forms” have exactly one thing in common: they involve one man and one woman in a sexual relationship. Even polygamy, keep in mind, isn’t polyamory: it’s one man with one woman at a time. These many forms of sexual relationship respect the principle of marriage laid out in Genesis 1-2, which, the Church believes, teaches that compementarity of sexes is essential to sexual expression.

  3. davenuckols Says:

    I realize we don’t / won’t agree, but that’s okay. Enjoy the respectful dialog. Hope eventually we can deem this topic a “non-essential” in which we can believe as we both do with liberty and still work together on the essential mission.

    I get your Glenn Peoples point. And it partially addresses my question inasmuch as it shows consistency with respect to heterosexuals getting married. Fair enough. But knowing you are a fan of “trajectory theory” for how we overturned slavery and no-women-in-authority due to finding identifiable-in-scripture trajectory towards changing tradition, it still begs the other part of the question in terms of double standard. Why do we see trajectory towards more egalitarian view of marriage for heterosexuals only? Why don’t we see how gender-related trajectory also applies to LGBT people who are mostly born gender-nonconforming? Why don’t we see gender non-conforming appearances in New Testament as evidencing “trajectory” too? Quick examples (1) in Christ, there is no longer male nor female and (2) Holy Spirit leading Philip to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch.

    Please do give Matthew Vines another read though. His approach is not the same as Adam Hamilton’s. And both he and Adam differ from many progressives. So if Vines work merits a post, it deserves a more thoughtful one than what flowed from Strachen/Walker. At least give him credit for a having a conservative pro-marriage view how to affirm gay people.

    Peace brother.

    • brentwhite Says:

      We overturned the church’s view of women in ordained ministry and slavery because of evidence from scripture. That’s not quite right: the church was always progressive on women and slaves, which is partly why women and slaves joined the church in disproportionately large numbers. I don’t believe you can read Philemon and imagine that the institution of slavery could long survive. And it didn’t. It sounds like you’ve read my blog posts on the subject, so I won’t rehash the arguments. You cite Galatians 3:28, but that actually refers to slaves and women and not to homosexuals. Homosexual behavior, by contrast, is condemned in the strongest terms possible in both Testaments.

      As for the eunuch reference, I’m not sure I follow. The question of gender non-conformity is beside the point. I assume, by virtue of the man’s being a eunuch, that he didn’t engage in homosexual behavior.

      Again, the issue is not the extent of one’s inclination toward same-sex attraction: it’s the acting on it that is sin, by which I mean lust and physically engaging in the behavior.

      I’ve said this on my blog, but the question of whether one is born that way is irrelevant. Based on my understanding of the science, no one is born that way, although that doesn’t minimize the fact that many homosexuals experience orientation as relatively fixed and are unable to change it. Nevertheless, everyone is able, by the power of the Spirit, to control their behavior, and that’s the issue at stake here.

  4. Amy B Says:

    “Even polygamy, keep in mind, isn’t polyamory: it’s one man with one woman at a time.” Brent, that beats all, for real. That’s the hair-splittingest hair-splitting I have ever seen. Do you really see one-man. one woman is the defining characteristic of all those forms of “marriage”? Not oppression and subjugation of women?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Amy, historically, polygamy often arises in situations in which women outnumber men (as is often the case after war), and since women’s options for supporting themselves apart from a husband were limited in antiquity, polygamy itself isn’t necessarily about oppression and subjugation—although oppression and subjugation give rise to the situation in which women are unable to support themselves.

      Also, polygamy was seldom practiced in ancient Judaism because Jews understood that the biblical ideal, as is clear in Genesis 2, is one man-one woman. This idea was countercultural in its day. Besides, it’s not as if the Bible portrays polygamous marriages as anything other than disastrous, even for the its heroes. Consider the stories of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon, to name a few.

      Finally, we have the witness of the New Testament, which speaks against the practice. And in the early Church it was soon outlawed entirely.

      My point, however hair-splitting, about polygamy remains: it respects the complementarity of the sexes. If God wants to tell us how we get to use our bodies, God certainly has the right to do so.

  5. Amy B Says:

    “I don’t believe you can read Philemon and imagine that the institution of slavery could long survive. And it didn’t.” It did survive for a very long time, and it still exists.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Certainly it still exists! But it’s not sanctioned by the Church or Christian teaching. Christians, after all, have been at the forefront of working to eradicate it. And throughout history, I might add.

      Slavery was an accepted fact of life in antiquity. Judaism and Christianity didn’t invent it. By the Middle Ages, however, this fact of life was now illegal in the Christian West. That’s a remarkable turn of events. That doesn’t mean that social justice reigned supreme and all was right with the world, but we human beings usually fail to live up to our ideals, no matter what we do.

      And of course slavery reemerged in an even more brutal form with African slavery. But the loudest voices opposing it, including good old John Wesley, were Christians arguing from scripture that it was evil.

      Amy, I’m as surprised as anyone that I’ve moved to the right on the issue of homosexuality since seminary. But I believe I’ve done so in good faith and not simply because of some irrational fear of LGBT people. I do believe the Bible is God’s Word. As a matter of integrity, I can’t reconcile any reasonable interpretation of scripture to say that God intends marriage for anything other than a man and woman. This was uncontroversial for nearly 2,000 years of Christian reflection on the subject, by many people who are morally superior to me, and I don’t believe, contrary to popular opinion, that we’ve learned anything about human sexuality that overturns the Church’s verdict.

  6. Amy B Says:

    I’m sorry, your point about polygamy was *not* that it was about the “complementarity of the sexes.” You specifically said it was “one man with one woman at a time” which I will continue to maintain is flat-out funny. Or would be funny if your positions were not such a bummer to read. But carry on, preacher: we can agree to (100%) disagree.

  7. brentwhite Says:

    Let me take another stab at it: even if the Bible condones alternate forms of marriage, it does not condone alternate forms of sexual relationship. This is why the distinction between polygamy and polyamory matters: if the Bible condoned polyamory, well, then you’d have a case in which the male-with-female principle was being violated—because you’d also at some point have female-with-female or male-with-male.

    I know you disagree with the church’s position, Amy, but if you think this one small part of my argument isn’t logical, tell me how.

  8. revdrsusant Says:

    Brent,

    I thought I posted this comment earlier this week, and I haven’t heard a response nor do I see my post in the comments so I’m trying again.

    Strachan and Walker state:

    “It is a key plank in Vinesian exegesis that the writers of the New Testament lacked a modern comprehension of individuals with a same-sex orientation. But this approach to interpretation defies how the Scripture understands itself and distorts any credible doctrine of inspiration. If the Church—a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim: 3:15)—has been wrong on homosexuality, what else has she been wrong on?…”

    What else has the church been wrong on?

    Well…as a female ordained full-elder in the UMC, I know that the church has been wrong on its stance on ordaining women as clergy in the past. Many faith traditions continue to refuse to ordain women as clergy using their interpretation of scripture as their reasons. Along with emphasizing that Jesus was male and ALL his disciples were males.

    Well…the church, specifically the UMC, split over the issue of slavery in the US with each side using the interpretation of scripture as their reasons.

    The church, in fact, has been wrong headed in numerous ways. Galileo comes to mind as do the accusations of witchcraft against women and the Inquisitions. All supported by clergy in their interpretation of scripture.

    I do not believe my stance on sexual orientation is hubris. I am not a twenty something year old either.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Well, you’re practically a twenty-something! 😉

      • brentwhite Says:

        In all seriousness, I think in part it’s how you define being wrong. I’ve blogged a few times about slavery and female subordination. We can make a strong biblical case against those. Also, while the church was wrong to burn witches at the stake, we weren’t wrong about witchcraft itself.

  9. Amy B Says:

    The church wasn’t wrong about witchcraft? Please explain.

    • revdrsusant Says:

      Brent and Amy B,

      I think Brent’s comment is a response to my post above. Also, Brent, I am glad that we can agree that burning witches is wrong and that witchcraft is wrong.

      The institution of the church (some of the institutions/polity and scripture interpretation) was wrong about slavery and women ordination, and it is wrong about sexual identity. We disagree on scripture interpretation, and this is the kernel of the divide.

      I am ordained clergy by the UMC, and there are many people in the pews and clergy who believe that my ordination is forced upon them, and they make that clear in many ways. It’s all about scripture interpretation, doctrine and a Book of Disciple that has and can be changed.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Wait, you’re ordained?! Geez, this denomination will ordain anyone! 😉

        We also agree that the church was and is right to oppose the practice of witchcraft. It is at least idolatrous and (as I believe in a realm of angels and demons) may serve as a conduit for grave spiritual harm.

        As you know, Susan, I believe that scripture has clear trajectories away from slavery and subordination of women. If such a trajectory existed for homosexual practice, then I would be on your side of this issue.

      • Julia Soler Says:

        What about “Though shalt not suffer a witch to live?” Does that mean we should execute them, but not by burning?

  10. brentwhite Says:

    Be serious, Julia. My point is that witchcraft is something people ought to avoid.


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