Please note: Whenever I write about the divisive issue of the UMC’s doctrine on sexuality, I do so as a sinner who stands in solidarity with my fellow sinners, regardless of the sins with which they struggle. As for me, I struggle with any number of misdirected desires that tempt me to sin. As I become aware of sin in my life, I confess, repent, and do my best—by the power of the Spirit—to change. And when I do, I’m deeply grateful that our Lord is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”—a promise that holds for all penitent sinners.
My point is, like every other human being, I’m a sinner who needs God’s grace and mercy at every moment. And like all who seek to be faithful to Jesus, I am a work in progress.
A sermon in 2013 by a United Methodist pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, named Wade Griffith has received much publicity recently and was the basis of a lengthy thread on Facebook last weekend, of which I was part.
In the sermon, Griffith argues, contrary to the unanimous consensus of almost two millennia’s worth of Christian reflection on the subject, that homosexual practice isn’t sinful. He spends most of his sermon arguing that our church’s traditional doctrine regarding human sexuality is the case of arbitrarily picking-and-choosing what we follow in scripture. For example, he cites a number of seemingly strange-sounding laws, found mostly in Leviticus, and wonders aloud why we Christians don’t follow these today.
He’s making, in other words, the classic “shellfish” argument: We Christians eat shellfish today (or do any number of things that contradict Mosaic law), therefore we’re being inconsistent in upholding the Bible’s prohibition against homosexual practice.
But he goes further: It isn’t only Old Testament laws we disregard. What about all those weird instructions that Paul gives, for example, about women covering their heads and remaining silent in church or men worshiping by “lifting up holy hands”? Or what about Paul’s acceptance of slavery?
Why do we reject the Bible’s clear instructions or commands in these areas, yet continue to believe that homosexual practice is wrong? As he says, “What is it in you that makes you want to make this [i.e., the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual practice] the whole Bible, or these verses, but you get to ignore the things that relate to you and your lifestyle?”
While I’m unaware of anyone making the church’s stance against homosexual practice “the whole Bible,” the answer to the question, for him, can only be bigotry or self-righteousness. “Did you already have an opinion, then you went to the Bible to find some ammo?” “Does it help our self-esteem to say, ‘At least I’m not like that person’?”
His characterization of defenders of the church’s historic position is uncharitable, to say the least.
It also gives the lie to his conciliatory words at the beginning of the sermon—that this is a difficult issue on which Christians of good faith can “agree to disagree.” Now, he seems to say, if you disagree, it’s probably because you’re homophobic—or you lack compassion or empathy. Or—I get this a lot—homosexuality hasn’t affected you personally. He implies that as soon as a child of ours comes out gay, we will, of course, change our tune.
But suppose we defenders of orthodox doctrine aren’t merely bigots or Pharisees. Suppose, instead, we have good exegetical and hermeneutical reasons to believe that the Bible’s words against homosexual practice aren’t time-bound and culturally relative, but are meant to apply to us today?
Christopher Wright, for one, in this Christianity Today piece, offers three reasons:
First, as I note in “Learning to Love Leviticus,” we no longer keep the food laws because the separation they symbolized (between Israelites and Gentiles in the Old Testament) is no longer relevant in Christ. But the ethical principles embodied in Old Testament laws on sexual relations (positive and negative) remain constant and are reaffirmed by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.
Second, the argument would reduce the Bible to absurdity. The Ten Commandments come in the same book that commanded Israel not to climb the mountain. If we are told that we cannot with consistency disapprove of same-sex activity unless we also stop eating shellfish, then we should not condemn theft and murder unless we also ban mountaineering.
Third, and most important, the biblical discussion of homosexual behaviour begins not in Leviticus, as if the whole argument depends on how we interpret a single Old Testament law. When Jesus was asked about divorce, he would not let the argument get stuck around the interpretation of the law. Instead he took the issue back to Genesis. That is where we find the foundational biblical teaching about God’s purpose in creating human sexual complementarity—and it is very rich. It reflects God—male and female together being made in God’s image—and it provides the necessary togetherness and equality in the task of procreating and ruling the earth. This God-given complementarity is so important that God explains how it is to be joyfully celebrated and exercised—the union of marriage that is heterosexual, monogamous, nonincestuous, socially visible and affirmed, physical, and permanent (Gen. 2:24, endorsed by Jesus).
I want to amplify Wright’s third point: The biblical discussion of homosexual behavior isn’t simply about Leviticus and a few scattered verses; it’s much deeper than that. When Jesus talks about divorce he looks back to the Creation account of Genesis 1-2: God created us male and female for one another. God takes a part of Adam to form Eve. When Adam and Eve are sexually united, what does Adam say? “At last! This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). With apologies to Jerry Maguire-haters out there, it’s as if Adam were saying, “You complete me.” Only through the sexually differentiated woman can the man find—quite literally, in the story—his missing part. Therefore, the complementarity of male and female, as expressed in the order of Creation, is one divine prerequisite for sexual activity.
Paul’s argument against homosexual practice in Romans 1 also doesn’t depend on a couple of verses in Leviticus; he, too—as has been noted by N.T. Wright, among others—looks back to Genesis and the “foundational biblical teaching about God’s purpose in creating human sexual complementarity.”
Unfortunately, Griffith never bothers to wrestle with Paul’s words against homosexual practice, in Romans 1 or elsewhere. He just lumps them together with Paul’s words about men “lifting holy hands” when they pray, implying that these directives are morally equivalent—as if Paul were meaning to say that our failure to lift holy hands is a grievous sin.
But who cares about Paul, anyway? After all, Griffith says, “Moses is good. Paul’s good. But Jesus is God.” Therefore, the red-letter words of Jesus are what really matter. And since there aren’t any directly related to homosexual practice, Griffith says the following:
One of the things that we all have to acknowledge is that apparently Jesus didn’t care about this [i.e., homosexual practice]. So the extent that we care about it means that we are out of step with Jesus… It was controversial then as it is now, but he didn’t address it.
This is the classic argument from silence, albeit an unusually aggressive one.
To show how foolish this argument is, let me try it from my point of view. I wrote the following on the Facebook thread:
We know from contemporaneous non-biblical witnesses, such as Philo and Josephus, that homosexual practice was condemned in the strongest terms in first-century Judaism. Jesus’ silence could more easily be interpreted as an endorsement of the status quo. After all, he spoke out against divorce when he disagreed with his culture’s status quo. Besides, Jesus is also silent on bestiality and incest, which are condemned in the same Levitical context as homosexual practice. Surely his silence in those cases shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement, right?
Surely Griffith wouldn’t say that Jesus didn’t care about incest and bestiality because he didn’t mention them!
No, Jesus likely didn’t mention homosexual practice because, contrary to Griffith’s assertion, it wasn’t controversial back then. The people in Jesus’ audience already knew that this behavior was sinful. What should Jesus have said? “I know you believe that homosexual behavior is sinful, but let me tell you: it really is!” That’s preposterous.
Paul, by contrast, was living and ministering within the wider Greco-Roman world, within a culture not unlike ours when it comes to sexual libertinism. In this context, it would be important for Paul to speak against the status quo and remind his fellow Christians that homosexual practice was a serious sin.
I’ve responded to nearly all of Griffith’s ideas in previous posts on this blog. See, for instance, my response to this similar, though more gracious, Adam Hamilton sermon from 2012.
But there was one idea he expressed that was new to me: that Jesus’ words in John 16:12-13 (“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…”) mean that the Holy Spirit can reveal something to us today that will directly contradict what the Spirit revealed to the inspired writers of scripture.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve read plenty of Christian thinkers who’ve said that the Spirit is showing us something new regarding homosexual practice. But never that this belief could be justified by Jesus’ words in John 16.
So by Griffith’s logic, Jesus knew two thousand years ago that we couldn’t handle the truth that two men or two women having sex with one another was—far from being sinful, as both Testaments affirm—actually a blessed gift from God. Or, by some theory of kenosis, was Jesus merely a product of his bigoted culture who didn’t know this—in which case, how can we trust anything he says?
Regardless, God knew that this idea was so radical that it couldn’t be revealed to the world—at least the wealthy industrialized part—until the sexual revolution of the late twentieth century, at which point the Holy Spirit would make it clear to us—not through the objective, Spirit-inspired words of holy scripture, but through the subjective, untestable intuitions of a relatively small handful of Christians whose best argument for overturning the unanimous verdict of nearly two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject is, “But it feels wrong!”
Still, Griffith would say, Jesus has “many more things to say to us,” and the fact that we were wrong about homosexual practice happens to be one of them. Thus, as one clergy acquaintance said on Facebook last weekend, he’s confident that the Spirit has revealed this new truth to him, that homosexual sex is not merely not sinful but blessed by God—even though that same Spirit, two thousand years earlier, said something else to other Christians, who then wrote it down in holy scripture.
Do you see how this calls into question the authority of scripture?
By Griffith’s logic, Christ knew that we’d have to wait almost two thousand years before we could handle the truth about homosexuality, so Christ didn’t say anything about it. Therefore, Griffith would say, the Holy Spirit waited.
But the Spirit didn’t wait, did he? Because within 20 years of Jesus’ words in John 16, this same Spirit—the very Spirit of Christ, who makes Christ present to us, who reminds us of Christ’s teaching and how to apply it to our lives—inspired Paul to tell us through scripture that homosexual behavior contradicts God’s intentions for humanity.
Did the Spirit not know back then, when Paul was writing the so-called “clobber verses,” how confusing Paul’s words would later prove to be for Christians? Couldn’t the Spirit at least have had Paul remain silent on the subject? Or did the Holy Spirit really have so little to do with producing the canon of scripture?
Contrary to Griffith’s interpretation, the orthodox interpretation of Jesus’ words in John 16 is that the Spirit would safeguard what the apostles and authors of the New Testament would later write down in scripture. For one expression of the orthodox position, read John Wesley’s commentary on John 16:12:
I have yet many things to say – Concerning my passion, death, resurrection, and the consequences of it. These things we have, not in uncertain traditions, but in the Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation. But ye cannot bear them now – Both because of your littleness of faith, and your immoderate sorrow.
He ends his sermon—I kid you not—by comparing people like me (and Pope Francis?) to white people in Alabama a couple of generations ago who supported Jim Crow laws.
But didn’t he begin his sermon telling his congregation that this issue was a “non-essential” of the faith about which Christians of good will can agree to disagree? If people on my side of the issue are as bad as he says, I might refer him to MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
For further understanding of how we Christians ought to understand Old Testament laws, let me introduce you to Horus, the Egyptian sun god, courtesy of my friends at Lutheran Satire: