Jesus didn’t care about homosexual practice, says UMC pastor, so why should we?

February 2, 2015
UMC pastor Wade Griffith (photo courtesy AL.com)

UMC pastor Wade Griffith (photo courtesy AL.com)

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:

14 Responses to “Jesus didn’t care about homosexual practice, says UMC pastor, so why should we?”

  1. bthomas Says:

    Thank you for this very helpful post.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    As might be expected, I agree with this. One cautionary note, however. There probably are some NEW Testament directives that we generally do not follow today, such as “women in church” passages. So, to be consistent, we have to show that there is some scriptural warrant for us to not do so as to those, just as we explain why we can now eat shellfish. Not saying that this cannot be done, but we may find ourselves (assuming we want to argue “not binding” in the first instance, as some do not) appealing to “that was in a First Century context.” So, we may find that we cannot necessarily say, “historical context” is out of bounds in determining “what’s normative today”–rather, as I think you point out in part, homosexuals are simply incorrect as to the “state of the world” being different now than then, so there is actually no basis for a contention of one rule to follow then and a different one now. Or, we might attempt to prove that critics misinterpret those Pauline passages. But we may still be called upon to do something like this to refute the “things are different now” rationale of homosexual advocates.

  3. Josh Says:

    Those arguments the pastor presents are so old they smell like mothballs. They have been answered for a long time in thoughtful ways that more than adequately answer all the ways to properly address homosexual behavior and minister to people who struggle with them. Whenever someone throws them at me now I just look at them with the “C’mon man” look. It’s time to move on.

    I read the interview that the pastor gave with a local newspaper and his views makes no sense. Apparently, he thinks that God is cool with men having sex with other men and women having sex with other women . . . but when it comes to the issue of whether he would choose to violate the Discipline and marry two people of the same sex, he says “I don’t know . . . I want to stay with the Methodist church . . . we’ll see.” So, he’s convinced himself that people can have sex with the someone of the same gender but he’s not sure about marrying them? C’mon man . . .

    • brentwhite Says:

      Nice insight, Josh. I guess Rev. Griffith, like so many of my clergy colleagues, thinks he can bide his time until the UMC changes its doctrine.

      As I point out in the last couple of paragraphs, however, I can’t see how this willingness to “agree to disagree” is consistent with his strong words. That’s why I referred to “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: at least MLK understood that the time for idly waiting for change had passed! If Griffith believes his own arguments that our church is currently sinning through its mistreatment of LGBT people (remember the “colored water fountain” analogy?), as he implies that they are, how can he continue to deny marriage to gay people? What has he accomplished by preaching a sermon when he continues to subsidize and endorse an institution that causes so much harm to so many—even leading young people to suicide?

      Talk is cheap! If all he does is talk about it, how is he not continuing to “drink from the ‘colored’ water fountain”?

      Man, I wish you could have seen the long Facebook thread that inspired me to write this post. Talk about frustrating! A clergy colleague didn’t deny the strength of my arguments—and practically conceded the biblical case—before saying that I was approaching this issue like it were merely an “intellectual exercise.” He accused me of having no experience with gay people—unlike him.

      It’s an “intellectual exercise” if I use reason and logic instead of ad hominem attacks on people’s character? Unbelievable.

      • Josh Says:

        Yeah, I know. Reason is utilized by some as an authority on “3 Legged Stool” . . . at least until it goes against what they’re trying to push on others. Folks have been saying more and more that there is no sense in having the sort of “holy conferencing” that we are called to do time and time again and I agree. There’s no sense in talking anymore. I have seen evangelicals/conservatives/traditionalists honestly deal and wrestle with the arguments posed by progressives/liberals and it be met with ad hominem, non-rational, disrespectful replies time and time again. We’ve reached a point where it is pointless to talk (probably reached it a long time ago).
        The president of Asbury (Tennant) recently posted a blog saying that it is time to move on and stop attempts at renewal. It’s time to let people who want to do mission the Wesleyan way go and do it without the baggage and hindrances of the UMC. I have come to the point where I agree wholeheartedly.
        I’ve been serving as a student-pastor for seven years and I’ve personally seen where the incompetence and bad thinking/ecclesiology has hurt people and hindered mission. It’s hard to do mission and worry that the people over you are going to wreck it with poor decisions.
        It took me over seven years to help my churches heal from bad choices by denominational leadership and actually do mission. I will be graduating soon and I just don’t think I have it in me to go through that again. The apostle Paul cursed people who preached “another gospel” (and let’s face it, another gospel is being promoted in the UMC – one based on Western assumptions and shoddy thinking). We’ve only got one life to live and I don’t waste it trying to save an institution or church buildings.
        Sorry for the rant . . . this crap gets old.

  4. bobbob Says:

    again i paraphrase my pastor Dr Dave Whittaker: our mission is not to change the morals of Morgan Hill but to bring people into meaningful dynamic relationship with the resurrected Jesus. To hijack their eternity! And to use words if necessary. The Holy Spirit will work on what needs changing. The Bible is clear on these points: what is right, what our duties are, and the responsibility of the Spirit.

  5. victorgalipi Says:

    Jesus declared all foods clean, according to Mk 7:19. That’s why I gratefully eat shellfish!

    Rather than get into details of Scriptures about other matters, such as slavery and women being silent in church, I’ll just say that I find Bible revisionists disingenuously use these arguments to justify their politically correct pet sins.

    Reading the whole Bible in context rather than prooftexting to promote an agenda will clearly show that Paul was talking to certain women in a certain context, and that Paul was actually much more against slavery than they claim as a reading of Philemon will show.

    Besides, even if they were right, though I am certain they are not, two or three wrongs don’t make a right.

    I am sick of the tired old comparison between the rights of blacks and the rights of homosexuals.

    People are born black. People are not born homosexual and there is no proof otherwise, just the fuzzy science of political correctness and an emphasis on human experience rather than Scripture. There is no such thing as homosexual orientation. What kind of God would create someone to do and be something that is sinful, then tell them not to do it? That is a sick view of God.

    Being black is not a sin. Being homosexual is a sin. The Bible is clear about this. Jesus Christ said all He needed to say about homosexuality when He quoted the Book of Genesis “and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Mt 19:5).

    Something that seems to go unnoticed is the fact that Jesus Christ is God and thus He is the Author of the entire word of God, not just His own spoken words in the Gospels. Moses, Paul and others were inspired by The Spirit of Jesus when they wrote that homosexuality is a sin. So actually Jesus Christ had plenty to say about homosexuality.

    Best of all, He tells us through the Apostle Paul that that while homosexuality, along with other sins, keeps us out of the Kingdom of God, it doesn’t have to be that way. We can, and we must, repent of our sins and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we do it is said of us: “Such were [past tense] some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

    Thanks be to God!

    • brentwhite Says:

      I mostly agree, except that the issue, as I’m always careful to distinguish, is homosexual behavior, not the state of experiencing same-sex attraction. I’m sure there are a whole host of interesting reasons that people experience same-sex attraction, and I’m sure many do so exclusively. People who struggle with SSA deserve our compassion. But it isn’t compassionate or loving to tell someone who does that acting on their SSA is fine, when God’s Word clearly teaches that is a serious sin.

      I believe SSA can, in many cases, be healed. But even where it can’t, everyone has the freedom of choice to act on it. That’s the issue. The way of discipleship is difficult for all of us. What are we to say? Christ may demand we lay down our lives but not our sex lives?

      • victorgalipi Says:

        Brent, I agree that attractions or temptations are distinct from behavior. What I’m talking about is the false idea that homosexuals are born that way so what they do is okay, what I’m talking about is “homosexual orientation”.
        We don’t talk about people having an adultery orientation or a fornication orientation.

        When we concede the idea of homosexual orientation, we concede a justification to sin. We end up with things like our ridiculous Discipline statement about not ordaining “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals”, with the result that as long as people don’t use the exact words “I am a self-avowed practicing homosexual”, they can be ordained. Or maybe they just get ordained anyway now.

        The false idea of homosexual orientation is just another way homosexuality is given a “most favored sin” status, and it just makes things more complicated and confused than they would be if we would just reject this very recent and unproven idea outright.

        But you are right. It is a matter of choice, the choice is whether to obey and God and His word or not.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I see what you mean. “Most favored sin” status is right. And, yes, the language in the Discipline is ridiculous.


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