Why don’t “affirming” UMs simply admit that Jesus and the Bible are wrong?

The biggest theological celebrity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson, supports overturning the unanimous verdict of two millennia’s worth of Christian reflection on the subject of homosexuality.

Does he do so because his scholarly research has shown him that St. Paul was referring only to non-consensual, exploitative, and idolatrous homosexual relationships? Or that Jesus’ “silence” on the subject was tacit approval? Or that, when it comes to condemning same-sex sexual relationships, most Christians are guilty of unprincipled picking-and-choosing?

Not at all.

In fact, Dr. Johnson, in a 2007 essay in Commonweal, agrees with people like me that the Bible condemns homosexual practice unambiguously. “The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.”

In other words, Johnson says, the Bible got it wrong. Since “the Bible got it wrong” is the unchallenged presupposition of most theological and biblical education at my alma mater, Johnson’s position is hardly newsworthy. Since Johnson is relatively conservative, however, believing, for example, that Paul is the author even of the disputed Pauline letters and being an outspoken opponent of the “Jesus Seminar” movement, his affirmation of same-sex sexual behavior—at least for the reasons he gives—is surprising.

To his small credit, though, at least he doesn’t perform exegetical gymnastics to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say.

And writer Brandon Ambrosino also deserves some credit for making a similar point in his new article: Of course Jesus believed that homosexual practice was a sin!

Revisionist hermeneutics can seem pretty silly when we consider who Jesus was. Jesus, a first-century Jewish theologian, would almost certainly have held the traditional Jewish belief about same-sex relations—that is, he would have believed such sexual activity was sinful. Had Jesus departed significantly from Jewish tradition on this front, we can be sure that his disagreement would have been recorded (just like his reconsideration of divorce or his new interpretation of adultery). None of his biographers include a single instance of Jesus challenging the mainstream Jewish understanding of homosexuality, and Jesus more than once affirmed a male-female pattern of coupling as the proper domestic arrangement; it’s safe to conclude, then, that Christ would have agreed with the Levitical assessment of homosexuality as a sin. Any confusion about this seems motivated by contemporary politics, not ancient history.


Ambrosino is happy to concede, however, that Jesus is simply wrong, a product of his first-century Jewish culture and upbringing. This, he says, shouldn’t be a problem for us Christians—after all, as a “devout gay Christian who confesses both the divinity of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures,” he has no problem with it.

Nevertheless, in a Facebook post this week, Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at the mainline Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts the problem in sharp relief:

Contrary to what Ambrosino suggests, Jesus’ position on the male-female matrix for marriage was not an offhand comment or an undigested morsel of his first-century Jewish cultural environment. Nor did Jesus view the matter as ancillary to Christian faith. He treated this as part of the foundation of creation upon which all sexual ethics is based. He predicated on the God-intentioned duality and complementarity of the sexes a principle about number: There should be a duality of number in the sexual union matching the duality of the sexes required for that union. In other words, the twoness of the sexes in creation, obviously designed for sexual union, is a self-evident indication of the Creator’s will for the twoness of the sexual bond.

In my experience, I have yet to see one of my fellow UMC clergy who want to change our doctrine take seriously the implications of Jesus’ words about marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. But few of them would say that Jesus is simply wrong.

But if he’s right, how many would be willing to revise their revisionism?

10 thoughts on “Why don’t “affirming” UMs simply admit that Jesus and the Bible are wrong?”

    1. I suspect that, in a way, the man committing incest in 1 Corinthians 5 had “more in common” with Paul, theologically, than what separated him from Paul, yet read Paul’s response. United Methodist leaders who are working to change our doctrine on this subject are making a tragically misguided, indeed sinful, mistake. This is not a matter of theological indifference to me. How could it be, when scripture warns that unrepentant same-sex sexual behavior risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom?

      By all means, I would be interested in hearing your biblical reasons for changing our doctrine.

      1. I’m sure you know, then, that the compound word “arsenokoitai” is coined from two Greek roots found in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22, with which Paul and his audience were familiar. In this context Paul is clearly referring to male homosexuals—especially in light of its use next to “malekoi.” These are the active and passive partners of male homosexual sex. There was no ambiguity about the meaning of this word for almost 2,000 years, and you’re asking us to believe that Christians in the early church, who actually knew koine Greek and their cultural context better than we moderns do, also misunderstood Paul’s meaning.

        Moreover, the Bible isn’t translated by “a translator,” but by Greek and Hebrew scholars who know these ancient languages better than any of us who read websites on our smartphones. Even the most progressive modern translation, the NRSV, whose translators had no obvious axe to grind, fails to translate these words differently. Are they all wrong?

        One of those scholars, Luke Timothy Johnson, who nevertheless maintains that the church should change its doctrine on sexuality, believes that your fanciful reinterpretation is full of hot air. He knows his subject matter better than either of us.

  1. There are no biblical reasons for changing our teaching.

    Jesus loves sinners: He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. We must assume He loves the sinner and celebrates the sin. Zachaeus and the woman caught in adultery come to mind.

    Ah!!, the argument goes: we’ve come a long way, baby. Our present scientific knowledge and the existence of monogamous, committed same-sex partners were unknown in bible times. How can we deprive a woman or man the love of her/his life? This is the snake oil peddled by Adam Hamilton and the party of inclusion.

    Homosexuality in its 21st cent. form did not exist back then. I have no idea what this means; perhaps they did not have condoms and saran wrap back then.

    Of course, the science we have today clearly and unambiguously holds that homosexuality is not innate.

    But how can we deny love? One thing for sure, “love” as practiced today, the neurotic, narcissistic co-dependent silliness our culture celebrates, most surely was not considered love in ages past.

    Which of the forms of love: agape, phileo, storge or eros describes same-sex relationships?


    1. Yes, shouldn’t it be demeaning to homosexuals to say that no gays or lesbians prior to around 1973 figured out how to love one another in a lifelong, committed, monogamous way? Of course, even among gay men today who get “married,” monogamy is seldom practiced. Churches that affirm homosexual practice under certain conditions today will be affirming non-monogamy soon enough. They might also wonder why the divorce rate (around 30 percent among heterosexuals) will be 70 or 80 percent among lesbians. Again, affirming churches must take all this in stride. What choice will they have? Jesus “accepted” everyone without asking anyone to change. Zacchaeus, for example, kept on exploiting the poor, just like before. Didn’t he?

  2. Brent your posts are very well written, researched and presented. I do not have your training or wisdom in His word.

    For me it all boils down to if you believe acting upon your homosexual desires is a sin. I have great compassion for all those that struggle with sin. While no sin is greater than another, we as fallen men and women try to apply degrees to our activities and it seems that if “no-one gets hurt” or the activity makes one feel good it is acceptable. As men we will go to great lengths to justify our sinful behavior.

    This is a topic in our culture today, but homosexual desire and behavior has existed through time. Our culture has become so accepting of everything, not wanting to offend anyone, that the time has come that things once considered a sin by God and man can be questioned and changed. Those intent on disrupting Gods plan can manipulate man into justifying sin.

    My daughter, who believes in same-sex marriage, asked me why my religious beliefs were going against an equality – human rights issue. Was Christ not the greatest of all human rights advocates, does Christianity promote equality in Christ? YES! on both counts.

    Are those willing to change the actual words, intent or interpretation of the Bible focusing on their earthly desires and pleasures instead of storing up treasures in heaven?

    1. Thanks. I’ve read plenty of Christians who’ve applied this “no one gets hurt” standard to homosexual behavior in order to say that if they can’t “see” any harm in it, then it must not be a sin. This is dangerous nonsense on many levels. Engaging in any behavior that’s contrary to our nature and contrary to God’s intentions for us is spiritually harmful. But living a gay lifestyle is harmful in many other ways, as statistics related to mental illness, drug abuse, suicide, infectious diseases, and life expectancy bear out.

  3. View from the pew: I read this post yesterday and have been thinking about it ever since in conjunction with some other things I have noticed. And you are on to something crucial. I have spent quite a bit of time monitoring this “discussion” on the internet and you make a very valid point. Liberal/progressives do biblical interpretive gymnastics to prove their point. and when it comes to Jesus they rest their argument on what he did not say. But I have never ever heard anybody specifically state that Jesus and the Bible are wrong! I have also, within the last month tripped across two supposedly liberal UMC clergy who acknowledge that their beliefs are fuzzy compared to the written history of orthodox Christianity–the most recent literally used the word fuzzy. Just this past week the local pastor who has shown very distinct liberal leanings while presenting an orthodox side was forced to break his silence on the Supreme Court decision with a written statement: he owned up to his own strong and personal convictions on the matter which he would be happy to share one on one but never from the pulpit because the issue is too divisive. He ended with a request that we respect each other’s opinions; now lets move on with the business of loving each other. Although initially frustrated with this non-statement, I am now viewing his statement from the perspective of what he did not say about orthodox belief–he did not endorse it, yet he did not slam it. I truly believe this battle is far from over and the liberal progressives do not have a leg to stand on; why else has no one within the church been able to come right out and say “The Bible and Jesus are wrong!”?

    1. Betsy, do these clergy have blogs? Maybe I’ve read them, too. I’ve had my share of arguments with a few of them. Yesterday, I argued with a UMC blogger (not ordained, but UMC seminary educated) who tried to argue that sexual sin doesn’t pertain to “orthodoxy” as he defines it—because it’s not mentioned in the Nicene Creed—so why should we divide over it? I said I don’t care whether it’s a question of orthodoxy—it’s a question of salvation, since engaging in unrepentant sin like this risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom, per 1 Cor 6. I also asked if he thought Paul would have wanted the Corinthian church to stay “united” if the unity came at the expense of disobeying Paul and tolerating the behavior of the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5? He didn’t answer except to accuse me of “so much bad theology.” But why? 1 Corinthians 5 is exactly on point! I told him that, agree or disagree, he should appreciate that this is why “people like me” don’t see sexuality as an issue about which we can remain indifferent. Appeals to orthodoxy are a red herring.

      Ugh! The truth is, some of these people are embracing a form of Christianity I don’t even recognize.

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