Alas, even Will Willimon “argues about the argument,” too

Who knows whether Bishop Willimon will approve the following comment, which I made in response to a blog post he (and Bishop Ken Carter) wrote in 2013. But my comment summarizes what I wrote on Monday, and goes deeper into the biblical argument, especially Jesus’ words in Matthew 19.

When did we move past the argument concerning homosexual practice and go straight to “we need to acknowledge different biblical interpretations”? All we Methodists do today is argue about the argument. I want to hear the argument itself—from you, Dr. Willimon, if possible. After all, none of these revisionist biblical interpretations occurred to anyone until about 1980 or so. As someone who has been rightly skeptical of the influence of post-Enlightenment thinking in Christian theology, you must have a really strong biblical case to make for full inclusion of sexually active gays and lesbians. Or so I would imagine.

Bishop Carter writes: “At the same time, they often wonder why one particular lifestyle or issue or orientation is singled out for judgment; this present reality is surely not justified by the biblical attention given to homosexuality (in comparison, for example, to divorce and remarriage, or economic justice and poverty).”

How much attention does the Bible give to incest or bestiality? Less than homosexual practice, yet all three practices are condemned in the same context in Leviticus. Speaking of which, what about 1 Corinthians 5 and Paul’s harsh, uncompromising words to the church about condoning the behavior of the man in an incestuous relationship? Paul believed that nothing less than the man’s soul was at stake. Was Paul wrong? Or have we misunderstood him? If so, somebody better make that case or explain why this particular instance of sexual sin would be different (in Paul’s mind) from homosexual practice.

As for our “singling out” this issue for judgment, doesn’t Paul do that in 1 Corinthians 6, where he says that engaging in this behavior without repentance risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom? Again, maybe Paul is wrong, or maybe we’ve misunderstood him, but then so did the brightest Christian minds for two millennia. Why? What do we know that they didn’t? What do we know that the Holy Spirit didn’t know when he guided the authors of scripture to write what they did (assuming we Wesleyan evangelicals can at least agree that the Bible was in some sense guided by the Spirit)?

Moreover, Paul’s words in Romans 1 don’t proof-text Leviticus: As N.T. Wright, among many others has observed, they hark back to Creation itself: From the beginning, God intends for the gift of sex to be practiced only within the context of marriage, which by definition is between a man and a woman.

This emphasis on the complementarity of male and female as one prerequisite for sexual behavior is also affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19 and parallels. Jesus implies that only a bond between two sexually complementary humans can create a “one flesh” union. Logically, this follows from the Creation story in Genesis 2: The man finds only in the woman his missing part (and vice versa). They literally complete one another—in a way that neither a sexual relationship between two men nor two women can.

By this same logic, Paul warns Corinthian men in 1 Corinthians 6 against having sex with prostitutes: Even heterosexual sex with a prostitute, which obviously isn’t “loving, committed, monogamous, covenantal, and lifelong,” creates this “one flesh” bond. Most LGBT-affirming Methodists, by contrast, say that this marital bond depends on qualities associated with a sexual relationship, whether gay or straight. Paul disagrees.

The burden for Willimon and LGBT-affirming United Methodists who affirm the primacy of scripture is to explain why Paul’s words don’t matter.

I’ve heard the pushback from plenty of Methodists: “You can’t take Genesis 1 and 2 literally!” For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s true: Then how do you take it figuratively? Jesus himself says, “God created them male and female,” using two words that, in Hebrew, emphasize sexual characteristics unique to each partner. Even figuratively, how can we interpret Jesus to say that he was only referring to “any two consenting adults”?

Another counterargument, which Bishop Carter would surely endorse, is that the biblical authors didn’t understand homosexuality the way we do today, therefore their words on the subject are time-bound and culturally relative. If that were true, then I’ll leave you and your readers with this thought experiment: Suppose God wanted to tell us that sex and marriage are reserved only for a man and woman; indeed, that homosexual practice, per se, is a sin. How would God tell us that in 2016? What would the Bible have to say that it doesn’t already say? How could the Spirit have guided the authors of scripture such that their words couldn’t be dismissed as hopelessly relative and time-bound?

My fear is that LGBT-affirming Methodists have ruled out the traditional interpretation of scripture before they even begin the task of interpretation.

11 thoughts on “Alas, even Will Willimon “argues about the argument,” too”

  1. The LGBTQ “Christian” community does biblical exegesis like this: (a) I like certain behavior (or at least I don’t want to challenge the people engaging in it); (b) the Bible “on its face” seems to speak against that behavior; ergo (c) the Bible must be “reinterpreted” so that it does not “really” condemn what I like to do (or, about which I don’t want to “offend” the participants). Whereas, the true Christian community says after (a) and (b), “ergo, (c) I guess I need to change my behavior, regardless of how much I like it (or how loathe I am to speak out against it).

    1. My career would be a little less bumpy if I didn’t speak out against it! But what else can I do?

      I just hope that the fine folks at WordPress don’t decide that posts like this one are “hate speech” and need to be deleted.

      1. “Be instant in season and out of season.” “Blessed are you when men shall persecute you and say all manner of evil things against you falsely, for great is your reward in heaven.” Keep up the good work! “Work for the night is coming, when no man shall work.”

  2. Also, I like your reference to bestiality. Just mentioned one time, right? Yet no one (to date, anyway) doubts that such behavior is wrong and should not be engaged in.

    1. Right, and they would surely go to Leviticus 18 and 20 to make the argument, the exact same context in which homosexual behavior is condemned. So the Bible is right about one thing and not the other.

      1. This would all be easier to swallow, bobbob, if someone like Willimon, along with so many other Methodist revisionists, didn’t say that they believe in the “primacy” of scripture. In what sense is that true if you don’t take seriously the kinds of arguments we conservatives make?

  3. We are losing the “culture war”, precisely because we have allowed this kind of loose “interpretation” of Scripture. However, Scripture also says that this is going to happen:

    2 Timothy 3:1-5 ESV

    “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”

    Or Jesus himself in Matthew 24. How can you read that and not see what is happening right now?

    Or, Isaiah 5. Which, among other things says:

    “Woe to wthose who call evil good
    and good evil,……”

    No, God has made things pretty clear in the Scriptures. Things will not end well for mankind in this age.

    Therefore, I am not surprised by the collapse in our culture.Perhaps the end is nearer than we think…..

    But, Hold Fast Brent! You’re “a voice crying out in the wilderness”.

    1. I believe also Paul referenced a “falling away” (as many churches are doing today), and 2 Peter similarly predicts bad times at the end (to the best of my recollection without looking it up). Clearly scripture teaches a “downhill run” at the end of time (figuratively spoken of as Satan being released for “a short time” in Revelation, according to Harkins exegesis). So, I agree with Grant that “the end is nearer than we think.” I can hardly wait, though unfortunately I am not overly excited as to going through “what it takes to get there.” Like a woman in labor, in great pain at the end, but when she sees the child, it is worth all of it. (Another biblical picture.)

      1. inasmuch as this question, how to love sinners to Jesus in a season where sin by and large is not called sin unless it goes against the morality du jour, continues to vex some in His church, it is still our primary purpose. There are lots of folks coming to faith in His resurrection, but lots more tuning out.
        Remember Steve Taylor’s question: whatever happened to sin?

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