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.