In a post last week, I began examining Adam Hamilton’s latest salvo in his effort to change our United Methodist doctrine on sexuality. I wrote mostly about the way he conflates the Bible’s words about slavery and women with homosexual behavior. He argues that traditionalists like me are bound to be inconsistent in our interpretation of scripture if we nevertheless oppose slavery and support women in ordained ministry. Hamilton’s argument is a kinder, gentler spin on the popular “shellfish argument.”
As I said in my earlier post, however, before revisionists like Hamilton accuse my side of inconsistency, they might look in the mirror: If they reject what the Bible says about homosexual practice, on what basis do they affirm what the Bible says about anything related to sexual behavior?
Needless to say, if this question occurred to Hamilton, he doesn’t address it. In fact, notice the seemingly high-minded way he criticizes both conservatives and progressives in our current dispute. I suspect that the following two paragraphs are an attempt by Hamilton—a “centrist” on the issue—to stake out middle ground between two extremes:
Conservatives on this issue (by the way, one can be progressive on a host of issues, yet conservative on this issue, and likewise one can be conservative on a host of issues yet progressive on same-gender marriage) base their views of the incompatibility of same-gender relationships on a particular way of reading the Bible, which in turn is based upon a particular, but often inconsistently held, way of understanding what the Bible is and how God speaks through it.
Progressives on this issue, likewise, base their willingness to embrace same-gender relationships as acceptable to God on a certain way of reading the Bible, one that is also based upon a particular, but not always clearly articulated, way of understanding what the Bible is and how God speaks through it.
If you were a neutral observer, knowing nothing about the issue, which would you rather be—a conservative or a progressive? After all, we conservatives are “often” inconsistent in our view of scripture, whereas progressives are “not always clearly” articulate about their view. The problem with progressives, in other words, is not that they’re ever wrong, but that they don’t communicate very well.
Hamilton’s blog post aims to remedy that situation.
To that end, he devotes some paragraphs to our understanding of the inspiration of scripture. I’m sure he says more about this in a recent book in which he introduced his “three buckets” hermeneutic. But he says a lot about it here that merits consideration.
On the issue of same gender acts, [the Bible’s authors] wrote based upon their understanding of human sexuality, in the light of the prevailing same-gender practices of their time.
What were the “prevailing same-gender practices” that the Bible’s authors were writing against? In a series of rhetorical questions, he offers clues. Here’s the first one:
Do Moses’ words commanding that men who lie with men should be put to death express the heart of God towards them?
There are a number sins that merit the death penalty in the Old Testament—including sins that many of us have committed, whether they include homosexual sex or not. Whether or to what extent these death sentences were actually imposed in ancient Israel, the only true theocracy that has ever existed, is interesting but beside the point. The point is, the sentence itself is just, even as (we hope) mercy will often rise above justice.
Besides, all of us humans have already received the death penalty for our sins. We will all die, after all, and when we do, it will ultimately be because of our sin. Isn’t this the clear teaching of Genesis 2-3?
To suggest, as Hamilton does, that this just penalty for our sin—any sin—fails to “express the heart of God,” makes the gospel incomprehensible.
The starting point of the Good News of Jesus Christ is Bad News. We all deserve death. We all deserve God’s judgment. We all deserve God’s wrath. We all deserve hell.
In nearly the same breath, however, I need to say, “Nevertheless…” God loved us too much to simply leave us in that helpless condition, and so he implemented a rescue plan for humanity, which meant that God himself, the Word made flesh, would suffer and die in our place.
For the sake of argument, suppose Hamilton conceded that the unanimous opinion of almost two-thousand years’ worth of reflection on scripture was correct, and that God really is telling us through his Word that homosexual behavior per se is a serious sexual sin of which we must repent or risk being excluded permanently from God’s kingdom. Given that ancient Israel was, uniquely, a theocracy whose criminal penalties are no longer binding (as Jesus himself demonstrates with the woman caught in adultery in John 8:2-11), would Hamilton still say that the death penalty was, even in the context in which these penalties were originally prescribed, unjustified?
In other words, did the death penalty fail to “express God’s heart” even in its original context?
I’m guessing that Hamilton would say that it didn’t express God’s heart. In which case the Bible’s authors didn’t merely get it wrong on what Hamilton refers to elsewhere as “five or six verses about homosexuality”; they got it wrong on hundreds, if not thousands, of verses!
If so, what’s left of one’s doctrine of scripture and its inspiration?
I’ll say more about that later.