Please don’t patronize us, Dr. Howell

April 6, 2017

The Rev. Dr. James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer, published a popular blog post yesterday about sex, marriage, and sexual sin—the issues that threaten to split our denomination in 2019. He says that his post is “something of a final resort” as an appeal for unity, rather than division.

In response to it, I posted the following on Facebook:

While I appreciate Rev. Howell’s irenic tone here, I would have to “die on that same hill” with Talbot Davis, in part because the apostles in Acts 15 seemed willing to. Or else why include the caveat of verse 20 against porneia [Greek for “sexual immorality”]? And what did porneia mean to the apostles, and does it mean something different today and why?

But even to have that discussion involves exegesis and hermeneutics—and before long we’re knee-deep in a discussion about the authority of scripture. Still, Howell says we’re not really arguing theology. Really? It feels like we are. As much as Howell wants us to listen to one another, I don’t feel “listened to” when he says otherwise. In fact, I feel patronized. But enough about my feelings! Good arguments don’t depend on feelings. (Do they?)

He gives reasons why our disagreement isn’t over an “essential” of Christian faith. But surely he knows that “my side” has a counter argument. Why does he give no evidence that he’s heard it? If he has, surely he wouldn’t resort, for example, to an argument over the Articles of Religion, the General Rules, or Wesley’s sermons. What about the Bible? I don’t think anyone on my side will be persuaded apart from a biblical argument.

But Rev. Howell and I do agree on this: Essentials of the Christian faith are worth splitting over.

I also posted a similar comment on his blog. He wrote this in reply:

But can’t you feel your (and my, we all do it) selectivity? Exegesis couldn’t be clearer regarding what to do with our possessions, or with whom you eat dinner, or whether to accumulate pension funds, etc. We roundly ignore these items or rationalize, don’t we? But then on homosexuality we become literalists?

To which I wrote,

I’m confused, James. Are you saying that you believe the church’s traditional doctrine on sexuality is correct, but, since we fall short in all these other areas, we’re hypocrites to try to follow it?

By all means, the Law can only condemn us. And when it does, we fall on our knees and thank God for the cross of his Son Jesus. We don’t shrug and say something like, “My greed, or my hypocrisy, or my idolatry is no big deal.” It is a big deal; it will send us to hell apart from Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

So do we ignore or rationalize other ways in which we sin? I’m sure we do. We’re terrible sinners, after all. But inasmuch as we become aware of our sin, we repent. And as pastors we teach our flock to do the same.

Do you disagree? Have I misunderstood you?

I want to underscore one point I make above: Despite protests to the contrary, Dr. Howell hasn’t heard me—or people on “my side”—if he doesn’t understand why we believe these issues related to sex are essential to Christian faith. We make this argument from scripture—not from creeds, confessions, or founding documents of our denomination. If the Bible is our ultimate authority that guides faith and practice (which United Methodists say they believe), then it’s no use arguing from lesser authorities.

By the way, the same creeds, confessions, and founding documents that fail to mention sexual sin also fail to mention any number of sins about which Dr. Howell and Methodists on the left wing have also “become literalists.” By Dr. Howell’s logic, should we disregard the Bible’s teaching on immigrants, for example, because we ignore so many other “clear” teachings of scripture? I suspect he would say no.

Because of scripture, we believe that without repentance, the practice of homosexuality—alongside many other sins that all of us have committed—risks excluding us from God’s kingdom eternally. While I don’t expect Dr. Howell to agree with this conviction, I do expect him and my fellow United Methodists who disagree with “my side” to understand what’s at stake for us.

Please don’t patronize us by saying that we’re not really arguing theology or that matters pertaining to (nothing less than) eternal life or death aren’t “essential.”

If you believed what we believe about this or any other sin, you would agree that, in the interest of love, it is essential.

13 Responses to “Please don’t patronize us, Dr. Howell”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Well, I just read Dr. Howell’s post and I must say it’s quite a tour de force in “modernism”. He cherry picks arguments to support his appeal for tolerance, for the sake of tolerance. He refers to “hills one should die on” and includes the authority of Holy Scripture, but then he turns his back on Scripture he doesn’t like.

    I would simply ask, “What are we to do with Paul?” Take the Book 1 Corinthians. Paul opens by pleading for unity. Here I’m sure Howell would say “See, this is what I mean!” But, by Chapter 5 Paul is drilling down on other problems in the church at Corinth, namely sexual immorality. So, what takes precedent? Unity, or Morality? Paul returns to the issue in Romans and elsewhere. It’s not a minor thing with him.

    I don’t think we are at a point where the two sides on the issue of homosexuality can say “live and let live”. The pro homosexuality side has drawn the line too deep. We must now accept and affirm the homosexual lifestyle as normal and as not offensive to God. I simply cannot do that. We cannot have fellowship where one side believes that something is good and the other side believes that it is sin. We would constantly be at odds at the expense of all else, and it would seem better to go our separate ways. This frees both groups to then focus on doing good in world.

    • brentwhite Says:

      The 1 Corinthians 5 passage is PRECISELY on point. I would love to have that conversation with Dr. Howell. Paul, who spoke so much about unity, wasn’t about remaining united in the face of grievous sexual sin. Thanks for reminding us about that.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Agreed. In fact, Paul says not to be deceived, that persons who commit such sins (including homosexuality in the list) will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Pretty essential. Of course, Paul would recognize the roles of repentance, “fighting to overcome,” and mercy. But the point is, none of those things happen when we won’t admit that what we are doing is grievously wrong in the first place. Have to stand firm on that.

    • Bob Harvey Says:

      it’s tough when one side abandons the whole counsel of Scripture and compromises in face of shaming. have you heard of transabled folks, ones who think, despite wholeness of body, they identify as disabled? they actually want medical profession to cut whatever it is that’s keeping them from their true “identity”. the trangender argument resorts to shaming pretty fast calling the opposition haters and phobes. stay true to His word, rev b.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Thanks, Bob. I will. I’ve heard of “transable-ism.” And, yes, if we accept the logic of the transgender movement, on what basis would we say this is wrong? We’ve gone insane as a culture.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yes, insane is right! What will be next? Bestiality?

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree, Tom. The recognition of our sinfulness and the need to repent is about one-half of the gospel!

  3. JM Smith Says:

    I would reject the premise that exegesis is “clear” on the issues my friend James Howell lists in his response to you. At least in the way he is implying. The exegesis of those passages form a wider hermeneutic–which we as a church recognize and stand clearly upon (even if in practice we don’t always live up to them). It is that very same exegetical hermeneutical process which has led Christians throughout all church history to prohibit same-sex sexual acts, in fact.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Oh, I agree… I was granting it for the sake of argument.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I just read your comment on Howell’s blog. I liked it! When Howell says, “we don’t have God 100% figured out just yet,” I agree: Whatever we know about God, we know only because God has revealed it to us. And the one infallible way that God reveals anything to us is through his Word, the Bible.

      What does Howell’s response reveal about his view of the authority of scripture? As always, our belief about the Bible is the main issue that divides us.


      • Absolutely. This has never been about sex. It has always been merely a symptom of our deeper hermeneutical divide in terms of presuppositions. I wish this would come out in the discussion more clearly. There can be no unity when we are not on the same page to begin with in terms of what we actually believe about the nature of both the written and incarnate Logoi.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Liberals don’t respect documents they find inconvenient. They say the Constitution is “a living document” and subject to adjustment to modern norms. They try to do the same with the Holy Bible.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    Man has always been looking for reasons to doubt God, and to run after “other gods”. Let’s be like Joshua:

    And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” Jos 24:15


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