Posts Tagged ‘homosexuality’

Why Adam Hamilton is still wrong (Part 2)

May 6, 2016

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.

Why Adam Hamilton is still wrong (Part 1)

April 28, 2016

In these days leading up to our United Methodist Church’s General Conference, many Methodist clergy who support changing our Book of Discipline‘s still-orthodox doctrine on sexuality and marriage have become increasingly vocal on blogs and church-related websites. None is more high profile than mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City.

When Hamilton first publicly stated in a 2012 sermon that he now supports changing our doctrine, I wrote about it.

He doesn’t make any new arguments in a blog post he published yesterday, except his tone is more assertive. In his 2012 sermon, he seemed almost circumspect as he shared his testimony about his “conversion” on the subject, after years of towing the traditionalist line. Today, by contrast, he’s far more confident, encouraging his fellow revisionists to hold our denomination together for just ten more years, after which this will become “a non-issue, as even most evangelical young adults in the United Methodist Church see this issue differently from their 40- and 50- and 60-year-old parents and grandparents.”

I suppose, as a 46-year-old theologically conservative evangelical, I should be insulted: What would today’s Methodist teenager or 20-something know about human sexuality that the rest of us don’t? And why should their opinion hold sway? Do they have a biblical case to make on the subject that we haven’t considered before? As even Hamilton would concede—I think—the argument for changing our doctrine must be rooted in scripture.

Maybe Hamilton will get around to making a biblical argument. There’s no evidence of one here.

Instead, he argues about our understanding of the Bible itself. First, he describes a recent letter he received from a group of conservative United Methodists in Nebraska urging him, as a delegate to General Conference, to resist the pressure to change our Discipline. They said, “We believe that the Holy Bible is God’s Word, and that His Word is unchanging.”

Hamilton writes:

These fellow United Methodists seem to be stating that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word, and that it should be applied without question today because “His Word is unchanging.”  But I don’t believe this is actually how they approach Scripture.  Nor is it the way Christians have generally approached Scripture across the last two millennia.

First, let me say that unlike Hamilton, I do believe that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word. I have no “Bucket No. 3” in my doctrine of scripture. In other words, if it’s in the Bible, it’s there because the Holy Spirit guided its writers to put it in there—for a reason.

But Hamilton would say that if I truly believe that, then I’ll inevitably be inconsistent in my interpretation and application of it.

Then, as if he hasn’t listened to any counterargument from my side over the past 40 years—not to mention in my little blog post four years ago—Hamilton continues to conflate the issue of homosexuality with slavery and the subordination of women: since the Bible got it wrong on those subjects, he argues, how can we be confident that the Bible isn’t wrong about homosexual practice?

Please note: He’s not merely saying that our interpretation of scripture has changed over the millennia in light of better exegesis of the texts; he believes the Bible is simply wrong to begin with. As he said in his discussion of buckets, some scriptures “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

If you think I’m being unfair, consider the following exchange that Hamilton had on Twitter yesterday after he linked to his blog post:

hamilton

Ooh, burn! 

Does Hamilton really mean to say that we can’t hold the Bible as “authoritative” if we nevertheless believe, for good hermeneutical reasons, that parts of it are no longer binding on us today? I’ve dealt with this in many other blog posts, but this is a good starting point. Among other things, I say the following:

[C]ontrary to what United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton asserts in this sermon, the church doesn’t arbitrarily “pick and choose” which verses reflect “God’s timeless will” and which verses we can throw in the dustbin of cultural context. We would only be picking and choosing if our hermeneutical (interpretive) principles ignored context and said every command of scripture is equally binding for all time. Maybe there are some fundamentalist Christians out there who believe this—although I’ve never met one—but the capital-C Church (not to mention Jesus himself) never did.

If we have principled and logical reasons for believing, for instance, that some commands in Leviticus are binding today and others aren’t, then it’s not picking and choosing. Hamilton knows this as well as anyone. I wish he wouldn’t play dumb. Rachel Held Evans also played dumb about this in her recent book The Year of Biblical Womanhood, which drove me crazy, but I don’t expect as much from her.

We are picking and choosing, however, if, in spite of our principles, we disregard the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality mostly because we don’t like it. I’m not sure I like it, either, but that’s hardly the point.

For more on this “picking-and-choosing” argument, see Glenn Peoples’s post here.

(Seriously… Read the Glenn Peoples’s post.)

I reject Hamilton’s premise that the Bible got it wrong when it comes to slavery and subordination of women. I fully endorse Asbury president Tim Tennent’s “trajectories” argument. And along with N.T. Wright, I believe that the case for women in ordained ministry comes from scripture. Among other things, I believe that Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene as the first apostle in John 20—literally the apostle to the apostles. I believe it’s deeply significant that Paul refers to Junia as an “apostle” in Romans 16.

Does the Bible have any such trajectory away from its condemnation of homosexual practice? Or does the same thinker who wrote, “There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” also warn that homosexual behavior, if left unrepented, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom?

But even if I accepted Hamilton’s premise about slavery and women, his argument is a red herring unless or until he demonstrates that there’s some connection between slavery, women, and homosexuality. You can’t just say, “We were wrong about slaves and women, therefore we’re wrong about homosexual practice.”

Are we also wrong about incest? Or polygamy? Or premarital sex? I ask because I’m sure that Hamilton has many convictions in common with our traditional understanding of sexuality. By his logic, you could say, “Yes, but we were wrong about slavery and women, so… who’s to say?”

Talk about picking and choosing!

I have more to say, but this will have to do for now.

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

April 13, 2016

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.

United Methodists only like to argue about the LGBTQ argument

April 11, 2016

While I was on vacation last week, a couple of blog posts from United Methodist leaders reminded me that we are in the midst of a politically divisive season. No, not that season… I’m talking about the United Methodist Church’s General Conference 2016 in Portland, which begins next month.

First, Dan Dick, a theologically progressive United Methodist minister and author, argues that if our church splits over issues pertaining to homosexual behavior, it will have done so because we have chosen “personal desire over the will of God.”

God’s will, from Dr. Dick’s perspective, is unity above all else. We are united in baptism, which—because Methodists are sacramental—we believe is primarily an act of the Holy Spirit. Through baptism, therefore, the Holy Spirit has already said that our LGBTQ-affirming brothers and sisters, including sexually active gays and lesbians, are included in our church. So who are we to say otherwise?

Dick writes, “We are brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of our behaviors and/or beliefs.”

Moreover, since this essential unity can’t be abrogated by human action anyway, including splitting the church, we may as well learn to live together. In fact, to do otherwise is to “reject God, renounce Jesus, and revoke our baptism.”

Strong words!

If a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian were reading Dick’s words, he might be forgiven for thinking, “Physician, heal thyself!” As Riley B. Case puts it in the comments section:

Following this logic we need to renounce our United Methodism and our Protestantism and go back to Rome. Since 2016 is the year before the 500-year anniversary of the 95 theses, we could perhaps vote at General Conference to disband and repent. After all, blood is thicker than water.

Another commenter includes these insightful words from John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, regarding church schism (Sermon 80, On Schism, ¶ 17):

I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a minister of the Church of England. And I have no desire nor design to separate from it till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet, and right, and my bounden duty to separate from it without delay. To be more particular, I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel. Yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the church without omitting this, without desisting from the gospel, I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue to unite with any smaller society, church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to other doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.

Moreover, since Wesley himself endorsed, however reluctantly, the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the former British colonies of America, how can he be considered anything other than a schismatic?

Clearly, Wesley himself, unlike Dick, did not value unity above all else. If Dick thinks Wesley was wrong, I wish he would say why. Does Dick know something about the nature of baptism that Wesley didn’t know?

Not to mention the authors of scripture!

After all, I’m sure the man committing incest, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, also happened to be baptized. Yet Paul tells the church in the strongest terms possible to separate themselves from this man—for the sake of the man’s soul. Suppose some leaders in the Corinthian church disobeyed Paul: “No, Paul, we think it’s perfectly O.K. that this man is committing flagrant, unrepentant sexual sin, which is condemned alongside homosexual practice in the exact same context of Leviticus 18 and 20.”

Would Paul write back and say, “No problem. You’re all baptized, after all. God has accepted this man committing incest. You need to as well”?

It boggles the mind.

Of course, I am making an argument from scripture, which few Methodist leaders these days have the stomach for. Certainly not Dick. He seems so bored with the biblical argument that he can’t even bother to make it. He only argues about the argument:

The Bible offers a cultural community/purity code that has absolutely nothing to do with the post-enlightenment morality codes of Western civilization.  What we want the Bible to say about homosexuality it simply doesn’t say.  Sure, it is named as “a sin”, but not as some would like to define it today.  In context, it was a disobedience to God and a violation of community because it did not fulfill the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Those who wish to make it about the sanctity of marriage must be careful, because it cannot be separated from issues of divorce, bloodline, polygamy and a much broader (less-sex-based) definition of adultery.

As I’ve argued in many places in this blog (here, for example), the biblical case against homosexual practice goes far beyond the “thou shalt not’s” of a few proof-texts (although inasmuch as scripture says “thou shalt not,” we Methodists, who say we affirm the primacy of scripture, better pay attention!); it mostly has to do with complementarity of male and female. This is affirmed loudly by Jesus in Matthew 19 and its parallels. Contrary to Dick’s assertions, Jesus’ words there, along with Paul’s in Romans 1 and Ephesians 5, say nothing about procreation.

But Dick’s point here is to say that we can’t know what Paul and the other authors of scripture meant when they wrote about sexuality—except they didn’t mean what we mean today. (At least Dick concedes that the Bible says that homosexual practice is a sin, so that’s progress, I guess.) His words remind me of something I wrote in my review of Daniel Helminiak’s revisionist book, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.

The author’s point is that everything we think we know about what the Bible says regarding homosexuality is wrong…

[I]f Helminiak is correct, we have no idea what kind of Bible we have—because the Bible is so hopelessly obscure that none of us unschooled in the nuances of Hebrew and Greek can begin to decipher it! Words no longer mean what we think they mean—despite what a broad consensus of Bible scholars and translators have told us for 2,000 years.

Fine… We don’t know what Paul means by “unnatural” (Greek: para physin) in Romans 1:26. Why stop there? How do we really know what “love” means in John 3:16?

If Dick (and Helminiak) are right about the obscurity of the Bible, then we have another problem: Suppose God wanted to tell us through his Word that homosexual sex, per se, is a sin. What would God say that he hasn’t already said? How would the Holy Spirit have guided the authors of scripture to put God’s intentions into words such that they couldn’t be dismissed as culturally relative?

What would the Bible have to say about homosexuality to convince revisionists that God is telling us that homosexual sex, per se, is a sin?

I ask because, if the revisionists are right, they rule out that interpretation before they even start! Why? Because, they say, their world is different from ours and vice versa.

In the second article, on the UMC-affiliated Ministry Matters website, Rev. Dalton Rushing tells us that he believes in the primacy of scripture, yet he says that his convictions regarding the “legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships” comes from “hours of study of scripture, of the doctrines of the church, of science. It comes from conversation and communal discernment. It also comes from hours and hours of prayer.”

Do you see the contradiction?

If we Methodists accept the primacy of scripture, then the authenticity (or not) of homosexual relationships depends on nothing other than what God is telling us through his Word. Inasmuch as tradition, reason, and experience help us understand what the Bible says, that’s good and useful. But they have no veto power over the Bible.

(And before anyone asks, I am happy to argue about Albert Outler’s so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral.)

Rushing says that apart from his convictions about the LGBTQ issue, “you’d be hard pressed to argue I’m not a classical Wesleyan evangelical.” If so, then he would surely agree that the Holy Spirit does not reveal something to us today, even through “hours and hours of prayer,” that contradicts what the Holy Spirit has already revealed to us in scripture.

Besides, I’m sure the apostle Paul prayed a lot, too. Ahem…

Like Dan Dick, Rushing is only arguing about the argument. I would like for him to actually make his argument.

Early in his article he writes:

While I would argue that [the LGBTQ issue] is not the most important issue facing the United Methodist Church (the church lost nearly 5% of its worshipping membership between 2012 and 2014, according to the most recent statistics available), the issue of full inclusion of LGBTQ people is certainly important.

Really?

Because if the UMC splits this year—or General Conference sows the seeds of a split in the near future—the denomination that’s left in its wake will lose much more than five percent of its membership in two years. And if it lost those members in part because it changed its doctrine on sexuality to reflect Rushing’s convictions, he would probably say something like this: “It’s unfortunate, but if that’s the price the church had to pay in order to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, then so be it.”

I could be wrong, but why wouldn’t he say something like that? From his perspective, our church is condoning something evil. Isn’t it? Denying full equality to gays and lesbians; discriminating against them in ordination and marriage; actively harming them through our witness and our doctrines, perhaps even leading some to commit suicide (as I’ve been accused of doing on more than one occasion).

If Rushing believes he’s right, how could he not believe that the LGBTQ issue is bigger than simply losing members?

So here’s something I have in common with most theological progressives in our denomination: I believe the stakes couldn’t be higher when it comes to this issue.

The biblical case for marriage goes beyond “thou shalt not”

March 2, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, a United Methodist theologian named Donald Haynes published an article, “A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality,” in the United Methodist Reporter, an independent denominational news source. As we United Methodists move closer to General Conference in May, expect more pastors and theologians to publish articles and blog posts such as these, in support changing our church’s doctrine on human sexuality.

Meanwhile, the evangelical United Methodist lobby Good News posted a fine two-part response to Dr. Haynes’s article here and here. This response was written by Rev. Thomas Lambrecht.

Of course, I’ve also responded over the years to the objections that Haynes raises. (Type in “homosexuality” in the search field in the upper left of this page.) But one glaring oversight in Haynes’s argument is that he examines only verses that condemn homosexual behavior; he disregards the positive case that scripture makes for heterosexual-only marriage.

Lambrecht notices Haynes’s failure, too:

One of the most significant shortcomings in Haynes’ article is that he ignores the consistent and complementary heterosexual thread through Scripture based on Genesis 1 and 2, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. When asked about the possible circumstances of divorce, Jesus pointed his listeners back to God’s original intention for marriage and human sexuality, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created us male and female, as complementary and equal persons who jointly exhibit the full-orbed image of God (1:27). Out of this gender difference and complementarity, God forges a one-flesh unity in the commitment of heterosexual marriage (2:24). Throughout Scripture, the expression of our sexuality is envisioned to lie only within this God-sanctioned relationship.

It is to heterosexual marriage that Paul turns to picture the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Here the difference is as important as the complementarity. Christ and the Church are different in many ways, yet the Church aspires to a Christ-like life, and the two find unity in their relationship as Bride and Groom, culminating in the great marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

Haynes does not explain how the constant thread of heterosexual marriage from Genesis to Revelation supports the affirmation of same-sex relationships. He also does not explain how such affirmation would affect the theological significance given to marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

To reinforce Lambrecht’s point, I would underline the complementarity of male and female as a prerequisite for sexual activity. In the Garden of Eden, God takes the “rib” (or better, “side”) of the man and forms the woman. Adam, therefore, finds his “missing part” not in a sexual union with another man (who is, after all, missing the same part) but only in a sexual union with a woman. As Kevin DeYoung writes in his recent book on the subject, “The ish [man] and ishah [woman] can become one flesh because theirs is not just a sexual union but a reunion, the bringing together of two differentiated beings, with one made from and both made for the other.”[1]

At this point, theologically progressive United Methodists will often object that Genesis 1 and 2 are not meant to be taken “literally.” I disagree to the extent that they these chapters, alongside the rest of the Bible, are meant to be “taken” the way that the author intends for them to be taken. When the author speaks literally, we take these words literally; when he speaks figuratively, we take them figuratively.

Be that as it may, this progressive Christian objection begs the question: O.K., what do they mean non-literally? Because inasmuch as they are non-literal, they still communicate some metaphorical, figurative, or poetic truth. What is it?

As Robert Gagnon, a mainline Protestant New Testament professor and ordained PCUSA minister at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts it in his classic book on the subject: “Even though evaluation of same-sex intercourse is not the point of the text, legitimation for homosexuality requires an entirely different kind of creation story… Male and female are ‘perfect fits’ from the standpoint of divine design and blessing. Male and male, or female and female, are not.”[2]

1. Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 28.

2. Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 61-2.

You want unity in the church? Then agree on these questions

January 13, 2016

Anne Kennedy, a gifted writer and evangelical Anglican blogger (of the American variety—ACNA?), reflects on the most important questions facing leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion as they gather this week in Canterbury. Despite what you’ve heard, these questions don’t pertain directly to homosexuality; rather, the debate surrounding that issue is an inevitable symptom of our problem.

We United Methodists should bear her words in mind when leaders from our denomination gather in Portland, Oregon, later this year for General Conference.

How is a person to be saved? More importantly, does anyone need saving? That is the question that the Anglican world has not been able to come to grips with. Tragically, I am of the mind that the human person, every single one of them in fact, is very far gone, is like a sheep who has gone astray, who can’t find her, or even his, way back, is needing to be rescued. I know this because the scriptures themselves say it. And I have taken the trouble to read and understand those same scriptures. I have discovered that they can be known, that they are reliable and true, and that Jesus can’t be grasped apart from them. He himself is the savior, he desires that all should turn from the self and sin and repent. For the one who repents he is faithful to forgive.

But you can’t pry him away from the scripture and expect him to be the savior who saves you. You just can’t do that. If you pry Jesus out and reform him into something that is more suitable to yourself and the culture, any culture, you no longer have a Jesus who can save. That is the essential point. It’s always been the essential point. It hasn’t changed. It isn’t complicated. Meeting together all day long, if you don’t agree about that, isn’t going to bring unity of belief and purpose. It only continues to confuse.

And confusion abounds in every direction. Christianity of every brand and flavor is in chaos. Prominent pastors and teachers are every day inching up closer to that alluring, siren call of heresy. Ordinary people in the west largely believe they are going to heaven, because they are good, and God, whoever he is, and it doesn’t really matter, loves them. In the era of the BuzzFeed Christian, a clear, full throated proclamation of who Jesus is is of the essence.

And on that note, I will go and enjoin my spirit to God in prayer, that he will not only save the lost, but that he will also save and rescue his church.

Questions pertaining to sex aren’t “core doctrine,” say UMC centrists, therefore…?

September 24, 2015

Centrist United Methodists believe that questions related to same-sex sexual behavior are not important enough to divide over. They want all sides to compromise for the sake of unity.

If I’m reading the signs correctly, however, these Methodists have settled on their best argument for convincing people like me that we’re overreacting: Regardless our personal convictions about the subject, it doesn’t rise to the level of orthodoxy or, as one writer put it this week, “core doctrine,” to which the creeds and ecumenical councils bear witness. Core doctrine relates mostly to the Trinity and the Incarnation. (I blogged about this argument in July, the last time, I think, I addressed anything pertaining to LGBT issues on this blog.)

While the main point of this blog post from “Via Media Methodists” isn’t directly related to this argument, the author, Drew McIntyre, implies that there’s something unseemly in arguing about homosexuality when we have bigger theological fish to fry. As Rev. McIntyre wrote in response to one commenter, Casey:

To answer your question, I would say that my experience with progressives and conservatives, in addition to denominational leaders, is that almost no one wants to actually talk about first things, i.e. doctrine… Progressives generally tell me that doctrine is a distraction and evangelicals regularly tell me that their arguments about sexuality are doctrinal in nature (which I reject). I’m more concerned that we have ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits than anything to do with the discussion about sexuality (where I believe there is room, unlike core doctrine, for compromise), but on that score I am a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.

On an evangelical United Methodist Facebook page, where McIntyre linked to his post, I wrote the following:

If you’ll allow a schismatic, anti-VMM [Via Media Methodist] Methodist like myself to throw a wet blanket on this discussion, I share the concerns of your commenter, Casey, who wonders why biblical arguments over sexuality are “superficial” and somehow less important than “core doctrine.”

It’s almost as if you (and some of your fellow VMM colleagues with whom I’ve disagreed) don’t grasp what conservatives believe is at stake in the argument about sexuality. And don’t misunderstand: I’m happy for you to disagree with my (or our, if I may be so bold) interpretation of scripture.

I’m not asking you to agree, only to understand why we don’t believe compromise is possible on this issue: From our perspective, nothing less than eternity potentially hangs in the balance. I don’t know how else to read and interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, for example. The man committing sexual sin (incest in this case) without remorse or repentance is on a path, Paul believes, that leads to hell. So for the sake of the man’s soul, he urges the church to expel him at least in the short run, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

Suppose the church at Corinth disobeyed Paul’s words and continued to tolerate the man’s behavior? Would Paul have been O.K. with that? Would he have said, “Sexual sin doesn’t relate to core doctrine, so we can agree to disagree”? It’s incomprehensible, given both the content and tone of his words there.

And I haven’t touched on his direct words about same-sex sexual behavior in chapter 6.

I hope you see the point. If “my side” is right about homosexuality, it can’t be a matter of indifference, or a secondary matter, or something about which we can compromise. The stakes are too high for us.

And you would say, “Yes, but ‘your side’ is wrong.” And I would say, “No, we’re not, and here’s why.” And then we’d both have to do what? Argue the Bible, our ultimate authority on this and any other question pertaining to Christian faith. What’s superficial about that?

Now, you say in response to Casey that we conservatives (along with progressives) just “assert” our vision of biblical interpretation (whatever that means), without arguing it. Speaking for myself I’m happy to argue in depth with anyone about why our particular church doctrine on this issue (such as it is) needs to remain unchanged.

I probably should have put “schismatic” in scare quotes above, although that’s what we traditionalists are often accused of being. It’s a strange schismatic who simply wants to preserve church doctrine!

To my comment, however, McIntyre reiterated his objection that core doctrine is defined by

the creeds and ecumenical councils (so, in particular, the Trinity and Incarnation). I believe these are definitive for Christian self-understanding in a unique way. Where the conservatives in our church lose me because of inconsistency is that they have never, to my knowledge, threatened schism over rampant divorce among UMC clergy and laity alike. Stand on the Bible if you like, but if you want to be a traditionalist about sex and relationships, at least be consistent. At least Rome and the Orthodox include their opposition to SSM within a coherent sexual ethic that takes divorce seriously and values celibacy.

In the first paragraph of my response below, I attempt to show that the argument about divorce is a red herring: good arguments don’t depend on the perceived consistency of the person making them. Then I argue that issues pertaining to divorce and remarriage aren’t in the same category as homosexual practice, anyway.

First, two wrongs don’t make a right, as you know. Even if we’re hypocrites, it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. I could be a hypocrite on marriage and divorce and yet everything I say above (and much more besides) about same-sex sexual behavior could be true. A good argument doesn’t depend on the virtue or consistency of the person making it. That’s the beauty of logic and reason.

Second, and more importantly, you know as well as I do that the New Testament, including Jesus’ own words, permits divorce (and most of us would say remarriage) in at least some cases. (Even the Catholics and Orthodox recognize this, however they define it.) And I’m unaware of Protestants arguing that even remarriage after an illicit divorce constitutes a state of continual sinning (every time, for instance, the couple has sex). Even remarriage after illicit divorce is still marriage, as Jesus himself implicitly acknowledges in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. And marriage is good.

Regardless, both of us agree that God’s grace abounds even in tragic situations in which marriages fall apart. But please notice: contrary to what progressives are saying about homosexual practice, none of us Methodists is saying that divorce is good, that it honors God, that it’s something that God blesses, that it’s something God encourages and wants to see more of! No, we recognize the tragedy of divorce; indeed, I hope, the sinfulness of it (even as we recognize that God’s grace prevails). I do. I preach against divorce. I counsel against divorce in most cases.

Finally, you say that “core doctrine” consists of creeds and ecumenical councils. I know… I’ve read you and your VMM colleagues making this argument many times. I disagree in this sense: We’re Protestants in part because we recognize that no creed or ecumenical council carries the same weight as scripture. We acknowledge creeds and councils only inasmuch as they conform to scripture and express biblical truth. Regardless, they are not our ultimate authority.

So while I share your concern about having “ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits,” we’re not Trinitarians because the Nicene Creed tells us to be: it’s because we believe that God-as-Trinity emerges from our best understanding of scripture, as the council itself recognized. Nicaea was, according to my (Catholic) History of Christian Thought professor, an exegetical debate, centered squarely on scripture, as it should have been.

Example of what UMC traditionalists are up against

July 28, 2015

A fellow United Methodist on Facebook linked with approval yesterday to the blog post linked below. Here’s what I wrote in response:

But I hope you’d grant that the vast majority of us Christians—white, southern, or otherwise—who believe that God intends for sex to be practiced within the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman do so in good faith—that this person’s hateful actions against this church don’t represent us (or Franklin Graham or Southern Baptists or any other straw man the blogger mentions).

After all, there is real persecution against Christians in the world. In fact, in 2013 Pope Francis even warned that the increase in persecution against Christians is a possible sign of the end of the world. Needless to say, Francis, no less than Franklin Graham, also believes that homosexual practice opposes God’s intentions for Creation and that marriage is between a man and woman.

So why not pick on Francis? Or why not pick on our black brothers and sisters (in Africa) who have prevented the UMC from following their fellow mainline Protestants in changing church doctrine on sexuality? (Not that I’m assuming the blogger is UM.) What do they have in common with the person who vandalized this church?

Nothing, of course. Yet from this blogger’s perspective, it’s us white southern rednecks who stand in the way of LGBT equality? I don’t buy it.

This is REAL Christian Persecution: Augusta Church Hit with anti-LGBT Hate Crime.

A strange argument against UMC schism: sexual behavior has no bearing on orthodoxy

July 27, 2015

In this post by United Methodist blogger Joel Watts, he describes a Twitter argument that he had with someone who framed the debate about same-sex marriage and homosexual practice in terms of Christian orthodoxy. It would be unorthodox, his dialogue partner said, to embrace any form of sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage, which by definition is between a man and woman.

Watts disagrees that the question pertains to orthodoxy since homosexual practice (or any other ethical question) isn’t mentioned in the Nicene Creed. Only the Creed, he says, identifies what is or isn’t orthodox.

While I disagree with Watts on his overly technical definition of orthodoxy (although I have absolutely zero desire to argue over it), as I asked in his comments section, What does it matter? “Even if everything you say about orthodoxy is spot on,” I said, “how does this pertain to the UMC’s position on homosexuality? Whether ‘orthodoxy’ is or isn’t at stake in the question is beside the point.”

In reply, Watts said that if we only focused on “rebuilding our orthodox doctrinal foundations, beginning with Christ, how easy would it then be to look at the essentials and non-essentials and understand what matters.” He continued:

Let us restore orthodoxy, that of our faith in Christ as has stood for 2000 years, and then begin to speak about the ethical issues that divide us. It may be that in reaching back to orthodoxy and coming to terms with it — as Wesley would have suggested — we find the answer to our other points of division.

Or, to sum up with a question: What is the better reason for schism — the denial of the Creed or a differing believe on an ethical/moral issue?

At this point, I could only conclude that Watts failed to appreciate what United Methodists like me believe is at stake in the question of homosexuality. So I put it out there:

 

watts_blog

Naturally, Watts, as an “affirming” United Methodist, disagrees with my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and other scriptures. But please notice that we’re still disagreeing over the meaning of scripture, not “orthodoxy.” We may agree completely on what counts as orthodoxy, yet we still need to figure out what these scriptures mean. And our task couldn’t be more urgent, since people’s eternal destiny (if I’m right) hangs in the balance!

Therefore, contrary to his argument, figuring out what is or isn’t “orthodox” solves nothing at all, which was the point of my original comment.

But what about Watts’s second point—that Paul would disagree that the question is worth dividing over?

He was unimpressed with my bringing up Paul’s response to the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, which I believe is exactly on point when it comes to the current controversy. Watts writes, “Paul doesn’t say split when it comes to immorality but to remove the person. Try reading 1 Co 5.1-13 again.”

Well, yes… Paul doesn’t say “split when it comes to immorality,” but only because Paul expects the church to do what he says! “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Hypothetically, suppose the Corinthian church disobeyed Paul. Suppose they let the man continue to participate fully in the life of the church. Are we to believe that Paul, given the harsh tone of verses 1-13, would shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, it’s better for the church to stay united, even if if this ‘unity’ comes at the expense of disobeying my clear teaching and continuing to condone or overlook sexual immorality.”

Does this seem as incomprehensible to you as it does to me? What am I missing? Because if Watts is right, this is what Paul would do. Read Watts’s post and comments, and let me know.

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

July 23, 2015

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.

Indeed.

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?