Posts Tagged ‘LGBT’

My reflection on the “Nashville Statement” and its backlash

September 5, 2017

As always, when I write about the issue that will likely divide my denomination in 2019—homosexuality, marriage, and related questions—I do so as a sinner in need of God’s mercy and grace at every moment. I may not be, as Paul says, “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15), but God knows I’m close enough! I stand in solidarity with my fellow sinners.

When I consider my own sin, Paul’s words from Romans 7 resonate with me: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” My only hope in life and death rests not on my faltering attempts at making “progress” in the Christian life, but on my ability to “fall on Christ,” as I heard one pastor say recently. Even the most crippled person—and I am crippled, emotionally and spiritually—knows how to fall.

So to all sinners everywhere, I urge you: fall on Christ alongside me. He will save us if we repent of our sin and trust in him for salvation.

Repentance represents our desire to turn from sin. We bring to God this desire—daily, hourly—and we trust him with the power to change us. Yes, it involves our will and effort, however weak and vacillating, but ultimately it happens by God’s sanctifying grace. Do we still sin? Absolutely. But since Jesus counsels us to forgive our brother or sister “seventy times seven,” we can assume that he himself isn’t less forgiving: and that as we sin and turn to him in repentance, he will keep on forgiving us—without limit.

Indeed, on the cross, Christ’s blood was powerful enough to atone for every sin we commit—past, present, and future. As the song says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” This is also why the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness ought to bring us great comfort: we are not made righteous through anything that we do, but on account of what Christ has done. Because we are united with him through faith (as a bride is united to a bridegroom, the Bible says), what belongs to Christ now belongs to us—including his righteousness. Praise God!

Please receive what follows in this spirit. My occasion for discussing issues pertaining to sexuality is the Nashville Statement, a manifesto produced primarily by an evangelical organization called the CBMW, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. I am not a member, nor could I be, since I believe that women should be eligible for ordained ministry—and I believe this (I hope) for good exegetical reasons. As I’ve said before, N.T. Wright, an Anglican scholar, makes a strong case with which I agree.

Nevertheless, the issues over which I disagree with the CBMW are secondary. Issues pertaining to human sexuality, I believe, are not. I’ve read the Nashville Statement. Alongside a diverse group of evangelicals, I affirm it. I think I even signed it, although I never received feedback that my signature went through. Not that the world waits with bated breath to see if some small-town Methodist minister signs it or not! Read the rest of this entry »

Which of these things is not like the other?

July 25, 2016

Our poor Council of Bishops… Having only had 44 years’ notice, how could they have possibly foreseen widespread ecclesial disobedience after they kicked the can labeled “LGBT controversy” down the road last May at General Conference? Back then, they said they would convene a specially appointed commission to recommend splitting up our denomination a way forward on the issue at a called General Conference some time before 2020.

They’re still working on it, as they say in this statement, even as the Western Jurisdiction and several annual conferences are breaking church law.

Still, you have to admire the diplomacy of the following sentence, which goes out of its way to blame both sides for this present crisis. Let’s see… Which of these three is not like the other?

“The reported declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences, the intention to convene a Wesleyan Covenant Association and the election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the church have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council president, in a detailed statement outlining the actions taken.

Please note: The convening of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a new organization of like-minded evangelical United Methodists, which was formed in response to the ecclesial disobedience of the Western Jurisdiction, does not break church law.

A majority African UMC? I can’t wait

May 25, 2016

Aside from contributing my “thumbs up” to a few friends’ Facebook posts over the past couple of weeks—the lowest form of social media slacktivism—I surprised myself at how silent I remained throughout the ten days of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in Portland.

In case you haven’t heard, no resolution related to sexuality and marriage made it to the conference floor for a vote. As it stands today, therefore, UMC doctrine remains unchanged. Meanwhile, legislation that emerged from committees indicated a theologically rightward tilt, as our denomination is on the verge of becoming majority African.

I, for one, can’t wait! I hope they send missionaries over here to teach us how to be Christians again!

The reason no legislation came to a vote is because the Council of Bishops headed it off with a  plan of their own: Sometime before 2020, a specially called General Conference, whose membership will be identical to the group that met in Portland last week, will vote on proposals made by a CoB-appointed commission. The commission’s membership will supposedly reflect the global membership of the church.

In other words, as thousands of others have already pointed out, the bishops’ plan amounts to “kicking the can down the road.”

I’m disappointed. I was rooting for one piece of legislation that passed committee known as the CUP Plan. It would have strengthened accountability (in the form of minimum sentences) for clergy who break covenant with the church by performing “gay weddings” (the “stick”). At the same time, however, it would have offered progressive congregations a gracious path to exit the denomination while retaining their church property (the “carrot”).

It stood a reasonable chance of passing from what I’ve read. Now we’ll never know.

Regardless, I hope that this soon-to-be-appointed commission will make a similar proposal—or if not, at least have the courage to propose splitting the church up. The differences between traditionalists like me and revisionists are irreconcilable. As I’ve often blogged here, there is no middle way. Methodist “centrists” are either those who haven’t thought it through or (more likely) are progressives who are willing to bide their time until, they believe, cultural pressures will force the church’s hand. Adam Hamilton, for one, wrote that within ten years—after the older generation dies off, presumably—homosexuality will no longer be an issue for us Methodists.

As I blogged at the time, what do young people know about scripture that older generations don’t know? Because as always, as always, as always, the issue that divides us comes down to the authority of scripture.

Besides, what credibility has Western culture earned such that it should dictate what the church does and believes?

Nevertheless, this professor, from the UMC-affiliated Claremont School of Theology, rightly questions whether biding one’s time is a realistic option for progressives in light of shifting demographics in our church:

By the next General Conference, since the UMC is growing only in areas with a more traditionalist viewpoint on LGBTQ inclusion, the church’s position as a whole is almost guaranteed to become more conservative, not less in the coming yearsSome progressives I talk to acknowledge that bringing about a change in the current rules will now take at least 16 years, with some predicting 30-year struggleAre we willing to live with our current divide for another generation? In light of our denominations plunging membership, does the church even have time to wait sixteen years, much less thirty or more?

In other words, if the progressives couldn’t get what they wanted this year, they’re far less likely in years to come.

To his credit, whether he agrees with “my” side or not, the author seems to understand the stakes for theological conservatives like me.

I often don’t see this same understanding of the stakes among many progressive clergy I know. For example, one of them posted a link to his blog post on social media yesterday. He was complaining about how we conservatives often (rightly) frame the issue in terms of Christian orthodoxy. He disagrees, writing, “When I hear [orthodoxy] used in this context, I find the speaker often actually means that he or she does not believe that God does new things outside of the knowledge base of those who wrote the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

To which I replied:

No. What revisionists on this issue ask us to believe is that the Holy Spirit is “showing us something new,” which contradicts what the Spirit has already shown us.

Arguments about truth outside of scripture are beside the point. Quantum mechanics is beyond the scope of the Bible. Sex and marriage are not.

Again, no one has to agree with theological conservatives in order to fairly represent what we believe.

General Conference wasn’t a total wash: Conservatives won a clean sweep of five new members of the Judicial Council—our church’s Supreme Court. And, by a wide margin, they withdrew our church from a pro-abortion ecumenical organization that the UMC helped create back in the early-’70s (those were the days!). They also removed language in our Discipline that explicitly affirms Roe v. Wade.

All that to say, I hope our bishops can see the writing on the wall and do the right thing.

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.

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.

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?

On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 8: Acts 15 is not the LGBT-affirming pastor’s friend

July 6, 2015

This is the eighth part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” Click here for my previous post on this topic. I will put the links to all previous posts together in one forthcoming blog post.

As Rev. Purdue winds down his blog post arguing for changing our United Methodist doctrine on sexuality, he appeals to the example of the early church in Acts 15, which ruled that Gentile believers do not have to first become Jewish before becoming Christian. He writes:

No matter where we stand on issues of homosexuality, the Acts of the Apostles offers our church a way forward!… Core Christian ideas like forgiveness, kindness, love of God, and love for neighbor wove two very different lifestyles and practices together. More than ideas, the very presence of the Risen Christ united diverse theological camps into one church…

The Jerusalem Council does not ask the Mother Church to serve pork at their pot-luck, but makes room for an experimental new branch within the mother vine. Paul calls the Gentiles “a wild olive shoot” and an “engrafted branch” (Romans 11). The new Gentile-inclusive church was a challenge. The Gentile-inclusive church dragged the Jewish Mother Church to uncomfortable new places where the Gospel was preached. Issues like sorcery, shrines, meat offered to idols, weird non-kosher food, un-circumcision, Sunday worship and other struggles bubbled up. The Jewish Mother Church welcomed this engrafted theologically diverse expression of Christian faith. No doubt, many old guard Christians shook their never shaven sideburns (Leviticus 21:5) and wondered what was happening to their church. Yet, a church united in diverse theology presented a witness that people who disagreed could stay together…

Some may see the inclusion of an “engrafted wild olive shoot” as a division in the body of Christ. The Apostolic church saw culturally-Jewish and Gentile-inclusive congregations as different expressions of the same Christian faith—two branches of the same Christian tree.

Notice his emphasis on theological diversity: “diverse theological camps,” “theologically diverse expression of Christian faith,” “diverse theology.”

Is Purdue right about this? Does Acts 15 affirm theological diversity in the early church?

In fact, it utterly rejects theological diversity. For Purdue’s analogy to hold, we would see the Jerusalem Council ruling that it’s O.K. for the Jerusalem mother church to teach that Gentiles must be circumcised and follow other aspects of Jewish ceremonial law, while it’s also O.K. for Paul and his fellow missionaries teach Gentile converts that they don’t need to follow these laws. These are as theologically incompatible ideas as the UMC’s both endorsing and forbidding gay marriage and clergy rights.

Instead, it asserts that the one “theological camp” in which all orthodox Christians must live is the one that teaches that Jewish ceremonial law is irrelevant to the gospel. Whether or not Jewish Christians continued to follow it was a matter of adiaphora (theological indifference), but they must not think that by doing so they are being faithful to God.

Besides, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, LGBT-affirming Christians, like Luke Timothy Johnson, who use Acts 15 as an example for the church as it debates homosexual practice, rarely mention or analyze one aspect of Old Testament law that was still binding on Gentiles: their avoidance of porneia, “sexual immorality.” In the comments section of a previous post, I wrote the following about Johnson’s argument:

As for Dr. Johnson’s argument, what can I say? I’m classically Protestant. No argument that contradicts the plain meaning of scripture, properly exegeted and interpreted, will persuade me. It’s ironic that Johnson uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as part of his argument: while the council “reinterpreted Scripture in light of the experience of God,” they reaffirmed the proscription against porneia (sexual immorality), which the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have understood (without controversy) to include homosexual practice (alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality).

He refers to vv. 20-21 (without quoting it) as a “compromise” made for the sake of Jewish Christians, but he can’t mean that, can he? He surely isn’t saying that the proscription against porneia, however one interprets it, isn’t a crucial aspect of holy Christian living!

By all means, the Jerusalem church is seeing that some parts of Old Testament law have fulfilled the purpose for which they were given; that they’re no longer binding on people who are now part of Christ Jesus. Interestingly, one part of the law that is still binding is that part that deals with sexual immorality—which, again, in context would have included homosexual practice.

Finally, it’s worth considering how we know for sure that Gentiles no longer have to follow Jewish ceremonial law. We don’t have to resort to a vague “sweep of scripture” argument, or a “Jesus tea-strainer,” or arguments from silence, or unprincipled picking-and-choosing to arrive at this conclusion: we have the plain words and meaning of scripture. That’s why this theological position involves no guesswork and isn’t controversial at all.

If the Holy Spirit wanted to tell us, though God’s inscripturated Word, that homosexual practice was permissible in the same way as uncircumcised Gentile inclusion, why didn’t the Spirit do so?

Thoughts?

On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 7: God save us from the “red-letter Christians”

June 25, 2015

This is the seventh part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” For links to previous posts on this topic, click here.

Continuing with his post, Rev. Purdue writes:

I wonder can we generally agree that:

  1. Christ frees us from the Old Testament Law. Pork Barbeque is from God! Stoning is evil.
  2. We see some of Paul’s teaching on issues of slavery and women in a new non-literal light. Women are called to preach, despite what the Apostle Paul sometimes says! Slavery is evil.
  3. We allow that any practice essential to Christian lifestyle is mentioned directly by Jesus Christ or seen in Christ’s lifestyle and practice. Christians follow Christ, and the essential elements of Christianity are found in Christ’s teachings and practice.”

My response: I reject all three points. Let me take them one by one.

1. Purdue asks us to buy into the heretical idea that the Old Testament Law, with its dietary laws and civil penalties, was wrong. But as I argued in my previous post, the Law was exactly right for its time, and as Paul says in Romans, the Law accomplished the purpose for which it was given. Because Christ fulfilled the Law, we Christians are no longer bound by the ceremonial and civil aspects of it. Its ethical imperatives are perfectly good, however, and they remain in effect.

2. He’s confused about the meaning of “literal,” as I’ve said before. We do take Paul’s teaching on women and slavery literally. That’s a question of good exegesis. How these passages apply to us today is a question of good hermeneutics. See this post for more. Why does Purdue think we Christians today are morally superior to St. Paul? Can we have some humility?

3. God save us from the “red-letter Christians”! I don’t use the word heresy lightly. But as with Point 1, Purdue veers closely to antinomian Marcionism, which really is one of the Big Ones.

Purdue writes: “We allow that any practice essential to Christian lifestyle is mentioned directly by Jesus Christ or seen in Christ’s lifestyle and practice.” How to respond?

First, Jesus doesn’t mention lots of things! Not a direct word from him about incest, bestiality, polygamy, slavery, polyamory, or pederasty, for instance. Does that mean these sins are open to discussion, too? On what basis wouldn’t they be? I’m guessing Purdue would argue against at least some of these practices by citing the principles underlying Jesus’ words in Matthew 19. But as I’ve already argued, here and here, it’s on the basis of these same principles that Jesus rules out homosexual practice.

Second, if Purdue really follows this “red-letter” standard, on what basis does he affirm gay marriage? As I pointed out earlier, he agrees with me that Jesus’ words about marriage in Matthew 19/Mark 10 affirm only heterosexual marriage, yet gay marriage is still on the table for him because, after all, Jesus and the Bible don’t mention it. In other words, because the Bible presents no alternative to male-female marriage, Purdue can say, “The Bible doesn’t condemn it.” Pure sophistry, as I said earlier. The Bible presents no alternative to male-female marriage, because the definition of marriage rules it out.

No… if Purdue is right that we can only practice what is “mentioned directly by Jesus Christ,” then we can’t affirm gay marriage. Jesus’ “silence” on gay marriage rules out gay marriage. (I’m not endorsing Purdue’s argument, I’m only showing that he’s contradicting himself.)

Third, as I’ve said in response to Rev. Wade Griffith’s sermon, it’s theologically troubling to assert that Jesus doesn’t say anything about homosexual practice. Why? Because within 20 or 30 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit—the very Spirit of Christ—inspired the apostle Paul to write what he wrote about it in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1. Moreover, this same Spirit guided the authors of the Old Testament.

Or didn’t he? This is why the debate in the United Methodist Church about LGBT issues always comes back to the authority of scripture. The orthodox understanding of the inspiration of scripture rules out the privileging of Jesus’ “red letter” words over other parts of scripture.

I’ll say more on Purdue’s blog post later.

Behold the left wing of the United Methodist Church!

June 15, 2015

Glutton for punishment that I am, apparently, I sometimes interact with fellow United Methodist clergy from around the country on the UMC clergy Facebook page. Last Saturday, I participated in a lengthy comment thread about “evangelical left” leader Tony Campolo’s alleged change of heart on the LGBT issue. In a statement that surprised no one, Campolo now says that homosexual behavior isn’t inherently sinful.

One outspoken progressive colleague (whom I haven’t met, although we’ve argued online often enough) accused me of “eisegesis” in my traditional interpretation of scripture regarding sexuality. (Eisegesis means reading something into the text that isn’t there.)

By the logic of my college’s argument, however, if I’m misinterpreting scripture regarding homosexual practice, I’m also misinterpreting passages related to other sexual sin, including adultery, fornication, and lust. So I asked him repeatedly to clarify himself: are these other sexual sins in the Bible not really sinful? Does Jesus himself have a problem with sexual sin, however much we may disagree on what this category includes?

Here is the most interesting part of the exchange. (I’ve removed his name and photo, not because this clergy page isn’t public—it’s open for all the world to see—but because I believe he ought to be ashamed of himself, and I don’t want to pile on.)

He begins by telling me that he’s “inviting [me] to examine [myself] and [my] assumptions.”

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At that point, one United Methodist “concern troll” posted the following:

This isn’t conferencing. This appears to be about winning points for one’s side. Where’s the listening? The attention to making sure all are understood and respected?

Both Mr Wesley and Paul might describe this as unprofitable conversation.

I can only imagine what “Mr Wesley” and Paul would say about my colleague’s viewpoint! What does Paul say of those in the Galatian church who were telling Gentiles that they must first get circumcised in order to become Christian?

As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

How “unprofitable” on Paul’s part!

On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 5: Slavery, women, and homosexuality

June 10, 2015

This is the fifth part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” See my four previous posts for more.

In my previous post on fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s blog post, “The Bible and Homosexuality,” I began analyzing Rev. Purdue’s words about the three passages of scripture in Paul’s letter that directly mention homosexual practice. Purdue devotes a single paragraph to them, saying that he’ll “leave the particular word studies to the Greek scholars.” As I said, if he’s sincere about that, then he’ll accept the verdict of these experts: that Paul (and the rest of scripture) condemns homosexual practice per se in the strongest terms possible.

At the end of this paragraph, he writes: “[W]e must not ignore or proof-text Paul’s teachings on homosexuality. We must consider the three passages in their context and in light of the entirety of Christian teaching.”

I agree, and I expected him to engage these scriptures in this way. Instead of doing so, however, he spends the next five paragraphs ignoring these passages—writing words such as the following:

Friends, we now see some of Paul’s teachings in newer non-literal light. In 1 Timothy 2:12-15, Paul writes, “ A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. … Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing.” What do literalists do with these verses? Can we build our theology of women around them? Was Adam not deceived? Are women saved by childbirth? An honest literalist theology must explain what Paul means by child-bearing salvation.

We now see some of Paul’s teachings in newer non-literal light.

No, we don’t! Purdue doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the world “literal.” When we read Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2, we don’t imagine that Paul is speaking figuratively. We aren’t reading these words as if they’re poetry. We read these words, which Paul intends for his readers to take literally, in a literal light only. Otherwise, we’re reading them incorrectly.

By introducing the concept of “literalism” here, however, Purdue can begin attacking every progressive Methodist’s favorite bogeyman: the biblical “literalist.” “What do literalists do,” he asks, “with these verses?” Since I’ve been accused by at least a couple of clergy colleagues of being a literalist myself, I suppose I’m qualified to answer.

But do you see what he’s doing? He’s questioning the character or intelligence of people like me, who believe, in good faith, that homosexual practice is a sin, by lumping us with “those darn literalists.” He doesn’t have to engage our arguments; he can just call us names. We’re guilty by association, just a notch or two above (I hope!) the late Fred Phelps. We can’t have well-principled reasons for defending the church’s traditional doctrine: either we’re not well-informed students of the Bible—or we’re not good people.

I’m tempted to ask him if he believes that Wolfhart Pannenberg, the great German theologian who died last year, was also a “literalist” because he believed in the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality.

Pannenberg and me—two peas in a "literalist" pod.

Pannenberg and me—two peas in a “literalist” pod.

Be that as it may, when he says that we should read Paul’s words about women in a “non-literal light,” he means to say that we shouldn’t take Paul’s words about women (or slavery) at face value. I agree! Obviously, when Paul says in one part of 1 Corinthians that women should “keep silent” in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), we can’t take it at face value. Why? Because he’s already approved of women prophesying in church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Women aren’t simultaneously keeping silent and prophesying at the same time. So we have to resolve what, on its face, is a contradiction.

But do I think Paul was contradicting himself? Of course not. Believe it or not, the apostle Paul was one of the greatest thinkers and writers in the history of the world. We are not smarter than he is; we are not morally superior to him. Can we give him the benefit of the doubt? Unlike his original readers and listeners, we have no access to the original context of his words. We’re eavesdropping on one side of a two-sided correspondence. We try our best to reconstruct circumstances in the Corinthian church, but this still involves much speculation.

Purdue says that we Methodists, when we began ordaining women in 1956, “clarified or perhaps set aside some Pauline ideas in obedience to the teachings of our Lord.” Clarified, yes. “Set aside”? By no means! (At least we shouldn’t have—I wasn’t around back then.)

We don’t “set aside,” I hope, any part of God’s Word! But we do interpret scripture that’s less clear in in light of scripture that’s more clear. This is a sound interpretive principle. Purdue himself does this when he defends Paul’s view of women in the following way:

In Romans 16, Paul writes “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon …receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house.” (Romans 16) The great Apostle seemingly bans women leadership, but starts a church in Lydia’s home, works with a clergy couple, and sends a female deacon to help lead the church in Rome.

We could say much more about Paul’s exalted view of women in ministry than this. For one thing, Paul entrusted Phoebe with his Letter to the Romans, his magnum opus. She wouldn’t have merely delivered the letter like a mail carrier. She would have read it to the churches in Rome and answered questions about it. She was the letter’s first expositor.

The point is, even Purdue understands that we must interpret Paul’s words about women first in light of everything else in Paul’s corpus—and then the rest of scripture—and when we do, we understand that Paul can’t be ruling out women’s important roles in ministry.

How is this analogous at all to Paul’s words about homosexuality?

We know, for example, that Paul condemns homosexual practice without qualification in three places in his letters. If the analogy to women in ministry holds, there should be other passages in Paul that qualify, clarify, or even contradict (on their face) Paul’s blanket judgment against homosexual practice, right? Where are they?

They’re not there—neither in Paul’s letters nor in the rest of the Bible. The analogy doesn’t hold.

Purdue tries to make a similar point regarding Paul’s words about slavery (emphasis mine).

Before  we simply embrace Paul’s three verses [regarding homosexuality] at face value perhaps we need to examine Paul’s teachings on slavery. The Apostle speaks of equality before the Lord but also upholds slavery: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters… just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5) Surely no one anywhere, any longer quotes Paul’s words to justify slavery. Today, we stand firmly with John Wesley and our General Rules in rejecting slave holding. We have not always done that. The 1889 cornerstone of my current appointment reads “M.E.C.S.”! A good portion of our church stood with the right to own another child of God. We now name as sinful what the Levitical law and Paul accepted. Could we embrace a new understanding of homosexual persons just as we now accept a new understanding of slavery?

My questions to Purdue are these: Does he believe that the Bible writers, including Paul, were mistaken to write what they wrote? Was Paul wrong? Would Paul fail to understand, as we do today, that the involuntary, race-based, chattel slavery practiced in the few centuries leading up to the American Civil War was evil? Are we morally superior to Paul? What do we understand about sin and evil that he didn’t? Worse, did the Holy Spirit fail to properly inspire and guide the writers of scripture to write what they did about slavery (as practiced in the ancient world)? Does God’s Word endorse or promote sinful behavior?

Purdue says that he “stands firmly” with John Wesley. I do even more so because I “stand firmly” with John Wesley in believing that Paul wasn’t wrong to counsel slaves to “obey your earthly masters… just as you would obey Christ.” For one thing, what alternative did they have? For another, as many others have pointed out, slavery in Paul’s day wasn’t the same as African slavery of our American experience. It was usually voluntary; it was usually for a limited duration, not for life; it was usually bonded or indentured servitude in order to pay off a debt, after which the person was manumitted; it didn’t usually separate slaves from their families; it was often the only thing separating someone from starvation or financial ruin.

More importantly, as surely Purdue knows but doesn’t say, if all Christian slaveholders took to heart Paul’s counsel to slaveholder Philemon regarding his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery wouldn’t long survive, at least among Christians. Read the whole letter (it’s very short), but here’s one poignant part:

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

And let’s not forget Paul’s radical, liberating, oft-quoted words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

My point is that the Bible’s treatment of slavery, like its treatment of women in ministry, is not at all analogous to its treatment of same-sex sexual behavior. If it were, we should expect to find—again—some word from Paul or the other Bible writers that mitigates the unqualified condemnation of the practice of homosexuality. It’s not there.

(For more on this argument about slavery and women, see this post, which includes a link to a fine article by Timothy Tennent.)

Purdue’s words about slavery and women in ministry are a red herring, anyway.

Here’s why: While I utterly reject the premise that Paul and the Bible writers were wrong about slavery and women, let’s follow Purdue’s logic for a moment: Because Paul can’t be trusted in the case of slavery and women, Purdue argues, he therefore shouldn’t be trusted in the case of homosexual practice. Or, because the church was wrong in its interpretation of Paul’s words in the case of women and slavery, it’s therefore wrong in its interpretation of Paul’s words regarding homosexual practice.

For one thing, as I’ve shown, these things are not analogous. But even if they were analogous, Purdue doesn’t reject everything else Paul teaches—even what he teaches about sexual sin. In other words, I doubt Purdue thinks that Paul got it wrong on incest in 1 Corinthians 5. I’m sure he agrees with Paul that incest is an intolerable sin for which there is no room for compromise. I doubt that Purdue thinks that Paul got it wrong on prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6. I’m sure he agrees with Paul that Christians should not, under any circumstances, have sex with prostitutes.

And those are just two examples, of course. I’m sure Purdue agrees, in general, with much of what Paul says about sexual immorality. Nevertheless, if Paul got it wrong on slavery and women in ministry, then on what basis do we say he got it right on incest or prostitution?

I’ll keep plugging along through the rest of Rev. Purdue’s post later.