I got an email today from the Virginia Methodist state listserv that let me know there’s going to be a resolution at our Methodist Annual Conference this year regarding the question of homosexual clergy (in my first year as a voting member — GULP!). The email cast its opposition to unbanning homosexual clergy according to the framework of the United Methodist constitution. Our United Methodist Book of Discipline says that the 25 Articles of Religion agreed upon by our forebears can never be revoked or tampered with by United Methodists in later generations. Article 6 says regarding Old Testament regulations that “although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.“ The author of the email considers the Leviticus 18:22 prohibition on homosexuality to be part of the moral law of the Old Testament. Thus, removing the ban on homosexuality is, in his perspective, not only un-Biblical but unconstitutional according to United Methodist bylaws.
I’ve been very reluctant to touch this issue with a fifty-foot pole. For pastoral reasons, I refuse to take a “pro” or “anti” position on this issue other than to affirm that I am bound as a Methodist pastor to uphold the standards currently set forth in our Book of Discipline and I will uphold the Discipline after the Methodist General Conference in 2012 regardless of what gets decided. I also believe that as a Christian, I’m supposed to submit myself completely to the authority of the Bible. I also have a best friend who’s gay and I participated once in a Bible study with Christians who were gay and seemed like more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ than I was.
So there’s a tug of war inside of me involving my personal experiences, my loyalty to the church, and the authority of scripture. Those of you who are familiar with Methodism might know that we have a concept called the Wesleyan quadrilateral that describes the four things we bring to bear when listening to God’s voice in our lives: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Now these four are not equally weighted. Scripture has the most weight and is supposed to draw the boundaries for how we utilize our church traditions, logical reason, and personal experiences. At the same time, we never read the Bible from a completely neutral “objective” perspective: all Christians use our tradition, reason, and experience as part of our Biblical interpretive process whether we admit to doing so or not.
In any case, with this particular issue, the important question I must ask as a Christian and Methodist pastor is whether ordaining homosexual clergy undermines the authority of the Bible. I realize that there are Christians who believe that the Bible can be instructive in their lives without being absolutely authoritative. But I don’t consider that to be an option. In order to hear the Word of God in the world, we need to have a single authoritative text that tells us how to interpret all the other news articles, mystery novels, and blogs that we come across. I’ve got to be able to decipher God’s voice in the midst of a lot of chaos and confusion and competing voices. The Bible is my lens for interpreting the rest of reality. If I see something happen, the Bible gives me a way of describing what I’ve seen in the terms of my Christian faith. Moreover, we have to agree as a Christian community on the boundaries of the covenant to which we have submitted; otherwise we will always be autonomous free agents only accidentally and temporarily in community, “blown here and there by the winds of every teaching” (Eph 4:14), because of our lack of a binding common discourse.
So can a Christian respect the authority of the Bible and not condemn homosexuality? Can Methodists respect our Articles of Religion and allow gay clergy to be ordained? These questions have to do with whether the Levitican ban on homosexuality is part of the “moral” law of the Old Testament that is universal to all times and cultural contexts or part of the “civil precepts” or regulations “touching ceremonies and rites” that were applicable and essential only to the particular context of Israelite society. Augustine wrote in his De Doctrina Christiana that the basic principle we should look to for guidance in interpreting scripture is the one Jesus laid out when He said that “all the law and the prophets hang on [the] two commandments” to love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:40). My understanding is that an Old Testament commandment constitutes a “moral” law if it relates to my ability to love God or love my neighbor. The Ten Commandments, for instance, map perfectly onto this principle, with 1-4 related to loving God and 5-10 related to loving other people.
So what about being gay? Certainly sexual promiscuity whether extramarital or premarital creates an obvious problem for our ability to love our neighbors and ourselves. But what about a gay person who has a monogamous lifelong relationship with a single partner just like a chaste married straight person? Does that create an obstacle for loving one’s neighbor or loving God? When people want to argue that homosexuality dishonors God, they typically use Genesis 1:27 to say that God created us “male and female” with specific complementary roles to be played in creation, most importantly the marriage relationship which they describe as always being between a man and woman (the same people usually argue that women are supposed to submit to men as part of this divine order, a command which appears quite a bit more often in scripture than the prohibition on homosexuality).
When the Methodist Church decided to ordain women in 1956, they officially rejected the principle that God’s plan for humanity is defined according to a gender hierarchy of complementary roles. They also decided to interpret the scriptural passages which explicitly prohibit women from teaching (1 Tim 2:12) or even speaking in church (1 Cor 14:34) as being applicable in the original cultural context of the early Christian community but not universal “moral” principles that should be followed by all Christians in all times and places. So should the United Methodist Church rescind the rights of women to be clergy? (I’m not going to argue in favor of this for fear that my clergy wife will throw all my belongings onto the front lawn).
If the prohibition against women teaching and speaking in church addressed a particular cultural context that is no longer applicable, then these prohibitions don’t constitute part of the moral law about which the Articles of Religion speak, so the United Methodist Church church can ordain female clergy without undermining Biblical authority just like we can serve shrimp and pork at our church potlucks and we don’t have to stone our children for being disrespectful to their parents. So are homosexual clergy analogous to female clergy? Does being sexually involved with a member of the same sex undermine a person’s ability to love his/her neighbor or love God? If so, then the Levitican prohibition of homosexuality is indeed a moral law applicable to all times and places. If not, then the prohibition of homosexuality is bound to a specific cultural context in the past.
I can see a context in which homosexuality would be problematic to the social fabric of a community. That context is the patriarchal order of the early city-states of the Ancient Near East. In our day, many people think of patriarchy as being a way of thinking that is inherently oppressive to women. But in the time when people first started living in city-states with complete strangers (as opposed to nomadic tribes with their extended families), patriarchy was the means of protecting women and children from sexual violence. The sexual code of Leviticus 18 sets the boundaries for how sexual contact can and cannot occur. Without these boundaries, ancient cities became like Sodom (Genesis 19) where gangs of horny men roamed the street and raped anyone who couldn’t defend themselves. The problem of Sodom illustrates why Leviticus 18 is necessary (and it has nothing to do with the gender of the parties involved). In Judges 19, the men of Gibeah gang-rape the female concubine of a Levite who visits their town.
The reason that the homosexuality ban is part of the necessary boundary system of patriarchy is because men were the points of reference by which different households were demarcated. The way that Leviticus 18:22 is written is revealing: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.” Raping another man (there was no concept of consensual sex in ancient times) constituted making him into a woman, thus removing the boundary marker by which members of his household were protected from gang-rape. Homosexuality thus would have caused the whole protective system of patriarchy to fall like a house of cards. That’s why it was unloving to one’s neighbor to sleep with other men.
To me, the prohibition on homosexuality constitutes a moral law only if the patriarchal social order is necessary in all times and places to protect women and children from gang-rape. I personally believe that patriarchy is an obsolete social system that had an important function in the development of civilization but is no longer necessary due to thousands of years of laws and social conventions that have replaced the social need for households to be protected and demarcated by fathers. In our modern context, “patriarchy” has a totally different purpose than its originally legitimate protective function in the ancient world but that’s a topic for a different essay. In any case, I view the homosexuality prohibition as a “civil precept” of ancient Israelite society that was absolutely necessary in that context but does not constitute a timeless universal moral law like the prohibitions of adultery or stealing or coveting, for example. I don’t think this view compromises my commitment to the absolute authority of every word in the Bible, and as a United Methodist pastor, I will uphold the Discipline regardless of my personal perspective on this issue.