Homosexuality & Biblical Authority

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.

25 thoughts on “Homosexuality & Biblical Authority

  1. I’m way late to weigh in on this conversation, but happened to come across you blog and found the post and comments of interest. Nearly every person who acknowledges an aversion to homosexuality does so on the basis of what he or she believes the Bible has to say. In their mind, there is no doubt whatsoever about what the Bible says and what the Bible means. Their general argument goes something like this: Homosexuality is an abomination and the homosexual is a sinner. Homosexuality is condemned in both the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, if we are to be faithful to the clear teachings of Scripture we too must condemn homosexuality. Needless to say, this premise is being widely debated among evangelicals today and seriously challenged by biblical scholars, theologians and religious leaders everywhere.

    It rarely occurs to any of us that our reading of Scripture is profoundly colored by our own cultural context and worldview. In light of the post above and since I happen to speak and write on this topic, I thought you might find some of the post I’ve published on this of particular interest and relevance. I would particularly recommend the following:

    “Genesis 19: What Were the Real Sins of Sodom?”
    “Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination?”
    “Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?”
    “Romans 2: Paul’s Bait and Switch”
    “Genesis 1: Turning the Creation Story into an Anti-Gay Treatise”
    “Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality”
    “Exegesis: Not For the Faint in Heart”

    Links to these and more posts may be found by simply clicking the link below and then selecting the “Archives” page.

    -Alex Haiken

    • Thanks very much, Alex. I have a feeling you’re making a similar argument as Doug Campbell about Romans 1-2. Campbell’s argument is that Romans 1:18-32 is a recycled Jewish proselytism text which Paul is essentially putting in the mouth of the person who he describes in Romans 2:1.

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  4. Sounds good brother. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. Reading Las Casas’ side of the debate with Sepulveda was what made me fall in love with Thomist thought. De la Unica Manera is a brilliant book. Dominus vobiscum.

  5. I will start with the last paragraph and work my way up…John Paul did issue an official teaching (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) which reiterates that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women. Priests act in the person of Christ (persona christae). In the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest says, “This is my Body” and in rite of reconciliation he says “I absolve you of yours sins”. Many argue that Christ simply chose male apostles (certainly he made female disciples) because of the constraints of his culture. Yet Christ did many counter-cultural things in relation to women (i.e. the fact that he spoke to them in public, had female disciples, etc.). A woman was the first evangelist that shared the good news of the Resurrection. Women were present in the upper room during Pentecost. While God is neither male nor female, Christ was a man. This may seem simplistic, but if the Church is Christ’s bride the ecclesiology is consistent with the Church’s theological anthropology. Just because women cannot be ordained does not mean they cannot be called to serve the Lord in the Catholic Church. Where would the Church be without women like Perpetua and Felicity, Helen (the mother of Constantine), Monica (the Mother of Augustine), Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, etc.?

    As for married priests…in the west it is a discipline. Unlike doctrines, disciplines can be changed although I personally so no reason for this changed in Latin Rite. Remember there are 23 churches within the one Catholic Church and among the Eastern churches they allow for married priests. Also, deacons can be married and they are able to proclaim and preach the Gospel. Additionally they can preside over marriages and administer baptisms. They are ordained primarily for service/charity (diakonia). I’m not sure if this is a real “problem” for you.

    The Church and slavery….this topic it challenging often because we are trying to impose our modern understanding/development on a historical context removed from ours by hundreds of years. On the other side of the fence from de Sepulveda was Bartolome de Las Casas. De Las Casas defense of the natural rights of the natives would eventually be extended to provide liberties for all peoples. Joe Cappizzi (Catholic University of America) has a good article on Aquinas/Vittoria and the Aristotelian notion of natural slavery
    (see http://www.ts.mu.edu/content/63/63.1/63.1.2.pdf ).

    The very love shared between the Father and Son is a third person the Holy Spirit. This Trinitarian “giveness” is written naturally in the spousal relations between man and woman. A child can proceed from the marital love shared between father and mother. Between two men and two women this does not happen (on a natural level). People generally counter that an infertile married couple would be akin to this, but they do not anything to frustrate this fruit of their natural self-giving. Whereas the same-sex couple is not capable of giving themselves to each other such that their sexual act could result in the gift of life given their bodliness lacking the natural complementarity. A married couple using contraception and married couple using IVF separates the unitive (love) and procreative (life) aspect of conjugal love. I bring this latter point up to provide the larger moral implications of the Church’s theological anthropology. While I believe with John Henry Newman that there can be an authentic development of docrine, the Church’s anthropology cannot be authentically developed as you suggest.

    I have no doubts that people that have a same-sex attraction could be faithful and holy disciples of Jesus Christ. I would simply argue that they are called to a chaste life. Simply because we have certain inclinations does not mean we should act upon them. Then again I would hold that same standard for heterosexuals that do not get married for whatever reason. I am sure they feel a need for love, but we reduce love itself if we limit only to marital relations. And we will continue to harm the institution by marriage by making it a right for all. Where will we draw the line? Why is polygamy not permissible if the husband is “faithful” and loving to each of his spouses?

    Ouellet would belong to the nouvelle theologie/ressoucement group. In general, Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) is the last of the original nouvelle theologie people. Ouellet belongs to a younger (relatively speaking) generation along with thinkers like David Schinder, Edward Oakes, Angelo Schola, and others. If you like De Lubac, you should also read Ratzinger, Josef Pieper, Romano Guardini, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

    There is so much more to be said…but we can both think about these things and take them to prayer. Please pray for me as I will pray for you as both seek the Truth and to love all we encounter. May the Lord Bless you and keep you in your ministry.

  6. Thanks for your congenial tone and thoughtful points. I’m going to push back. Jesus’ midrashic use of Genesis 1:27 in a discourse about divorce does not establish a third Great Commandment to own your appropriate gender roles in addition to loving God and neighbor. Neither does Paul’s sacramental hermeneutics of nature signify a prescriptive norm for gender relations. He says elsewhere recall that it’s better not to marry at all. There are many aspects of nature that reflect the mystery of the Trinity. Complementarians do a whole lot of lifting with very little text. I think the idolatry of the nuclear family in American evangelicalism is a much greater threat to the body of Christ than intergender identity and relations.

    • I would not say that it is a “third Great Commandment” as much as Christ specifying how one should love one’s neighbor – in this case (Mt. 19) he addressing the question of divorce by trying to re-establish an original order that has been lost because of their “hardness of heart”. Moses’ exception for divorce is a relaxation of the law. According to Malachi God hates divorce (2:16). Complementarity and nuptiality are crucial for our full reading of Sacred Scripture. Scripture begins with a marriage and ends (it would be appropriate to say “consummated”) with the marriage between Christ and His bride the Church. The first miracle of Christ takes place in the context of a wedding in Cana, where notably the names of the bride and groom are omitted arguably because Christ represents the New Adam and Mary represents the Church (the New Eve). St. Paul in Ephesians (5:21-33) seems to give us something even greater than a “prescriptive norm for gender relations”. Both man and woman are called to give of themselves to one another in love and in so doing they embody the great love/mystery of the union between Christ and His Bride the Church. St. Paul does say it is better to not marry at all because Christ tells us that some are eunuchs “for the sake of the kingdom” (matthew 19:12). Some freely rencounce marriage to serve as consecrated virgins, priests, or religious. In a certain sense these celibates are eschatological signs because they are living the marriage we will all have as members of the Body of Christ (the Church) espoused to Christ. Christ teaches that in heaven we will neither marry nor be given in marriage (Mt. 22:30). So the complementary and reciprocal union of man and woman is not only a sign that points towards the communion of Trinitarian love, but it clearly points to the union between Christ and his Church. You may push back again because this is certainly not without ecclesiological implicaations. The family has been seen as the “domestic church” by the early fathers. The idolatry that we should be concern with is the individual autonomy that exults the person over the community and seeks power above all else. The body has a spousal/nuptial meaning that is bound up with the sexuality of the person.

      John Paul II states it with greater eloquence and clarity:

      “Man appears in the visible world as the highest expression of the divine gift, becasue he bears within himself the inner dimension of the gift. And with it he carries into the world his particular likeness to God, with which he transcends and also rules his ‘visilibity’ in the world, his bodiliness, his masculinity or feminity, his nakedness. A reflection of this liekness is also the primordial awareness of the spousal meaning of the body pervaded by the mystery of original innocence.

      Thus, in this dimension, a primordial sacrament is constituted, understood as a sign that efficaciously transmits in the visible world the invisible myster hidden in God from eterinity. And this mystery of Truth and Love, the mystery of divine life, in which man really participates…The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, inasmuch as he is a “body,” through his ‘visible’ masculinity and feminity. The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystry hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (Theology of the Body 19:3-5).

      St. Augustine said, “Love, and do what you will.” It is clear in light of the wisdom and insight of Blessed John Paul that love has been ordered in a particular way from “the beginning”. If we continue to ignore or undermine this (super)natural order, we will not be able to hold back the tide of issues that will continue to sweep any trace of the family away. If this complementary order is really meant to be such a transcendent sign, inevitably there will be a focus on immantization within the church such that loving our neighbor will be reduced solely to social justice and the need for temporal liberation.

      I highly recommend book Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family by Marc Ouellet (http://www.amazon.com/Divine-Likeness-Trinitarian-Anthropology-Ressourcement/dp/0802828337/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1/183-4107572-1384008#_ )

      Have you ever read the journal Communio (http://www.communio-icr.com/) ? Judging by your other posts I think you find yourself at home within the communio circle. Although they would probably be deemed as “heresy” by the members of your original ecclesial upbringing.

      • Catholic theology is so much more poetic and beautiful than our wooden Protestant doctrines. I haven’t read nearly enough of it, but I really like De Lubac. I’ll check out Ouellet (is he one of the nouvelle theologians?) and Communio. I absolutely agree with the problem of the idolatry of the individual. I resonate with the idea that bodily identity exists naturally in spousalness as a gift to be shared with another body. What you still haven’t addressed is why someone who is not fully man or woman shouldn’t find someone else who is their not-male-or-female complement to become one with. I’ve seen first-hand people who were transgender not because they were being silly confused brats but because they had both hormones or were actually born with organs. Surely a theological tradition that is so rich and beautiful does not fall apart when confronted with an understanding of gender as a spectrum rather than a binary.

        I’ve just interacted with too many monogamous gay Christian people who were faithful disciples to condemn them for messing up the symmetry of the church fathers’ poetic and entirely worthwhile reflections on the nature of heterosexual human relations. What if the beauty that the church fathers found in the sacramental revelations of heterosexual relationships simply reflects the limits of vocabulary and concepts that they had access to rather than laying down normative boundaries for all time? It was only recently that the church discovered that non-European people are actually fully human too. That was under fierce debate for a long time. Aquinas said, following Aristotle, that some are born to be slaves. The Catholic theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda wrote a widely read 16th century book called “The Order of Command and Obedience” about the inherence of the master/slave hierarchy in the divine order. This long-held presumption in the church was the reason that colonialism had the church’s blessing for so long. Could it be that 50 years from now we will have figured out a way to incorporate intergender/homosexual identity into a trinitarian anthropology?

        Ultimately I have to be more nuanced in my understanding of anthropology than what the Catholics put forward, as beautiful as it is. Otherwise, I would be sinning by having a wife and kids and trying to serve the Lord as an ordained minister, and my wife would be sinning by seeking ordination herself. I know that she’s called, and I know that I’m called, even though I’m sure John Paul has written treatises on why you can’t be married or be a woman and be a priest. If it weren’t for this tiny problem, I would probably be Catholic myself.

  7. It may seem too simplistic, but we need to return to “the beginning”. If you look at the passage where Christ is asked about divorce and remarriage, he directs us to the “beginning” (twice) in his response to the Pharisees. God create man in His image: male and female He created them (Gen. 1:27). There is something significant about the complementarity between the person as male and person as female. These two persons become one flesh (Gen. 2:24). This “unity of the two” reflects the greater unity of God as three Divine persons. The question is not simply are these Old Testament moral laws universal? The greater question is who are we as persons created in the image and likeness of God? Does the sexual differentiation matter? Does it serve a particular purpose?

    Man and woman exists one for the other as gift. They give this gift of themselves in and through their masculanity and feminitiy through their bodies. The prohibition against homosexual relations (nota bene: I did not write persons because we should not condemn anyone for their dis-ordered orientation) is not some cultural construct that has become passe. God has written the beautiful truth of His love in the very nuptial/spousal meaning of the body. We have focused so much on the law(s) that we have forgotten (or we have not deeply contemplated) why the Church has constantly and consistently taught certain teachings. Our sexuality in its difference and complementarity when lived in its truth of the love between one man and one woman point towards the great union of love (the communion of persons) that God Himself is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The probitions against homosexual relations are not patriarchal they are trinitarian and authentically and adequately anthropological.

  8. Hi Morgan.
    I am a South African Presbyterian minister and so slightly removed from your context.
    Regarding your Wesleyan quadrilateral, I find it interesting that the stuggle Peter faces is that his Tradition says he should separate from Gentiles, and it seems that Scripture is saying the same, but when he Experiences the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Cornelius’ home, his heart is changed.
    If authority rests primarily in GOD, (Jesus: Matt 28) then we should be observing to see who God accepts. In the context of this decision, we need to be asking whether the Holy Spirit is evident in the life of gay folk, and what God accepts we should not reject.

    • Thanks Mike. I’ve definitely seen the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of gay Christians I’ve known. That doesn’t trump the Bible but it challenges me to dig deeper in my interpretation of God’s word. Peter doesn’t reject Torah; he reinterprets it.

  9. I took notice of those 3 verses where that specific phrase is used when I was hashing out my beliefs about the OT sacrifices. They are among my “favorite” verses in the Bible. (Along with the set of 3 verses where God proclaims he will wipe every tear from every eye/face…in Isaiah and twice in Revelation) I liked your story….and how true that God can and does speak through many unlikely sources. My friend annie is fond of saying that he even spoke once through Balaam’s ass. I think God is always speaking (Like the UCC tagline…God is still speaking) but we are not always listening.


  10. I found your blog via a link in a google alert I have set up for the phrase “mercy not sacrifice.” It is a phrase near and dear to my heart….so much so that I have a blog on blogger named just that. Mercy Not Sacrifice. I’ve mused and pondered there for a couple of years. Just a “lay person”….no formal education spiritually, but I am captivated….consumed…..by all things spiritual. My writings are pretty much off the cuff but I’ve written quite a bit about homosexuality. It is kind of a pet peeve for me….this obsession so many Christians seem to have with the issue…

    In your post you said:

    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.

    And pertaining to this issue about gay marriage…and even gay clergy…..the “reason” and “experience” part of the quadrilateral reminded me of a quote I found buried in an article by a Presbyterian minister named Murray Richmond. He went from preaching against homosexual marriage to supporting it. It seems to me that the quote embodies the first step those who are against gay clergy/marriage must acknowledge before they can go any further than the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” mindset. He said:

    What I believed was biblically correct began to feel less and less right in my heart.

    It was his “experience” and his “reason” that prompted him to take a deeper look into scripture.

    I’ve never heard the explanation you gave about patriarchy before. It is certainly something to ponder….but it is an example of how we can look at what scripture says from many different paradigms. If we take it simply at face value without considering the culture, the meaning of the words in the original languages (which for me means I am always “looking it up in the strongs”) and how the meanings of even the English words have changed over the years…and without a candid look at some of the prejudices and mindsets we bring to the words as we read them…we risk seeing things that are not really there afterall. And I rely heavily on the leading of the Holy Spirit as my teacher since Jesus himself promised us that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth.

    I read a few other posts on your blog….and added it to my google reader. As a tag line on my blog I use the verse from Matthew….

    If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12:7)

    If you had known what these words mean….it is my heart’s desire to know…..

    Blessing to you……Cindi……

    • Thanks for writing Cindi. That’s cool that your blog has the same name! Awesome. How did you stumble across the phrase “mercy not sacrifice”? It was in the lectionary three years ago when I was in my first field ed appointment at Reconciliation United Methodist Church in Durham, NC. We read the first time Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6, when he said to the Pharisees, “Go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’.” The week after that, I was at a day camp in the inner city and I was asked to wake up a homeless guy on the sidewalk and tell him to get on his way. When I woke up the guy and started talking to him, he was very belligerent, so I started walking away. Then he said something I’ll never forget: “Where’s your f***ing mercy, man?” So I turned around and came back and sat on the ground next to him, since it seemed like that’s what God had clearly commanded me to do. He cussed me out ferociously for about 10 minutes. Then a very big gentle black man named Julius came over and helped out, and the homeless guy (who was white) responding by calling him the N-word multiple times. And Julius gently and calmly and firmly told the guy what the church could do to help him but asked him not to loiter in the children’s play space. It was very strange. I think what I learned that day is even somebody with that much pain and bitterness in their heart can be a messenger of God. God can speak to me through anybody, so I should always be listening for his voice and never dismissive of anyone.

  11. I really appreciate your perspective, Morgan. And I share your sentiments. Vilifying homosexuality based on biblical quotes is about as logical to me as banning braided hair. Sure, there are quotes I can pull from the Bible which would indicate that both are “wrong” on some level, but…really?

  12. Nicely argued and nuanced argument, IMHO, and one that I find convincing. The quadrilateral sketches out the playing field, to be sure, but we live in an era where Experience and Reason — particularly Experience — are assuming greater authority. In that same way, I’ve become more influenced by the faithful, loving gay men and women I’ve known than by a Levitical Code thousands of years old — and that can be justified (I believe) through understanding the role of the Holy Spirit in discerning the current-day Word and activity of God.

    I question, though, that “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 ….” What is that “single authoritative text”? The Bible as a whole? (That’s a huge ‘text,’ and not without its own multiple perspectives, and even contradictions.) Or is there a hermeneutical text within the Scripture that provides you the best lens for reading and understanding the whole?

    We are leaving behind the era of “sola scriptura,” for better or worse. The quadrilateral — which I turn on its point and look at it as a baseball field — offers a number of locations in which a POV is in fair play. I wonder how the size of the field and the location of the foul lines will change in the generation(s) to come.

    I do personally feel (this is not a commandment of the Lord, but Larry speaking) that the non-acceptance of homosexuals in practically any manner is on the losing side of history.

    • I definitely think there’s a hermeneutical norm within the hermeneutical norm. As Augustine put it, if scripture does not increase charity, then it’s being misinterpreted. All the law and the prophets hang on love of God and neighbor which means that I should be able to understand every command of God according to that rubric. Eating shrimp does not undermine my love for God or neighbor as long as the shrimp doesn’t give me some horrible disease that pre-scientific people had no explanation for. Therefore that prohibition is not part of the moral law of the OT that we follow today. The prohibition on usury aka loaning with interest however concerns both love of God as sovereign proprietor of all creation & love of neighbor. Therefore it should be seen as part of the OT moral law even though it’s not because capitalism is entirely based upon usury. It would be a disaster for our world order if the “Biblical” Christians actually followed the Bible because they would collapse our banking system.

      The question is whether homosexuality is in the same category of prohibitions as shrimp which had a valid place in a different time but are not universally applicable or the prohibition on usury which is universally applicable if universally disobeyed. For me to counsel a homosexual that their same-gender relations are sinful, I would need to know why it undermines love of God and neighbor. I’ve never seen that case made except when it’s accompanied by a view that God’s order depends upon a complementarian gender hierarchy which I reject since its Biblical basis is very tenuous and because my wife is a better spiritual head for our house than I am.

      What I’m not willing to say is that the Bible is less than the normative anchor of our hermeneutic quadrilateral. We need a canon. Otherwise we just float away into the obnoxious postmodern “spirituality without religion” that means an uncritical acceptance of whatever shallow commodified identity that the best-selling spirituality entrepreneurs cook up & put on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. In order to battle the triumphalist amorality of the free market that says whatever sells is what’s right, we have to be able to say God chose one people and gave them one book which tells the story of the one way to cope most effectively with the human condition. If as a matter of principle we’re offended by the particularity of Christianity, there’s no defense against the McIdols that our world will continue to throw at us. The market will continue to colonize every aspect of human identity & paint over the image of God we were created with.

  13. I’m not sure that I buy the argument about homosexuality and patriarchy. I don’t know that there is this one monolithic category of a “patriarchy” that can describe all of human history up until the 20th century. Sounds more like an oversimplified feminist myth.

    I think the Pauline pieces are more difficult to get around than the OT stuff. At the end of the day, there are no – zero – positive mentions of homosexuality in the Bible. Paul seems to condemn it, not because he was backing the patriarchy, but because it was indicative of destructive Greco-Roman social patterns.

    I’m not convinced this is a debate about the authority of the Bible, because one can hold the Bible as authoritative, know it, love it, study it, and still come out on various sides.

    I think this is about a theology of ordination, and about making a statement – one way or another – about where one feels our church should be in the midst of what is called the culture wars. I think this is unfortunate. It is also a further example of the church’s capitulation to the world, because rather than coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ and seeking the Spirit of discernment, we are simply trying to get “our” people elected so that we can solve a spiritual and moral debate legislatively. Jumping ahead of consensus to a judicial decision doesn’t help anyone. I do appreciate how you try to avoid a simple “yes” or “no,” and I try to take a similar tack. I am open to the discussion but I feel we are rushing this; ecumenically and within our own denomination, passing gay ordination will be a disaster. Other communions have been splitting over this, but none of them are headquartered in the Bible Belt. We still have a lot of little Methodist churches that aren’t convinced women can be pastors (and while we are at it, we have some Baptists and Catholics to convince). Let’s keep fighting that battle before we open up a new front. This may be our Russian winter if it passes.

    Not sure when your Annual Conference is, but during mine the Reconciling Ministries folks were showing a film called “Incompatible With Christian Teaching” that you will find interesting. I think there is a facebook page for it as well. It’s obviously slanted heavily to a particular side, and its not particularly nuanced, but it does tell some important stories that folks on any side of the issue should hear.

    Always enjoy reading your thoughts. You’re too intelligent for the blogosphere, though.

    • It probably is an oversimplified feminist myth. 🙂 I’m going largely on how Steve Chapman explained the Levitican codes as being laws that were about protecting people who really were in danger of rape, and not just Victorian prudisms. One day when I have some time on my hands, I might be interested in actually reading some of the real history of gender relations in Israelite society so I’m not totally bulls***ing when I talk about it.

      I’m going to have a tough time calling homosexuality a sin unless I can see how it inherently undermines love for God and love for neighbor in all times and places. So I’m sticking to my patriarchy story for now. Certainly Paul’s beef was with the decadence of Greco-Roman society as you said. Obviously there’s a whole lot to unpack about the disaster of sexuality in America in general. I really like what Hauerwas wrote about this in his essay book A Better Hope. Sexuality cannot be reduced to a question of individual choice because it inherently involves how we interface with a whole community of people.

      In terms of our denominational decision-making, I am very sympathetic to your perspective. Thinking in purely legislative terms is a worldly approach, as you say. The most important thing about the United Methodist denomination right now in my opinion is that it’s one of the few places where theological diversity still exists in American Christianity. In my perspective, preserving the communion trumps all other considerations. I have received tremendous sanctification from being in community with people who have are vastly different theologically. It would be a tragedy if we had a schism. I’m not sure I would stay Methodist if that happened.

  14. Thank you so much for answering my questions! You know, I’ve struggled with these concepts for a while now and I just love this take on them. ❤

  15. Thank you so much for this, Morgan. Beautifully, thoughtfully, respectfully written. I hope you don’t mind if I share it with my sister and perhaps others.

  16. I am so interested to hear your opinion on this, but that means I have lots of questions. Sorry 😦 But, what about when Paul mentions homosexuality? Is he referring to the same patriarchy thing as you are here? Also, the whole concept of modern homosexuality is that if a man or a woman love someone of their own gender in a romantic way they should be able to be with that person. So, are you saying that’s all right for our time period but if someone in Ancient Israel felt that way, well, too bad?

    • Jesus didn’t have an opinion about homosexuality that he shared (though at his last supper in John he cuddles with the disciple “whom he loved” in a way that made the NIV translators uncomfortable enough to flat out revise the text in its English translation). Paul definitely believed homosexuality was wrong. There’s no dancing around that. But he doesn’t condemn it directly. He mentions it incidentally in Romans 1 as one of the ways in which lust has corrupted human nature (probably in reference to the famous orgies of Nero’s imperial court). But I think the point of Romans 1 is not the gender of the parties involved but their abandonment to hedonistic orgy and their worship of created things instead of the Creator. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul mentions a litany of nasty sins that include homosexual temple prostitution which are all things that people can’t do and inherit the kingdom of heaven. I guess I just don’t see an equivalence between the lifestyles of some of the more chaste gay Christians that I’ve known and the orgies of Roman debauchery at its worst or temple prostitution. For me to be convinced that homosexuality is wrong in today’s context, I would need someone to show me that it really does undermine one’s ability to love God and neighbor, which is the rubric by which I interpret Biblical commands. Augustine says in De Doctrina that every verse in the Bible is supposed to contribute to our cultivation of love for God and neighbor and we aren’t interpreting the verse correctly if we can’t see how it’s connected to the Great Commandments.

      I haven’t heard any convincing argument that one’s ability to love God or neighbor is compromised specifically by the gender of their sexual relations as opposed to the promiscuity of them which certainly does sabotage our ability to love. Aside from people who say, “It’s written in the Bible, don’t try to understand it, just follow it,” the only argument I’ve ever heard that provides an agape basis for seeing the gender of your sexual partner as a moral issue is to claim that God has set up the universe according to a gendered complementarian design. I reject complementarianism because I’ve known people who were anatomically male but psychologically female and vice-versa. God hasn’t created us into perfectly neat, cleanly delineated binary categories. There are womanly men and manly women and it’s not somehow a blasphemy against God that they exist. If somebody were born with both organs (and people have been), they couldn’t avoid being gay no matter what they did. I suspect that many gay people find themselves in between the two genders, perhaps even for physical chemical reasons that are beyond their control. So that’s where I’m coming from, and I hope that if someone thinks I’m wrong, they can explain why in a merciful and patient way. I’m always open to correction.

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