“No scripture can mean that God is not love and that His mercy is not over all His works.” This statement, from John Wesley’s sermon “Free Grace,” forms the foundation for how many United Methodist pastors like me were trained to interpret the Bible. We are burdened with understanding and explaining how God’s mercy and love are at stake in everything He tells us to do in the Bible. Methodists who follow our Wesleyan heritage cannot say with Dan Savage that “parts of the Bible are bullshit,” but neither can we settle for shallow, decontextualized applications of scripture that aren’t understood and appropriated as expressions of God’s mercy. Sadly, the debate over homosexuality at the United Methodist General Conference has devolved into a shouting match of sound-bytes rather than thoughtful conversation about Biblical interpretation. The question that no one seems to accept the challenge of answering is how the prohibition of homosexuality expresses God’s love and mercy.
Admittedly, I have a bias on this issue. My best friend is gay, and the first United Methodist church I attended was mostly gay. My solidarity with my gay Christian friends does not unbind me from accepting the Bible’s authority, so I feel that I face two choices. I either want to be able to explain why the Bible’s homosexuality prohibitions were loving and merciful for God to establish in a different cultural context but not now or else to be able to tell my gay friends why homosexuality interferes with their full experience of God’s love and mercy today. So far I haven’t figured out how to do the latter, and I find increasing credibility for the former. Pulling together a list of verses out of context may work for people who want to win arguments, but not for those of us who feel responsible for explaining Biblical truths as an expression of God’s love and mercy that will actually win hearts.
I am dissatisfied with the abstract “explanation” many have tried to offer that God simply “created humanity male and female” or that God’s purpose for human marriage was to give Paul a metaphor for describing “the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the church.” What about people who are born with both sexual organs (which happens)? Why is it hard to imagine that others might be born with the organ of one gender and the hormones of another? Can some people be created “male and female” rather than “male” or “female”? The notion that gender might be a spectrum rather than a binary does not seem to be within the scope of Paul’s imagination when he says that same-gender sexual contact is “against nature” in Romans 1:26. Paul lived in a world where slavery was the accepted norm, women were not equal to men, and gender was binary. In any case, two things are true about every place that Paul mentions homosexuality: 1) it’s always tied to promiscuity or pagan temple prostitution; 2) it’s always mentioned in the context of making a completely different point.
When I read the more direct Biblical prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus 18, I see a list of boundaries that keep people safe from sexual violence. Men are told not to have sex with their father, mother, son, daughter, wife’s kin, children’s spouses, other men’s spouses or children, other men, or animals. The ancient world was a place filled with sexual violence. Gang-rape was common (see Genesis 19 and Judges 19). There was no concept of a difference between consensual and non-consensual sex. When Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem in Genesis 34, her brothers do not avenge her personal suffering but their family’s loss of honor. When David’s son Amnon grabs his half-sister Tamar to rape her in 2 Samuel 13, the possibility of saying no doesn’t enter her head. She says, “Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you” (v. 13).
Since the ancient world did not account for consent in its understanding of sexuality, its safeguard against sexual violence was the establishment of a patriarchal order. A woman was protected by her father until he passed her onto her husband, who then became the gatekeeper of her sexual safety. In this context, if a man slept with another man, he would lose his integrity as a sexual gatekeeper and his family would be vulnerable to the sexual violence of other men. Thus, in ancient Israel, it was entirely loving and merciful for God to set patriarchal social boundaries, including the prohibition on male same-sex contact, which kept vulnerable people safe from sexual violence.
The prohibition on homosexuality makes sense as part of the fabric of a patriarchal social order. The question is whether patriarchy is Biblically prescriptive for all times and all places. Some Christians think it is. Albert Mohler’s recent blog post on what he considers to be “liberalism” in evangelical megachurches takes pastors to task for not vigorously enough proclaiming the importance of patriarchal gender roles (such as the submission of wives to their husbands and inadmissibility of female church leadership) since it leads to a softening of views on homosexuality. The connection between patriarchy and opposition to homosexuality is inextricably bound together in the neo-Reformed tradition that informs Mohler’s theology. Unlike Methodism, neo-Reformed theology does not feel the burden of explaining God’s standards of holiness in terms of His love and mercy for us, because it emphasizes the otherness of God’s sovereignty with the assumption that trying to understand God’s reasoning inherently amounts to creating our own God.
In 1956, United Methodists decided that Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 2:12 not to “permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” had an appropriate application in the early church that is no longer binding today. We decided to ordain women to the ministry, thus officially proclaiming patriarchy to be obsolete. I do not think that God’s mercy and love have been compromised by having female clergy. I have been blessed tremendously by the particular form of nurture and exhortation that female pastors can provide. Likewise, following the best Biblical interpretation I can muster, I feel that the concerns that once made homosexuality a legitimate threat to the fabric of ancient patriarchal society are no longer applicable today. I am open to being persuaded otherwise, but please give me more than a list of verses plucked out of context or an abstract argument about the nature of gender.