Biblical and inclusive: Methodism wrestles with homosexuality

“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.

20 thoughts on “Biblical and inclusive: Methodism wrestles with homosexuality

  1. Pingback: Looking Back on 2012: April-May | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. I agree with the aims of your article but it seems to me that the Biblical prohibition of sex between men is mainly based on the ancient cultural idea that it was shameful for a man to be entered like a woman during sex. As we no longer accept this cultural reason, the prohibition does not apply today. Full details of this reasoning can be seen on the Gay and Christian website at http://www.gaysandslaves.com.

  3. Who is this gay best friend of whom you speak? Can a brother get a phone call every now and then?😉 Yes, I’ve been stalking your blog. It’s good reading man, keep it up!

  4. Hmmm… “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature… In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ These are the fundamental doctrines… summed up, as it were, in two words, — the new birth, and justification by faith.” – John Wesley

  5. I appreciate the spirit in which Morgan Guyton’s article is written, but I would offer some questions by way of critique. The most important, perhaps, would be to ask whether we get our definition of “love” and “mercy” from Scripture or from the sentiment of the time. None of us likes to go against our feelings, but is that the proper control for interpreting and applying Scripture? This critique applies to both sides on this issue.

    I also wonder whether Morgan has read The Bible and Homosexual Practice, by Robert Gagnon. No facile proof-texting in that book! If you really want to examine the issue biblically and thoroughly, you can’t ignore that book. Even if you don’t agree with Gagnon on everything (and I don’t), readers get an education in exegesis from Gagnon. In comparison most of our arguments are shallow biblically, even if they are emotionally deep.

    Also I would suggest Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, by William Webb, which undercuts the suggestion made in the article (and by many) that allowing women to be ordained somehow justifies the endorsement of homosexual practice. Webb shows how scriptural treatment of slavery and the role of women moves in a “progressive” direction within the canon, and how those movements led to eventual changes in attitudes toward slaves and women that most of us (Methodists certainly) would consider self-evident today. In contrast, Webb finds no such movement in Scripture on the issue of homosexual practice.

    Again, I commend the tone of the discussion found here. Thank you. And may God grant us all the kind of compassion without compromise that Jesus shows us in the Gospels.

    • I don’t think that explaining God’s word in terms of mercy means that the hermeneutics need to be “emotion-driven.” My Wesleyan theological premises make me want to explain why it is merciful for God to set the boundaries the way He has. We are not a people who are satisfied with abstract scholastic theological systems like the Reformed use.

      I may get the Gagnon book, but he seems a little bit overzealous about his cause. He certainly doesn’t have any doubt in his mind about how right he is. Paul was not being “countercultural” by affirming Leviticus, which is one of Gagnon’s core contentions. To describe Paul’s cultural context as being Greco-Roman is about as accurate as calling evangelical pastor Tim Keller quintessentially a New Yorker even though the tribe by which he defines himself is nothing like the average Manhattan resident. Paul’s views are very much in conformity with 1st-century Judaism in an intensely polemical environment in which everything he said was being twisted around and misrepresented by people who claimed that he was abandoning Judaism. The boundaries that he set were likely the outgrowth of the negotiations at the council of Jerusalem where James decrees that Gentiles should abstain from “food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood” (Acts 15:20). It appears that from this list of four, Paul dropped the food requirements and kept the Levitican sexuality as the “circumcision by a different name” that he went back out and preached to the Gentiles who needed to be roped in from his original message (“All things are permissible,” etc).

  6. I see great positive strides evolving from these words of wisdom. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to prove that unconditional love for ALL our neighbors will cement the tie (Jesus Christ) that binds.

  7. This is doubtlessly a case of verses picked out of context, but then, I haven’t yet benefited from the seminary.

    However, I’m curious to know how you think Romans 14:13-15 applies to the question. The context is pretty clear: Paul is writing about Christians eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. For Paul, it’s not a sin until it causes someone else spiritual harm, at which point it becomes sinful. Straightforward enough.

    This reminds me of any number of aspects of my current life. I don’t drink, wear shorts, hug female friends, nor break the Ramadan fast in public. This is not because I see any sin in these things, but because it would scandalize most of the people around me, which would be a sin in and of itself.

    Of course it’s sometimes the proper role of the Christian to scandalize. Dorothy Day’s famous “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system” quote is doubtlessly true, whether she said it or not. A Christianity that always conformed, and never scandalized, would be no Christianity at all (and is the side on which contemporary Christianity almost always errs).

    But are conservative sexual mores so fallacious and devoid of merit that they deserve to be publicly transgressed? Is it proper to offend and alienate the millions of good, well-intentioned people who hold them through (for example) gay and lesbian ordinations and marriages?

    Maybe so, but I’d like to see an argument to that effect that acknowledges what it’s advocating. The choice here isn’t, and has never been, between harming somebody and harming nobody.

    And as long as I’m plucking verses out of context, remember 1 Peter 2:18 before you respond that the principle here, which I think is identical, is an easy one to overcome. I can accept that clergy members, or those desiring ecclesiastical sanction for their marriages, should conform their sexual behavior to the expectations of their societies in the interest of the faith several lifetimes before I’ll be able to fully swallow that one.

    • I’ve often taken the position you express here. In fact, my greatest worry about this General Conference before it happened was that it would make a progressive ruling on homosexuality and run a bunch of people out of the Methodist church as a result. It’s so important to me to have a theologically diverse church and for people with traditional views to know I love and respect them.

      I think seeing the things that were being said back and forth at the General Conference made me remember the mostly gay people of Central Avenue United Methodist Church who nurtured me 10 years ago when I was going through a very rough time. I felt like my silence was betraying them, even though I have probably lost a lot of credibility with people I care about by sharing my thoughts openly. I hope that I am obeying the Holy Spirit and not being a reckless foolish loose cannon. I have been praying for discernment and asked God to rebuke me if I’m wrong.

  8. Morgan, I agree with you on this, but I’m not sure how I feel about the method. First, I feel like in order for any of us to have an honest conversation and dare I say a holy conference we have to assume that all those at the table are trying their hardest to be faithful and not assume they’re only trying to win arguments. While there are some people that only want to win, I think the vast majority on the right and left are honestly trying to be faithful to Jesus Christ.

    It also seems to me that this debate boils down to a battle of love vs. Scripture. On the one hand we have the side that wants to trumpet the love and grace of God that includes all. Therefore, the loving thing to do would be the full inclusion of homosexuals in our communion. On the other hand we have those trumpeting the words of Scripture. This often leads to attempts at compromise that no one likes.

    I agree that what the Bible says on homosexuality is rooted in a gender schema that is declared antiquated by modern psychology and biology. I agree that Paul was not really talking about committed, monogamous couples but rather extra-marital activity. I agree with your exegesis here and your historical-critical work. However, my problem with doing this is always the age old question: where do we draw the line. The Resurrection of Christ is based on Jewish eschatology. Trinitarian doctrine is based on Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought. Our theories of the atonement all have their basis in different parts of antiquity. All of these things have been “overcome” by the Enlightenment, modernity, and post-modernity. What can we keep? Was Jesus raised from the dead? Or did the Gospel writes tell the story that way because it made sense given their context?

    Ultimately I feel like we need to get past the dichotomy of love vs. Scripture. I feel like we need to figure out theologically human sexuality. Pope John Paul II started developing a theology of the body in the Roman Catholic Church. I feel like that deserves study, it deserves prayer, it deserves conversation. What does it mean theologically for human beings to be created male and female, and everything in between. What does it mean theologically for humans to be sexual beings? Only when we do that work can we talk theologically about homosexuality in a way that doesn’t devolve into love vs. Scripture.

    While we’re at it, we need to be able to talk theologically about marriage before we can talk about whether UM clergy can/should/ought to officiate homosexual weddings. We need a theology of marriage that doesn’t sound like we baptized Dr. Phil before we can have an honest conversation. We need a theology of ordination. We need all the background so we know what we’re talking about here!

    This is a lot of work. This is probably too much work in a time where people are being hurt by the UM stance on this. But until we do our homework on this, I’m afraid we’ll just keep talking past one another because we have no common ground.

    • I totally agree with what you’re saying. I absolutely want a way past “love” vs. scripture. It cheapens love when we reduce its meaning to “tolerance.” Wesley assumed that God’s mercy was over all scripture. That’s why I feel like we’re called to read scripture through a hermeneutic of mercy.

      I hope it’s clear that I simply want to understand this issue better than the shallow proof-text arguments that I’ve heard. The criterion for me to be able to oppose homosexuality would be my ability to have a genuine explanation for my gay friends about why they’re wrong based on everything I know about Jesus and not just a few cut-and-pasted individual verses about the issue itself.

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