Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part IV): Is Homosexual Practice Condemned in the New Testament?

We are finally prepared to examine the details of the most prominent “local option” proposal known as the Uniting Methodists Document.  The first three articles in this series focused on various foundational issues about the true nature of church unity and the primacy of Scripture in adjudicating conflicts, both explicitly stated in our Discipline, but insufficiently emphasized in the way this has been framed for the church.

The Uniting Methodists Document contains six articles, the first three of which would be embraced by the vast majority of Methodists: The commitment to make disciples for the transformation of the world, the role of evangelism and social justice in fulfilling the mission of the church; and the commitment to the Discipline of the church.

The last three articles (4, 5, and 6) represent the heart of the Uniting Methodists proposal and each of these articles will be the focus of the next several entries in this series.

The fourth article is titled, “Interpretation” and is expressed as follows: “We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.” This is an important claim. This statement is claiming that both sides of this issue are committed to “biblical authority.” This lies at the heart of one of the two foundational issues noted in the earlier articles. The New Testament contains numerous prohibitions against unauthorized sexual behavior. On this point, there can be no dispute. The question is whether any of these prohibitions would include homosexual acts, especially between consenting adults.

There are a number of passages, especially the so-called “sin lists” in the New Testament, which employ a range of Greek words and need exploration.  The primary terms are as follows: porneia, akatharsia, malakos, komos, and arsenokoites. As I understand the “progressive” argument, they insist that what is condemned in the New Testament sin lists is not consensual, committed sexual activity between two men, but exploitative sin such as pederasty (sexual activity between a man and a boy). This argument is not entirely false. The New Testament does condemn a practice reflected in the Greek word malakos which refers to “effeminate call boys”—a form of prostitution in the ancient world which was exploitative and would clearly fall under the category of pederasty. It is also true that there are some broad, more general words for sexual immorality used in the New Testament which do not specifically name any particular sexual behavior.

The two most prominent examples are the words porneia (from which we get our word “pornography”) and akatharsia. Porneia means “sexual immorality”—a broad term for a whole range of sexual sins without specifically naming what those sins are. The word akatharsia means “sexually impure” or “immoral sexual sins.” Again, it is a broad term without specifically citing what sexual sins fall into that category.  There are other broad words like komos which is used quite broadly to refer to everything from excessive eating, to general carousing, to sexual orgies, and so forth. Thus, the progressives are correct in noting that several of the terms in the New Testament do, in fact, refer specifically to pederasty or to broad terms which cover a range of sexual misconduct without specifically mentioning homosexuality.

The trouble with this argument is that it ignores a mountain of other biblical evidence which makes it exceedingly difficult for progressives to, in the end, offer a convincing case. First, the word arsenokoites is also used in the “sin lists” of the New Testament. Arsenokoites means “a man who practices homosexuality.” There are several reasons why it is difficult to argue that this word refers only to pederasty. Arsenokoites appears in the Pauline sin list right along with the other terms. In other words, in I Corinthians 6:9,10 Paul specifically condemns porneia and malakos as well as arsenokoites. It is clear that malakos and arsenokoites are not interchangeable words. Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:  neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Furthermore, Paul would have been familiar with the Greek Old Testament (known as the Septuagint). It is this Greek word arsenokoites which is used in texts in the Old Testament such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which quite explicitly condemn homosexual activity. This happens again in I Timothy 1:10 where he identifies both the general word “sexual immorality” (porneia) as well as homosexual practice (arsenokoites).  (By the way, this passage is also where Paul condemns slave-holding, dispelling the other common argument made by some of our leaders that the Bible somehow endorses slave-holding and we now have better insights than they had). Of course, once it is clear that arsenokoites is forbidden by the New Testament, then it also would fall under the general categories of “sexual immorality” (porneia) and “sexually impure acts” (akatharsia).

Second, we also must not overlook Paul’s argument in Romans 1:26 where he states that “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” While there is legitimate debate about the full scope of the phrase “dishonorable passions,” it is quite clear that Paul is not limiting the discussions to pederasty since he is referring more generally to departures from God’s natural design. In short, the New Testament is consistently negative about normalizing same-sex behavior, and nowhere in the Bible are there positive or affirming portraits of same-sex behavior.

Third, we must not forget the positive teaching from Genesis 2 which is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 19:5-6: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.'” The New Testament only explicitly condemns 67 “named sins” even though we realize that sin is a much bigger category. Just because the New Testament never explicitly condemns polluting a river does not mean that we have license to do it. The New Testament theologically enshrines biblical marriage between a man and a woman and, as shall be developed in a future article, all other sexual acts are disallowed. However, the theological case for marriage as between a man and a woman will have to wait.

But, for now, it is clear that the Uniting Methodists document requires that we consider all of the language around sexual immorality in the New Testament as either generic, non-specific or only referring to a very tiny slice of sexual immorality; namely, pederasty.  Yet, as we have seen, the exegetical case for this is not defensible. If we are being asked to sign off on this option and “agree to disagree” on this issue, then we will need to have a much better conversation about the biblical data which pertains to this question.

I, for one, remain completely unconvinced by the progressive argument and am actually disappointed that they would argue so strongly about their commitment to biblical authority and yet provide no serious exegetical argument for the dramatic changes they wish to usher into the life and faith of the church. To move a named sin from a New Testament “sin list” and declare that we are now to regard it as a sacrament is unprecedented. Christians have every right to resist this doctrinal innovation which is being embraced by a few declining mainline denominations in the western world.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part III): Experience, Scripture, and the Quadrilateral

This is the third installment in a series of reflections on the current crisis within the United Methodist church over human sexuality. According to the November 9th press release from the Council of Bishops, the “local option” is one of the three options currently under consideration to help resolve this debate. The local option would remove all language related to human sexuality from the Discipline and allow local churches to make decisions regarding membership and pastoral leadership, and permit annual conferences to make decisions regarding ordination. The purpose of this blog series is to explore the implications of this particular proposal.

From the outset, I have argued that unless there is broad agreement on certain foundational principles, then the final decision will not result in a flourishing church. In my opinion, our leaders have not been attentive to these foundational concerns. First, as noted in the earlier articles, there has been an insufficient attention to a proper theological and biblical understanding of the basis of church unity. Instead, unity is being interpreted as the institutional survival of the United Methodist denomination. But, we must first secure our Christian identity before we are in a position to properly rescue the denomination. It would be very helpful if the letter had simply repeated what is already in our Discipline regarding the definition of unity: “Church unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ we are made members-in-common of the one Body of Christ” (par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task).

The second foundational concern we are exploring is the authority of scripture. The November 9th release from the Council of Bishops notes several “values” which are guiding the process. The three primary values noted were unity, space, and contextuality—all for the sake of mission. It is unclear whether this statement was just being descriptive, noting publicly that these were the values which were at work in the three proposals developed by the Commission, or if the Council was being prescriptive in stating that these are the values which should guide the process. The statement did indicate that the Bishops are not, at this point, demonstrating a preference for any of the three options. In either case, there is the notable omission that there is no reference to the value of the final decision being biblical, or that, in the end, Scripture has any role in deciding this crucial issue. Like I would expect from many of you, I found it scandalous the Council of Bishops would put out a pastoral letter about such an explosively contentious issue—which needs to be resolved and which threatens to tear our church asunder—and never mention the Bible or Scripture in the entire document.

Throughout my thirty-three years of ministry as an ordained United Methodist pastor there has been a notable and consistent lack of interest in scriptural references to matters of human sexuality, not to mention the deep theological structures which underpin marriage in the Bible (e.g. creation account, theology of the body, body of Christ imagery, marriage supper of the lamb, etc.). To be fair, theologians and biblical scholars have been invited to deliver papers to the Commission. However, the influence this has had on conversations, proposals, and blog posts, etc. in the wider church has been tepid. There are, of course, passing references to how certain broad biblical themes such as justice or mercy, but not the deep, thoughtful theological and biblical engagement with specific texts which is required. This will be addressed more in the fourth installment of this series.

The paucity of biblical engagement is due, perhaps, to a misunderstanding about the so-called “quadrilateral” which has been popularized in our denomination. The quadrilateral, rightly understood, is about the primacy of Scripture and the secondary role which tradition, reason, and experience should play in our theological and ethical deliberations. We are, after all, the “people of one Book.” What the quadrilateral is not, however, is a statement of four equal values. Yet, in our deliberations one sometimes gets the impression that the quadrilateral has been flipped on its head. In our conversations, pastoral considerations and anecdotal stories tend to rule the day. In other words, we have turned the quadrilateral on its head and we often end up using experience as the definitive lens through which we understand scripture and tradition.

It would be very helpful if our commitment to the primacy of Scripture as the final authority in the life of the church were to be made clear. Our Discipline says, “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (p. 83). There is nothing wrong with highlighting values like contextuality and space, but neither should be understood as primary values. The church deserves to see the biblical and theological evidence which supports whatever proposal is set forth. This, in turn, will enable us to have the proper discussion we need to have between now and 2019. For, indeed, whatever decision is reached by the Commission on the Way Forward, or any other proposals which warrant consideration, must be accompanied by a well-argued case which makes sense theologically, biblically, and historically—if it has any chance of being adopted by the General Conference in 2019.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part II): The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture

This is the second installment in a series of reflections on the “local option” to resolve the current crisis in the United Methodist Church. The “local option” would remove all language related to human sexuality from the Discipline and allow local churches to make decisions regarding membership and pastoral leadership and permit annual conferences to make decisions regarding ordination. In future installments of this series, I will address the specifics of the most prominent “local option” proposal, known as the Uniting Methodists Document. However, there are several foundational issues which must be addressed before we can properly reflect on the proposal and determine whether it is likely to produce the unity and flourishing which is clearly hoped for and intended by those who propose it.

The first foundational issue addressed in the earlier part of this series was the meaning of the phrase “church unity.” I suspect that the vast majority of us would agree that our unity with Christ, the historic gospel, and our fellow believers around the world and back through time should be the primary concern for all of us, whereas the ongoing institutional structure of the denomination known as United Methodist is a separate, though also very important, concern.

I think those who are advocating that the United Methodist church embrace new doctrinal positions related to sexuality and gender identification genuinely believe that both kinds of unity can be achieved through their proposals. In other words, they do not see any gap between the proposal for the ongoing organizational unity of the United Methodist Church and that deeper unity which we share with all Christians through all the ages. It is too early in this series to render a judgement on this point, because we are still establishing foundational issues. At this point I am merely making the point that, hypothetically speaking, if there was a gap between the teaching of a particular denomination and the teaching of the New Testament then we should all agree that this represents a problem. The New Testament is, of course, one of the great unifying forces in the life and faith of the church. If we do not have the commitment to a proper understanding of unity, then we will likely not make substantial progress in resolving our crisis.

The second foundational issue has to do with the nature of Scripture itself. In short, is Scripture authoritative in the life of the church, or not? This is not a question intending to nullify the role of tradition, reason or experience. The question is whether Scripture is one of several sources of authority, or if Scripture has a final voice in deciding doctrine among the people called Methodists. This leads to a second, but equally important question. If Scripture is authoritative, then how is the meaning of Scripture known and received in the life of the church? I am not convinced that the crisis within United Methodism is about who can have sex with whom. That is, of course, the leading presenting issue; but it has always been evident to many that the deeper issue has to do with the authority of Scripture and how we interpret and apply Scripture to the various issues which are before us.

It is also too early in this series to make a judgment regarding whether or not the normalization of homosexual behavior is consistent with biblical teaching. We will need to exercise patience here. My point in the first two articles is to establish two foundational points: First, we should value and give a greater voice to the deeper unity, and focus less on the structural, organizational meaning of the word. Second, we need to develop much more time reflecting on our views of Scripture and how it is interpreted. This is essential for any hopeful progress on the issues which are before us. Often in conflict the “presenting question” is not the actual question. I am suggesting that there are several questions such as “What is the nature of church unity?” and “Does the Scripture hold final authority over the life and faith of the church?” which are far more important than we realize. The next installment will focus on the authority of Scripture and how it relates to tradition, reason and experience.

Seedbed recently published a helpful book on this matter of properly understanding the authority of Scripture by Dr. David Watson, a great colleague of ours at United Seminary. It’s called Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part I)

One of the phrases which will become more and more prominent in the next few years within United Methodist churches will be the phrase “local option.” This is a proposed solution to the current crisis in the United Methodist church over same sex marriage. While there are several local option proposals, they all share the conviction that the General Church should not render a final decision on this issue, but leave it to the conscience of local churches and annual conferences to decide. Local churches would make their own decisions regarding membership and pastoral appointments of LGBTQ persons, and annual conferences would make decisions regarding ordination.

This is the first of a series of articles dedicated to exploring the ramifications of the so-called “local option” solution. Since there are several nuances to the various local option proposals, I have chosen of focus on the Uniting Methodists document because it is the most well-known proposal within this category. The Uniting Methodists document is made of up six articles, the last three of which make the following points:

+ The biblical position regarding homosexual behavior is unclear.
+ Clergy should neither be required, nor prohibited, from performing same sex weddings. It is a “local option” privilege which allows each clergy to make this decision.
+ The United Methodist denomination should allow all annual conferences to decide whether they will ordain lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and queer Christians (LGBTQ). This would be a “local option” for all annual conferences.

Future blog posts will deal with each of these three positions. However, before the specific details of the proposal are examined, it is important to deal with several foundational issues which have given rise to this proposal in the first place. The framers of this document are clear that they are motivated primarily by a desire to maintain church unity. The local option solution is widely regarded as the only way to keep the church from hopelessly splitting into three or more factions. Therefore, this proposal is widely regarded as the greatest hope for church unity.

Our Episcopal leaders often remind us that they have sworn in their consecration vows to “uphold the unity of the church.” However, there seems to be confusion about what is meant by 
“church unity.” When some hear the phrase, “uphold the unity of the church” they think this is referring to the organizational and bureaucratic churchly machinery known denominationally as the United Methodist church. This is not true. When Jesus said “I will build my church” He was referring to the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ throughout space and time of which He is the Lord and head. Our unity is rooted in that sacred unity. Our unity is in Jesus Christ. Our unity is in the gospel. Our unity is with the people of God around the world and back through time. If keeping the unity of the church was an organizational, denominational mandate, then there would never have been a Reformation. The Reformation was not fundamentally a schismatic movement—but the church’s greatest act of catholicity. It was a remembering of the ancient faith and a return to the apostolic message.

I am not advocating for the separation of the United Methodist church into multiple pieces. I neither fear our demise, nor hope for our dissolution. This is because the New Testament teaches that the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. It is indestructible because He has promised to build it—and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The Lord does not need us to “save the church” from extinction. Our death as a church—as with any church—comes only by separating ourselves from His Headship. If we remember the gospel faithfully then nothing can destroy us. If we forget the gospel, then nothing we do can save us, or should.

Ultimately, I would carry a profound sadness if, in a few years, we are forced to accept the dissolution of the denomination through which I was brought to faith. My point is that there are more important matters at stake. We must first understand what the basis of church unity is. We should be far more concerned about our adherence to the historic gospel than our adherence to our bureaucratic structures. In eternity, no one will care five cents whether you were a United Methodist or not. Denominations come and go. The gospel is forever. If it takes new wineskins to capture the great and vibrant wesleyan message, then bring on the new wineskins.

What we cannot accept are pragmatic notions about church unity which are disconnected from the real source of our spiritual unity. After all, if we are going to quote consecration vows, let’s quote all of them; namely that our leaders have also sworn to “guard the faith.” This is the point. The vow to work for “unity” and the vow to “guard the faith” are two sides of the same coin. One makes the other possible. Whether a movement called “United Methodist” survives is not nearly as important as if the gospel itself prevails among the people called Methodist.