A Way Forward? My Response Part 6: Biblical and Theological Reflections on the Proposal.

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

This is the sixth part in a seven part blog series reflecting on the document, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church has been discussing homosexuality in earnest for decades. This month marks thirty years since my ordination as a United Methodist pastor, so I have listened to this debate for my entire ministry. I have also been attentive to the Presbyterian (both here in the USA and in the Church or Scotland) and Episcopalian / Church of England discussions over the same period. One of the striking differences between the contours of the United Methodist discussion and the counterpart discussions which led to the breakup of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches is how seldom Methodists have actually discussed specific biblical texts related to homosexuality, or, for that matter, invoked a deep discussion about a biblical theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality. I remember, for example, heated discussions in the Presbyterian church over the precise meaning of arsenokoitēs and malakos as found in I Corinthians 6:9. What exactly is a homosexual offender? What was a male prostitute? Similar discussions have taken place regarding 1 Timothy 1:10 which has been translated variously as ‘homosexual’ (NASB), ‘people who have intercourse with the same sex’ (CEB), ‘male homosexuality,’ ‘men who practice homosexuality’ (ESV), etc. The passage in Romans 1 often involved serious, reflective discussions on what exactly was meant by women who “exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature,” or what was the potential range of condemned acts in Paul’s statement that “men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Is this limited to pedastry, or would it include, as most scholars have concluded, adult consensual homosexual acts? My point is that this is an entire area for discussion which has been largely unengaged in the Methodist church. I readily acknowledge that all of these discussions have taken place in our seminaries, but it hasn’t really become part of the public church discourse as it has in other denominations. Our conversations have mostly focused on pastoral care, the need for generational sensitivity for evangelistic purposes and wanting to portray ourselves as inclusive and welcoming, not closed and angry. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that not a single verse of Scripture is actually quoted in A Way Forward.

On the conservative side the situation has not fared much better. A few conservatives have pointed out that this discussion is, on a deeper level, about biblical authority and not merely the presenting issue of homosexuality. But, for the most part, the conservatives have focused the discussion more on their outrage over disobedience to the Discipline, than on the disregard of Scripture. But this seems to me to be a tenuous strategy (though I understand the pragmatism of it). To insist that we are really, really upset that Bishop Talbert, for example, has disobeyed the Discipline, while remaining silent about the real problem, namely, violating the teaching of the New Testament is problematic. However, if we were really focused on the New Testament, then Bishop Talbert would be required to demonstrate how his acts are consistent with the New Testament (a very steep climb, indeed), as opposed to merely disregarding the Discipline which everyone acknowledges is not God-breathed. Sometimes Methodists have to be reminded that we are part of the larger Christian tradition which, quite frankly, couldn’t care less about our Discipline. Furthermore, those of us who are fighting for historic Christian faith must recognize how difficult it will be for us if the UMC does change the Discipline in 2016 and then asks us why we are then not ready to obey it as we have insisted to them this past year. At that point, we will be forced to appeal to Scripture. My point is that we should go ahead and pick up our tent and move onto those grounds now, not later. We would be much more energized by a discussion of the NT than a discussion on the Discipline. Thus, I strongly advocate that we insert into this discussion a vigorous discussion concerning the teaching of the New Testament and reasonable guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. Each side is speaking too generically about their “love of Scripture.” We must engage the Bible and the Wesleyan theological tradition with more faithfulness – that is a call to everyone involved. I remain convinced that there is no stronger, more perfectly balanced and nuanced statement which affirms men and women as created in God’s image, yet lovingly laying down creational boundaries for our good and His glory, than the New Testament.

Comments

  • Brett says:

    Excellent points! Yes, violating the Discipline is the symptom; devaluing Scripture is the disease. According to my doctor, medicine that treats symptoms always has negative side-effects. Better to address the disease directly by applying a good dose of Scripture to the discussion than mask the symptoms by tweaking the Discipline to reflect un-Scriptural beliefs in an attempt to make it express our human preferences rather than God’s. This would only lead to harmful consequences. I rely on Scripture for my beliefs. I am open to the liberal view if it could provide a Scriptural basis, but I have never heard one given except in the most watered-down form that lacks in-depth analysis.

  • Mark says:

    This is a timely word and call. Those who agree on the relevance of Scripture may find ground on which to have a debate. However, most have already made up their minds on this issue and no amount of even the best exegesis is likely to move them. A hermeneutic will be found to take them, through Scripture, to the desired destination. A few “undecideds”, but I fear only a few, will be moved toward historic orthodoxy or given the courage to take a stand by a solid Biblical exploration at this point in the dialog. But as you pointed out earlier the Way Forward reflects a deeply post-modern epistemology which will not be moved by traditional logic or exegesis. Once you have undercut any confidence in Truth there is no point in dialog. As Lewis says in the opening chapters of Mere Christianity there is a difference between “quarreling” and “fighting like animals.” “Quarreling means trying to show that the other person is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are…” In this case, there is no shared vision of right or wrong. Those categories are denied out of hand. All we have left is the categories of compassion or church-growth pragmatism, aka evangelism, or polity. All that will come out of a Biblical exploration is a conclusion that each side has a different “perspective.” Consistent with Romans 1, the battle is actually for the mind, for rationality itself. When we set out to make wrong right we step into a dark world indeed from which there is no civilized return. Along these lines I highly recommend Robert Reilly’s new book (Ignatius), “Making Gay OK: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Changes Everything.” The “everything” in the title is basically how we think about everything. The steps one must take to rationalize such a profound violation of natural law and reason take you to places no one really wants to go.

    • Elaine says:

      No theologian here; just a 77 year old cradle Methodist. Along side the in depth study of sexuality in Scripture, I propose an in depth study of modern scientific findings on sexuality. Why do we cling to a primitive view? If that is the course we ultimately take, then I propose that Holy Writ also be applied to the topics of adultery and obesity.

      • Mark S. says:

        Elaine, I am not a specialist in sexuality but I do have a doctorate in a scientific discipline and have done a lot of reading on this topic. Other than showing that some people have sexual attractions outside the bell curve of heterosexuality, the so-called “scientific” work in this area is replete with bias, subjectivity and, often, hidden agendas. The nature/nuture argument continues, but there has never been a so-called “gay gene” identified (one of the first supposed suggestions for this by Hamer et al has been misinterpreted and misconstrued by the lay media).

        I am not denying that people have alternative sexual predilections that seem natural to them, but we need to stop saying that science has proven things it has not—and may not be able—to prove.

        I think the post by Mark (above) is correct. In the C. S. Lewis work he cites there is this argument presented: we quarrel, and try to justify our positions, because each party to the quarrel has an underlying notion that there is an absolute moral law. We fight when one or the other party has lost that vision and has replaced it with a might-makes-right philosophy. You can possibly find elements of that on both sides of this issue, but I would argue that those who have, perhaps with hidden agendas, ascended to levels of leadership only to flout their vows to the church and use their position of power to implement their agendas are more guilty.

      • Mark S. says:

        Yet another excellent article on the logical consequences of marriage redefinition: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/03/9432/

  • Rod says:

    Another book I would recommend is by James R. White and Jeffrey Neill, “The Same Sex Controversy” written in 2002. It shows also the mental gymnastics one has to go through to justify same-sex marriage. It is thorough.

  • Catherine says:

    “Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of lights: ‘Lord, is it not thy Word, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God”? Thou “givest liberally and upbraidest not”. Thou hast said, “If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.” I am willing to do, let me know thy will. I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual’. I meditate thereon, with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God, and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”[John Wesley, Preface to Standard Sermons].

  • Paul Morelli says:

    I have read: Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Dan O. ViaI
    and it helped me understand the scriptural arguments. I am lay but agree that not many in the lay category have taken time to really dig into the issue and seem to “fall” for the emotional arguments that are put forth… There is also a lack of logical argument skills even among pastors that is disturbing. I have not taken a course in philosophy but had a high school course in logic and reasoning and see obvious argumentative errors in most discussions. We have lost the art of honest logical debate.

  • […] In the sixth part of a seven-part series of blog posts on “A Way Forward,” an Adam Hamilton-backed proposal to save the United Methodist Church from schism, Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary and a fellow ordained elder in full connection in the UMC, notices a surprising lack of biblical and theological reflection in the debate over changing our church’s traditional stance on human sexuality. One of the striking differences between the contours of the United Methodist discussion and the counterpart discussions which led to the breakup of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches is how seldom Methodists have actually discussed specific biblical texts related to homosexuality, or, for that matter, invoked a deep discussion about a biblical theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality… I readily acknowledge that all of these discussions have taken place in our seminaries, but it hasn’t really become part of the public church discourse as it has in other denominations. Our conversations have mostly focused on pastoral care, the need for generational sensitivity for evangelistic purposes and wanting to portray ourselves as inclusive and welcoming, not closed and angry. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that not a single verse of Scripture is actually quoted in A Way Forward. […]

  • […] 6. Biblical and Theological Reflections on the Proposal. […]