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.