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

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

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.