Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


The Question I Am Most Often Asked By People Visiting My Church's Website -- Part One

Here is an true-life example of the question that I am most often asked after people visit my church's website or read certain of my sermons:

I am a new Methodist in Texas who came across your church website. Great website by the way.

I have noticed that your church strongly emphasizes an acceptance of homosexual practice. Knowing that there are numerous biblical prohibitions against homosexual practice (not homosexuals), how does your church reconcile those prohibitions with those Bible verses? Thanks for the opportunity to ask the question!

It is a fine question, a discussion Methodists need to continue to have. This particular e-mailer asks the question very graciously, for which I am grateful. I hope my response is equally gracious, as it is meant to be.

(I am sometimes asked similar questions by reporters, and have found that I can not answer them with a sound-bite. This really needs to be a conversation.) So, this is one of the topics I hope we can discuss through The Untied Methodist blog and the community of Methodist bloggers who meet at the Wesley blog . But, really, this is more a conversation than a Q. and A.

Let me begin with a few quick thoughts (more will follow). The most important thing I want to say here is that the Bible really doesn't have all that much to say about homosexual practice. At most, there are seven references in the Bible, and not all those (and maybe none of them) are relevant to a discussion of loving, consensual gay and lesbian relationships.

1. THE FOUR OLD TESTAMENT REFERENCES: There are four Old Testament references: two mentions in stories (Gen. 19: 1-29 and Judges 19) which are really stories about rape --not consensual, loving relations-- and two prohibitions in the Leviticus cleanliness codes (Lev. 18:22 and 20:13). These later two verses say that a man shall not lie with a male as with a woman and that the penalty for this should be death. We could discuss these specific Scriptures at more length but the strongest statement about the Old Testament prohibitions was made years ago (1979) by Walter Wink in his article Homosexuality and the Bible. Wink makes the point that we manage to ignore many of Old Testament teachings about sexuality (the following are quotes from his article):

---Old Testament law strictly forbids sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period (Lev. 18:19; 15:18-24), and anyone who engaged in it was to be "extirpated," or "cut off from their people" (kareth, Lev. 18:29, a term referring to execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or to flogging or expulsion).

---Nudity, the characteristic of paradise, was regarded in Judaism as reprehensible (II Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa. 20:2-4; 47:3). ... Are we prepared to regard nudity in the locker room or at the old swimming hole or in the privacy of one's home as an accursed sin?

---Semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them unclean (Lev. 15:16-24). Intercourse rendered one unclean until sundown; menstruation rendered the woman unclean for seven days. Today most people would regard semen and menstrual fluid as completely natural and only at times "messy," not "unclean."

---"If men get into a fight with one another and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand." (Deut 25:11 f)

---When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with each of his brothers in turn until she bore him a male heir. Jesus mentions this custom without criticism (Mark 12:18-27 par.) I am not aware of any Christians who still obey this unambiguous commandment of Scripture. Why is this law ignored, and the one against homosexual behavior preserved?

See the Wink article here for more examples and for his thinking about how we should deal with biblical teachings about sexuality.

2. THE THREE NEW TESTAMENT REFERENCES: Homosexual acts are mentioned three times in the New Testament, in each case in the writings of the Apostle Paul, never in the Gospels. (Jesus is not recorded as ever having spoken about the topic.)

In I Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul lists a group of "wrongdoers who will not inherit the kingdom of God." Among those listed, in addition to "the greedy," "drunkards," and "idoloters," are malakoi, a Greek word translated "male prostitutes" in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, and arsenokoitai, translated "sodomites" in the NRSV. The term arsenokoitai appears again in a list of those who are "lawless and disobedient" in I Timothy 1:10.

These two Greek words, malakoi and arsenokoitai, have been studied extensively, and as often is the case with words used infrequently in Scripture so that there is little basis to establish clarity about their meaning, the English words used to translate them have often reflected the biases and assumptions of the translators. Malakoi means "soft one" in Greek, and many translators have interpreted this to mean someone who is effeminate or gay. Maybe. It could also mean someone who is weak or undisciplined. Or someone who likes to wear fancy clothes, a so-called "dandy."

The Greek word arsenokoitai is also ambiguous. It is a compound expression of the Greek words that mean "male" and "bed," and has often been assumed by biblical scholars to mean men who go to bed with each other. Some scholars question this assumption. Mary Tolbert, testifying to a United Methodist Committee on Investigations in 2000, summarized the work of Yale University biblical scholar, Professor Dale Martin, who concludes that the Greek word arsenokoitai "seems to have referred to some kind of economic exploitation by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily homosexual sex." Read Tolbert's statement here.

The third -- and most significant and difficult -- New Testament reference to homosexual practice is found in Romans 1: 18-32. Here Paul is critiquing the thinking and practices of pagan or Greek culture. He argues that, even without access to Scripture, the nature of God is evident in creation. But Greek culture rejected what should have been obvious and "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a human being or birds" and so on. (Rom. 1: 23) Paul argues that a consequence of this is that God gave them up "to degrading passions." (Rom. 1: 26) Two primary examples given in Romans 1 (others are gossiping, slander, haughtiness, boastfulness, heartlessness, and rebelliousness toward parents [Rom. 1: 29-31] ) for such "degrading passions" are:

1. "Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural," and

2. "The men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men..." (Rom. 1: 26-27)

Scholars have usually assumed the "unnatural" act done by women to which Paul referred was tribadism, the term used in antiquity for certain lesbian sexual practices, although Paul never says so specifically. He may have been referring to other acts he considered unnatural.

Paul's reference to male same-sex acts and desires is, however, quite specific. It is interesting to note that Paul considers these acts and desires to be a consequence of idolatry. Because the Greeks "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds" etc. (Rom. 1:23) "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity ..." (Rom. 1:24 Italics mine) According to this passage, Paul considered same-sex acts to be unnatural and, thus, a consequence of the idolatry of Greek culture.

Of course, Paul had his own particular sense of what is natural and unnatural. In his commentary on Romans in the Anchor Bible series, the biblical scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer, who seems otherwise sympathetic to Paul's opinions in Romans 1: 18-32, does admit that there is a potential problem with taking Paul's teachings there too literally. He points out that the Greek word physis, which is the term Paul uses in Romans 1 to talk about what is natural and unnatural, is the same word he uses in I Corinthians 11: 14: "Does not nature (physis) itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him ..." Fitzmyer, who agrees with Paul's assumptions in Romans 1 about what is natural and unnatural, comments on Paul's assumptions about men and short hair: "In this instance, physis hardly refers to the natural order of things, but to social convention." (Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Vol. 33 of The Anchor Bible, p. 287.) The point is that Paul's own cultural biases do influence his teachings in ways that we might not always consider authorative today.

Personally, I believe the culture out of which the Old Testament was written generally disapproved of homosexuality. I also believe the Apostle Paul shared in Jewish cultural assumptions of his time as to what is "natural" and "unnatural."

My only point here is to illustrate that the assumption that there are numerous prohibitions against homosexual practice in the Bible is not really true, although I understand how someone might get this impression by listening to preachers and teachers who are so fixated on this concern. You might think it was the primary theme of Scripture! At most there are seven reference. Compare this to more than 300 verses about social justice and the poor. See "The Bible on the Poor."

The next question is whether these several references reflect the culture out of which the Bible emerged or whether they are revelatory of the movement of God in the midst of that culture. The Bible, I am convinced, reflects both the culture in which the events recorded happened and the movement of the Spirit of God toward liberation, justice, healing, reconciliation, beauty, and truth. In other words, "we have this treasure in clay jars" (II Cor. 4: 7) or "in earthen vessels" as the King James Version says. Are these few references condemning homosexual practices (and, in the case of Romans 1:27, homosexual desires) part of the treasure or part of the clay?

A significant factor in thinking this through is the question of whether Leviticus or the Apostle Paul understood that there is such a thing as sexual orientation, which is innate and established by nature.

These questions need further discussion and attention.

For more information about biblical references to homosexuality and questions of how to interpret the several biblical references, I strongly recommend an essay entitled "The Bible, the Church and Homosexuality" by Dan O. Via, a retired professor of New Testament Studies at Duke Divinity School, in the book Homosexuality and the Bible published by Fortress Press. (The book also contains an essay by Robert A. J. Gagnon arguing an alternative opinion if you want to read an articulate, if somewhat frenzied, exposition of a view opposed to homosexual practice. Obviously I am not convinced by Gagnon's arguments.)

In his essay in Homosexuality and the Bible, Via puts the discussion we need to have with one another in what I believe is the proper context. "There are two basic positions, although each is variously nuanced," he writes. These are the alternative possibilities:

1. "All homosexual acts are sinful by their very nature," or

2. "Homosexual acts are not in themselves immoral or sinful but, like heterosexual acts, are good or bad depending on the context that defines and gives meaning to them."

I would appreciate hearing your reaction and hope this conversation can continue.


Blogger John said...

I am a conservative United Methodist, and will enter seminary this fall.

I think that a discerning reading of the Bible would lead to the conclusion that homosexual practice is wrong, but I think that it is a debatable subject, and not a damnable heresy. Christians in good conscience can disagree over this. I don't think that United Methodists can, since the Book of Discipline is clear on the subject.

Now I'm going to veer off topic at this point and say that I advocate 'amicable separation' between the left and right branches of the UMC. I am less concerned about the acceptance of homosexuality, than the rampant pantheism on the Left. By pantheism, I am referring to the belief that salvation is possible outside of the Christian faith, as well as the acceptance of the legitimacy of other religions. That is blantant heresy in the strongest possible sense of the word.

Anyway, I'll link to this post on my blog and send some traffic your way.

9:04 AM  
Blogger John Wilks said...

I'll grant you that for some, perhaps many or even most homosexuals, sexual orientation is inborn trait.

However, I'm not so sure that a trait being ingrained at birth is necessary a sign that it is "natural" in the positive sens o the word. There are a number of behaviors which people are born "hard-wired" to do, including some substance abuse, violence, and so on. So your argument that Paul lacked knowledge of orientation issues is far from compelling as is.

To make it more compelling, you not only need to show that homosexuality is in fact in-born (and while we assume it is, this has not been fully demonstrated yet,) that sexual orientation is irreversible (not likely considering that straights have turned gay and visa versa- in fact, some secular researchers and therapists are returning to a notion of reversible orientation for those who wish it,) and that all theological objections can be done away with.

To that third point, one of the biggest stumbling blocks has been the emergence of the LGBT power-block. Many of the arguments which might support theological approval homosexual activity run against approving bisexual behavior or the "transgendered" experiment.

So when someone who argues support full LGBT inclusion argues that homosexuality should be included because many gay men and women have relationships which in all ways but gender look like Biblical marriages undermine their own arguments by supporting the cause of bisexuals who, by definition, do not practice life-long monogamy.

And when the same person argues that homosexuality is acceptable because it is inborn, they undue their argument because support transgendered inclusion presupposes that when someone is born one gender but "feels like" they should be the other, then nature has made a mistake. So if nature nature can misfire in someone's gender orientation, why is it that nature doesn't misfire in sexual orientation?

If the move for Christianity to include homosexuality is to be successful, the entire approach currently employed will have to be scrapped.

As for me, I really wish someone like you could prove me wrong. It would be much more simple not to fight this fight anymore. And as much as I love my gay friends and relatives, I'd like to believe that God approves of their lifestyle.

But my first responsibility is to the Gospel. And until someone can make the case for inclusion without committing the kinds of logical failures above, I cannot justify, no matter how much I wish I could, any change in tradition views of Christian sexual ethics.

And this is another issue. Many who argue for homosexual inclusion have more to gain, and thus more likelyhood to bend facts to fit their tastes, then we who argue against it. Though I'm quite convinced about my views on the subject, I would actually prefer to be wrong! I doubt you'd say the same. In that sense, this debate is much like the debate concerning the literalness of hell. We who think there is a hell wish there wasn't. So if the other side could just make a good case, we'd willingly fold in our tents.

As to a continued dialog, sadly, I haven't heard anything new from either side. And unless the pro-homosexual camp jettisons the bisexual and transgendered ties and gets more scientific and grammatical support (I'm leaving you questionable Greek conclusions aside for the moment,) I don't suspect we'll hear any new dialog any time soon. Just more of the same wheel-spinning and posturing on both sides as our denomination continues to shrink and die while we rehash the same fight we've had every qudrenium (with the same results every time, I might add.) I hardly see how this is helpful.

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Dave Allen Grady said...

I really do appreciate this conversation a must offer thanks to Dean for such a coherent response to 'the homosexual question'. In an age of sound bites and out-of-context quotes, your post along with the comments following show possibilities of true conversation blossoming. I look forward to the next installment. Thanks for your leadership in both your congregation and our denomination.

12:36 AM  
Anonymous Jacinda said...

Just to clear up a few things:

The claim that bisexuals do not, by definition, practice lifelong monogamy is incorrect. If a person is bisexual, that does not mean ze is necessarily involved with multiple people of different genders. Rather, it means that ze is capable of having a loving, healthy, monogamous relationship with someone, and that the other person's gender is not important.

A lot of people don't understand what it means to be transgendered or transsexual. To explain this properly, I must point out the difference between sex and gender. Sex describes physical characteristics. Gender describes an innate sense of being a man or a woman or however else a person might describe hirself. When we're born, we are assigned a sex based on a doctor's evaluation of our physical traits. For most people, their assigned sex matches their gender identity. But for transsexuals, the sex assigned at birth does not fit their innate sense of gender. This isn't a case of being born one gender and "feeling like" the other -- a person has been whatever gender ze is all along; it's just hir physical characteristics that might not match that.

Neither nature nor God has made a mistake here. We may not understand why some people are born transsexual or transgendered, but we can respect that not everyone experiences gender in the same way. And we can trust that those who decide to physically transition are capable of making informed decisions about their bodies.

None of this makes anyone's sexual orientation less valid. People fall in love -- that's not a mistake of nature; it's part of who we are as people. Some of us fall in love with someone of the same gender. Some of us fall in love with someone of another gender. Regardless of anyone's gender, love is a blessing, not something to be feared or condemned.

10:48 PM  
Blogger L.B. said...

I see the last comment was in 2005. I have no idea if my words will ever be read, but never-the-less.... I am a person of transgender,and a search for some answers to my life is what led me here. Most people have no idea what it's like to never be accepted. It seems it's much more "popular" and accepted to be so-called "gay", and still severely misunderstood if you believe your heart's spirit somehow came to a physically wrong body. God doesn't make mistakes, right? Why are there any afflictions of mind, body, and spirit - at birth? We're born into a sinful world, are we not? I love the Lord. I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, that He lived - died on the cross for our sins - and was raised in three days. That through His blood and sacrifice we have eternal life. But, there are those who condemn me to hell because of the constant - CONSTANT - conflict within me. NO ONE sets out to live like this. Who would choose to be scorned and hated - even by family and friends? It happens. You're born into a world where you have no peace, no acceptance, no sense of belonging. It affects every aspect of your life - every where you're faced with affirming MALE or FEMALE. Your driver's license, medical papers, buying insurance, using a public restroom. There is no escape. Looking in a mirror becomes a detestable task. Thoughts of suicide plague you. Leaning on the belief that you are a child of God is all that gets you through. Changing your body costs thousands and thousands of dollars. For some it's possible. For most it's more money than can be dreamed of, and it will never happen. Your family doesn't want you, churches don't want you, society doesn't want you. You get grouped in with homosexuals and bi-sexuals, and guess what? They don't want you either - and you don't belong there. I don't think like a female, dress like a female, act like a female, or feel like a female. Everything in my being, in the very heart of me, is male, but the outside of me says female to the world. Most days I feel like putting a gun to my head and being done with this world. I'm no more female than John Wayne was. I'd love to be part of a church, I'd love to take part more in local government, and be out spoken about my environment and society. What good can I do any cause because I would be ridiculed and discredited for what I am, and therefore so would my cause. There is no live and let live attitude, there is no acceptance or understanding. There is only hate and rejection. The old standby, "You can change if you really want to." I can't live a lie, and I don't know of anyone else that would work for either. Lies don't work. The Lord looks into our hearts and sees what is there, humanity doesn't even look you in the eye.

1:14 PM  
Blogger The Powers That Be said...

God made man and then woman for the purpose of companionship and reproduction. He punished homosexuals (as recorded throughout the Old Testament), and warned against it through Paul's letters in the New Testament.

We can love the person, but as Christians, we cannot accept homosexuality as natural or appropriate. God says it's a sin, period.

9:20 AM  

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