Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

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

Name:
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.

4/29/2005

The Question I am Most Often Asked -- Part Two

After posting "The Question I Am Most Often Asked By People Visiting My Church's Website -- Part One," I received this thoughtful response from the person who had e-mailed me the original question:

Dean,

I read your blog, and thanks for your words. You touched on the scriptural verses pertaining to homosexual practice and rightly noted that they all cast it in a negative light. I don't understand your acknowledging these scriptures existence while concluding that they likely don't matter, or are likely non-binding because they were written in a cultural context that viewed homosexual practice negatively. You mentioned that the Old Testament mentions caring for the poor in many (300) instances. Should we take the view that those admonitions to care for the sick and help the poor were written in a culture that is much different from our own, and therefore contemporary Christians can ignore them? If not, why?

Christ doesn't tell us to come to him so that He can conform to our imperfections. He accepts us as we are and then goes about the work of removing our imperfections. He wants to change us, not leave us wallowing in our sin. Telling an active homosexual that he can keep on doing as he pleases is no better than telling a liar it is "OK" to lie, or a greedy person it is "OK" to steal. My view of scripture, especially the Old Testament is that it makes us aware of where we are wrong, and then the New Testament tells us how we can be made right again!! Why tell an active homosexual everything is fine when all scripture regarding homosexuality say it isn't??? I don't tell my kids to stay out of the street to keep them from having fun, but rather to ensure their safety, and I have faith in the Lord that he would not allow cultural differences to enter into his Holy Word. If I don't have confidence in his scriptures, why would I even read them in the first place?

I know I am getting long winded, but this cavalier (for the lack of a better word) view of scripture seems destined to make the Bible altogether irrelevant.

Again, thanks for words, and I await your response.


I appreciate this question and statement, and believe this is an important concern to discuss, so I am glad my new friend has chosen to continue this conversation. As someone who spends much of my time attempting to grasp the meaning of Scripture for my life and trying to understand what it means to live biblically in the world today, I would hate to be part of a process of devaluing Scripture or treating it cavalierly in any way. I also understand the point that, if (this is a big "if") one assumes that any homosexual act in any quality of relationship is wrong or harmful like being greedy or lying, teaching and preaching the way I do would appear to be enabling and abetting sin. I certainly take this seriously, remembering the admonition of James: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." (James 3:1)

Of course, it is also possible to devalue Scripture and to treat it cavalierly by reading it too shallowly, and by applying it too simplistically and casually. The Matthew and Luke accounts of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness seem to make the point that even the devil can use Scripture to promote his ends. (Matt. 4:5-6; Luke 4:10-11) I do not say this to suggest anyone is misusing Scripture with deliberately bad intent like the devil was in the temptation accounts, but to make the point that the study of Scripture requires constant self-examination and prayer to make sure we don't misuse it, and especially to make sure we don't misuse it to reinforce our personal and societal prejudices and biases, as has been done throughout history again and again.

This possibility surely applies to those who, like myself, put much emphasis on reading Scripture and understanding it within the context of the time and place it was written, looking most of all for a glimpse into the heart of God but also for truths and principles that can then be translated into our time, place and culture. But it also applies to those who use Scripture to make direct application without adequately considering context, culture and the limitations of the "clay jars" within which the "treasure" of Scripture is held and from which it pours forth. (Paul, who wrote as much Scripture as anybody, refers to himself as a "clay jar" in II Corinthians 4:7.) If mistakes can be made in the process of translating the meaning of Scripture into another time, place, circumstance and culture, mistakes can also be made by failing to translate the meaning adequately or appropriately.

I keep in my study a copy of a book entitled Slavery Defended (published by Prentice Hall in 1962, now out of print) which includes an essay justifying slavery based on Scripture. (A version of the essay is on line here.) The essay, written in 1841 by the Rev. Thornton Stringfellow of Locust Grove, Va., a community just 100 miles away from my church, is actually quite cogent if the reader is able to transport himself or herself back to a time when slavery was a debatable issue in American society. Rev. Stringfellow argues that: 1) God sanctioned slavery in the book of Genesis ("God decreed this institution ... He is the same God now, that he was when he gave these views of his moral character to the world" p. 2;) 2) Slavery is an essential part of the "national constitution emanating from the Almighty" p. 7 (In other words, slavery is a part of the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.); 3) The legality of slavery was recognized by Jesus and strongly advocated by Jesus' disciple Peter and by the Apostle Paul p. 13 ; and 4) To enslave Africans is an act of mercy done for their own good. p. 16

By my count, Rev. Stringfellow quotes the Old Testament at least 30 times and the New Testament about 15 times. And the truth is that his quotes are relevant and, on a surface level, accurate because slavery was accepted as legitimate by the writers whom Rev. Stringfellow quotes, and this assumption appears as part of the context of their writings. It never occurred to them to question it, any more than they thought to question the assumption that the earth is flat. If we could read it objectively, many who think in terms only of what seems to be Scripture's plain meaning would find Rev. Stringfellow's arguments convincing. Yet, we know that beginning with the story of the Israelites' Exodus from slavery in Egypt and continuing through Jesus' example of sacrificial love, there is a spirit in Scripture that runs deeply contrary to one people enslaving another, even when some biblical writers clearly accept and endorse slavery because they didn't know any differently.

So, it is necessary to ask the question of whether any particular statement in Scripture possibly reflects the limitations of time, place and culture of the writers, or whether circumstances and context may have changed in such a way as to cause a direct application of the verse to have an effect contrary to the Scripture's original intention. And, yes, this does include the more than 300 verses in the Old and New Testaments about social justice and the poor. Given what is revealed to us about the heart of God in the whole scope of Scripture, and especially in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, do we discern that these 300 reference about caring for the poor reflect the heart of God or not? Or has the social context changed in any way so as to alter the application of these verses? Everyone has to discern these questions for himself or herself, hopefully through conversation, sharing and study with a trusted community of faith. There is no way to have absolute certainty. The ability to quote a specific statement within Scripture, or even several, is no substitute for prayerful study of the the whole biblical story and for the interpretation of any statement within Scripture in light of what has been revealed to us about the heart of God.

Is is my belief that the writers of Scripture, including the Apostle Paul, had no knowledge that some men and women are born with an innate orientation for same-gender affection and romantic love, and that for these persons opposite-gender affection would be unnatural and inauthentic. This would not have occurred to the writers of Scripture any more than the idea that the earth is round. Based on my experience of being the pastor to many gay and lesbian persons throughout the years, as well as the findings of science, I am absolutely convinced that same-gender orientation is the natural and given nature of some percentage of the human population. (This may even be the case in the animal realm. See here.) If this is true, should the comforts and joys of human love and companionship be denied these persons? What would the biblical revelation of the heart of God suggest to us? Do we look here to the letter or to the spirit of the law? (II Cor. 3:6)

Certainly the Bible is much clearer about divorce than it is about homosexuality, and in the case of divorce it is Jesus himself who is quoted in Matthew 19:9 and Mark 10:11 saying that if someone divorces and remarries he or she is guilty of adultery. Yet, the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church say: "God's plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. ... However when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness." (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2004, p. 161.) Second marriages after divorce are common and accepted within the United Methodist Church, and in my opinion should be. My only point is that it is not unusual for Christians and the church to decide that the larger sense of the spirit of Scripture requires a perspective different from what a specific verse says.

Is this risky? Sure. But an overly simplistic application of Scripture is risky as well. Does engaging in this kind of discernment process mean we are ignoring Scripture, as the question above suggests? No. It means we are taking it seriously, profoundly seriously, but not simplistically. We are taking it seriously enough to search it deeply.

In "The Question I Am Most Often Asked -- Part One," my primary concern was to respond to the statement that there are many references prohibiting the practice of homosexuality in the Bible. I suggested that there are at most seven references: two are about homosexual rape and thus not relevant for a discussion about loving gay and lesbian relationships; two are part of the Leviticus purity codes which we do not expect people to follow; two are vague references by the Apostle Paul; and the seventh is Romans 1: 18-32 which is based on Paul's understanding of what is natural and unnatural, as was his assumption that men having long hair was unnatural. (I Cor. 11:14)

The primary point I want to make here is that, even if the Bible were clearer about homosexuality, we would still have to be careful about how we interpret what it says. If same-gender sexual orientation is innate and natural for some people, how then should we apply biblical teachings about sexual relationships to such a circumstance? Should we say that gay and lesbian people need to pretend to be straight and to live lives that would be inauthentic for them? Or do we attempt to apply the qualities the Bible advocates for human relationships to the relationships between gay and lesbian couples? Obviously, the conclusion I have reached is the latter one.

Just as the United Methodist Church has reached the conclusion that the failure of a marriage should not deny people the opportunity for a second chance at love and marital fulfillment in spite of what Jesus is quoted as saying by Matthew and Mark, so gay and lesbian people should not be denied the chance for love and marital fulfillment because of a few verses of Scripture that echo the (understandably) limited understanding of the biblical writers.

Finally, let me add a word about the second part of the question. If I am wrong about what I have written above, I am guilty of enabling and abetting sin. However, the same possibility applies to those who teach that gay and lesbian people living in loving relationships with partners are sinful. If they are wrong, then they are enabling and abetting self-hatred and despair among an innocent people and making false and harmful judgments. (It is no accident that suicide is amazingly high among gay and lesbian youth. See here.) I wonder if poor Rev. Stringfellow who was so sure that Scripture justified slavery ever had to face his complicity in the suffering and death endured by those enslaved, cheated, and oppressed by the system he used the Bible to promote?

While absolute certainty is rare, I am confident that the heart of God is full of love and acceptance for all of us, straight and gay, and that God's heart longs for human fulfillment, joy and loving companionship for each of us. To deny sisters and brothers this only because of their innate sexual orientation is, I believe, a simplistic --but nonetheless harmful-- reading of Scripture.

Finally, we need to trust our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers to study Scripture and decide God's will for their lives for themselves. We need to learn from them. Rather than dictate to them, we need to listen widely to their insights and perceptions concerning Scripture and its interpretation, just as we should have listened to slaves' interpretation of Scripture 160 years ago. After awhile, we have to trust our kids to be able to cross the street for themselves, and learn to respect their wisdom. If they are 30 and we are still keeping them locked in the house so they don't play in the street, they aren't the problem! (:

2 Comments:

Blogger John said...

Dean, when you say that your congregation is a 'reconciling' congregation, does that mean that its emphasis is primarily on the LGBT community, or that it is simply one of many ministries?

On a practical level, in terms of hands-on ministry, what does it mean to be such a congregation?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

John:

Being a reconciling congregation is both one of many ministries (spiritual formation, worship and music, education, a dozen mission groups, ministry with the homeless, VIM trips to Africa and Central America, etc.) and yet defining in a special way for us, so long as reconciling is understood in a holistic sense. Seeking to draw on the grace of God, we work at racial reconciliation [http://www.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1394], gender reconciliation, reconciliation with people differently abled, reconciliation with gay and lesbian Christians and other groups historically marginalized, at least, by the American church. Because reconciliation with gay and lesbian Christians has been the most controversial and because our community has a significant gay population, it has gotten the most attention both within and outside the congregation and has become significantly defining for us. This does not mean the others are less important to us.
Our efforts at reconcilation include encouraging previously marginalized groups, including GLBT Christians, to share their stories and perspectives, listening nonjudgmentally to their experience of Christ and their discernment of God's claim on their lives, and being open to the possibility that our assumpttions and reading of Scripture might be skewed by our own biases and assumptions. We have studied books together like "Reading the Bible From the Margins" by Miquel de la Torre (highly recommended!). We have also attempted to minister in areas, such as AIDS, that have particularly impacted the gay community. But then we have also reached out to the students ofGallaudet University in order to open our hearts, minds and doors to Deaf brothers and sisters, who have also been treated in a severely alienating way --for the most part-- by American churches! Because God has been hospitalible to us, we seek to be hospitable to one another and especially to those who have not always felt comfortable or respected in our churches. As I write this note, we are preparing to host a dinner for the United Methodist African bishops who are in town for a Council of Bishops meeting so as to listen to them and learn more about what it means to be reconciled globally. "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;
that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."
2Co 5:18- 19

4:23 PM  

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