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 -- Part Three

After the dialogue in The Question I Am Most Often Asked By People Visiting My Church's Website -- Part One and Part Two, (both of which would be helpful to skim before reading this post), I received this e-mail from my dialogue partner:


Thanks for the thoughtful response!.

It seems to me that, in your view, there is little or no absolute truth, only that truth at which each individual arrives after considering the whole counsel of scripture....even when there are specific admonitions given about a particular subject. Am I wrong here? This seems to me a dangerous view, and taken to extreme, that view would necessarily allow all manner of sin. What of the potential murderer who has come to his own conclusion that murder is actually condoned by the whole counsel of scripture, the 6th commandment notwithstanding? I realize that this example is a little "off the edge", but no more so than your example of the mid-19th century preacher trying to use scripture to justify slavery.

I read with interest your mention of divorce, and second marriages that often are a result. My view is that the Methodist allowance of marriage after divorce is simply bowing to the current culture's whim. Why should one consider a "larger sense of the spirit of Scripture" when we have specific scripture to abide by in most cases?. Appealing to a "larger sense of the spirit of Scripture" should only be done when considering an issue that is not directly addressed in the Bible. This view of scripture is not "simplistic", but rather founded on obedience to God's written word.

Regarding your point in which you presuppose that homosexual behavior is simply the logical outcome of an innate,and likely God-given characteristic, again I refer to other acts that scripture deems to be sinful. Can a man who has committed adultery against God and his wife say "I have an inborn need to have sexual contact with other women"? Of course not. Does this man rightly claim that his actions have at their root God's consent, since he claims that God created him that way? Or do we rightly judge that this man has given himself up to temptation and gone out and sinned on his own, with God opposed to his chosen actions? Similarly, can the men at the head of Enron claim that they were inborn with a desire to make a lot of money, and as a result claim that their actions of greed be excused, since God made them greedy? If not, why the inconsistency? The adulterer is universally condemned by all, but maybe his actions should be hailed by some Methodist task force that has decided that black and white Biblical admonitions are too simplistic to apply to our complex modern world. I apologize for my tone, but there exactly does this all end? Assuaging the consciences of the guilty do not help the guilty, but rather condemns them. Romans 12:2 admonishes us : "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." (NASB)

God has called us out to be different, not to accept what He clearly in scripture has deemed to be sinful, even though being faithful to Him often makes us appear intolerant and judgmental to our current culture. His truths are perfect and unchanging.

I think the kind of conversation we have been having in this exchange is important. I think the question is, whether we ever manage to agree on this (which seems doubtful), can we grow in our understanding of each other? I appreciate the directness of this e-mail and the arguments that are forcefully articulated.

The discussion in the e-mail of our respective understandings of truth is helpful. The way the e-mail states it --that I do not believe in absolute truth but only truth that each individual arrives at after considering the whole counsel of Scripture-- helps me clarify in my own mind and heart what it is I do believe about absolute truth. Thanks.

The e-mail is wrong about me believing there is little or no absolute truth. I do believe there is absolute truth. But the e-mail is right that I do think each of us has to arrive at it on our own, albeit in dialogue and community with others. The e-mail seems to assume that absolute truth does not need to be personally appropriated, but is somehow obvious to everyone who wants to know it. I do not think this is right. In other words, saying that there is absolute truth does not mean that each person doesn't have to search for it and arrive at his or her own understanding of it.

I think, too, that truth probably must be studied, discussed and discerned in community or our perception of truth becomes too individualistic, but I still think we cannot escape our own personal search for moral discernment, not even by pointing to words written in the Bible as though those words could decide for us. Scripture informs our search; it does not replace the need for it. Not even the Bible frees us from moral responsibility. We cannot simply say something is right or wrong because of one, two, several or a hundred quotes in the Bible. (Although I do think we ought to pay more attention to the things repeated over and over again hundreds of times in the Bible like biblical teachings about the poor and social justice.)

The e-mail is also right that I do think that we have to consider the whole counsel of Scripture, even when there are specific admonitions given in specific verses. Further, while I do think there is absolute truth, I am skeptical of those who think they have it infallibly. To say there is absolute truth does not mean I know it absolutely. In fact, I suspect none of us has a corner on absolute truth, certainly not me.

Part Two, I tried to use two examples to illustrate why we need to consider specific verses and teachings in the light of the whole counsel of Scripture and the deeper meaning of the biblical drama. One was the widespread belief 175 years ago in America that the Bible endorsed slavery. Many, many scholars and believers used verses from the Bible to make a coherent case (given their assumptions about how to appropriate Scripture) for slavery during the early and mid-19th century. The e-mail calls this observation "off the edge." I do not understand why.

If this very conversation were happening in 1842, we would be discussing whether the Bible endorses slavery, not whether it condemns loving relationships between gay and lesbian folk. I used the writing of
Rev. Thorton Stringfellow to illustrate how a reading of specific references and verses in the Bible without attention to the whole counsel of Scripture and the implications of the larger biblical story could be used to make an effective argument for the biblical endorsement of slavery.

I have not been able to find a copy because it is out of print, but
Amazon.com lists a publication entitled: Slavery defended from Scripture, against the attacks of the abolitionists: In a speech delivered before the General Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church, in Baltimore, 1842 by Alexander McCaine. Think of this: Rev. Alexander McCaine made a 28-page speech to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church using Bible verses and references to defend the institution of slavery! I fail to see how this precedent is "off the edge." It seems quite relevant to me. The absolute truth of Scripture --which is what it has to show us about the heart of God-- is larger than any collection of specific verses.

The second example I used was the decision of the United Methodist Church to allow second marriages after divorce in spite of the fact that Jesus himself is quoted in Matthew 19:9 and Mark 10:11 as saying that if someone divorces and marries again he or she is guilty of adultery. The United Methodist Church has come to the conclusion that, in spite of these verses, people should not be denied the comforts and joys of human romantic love as a result of past failed marriages. Although I disagree with the perspective stated in the e-mail about this, I respect the integrity of the argument made in the e-mail: that this is a sign that the United Methodist Church is kowtowing to the dominant culture. The e-mail suggests that if we, as United Methodists, were stronger and more biblical we would not allow second marriages. I disagree but I also clearly understand this argument. It is consistent.

So, let me try another illustration. I Corinthians 33b-36 says: "As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?" (NRSV)

This admonition seems pretty direct. Is the fact that our church today allows women to preach, teach, vote at Council meetings, chair committees, and serve as lay leaders another example of kowtowing to culture? Or is there a deeper impulse in Scripture (as becomes clearer in light of the insights of science and medicine about gender differences and sociological understanding of the history of patriarchy) that leads us to the discernment that women are the equals of men in church and society today in spite of this direct admonition? Even the Apostle Paul did not always see the full implications of the radical Gospel he proclaimed, especially in aspects of life --such as patriarchy-- where he had been severely indoctrinated by the culture of which he was part and where he was limited by the scientific understandings he was taught and had available to him. At least Paul did not claim to have a corner on absolute truth and had enough sense to be able to say, "We know only in part ... For now we see through a glass darkly." (I Cor. 13:9,12)

I hope this illustration of the need to consider the whole counsel of Scripture and to prayerfully discern the deeper meaning of the biblical story is not also "off the edge." I would be happy to hear a different understanding of how to appropriate Scripture or a different explanation of this Corinthian passage, but, frankly, I do not find it helpful for someone to merely reject something he or she disagrees with by dismissively calling it "off the edge."

I believe that the biblical writers did not know (and could not be expected to know) what science and medicine are teaching us today. For some men and some women same-gender romantic love is innate and natural. I do not believe that the morality of relationships is determined solely or primarily by the gender of the persons in relationship but by the quality and characteristics of the relationship. While I believe straight people can participate in the discussion, I think gay and lesbian folk need to take the lead in discerning how biblical teachings about romantic love and commitment apply to their community. We have told gay folk for years that any and all expressions of romantic love under any and all circumstances whatsoever are wrong. We have denied them any and all possibilities of the comforts and joys of human romantic love while elevating and celebrating our own commitments and marriages as holy. Now it is time for us to listen instead of assuming we know how other people should live their lives on the basis of a couple of verses of Scripture which need to be restudied in light of new information the biblical writers did not have.

The e-mail raises two additional strong points which need to be thought through. One argument made in the e-mail is that by my logic it would be possible for someone to say that he or she has an innate need to commit adultery, embezzle, or even commit murder. But there is a difference between sexual orientation and innate desires. (I think my discussion of this in the past may have been inadequate and I appreciate this e-mail pushing me to clarify my thinking.)

Many of us are clear about our opposite-gender sexual orientation. Many men know that a loving romantic relationship is only possible for them with a woman. They can and do have intimate caring relationships with other men, but a loving romantic relationship with a man would just not be possible for them. For them, the only possibility of the quality of loving romantic relationship that we celebrate in our marriage vows and elsewhere is with a woman. For many women, the only possibility of a profoundly caring romantic relationship is with a man.

But for those whose sexual orientation is same-gender, (as medicine and science are discovering) the only possibility of the quality of loving romantic relationship we uphold as valuable will be with a person of the same gender. To ask them to fake it by pretending to be romantically drawn to a person of the opposite sex would undermine the very quality of romantic relationship we celebrate, uphold and promote.

The goal remains the same for everyone --a loving relationship with the qualities we all celebrate and uphold. The only thing that is different is the gender of the persons. In this light, the argument about adultery doesn't work. If you deny gay and lesbian people the possibility of committed loving relationships, it seems to me you are actually promoting sexual instability.

The other option is to require gay and lesbian folk to be celibate. While the Apostle Paul considered celibacy a preferred state (I Cor. 7:1-2, 7-8, etc.), I am grateful that he also recognized the need that most of us have for romantic love in order for our lives to be full and complete. (I Cor. 7:9) I think it is wrong for those of us who are straight to claim for ourselves the privilege of romantic love and marriage and then deny it to others.

It is not a matter of innate desire but a matter of a given orientation. If a person were born straight, I would certainly not endorse same-gender sex just for fun. Sex is always meant to be an expression of love. We should not expect either straight or gay people to have sex with people they cannot romantically love. Neither should we mandate celibacy for those who are not called to it or do not voluntarily choose it.

The last important point that the e-mail makes is that we are instructed by Scripture not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. I want to claim a point of personal privilege on this one. In 1978 when I was being considered for a position at a university, I was asked by the hiring committee to prepare a statement of my vision for the job. I included in my statement the hope, among many others, that gay and lesbian people might be fully included in the life of the university. In 1978 the administration of this university and some people on the hiring committee thought that same-sex orientation was a perversion, as did much of society at the time. The committee finally hired me but not without extensive debate. I risked the possibility of getting a position I very much wanted because of my commitment to inclusion born out of my experience of the transforming love of God. I was not conformed to the world which reject and hated gay and lesbian people but transformed by the renewing of my mind by the grace of God.

In 1978 people were arguing against acceptance of gay folk because "everyone knows it is wrong." Now the argument is that those who oppose the acceptance of gay and lesbian folk must be right because their views are increasingly a minority opinion over against the culture. Friends, you can't have it both ways.

This is clearly not an easy conversation. I am not sure what motivated my dialogue partner to e-mail me originally, but I am glad he did and hope this conversation has been beneficial to him in some way as well. This conversation has been good for me because it reminds me of how dear the Bible is and should be to us and because it has pushed me to think more clearly. I am appreciative.


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