The Bible and Homosexuality
A Way Forward
Thoughts by Pastor Paul Purdue
As United Methodists, “We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” (EUB Confession of Faith) As Christians, the Gospels, Letters, Moses and the Prophets draw us together and toward the grace of Jesus Christ. Without the Bible serving as our common guide, our bonds will dissolve and “all the people (do) what (is) right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) Either Scripture or culture will guide our theology of gay and lesbian persons. Scripture offers a path to unity amid disagreements. In our increasingly fractured world, Methodists can add divisiveness or decide to unite. Will we obey Jesus’ new commandment: “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”? (John 13:34-35) Will we live into Jesus’ prayer for the church: “I pray that they will all be one… so that the world might believe.”? (John 17:21) Our world desperately needs the witness of disagreeing Christians who lovingly get along. If we do not model peace and goodwill, who will? The Acts of the Apostles models unity amid diverse Christian theology and practice.
As we explore the Biblical witness let us remember John Wesley’s counsel: “Pray before consulting the Word of God remembering that “Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given.” (Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on NT).
What does Jesus say about Homosexuality?
Some are surprised to learn that Jesus does not mention homosexuality.
Knowing that Jesus does not affirm or condemn homosexuality leaves us with various questions, options, and opinions. Why does Jesus fail to mention the most hotly contested theological issue of our age? What will now guide our understanding of homosexuality? Can an issue Jesus fails to address be considered essential to Christian faith? Can we “think and let think”, because Jesus does not address homosexuality? Does homosexuality “strike at the root of Christianity”? (Wesley’s sermon Catholic Spirit) Will we Methodists separate over an issue not found in the Gospels?
Some may note that although Jesus does not mention homosexuality, he does mention “Sodom and Gomorrah.” There were many sins in Sodom including rape, violence, and hostility to strangers. Upon sending out the 72 disciples, Jesus cites Sodom as an example of hostility towards God’s messengers. Matthew 10:14-15 “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words …it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Jesus names the sin of the ancient Sodomites as a refusal to welcome God’s messengers, not homosexuality.
Jesus speaks directly about human sexuality. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus teaches that marriage is not an eternal covenant: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but… (in the age to come) neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (Luke 20: 34-35) In Matthew 5:27- 28, Jesus equates lust and adultery. In Matthew 19 Jesus affirms monogamy and condemns easy divorce. “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together’. Jesus affirms life-long monogamy and straight marriage. While affirming heterosexual marriage Jesus does not condemn homosexuality. Jesus’ condemnation of divorce startles the disciples and they question him. Jesus ends the conversation saying “Not everyone can accept this teaching…Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:11-12). In Matthew’s marriage conversation, Jesus offers law and latitude. Is Jesus suggesting that faithful Christians may reach different conclusions around core institutions like marriage?
Jesus speaks to lust, the temporal nature of marriage, divorce and monogamy. Jesus does not mention homosexuality. Will we Methodists separate over an issue not found in the Gospels?
What does the New Testament say about gay and lesbian persons?
The Apostle Paul speaks about homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, & 1Timothy 1:8-10. “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 NRSV) How do we read those three passages? Some scholars assert that Paul’s word usage connotes a causal promiscuous sexuality, not committed monogamous gay and lesbian marital relationships. I leave the particular word studies to the Greek scholars. However, we must not ignore or proof-text Paul’s teachings on homosexuality. We must consider the three passages in their context and in light of the entirety of Christian teaching.
Friends, we now see some of Paul’s teachings in newer non-literal light. In 1 Timothy 2:12-15, Paul writes, “ A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. … Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing.” What do literalists do with these verses? Can we build our theology of women around them? Was Adam not deceived? Are women saved by childbirth? An honest literalist theology must explain what Paul means by child-bearing salvation. Methodists weigh Paul’s teachings with the words of Jesus and other Pauline passages. In Romans 16, Paul writes “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon …receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house.” (Romans 16) The great Apostle seemingly bans women leadership, but starts a church in Lydia’s home, works with a clergy couple, and sends a female deacon to help lead the church in Rome.
To best understand Paul’s writings we should explore Paul’s sense of inspiration. “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion…” (1 Corinthians 7:25), or “To the rest I say—I and not the Lord…“ (7:12), or “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach …But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom. “(11:13-16). The Great Apostle confesses his own lack of certainty in speaking for the Lord! Paul expresses uncertainty about speaking for the Lord in regards to virgins. Some today are uncertain about issues around homosexuality. As we deal with tough modern issues and new insights about human sexuality, let us remember that Paul admits turning to opinion, that teaching comes even from nature, and he looks to church customs for guidance.
What did we Methodists do with Paul’s teaching about women? As United Methodists we have clarified or perhaps set aside some Pauline ideas in obedience to the teachings of our Lord. In Matthew 28:5-10, “The angel said to the women, “(Jesus) is not here; he has risen! ….Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead’ … So the women ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them… (and) said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers.” Easter first teaches that “Christ is Risen”. A second Easter message is that women are told to preach by Jesus! In 1956, we fully embraced Jesus’ teachings by ordaining women to full clergy rights. In regards to ordaining women we decided to follow Jesus and thereby clarify Paul.
Jesus does not speak to homosexuality, but Paul does. Before we simply embrace Paul’s three verses at face value perhaps we need to examine Paul’s teachings on slavery. The Apostle speaks of equality before the Lord but also upholds slavery: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters… just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5) Surely no one anywhere, any longer quotes Paul’s words to justify slavery. Today, we stand firmly with John Wesley and our General Rules in rejecting slave holding. We have not always done that. The 1889 cornerstone of my current appointment reads “M.E.C .S.”! A good portion of our church stood with the right to own another child of God. We now name as sinful what the Levitical law and Paul accepted. Could we embrace a new understanding of homosexual persons just as we now accept a new understanding of slavery?
Can we clarify Paul’s prohibition on homosexuality in faithfulness to a clearer understanding of Jesus’ call to grace? Did Jesus really mean that we as the church have the keys and authority that “whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”? (Matthew 16:19) If we cannot personally accept a more inclusive understanding of homosexual persons, can we acknowledge that some faithful Christians share a different understanding of this issue? Could we acknowledge that God might be working in ways beyond our current knowledge or wisdom? In 100 years will we see biblical passages condemning homosexuality in the same light that we currently see passages supporting slavery ?
What does the OT have to say about homosexuality?
The OT Holiness code condemns homosexual practice. We must not leave the conversation there, for the OT also prescribes death for those who commit homosexual acts. Can we cling to the OT condemnation while rejecting the prescribed prescription that lies alongside it? (Leviticus 20:13) Are we theologically consistent if we assert that the OT is literally right about homosexuality but wrong about the penalty for it? Are we hoping to be literal and figurative inside the same passage?
We already unite in a grace-filled interpretation of any punishment for adulterers, blasphemers, parent cursers, Sabbath breakers, parent cursers, idol worshippers, and others the OT commands us to stone to death! (Leviticus 20:9-16) Why do we reject stoning? We reject the law on stoning, because Jesus proclaimed “you without sin cast the first stone”! (John 8) Jesus does not write a new law, but appeals to the hearts and minds of those seeking to carry out the OT law. We lean with Jesus into grace over the law. We break the OT Law when we fail to stone to death Sabbath breakers (Numbers 15:35). In Mark 7:19, the Gospel writer makes clear that Jesus sets aside the OT Kosher Laws writing “(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” Jesus does not directly say we can break kosher laws. Mark’s Gospel infers and preaches that idea. Jesus becomes the standard of the Law for Christians. The writer of Hebrews goes even further, “But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior… the covenant of which (Jesus) is mediator is superior to the old one …. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. … (God) has made the first (covenant) obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8) Indeed, the Apostle Paul may be the grand champion of grace writing: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6). We see the Law through the gracious lens of Jesus. Jesus told us “all the law and prophets hang on” loving God and neighbor! (Matthew 22:40) Imbued with grace we reconsider Paul’s teaching on slavery and women’s roles. We embrace Wesley’s teaching on Scripture: “Have a constant eye to the analogy of faith; the connection and harmony there is between those grand, fundamental doctrines…” (Explanatory Notes on NT).
Could we Christians stop “wrangling over words” knowing that “it does little good” and instead be known by a Christ-like gentleness and mutual support? (2 Timothy 2) In 100 years will we Christians come to see today’s hotly contested issue in the same way we see stoning, slavery, kosher foods, or women’s rights? Does the church have some power to bind and loose on earth and heaven in regards to issues like slavery, stoning, women’s rights, divorce or homosexuality? (Matthew 16:19)
Where do we go from here?
Where do we go from here? Our path will be shaped by how we answer questions like: “Is homosexual practice prohibitive to Christian faith and leadership?” How do we read Bible passages on slavery and stoning? Can gay and lesbian persons be effective leaders in the church? Will we Methodists, “think and let think” in regards to monogamous gay and lesbian marriage? Will we wrestle with the grand themes of the Scripture? Will we divide over three verses from Paul or follow Jesus’ New Commandment: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”? (John 13:34-35)
I wonder can we generally agree that:
- Christ frees us from the Old Testament Law. Pork Barbeque is from God! Stoning is evil.
- We see some of Paul’s teaching on issues of slavery and women in a new non-literal light. Women are called to preach, despite what the Apostle Paul sometimes says! Slavery is evil.
- We allow that any practice essential to Christian lifestyle is mentioned directly by Jesus Christ or seen in Christ’s lifestyle and practice. Christians follow Christ, and the essential elements of Christianity are found in Christ’s teachings and practice.
No matter where we stand on issues of homosexuality, the Acts of the Apostles offers our church a way forward! In a first century world deeply divided between Jewish and Gentile practice, the early church offered hope for unity. The early church saw the presence of the Risen Christ as the defining characteristic of a Christian not the persons Greek or Jewish Christian theology or practice. Core Christian ideas like forgiveness, kindness, love of God, and love for neighbor wove two very different lifestyles and practices together. More than ideas, the very presence of the Risen Christ united diverse theological camps into one church.
On this side of Glory we do not know everything. “For we know in part” (1 Corinthians 13: 9-13). We may never agree about the particulars of human sexuality. It is not easy to set aside two thousand years of church understanding. It should not be easy. We must wrestle like Jacob and argue like Peter and Paul (Galatians 2:11). We must engage the Bible as our rule, guide, and our path forward. A failure to engage the Scripture will dissolve our bonds into pockets of our own opinions.
Disagreement in the church is nothing new. When we united as Methodists we accepted both the “Articles of Religion” and “EUB Confession of Faith” as “doctrinal standards”. (Discipline 62). More significantly the NT Church flourished with two distinct theological expressions united in one church body. Let us look to Acts.
The earliest expression of the church was rooted in Jewish culture and law keeping (Acts 2:46). When Peter saw a vision calling him to reach out to Gentiles, Peter, a life-long kosher eater, protested three times “surely not I Lord” (Acts 10). Peter was appalled at the prospect of welcoming Gentiles! Still, Peter heeds the Word from the Lord “Do not call anything that God has made unclean.” (Acts 10:15) An “astonished” Peter baptizes and welcomes Gentiles, largely on the evidence of a mid-afternoon dream! As Gentiles integrate into church life they bring new practices. The legalists resist any change from the OT laws. Acts 15 shows this deep disagreement about church law. Would the Apostles include “Gentile sinners” or Greek “dogs”? (Galatians 2:15 or Mark 7:28) How did the Apostolic Church solve the theological problem of Gentile-inclusion? Peter, James and the Holy Spirit do not dis-fellowship, dissolve or divide. Instead, the Apostolic leaders welcomed a Gentile-inclusive offshoot into the Jewish-Christian Mother church. “(T)hose esteemed as pillars gave (us) the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace… and agreed that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should remember the poor.” (Galatians 2) The Jerusalem Council does not ask the Mother Church to serve pork at their pot-luck, but makes room for an experimental new branch within the mother vine. Paul calls the Gentiles “a wild olive shoot” and an “engrafted branch” (Romans 11). The new Gentile-inclusive church was a challenge. The Gentile-inclusive church dragged the Jewish Mother Church to uncomfortable new places where the Gospel was preached. Issues like sorcery, shrines, meat offered to idols, weird non-kosher food, un-circumcision, Sunday worship and other struggles bubbled up. The Jewish Mother Church welcomed this engrafted theologically diverse expression of Christian faith. No doubt, many old guard Christians shook their never shaven sideburns (Leviticus 21:5) and wondered what was happening to their church. Yet, a church united in diverse theology presented a witness that people who disagreed could stay together.
“(W)e were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. … for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:24-28). Instead of dividing and dis-fellowshipping, the church made another path. The church proclaimed that faith in Christ trumps everything that divides. Today, let us enter the struggle “to be one so that the world might believe” (John 17). Let us dig into the hard compromises of a people seeking to “Love each other. Just as (Jesus) loved (us). Today, may our love “prove to the world that (we) are Christ’s disciples.” (John 13:34-35) Indeed, as the church wrestled with Gentile-inclusion the world came to believe. The world wondered how these two divided cultures could come to love each other. The unifying answer was Jesus.
It will be a struggle. Some will always see homosexuality as contrary to Christian teaching. Some will see homosexuality through the grace-filled lens that affirms female pastors, welcomes divorced clergy who remarry (Matthew 19), and categorically denounces stoning or slavery. Some will simply be uncertain and afraid to affirm what is not clear in Scripture. We could divide into two, three or three hundred churches. We could strive to “all to be one” even as we do not agree. Will we accept that God might be working through other Methodists who do not share our point of view? Will we acknowledge that we “know in part”? (1 Corinthians 13:9) Will we accept that Jesus said “whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”? (Matthew 16:19) Will we allow some churches to experiment with an “engrafted wild olive shoot” and see what fruit grows from the True Vine? Will we “love each other” ?
A Middle Way Proposal
In keeping with the received Apostolic Church practice found in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, I propose we include gay and lesbian persons just as the church included the “engrafted wild olive shoot” that was the Gentile-inclusive church. This potential engrafted Methodist branch would welcome monogamous gay married and celibate in singleness individuals to clergy rights. It would allow gay and lesbians to marry inside welcoming churches while remaining inside the Methodist Mother Church. No clergy would be compelled to celebrate a gay union and no church forced to hold homosexual weddings. We would honor each other’s understanding of faithful discipleship while retaining our own practice and perspective. A congregation that felt called to open its sanctuary to gay and lesbian marriages could do so only after achieving a super plurality of its church members voting in a called Charge Conference dedicated and duly announced for that specific purpose. We might embrace the 2/3 standard of constitutional change, which moves a parish closer to consensus than majority rule. (UM Discipline 59) Clergy performing weddings inside a church without the approval of that church’s Charge Conference would commit a chargeable offense. We would trust our bishops to deploy clergy in keeping with their best appreciation of the needs of the churches. I believe such a system would model grace and strive to uphold John 17:21 “that they might be one”.
The church needs those who walk the prophetic edge, challenging church law and stirring reform. They threw eggs and worse at Wesley for welcoming women leaders! On the other side, the church needs those who call us to ground our practice in the Scriptures. A church not looking to Scripture embraces the culture not Christ. We are stronger together. We are stronger when we love each other. This issue might open doors to heal other divisions. Indeed, our love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control might woo our ever-more divisive world back to Jesus.
Some may see the inclusion of an “engrafted wild olive shoot” as a division in the body of Christ. The Apostolic church saw culturally-Jewish and Gentile-inclusive congregations as different expressions of the same Christian faith- two branches of the same Christian tree. The early church knew that “We all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know, But whoever loves God is known by God. (1 Corinthians 6) Believing that faith in Christ conquers all divisions the church embraced two lifestyles and practices in one church.
An Eye to the Grand Themes of Scripture
There is much I do not understand. Why does Moses get away with murder and then become the law-giver? How can God use a polygamous king, who methodically murders a friend for adulterous lust, hides the crime, and only repents once caught by the prophet? How can that sin-sick king write a Psalm that stirs my soul each Ash Wednesday? (Psalm 51) Will God honor the professions of faith made in the Methodist Episcopal Church South when it stood with slaveholders? Does “(un)sound doctrine” nullify the work of the southern church, for 1 Timothy 1:10 casts slaveholders alongside sodomites? I greet guests near a M.E.C.S. cornerstone most Sundays, and at times I ponder whether God did any work here from 1844 until sometime after the government abolished slavery? I fear for church members if the greedy are literally cast outside of God’s Kingdom along with the gays (1 Corinthians 6). If God can work in a miserable wretch like David or through a sinful slaveholding church, can’t God speak through a committed Christ-like gay or lesbian person ? Oh, friends of the Gospel and Letters, let us remember that after Paul speaks of “degrading passions” in Romans 1:26, Paul shifts from third person and warns the readers “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself… do you despise the riches of God’s kindness… by your hard and impenitent heart are you storing up wrath?” (Romans 2) Jesus cautions us not to judge. (Matthew 7) I confess my own uncertainty. Perhaps 1 Timothy 1:8-10, Romans 1:26-2, and 1 Corinthians 6 will come to be seen in newer light like we now see stoning, slavery and the subjugation of women. It is hard to say where God is working.
I personally grew up as a biblical literalist, so it is not easy for me to simply ignore Scripture. With Peter I confess my own uncertainty while leaning towards grace and Peter’s confession “Do not call anything that God has made unclean…. I most certainty understand now that God does not show partiality ” (Acts 10:15&37). Perhaps, like Peter I will only allow for inclusion and not celebrate it. You see after his great insight in welcoming the Gentiles, Peter does not personally baptize the first Gentile-Christians but allows others to baptize Cornelius’ household! (Acts 10:44-48) No wonder Paul got ticked off at him! (Galatians 2) Some joke that Peter’s deft theological maneuvers, like asking “can anyone withhold water” is how Peter got to be bishop! Yet, it is sinners like Peter and Paul that make up our church. Perhaps the inclusion of monogamous gay and lesbian unions in some Methodist churches will be the wild olive shoot that helps us all move closer to Christ. I doubt an astonished Peter thought that the future growth of the church lay in these Gentiles he watched being baptized. It is hard to say where God is working.
As I ponder the issue of monogamous gay and lesbian leadership inside the Methodist Mother Church, I can’t help but wonder if God is working in ways I do not completely understand or fully appreciate. Creating a limited pathway for some more inclusive Methodist churches to more fully celebrate gay and lesbian persons will testify to the world that we love each other even when we do not agree. We can honor and live with different understandings, because Jesus trumps everything else. In a world ripped apart by religious zealotry let us to say to each other “if you heart is as my heart, if you love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself then give me your hand” (Wesley in Catholic Spirit ) Perhaps our struggle to be one will offer a reason for the unbelieving world to believe that Jesus is alive and well inside the Methodist Church. (John 17:21)
Grace, Peace and many prayers
Pastor Paul Purdue