"Should The United Methodist Church Change Its Stance On Homosexuality?"
by R. Dale Tedder, Jr.
Since 1972, every General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been challenged to remove the church's official stance concerning homosexuality that states it is "incompatible with Christian teaching."(1) Furthermore, the church officially declares that "since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."(2) Each General Conference, this officially held position of United Methodism is contested and the response of the church has typically followed this procedure as outlined by Thomas Oden:
"[F]irst... a study commission is formed... with an assumed race and gender balance of moral and biblical experts. Second, these study commissions typically report back to the general body in favor of relaxing moral constraints on homosexuality. Third, the general legislative body then promptly rejects the recommendation of the study commission."(3)
This year, once again, the debate has arisen with the same arguments against the Church's official position still in tact. These arguments come in the form of recommendations brought forth by The Committee to Study Homosexuality. The purpose of this paper is to present and critique The Report of the Committee to Study Homosexuality to the General Council on Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Since it will be outside the scope of this paper to address every statement or assumption of the Committee's report, this paper will not address the whole report, but instead will focus on what is deemed more fundamental. Toward that goal, this paper will first present the Committee's view of Scripture and its hermeneutical methodology. Second, the paper will negatively critique the Committee's working presuppositions regarding Scripture as well as how it manifests those presuppositions within the particular application concerning homosexuality. Third, this paper will conclude with a positive framework with which to ground the existing official position of the church regarding homosexuality.
The first consideration is a presentation of the Committee's understanding of biblical interpretation. Addressing the issue of biblical interpretation, Victor Furnish, a member of the Committee, says that "Scripture... attests to the fundamental ways in which God's grace seeks expression in our lives."(4) Furthermore, Furnish adds,
"[Scripture] also documents how our mothers and fathers in faith sought to discern and do what love required within the particularities of their various times, places, and circumstances. It is therefore not surprising that the specific laws and moral counsels of the Bible are diverse, often in tension with one another, sometimes even contradictory."(5)
Furnish further elaborates his, and the Committee's, understanding of biblical interpretation and moral application by suggesting that:
"To be specifically relevant a moral directive or appeal has to address the particular situation; and to be intelligible and credible it has to be expressed in a way that is meaningful within the particular social and cultural setting. Since the situations and settings of the biblical writings are varied, so are the specific moral directives and appeals they contain.
This situational and cultural particularity must be kept in mind when we ask 'what the Bible says' about homosexuality."(6)
Furnish continues developing a "proper biblical interpretation" by explaining that the ancient thinkers, which includes those who wrote the books of the Bible, were limited in their understanding about homosexuality. The writers' ignorance concerning the difference between behavior and orientation is one example of their limitation. Moreover, as people living in a particular historical, geographical and cultural context, these biblical writers merely reflected the "times" in which they lived. Furnish submits that homosexual acts were condemned for two reasons. First, there was fear that widespread homosexuality would bring on the end of the human race. After all, if there was no more heterosexual reproduction the race could not continue. Second, there was an assumption that homosexual behavior would threaten the "superior role that ancient cultures accorded to males. That is, the passive partner in a male relationship was regarded as demeaned by taking the allegedly 'inferior' role of the female..."(7) Furnish believes that these are the working presuppositions that underlie biblical references to "same-sex behavior." It is outside the parameter of this paper to exegete each text of Scripture that deals with same-sex behavior. Instead, the central point here, has been to reveal the working assumptions of Furnish and the Committee as they approach the Bible and seek moral guidance. However, it is necessary to see how these two presuppositions of the biblical writers are at work in their comments concerning homosexuality. Thus, one example will be cited in an effort to show this cultural bias in the biblical writings.
Furnish suggests that in Romans 1:26-27, Paul is merely echoing the same criticisms against same-sex behavior that were being made by others during that time. "Along with them, [Paul] takes it for granted that same-sex activity is invariably an expression of 'degrading passions,' and that people who indulge those passions have deliberately chosen to go 'against nature."(8) Furnish points out that in this passage, Paul is not primarily dealing with specific transgressions. Instead, this text should be seen in the larger context of Romans 1:18-3:20. In this broader context, the topic is that all humanity has sinned before God. Paul is saying that our sinful human condition is the issue and not particular sins. "Thus same-sex acts (which Paul presumed were always lustful)... are mentioned only as examples of the consequences of sin."(9) Thus Paul was agreeing with the prevailing sentiment of his day by including same-sex acts as part of the list of other sins. However, even here he was not concentrating on particular sins. Instead, he was focusing on humanity's sinful human condition which is shared by all, and not just a particular group of people. To summarize the Committee's position regarding this point, Furnish says:
"It accords with the most fundamental witness of Scripture that one's sexuality is to be received as a good gift of God. Moreover, this gift is to be expressed in ways that manifest the grace of God- for there is not variance in the reality of God's love, which graces and claims us, whatever the particularities of our own time and place. As for sexual relationships, God's love can find clear expression only where the partners are fully committed and faithful to one another.
Can homosexual partners never be channels of God's grace to one another? If, as widely presumed in the ancient world, same-sex acts are always lustful and destructive, then homosexual relationships can never be expressions of grace. This presumption, however, is contradicted both by the church's own experience and by the findings of the modern empirical sciences. ...God's grace can and does find expression in the lives of persons whose affectional orientation is homosexual, whether they remain celibate or whether they are committed to another in a caring, faithful relationship."(10)
Thus, for a proper response to homosexuality and the church, the Committee asserts that an appropriate methodology of biblical interpretation is needed. This methodology should appreciate the cultural, geographical and historical limitations that the biblical writers faced. With that in mind, Christians today can still look to the Bible, however, with the advances in the empirical sciences, Christians are able to move beyond those limitations. In fact, the Committee recommends that the United Methodist Church cannot responsibly teach that "all biblical references and allusions to sexual practices are binding today just because they are in the Bible. (Specific references and allusions must be examined in light of the basic biblical witness and their respective socio-cultural contexts.)"(11) Hence, for the Committee, Scripture is authoritative as far as it is able to be. However, Scripture must be interpreted and understood along with the sciences and human experience.
This clear, albeit brief, analysis of The Report of the Committee to Study Homosexuality to the General Council on Ministries of the United Methodist Church reveals much regarding the Committee's working presuppositions concerning Scripture.
The report of the Committee, as well as Furnish's explanation of that report, unveils that though God is revealed in Scripture, God did not inspire the biblical writers. In other words, there is no evidence in the report that suggests that the biblical writers were under the inspiration and direction of God the Holy Spirit. Instead, it seems that the biblical writers were victims of antiquity. That is, they were quite unable to transcend their historical, geographical and cultural limitations to present the modern day reader with a normative and therefore binding ethic. When God is excluded in this way at the beginning of the process, it is clear how the study will conclude. If Scripture is not understood to be the self-revealed, transcendent Word of God, then it becomes the musings of an ancient people who attempted to make sense out of their world based on the limited amount of wisdom and knowledge at their disposal. Even if it is granted that God is revealed in these writings, the most this position can assert is that Scripture is a fallible instruction guide giving us glimpses into what these ancient writers believed to be the case about God. Greg Bahnsen comments:
Differing attitudes toward homosexuality within the professing Christian church can often be traced to conflicting views of Scripture. Many disputes over the morality of homosexuality turn on another question: will Scripture be the Christian's normative guide or must it yield that position of authority over ethics to modern scholarship, personal experience, natural reason, new mystical insights, public opinion, or some other standard?"(12)
For an ethic to be meaningful it must be normative. Otherwise it does nothing but describe what is in fact occurring. A normative ethic prescribes a behavior. That is, it states how one ought to behave.(13) It should be obvious that there is nothing inherently binding in one human telling another human how to behave. There is nothing normative nor transcendent in an autonomous human ethic. History has shown how this type of ethical system quickly disintegrates into moral relativism. Instead,
"It is time to recognize the depths of sin to which the liberal and humanistic attitude toward Scripture is prone. When revealed theology is reduced to an autonomous study of man, when biblical authority is replaced by an unstable human wisdom, when behavior is directed by the descriptions of social science instead of the prescriptions of God's Word, then we have returned to the situation prevailing at the time of the Book of Judges: every man will do what is right in his own eyes."(14)
Instead, historic Christianity has always asserted that its ethic is transcendentally revealed. "Its source is a special Divine disclosure to man. In contrast with the ethics of human insight and speculative genius, Christian ethics is the ethic of revealed religion."(15) In fact, Carl Henry suggests that any ethical position that does not take into consideration God's revelation in and through Scripture, cannot "represent itself as being genuinely Christian in character and composition."(16) Thus, the assertion of the Committee to suggest that the biblical writers were bound to their cultural and social particularities is to claim that the transcendent God of the universe was not inspiring and directing the writers. Certainly one would not want to claim that God is bound to a cultural setting. However, Bahnsen rightly observes:
"This fact does not mean that cultural history should not be studied to understand the biblical writers better; such background considerations are, in fact, necessary to insure that our present cultural situation and modern perceptions of religion are not foisted upon the scriptural material, deforming its doctrine."(17)
What about Furnish's assumptions concerning Paul's echoing popular beliefs of his day with regards to homosexuality? In addition to what has been said concerning Scripture's divine-human authorship, two points need to be made. First, this thinking goes against the biblical witness. Ronald Nash points out:
"Paul would never have borrowed from the pagan religions. All of our information about Paul makes it highly unlikely that he was influenced by pagan sources. He placed great emphasis on his early training in a strict form of Judaism. He warned the Colossians against the very sort of thing that advocates of Christian syncretism attribute to him-- namely, letting their minds be captured by alien speculation."(18)
Secondly, Richard B. Hays says:
"The theological structure in which Paul places his indictment of relations 'contrary to nature' is a weighty one indeed. ...Those who defend the morality of homosexual relationships within the church may do so only by conferring upon these warrants an authority greater than the direct authority of Scripture and tradition... We must forthrightly recognize that in Romans 1 Paul portrays homosexual activity as a vivid and shameful sign of humanity's confusion and rebellion against God; then we must form our moral choices soberly in light of that portrayal."(19)
An unfortunate note to Furnish's comments on this text is that United Methodism's own John Wesley spoke to this very text. Wesley's pronouncement concerning this text was quite unambiguous. He "wrote on the everlasting effect of 'due penalty for their error' for those burning 'with lust toward each other; men with men working filthiness'-- the error referred to is precisely 'their idolatry; being punished with that unnatural lust, which was as horrible a dishonor to the body as their idolatry was to God.'"(20) The fact that this United Methodist Committee had to look no further than its own historical backyard, betrays the bias of the committee. In fact, there was no mention of any historical figure from our faith. Perhaps that is in part due to the verdict of historical consensus. Giants of the faith like: Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and even Karl Barth all spoke out against same-sex behavior. Perhaps the Committee's omission of Christian history is due to what Oden calls "modern chauvinism." This is the "historical perspective... and attachment that [is] so strictly limited to modern values that [it] impulsively denigrates all premodern wisdoms. Modern chauvinism assumes the intrinsic inferiority of all premodern thought and the consequent superiority of modern thought."(21) Whatever the reason, the Committee's oversight betrays its real agenda. That agenda is to insure the passage of the Committee's recommendation to soften, and therefore change the church's stance concerning homosexuality.
Having first presented The Committee to Study Homosexuality's view of Scripture and hermeneutical methodology, I followed by seeking to expose those underlying presuppositions which were at the foundation of the Committee's recommendations. Upon this negative critique of the Committee's findings, this paper will now offer a positive basis upon which the United Methodist Church can rest its official position concerning homosexuality.
The Committee rightly agreed with the United Methodist Discipline in stating that:
"We recognize that sexuality is God's good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the Church, and society. We call all persons to the disciplined, responsible fulfillment of themselves, others, and society in the stewardship of this gift."(22)
However, the Committee should have continued to read The Discipline. The next paragraph begins by saying, "Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond." Furthermore, The Discipline states that marriage is a covenant "which is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and woman."(23) The Committee apparently attempts to include homosexuality as part of "God's good gift to all persons" in its comment that, "sexual expression is most profoundly human when it takes place in the context of a caring and committed relationship where each partner can be an expression of God's grace for the other."(24) Any limitation of "sexual expression" of that "caring and committed relationship" is absent from the Committee's declaration. Yet the Committee is without warrant in suggesting this in light of the Book of Discipline's clarity regarding what it includes, and therefore what it excludes, as God's good gift.
This raises another question. If the Committee is so able to disregard the clear words of The Discipline and to revise the unmistakable witness of Scripture to mean something other than what Christian tradition has always taught, then is "anything incompatible with Christian teaching?"(25) The Committee's report has abundant references to God's grace, yet it is never defined. Instead of a biblical definition of grace, the reader senses that there are no limits for human behavior, because God's grace covers everything. One is reminded of the Apostle Paul's words: "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!"(26) Oden correctly points out that, "Grace does not mean anything goes. A cheap antinomianism that elevates tolerance to the only cardinal virtue is not the grace of God in Jesus Christ, who drove out the money changers and charged the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more."(27)
Instead, God's grace in manifested through Scripture's positive teaching on heterosexuality. David Seamands calls this, "Scripture's consistent heterosexual track."(28) From the very beginning God ordained heterosexual relationships when he created male and female. This was not merely a description of the case, but was a prescription because they were commanded to have children.(29) Furthermore, God declared that, "A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."(30) Using the Protestant principle of biblical interpretation that "Scripture interprets Scripture," one may look to the Apostle Paul to see that "becoming one flesh" implies sexual intercourse.(31) Jesus certainly taught that "becoming one flesh" in marriage was instituted at creation.(32) This sexual relationship taught by Jesus was between a man and his wife, which is the intention and prescription of the Creator.
Therefore, after all the political quarreling is over, after the theological distortions are critiqued, and after all the references to those biblical passages that deal explicitly and implicitly with the condemnation of homosexuality have been cited, the Christian can simply turn to the positive teaching of Scripture and point to God's blessing of heterosexuality within the boundaries of marriage. The official United Methodist position reflects and supports this common thread of Scripture. Should the United Methodist Church change its stance concerning homosexuality? The only faithful and biblical answer to that question has to be a resounding "NO."
1. The United Methodist 1992 Book of Discipline, paragraph 71, p. 92.
2. Ibid., paragraph 402.2, p. 202.
3. Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville: Abingdon Press), pp. 152-153.
4. Victor Paul Furnish, "Understanding Homosexuality in the Bible's Cultural Particularity" Circuit Rider (December-January 1991), p. 10.
7. Ibid. p. 11.
11. The Committee to Study Homosexuality, Circuit Rider (December-January 1991), p. 5.
12. Greg L. Bahnsen, Homosexuality: A Biblical View (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 14.
13. Ronald H. Nash, class notes from Pastoral and Social Ethics, February 12, 1996.
14. Bahnsen, p. 15.
15. Carl F.H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), p.188.
17. Bahnsen, p. 19.
18. Ronald H. Nash, Christianity and the Hellenistic World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), pp. 195-196.
19. Richard B. Hays, "Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell's Exegesis of Romans 1," The Journal of Religious Ethics (Spring 1986), p. 211.
20. Thomas C. Oden, "Taking the Task Force to Task," Good News (January-February 1993), p. 12.
21. Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity... What? Agenda For Theology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), p. 36.
22. The United Methodist Discipline, page 91, paragraph 71.
23. Ibid., pp. 90-91. (Italics mine)
24. The Committee to Study Homosexuality, Circuit Rider (December-January 1991), p. 5.
25. Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 157.
26. Romans 6:15 (NIV)
27. Oden, Ibid.
28. David A. Seamands, "God Made Them Male And Female," Good News (January-February 1992).
29. Genesis 1:27-28.
30. Genesis 2:24
31. 1 Corinthians 6:15-17
32. Matthew 19:4-6