By Thomas A. Lambrecht
As we approach General Conference 2012, the moral issue that has the most energy and conflict around it is the question of the acceptability of homosexual behavior and the definition of marriage. This is so, not because evangelicals and renewalists keep focusing on this issue. It is because for forty years, progressives have continued to push for a change in the Christian church’s longstanding understanding that sexual relationships between persons of the same gender are contrary to Biblical teaching and that marriage is between a man and a woman. This pushing for the acceptance of homosexuality has taken the form of legislative proposals, lobbying of delegates, political tactics in the election of Judicial Council, annual conference resolutions and policies, questions of law to the Judicial Council, election of bishops, several churchwide studies, and numerous times of holy conferencing. Now, the pushing has come to outright defiance in the performing of same-sex unions by UM clergy, contrary to church law.
For 40 years, The United Methodist Church has been steadfast in its adherence to our balanced, loving, but firm position. Not willing to take “no” for an answer, proponents keep pushing. And now their pushing runs the real risk of tearing our beloved church apart.
Why does it matter?
It is tempting at times to want to give up the struggle. We wonder why we have to engage in this emotionally brutal conflict again and again at the national, regional, and even local level. I would like to suggest several reasons why it is important for us to continue standing firm for the Scriptural definition of marriage and its teaching on human sexuality.
1. Heterosexual marriage portrays the image of God. Male/female marriage is an essential doctrine because it is tightly connected to the doctrine of creation and God’s natural revelation. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” “Man” (adam), “image of God,” and “male (zacar) and female” are all parallel terms in this Hebrew poetry. The complementarity of male and female is essential to what it means to be human (adam). Even more importantly, the complementarity of male and female is how God chose to portray himself in the world. In male/female marriage we have the fullest picture of God in the natural world. We have difference (males and females are quite different!), we have complementarity (a “suitable helper,” “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”—Genesis 2:20, 23), and we have union (“be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh”—Genesis 2:24). In the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different from one another, but complementary to each other, and they are one.
Two males or two females cannot portray the image of God, for they lack difference and therefore have identity, rather than complementarity. God created heterosexual marriage as a picture of himself. To adopt any other definition of marriage would be to rebel against God’s creation order and subvert God’s natural revelation.
2. Heterosexual marriage portrays the relationship of Christ with the Church. “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Male/female marriage is an essential doctrine because it is tightly connected to the doctrine of the Church. Paul says that not only did God create heterosexual marriage as a picture of his being (the Trinity), but God also views marriage as a picture of God’s relationship with his people in community (the Church). Just as the husband and wife have different responsibilities toward one another (within a context of mutual submission, see vs. 21), Christ and the Church have different responsibilities toward one another.
Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and he loves the Church by giving himself for her, making her holy, cleansing her, and presenting her as a radiant bride (vs. 23, 25-27). This is portrayed by the husband, who provides sacrificial leadership in the home and “husbands” his wife to become all that she was created to be. In contrast, the Church is to submit to Christ in everything and to respond to his ministry on her behalf by becoming the holy, unblemished bride that he is preparing (vs. 23-24, 26-27). The wife portrays this reality by responding to the leadership of her husband and to his ministry to her in becoming the person God intends her to be.
To be sure, there have been many unfortunately imperfect attempts to live out this ideal that have resulted in abuse or oppression directed toward wives and children in the name of “male headship,” ignoring the primary command to mutual submission and servant leadership. And interpreters present a range of possible applications of Biblical teachings on marriage (from hierarchical to egalitarian) that I do not have time or space to develop here. But while much more could be said about the Bible’s teaching on marriage, even in these few verses it is clear that heterosexual marriage is meant to be a living example of how Jesus Christ relates to the Church. Paul calls it a “mystery,” something that was previously hidden, but is now revealed through Christ. To adopt any other definition of marriage would be to short-circuit God’s intended depiction of the process of salvation and sanctification.
3. Heterosexual marriage is the best environment for the raising of children. As we momentarily depart from theology and engage with sociology, we find there is much evidence for the desirability of heterosexual marriage. Numerous studies have found that children raised by their own blood mother and father have the best outcomes in terms of physical health, intellectual and social development, career, avoidance of antisocial behavior, and many other measures. First marriages are also the most stable family units, as subsequent marriages, cohabitation outside of marriage, and same-sex relationships all have higher rates of “breakup.” Such stability ought to be encouraged as the best environment for children, who often suffer lifelong harm from divorce or relationship breakup. In addition, a heterosexual marriage offers the best opportunity for a child to experience what it means to be a man and a woman in everyday life. The image of God in differentness, complementarity, and union are continually played out on the stage of daily relationship. In a Christian marriage, moreover, the child has the opportunity to observe and benefit from the mutual submission and sacrificial love enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the parents.
Obviously, there are situations where a dysfunctional marriage becomes hazardous to children, or where there was never a father/mother relationship at all. In these and similar types of situations, the church (and our culture) needs to do whatever we can to support and strengthen single parents and step-families. I thank God for couples and in some cases single adults who step forward sacrificially to adopt children and give them a loving home. All of this is part of what we do in ministry in a broken world. But it is not the way God originally planned it to be.
In the spirit of “something is better than nothing,” some proponents argue that in a world full of lost children, we should allow for homosexual couples to offer loving homes to children in need of them. Perhaps. The problem is that proponents believe that same-sex “marriages” are as good for children as heterosexual ones, and that God’s grace is as fully available in a same-sex “marriage” as in a heterosexual one. This is not the case.
Furthermore, the church’s teaching sets the ideal, what we are all to be aiming for. The church’s approval of same-sex “marriage” and homosexual behavior would encourage people to form same-sex relationships and conceive children to be raised in these relationships. To adopt another definition of marriage would be to encourage behavior, relationships, and family units that are less than God’s best for us as human beings.
4. Submission to the authority of Scripture. United Methodists believe that “the Holy Bible … [is] the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). The Scriptures are clear that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will. Every churchwide study has acknowledged that point. Recent attempts at reinterpreting Scripture to be silent on the issue (or even approving of homosexual behavior) do not bear the weight of scholarly exegetical analysis. Instead, they come across as a desperate attempt to find justification in the Bible for a behavior that the “sexual revolution” has already endorsed.
For our church to change its position would be to turn its back on Scriptural authority, undermining the Gospel and all that we stand for as a church. Our knowledge about God, ourselves, salvation, and moral behavior is from God’s self-revelation in his Word. “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty… For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16, 21). If we can twist the clear meaning of Scripture to allow for same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior, we can twist it to mean anything we want on any topic at all! And that is just what is happening. Many of those who want to reinterpret Scripture to condone homosexual conduct also want to reinterpret Scripture to get rid of hell and judgment, the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, and other core doctrines of our faith.
We must remain faithful to God’s self-revelation and moral instruction in Scripture, if we are to be considered disciples of Jesus Christ. “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
Wolfhart Pannenberg, eminent German theologian of our time, puts it this way. “Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”
Why is this happening?
Pondering the bigger picture of what God might be doing in allowing the broader church to confront the issues of homosexuality and marriage, I have some theories.
• This crisis is an opportunity for the church to get our theology of human sexuality right. Almost all theological advancements in church history have come as a result of confronting a theological error. Confronting the error that homosexual behavior is good and that same-sex marriage equals heterosexual marriage forces the church to articulate our theology of sexuality and marriage. Sex has become an idol in America and other parts of the world over the last 40 years (see Karen Booth’s article elsewhere in this issue). The church has allowed that idolatry to go on with only a weak challenge. In order to stay faithful, we need to do a much better job of articulating a theology of sex and marriage that encompasses God’s great plan for both.
• This crisis is also an invitation to Christian discipleship. We are called to put feet to our theology by training our people to reclaim godly sexuality in their everyday lives. So many have been wounded by sexual abuse and sexual promiscuity that they do not know how to function in a chaste and faithful way. We should be preaching and teaching on sexuality and marriage much more than we are. We should be offering healing to the wounded through prayer and Christian counsel. We should be offering ministry to those beset by unwanted desires, whether heterosexual or homosexual. We should be offering help in overcoming addiction to pornography. Only as we are healed and walking in sanctification can we influence the next generation of our children and grandchildren, so that they do not repeat our mistakes. It is our baby boom generation that blew it by falling for the sexual revolution. It is our generation that can be part of the solution by getting the church back on the right track in this area.
Our church stands at another crossroads, as we have many times before. We have usually in the past chosen the road that leads to unity and faithfulness. So many times, one wrong turn would have taken us over the cliff. My prayer is that God will lead us once again to corporately choose the right path, so that with one heart and one mouth we may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:6).
Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.