By Rob Renfroe and Thomas Lambrecht
In a recent column in The Washington Post, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (the largest United Methodist congregation in the U.S.), stated that Bible verses that prohibit same-sex intimacy “capture the cultural understandings and practices of sexuality in biblical times, but do not reflect God’s will for gay and lesbian people.” This is not a new position for Rev. Hamilton to take. He came to the same conclusion in his 2010 book, When Christians Get It Wrong. (Links are provided at the conclusion of this article.)
Good News has great respect for the ministry and leadership of Adam Hamilton. His ministry is biblically based and effective. His written resources for congregational study have helped hundreds of churches engage Scripture and grow spiritually. We consider Hamilton to be an orthodox believer who affirms United Methodist doctrine—a brother in Christ. On this issue, however, we believe that it is the Rev. Hamilton who gets it wrong.
Not all interpretations of Scripture have equal validity. It is important to examine the supporting evidence for a particular interpretation of Scriptural teaching. Hamilton’s question, “Are the Biblical passages forbidding same-sex intimacy culturally bound and thus not applicable to us today,” is a fair and valid question. The biblical evidence, however, does not support his answer.
The Rev. Hamilton compares the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality to the teaching on slavery. He maintains that the Bible’s teaching that “tacitly approved” slavery was culturally conditioned, even though at times in church history those same teachings were used to justify the practice of slavery, which we now believe to be unjust and immoral. In the same way, he says, it is possible to read the Bible’s teaching on same-sex intimacy as reflecting the cultural conditions of Bible times and not representative of God’s will for today.
However, the comparison between the Bible’s teaching on slavery and on same-sex intimacy breaks down. The Bible never commands the practice of slavery, but regulates (in the Old Testament) a practice that was already embedded in the culture. As a matter of fact, the most memorable image in the Old Testament is Moses standing before Pharaoh on behalf of the enslaved Israelite nation, announcing God’s demand, “Let my people go!”
In the New Testament, the apostles advised slaves how to live as Christians in a circumstance that they could not change. But the most compelling image in the New Testament is Jesus speaking in the Nazareth synagogue proclaiming “freedom for the prisoners” and “release to the oppressed.”
By contrast, the Bible’s teaching clearly forbids same-sex intimacy. It is not simply acknowledging a practice in existence, but actually commanding Christians not to engage in it. There is no ambivalence about this teaching throughout Scripture. That makes it less likely to be culturally bound.
The Bible’s teaching on slavery contains within it the seeds of slavery’s demise. The Old Testament regulations of slavery made the institution more humane than the ways it was practiced in surrounding cultures. In the New Testament, Paul encourages slaves who have the opportunity to become free to take that opportunity (I Corinthians 7:21). Paul also subtly encourages Philemon to free his newly-converted slave Onesimus (Philemon 15-16). Most importantly, the New Testament asserts that in Christ all are equal—there is no slave or free (Galatians 3:28). Paul reminds masters that they are subject to a Master in heaven, who will not regard them more favorably than their slaves (Ephesians 6:8-9). The reason for the apostles’ advice that slaves should serve their masters “with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” is to maintain a winsome Christian witness—“so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10, also I Timothy 6:1-2).
All these qualifications and tempering of the Christian view of slavery show it to be culturally conditioned, and these qualifications eventually led to the ethical conclusion that slavery is immoral, not in keeping with the timeless will of God. There are no such qualifications or softening of biblical teaching regarding same-sex intimacy. Therefore, it is far less likely that such teaching is culturally conditioned.
In his book, the Rev. Hamilton uses an interpretive lens to determine which Scriptures are applicable to today: love for God and love for neighbor. Hamilton believes any Biblical teaching that is inconsistent with those two commands is not currently binding upon us. We do not agree with the approach of taking one passage of Scripture as a filter by which to evaluate all the rest of Scripture. Instead, it is best to take each passage in its own historical and theological context. However, even using Hamilton’s approach does not necessarily yield a definitive answer on this question.
Is it loving to use gay slurs or “jokes,” hateful language, or even violence against gays and lesbians? Of course not, and we condemn such hateful behavior in the strongest terms. Is it loving for the church to place its stamp of approval on any behavior that people feel attracted to, as long as it doesn’t “hurt” another person? That is a weak definition of love, inadequate for our calling to “transform the world.” Is it loving for the church to condone what God has forbidden? John describes love this way, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands” (I John 5:2-3).
The Rev. Hamilton mentions “a handful of Scriptures (five or eight depending upon how one counts) that specifically speak of same-sex intimacy as unacceptable to God.” But we believe the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality and God’s intention is based on far more than a few isolated verses. The thread of heterosexual monogamy runs throughout Scripture. (We recognize the presence of polygamy in Scripture as an aberration from the New Testament norm and God’s ideal.)
God created male and female for each other (Genesis 1 and 2), resulting in the two becoming “one flesh” and representing the image of God in their complementary maleness and femaleness. Jesus reaffirmed God’s original intention (contrary to the law of Moses’ accommodation to the people’s hardness of heart) in defining marriage as the exclusive permanent union of a man and a woman (Matthew 19:1-12). God designed the union of man and woman in marriage to symbolize for us the union of Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:21-33). The culmination of God’s plan is pictured as the great “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).
This constant thread of heterosexual monogamy throughout Scripture, along with the specific prohibitions of certain sexual behavior (adultery, prostitution, promiscuity, same-sex intimacy) give us the basis for determining God’s timeless will for expressing our human sexuality. New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright puts it this way, “When you look at the grand narrative about male and female, from Genesis right through to Revelation, this isn’t just one or two arbitrary rules about how to behave with bits of your body. This is about something woven into the deep structure of what it means to be created in the image of God, what it means to be citizens of this God-given world. And until we learn to see ethics in that way, we haven’t actually got to first base.”
There are only a couple verses in the New Testament that explicitly criticize polygamy, which is otherwise “tacitly approved” in the rest of Scripture. Yet, based on the thread of heterosexual monogamy, along with some of the adverse consequences also recorded in Scripture, the church has come to see polygamy as contrary to the timeless will of God.
There are only a few passages in Scripture that explicitly address sex before marriage (rather than adultery or promiscuity). Yet, based on the thread of heterosexual monogamy and on religious traditions carried over from biblical times, the church has consistently affirmed that sexual relations ought to be reserved for marriage alone.
In our current culture, it is tempting to want to lower the bar of Christian expectations. Recent surveys have shown that 63 percent of young adults believe same-sex intimacy should be accepted by society. This is part of an overall trend in which another recent survey found that 44 percent of single women and 63 percent of single men have had one-night stands and that 42 percent of single adults would not date a virgin.
Good News believes that it is the wrong course for the church to abandon its teaching on sexuality in the face of the rapidly declining moral standards of our society under the guise of attempting to make the Gospel message “more attractive.” The Gospel message and the ministry of Jesus Christ will only be attractive to the extent that they demonstrate the power to transform lives and elevate human behavior to the original intention of our Creator.
Eminent theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg summarizes Good News’ perspective: “The reality of homophile inclinations, therefore, need not be denied and must not be condemned. The question, however, is how to handle such inclinations within the human task of responsibly directing our behavior. This is the real problem; and it is here that we must deal with the conclusion that homosexual activity is a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God. For the church this is the case not only for homosexual, but for any sexual activity that does not intend the goal of marriage between man and wife, [including] particularly adultery.
“The church has to live with the fact that, in this area of life as in others, departures from the norm are not exceptional but rather common and widespread. The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance. It cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and behavior that departs from that norm.”
We understand the pastoral dilemma that causes Adam Hamilton to wrestle with the Scriptures over this contentious issue. Many of us have wrestled with the need to be pastoral, while also being faithful to Scripture, in leading people to the most important reality: a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are ultimately unconvinced that surrendering God’s ideal for human sexuality in the face of cultural pressure will result in faithful, world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ. Presented with love, understanding, and compassion, we believe Christ’s call to holiness of heart and life is the way to invite a fallen world to follow the “Author and Perfecter of our faith.”
Good News hopes that, as we continue to discuss the crucial constellation of issues around sexual morality, Scripture, and the church’s teachings, we will do so with grace and respect for each other. We encourage clergy and laity alike to delve more deeply into the interpretation of Scripture, including resources available on our website and others, so that we can move toward a common understanding of the church’s proper ministry in this age of sexual chaos.
The Rev. Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.