Bishop Roy Sano’s call for “Biblical Obedience” and Dr. Ben Witherington’s response

Bishop Roy Sano

Bishop Roy Sano

Retired Bishop Roy Sano has made a spirited defense of same-sex weddings in an editorial on the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference website. United Methodist clergy persons who are conducting same-sex unions – something that the global denomination prohibits – are “doing so out of love for those they are uniting,” Sano writes.

He also believes that United Methodist clergypersons are performing same-sex weddings because they “see the Church’s prohibitions contradicting Wesleyan hospitality” and “cannot comply with what they see as an injustice in the Church’s prohibition and are seeking to restore justice.”

Sano concludes that the “prohibition of same gender unions in our Discipline has nullified and abandoned key passages in the biblical witnesses to God’s work, and is weighed down with human traditions that constrain us from fulfilling the Great Commandment with ‘weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith.’”

In response to Bishop Sano’s editorial, Professor Ben Witherington responded in a four-part blog. A prolific author, Witherington is Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

1. In the first segment of his response, Witherington addressed the presuppositional issue that people are born gay or lesbian.

“The issue in any case in the Bible is not ‘sexual orientation’ or even sexual inclinations,” Witherington writes. “The former is a phrase invented in my lifetime. The issue in the Bible is sexual behavior. Period. The assumption throughout the New Testament is that by the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit we have control over our behavior. When we cease to believe that fact, we have given up the whole notion that grace and the Spirit of God can enable us to behave in good and godly ways.”

Dr. Ben Witherington

Dr. Ben Witherington

2. In the second segment of his response to Sano, Witherington makes a very strong distinction between racial prejudice and the biblical prohibition against same-sex sexual behavior.

“We are all beings of sacred worth created in the image of God, and loved by God, but we are also all fallen human beings in need of redemption by God,” Witherington writes. “Who we are is one thing, what we do is another. A critique of same sex sexual activity and same sex marriage is a critique of behavior. It is not a justice issue, as racism is. It is a sexual ethics issue. There is a big difference between mere prejudice and having moral principles about sexual behavior.”

3. In the third segment of his response, Witherington addresses Bishop Sano’s interpretation of the teachings of Jesus regarding eunuchs in Matthew 19.

“Now eunochoi in antiquity were most certainly not gay or lesbian persons,” Witherington writes. “They were persons who: 1) either had a birth defect in regard to their genitals, 2) were castrated by others, or 3) even made themselves eunuchs by self-castration. In other words we are dealing not with people who engaged in non-heterosexual sexual activity, we are dealing with people who had been incapacitated from engaging in normal sexual activity at all!”

Witherington writes that it is “perfectly clear that Jesus is not talking about gays or lesbians when he mentions eunuchs, and indeed the only sort of marriage he endorses here is heterosexual monogamy.”

“In fact,” he concludes, “not only is Jesus not enunciating a more broad definition of marriage and divorce here, he is actually suggesting a more restrictive view than was current in early Judaism….”

4. In the fourth segment of his response, Witherington makes the case for an amicable separation between the Progressive Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church.

Why should we begin the negotiations for a split? “Because we are like a marriage with irreconcilable differences, no matter how much we talk these issues to death,” Witherington writes. “They are also necessary because those who are agitating for changing our views of marriage, and sexuality and even our view of ordination surely must realize that they are in a minority in our church, and our church decides these issues once every four years by majority vote.”

The issues of marriage and sexuality are issue that are divisive enough to only perpetuate the frustration and hurt and alienation within United Methodism.

“While supporting gay and lesbian behavior and marriage and ordination is an issue of conscience for a minority of us, supporting traditional marriage and sexual behavior is a non-negotiable issue of conscience for the majority of us, and I do not expect either side to change their minds now,” Witherington writes.

“So let us find a way to help those who need to leave and start a Progressive Methodist Church do so without losing our sanctification or our willingness to go on loving one another, no matter how strongly we may disagree on this fundamental issue,” he concludes. “The dictum for the UMC should always be ‘in fundamentals, unity, in non-fundamentals diversity, in all things charity’. But make no mistake, the sanctity of marriage as Biblically defined, and the need for personal holiness when it comes to sexual conduct are indeed fundamentals of the Christian faith.”

• Bishop Sano’s entire editorial can be read HERE.

• Dr. Witherington’s response – Part 1

• Dr. Witherington’s response – Part 2

• Dr. Witherington’s response – Part 3

• Dr. Witherington’s response – Part 4


  1. Rev. Paul Dreher-Wiberg says

    Witherington’s “response” is the biggest load of crap I’ve read in a while. But I would expect as much for an apologist for the fundamentalist UM right wing. What I know for certain is that the matter of marriage equality IS a matter both of justice and of Gospel, and as such, marriage equality will ultimately prevail, because God wills justice among God’s people. I fear that it will take another generation of old white men dying off before we get there, but we will get there.

    • Rev. Paul Dreher-Wiberg says

      I wholeheartedly agree with Witherington in one sense; that it time for the UMC to negotiate an equitable split… something I have been advocating for for decades. I am skeptical, however, whether equity will play well once the Southeastern Jurisdiction gets its hand in the matter, for whom equity has never been a value.

    • Jonathan Beck says

      Rev. Wiberg, in what sense do you determine Dr. Witgerington’s article to be a load of crap? As for myself, I understand the viewpoints of both sides. Bother are drawing upon biblical theology. But I am hard-pressed to find an area where Dr. Witherington’s argument is not also well-grounded in both scripture and knowledge of the cultural context of the time period.

      I understand that there are also compelling arguments on both sides. If this were a completely clear-cut issue, we wouldn’t “have” two sides. But to say that there is no support for Witherington’s view – which is how I interpret your phrase “the biggest loss of crap I’ve heard in a while” – is equally suspect of the errors that you are assuming Witherington is making. In my estimation, you would be well-served to fairly consider the points Witherington raises rather than to dismiss them out of hand solely because his view is different from your own.

      Moreover, with your credentials as a pastor, I would expect a better representation of Christ’s love and understanding, which is undoubtedly a central point in your own arguments on the issue, rather than dismiss it with the quite-insulting designation of “the biggest load of crap. L”

      But primarily, I am interested in what you yourself have to say. Please do share.

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