By C. Chappell Temple –
After more than forty years of discussion and debate, it’s clear that United Methodists are more divided than ever over how the church should respond to questions relating to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Far too often, however, the arguments advanced by many on both sides have been unduly caustic and even shrill in their expression, “full of sound and fury signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare once expressed it.
It is for that reason that I recently entered into a somewhat public pastoral conversation on the topic with a friend and colleague from my annual conference who sees these important issues differently than I do.
Our experience as pastors in the local church helped frame the question in personal and not simply theoretical or even theological terms. I’ve also counseled with numerous individuals and families on the issue, including several young men with whom I was privileged to walk through the AIDS crisis in its early years. My current congregation is composed of individuals from across the spectrum and with clearly distinct and different perspectives and orientations. Like my colleague, I have tried never to speak on the issue without keeping in the front of my mind the gay and lesbian friends I have made both inside and outside of the church over the decades.
As United Methodists we are all, hopefully at least, “people of the Book,” as John Wesley similarly called himself a homo unius librius, or a “man of one book.” The distinction for most comes thus not over acknowledging the inspiration of the scriptures, and thus their authority in our lives, but rather in exactly how we are to interpret those words, specifically as they speak to the question of human sexuality.
The place we must start is with what the Bible actually has to say about this, whether we may happen to agree with it or not. After all, as the Rev. Bill Bouknight once quipped, the liturgical response that we make on Sunday mornings is “This is the Word of the Lord… Thanks be to God,” and not “This is the Word of the Lord…are you okay with that?” So how are we indeed to make sense of the scriptural witness?
We must begin by acknowledging that the question of same-sex behavior is not a prominent biblical concern, at least insofar as specific textual references are involved. The question is not addressed in the Ten Commandments, for instance, nor are there a large number of passages in the Bible that bear directly and certainly on same-sex behavior. Jesus never mentions such conduct. Jesus also did not speak out about child abuse or nuclear war – but most Christians have inferred that he would have opposed them. More significantly, the Lord never addressed the primary social dysfunction of his own time, which was slavery. We have rightly assumed that had he done so, however, he would have said that it was wrong and a violation of the divine image God has placed inside each of us.
Misusing Scripture: Slavery and Women. It has often been suggested that the biblical perspective on homosexuality can indeed be likened to how the scriptures were misused in earlier times to justify slavery. But even given the fact that slavery in the ancient world was far different indeed from the chattel model in the American experience, still, the admonitions for slaves to obey their masters were always matched by a word mitigating how masters ought to treat those under them, whether they were a slave or simply a servant (doulos).
Despite how some in the past attempted to justify the practice, it would be a far stretch indeed to say that the scriptures were truly pro-slavery. In the New Testament, Paul’s letter to a slave owner named Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus, for example, the apostle instructs Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave… but as a dear brother,” even encouraging Philemon to “receive him as you would receive me.”
As Dr. Gavin Ortlund points out, Paul “dissolves the slave/master relationship, and erects in its place a brother/brother relationship, in which the former slave is treated with all the dignity with which the apostle himself would be treated. Thus, even before the actual institution of slavery is abolished, the work of the gospel abolishes the assumptions and prejudices that make slavery possible.”
Similarly, to take another supposed parallel, the particular passages that some used as prooftexts for the subjugation of women, including the prohibition against ordination in the church, never actually told the whole story, either. For as early as the period of the judges in Israel, there were examples of women such as Deborah in leadership, a pattern which continued into the New Testament in both the role of women in the early church but more significantly in the way in which Jesus himself elevated women in his interactions with them
However polemically helpful, we may suggest that the attempt to draw a parallel to slavery and women’s rights with that of countering homosexual behavior is thus misleading. It is worth observing that out of all the references to intimacy within the scriptures, reflecting millennia of moral development, there is not a single positive reference within the Bible to same-sex behavior. What’s more, even if the texts regarding same-sex behavior are limited, they are sufficient enough to establish a consistent biblical outlook on the matter, especially when they are viewed within the broader context of the scripture’s teaching on human sexuality in general. For a biblical view of this issue is not to be drawn only from a list of prohibited activities, but also on the pervasiveness and reasonableness of an affirmed activity, that is, marriage between a husband and wife.
Should we ignore Leviticus? There are two well-known and oft-cited passages regarding same-sex behavior in the Old Testament, Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. The principle line of argument used to negate the significance of these words for Christians today, however, has been to note that these verses are part of a system of cultic taboos within early Jewish culture known as the Holiness Code, a code which some will say was of purely human origin, or at best, principles intended for one specific context, but not expressive of the mind of God or his timeless design for us.
Those who would wish to apply these words to modern circumstances must therefore recognize that within the surrounding chapters there are also prohibitions against eating shellfish, for example, and even against cross breeding cattle, cross-planting crops, and cross-sewing two different kinds of fabric onto the same garment. If we’re not going to follow all of those regulations, or wish to understand them as simply a temporary code of conduct during the Wilderness years, then, so the argument proceeds, we ought not to pick out a few verses, such as these two, for selective enforcement either. More significantly, it has been suggested that the Leviticus texts are in actuality a condemnation not of same-sex behavior itself, and certainly not of the kind of long-term loving relationships which may exist between two men or two women, but specifically of male prostitution which marked the pagan and foreign cults of many of Israel’s neighbors at the time.
The problem with this argument, however, is that the New Testament reaffirms the validity of the Old Testament warnings about homosexual behavior, suggesting that the prohibitions were not simply part of the ceremonial laws which were only for a certain time and situation, but they were a part of God’s everlasting moral laws with a continuing ethical significance. To dismiss all of this portion of God’s Word out of hand is to plainly do injury to the idea of inspiration as well as sound interpretative principles. Indeed, even a casual glance makes clear that the Ten Commandments themselves are recorded in Leviticus 19 – directly between these two texts in question.
What is plain is that the Bible does not forbid homosexuality per se – that is, the state or orientation of an individual – but it speaks to homosexual behavior. A person who is a homosexual might not ever express that orientation in actions, choosing to embrace celibacy, for instance, while in contrast, another person may engage in homosexual actions even if they self-identify as heterosexual.
Classical World. There are those who suggest that loving and monogamous same-sex relations were relatively rare in the first century and that the biblical admonitions addressing such are not applicable to today’s situation. This is to ignore that there were clearly such consensual relationships between adults in the classical world. Four centuries before Paul, for instance, Plato, Aristophanes, Phaedrus, and Pausanias all give a positive view of same-gender eroticism, with Aristophanes writing of male partners “who continue to be with one another throughout life … desiring to join together and be fused into a single entity,” becoming “one person from two.”
As biblical scholar N.T. Wright observes: “As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato. The idea that in Paul’s today it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever … of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing.”
Indeed, the ancients even offered theories to explain same-sex attraction, and as Dr. Robert Gagnon has commented, some of their views sound “remarkably like the current scientific consensus on homosexual orientation.” It is worth noting as well that according to the Roman historian Suetonius, the emperor Nero had at least two public wedding ceremonies to other men, in one of which Nero wore a veil and played the role of the bride. Rather than being merely reflective of the culture in which he wrote, Paul’s commands were thus actually quite counter-cultural. And his views reflected not just Greek and Roman thought, of course, but centuries of Jewish tradition as well, suggesting his assent indeed with the very Old Testament texts which we have considered.
Transformation. The Apostle Paul’s primary text regarding same-sex behavior is found in the first chapter of Romans. The larger argument within the first three chapters of Romans is clearly that the Gentiles as a whole have repressed from their minds an awareness of the true God whose existence and character are obvious in his creation and as a result of this, God has abandoned many among them to sexual desires and practices that provide evidence of human sinfulness and thus, the human need for God’s grace.
In turn, St. Paul’s words to the church at Corinth indicate that the apostle sees this kind of behavior as not simply unnatural, but as prohibitive for any who would enter the kingdom of heaven – along side idolaters, adulterers, thieves, slanderers, and drunkards (1 Corinthians 6:9,10).
What is Paul’s main point? It is that those who continue in behaviors such as these, and who do not repent, or exhibit sorrow, or even strive to refocus their lives and actions, may indeed love Jesus but they have not yet yielded to the absolute Lordship of Christ.
More importantly, the attempt to dismiss this Pauline understanding by redefining the Greek words used in this passage, as well as in 1 Timothy 1.8-10, is ultimately not only an example of creative interpretation, it is also a denial of the very real principle of the power of God to transform lives, no matter what dimensions their particular sins or failings may assume. For the word of grace that follows this pivotal passage is a striking one indeed, and perhaps one of the greatest illustrations in the Bible of the ability of God to change tenses in our lives. Take notice of the move from the ways things were to how God would have them be: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6.11).
That is good news indeed to any and to all sinners – each of us – no matter what particular behavior or activity that may have otherwise entrapped us. For the promise of God is to make us new creations in Christ, no matter what our old and carnal selves may have been.
An honest examination of the scriptural witness regarding homosexuality suggests that, taken at face value, same sex intimacy violates God’s ultimate will for his children, in whatever circumstances or century they may find themselves. Likewise, the argument that homosexual behavior was of a different nature and character in biblical times than it is understood now is not supported by any careful reading of historical non-biblical texts or our knowledge of the ancient practices of those times.
The theological and linguistic loop-de-loops which some would employ to twist the meaning of the terms may be creative, but they fail to meet academic muster when divorced from their preconceived agendas, elevating personal experiences and preferences over those that are prescribed in the biblical witness itself.
This is why I disagree that the practices condemned in scripture are not the same as modern monogamous homosexual relationships, and thus the prohibitions against those practices are not applicable in the current situation of many. For though as a pastor I might wish that were not the case, I find that I have neither the luxury nor the liberty to proceed as if it were.
C. Chappell Temple is the lead pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Sugar Land, Texas, a southwestern suburb of Houston. He holds degrees from Southern Methodist University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Rice University, and has served as an adjunct professor.
This article is excerpted from a dialogue he had with a ministerial colleague in the Texas Annual Conference regarding the issues of marriage and sexuality. The exchange can be found at Christchurchsl.org under the Media tab. It is reprinted by permission of Dr. Temple.