Bishops: ‘Not of one mind’

My bishop e-mailed our conference this statement coming out of the Council of Bishop’s meeting.

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

Paul on prostitution

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:15-20, NRSV)

I wonder how this passage informs the ways Christians talk about prostitution today.

When I read a passage like the one above, I assume that what Paul had to say to the Corinthian church has something to teach us as well. The central point appears to me to be about our bodies and our relationship to Christ. Our bodies are not our own. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.

Paul finds sex with a prostitute objectionable because it unites one who belongs to Jesus Christ with someone unholy. It almost feels like we are reading Leviticus when we take a moment to look at what Paul is actually saying to the Corinthians.

No where in Paul’s analysis do questions of consent or oppression or power come into play, although that does not mean he would approve of the institution. As with slavery, Paul appears more interested in teaching the church how to live in the light of a institution existence. Whether he would eliminate the institution is not a question he openly addresses in either case. In the case of prostitution, it is a uniting what belongs to God with one who stands in de facto rebellion against God. It does not matter that in certain counties in Nevada prostitution is legal. It does not matter that countries in Europe sex work is a regulated business, as it was in ancient Rome. It does not matter that Hollywood glamorizes the degrading and brutal exploitation of women. What matters is that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. We were bought with a price, and we are not now to unite what Christ has bought with the bodies of those who are still enslaved by sin.

That reading may not make much sense in public debate about the rights of sex workers. But it is my best effort to understand Paul’s teaching and how it still speaks to the church today.

What Christians think about sex

University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus reports on the attitudes of several groups regarding various sexual norms. The survey includes categories for church-going (at least 3 times a month) Christians who support same-sex marriage and those who do not.

The findings are interesting.

It is worth reading Regnerus’ entire article as he is careful not to overstate the interpretation of his data and cautions against some easy mistakes we might make in reading the numbers above.

Biblical morality without the Bible

Victor Paul Furnish does not want us to use the Bible poorly. He wants to steer us clear of interpretations that have no credibility in the eyes of the world and ethical arguments that are based on flawed conceptions.

Biblical statements about the nature of the universe afford a useful analogy. Insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture, that creation is a gift of God and that we are called to be faithful stewards of all that God has given, they may and must be constantly affirmed. However, we would be irresponsible in our stewardship of creation were we to rely on them for specific judgments about the morality of, for example, strip-mining, clear-cutting the earth’s rain forests, or colonizing other planets; for what was presupposed in antiquity, and therefore in Scripture, about the physical properties of the universe is demonstrably wrong.

This interesting little argument from the opening chapter of the book The Loyal Opposition will be used by Furnish in the next few sentences to makes some arguments about sex, but before we read those, I wanted to dwell for a few moments on this passage.

A few things strike me as interesting here.

First, Furnish posits the existence of something called “the fundamental witness of Scripture” and then goes on to provide a summary of that fundamental witness. What is not at all clear is how this witness was arrived at and who has declared it the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding creation.1

In Wesleyan theology, we do have something called “The Analogy of Faith,” which does summarize a grand framework for interpreting the Bible.

For John Wesley, that “sense of the the whole” was reflected in how he understood the way of salvation: humans have a problem that God overcomes in Jesus Christ, so that our sin is forgiven and we are able to live a new life of inward and outward holiness.

I suspect Furnish has some sort of similar encapsulation of the whole message of Bible, but I am not sure exactly what it looks like or if it is compatible with a Wesleyan theology.

Second, Furnish appears to believe that it is dangerous to make moral judgments about colonizing Mars based on the teachings of the Bible about the nature of the universe. He says, indeed, it is irresponsible to do so. I’m not sure, however, what the concern is. Certainly it would be a bad idea to use the Bible as a technical or astronomical manual for planning a trip to Mars. The planet Mars is not, in fact, a light in the firmament that encircles the Earth. But the engineering challenges of travel to Mars is something quite different from the moral questions about whether we should invest time, talent, and energy into making the trip. It seems to me that the Bible has a lot to contribute to that discussion.

In short, I do not understand why the Bible’s statements about the windows of heaven and the pillars of the Earth matter at all in any morality of creation stewardship. Scientific knowledge is quite useful, but does it tell us anything about the morality of strip mining that we could not say if we knew nothing about geology?

These questions repeat as I read the next few lines of Furnish’s paragraph.

Similarly, we may affirm the biblical statements about sex, insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture that sex is part of God’s good creation, for which we have continuing moral responsibility. But scriptural counsels about sex that are based on discredited presuppositions can be of no specific help as we consider what it means in actual practice to be faithful stewards of our God-given sexuality.

Here we see the same issues. Who, exactly, determined the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding sex? The Bible does speak of sex quite a bit, but I’m not aware of any place where it is discussed as a generic thing for which we have some undefined moral responsibility.

And what do the debatable historical conclusions of scholars about the nature of sex — which Furnish argues discredit the biblical texts — really tell us with any certainty? Our “knowledge” about sexuality today or 2,000 years ago bears little resemblance to empirical science. An operational definition of the term “sexuality” that permits observation and measurement of the phenomenon has proven elusive, to state just one major problem with treating the topic of sex like a science. If biblical statements about sex have been discredited, it is because biblical notions are out of fashion in gender studies and sociology departments at universities, not because there has been an empirical breakthrough with regard to the meaning of the word sexuality and its attributes. We have no Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo when it comes to sex.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way we are urged to be morally responsible and to steward faithfully the God-given gift of sex in a context in which the term “morally responsible” has no meaning. If the witness of the Bible on sex reduces to the claim that it is good and we should be morally responsible in our sexuality, then we have to look outside the Bible for guidance on what it means to be morally responsible with regard to sex.

Indeed, in the end, our “biblical” ethic of sex ends up looking exactly like the ethic of sex we would adopt if the Bible had never been written. The Bible has been reduced to a vague “fundamental witness” that provides no independent teaching on the will of God or moral behavior.

All of this is my way of saying that the proposals of the sexual progressives in the United Methodist Church about the way we should use scripture in our theological discernment strike me as incoherent from the point of view of our theological heritage and task. What Furnish and others appear to be advocating is a sexual ethics that looks exactly like the sexual ethics devised by the world that does not read the Bible or call Jesus Lord.

I suspect Furnish would argue that he is merely using the best understanding of modern science and scholarship to inform his reading of Scripture. He is using reason. But other than saying the word “God” I don’t see how his ethics of sex is in any way distinguishable from the consensus opinion that center-left upper middle-class America would come up with independent of the Bible.

Which may explain why our ethics around issues such as the use of money also bears almost no resemblance to the biblical conversation around money. Indeed, it may be that our successful efforts to exclude the Bible from our economics may have set the stage for the argument that Furnish would have us make with regard to sex.

But that is probably a conversation for another day.


1I also find Furnish’s description of creation as a “gift” of God and also something over which we must exercise good stewardship confusing. I have always understood a steward to be one who has control over something owned or possessed by another. A master does not give his estate to his steward as a gift, but as a responsibility. This may be a minor semantic point, but it does raise questions for me.

We already have a local option

One of the things that rang most true to me in reading Adam Hamilton’s explanation of the document he helped draft, A Way Forward, was his observation that we already do many of the things the document calls for.

Cabinets already make appointments to churches based on the fit between congregations and pastors on theological issues. We already ordain clergy regardless of whether they observe the standards of sexual practice we set for them. We already have clergy conducting wedding services that violate the language of the Book of Discipline. Depending on who you are, where you live, and who your cabinet is we have different sets of rules, norms, and practices that more and more turn a blind eye to the words of our Discipline.

This truth was underscored for me this week when I read of the appointment of Amy DeLong to a church in Wisconsin and the upcoming celebration at the church to welcome Rev. DeLong and her partner Val Zellmer to their new parsonage home.

We already have a local option.

The question is whether we want to endorse and ratify it as Hamilton suggests or try to roll it back. Given those to options, I understand why some are talking about leaving.