Near the end of his life, John Wesley wrote the following in his journal:
I then met the society, and explained at large the rise and nature of Methodism; and still aver, I have never read or heard of, either in ancient or modern history, any other church which builds on so broad a foundation as the Methodists do; which requires of its members no conformity either in opinions or modes of worship, but barely this one thing, to fear God, and to work righteousness. (August 26, 1789)
We heirs of the Methodist movement who call ourselves United Methodists stand on the brink of schism because we are deeply divided over whether sex between people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness.
We agree on some things regarding sex. We all agree, so far as I am aware, that adultery and polygamy are contrary to the will of God and righteousness. I am not aware of a significant movement within our denomination to declare fornication — sex outside of marriage — compatible with righteousness. We agree that divorce is contrary to the will of God, but that as sinful and fallen people we do break our relationships to the degree that divorce is the outcome and that divorce does not automatically preclude remarriage. And we agree that all these sexual sins are things for which we can receive forgiveness.
Our schism hangs on a disagreement about how to respond a subset of homosexual sexual activity. I do not hear anyone in the church advocating for celebration of casual, one-night hook ups by anyone. What one party in the church argues is that sexual activity between two people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness in the confines of a monogamous relationship that the partners intend to be lifelong. The majority of the church — at least as far as the votes of our General Conference indicate — has disagreed with this claim since it was first up for formal consideration in 1972.
I wonder if there would be any room for holding our denomination together if we could all affirm some form of the following statements.
- Righteousness before God is incompatible with sexual sin. We affirm biblical and Christian teaching that insists that adultery, polygamy, and fornication are contrary to the will of God and incompatible with Christian salvation.
- We recognize that the church has at times in its past held to teaching that it has changed. Guided by the prayerful study of Scripture under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church has in the past concluded that what it once held to be true should be revised. For instance, we believe there is a sound biblical argument in favor of a strict prohibition of slavery, the ordination of women, and the remarriage of divorced Christians. We hold these positions not in spite of what the Bible says, but because we believe the Bible, as the final word on all matters of faith and practice, is compatible with these positions. Arriving at these teachings has not been easy or without dispute.
- There are those in the church who believe that our teaching about same-sex sexual activity is in need of a similar revision. Those advocates have not persuaded the church of this position. They should be permitted to argue and attempt to convince the church that their position is consistent with the Bible.
- As the church is not persuaded, however, all members of the United Methodist Church should continue to honor and uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church, especially the clergy who have taken a vow to that end.
I realize this would not satisfy everyone in the church right now. We have reached the point where we can no longer hope to do that. We have arrived at the point where the question is no longer whether people will separate from the church, but what will be the grounds for separation. I believe the four statements above could be affirmed or accepted by the majority of our global denomination.
I’ve been reading Augustine’s little work “On Christian Teaching,” recently. In it, I came upon his interesting discussion of polygamy in the Old Testament.
Augustine uses the topic of Old Testament polygamy to make a point about the necessity of reading and interpreting Scripture with an understanding that it offers different instructions and teaching to different people depending on their need.
When interpreting the examples of virtuous polygamy in the Old Testament, Augustine writes that God wants us to see that human practices that we condemn can be used for good purposes and practices that we praise can be used for damnable ends.
In the times and conditions of the Old Testament, therefore, a man could have several wives for the purposes of producing many children and remain chaste if his sexual relations with them were aimed at this good purpose of reproduction. In contrast, Augustine writes, a fifth century Christian could be faithfully married to one woman but be consumed by lust in his sexual relations, using her body only as a means to satisfy his appetites. In the conditions of the Old Testament, he writes, polygamy was a duty for the good of the people as a whole, but one that was practiced justly only with an absence of lust. By the fifth century, however, the conditions no longer required such arrangements, and so polygamy is condemned outright.
I share this without really knowing what to make of it or how to incorporate it into my own understanding of sexual holiness and theology. Here are a few reactions I have.
- Augustine assumes that sex has a purpose – procreation. He also takes as given that lust is bad. This makes him incomprehensible to contemporary American culture.
- His point about sex within marriage being liable to sin drives home how little we hear such things in today’s church. In many evangelical churches, indeed, it almost sounds as if marriage is being sold as great because it gives a green light to lust.
- His emphasis on purposes and intention highlights for me how much of our talk is about formalities. Augustine reminds me that marriage is necessary for holy sexual practices but it is not sufficient. Sex that honors God’s intention for human sexuality requires more than a wedding ring.
- I am struck by Augustine’s trust in the harmony of Scripture and the revelation of God. When confronted by the contradiction between Old Testament polygamy and New Testament condemnation of the practice, he does not declare part of Scripture as inconsistent with the nature of God or declare the Bible unreliable. Instead, he starts from the affirmation that God is good, just, and self-consistent and seeks to understand the witness of Scripture from that starting point. This approach would not serve him well in many contemporary seminary classrooms.
Like I wrote above, these are not very organized thoughts. I wonder what any of this stirs up for you?
This is a bit personal. If you don’t come here for that, please turn away. (If my mother reads this, she may want to stop now.)
I am divorced. If I never remarry — which the United Methodist Church allows but Jesus seems a bit more restrictive about — I will not have sex again in my life, or if I do, I’ll be violating both my vows as a provisional and (someday) ordained elder and my understanding of God’s will for human sexual behavior.
Does that mean I — as some people seem to argue — am consigned by United Methodist teaching on sexuality to being less that fully human?
In our church wars over sexuality, we throw around words fairly loosely. One thing that gets said from time-to-time is that the church teaching that sexual relations are only condoned within the bond of monogamous, heterosexual marriage somehow does violence to people who wish to have other forms of sexual relationship and denies their full humanity.
These arguments are usually made in advancement of a point comparing same-sex and traditional marriage, but I wonder how often the people who make such arguments consider Christians who are single. Do we really think they are subhuman?
And let’s be clear, Christian single people do not refrain from sex because they are not interested in it. By choice or by circumstance, they do not marry. But that does not mean they have no sexual feelings or desires. It means they — we — are called upon to discipline those feelings and desires in obedience to God, just as we are called to discipline other desires that are contrary to God’s intention for human beings.
It is unfortunate that our church provides so little support for single Christians in this challenging and deeply counter-cultural stance. I will confess that it did not impinge much on my mind before my divorce. But I’ve had readers who have raised it and circumstances have given me cause to wrestle with these questions.
Are single people fully human, even if they never have sex?