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Sharing in Faith: United or untied?

The Rev. Ed Womack
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I’ve been a Methodist pastor for 60 years, and I’m bothered about the way our church is coming unraveled over the issue of homosexuality.

What bothers me most is that we are arguing and doing harmful things over a sentence in The Book of Discipline, which says, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (Paragraph 161.F). Other passages referring to homosexuality all point back to this one.

Saying “Christian teaching” is rather presumptuous. It implies that we are speaking for the whole Christian church when that is not true. Christians have different beliefs about many things (the inerrancy of Scriptures, transubstantiation, the ordination of women, speaking in tongues). Some churches disagree with the United Methodist position on homosexuality, the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors, and same-sex marriages in the church; and many United Methodist Christians disagree with the statement in the Discipline.

It would be more accurate to say, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality because a majority of the members of General Conference considers this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Article V of our Articles of Religion says, “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

So why are we arguing over a claim to “Christian teaching” when we should be discussing what the Scriptures say about homosexuality and how homosexual people should be treated?

Most of the “biblical discussion” I have heard concerning homosexuality has been proof texting to defend a position. It has not been a serious discussion of the Scriptures in their historical, social and religious context to see if these passages are talking about the same thing we are discussing. So I dug a little deeper to see what the Bible says about homosexuality, and I was surprised by what I found.

First, the Bible says little about homosexuality. Usually only eight passages are quoted to say that homosexuality is wrong. Eight passages out of hundreds of pages! That is not very much when people’s lives and ministries are at stake.

Second, not all eight of those passages are applicable to today’s discussion. Some are not talking about what we are talking about. Let’s remember that the Bible is a library, a collection of writings by many different authors over a period of almost 1,000 years and written for people back then. To string proof texts together as if they all came from the same author and out of the same situation ignores and violates the very nature of the Bible.

Does this mean the Bible is not inspired? Of course not. God inspired Moses and Amos and Paul and Matthew and all the other writers of Scripture, but he inspired them to speak to their situations, in their times and in their language. Therefore, every passage must be considered in its biblical and historical context.

We need the experts in our colleges and seminaries to guide us in our understanding of Scriptures, but in the meantime, let me share with you what I found.

Genesis 19:1-11

This story is a prelude to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and serves to show how evil the city was. Two divine messengers who were going to destroy the cities were offered hospitality by Lot. He treated them with normal Middle Eastern hospitality according to Hebrew law (Leviticus 19:33-34) –– preparing food, offering them shelter, and keeping them safe.

Men of Sodom, both young and old, came to Lot’s house and demanded that Lot give the two messengers to them so that they could abuse and rape them. Lot refused to turn over the messengers “for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

Lot offered his two daughters as a substitute (a telling indication of the value of women in those days), but the men refused, demanded that Lot hand over the messengers and started to break down the door.

At this point, the messengers blinded the men and rescued Lot’s family from the destruction of the city.

This story is not about homosexual persons entering into a consensual, loving relationship. This is a story about rape and the violation of Middle Eastern hospitality. No one in The United Methodist Church is advocating rape or violence or the inhospitable treatment of people by anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. So, this passage does not apply to what we are discussing today.

Judges 19:10-26

In this story, a Levite and his concubine were traveling near Jebus (later called Jerusalem) but decided not to stay there because it was a Canaanite city and they could not be sure they would be treated kindly. So they traveled on to Gibeah, an Israelite town, where they thought they would be safe.

No one offered them hospitality until an old man coming in from the fields saw them and welcomed them into his home. In the evening, wicked men from the city came to the house, beat on the door, and demanded that the old man send his visitor outside so that they could rape him. The host refused because it would be a violation of hospitality, and he offered his own virgin daughter and the visitor’s concubine instead, but the men would not listen. So the Levite pushed his concubine out the door, the men of Gibeah gang raped her, and she died. The rest of the story tells how Gibeah was punished for what the men had done.

This story is not about homosexual orientation, which is what we are debating in the church today. As the Genesis story, it is about violating Middle Eastern hospitality, especially among fellow Israelites, and about sexual violence. No one that I know is advocating or justifying violence and rape in any kind of sexual relationship — homosexual or heterosexual.

Leviticus 18:22-23

This passage is part of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), which includes laws concerning sacrifices, sexual relations, treatment of sojourners, social justice, slavery, the observance of the Sabbath, feasts and the Jubilee. This particular prohibition of homosexual activity comes in a list of prohibited sexual acts, and we are told these acts are forbidden because they are practices of the Canaanites whom Yahweh is driving from the land.

Many passages in the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomy, illustrate the need to protect the covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites as they moved into a land occupied by people who worshipped different gods. Before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were told to kill the Canaanites, tear down their altars and not intermarry with them “for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:1-5). They were forbidden to do anything that might lead them to compromise their covenant with Yahweh. In this context, Leviticus 18:22-23 is telling the Israelites not to copy the pagan worship practices of their neighbors.

Men having intercourse with other men is called an “abomination,” and I have heard “abomination” used as if this were the worst thing imaginable in God’s eyes. But that is not what the words in the Bible mean. “Abomination” is the English translation for four different Hebrew words, all of which mean loathsome or repugnant. In the Revised Standard Version, “abomination” is used 159 times in different contexts. Leviticus 11 lists clean and unclean animals, calling many of them “an abomination.” In Deuteronomy 17:1, a blemished sacrifice is an abomination. In the New Testament, Jesus calls the exaltation of money an abomination (Luke 16:14-15). So “abomination” is used to describe anything that the Israelites did not like.

Leviticus 18:22-23 says nothing about homosexuality as a sexual orientation or about committed homosexual relationships. What it prohibits is worshiping other gods, worshiping in ways that are repugnant to God, and interfering with procreation.

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Leviticus 20:13-16

This passage is also part of the Holiness Code, and these verses are part of a passage (20:10-21) that lists sexual transgressions and their punishments. In the list, if a man has intercourse with another man, or if either a man or a woman has intercourse with an animal, the penalty is death for everyone involved. This is a clear and unmistakable statement of the Hebrew attitude toward homosexual behavior. But since the other sins in the list refer to heterosexual relationships, its purpose is probably to prohibit any sex act that will limit procreation or violate expected sexual behavior.

Other Old Testament passages help us understand the origin and purpose of such laws. The law of Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) required that if a man dies without having a son, his brother must marry the deceased brother’s widow and have children by her for the deceased brother so that she “shall not be married outside the family to a stranger” and so that “the name of his brother who is dead … may not be blotted out of Israel.”

These passages indicate that there was extreme concern about increasing the tribe. If Israel were to survive, grow and be strong, it needed children, especially males who could fight in battle. So, multiple marriages and concubines were allowed, and anything that interfered with procreation or paternity rights was strongly forbidden.

We must ask if these ancient laws are applicable to all cultures in all times. Even in New Testament times, Jews were ignoring the death penalty for both the man and the woman if a man committed adultery with his neighbor’s wife (Leviticus 20:10) and considering only the woman to be guilty (John 8:3-5). Are there any Christians today calling for the death of an adulterer?

If these laws are applicable to all cultures in all times, we must ask if it is permissible to play multiple choice, picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which ones to ignore? What about the law in Leviticus 20:9, which requires that any person who curses his father or mother be put to death? On what basis can we say that one law in the Holiness Code should be enforced and others should not?

Romans 1:21-32

In this passage, Paul puts his condemnation of homosexual practices in the context of worship. Human beings have sinned by ignoring what creation shows them about God, refusing to give God honor and thanks, centering their lives on themselves, and worshipping the creature rather than the creator.

As a result, they are controlled by what Paul calls “dishonorable passions” and have given up “natural” heterosexual relations for “unnatural” homosexual practices.

Many scholars believe that sacred prostitution with both female and male prostitutes was part of worship in some Greek and Roman temples. Since this statement is in the context of worship, Paul may have had this in mind. Paul would have expected Gentile converts to abandon this practice as they “put on Christ” (Romans13:14) just as they gave up eating meat that was dedicated to idols (I Corinthians 8).

Clearly, Paul is condemning certain homosexual behavior, and the church would be right, today, to condemn such promiscuous behavior. But Paul is not talking about long-term relationships based in love and faithfulness.

However, Paul does not stop there, and we must not either. In Romans 1:26, he says, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” In 1:28, he says, “God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.” He is continuing the same theme. This is important because he lists sins that we usually leave out of the discussion of homosexuality. He names “covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, ill-will, gossip, slander, insolence, haughtiness, boasting, thinking up evil, disobedience to parents, foolishness and ruthlessness” (1:29-31). Can any of us escape?

Paul is telling us that we should be very cautious in our criticism of others because we may be on the same list.

I Corinthians 6:9

Here, Paul gives a list of practices that should exclude a person from the Kingdom of God. Along with thieves, greedy persons, drunkards, those who use abusive language and robbers, he includes “sexual perverts” (RSV). (The Living Bible says “homosexuals.”) The New Revised Standard Version uses two words — “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” — reflecting the fact that the Greek text uses two words. The first is “makalos,” which means “soft or effeminate.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible says this refers to “young men or boys in a pederastic relationship.” In his "Notes on the New Testament," John Wesley says that it refers to “those who live in an easy, indolent way, taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.” (Ouch! That could apply to a lot of us!)

The second Greek word, “arsenokoitns,” combines the words for “male” and “coitus” and most likely means intercourse with a male. Many commentators say that Corinth was known for sexual immorality, and Paul states clearly that some Christians were involved in these loose sexual activities. Did that culture have the concept of sexual orientation we have today? If not, then Paul would have assumed that all homosexual activities were purposely chosen, and he is condemning that activity.

Today, the church should join in the condemnation of any homosexual activity that is exploitive, just as we should condemn any heterosexual activity that is exploitive, but that is very different from gay persons entering a committed lifelong relationship of love and trust.

Here, also, we should look at the entire list of sins in which homosexuality is mentioned or implied to see if our own sins are listed.

I Timothy 1:8-11

Here, the author urges Timothy to stay the course (love) and says that the law is given to correct those who have strayed. In the list of those who have strayed he uses a Greek word that the RSV translates as “sodomites” and The Living Bible as “homosexuals.” If the author is the same Paul who wrote I Corinthians, then he may be talking about the same sexual looseness and exploitation that we saw in I Corinthians 6:9. Again, no one is justifying that today.

Jude 4-7

Jude was written to combat the Gnostic belief that those who had the right “knowledge” of God had a spiritual life separated from their body and were free to act immorally because they were “spiritual.” In condemnation of this heresy, the author refers to the immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Living Bible says “full of lust of every kind, including lust of men for other men,” a paraphrase that borders on commentary and allows this passage to be used against homosexual persons. A literal rendering of the Greek text would be “committing fornication and going away after different flesh.” (Alfred Marshall, The RSV Interlinear Greek-English New Testament)

“Fornication” usually refers to a heterosexual relationship. Whether “going away after different flesh” refers to adultery, homosexual relations or sex with animals is not clear from either the text or the context, so this passage may or may not apply to gay persons.

This might be a good point to note that translators of the Bible influence our theology. In I Corinthians 6:9, The Living Bible uses “homosexual,” even though that is not what the Greek text says. That is the translator’s interpretation. Likewise, in Jude 7, The Living Bible says “full of lust of every kind including lust of men for other men,” when a literal translation of the Greek says “committing fornication and going away after different flesh.” The Living Bible is a paraphrase rather than a translation, and I am confident that the author thinks this is what the text means, even though his rendering is inaccurate.

So, few Bible passages deal with homosexuality and none of them deals with homosexuality as a sexual orientation or with persons entering into a committed, long-term homosexual relationship.

What the Bible also teaches

Many more New Testament passages should be included in our discussion.

Since our dispute is focused on a church rule, passed by our General Conference, that stands in judgment of homosexual persons and pastors who minister to them, we need to consider all those passages in which Jesus criticizes preachers for being more concerned about rules than about people (Mark 2:27-28; Mark 3:1-6, Matthew 23).

And since we are talking about loving our neighbors, we need to take seriously that Jesus went beyond the command in Leviticus 19:28 to love our neighbors as ourselves and commanded us to love other people the same way that Jesus loves us (John 15:12).

If we need a reminder of whom Jesus loved and how he loved them, we need to include in our discussion all those times when Jesus loved and included people who were ignored, put down or cast out — women, children, sick, mentally ill, foreigners, lepers, crippled, blind, even “sinners” who broke religious rules.

When we are tempted to think that God’s love is restricted by “Christian teaching” and church rules, we need to include Peter’s experience with Cornelius, when Peter learned that God has no favorites regardless of what he had been taught (Acts 10).

Since we are discussing whether outsiders can be included as equals in the church without obeying all our rules, we need to include Paul arguing with the “circumcision party” who insisted that people must obey Jewish laws before they can receive grace and be admitted to the church (Galatians) and Paul and Barnabas arguing with the Jerusalem leaders about the inclusion of Gentiles (Acts 15).

Since barriers between ourselves and homosexuals have been created in our society, our laws, and our church, we need to consider Paul’s insistence that Christ had broken down all the social barriers of his day between men and women, Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free, educated and barbarian (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). Would he not also include the barrier we have erected between heterosexual and homosexual?

And, finally, we need to take seriously Paul’s insistence that nothing is more important than love (agape), not even knowledge or understanding or generosity or faith (I Corinthians 13:1). We need to ask ourselves, “Is a disciplinary rule more important than love?”

We have more than 100 colleges, universities and seminaries with scholars who can tell us what the Bible says about homosexuality and what we have learned through the ages. I hope the Council of Bishops will call on them to develop a study document for the church before the next General Conference. Perhaps this would save The United Methodist Church from becoming  the “Untied” Methodist Church.

The Rev. Edwin Womack
Cottonwood, Ariz.


Posted July 22, 2014