by Jim Noland, D.Min.
Jim is an Elder in the Virginia Annual Conference. Jim retired from Reveille UMC in Richmond, VA in 2014. Jim served six appointments over the course of 30 years. Jim holds degrees from the University of Virginia, Perkins School of Theology, and Wesley Theological Seminary. For several years, Jim taught Methodist History and Doctrine at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, and for over 20 years he has taught in the Course of Study at Wesley. Jim has served on the Board of Ministry and for twelve years he chaired the Conference Committee on Investigation.
In the recent and ongoing controversy within The United Methodist Church concerning how the church should relate to homosexual persons, there has been remarkably little examination of scripture. Instead of a serious theological conversation we have experienced a great deal of talk about process, and this within a highly politicized environment.
This is puzzling for a number of reasons. True, we United Methodists are not committed to sola scriptura and few of us are literalists with regard to Biblical interpretation. But we are committed to a theology that views scripture as primary, so one would have expected a more nuanced and deeper debate.
Recently I attended a UMC worship service in which the burden of the sermon was that since we ignore the great bulk of the holiness code in Leviticus (such things as not eating pork and shrimp), then we should also disregard its prohibitions with regard to sexual affairs. And by implication any such prohibitions in the New Testament as well.
This sermon presented a shockingly shallow view of an issue which was in fact addressed in the first century as recorded in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. When Paul and Barnabas met with the apostles and elders to consider how to deal with gentile converts in what is called “The Council of Jerusalem,” it was decided that the holiness code was not binding on non-Jewish Christians, but that they should “abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood”(Acts 15:19).
Advocates for deleting the restrictive language from The Discipline often point out, correctly, that there are few verses regarding homosexuality in the Bible. To this I would say that there none that view it favorably and that, in addition, an argument from silence is unconvincing. For example, the fact that the Bible is silent on the issue of climate change does not mean that it should not be an issue for Christians. It is also worth noting that the term “homosexual” did not even exist until it was coined in the late nineteenth century.
A more telling objection is that we no longer abide by the Pauline restrictions on women in the church. However, a strong case can be made that these were particular to the context of specific congregations and that the overall tenor of Paul’s ministry expressed a counter-cultural acceptance of women (see for example his comments on Prisca and Phoebe). He also explicitly articulated that in Christ there is “neither male nor female.” So, in accepting women in ministry we have not simply disregarded scripture; rather we have explored its deeper meaning.
Can we do the same with homosexuality? That is the question. One of the clearest discussions of this issue can be found in Victor Paul Furnish’s The Moral Teaching of Paul. Furnish is clear that Paul condemns homosexual practices, but he argues that we can no longer accept many of Paul’s assumptions about the issue, primarily that homosexual acts are “freely chosen.” This is because, according to Furnish, Paul had no understanding of sexual orientation as an inherent, involuntary condition. Given this analysis, which is widely shared, a loving church should relax its restrictive stance, much as it did earlier with regard to race. On this view it is a matter of justice for a minority.
The problem is that Furnish’s view is also dated. The concept of sexual orientation as an innate condition is increasingly giving way to a much more fluid view of human sexuality in which all gender roles are simply social constructs that unduly inhibit the free expression of one’s chosen sexual identity. You will note the addition of “sexual expression” to the more recent pronouncements of the progressive wing of the church.
The truth is that the United Methodist conversation on changing The Discipline has not taken into consideration the changing theories of sexuality being advanced in academia. The current landscape is beginning to look more like the one Paul inhabited, wherein the human will plays a strong role. The issue is returning to one of behavior rather than fixed orientation. Thus, The Discipline was perhaps wise beyond its understanding to view homosexuals as persons of sacred worth while rejecting certain sexual practices.
The most profound scriptural analysis of this issue occurs in the first chapter of Romans. Here, I would argue, Paul does not so much define what we call homosexuality as a sin as he views it, along with many other items, as a consequence of the fundamental sin of idolatry. And the primary idolatry is the idolatry of the self as the final authority with regard to good and evil, right and wrong. That is to say, that the essence of sin is the elevation of the human will over the will of God as revealed first in nature and then more fully in the Christ we meet in scripture.
United Methodists are a compassionate people, but to alter The Discipline by simply removing the restrictive language without so much as substituting anything that might resemble an affirmative or even a limiting principle would be to capitulate to an increasingly pagan culture.