God Said it and Yes, that Settles It: An open letter in response to Adam Hamilton, on the United Methodist decision on the question of homosexuality in the church.
(Dr. Hamilton’s Original Post can be found here)
One of the benefits of the internet age is that it has allowed communication and ideas to be shared in a way that is unprecedented in human history. My old college professors used to lament this because it meant that anyone with a computer could post their thoughts for all to see, no matter how accurate their information may actually be. While I respect the positions of my former professors and take their words as a caution to read what others says with a grain (or lots of grains) of salt, I celebrate the change that has taken place. Think about it this way, there is a time not so long ago when the corporate publishing houses largely controlled the dissemination of ideas. That meant (typically) that the process of writing articles and books “belonged” to the professionals in their field. In turn, the average person in the west kept their ideas to themselves or to a small group of friends. Now, ideas can be freely shared broadly and people from every walk of life are encouraged to enter into the conversation. And Dr. Hamilton, given that you are a blogger as I am, I expect that you and I agree on this principle.
One of the interesting aspects of this larger conversation is that people are drawn in from broader perspectives than those having the actual conversation itself. While sometimes this is helpful, if it is not being actively sought, it can often be harmful — particularly in the context of debates that affect the lives of numerous people. That is why, when my wife forwarded this article (sent to her from a cousin), my initial reaction was, “I don’t have a dog in this fight — I left the United Methodist church almost 20 years ago — I’m staying out of it.”
Then I got to thinking and realized that I do have a dog in this fight. Not only was I born and raised in the United Methodist Church and have both a mother and a grandfather who were ordained in the United Methodist Church, but I also began preaching in the United Methodist Church. It was during the five years of preaching as a Licensed Lay Speaker (typically in the pulpit more than I was out of it) that my theology changed and I shifted from being a Wesleyan to a Calvinist (hence my departure). And so, I have roots in the United Methodist Church and am grateful to that church for giving me the opportunity to preach. There are also people for whom I care deeply that are invested in the denomination. Any denominational decision that grieves their spiritual wellbeing, then, grieves my heart as well. And, to borrow the words of Jesus, “whoever causes one of these little ones to stray, it would be better for a millstone to be hung around his neck and drowned in the sea.” Hard words, but words to which we must take heed.
And so, Dr Hamilton, be aware that others are listening. And while I am a Calvinist, I am a Calvinist who owes a debt of gratitude to you who are in the Wesleyan tradition — when I initially left the UMC to join the PCA, I used to tell people that I was a “Welsh Calvinist-Methodist in the spirit of Whitefield and Lloyd-Jones.” I trust, Dr. Hamilton, that you can appreciate that sentiment.
There is a stream of logic, though, within your blog that I think is worth addressing. You closed your article with the words: “The Bible says it, but I don’t believe that settles it.” Your position was supported by a number of Old and New Testament rules and guidelines that nearly every Biblical scholar considers to be matters of contextual application and not meant to be permanent and ongoing for the church. For example, you mention that we no longer advocate stoning for Sabbath-breaking (though boy, that would help church attendance, wouldn’t it?). We also no longer stone the incorrigible child or adulterers. We also do not anticipate being commanded to commit genocide and would prosecute those who would seek to attempt genocide. We also take out loans for automobiles and homes…and worse yet, we use our credit cards for most every purchase we make. Women aren’t required to wear hats (though many do on Easter Sunday) and men don’t shave their heads — frankly, I would grow my hair out again if I thought my Elders would condone it (lol!). So, I do understand the point you are making: we need to take the commands of scripture in the context of the passage in which they are found.
And so, as many of these commands are in the context of the civil law of ancient Israel, and we are no longer living under a theocratic form of government, many of these laws do not have a direct bearing on the way we live. But, from this point forward, we will differ. Because these laws are given by God, they teach us principles about his character — what God permits and what God finds to be sin when practiced in the lives of his people. Further, we also recognize that these Old Testament laws flow out of the Ten Commandments (which Jesus states will not pass away until the heavens and the earth pass away). And thus, we do not completely throw those laws out the window. In fact, in many western cultures, principles found in Biblical laws were applied to new contexts to create God-honoring laws in a new day and age.
An example of the aforementioned point is that of placing fences around flat roofs to prevent people from rolling off. This is a practical application of a principle found in God’s character — all humans are made in God’s image and thus their lives should be protected where possible. This, is also an application of the 6th commandment. Now, we may not have flat roofs, but we have many areas like swimming pools or construction sites where there are typically ordinances that are built upon the principle taught in Deuteronomy 22:8.
You may ask, what about the command to stone adulterers? The same principle applies. We learn about God’s attitude toward adultery and divorce by the strictness of this command…something that Jesus echoes again in Matthew 19:3-12. And, though the rules regarding divorce in America have gotten more and more permissive, that wasn’t always the case. And, as a fellow pastor, I expect that you probably share my view that divorce is too accessible in the United States and that they do tremendous damage to the life of the family.
How about not storing up treasure on earth? You and I once again, probably share a lot in common in this area, too. Too often, the wealth that people store up for retirement becomes an idol in their lives and stops them from doing ministry like they should. Amen? Sure, we should save money for such a time as when we are no longer able to be gainfully employed — counting the cost of building that tower that Jesus mentions — but there is a difference between enough and a super-abundance. And how much better can that wealth be used in building Christ’s kingdom? I am reminded of one of my favorite sayings from John Wesley: “Money and I are but passing acquaintances…” This, of course, sets the stage for his philosophy of earning all you can so you can give all you can.
And thus, when we get to the laws regarding the stoning of those practicing homosexual behavior, no, we do not actually carry this out. Yet, the principle that the law is built upon shows us God’s character. Furthermore, the language about homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 is language that is found not in the context of a law, but of a principle of keeping oneself sexually pure. In context, God is writing that this is the way Egyptians lived and I wiped them out; this is the way the Canaanites live and I am about to wipe them out. Do not live like your neighbors do or I will throw you out of the land as well. And so here is not just a passage from which we can infer a principle based on God’s laws for national Israel, here is a direct moral application of the seventh commandment.
Let me approach this from a different angle. When approaching a question in Scripture that was debated, Wesley offered a 4-fold approach to interpretation that we know as “Wesley’s Quadrilateral.” I know that you, Dr. Hamilton, are likely far more acquainted with this principle than I, but for the benefit of our readers following along with the conversation, let me offer up briefly what was ingrained upon me in my earlier days as a Methodist.
Essentially, Wesley argued that when there was a passage of Scripture that is unclear, one uses four tools to unpack what is being said: Scripture itself, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. What then, shall we say about the question of homosexual relationships when the Quadrilateral is used to explore the idea?
To begin with, what does Scripture teach? Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that homosexuals (along with those who commit to a number of other sinful practices) will not inherit the Kingdom of God. It is true that there is forgiveness in Christ whereby we are made a part of the Kingdom, but forgiveness requires repentance (Luke 24:46-47; Acts 8:22). As you well know, Dr. Hamilton, repentance means that you have changed your mind toward something you have been doing and have turned away from it. If a person is continuing to practice their sin (inside or outside of the context of the church), then they are clearly not repentant (see 1 John 3:4).
What else does Scripture teach? Paul instructs Timothy (1 Timothy 1:10) that those who practice homosexual behavior are doing what is contrary to “sound doctrine.” And, like the passage in 1 Corinthians 6, homosexual behavior is listed alongside of other sinful actions. Furthermore, Paul writes in Romans 1:26-27 that the homosexual actions of the people (both gay and lesbian in this instance) were a sign that God had withdrawn his restraining grace due to the idolatry of the people. John, in his Apocalypse, records that those who are sexually immoral (remember the list from Leviticus 18) will have their eternal portion in the lake of fire.
Typically, people look to Leviticus 20:13, which commands the death penalty for homosexual practice, but as we have mentioned already, Leviticus 18:22 is the definitive passage in the Old Testament that defines what is a pagan and immoral sexual act. But what of Genesis 13:13 which speaks of the men of Sodom? This action takes place again in Judges 19:22. We can also infer from 1 Kings 14:24 that the male prostitutes of the land were doing according to the “abominations of the nations the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” What were those abominations? Leviticus 18.
My point is that I am not aware of a single passage of Scripture that speaks positively of the practice of homosexuality. No, not one. That is the testimony of Scripture alone. Where I stand now, in the Reformed tradition, this is largely where we stop — something we refer to as the “Reformed Hermeneutic,” but we are exploring this in the Wesleyan tradition, so what do tradition, reason, and experience have to say on the matter?
I think that you would be hard pressed to discover a theologian prior to liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century that would affirm homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. In Wesley’s own notes on the New Testament, he has some strong language when it comes to speaking of those practicing homosexuality, calling them Sodomites.
What of reason, then? Homosexuality, one could argue, is simply a natural inclination of certain people and thus should be tolerated at the very least in a culture that permits free expression. Yet, if that is the case, why do we not also tolerate polyamorous relationships? Should not group marriage also be allowed? Mormons advocated this to no avail for many years and Muslims are advocating this today. Why not other sexual practices that are ordinarily considered immoral? What defines the limits of morality? Does culture define this or does God? If you advocate for the culture, you are separating yourself from hundreds of years of Christian thought and philosophy.
What of experience? Certainly there are cultures which have tolerated degrees of homosexual behavior and sometimes even celebrated it, though the latter is very rare. There are also those who would argue that the homosexual relationships of which the Bible speaks are different from a loving and committed relationship advocated by those in the movement seeking to legitimate homosexual marriages today. Yet, experience is subjective by nature and is the weakest of Wesley’s four approaches. Statistics would also suggest that homosexual relationships, more often than not, do not have the longevity of heterosexual relationships. We could explore this at length, but even using Wesley’s own approach, advocating approval for a homosexual marriage or relationship in the context of the church, is really difficult to affirm.
From a Reformed perspective, the move of more mainstream denominations like the UMC toward a view that accepts homosexual practice as accepted seems more to be the church’s accommodation of a shift in the cultural attitude toward homosexuals. Yet, I am reminded of G. Campbell Morgan’s great quote that the church is called to lead the culture, not to follow it. Or, perhaps Jesus’ own words that the world does not accept us because Christ has called us out of the world (John 15:18-21).
In the end, Dr. Hamilton, the decision that the UMC makes will not directly affect me, my denomination, or the church I serve. Yet, it will do so indirectly due to friendships, family, and other acquaintances that fall within your denomination. I have appreciated the irenic approach to disagreement that is so often a part of your writings and I hope that you receive this open letter in the kind of irenic spirit with which it is meant.
You expressed your ideas in a public way and thus I offer a public response, though I do not suppose that a conservative and Reformed position on Scripture is really being sought out. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that a plea to reconsider your position is not being offered up.
In the end, let me ask you the question, if you hold to the statement, “The Bible says it, but I don’t believe that settles it,” then what settles the matter? Church tradition and reason also do not help your cause if you are advocating for gay marriage in the church. Are you willing to stand on experience alone? That seems to be shaky footing. I prefer to stand on God’s word (which challenges me and the culture for sure) because if God said it, that must settle it for Christ’s Church. I encourage you to reconsider your position.