The church and homosexuality

July 12, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011   
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando {0516}

NOTE: Readers may submit a comment related to this commentary at http://www.flumc.info/reader_comments.shtml. Readers may view reader comments as they are submitted at http://www.flumc.info/readercommentsguide.shtml. A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.




An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**





The controversy over homosexuality is the single most divisive issue in The United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant churches in North America and other Western societies. Not only is it divisive, but it is also distracting. At the level of the General Conference, the issue tends to dominate the interest of delegates to such an extent that it has been difficult to focus on the primary mission of church, which unites everyone.

I offer this essay as a contribution to the discussion of homosexuality in the church. I do not claim to be absolutely right, and I welcome criticism of my views. Individuals may go to http://www.flumc.info/comments.shtml to comment on this essay. I hope that some of what I say is helpful to the church in the sense of articulating perspectives for discussion.

While there is division in the church over homosexuality, it should be stated that the church has a position. I am in agreement with the basic position of the church, which is consistent with the historic Christian view and larger ecumenical consensus in the world today. The church is not divided in the sense that it is searching for a position, but only in the sense that a large number of delegates to the General Conferences in recent decades have voted for some changes in the church’s position. I think the church is searching for some settlement of the controversy. However, it may be realistic to expect tension over this issue for many years to come.

Language

One of the problems in the discussion is that the language being used is laden with assumptions on which there is no agreement. I prefer the term “same-sex attraction” to describe the phenomenon usually called “homosexuality.” This term describes the fact there are persons who are attracted to other persons of the same sex. It does not imply what the possible causes of the phenomenon might be. It does not imply that this attraction is constitutional, as “orientation” does, nor does it deny it. It does not denigrate a person’s dignity, nor advocate for an understanding of that person’s identity in terms of his or her sexuality as the terms “gay” and “lesbian” do. I think the term “homosexuality” lacks the neutrality of “same-sex attraction,” but I use it because of its common acceptance.

The main reason I prefer to refer to someone as a person who experiences same-sex attraction rather than as a “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian” is because this way of speaking is more fitting for the church, which views all people as persons created in the image of God. That is, the church views our identity in terms of our relationship to God, not in terms of our sexual identity. Once the church succumbs to the idea that our basic identity is sexual rather than theological in nature, then the church has already lost its way in the discussion. This is not to say that our sexual being in unimportant, but it is to say that it is more appropriate for the church to first view people as persons who are created in the image of God before it says anything about their sexual identity.

Because the church views all people as persons created in the image of God, we have a responsibility to acknowledge the dignity of every person, to protect every person’s rights in society, and to love her or him as one for whom Christ died to restore all of us to the image of God that we distort by our misuse of our freedom.

The traditional Christian view is that turning same-sex attraction into an erotic desire and practicing sexual acts with a person of the same sex are contrary to God’s purposes for human beings. However, this orthodox view can be used as a religious sanction for loathing and fear of those who experience same-sex attraction. Christians should not use the orthodox position as a cover for hatred and fear. Nor should those who disagree with the orthodox view consider those who accept it as bigots or persons who oppose having friendships with homosexuals or the human rights of homosexuals. Christians should always remember that persons who experience same-sex attraction are created in God’s image and possess dignity and human rights.

There should be no disagreement among Christians that people who experience same-sex attraction should be treated with respect and accepted with love. Indeed, many people who experience same-sex attraction are devout Christians who exhibit signs of God’s grace in their lives and have made significant contributions to the church and society. Most of us treasure them as friends or relatives.

Where there is disagreement among Christians is whether or not the public teaching and pastoral guidance of the church should direct persons away from making same-sex attraction an erotic desire and then acting on that desire.

There seems to be an increasing tendency in American culture to view homosexuality as an alternative to heterosexuality and provide a legal means for homosexuals to enter into same-sex unions whether these unions are called “marriages” or not. (At least, this seems to be an increasing tendency in the part of the culture most influenced by universities, professional associations and the mass media.) Therefore, there is debate in American society about the granting of same-sex unions by state legislatures. This is a social and political debate that will be determined in part by an interpretation of civil rights according to the U.S. Constitution. The church’s debate is, or should be, different from this political debate. For the church, the issue is ultimately a Christian’s relationship with God and whether or not the church should guide people away from homosexual activity for the sake of their spiritual well-being. Our Christian dialogue about same-sex attraction cannot be understood by the rest of the culture. The political and ecclesiastical debate converge only when the church debates whether or not to bless same-sex unions in the name of the Triune God. However, it should be noted that the church is free to do what it believes is God’s will regardless of what the state decides in its debate. Nevertheless, the question of blessing same-sex unions is probably the main issue for the church, as it is for society, since blessing same-sex unions involves removing the church’s discipline against homosexual practice and also removing an obstacle to ordaining Christians in a same-sex union.

These observations that began with a concern about language now lead to the substance of the current debate in the church, which involves a theological reflection on homosexuality.

Theology

The debate about homosexuality is not about doctrine, but it is about discipline. That is, it is about what kind of direction the church should give about how Christians should live. Nevertheless, this debate about discipline, while not about doctrines such as the Trinity or the person of Jesus Christ, is profoundly theological. Indeed, the reason the debate is so heated in the church is because this discipline of the church is integrally related to theological concerns that are a part of the church’s own understanding of itself as a people shaped by the story of God’s revelation in the Scriptures.

Much of the theological debate is centered on the interpretation of Scripture. The debate is about how to interpret the Scriptures, but it necessarily involves understandings of the meaning of God’s revelation since Scripture contains the writings of prophets and apostles who are the witnesses to divine revelation.

Much ink has been spilt over the interpretation of the few texts in Scripture, such as Leviticus 20:13 and Romans 1:26-27, that prohibit the practice of homosexuality. Revisionists who seek a change in the church’s position assert that when placed in their original historical context, these prohibitions are aimed at homosexual practices in Canaanite shrines or pederasty in Greco-Roman society. (The latter point misses the apostle Paul’s allusion to women, as well as to men, in Romans 1:26-27.) At least, the revisionists claim the writers had no awareness of homosexual “orientation” nor considered the possibility of a monogamous same-sex relationship as we do in modern American society. Therefore, they argue is it not appropriate for the church to apply these prohibitions to relationships not envisioned by the writers.

The revisionists’ claims are new and have never been heard before in all of Christian tradition. Not all scholars are convinced that these prohibitions are directed at historically specific situations. Indeed, the Christian tradition is that the church understands these prohibitions to be against all expressions of homosexual practice. Moreover, advocates of the traditional view emphasize how these prohibitions should be seen in the context of the larger biblical perspective on sexuality, which is that human beings are directed to either a covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or to a single life of celibacy. This larger biblical perspective is the deep structure of biblical teaching about God’s purpose for humans as sexual beings.

The conflict comes to a head when the discussion involves the meaning of divine revelation. The church understands the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as that which “reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation,” and they are “to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (The Confessions of Faith, Article IV). The question today is whether or not the church would be able to so interpret the Scriptures “through the Holy Spirit” in such a way as to change its discipline about homosexuality.

The revisionists are confident the church can change its discipline regarding homosexual practice. Yet, some of their approaches would not be wise. One approach is to by-pass the prohibitions against homosexual practice by looking at the “whole tenor” of Scriptures, which teaches God’s commands for justice and compassion. Yet, this approach is cavalier in its dismissal of Scriptural teaching about human sexuality, especially in its deep structure, even though all Christians agree with its point that Scripture teaches God’s commands to do justice and show compassion toward all persons, including those with same-sex attraction. Another approach is to posit there can be “new revelation” in the culture, such as scientific research projects that might indicate same-sex attraction is biologically constituted or a new consciousness in society that being homosexual is “gay.” They assume this “new revelation” should be given authority equal to, or more than, the authority of Scripture on the supposition that it comes ultimately from the Holy Spirit. The idea of a “new revelation” is disturbing because it is language alien to the church that knows it has received divine revelation in the particular covenants God made in history with Israel and through Jesus Christ of which the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are witnesses.

Theoretically, there is a way that Christian tradition can change. There is such a thing, not of “new revelation,” but of a new illumination of the original revelation by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s mission is to guide us in all the truth (John 16:12-15). Indeed, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). On this basis, it is possible that the Spirit could guide the church to a new discipline regarding homosexual practice. The problem is not with the theory (which has been put into practice with the church’s teaching about the ordination of women, for example), but it is with its application in this case. If there is a new illumination of the mind of the church, then this new illumination is a new way of seeing the original revelation to Israel and in Jesus Christ. As a practical matter, in any new illumination the church can find in its own Scriptures as the witness to the original revelation the seeds of the new illumination. For example, while the church came to oppose slavery absolutely even though the institution of slavery is acknowledged in Scripture, the church could point to the apostle Paul’s evangelical witness that “there is no longer slave or free,” for we are all “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The same antecedent in the original revelation for the church’s ordination of women is located in Galatians 3:28 and also in the significant fact that the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus were women. But where is there an antecedent in Scripture for a “new illumination” about homosexual practice?

Perhaps the best approach would be to view the inclusion of Gentiles into the church as a precedent for “inclusion” of persons in same-sex relationships. This approach should be contemplated, but the difficulty is that the church’s inclusion of Gentiles by the illumination of the Spirit was confirmed by searching the Scriptures and finding in them the blessing of God to Abraham to be a father of many nations and the universalism of some of the prophets.

If those who are eager to change the church’s position are tempted to think that having to find in Scripture some kind of authority for change is a demonstration of biblicist authoritarianism, then they should remember the church accepts the authority of Scripture not because it is a “sacred book” or even “a paper pope,” but because the Scriptures are an integral part of the long history of divine self-communication to Israel and the church. The Scriptures are integral to the “economy” of divine communication by God in the living Word and Spirit so that the church has come to experience them as “necessary for our salvation” and as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”

Sexuality

A brief word should be made about the view of sexuality from a Christian perspective. One of the often unspoken assumptions in the argument for changing the church’s position on homosexuality is that it is cruel or unjust for the church to guide persons with same-sex attraction away from sexual behavior. Why shouldn’t those with this “orientation” be free with the church’s blessing to experience “fulfillment?” Often it is said that the church should “affirm human sexuality.”

The church does give thanks to God for the gift of human sexuality, for it is the means for the procreation of the race. Most of all, in the marriage of a man and a woman it is “a great mystery” that signifies the relationship between Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32).

At the same time, the church knows the power of human sexuality can also be a destructive force of self-indulgence or exploitation. That is why the church traditionally has balanced affirmation with ascesis or self-discipline. Ascesis involves transfiguring eros (sexual love or desire) into agape (divine love), thus providing a means of grace for one to enter more closely into communion with God. The contemporary culture has been so sexualized that many cannot envision a way of life that does not involve the fulfillment of sexual desire. Yet, the church does envision a way of life that involves spiritual fulfillment and intimacy with other human beings without sexual intercourse. In its long spiritual tradition, the historic Christian community has discovered that eros can offer a false fulfillment — an ecstasy of union that is a substitute for the self-transcendence that comes from union with God. From the church’s perspective, ascesis is not an injustice, but a gift of spiritual experience not possible without it. Of course, this applies to all people, not just to the small minority who experience same-sex attraction. A good example of the value of ascesis by them would be the late Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, who acknowledged before he died that he was homosexual, but whose eros was transfigured in agape in ways that have blessed millions of people.

Closely related to the church’s understanding of human sexuality is the theological assessment of nature. By “nature” the church means the creation that is the gift of the Triune God. The church affirms that the creation is good, but also that it is not yet what God intends it to be. There are imperfections and anomalies in the creation, and “the whole creation has been growing in labor pains” for its eschatological rebirth (Romans 8:22). The biblical revelation that God’s purpose for human sexuality is the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman is consonant with our creation as male and female with our distinctive bodily forms. It is often asserted that if some are born with a proclivity for same-sex attraction, then we should assume that “God created them to be as they are.” Traditionally the historic Christian community has not accepted the notion that all “natural desires” are according to the “nature” the Creator gave to us.

Some would downplay the role of nature, i.e. our nature as male and female fitted for each other in a sexual relationship, and they would emphasize human culture as the arena where sexuality can find new expressions. As someone wrote, “ ‘nature’ is no longer our guide; we are nature’s guide.” As free persons in human culture we are able to “construct” new roles for men and women, including monogamous same-sex relationships. The question is whether there is hubris in this belief of our ability to freely create new sexual identities that are “against” nature or “above” nature. This confidence in our cultural freedom is not surprising in a society that strives to conquer the natural world and create an urban way of life in which people hardly ever live in a natural setting, but spend their whole existence in social and economic institutions inside air-conditioned buildings surrounded by machines. Indeed, some social scientists contend that the very idea of a homosexual identity is the result of the organization of same-sex attraction according to a wide range of social and cultural dynamics in modern society, including urbanization (which erodes the communal guidance of young people in rural and village life) and science (which invites people to think about their feelings in deterministic ways). (See David Greenberg, “The Construction of Homosexuality,” University of Chicago Press, 1989). The Christian doctrine of creation may not lead to a concept of “natural law,” but at least it engenders respect for the boundaries of the natural order and awareness of the danger that may be involved in social and cultural attempts to transcend them.

Ministry to homosexuals

It is not unusual for United Methodists to say that while the controversy over homosexuality rages at the denominational level, local congregations manage to deal with it gracefully. What they mean is that pastors and members relate to homosexuals as they relate to everyone. They include them in their life together and know how to have respectful and compassionate personal relationships with them in the context of a common worship and mission. In other words, persons with same-sex attraction are treated pastorally.

I believe it is important for the church to take a pastoral approach toward homosexuals. This may include receiving into membership those who are in monogamous same-sex relationships and those who define themselves as “gay” or “lesbian.” As a pastor of people, the church understands there are those who will interpret their same-sex attraction according to the framework of interpretation supplied by the society and surrounding culture. Personal acceptance instead of argument with their adoption of societal identities is the responsibility of a church that proclaims and embodies the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Every one of us begins the Christian life with identities formed by family, class and nation that undergo a transformation over time by the grace of God.

The church understands the grace of God is one grace in several operations: it includes prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and perfecting grace. No person who trusts in the grace of God in Jesus Christ in the beginning remains the same; she or he grows in grace over a lifetime. To bar persons from membership in the church because they are not yet living in the direction God reveals for human beings is to prevent them from experiencing the environment of grace. If this were the case, which one of us would ever be qualified to be a member of the church?

What is necessary is not to bar certain persons from membership, but to maintain the public teaching and pastoral guidance of the church so that persons are lovingly directed away from practices the church believes are not consistent with the divine purpose for the sake of their growth in grace.

There is the question of whether or not persons with same-sex attraction can be “changed” so they no longer experience this attraction. The testimonies of persons are mixed with some saying they have been changed and others vehemently refuting this possibility. Few of us understand the phenomenon of same-sex attraction well enough to give a definitive answer for all persons. At any rate, the church’s concern is to guide persons away from practicing homosexual behavior and encourage them to develop intimate friendships with persons of both sexes. It should be left to their own personal freedom whether or not to follow the pastoral direction of the church because God does not coerce anyone to obey the divine will.

The church and the culture

In deciding about its discipline regarding homosexuality, the church is deciding its own future. One reason this debate is so controversial is because every one realizes the identity of the church is at stake. The church is really making a decision about its relationship to the culture.

The historic teaching of both Judaism and Christianity about human sexuality, and homosexual behavior in particular, has always been counter-cultural. Ancient Israel, Judaism, early Christianity and ecumenical Christianity have existed in cultural contexts where the values and practices regarding sexuality are usually different from the Jewish and Christian vision of God’s purpose for human life.

The church has to be in the culture, but distinctive from it. There is always a struggle by the church in every cultural context to know how and where to mark the boundaries between the church and culture. On the one hand, the church has to exist in, and relate to, the culture. On the other hand, the church is not free to relate to the culture in ways that violate the church’s obedience to its Lord according to its best judgment as it is illumined and guided by the Spirit of God.

As Americans we cannot help but think and act according to our own culture’s world-view. It is not easy to transcend the world-view of one’s own culture. As attitudes about homosexuality in American culture change, Christians in America are influenced by these changes. There are those who think the church should adapt to new attitudes and understandings. They want the church to provide a spiritual home for people where the tension between the Christian tradition and the culture is relaxed. The problem is that such an adaptation would place The United Methodist Church in a position of alienation from the transcultural historic and global Christian perspective.

If The United Methodist Church changes its basic position on homosexuality, then it will be making a move toward modern Western culture, but against a historic and global ecumenical consensus. Some would justify this move as the prophetic action of a church in the vanguard of enlightenment. However, the fact is that such a move would change the way The United Methodist Church would be viewed by the rest of the ecumenical Christian community, which, by a vast majority, adheres to the traditional teaching of Christianity. It is not far-fetched to envision the rest of the Christian community viewing The United Methodist Church as a “culture church” that would have some historic connection to the Christian faith and community, but that had wandered away from the substance of the Christian tradition in order to offer a Christian interpretation of the ideas and values of its culture. One could even imagine a future ecumenical council to which United Methodists might be allowed to send official observers, but in which we would not be allowed to participate with vote because of our status as “culture Christians.”

Finally, what is needed now is an environment in the church for a calm consideration of all of the complex issues in this debate, civil discourse, responsible theological reflection, and above all, prayer for discernment of the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

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This article relates to Homosexuality.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.


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