Having heard much talk recently about the Bible and homosexuality, in our Methodist denominational conference, in my home state of North Carolina with its marriage amendment vote, and then President Obama’s statement affirming gay marriage, I have pulled together propositions that I believe might help us moving forward.
(1) If we could travel back in time to interview the authors of the books of the Bible and the other leaders of God’s people, all of them (Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, James) would have regarded homosexuality as a bad idea. There is no support for homosexuality from these writers.
(2) No one in Bible times had the slightest familiarity with homosexuality as we know it today. Moses and Paul never met the kind of committed gay couple you might know from your neighborhood or the office. When they thought of homosexuality, they thought of an aged Roman senator who had a young boy for a sexual slave, or perhaps a sudden drunken encounter between two people who didn’t know each other five minutes before. In elite Greco-Roman society, there were non-secretive gay and lesbian relationships, but those involved were still married to persons of the opposite sex. Bible writers were against these things, and so am I.
(3) Today, when anyone talks about the Bible being plain, and that they agree with the Bible, they are reading selectively, picking and choosing this or that from the Bible. No one today has any serious intentions of doing everything the Bible says, and certainly an entire state or country does not, or we’d shut down the NFL and the Pentagon, which are quite clearly out of order according to the Bible. Jesus very plainly said if you have a party, don’t invite those who can invite you back, but invite the maimed; most who quote the Bible do precisely the opposite on both.
(4) Similarly, when we speak of the separation of church and state, this often is code language, translated roughly as “If it supports my viewpoint, the state should be involved; if it disagrees with me the state should keep its nose out of our business.” Consistency on the church and state relationship would be helpful. Generally, Christians are foolish if they count on government to enforce what the Church believes.
(5) The Bible’s writers were inspired by God, but clearly they were not taking dictation from God. And they did not anticipate every situation we would deal with in the modern world. They spoke to ancient people, largely about ancient issues, many of which continue today, but in very different forms. So the Bible requires interpretation.
(6) All of us in various ways take the Bible’s core truths and engage in some updating so the heart of the Bible might make sense today. Some of this we do quite faithfully: we are glad women speak in church, and we happily wear blended fabrics. At other times we update the Bible simply to suit our own prejudices: we justify unholy wars, and we are greedy consumers and then say we are “blessed.”
(7) No single Bible verse, or handful of verses, can reveal the fullness of God’s mind. If you retrieved four sentences of various things I have said over my adult life, you would have a skewed image of who I am and what I think. It is the whole body of work, all of God’s Word not just a few words from God’s Word, that tells us what we need to know.
(8) Human beings are fallen, prone to self-justification and pasting God on whatever we happen to prefer or enjoy – and we are probably most likely to be confused about God’s way in areas of sexuality, given the virtually irresistible lure. How we feel, think and act regarding sex (no matter the orientation) should be subjected always to rigorous scrutiny and prayer.
(9) Generally when Christians talk about holiness nowadays, they point the finger at somebody else for not being holy instead of rising up to be holy. When Christians talk about “standards,” they mean religious rules that come quite easily for them or don’t affect them. We could readily focus on “standards” regarding how we spend or make money, or what we thoughtlessly watch on TV, or the rancor we harbor in our hearts against people who disagree with us – but instead the idea of “standards” becomes a weapon against those who aren’t like us.
(10) Christians who seek change on homosexuality are not wise to make “love” their primary argument. “God loves everyone” – but that doesn’t solve anything, since a non-inclusive Christian can quite easily point out that God loves child abusers or alcoholics. God does love, and then the Bible and all of Christian tradition has yearned for us to move past merely being loved by God toward a life of holiness before God. Similarly, to point to “this is the way I was made” helps a lot, but doesn’t entirely solve things, since I might be made with a proclivity toward alcoholism, or a likelihood of lethal disease.
(11) It is a false dichotomy when conservatives declare that liberals want love without holiness. Some liberals are not very holy, but then again quite a few conservatives are not so holy either. Many liberals I know are tremendously holy, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit, with hearts and lifestyles very much dedicated to God.
(12) It is also false to say that conservatives have the Bible on their side and the inclusivity folks ignore the Bible. Serious cases have been made in interpreting the Scriptures for openness to homosexuality, thinking of God’s creation of us as the beings we are, the centrality of faithful, monogamous relationships, etc.
(13) If we could travel back in time and take a close look at marriage in Bible times, we’d say “No thank you.” Life was grinding and utterly unromantic. Many marriages were arranged. Women had no rights, could be and were abused without any recourse, dispensable on a whim; with no antibiotics women routinely died in childbirth.
(14) God does love everyone, and holiness is God’s desire. But we cannot make anybody else holy. We cannot even make ourselves holy. This is God’s work in us. Our job isn’t to judge others, and our job isn’t to enforce rules on God’s behalf. God is God. What God asks of us is hospitality, love for everyone, openness to everyone, and even an openness to what God might do that we don’t understand, or that makes us uncomfortable. The first people who knew Jesus were so uncomfortable with him, and his way was so out of their holiness box, that they crucified him instead of welcoming him.
(15) Immense humility, and tender care and gratitude are always fitting for Christians. Being right is interesting, but love for those Christ loves is always one step higher in Jesus’ scale of values. To be a listener – and we’ve had far too little listening on both sides – is holy. And we can be grateful for each other, even in our disagreement. Methodists have said for decades that they don’t condone homosexuality; but gays and lesbians keep coming to our churches, they preach, teach, pray, sing, serve, and love – and I for one give endless thanks to God for this miracle of grace that they are still here. And of course, the total inclusivity people need to find ways to include those who disagree, who genuinely are striving to know and serve God with where they are on things. Proverbs 16:7 says “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”
Dr. Howell is pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, N.C., and author of several books, including the recent What Does the Lord Require? and The Beauty of the Word. This essay first appeared on his blog. http://revjameshowell.blogspot.com/