Special Session of the General Conference

After the global UMC voted to accept the Traditionalist Plan in late February 2019, strengthening prohibitions against gay marriage and gay clergy within the church, there has been a lot of uncertainty about what this means for Annandale UMC  and how we want to proceed in the future. Click here to read head pastor Rev. Jason Micheli’s letter to the congregation after the United Methodist conference on human sexuality, or read his FAQ on what it all means below. Jason was also the co-author of a book on Christian ethics – click here to read his chapter about the Biblical perspective on human sexuality.

We have a prayer liturgy available to help focus and guide prayers on the subject.

Click here to read the results of Jason’s survey on human sexuality and the Book of Discipline.

Summary of Way Forward Discussion Church Council Meeting

About 60 members of our congregation gathered at a church council meeting on March 19, 2019 to talk about a “way forward” on the issue of human sexuality. The United Methodist Church’s governing body, the General Conference, voted in February to more strictly enforce language in the Book of Discipline prohibiting United Methodist Churches from performing same-sex marriages and ordaining gay clergy. A majority of delegates from around the world voted in favor of the proposal, known as the Traditional Plan. However, the plan faces a judicial review in April, which may render it unconstitutional.

The events at General Conference were extremely divisive, with many saying it will be impossible for the United Methodist Church to remain one body. More moderate to liberal churches and conferences are openly talking about splitting off. At the same time, more conservative churches may leave if the Traditional Plan is declared unconstitutional.

In our own congregation, many are grappling with their place in the church—whether they should stay or leave. At the meeting on March 19, members voiced their sadness, hurt, anger and frustration regarding the General Conference’s decision.

Among the sentiments expressed:

  • The decision flies in the face of my understanding of the gospel—that grace is extended to all, no matter who we are, and that there are no conditions on God’s love. How can I be part of a church that doesn’t treat LGBTQ people as equal?
  • The decision is tearing apart the church I love and grew up in, and will cause members to leave.
  • We at Annandale are an open, loving church; that has not changed. Surely we can work together to discern a way forward. Let’s not let this decision divide our church.
  • The UMC name has been tainted. We ought to remove “United Methodist” from our signs and branding.
  • I support the Traditional Plan. Is there a place for me at AUMC? Are we creating a climate where those with minority views feel they no longer have a home?
  • I am 100% in favor of welcoming all to our church, but I’m uneasy about same-sex marriage.
  • We need to take a stand. This issue has been simmering for years, but now it has boiled over and we can no longer sit on the fence.
  • More study is needed on what the Bible says about marriage and sexuality, and how we are to interpret the scriptures.
  • We should stop paying our apportionments.
  • Change is not necessarily bad. Perhaps it is time for a split, a time for trimming branches. Often when churches split, there is new growth.
  • We need to understand the financial implications of a split—what it means to lose the connectional aspect of the United Methodist Church.

During the meeting, Jason reported that Tom Berlin, pastor of Floris UMC (the largest UMC in Virginia) and a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, has said that churches have about six months to “figure this out.” He noted that we have a PR problem that we did not plan for and that we need to get the message out that all are welcome and have a voice at Annandale UMC.

Jason said he would like a 5-7-member task force comprised of members of the congregation to study the issue and make recommendations to church council on:

  • Concrete steps we can take in our local community to be fully welcoming and inclusive
  • Strategic steps we can explore so that our church’s voice is heard in the larger denominational debate
  • A timeline of General Conference-related events for our congregation to participate in

Members of the task force are to reflect the full range of opinions on this issue and have a youth representative. 

As a beginning step towards discerning our way forward, Church Council Chair Bill Sinclair asked those in the room to suggest ideas that should be addressed by the church. Among those suggested:

  • Remove the United Methodist name
  • Make sure minority voices are heard
  • Conduct a Bible study on human sexuality
  • Be a part of a larger dialogue of churches in Virginia and the U.S. that are also considering a way forward
  • Study the financial implications of exiting the UMC
  • Better understand apportionments and/or stop paying apportionments
  • Make sure the voices of young people are heard
  • Better understand the needs of LGTBQ people and ask them to participate in decision making
  • Don’t stop giving to our own church
  • Have more discussion on human sexuality and the implications of the Traditional Plan
  • Consider all options

Additional resources on this topic are available above and below.

Jason's FAQ on the decision and survey

Hi Folks,

I wanted to another opportunity to thank all of you for your patience with me, the grace you’ve shown one another, and the candor of your thoughts and questions. I’m fortunate to serve with such a community, and I believe if we lean into the strength of our community then we can take positive next steps through the disruption in the wider United Methodist Church. About 200 folks stayed after either the 8:30 or 11:00 services this Sunday to discuss the decisions at the General Conference and what they might mean for our congregation. I will tell you what I heard, but you can also talk to one another as well.

Here are some of the questions that came up on Sunday and have come to me privately too:

1. What is different now? Hasn’t the UMC always had this policy about homosexuality?

The UMC’s Book of Discipline has indeed contained language about sexuality being “incompatible with Christian teaching” since the 1970’s. What makes this GC different is twofold, I believe. First, the 2/3 of the delegates from the US voted in favor of the One Church Plan at this GC; in other words, the Traditionalist Plan passed in the face of the strong will of congregations in America. A second reason for the uproar is that this is the first time the UMC has made its policies on homosexuality more restrictive since the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Unlike denominations that went through this fight before us, we have married gay couples in our congregations— there are several at AUMC. So, the default position of the Traditionalist Plan is now that those couples should get divorced. This is a logic that even many moderates and conservatives find objectionable.

2. Does this mean we’re breaking away from the UMC?

No.

It does mean a long-simmering feud has been brought to a head, and the marriage called United Methodism (which isn’t all that old, actually) may be headed towards a divorce. There are many centrist pastors and laity across the denomination who will not able to remain in the UMC if the new policy holds. If it does not hold, the group behind the Traditionlist Plan, the Wesley Covenant Association (notice, they already have a name, logo, website…) will leave the UMC. Either occurence will force large changes in what we currently call the UMC. That nothing happens is very unlikely— both sides are weary of spending literally millions (of your dollars) to continue having this fight at General Conference and engaging it in a way that damages our witness to the world.

This is why we’re talking about these issues.

3. What can we do as a local church to let people in our community know we’re not the church they’ve read about in the papers?

We’ll be sending out a mass mailer postcard to the Annandale community this week, paid for by a generous donor (image, above), to reiterate that everyone is welcome at our church and they are welcome to be themselves at our church.

Paul says there is no distinction among any of us and that not one of us is righteous— that’s too much for a postcard but it’s the basis for our inclusivity.

About 3/4 of you disapprove of the General Conference’s adoption of the Traditionlist Plan, and many of you have been asking how we can articulate and communicate that we are an open and affirming church. I think the events out of General Conference and your survey responses show that this is a conversation we should have as a congregation (including our wedding and ordination-vetting processes).

As I mentioned in my sermon, I’ve never been a fan of the rainbow flag. Like all symbols, it communicates different things to different people. To some, it rightly says “You’re welcome here.” To others— conservatives— it rightly or wrongly says “You’re not welcome here.” What has made AUMC is its diversity so I would like us to engage a conversation about how to move forward and be clear about our welcome of LGBTQ people in a way that traditionalists do not feel excluded. In other words, I want us to do locally what the larger church cannot do, and I want us to do it in a way that does not simply replicate the political antagonisms in our wider culture. I have enough gay friends to know that they come to church for the same reasons straight people come to church: Jesus.

I want to find out we can communicate our welcome of all yet keep the message that we’ve been welcomed in Christ our main thing.

4. What can we do to let our voices be heard in the larger Church?

You can serve as a delegate to Annual Conference. AUMC sends one delegate for every pastor on staff. You can write to the bishop. You can come up with creative ways to resist and protest the Traditionalist Plan (Jonathan Page has a few ideas). You can connect with the one of the many groups of pastors and laity forming around this issue now.

5. Can we withold the money (apportionments) we’re obligated to pay the larger denomination?

I’ll get grumped at for nodding my head here, but alot of you have asked me this question and the answer is yes. In truth, the folks behind the Traditionalist Plan, the Wesley Covenant Association, have been withholding funds for years both in protest and to save for the possibility of a schism in the UMC. Their advocacy, in other words, was paid for in large part by unpaid apportionments. I understand that for many of you this is a matter of deep personal pain and moral, righteous indignation.

If this is the case and you’d like for your gifts to the church to remain with the local church, you need only communicate that to myself or to Garry Bell.

6. But what does the Bible say about sexuality?

Good question! And it’s worth a discussion and study. Again, like I said on Sunday, good, faithful, Bible-reading Christians can come to different conclusions on this subject. The challenge of the new policy is that it, in a top-down fashion, takes that diversity of interpretation away from you.

It makes sense to me that do some Bible study around this and the larger theme of hospitality. Several years ago I wrote an e-book about Christian ethics with Dr. Barry Penn Hollar. It’s dated now and no longer available on Amazon as a consequence, but I wrote the chapter in there on marriage and sexuality. Click here to read it.

7. What comes next?

— We wait to see what comes of the Judicial Council’s ruling on the Traditionalist Plan (April).

— We’ll talk about who we want to be as a local congregation and what steps or actions that will require. The lay leaders will talk about how these questions could impact the life of the congregation over the next 18 months.

— Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection, the largest UMC in the country, is convening a group of centrist and progressive churches in the spring. If you’d like to participate, let me know.

8. What did the survey show?

The survey was remarkably consistent with the survey we sent out in the fall.

I received 307 responses.

76% disapprove of the General Conference’s vote for the Traditionalist Plan. That’s a majority of you all who either want the UMC’s restrictive policies changed or resent the larger Church hierarchy taking away from you the ability to figure out these questions on your own.

The question of leaving the denomination over the decision is, predictably, muddier. 54.9% would support exploring leaving the denomination— exactly the sort of close vote that any church would be stupid to take (the sort our denomination just did).

The question of affiliating with other Methodist congregations in a new denomination, however, was different. 67% responded that would support such an exploration. The questions about same-sex weddings being performed at AUMC and gay members discerning ordination received similar results, around 70%.

The demographics, I think, tell the story. Nearly half of respondents have a friend who is LGBTQ while 63% of respondents have an LGBTQ family member. Meanwhile, we have 24 respondents report that they are LGBTQ.

These demographics also show that we should proceed with care and compassion in how we discuss these matters in church, for it’s very likely you’ll be talking about someone’s child, nephew, or even the neighbor in the next pew. We should proceed with care as well because, with the life of the denomination in turmoil— if not worse— the local church is now more important than it has been in the relatively short history of the United Methodist Church. I believe it’s forgetting that fact that has led to the problems we face today.

I’ll see you on Wednesday at 7 for Ash Wednesday.

Grace and Peace,

Jason

Update from the Way Forward Task Group

Dear Annandale UMC Members and Friends,

Greetings to you from your Way Forward Task Group.

As you probably know, our Task Group of volunteers was created in early April to help our church discern our way forward after the divisive 2019 Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, February 23 – 26, in St. Louis, regarding the church’s current policies regarding homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons. The General Conference upheld these policies and enforcement was strengthened. On April 23 – 26, the UM Judicial Council reviewed these decisions and found the major decisions to be constitutional, which will take effect on January 1, 2020. These decisions caused great hurt and pain for many in our global church as well as our congregation who were praying for policies which affirm the sacred worth of all persons and allow for differing views on these sexuality topics within the church. Also, guidelines were provided for congregations who wish to leave the United Methodist Church “for reasons of conscience” regarding these human sexuality policies.

Pastor Jason has done a masterful job of keeping you informed about these actions over the past couple months, including his recent April 27 Update: UMC Judicial Council Ruling email (see below) which provided more details of the Judicial Council ruling.

As the surveys Pastor Jason conducted last fall and this spring indicate, we have a diverse congregation related to views on these topics. We believe there is richness in our diversity and we embrace our diversity. Our task is primarily to provide recommendations to Church Council and our clergy on steps and actions our church should take as we heal from these decisions, build unity and understanding on these issues, prepare our congregation regarding future options, and serve as the primary point of contact for your thoughts and concerns regarding these topics. There is a Way Forward Task Group mail box outside the church office where you may leave your notes for the Task Group. Please sign your note so that we may follow-up with you.

There will be a large gathering of approximately 600 centrist and progressive laity and clergy, who disagreed with the decisions of the General Conference, in Kansas City on May 20 – 22. These representatives come from all UMC conferences across the U.S. They will discuss various paths forward for the larger church, which allow for disagreement on these sexuality issues, in contrast to the decisions of the General Conference which do not allow for disagreement. In the end, there may even be dissolution of the UMC, and the formation of new Wesleyan/Methodist denominations. These new paths forward will take time to develop. The Task Group will keep you informed on these developments and make recommendations to Church Council when the options are developed.

For now, we appreciate your love, concern, and prayers for our church – globally and here in Annandale. As opportunities develop for your discussion and learning, we encourage your participation. Through our sharing, we will grow in our understanding and appreciation of each other, as we move forward together.

Bill Iwig, Chairperson
Way Forward Task Group

Task Group Members:
Pam Adams, Elvira Arteaga, Bill Chambers, Harry Day, Bill Harrod, Jan Harrod, Sophie Luckenbaugh, Jon Page, Christi Schwarten, Pat Sherfey, Pete Snitzer, Jr., and Terri Ruhter.

Hi Folks,

In the spirit of transparency and ongoing communication, I wanted to make sure you were aware of the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council rulings decided at the end of this week.

Bill Iwig, a leader in our congregation, has begun convening a small cross-sampling of people from the congregation to discuss how Annandale UMC works through these issues. You’ll be hearing more soon from Bill about the Judicial Council decisions; in the meantime, I wanted to make available to you some reporting about the decisions from the wider Church.

Here is the UMC News reporting on the decision.

In a nutshell, some of the measures of the “Traditional Plan” which passed at General Conference were judged unconstitutional while other parts of it were upheld.

CHANGES TO CURRENT UMC POLICY FOUND CONSTITUTIONAL

    1. The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” now includes people living in same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, or who publicly state it. These persons are not considered qualified for United Methodist ministry.
    1. Boards or District Committees on Ministry must make a full examination and shall not approve anyone who does not meet the qualifications for ministry and the bishop shall rule unqualified persons, if recommended, “out of order.” Bishops may not consecrate a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” as a bishop.
    1. A pastor who has conducted a same-sex marriage shall be given a minimum penalty, after due, fair process, of one-year suspension without pay for a first offense and termination for a second.
  1. If allegations are brought against a pastor, any resolution of the offense must include agreement from the person bringing the allegation. The resolution must identify the harm caused and how that will be addressed by the pastor.

SEVEN PROPOSED CHANGES WERE FOUND UNCONSTITUTIONAL

Some of these sought to provide a way in which to certify that only persons who would “uphold, enforce, and maintain” the Book of Discipline (our book of order) could serve in certain committees. Other proposals suggested an additional process for removing bishops from active office. The Judicial Council found these unconstitutional because of lack of balanced and fair processes.

GRACIOUS EXIT PROPOSAL

An exit proposal passed at General Conference was found to be constitutional for churches thinking of leaving the United Methodist denomination. They would have a “limited right” to disaffiliate for reasons related to the church’s law concerning homosexuality for a limited time.

Approval for such a move would require:

    1. A two-thirds vote of the members of the local church
    1. Terms related to financial and legal matters, apportionments and clergy pensions
  1. Approval by a majority vote of the Annual Conference

Remember, this is only the latest development in what will be a process that plays out over the coming months in advance of another General Conference that will happen next May in Minnesota. Remember, too, what is not in dispute between the factions in our denomination is that our polity clearly states that persons in the LGBTQIA community are “persons of sacred worth created in the image of God” so we should take care to engage members of that community, especially in our own local community, in light of that fundamental shared belief.

Finally, this Sunday continues the season of Eastertide. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the most important claim the Church makes. It’s especially important at times when we find ourselves at a dead end, without answers, and maybe even without hope.

Jesus is not dead, making him the only participant in this mess who is without sin. Only the not-dead-Jesus is perfect in faith and blameless before the Law of God. Only the Risen Son knows fully the will of the Father. All the rest of us are trying to make our way foward while we, as Paul says, strain our eyes to see through a glass dimly; in other words, Easter demands from us humility and charity.

If the Living Lord wills for the Gospel promise of grace to be proclaimed by the particular people called Methodists, then the responsibility to find a way forward through this debate is not our responsibility alone. Thus Easter frees us for prayer and patience, continuing in the midst of this ecclessial fight with what scripture calls “our most urgent concern:” conveying the Gospel to a world that knows not God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness.

Grace and Peace,
Jason

In June, AUMC held a Bible study, “Scripture and Sexuality.” The text of the four meetings is below.

Session One: Interpreting the Bible

“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” 

Prayer & Rubric

    I’d like to frame our first session together with this quote from St. Augustine of Hippo, who, after the Apostle Paul, is likely the most important teacher for all believers on the Protestant side of the Christian family tree. It’s often erroneously attributed to John Wesley, but it comes from Augustine. Not only do I want it to serve as our prayer for our time with one another, I think it also provides a helpful rubric around which we can discern the questions about sexuality before the Church today. 

     Here’s the quote: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” 

    No matter where you fall on the issues dividing the Church, no matter what side of this debate you’ve chosen or will choose, this is the framework with which we should all be discerning the questions with which the Church wrestles at the present moment. Is a traditional understanding of Christian marriage essential to the proclamation of the Gospel such that we insist upon uniformity, or is it a doubtful matter over which we can grant those with whom we disagree latitude to disagree with us? Likewise, we should ask whether a liberalizing of the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage is essential so that we insist the entire Body support it; that is, is full inclusion of LGBTQIA Christians constitutive to our understanding of the faith— is it a justice issue— such that something less than a progressive policy is a betrayal of the faith? What is essential to our message that requires consensus? And what is just important to us that might permit liberty towards another? 

    What Augustine calls doubtful matters, the ancient Church labeled “adiaphora.” 

    Adiaphora are matters not regarded a requisite for faith and thus permissible for disagreement.

    I would argue that marriage and ordination, on their face, are not essential to the Christian message and mission, especially for Protestants; however, I would also argue that some ways, progressive and conservative, of speaking about same-sex marriage and gay ordination do threaten to obscure or undo the essential message of the Gospel, replacing it with a version of the false Gospel scripture warns us against in Galatians.

    Note too, as we proceed, that caritas, from which we get charity is the same root word in the New Testament as grace. Regardless of how we think and feel about these matters, as members of the Body and thus as members of one another, we ought to gift one another the grace to impute to them only faithful, sincere motives.

Guiding Parameters

    I’ve been a pastor for twenty years. In my ministry, I’ve met a lot of United Methodists who read Adam Hamilton, Beth Moore, the Upper Room, and the Washington Post, but not many who read the Bible with the same care with which they put together their fantasy football team or follow their preferred candidate in the primary. Sexuality is like a lot of issues where people in and out of the Church make assertions (from their tribe’s vantage point) like “the Bible says…” or “Jesus said…” without a firm scriptural foundation.

    My goal in this Bible Study is for folks at the end of it to understand how people who worship with them might disagree with them on the questions dividing the larger Church and, by understanding, contribute to the hospitality necessary for a diverse community of faith. I want us to be able to get beyond shallow Christian-splaining like “the Bible says…” and, for that reason, I do not plan for us to look at the oft-cited clobber passages on homosexuality until the fourth or fifth session. Today, I want us to explore what is the Bible and how we interpret it. Next week, I want to use my conversation with Professor David Fitch to help us think about how we use the Bible to discern God’s leading as a local community. For the third week, rather than turning to passages that prohibit sexual behavior, I want us to study first the Bible’s positive understanding of intimacy by looking at the Song of Songs. From there, we’ll look at how we read Genesis in light of the Apostle Paul and the ancient marriage rite, and then we’ll turn to the Letter to the Romans and how the Old Testament proof texts connect not only to Paul’s understanding of sexuality but to the adoption of all of you Gentiles into the People of God.

    Because it’ll be a couple of weeks before we even get to those passages that lurk whenever someone asserts “the Bible says…” I wanted to establish some parameters about the scriptural witness so that folks on both sides of this issue can step back and pause, realizing that their position isn’t as strong as they might think nor is their opponent’s perspective as weak as they might presume. There’s a reason the larger Church is divided on the subject of sexuality; scripturally-speaking, it’s not a slam dunk for either side. This should not surprise us. The Bible is not about sexuality— more on what the Bible is “about” later.

    Here are the “Yes, but…” parameters that should chasten our conversation:

    1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

    2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

    3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambigious teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

    4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

    5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

    6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

    7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

    8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

    If the above is true, if there’s a tension in scripture when it comes to these questions, then why do so many Christians on both the traditional and liberal ends act as though there’s no ambiguity about what God thinks about these matters?

What God Thinks

     When it comes to our God talk, sexuality in scripture is not unique. We live in a culture where, thanks to the internet, everyone is an expert on anything they want to spend a few minutes investigating online. Consequently, there’s no dearth of Christians making pronouncements about what God thinks on any number of issues. If you don’t believe me, you’ve obviously not spent any time on Facebook or Twitter, CNN or Fox News. Just this weekend, for example, I heard from Christians that God is very angry and will judge evangelicals for their support of Donald Trump’s administration. I also heard from Christians that God is responsible for Donald Trump’s administration— that Donald Trump is like Darius in the Old Testament— and that believers are encouraged to pray for him. This week I heard Christians on news channels insist that the restrictive abortion laws in some states around the country were the work of God. I also heard that the protests against those laws was God at work. This week I was told that God is very unhappy with conditions at our southern border, and I was also told that God wants us to have safe and secure borders. This week on Christian Twitter I read that God hates gay people and will punish his Church for its increasing inclusivity, and I also read that God affirms gay people and wants a more open and affirming Church.

    Even when Christians look to the Bible for guidance on issues that impact our lives, we come to different conclusions. Some of us, for example, come to scripture with a fundamentalist frame of interpretation, looking for the most binding verse on a given topic. Others of us approach scripture from a liberal frame, searching for the least restrictive verses (“God is love; therefore, whatever strikes as love is acceptable”). 

    Depending on the issue, most of us vacillate between being fundamentalists or liberals. 

    For instance, some of you are red-letter fundamentalists when it comes to Matthew 25 and what sounds like Christ’s command to care for immigrants or the poor in our midst, but when it comes to the incarnation you’d prefer to chalk it up as myth. Likewise, some Christians are fundamentalists when it comes to what the Bible says about marriage but when it comes to the New Testament’s teaching on money and possessions or violence they’re quick to attribute the teaching to an ideal achievable only in the Kingdom. On the one hand, some United Methodists are literalists when it comes Jesus’ welcome of outcasts and sinners (i.e., LGBTQIA people) but, on the other hand, they want to “demythologize” the accounts of the bodily resurrection of Christ. 

    Just as an aside, this last example is a very real dynamic in the UMC, and it’s why I may be inclusive on this particular issue but I’m in no way a progressive.

    We come to passages, picking and choosing.

    We switch how we approach scripture depending on the questions and issues before us. 

    This is because very often our ways of reading the Bible are in fact methods of self-justification. 

    We all have previously arrived at opinions on various issues, and we go to scripture looking for verses to buttress them. This in part is what it means to be a sinner. We not only make God in our image; we read God’s word according to our image too. 

    Recognizing our own sinfulness and our proclivity to self-justify, it’s important for Christians to come to the Bible with an understanding of what the Bible is and what the Bible is about, and it’s important for Christians to come to the Bible with one another. 

    Just as verses and passages cannot be read in isolation from what the Bible is about, Christians cannot read the Bible in isolation from one another. 

What is the Bible?

    What we call the Christian Bible was codified by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and despite what Dan Brown would have you believe there was little dispute about what should and should not be included in the canon. Think about the dating behind what we call the Bible. This means that Christians worshipped the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, baptizing believers into his death and resurrection and celebrating the eucharist, for three centuries without the Christian Bible. Consider too— until very recently, most Christians could not read. Discipleship until recently in history has been informed by but not dependent upon reading scripture.

    Therefore, asking “What does the Bible say about…?” is the wrong place to start when it comes to our questions and issues because it obscures how the witness of the Church begins not with the Bible but with the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian message begins not with the Bible but with the kerygma, the announcement of the Gospel that we find summarized in passages like 1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1, Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and woven into the ancient baptismal and eucharistic prayers which predate the New Testament. 

    The message about Jesus, in other words, precedes the message of Jesus. 

    Another way of putting it: The Gospels were written for the Gospel (as found in the Epistles); the Epistles were not written to flesh out the Gospels. 

    Why is this important? 

    When you come to the New Testament especially but the Bible generally, you should be mindful that it was written and codified to be in service to the apostolic witness that “the Lord Jesus Christ, gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Galatians 1).” 

    The Bible’s purpose is not to give you a purpose-driven life, for example, but to point you to Christ. The Bible’s purpose isn’t firstly to tell us what Jesus did (and taught us to do) but to show us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. So, when it comes to the issue before the Church today, if you believe, for example, that marriage must be between a man and a woman, but you don’t believe God physically raised Jesus from the grave, then you’re misusing the text of scripture. Ditto if you argue that the Church should become more inclusive of marginalized people but you’re not so keen on the notion that Christ died as a substitute and sacrifice for our sins. 

    Like any other book, the Bible’s primary plot should determine how read its parts. This is what scripture refers to as “rightly dividing the word of truth, between Law and Gospel” (2 Timothy 2.15). 

    The primary subject of the Christian Bible— shocker, I know— is Jesus Christ in his bleeding, dying, and rising for us. 

    Cross and Resurrection. Sin and Redemption. Atonement and Grace.

    How do we know this to be true?

    We know it to be true historically in that the preaching of the apostles is older than the books of the New Testament. We know it too from Jesus himself. As Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus: 

    “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have         declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter         into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them         the things about himself in all the scriptures.” 

    All of the Bible, Jesus teaches the disciples on Easter, testifies to himself.

    Jesus makes the very same point in John’s Gospel: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” 

    Even the organization of the Bible echoes the point. What we have in scripture as the Old Testament does not not match what Jews today would recognize as their Hebrew Bible. This is because the early Christians took their Jewish scriptures and reorganized it, concluding it with the prophet Malachi, in order to foreshadow the arrival of John the Baptist and thus the incarnation of Christ. 

    We speak often about “believing the Bible” but this is to put the matter wrong. Actually, this is to treat the Bible in the way that Muslims regard the Qu’ran. Notice, the Bible is not an item listed to be believed in the Apostles’ Creed; rather, the creed recites the plot summary of the Bible. The Bible reveals what we are to believe about God’s work of salvation in Christ Jesus; the Bible by itself is not an object to be believed. 

    We worship Jesus Christ, as Christians. 

    We do not worship the Bible.

    All of which is to say that before we can discern what the Bible says about a given subject, we must understand what is the Bible, which includes an understanding of what the Bible is not. 

What the Bible is Not

    The Bible is not a Museum, a collection of historical curiosities from which we can learn information about the past. The Bible is not a Spiritual Gym, a place to help us strengthen certain areas of our spiritual, personal, or moral life. The Bible is not a collection of Proverbs which give us nuggets of wisdom on the good life— though the Bible does contain Proverbs. The Bible is not mythology nor metaphor— though the Bible employs both mythology and metaphor. The Bible is not a set of Teachings on what God would have us to do or how God would have lived— though the Bible does contain teachings. The Bible is not a Library of loosely connected books. 

    The Bible is like JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

    Like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Bible is a collection of stories, letters, songs, histories etc. that, taken together, tell a single overarching story. In The Lord of the Rings, the macro-story is about Frodo and the fellowship destroying the ring of power in order to free Middle-Earth from its enslavement to the Dark Lord, Sauron. In the novels, Gandalf frequently smokes what the reader is led to assume is marijuana. Gandalf’s superiors even chastise him for how his smoking muddles his mind. Now, are there passages in The Lord of the Rings about the relative goodness or badness of smoking? Yes. Is The Lord of the Rings about smoking? No. Could we make conclusions about smoking from reading The Lord of the Rings? Sure. Would it be odd and in some ways a violation of The Lord of the Rings to flip through it looking for textual support for what The Lord of the Rings says about smoking, pro or con? Absolutely. When it comes to sexuality, we often treat the Bible in exactly that way. We’re forcing the Bible to answer questions that are subsidiary to its primary story.

    That’s not what it’s about. 

    It’s about Christ freeing us from our enslavement to the Dark Lord. 

    The Bible, in other words, is not meant to give us a Jesus-flavored answer for whatever questions we bring to it— it’s not a religious Ouja board. The Bible is meant to convey something very specific to us. 

    The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Book of Common Prayer are the doctrinal standards of the Church of England whence John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, came. Article Six summarizes what we’re to confess about scripture: 

    “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 the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

    Scripture, Article Six states, contains not everything God has ever thought about anything we can think up but everything necessary for you and I to be saved in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. And because scripture’s purpose is salvific, Article Six says, anything not in it cannot be required of us. It’s not essential, to get back to the quote from Augustine. It’s a doubtful matter, and we give freedom.

    What Article Six says about scripture is simply what scripture itself says to us. 

    John ends his Gospel with this PS: 

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

    If the Bible was a set of teachings, law, or proverbs according to which we’re supposed to live— if it was Law— then certainly you would want to include everything Jesus said and did. But if the Bible is about our coming to a saving faith in Christ as Lord, then John thinks he’s given you everything you need to know. 2 Timothy 3 makes the same point when it says to us: “…to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” Timothy doesn’t say all scripture is equally important. Timothy says all scripture is useful. And by scripture, Timothy has the Old Testament in mind, and by righteousness Timothy means firstly Jesus Christ himself who is the only Righteous One and who gifts us his own righteousness by the baptism of his death and resurrection. This is but a way of saying what John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel: Jesus is the Word of God.

    Jesus is the one Word which God speaks to us: 

    “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1).
 

    When we refer to the Bible as the Word of God (for the People of God), we mean it in a penultimate sense. 

    Jesus is the Word of God to whom the testimony of scripture reliably bears witness to us. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the “preaching of the word of God is the Word of God;” that is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and received faithfully then (and only then) is it the Word of God, for then the Risen Christ uses it to bear witness to himself. Whenever we conclude the reading of scripture in worship, we implicitly recognize that God’s Word is not fundamentally what is on the printed page but is the Living God attested to by those words on the printed page. 

The Three-Fold Form of the Word

    The theologian Karl Barth makes a similiar point with a helpful visual— what he called  the Three-Fold Form of the Word of God. Barth illustrated the Word of God as three cocentric circles.

    The inner circle is Jesus Christ, the one Word of God. The next middle circle is scripture, the Word which witnesses to the Word. The outer circle is the Church, the Communion of Saints, the tradition of receiving scripture’s testimony And, outside the third circle is you and me, the community of present-day believers. 

    The Three-Fold Form of the Word is a helpful cipher. For one, it protects Jesus from our partial and prejudiced readings of scripture. For another, it reminds us that we worship the Living Christ not the Bible. Third, it illustrates how we must read the Bible in light of how the Bible has been read before by the saints. Most important of all, it reminds believers like us that we’re all on the outer circumference separated from the one Word of God by several layers of transmission and hearing only an arc along the perimeter; such that, we cannot afford to ignore what other believers along the circumference hear and discern God say through scripture.

    We must be formed by the ancient prayers of the Church before we can pray well on our own, spontaneously. Like learning scales must precede a musician’s ability to improvise and jam, so must we pray— and, I would argue, read scripture. Apart from such formation, we bring to prayer and Bible-reading a self unformed by the saints. Thus, greedy people will pray greedy prayers, frightened people will pray frightened prayers etc. The same holds true of scripture. Progressive people read the Bible progressively. Conservative people read the Bible conservatively, and prejudiced people read the Bible prejudically. 

    We need to interpret the Bible with other believers and the whole company of heaven. If, for instance, you interpret a scripture passage in a new way, a way that no one else has ever interpreted it, you’re wrong. 

    We need to read with others, and we need to do so knowing that Jesus is the Word of God at the innermost of the circles. 

    The Bible must be interpreted christocentrically. 

Reading the Bible Like a Movie

    Jesus Christ, both what he said and did and what God has done in him and spoken to us by cross and resurrection, is the interpretative lens (the hermeneutic) by which we read all of scripture. The Bible itself gives us this hermeneutic. John’s Gospel calls Jesus the “logic” of creation. This is how Paul interprets his own Jewish scripture. Paul reinterprets the Law given to Moses by God in light of the cross and resurrection, concluding that the purpose of the Law is to convict us of sin and turn us, all of whom fall short, in repentance to the mercy found in Christ. Paul says that Jesus is the telos— the end and the fulfillment— of the Law. In Colossians, Paul says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, in whom all things were made and find their summation. 

    Put another way, the Bible should be read in the same manner in which you re-watch a film. Upon a second viewing, the climax of a film shapes how you watch the prior scenes. In this case, the climax of the movie that is the Bible is our redemption in Christ. 

    We read backwards into the Bible from the cross, and forwards towards Revelation from the cross.

    For example, we read the creation of Adam and Eve with the command “be fruitful…filling the whole earth…” in Genesis in light of the New Testament’s announcement that the command is now closed for Christ “has filled all in all.” Likewise, we read that the covenant of marriage was established by God in Adam and Eve— as the wedding rite does— in light of the New Testament’s teaching that the “covenant of marriage signifies the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” We read Exodus’ warnings about sinners’ names being blotted out of the Book of Life in light of Revelation’s conclusion where it’s the Lamb’s Book— not the Book of Life— that imputes to us admission in the Kingdom. We read the commands of the Law in both testaments in light of the Gospel message that “Christ has borne for us the curse of the Law (it curses us because not one of us can meet its demands perfectly) by becoming a curse in our stead.” 

    Our scripture today in worship— we read the parable of the sheep and the goats in light of the Gospel message that the Lamb of God was made a goat and judged in our place so that goats like us might be counted among God’s faithful flock. 

    Another way of saying that we should read the Bible christocentrically is that we read it, as 2 Timothy commends, dividing the Law from the Gospel; so that, our interpretation of scripture does not cloud its central claim that “By grace you have been saved in Christ through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2). 

Beware False Gospels

    This verse from Ephesians is an especially critical hermeneutic for Protestant Christians. Martin Luther (and John Wesley) said the Church stands or fall on the doctrine of justification; that is, what justifies us before God is not the righteousness we accrue by our deeds or doctrine but solely (sola) our trust in the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to us by our baptism into his death. This is what we pray over the water at every baptism; “…clothe them Christ’s righteousness; so that, dying and rising, she may share in Christ’s final victory…”

    In an ultimate sense, the only thing that counts for the Kingdom is Christ credited to us by faith. When we read christologically, dividing Law and Grace, we’re able to read scripture in submission to the Gospel promise that through faith alone in Christ alone “there is now no condemnation.” Our takeaway from a purity code from Leviticus, therefore, isn’t that it’s an antiquated custom based upon a byegone taboo. That may be the case but that’s not neither interesting nor a christological way of reading it. Rather, we read such a prohibition understanding that the condemnation merited by those who fail its demand has been borne by Jesus Christ upon the cross. 

    This is an important distinction, I think, in how we conduct the conversation about sexuality, for it doesn’t say the biblical Law is wrong. It proclaims that the Law, which Paul calls holy, righteous, and good, has been fulfilled. 

    In Galatians, possibly the oldest book of the New Testament, Paul warns Christians against adding any other stipulation to the Gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. Christ plus anything else added to it, Paul admonishes, is no Gospel at all. 

    Christ + ________ is a false Gospel. 

    Paul’s warning can be rephrased in terms of the Augustine quote with which we started. 

    What is essential over which we must have unity?

    The Gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. 

    What are doubtful things over which we can grant one another freedom?

    Every other deed and doctrine we might derive from the Bible, culture, or politics.

    To make doubtful things essential, Paul writes in Galatians, is to preach a false Gospel. 

    So the questions for us as community of readers, wrestling with sexuality and the Bible are simple questions even if a consensus answer is not easy to find. Is a traditional understanding of marriage essential to the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel? Does gay ordination get in the way of the Church’s mandate to preach the message of grace? Asked from the other side: is the full inclusion for LGBTQIA Christians into the rites of marriage and ordination a “justice” issue constituitive of and essential to the Gospel message itself? Or, does understanding it in terms of justice and liberation impose upon traditionalists something added to the Gospel which must also be affirmed? Is “All means all” required confession for all believers. Likewise, does a traditional understanding of sexuality impose upon liberals something added to the Gospel which they must believe?  

    In advocating our respective positions on sexuality, are we creating false Gospels, adding doubtful beliefs and behaviors to the essential message of grace? That liberal and traditional Christians now view sexuality as an issue worth schism suggests both sides have raised doubtful beliefs to the level of essential beliefs, which, Paul would warn, are false Gospels.

    If Christ alone and his righteousness credits to us the Kingdom, then— I believe— essentializing any particular understanding of marriage and ordination, liberal or conservative, confuses the criteria by which we should be evaluating those vocations. If marriage and ordination are indeed “doubtful things” over which we can disagree in freedom, then the criteria by which we assess them is not the Kingdom but the Community, the Body of Christ.

    Faith alone silences every charge for any sin against us; therefore, Christians shouldn’t be debating sexuality with terms like sin/abomination/rights/feelings, etc., because eternity is not at stake. Rather, Christians should be discerning sexuality in the very terms the ancient marriage and ordination rites give us:

    Would this same-sex couple’s marriage build up the Body of Christ?      Would this gay Christian, called by God, build up the Body of the baptized through ordained ministry?

The Way Forward Task Group's message to the congregation after the first session

Dear Annandale UMC Members and Friends,

Your Way Forward Task Group enjoyed seeing many of you last Sunday at the first session of Scripture & Sexuality, led by Reverend Jason during the Sunday School hour.   Jason presented a great foundation for using the Bible in our discernment of the human sexuality issues facing our church.  This Sunday, June 9, at 9:45 am we will meet in the sanctuary for a video of Reverend Jason’s interview with David Fitch, a professor at Northern Seminary in Chicago, who will provide language to help us be in conversation with each other about these issues, following some examples from Jesus.  In the remaining sessions in June, Jason will examine some specific Bible passages related to sexuality.  Please join us.  We need to study together, listen to each other, and share our stories so that we move forward together with love and understanding.   

Our task group is meeting regularly to stay informed about what is happening within our global church regarding these issues and to discern a faithful way forward for AUMC.   If you see something that our task group should be reviewing or if you have any questions or comments for our task group, please place a note in the Way Forward Task Group mail box outside the church office.   Please sign your note so that we may follow-up with you. 

Many of you attended an open Church Council meeting on March 19 in Hughes Hall, where the decisions made at the February General Conference were discussed.  Following are responses from your Way Forward Task Group to a few of the questions or comments voiced at that meeting. 

“The decision flies in the face of my understanding of the gospel – that grace is extended to all, no matter who we are, and that there are no conditions on God’s love.  How can I be a part of a church that doesn’t treat LGBTQ people as equal?”

Response:  Certainly God’s grace and love are extended to all.  And, as followers of Jesus, we are all called to “love one another”.  Annandale UMC will continue to love and respect persons of all ages, races, nations, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.  We will also continue our main mission of proclaiming the Gospel to all. There are many discussions occurring within the global church regarding a way forward that allows for diversity of understanding on these topics.  Your Way Forward Task Group is monitoring those discussions and participating as opportunities allow.  We encourage you to stay engaged and involved as Annandale UMC and the global church discern a faithful way forward.

“We at Annandale are an open, loving church; that has not changed. Surely we can work together to discern a way forward. Let’s not let this decision divide our church.”

Response:  In light of the decisions of General Conference 2019, Annandale UMC and your Way Forward Task Group are working to maintain the loving, welcoming, and open church that AUMC has been. We are praying.  We are asking God and Jesus Christ to watch over us, be with us, and help us.  We are asking the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and ears to the perspectives of all, to see them and listen to them where they are.  We are reading the Bible and then listening to others’ interpretations of the same passage, not to correct, but to explore together.  We encourage you to stay engaged and involved as Annandale UMC and the global church discern a faithful way forward.  It is important to remember that beginning January 1, 2020, there will be real and punitive consequences for clergy and local congregations who do not follow the changes to the Book of Discipline.

“I support the Traditional Plan.   Is there a place for me at AUMC?  Are we creating a climate where those with minority views feel they no longer have a home?”

Response:  Yes, you have a home at AUMC.  Our congregation does have a diversity of understandings about same-sex marriage and ordination of gay clergy, including many who support the Traditional Plan, and we also undoubtedly have a diversity of understandings about many other issues.  That diversity adds richness to our discussions and to our ministries.  Your voice is important.   Our goal is to create a safe space for dialogue and discussion, where all are embraced and all can grow in understanding of these issues, as we discern our way forward together.

Way Forward Task Group

Task Group Chairperson: Bill Iwig

Task Group Members:  Pam Adams, Elvira Arteaga, Bill Chambers, Harry Day, Bill Harrod, Jan Harrod, Sophie Luckenbaugh, Chenda Lee, Jon Page, Christi Schwarten, Pat Sherfey, Peter Snitzer, Jr., and Terri Ruhter.

Session Two: a video conversation with Dr. David Fitch.

Jason's notes on the Bible, Ideology, and Discernment: Beyond Us vs. Them

Hi Folks, 

I hope you’ve had a great week.

My new book, Living in Sin, just released, and I’ll be away this weekend promoting it. I’ll be preaching at All Saints Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. You can find the book here, if you dare. 

Not only did we have overflow at last Sunday’s class, we’ve since then had 4,300 people  literally from all over world download the audio of the session. You all are engaging a study and conversation that many wish they could find in their own communities of faith so kudos to you.

Because I’m away, the Pastor’s Bible Study this Sunday will consist of a pre-recorded conversation I had with Dr. David Fitch of Northern Seminary in Chicago that participants will view in the sanctuary followed by a time for Q/A moderated by Bill Iwig, chair of the Way Forward Task Force, and Pastor Chenda. 

David Fitch is a helpful conversation partner for us because he’s neither a traditionalist nor a liberal— he’s not even Methodist; he’s Anabaptist (think: Mennonite). Unlike many professors, David does a good job of avoiding jargon; still, I thought it might help your viewing and conversation this Sunday to receive the notes ahead of time rather than afterwards. Special shout out goes to Minion David for prepping the notes for the class, and to AUMC-er Barbara Yancey for proofing everything.

SESSION TWO 
The Bible, Ideology, and Discernment:  Beyond “Us vs. Them”

Reiteration of “Yes, but…” Conversation Parameters: 

Just to make sure we start from a place of continuity, I want to reiterate the “Yes, but…” parameters set out last week.  These allow us to maintain a posture of grace and humility when discussing such a fraught subject.  Since this is a subject we approach as a community, formed and read on the level of discernment (more on this later), it’s important to keep each of these in mind going forward.

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned, it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you).

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes, which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized, instead, that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced.

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

RECAP FROM SESSION ONE—

Last week, we started off our discussion by focusing on how it is that Christians approach, read, and appreciate the Bible, and attempting to place this within the larger discussion of how we, the Church, ought to read the Bible together.  For us Christians, the sacred nature of the Bible can often be forgotten when we approach it to justify our previously arrived at conclusions.  This is part of the meaning of the term “sinner.”  To package the Bible up and, in essence, read it for ourselves, is a mode of self-justification that belies the underlying problems facing us as readers.  Further, searching the Bible for particular passages on particular issues places us at the wrong starting point, the whole while assuming that the Bible is meant to be used in the fashion of proving people wrong.

The Bible (and, especially, the New Testament), the great narrative of God’s grace visited to the world through the flesh of Christ and the witness of the Spirit, was written for and speaks to the primary duty of the Church:  The apostolic proclamation of the Gospel.

And just so we are clear on what exactly that Gospel is: “For while we were still sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5).  

As we said last week, the broader plot, the narrative that undergirds it all, should determine how we read (i.e., interpret) the particulars.  Thus, we should approach the Bible not in search of particular self-justifications that we can hurl at other pews, but rather with a larger hermeneutic (a fancy word for ‘the lens through which we read’) that makes sense of the particulars.

That hermeneutic is none other than the grace offered to us endlessly through the cross of Christ. This means that when we read the Bible, we approach it as sinners postured by grace.

SOME NOTES ON FITCH

We ended last week by talking about how sexuality, and scripture, is something to be approached at the level of community, formed by the discipline of tradition and informed by the context we inhabit.

David Fitch, as we see in the interview, provides us with a way of conceptualizing (a) why reading the Bible well is so hard in modern culture (a culture opposed to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord), (b) what makes reading the Bible on a communal level so difficult, and (c) the ways our cultural divisions, ideologies, and arguments find their ways into the Church, tailoring how we interact with, perceive, and understand our relations to one another.  He posits in his book that the Church has been consumed by the “us vs. them” version of faith, one that guts the Gospel message at its very core.  Subsequently, Fitch notes, the Church is subsumed by the “enemy-making machine,” feeding off our own fears, anxieties, and ideologies.  

Fitch argues that when we as a Church engage in this kind of reading and line-drawing, we simply reiterate the cultural argument, stymieing any attempt to preach the Gospel and blocking off anything God might have to say on the matter.  

In short, when we approach scripture with the divisions of culture already inscribed into our eyes, we preclude both God’s presence and, logically, our ability to preach that presence.

Fitch’s argument borrows a lot from ideology studies, which is a dense and complicated field that mixes philosophy, critical theory, and sociology.  One of the claims that is central to what we are doing here is that ideology is bigger than the Church.  That is, ideology tends to dominate our modes of thought, and since we are Christians, it is particularly obvious in the way we think about, interpret, and use the Bible.

In modern studies of ideology, the concept of “antagonism” dominates.  To be clear, this is not the colloquial notion of “antagonism.”  An antagonism is the process by which we make someone an enemy by turning them into an “Other.” An “Other” is what we turn people into when we dissociate them from their concrete reality and identify them by monolithic abstractions.  To turn someone into an “Other” is to distance them from who they are by not allowing ourselves to be present with them.  It functions on us, too.  The defensiveness and hurt we feel when labelled particular names which bear particular connotations (such as sayings like, “You’re just a liberal,” or “You’re stuck in the 18th century.”) is a result of the simplification and monolithic abstraction that is a patent mark of “Otherness.”  

The antagonism, displayed in the process of othering, is precisely what occurs when we see people in our image of God, rather than in the image Christ made them to be.  When we turn people into objectified “Others,” we do violence to that Christological imprint.

Fitch notes, importantly, that we do not knowingly start antagonisms; the genesis of the antagonism is ideology – it is a product of our social and cultural life and thought.  Fitch wants us to realize that when we are functioning essentially as an “us vs. them” church, we are presupposing the antagonism.

The concrete way this functions is through what Fitch calls “banners.”  Banners are an ideological product that extract in-life practices and means of navigating the world and turns them into abstracted identity markers.  Banners signify a monolithic, abstract structure that conveys a simplistic model with no (or, virtually, no) relation to the complexity the thing has in its concrete form.  These banners tend to lead to a thing ironically called a “master-signifier.”  These master-signifiers do not actually function to show any relation occurring in reality.  They serve only to confuse.

For example, when we label someone “progressive” or “conservative” and proceed from there to bash our Bibles over their heads, we are participating in the “banner.”  The banner, then, is in the service of a dichotomization, a crystallizing of who the enemy is and what they stand for.  This is the antagonism we spoke about earlier.

The banner, with its abstracted simplicity, removes the material reality from people and the church.  It obscures, under the guise of “us vs. them” the ability to physically discern what God is doing.

SPEAKING CHRISTIAN— DISCERNMENT

Sexuality, it turns out, is one of those things we use banners for all the time.  Sexuality is not, as we pretend it to be, a singular issue.  Presenting it as such necessarily presumes that there are different opposing camps, only one of which can be right.  Sexuality is, however, bound up in a world of complexity.  In fact, it is bound up in the world.

Just as we cannot talk about who we are without talking about the world in which we live, sexuality cannot be abstracted from and discussed apart from its material reality, which is found in people, in all people.

Reading the Bible and searching for answers to a particular question (like sexuality), ignoring the larger narrative, and approaching the text with a microscopic hermeneutic, are each signs of reading the Bible ideologically; that is, it is a sign of reading the Bible through the lens of antagonism.  The Church, then, is assigned the task of discernment.  Discernment is a “local” project; it involves the Church being first open to seeing what God is doing.  From there, discernment involves being led (Note, the passive voice) by God to learn how to speak Christian in a culture that rejects Christ.

What, you might ask, does discernment at the level of the Church really involve?  The active components of discernment are myriad, but Fitch offers a couple crucial points from which to begin.

  1. Discernment begins from a space of brokenness:  The Church is a collection of sinners, not saints.  The process of discernment begins, then, not from a hierarchical positioning, but with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, no matter the argument.
  1. Discernment reduces the language of positions:  The Church is caught up in its “position” on x and its “policy” on y.  This language is not only foreign to the Gospel, but it is the reproduction of cultural norms.  The language of “positions” is bound to treat people as objects instead of faithful Christological subjects.  Further, policy and position leave no room for God to work in the world through our brokenness.

According to St. Paul, the Church is the “fullness of Christ,” which means that the Church submits both to Christ’s reign and, consequently, His presence.  A resulting tenet of the Church is that Christ is the only alternative to the “antagonisms” of our time.  Antagonism, violence, banners, master-signifiers:  They are all tools of the one Paul calls “the Enemy.”

Each of these tools from the Enemy’s toolbox requires a constant stream of new enemies because – pay attention here – the enemy-making machine has no positive definition.  That is, the only way it exists is by constantly defining itself by what it is against.

But, the Church cannot exist like this.  If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then Jesus, in his fullness, provides the Church with what the Enemy’s enemy-making-machine cannot:  a substance and sustenance that does not run out, a “well-spring that never runs dry.”  When Jesus commands us, then, to love our enemies, it is not just a challenge to our virtues as a Church; it signifies the endless love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness God gives through the death and resurrection of Christ.  We cannot learn to love, much less love each other, if we have not first learned of how Christ has loved us (unto death on the cross!).

So, part of the work of discernment is asking the question: “Can the banner we use make sense apart from describing who or what it is against?”  If it cannot, then there is no room for God’s work, argues Fitch, partly because we have tied our own self-definition to the definition of our enemies.  However, concrete, mutual discernment can combat the enemy-making machine, not least because it opens us again to be able to see where God is working, even in conflict.

Scripture teaches us a thing or two about God working in conflict.  He does not recede from the scene; in conflict, God intensifies his work of healing and restoration.  Focusing only on the determinative point set by the Enemy does not allow us to recognize what God is doing in the midst of our disagreements.

SOME SUGGESTIONS—

At the end of the video, David Fitch offers some tips for how to deal with talking about this.  I’m just going to reiterate and clarify them a little here.

  1. Tell stories.  Don’t start from an argument, but a story.  Stories allow us to avoid a confrontational beginning by humanizing the situation.  Stories remind us of the concrete reality from which our discussions arise. They also mimic the way God tells his story in the narrative we call the Bible.  They allow us to begin in weakness and vulnerability.  In dislodging ideology from below, stories provide a substantive referent, rather than the exhausting extraction and abstraction of the “banner.”
  2. Ask good questions. Banners, ideology, antagonisms, master-signifiers:  They always mask a contradiction.  Good questions lead to the discovery and inquisition of these contradictions.
  3. Provoke…sometimes. Provocation can, when used well, take the existing wisdom to its extreme, thereby laying bare what the contradiction is that upholds such wisdom.  Use sparingly.
  4. Always look for a place of agreement.  Note:  This is not looking for agreement, but a place of agreement.  The subtle, but important, difference is that the former is about arguments, while the latter is about people.  The emphasis is not on theoretical agreement disjointed from subjects in the world, but on relationality and community in which agreement takes the form of a connection made possible by Christ.

Happy Pentecost!

Session Three

Vulnerability and Delight— Song of Songs and Marriage as a Parable of Triune Love

WHERE WE ARE

So far, we’ve done little to deal with the actual portions of the Bible that mention sexuality.  Purposefully, the first two sessions were meant to try and reframe how we approach and think about the Bible.  In the first session, we discussed how the reading of the Bible is a churchwide endeavor.  That is, the Church is the means by which we mediate our understanding of scripture, because it provides the communal frame through which we can interpret the particulars of scripture.  

  In the second session with David Fitch, we doubled-down on the importance and difficulty of reading as a community.  David helped introduce us to notions of ideology and banners, concepts that help us to identify what happens when we start throwing scripture at each other; that is, David helped us see when we turn the grace of God as communicated by scripture into the Law as dictated by the antagonisms society envelops us in.  When antagonisms are the basis of the Church’s (Read: the community’s) use of scripture, the Bible becomes a weapon, an instrument of ideology.  

David left us with the question of how to discern what it is that God is doing on the ground in the Church.  Discernment on our part requires an active participation in the life of Christ by forming our discussions in the same way that Christ forms us through the cross.  Discernment means beginning in a space of brokenness – the only space from which God enters the scene.  It begins, then, with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, opening up the community to seeing collectively where God is present and where God is working among them and outside of them.  

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Once again, since I want to make sure this sinks in for everyone, I’m going to reiterate the assumptions and premises to help us navigate this question and open ourselves to how God is shaping us through it.  (Notice: the emphasis here is on what God is doing.  We cannot proceed unless we can first get to a point where we acknowledge our need to be led, to be taught, to be humbled in the work of God in this community.)  

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses, which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

SONG OF SONGS AND MUTUAL, MATERIAL JOY

First, take a look at the ancient wedding rite as found in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rite obviously assumes the male/female norm, notice what the liturgy names as the first purpose of Christian marriage:

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of  God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and
this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and  first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us
the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture  in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

In the debate over sexuality, verses are plucked from various and different contexts to corroborate one position (and by the very same token, denigrate the position of another).  Think Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, to name a few.  

The most neglected book of the Bible in this discussion, and perhaps the most neglected book generally in the Church, is the Song of Songs.  Perhaps, this is because it is the most openly erotic book of the Bible.  Perhaps, it is because the love song uses language many of us would never dream of saying in the bedroom (nor would we want to hear it). 

Given the openly amorous language, I wonder why this does not get the attention it ought to receive in debates about sexuality.  

It is a love poem, but a love poem of a different kind, something not found in the whole of scripture.  Ancient Jewish interpreters of this poem understood it to be a love song conveying the relationship between God and Israel.  Reading in that legacy, interpreters in the early Church understood the poem on two levels: on the interior relationship that constitutes the trinity, and the relationship between God and the Church.  For ancient interpreters, rarely was it the case that this scripture was referenced to refer to marriage as we know it.  

The Song of Songs was not a song of human marriage, but of the marriage of the divine, through which human marriage finally became intelligible to early Christians (Paul, famously, advocated chastity and asceticism before marriage).  It should be indicative even from the name of the poem, which takes a superlative, genitive form.  It is the Song from which all other songs proceed, which is to say that the relationship disclosed in the Song of Songs is the primary relationship of focus for those in the Church.  

The Song of Songs shows us that, in the life of the Church, marriage becomes intelligible only on a tertiary level.  The Song of Songs, in primarily disclosing the relationship that constitutes the Trinity, reflects the focus that Christian marriage is meant to reflect: the unmitigated, continuous exchange of grace and love between partners.  The relationship that the Song of Songs most ardently expounds is the relationship of grace that marriages are meant to reflect.  

Marriage, then, is a signifier of the one-way grace and love of God for the world, given in Christ through the power of the Spirit.  

Take this passage from Song of Songs 5: 1-8

  1. I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.
  2. I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.
  3. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
  4. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for
  5. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
  6. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
  7. The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
  8. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.

Obvious innuendos aside, the centerpiece of this passage is the opening and closing to the Beloved.  The whole dramatis of this section relies on the climax that occurs in verse 6.  Read as the relationship between the Church and the Lord, this can be identified immediately as a statement begrudging the lustful desire of the Lord’s flock and instead turning her to seek after him properly.  

Beneath this, though, is a deeper meaning.  The theologian Robert Jenson writes in his commentary that what is revealed in the oscillation of open and closed is moreover the laying out of the recurring pattern of Israel’s salvation history.  This history is laid clear by the shifting nature of the love the woman has for the Beloved, shifting from seeking after him, to desiring him, to knowing him properly.  

Deeper still, there is something revealed about the nature of the Trinity here.  The same oscillation between lust and love, between eros and agape, is representative of the continuous exchange of love and grace, and the transformative, active power therein, that makes the Trinity’s inner communion distinct.  

The song, in its ebb and flow, tracks and maps the exchange of love that constitutes the unity of God: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

And notice (this next part is important for the rest of what I am going to say):  The kind of love and desire described, the kind of actions used illustratively, they are all embodied acts.  

BABETTE’S FEAST

The cult classic film, Babette’s Feast, is a helpful example in attempting to understand the grace God gives, which is the same grace that makes God, God.  In the film, which takes place in a small town in Sweden, the two female leaders of a struggling congregation that declined after the passing of its founder, find a woman on their steps needing a place to stay.  She was fleeing persecution from the French, who had killed her family.  The women agree to let her stay, and in return she cooks and cleans for them, providing meals for their services and maintaining the church.  One day, she happens to receive the winning ticket of the lottery, worth $10,000.  After notifying the two sisters, she insists that they celebrate her winnings with a large feast, which she offers to prepare.  She leaves for a while to get everything necessary for the feast.  When she returns, a boatload of food arrives with her, and she prepares a full meal in French style, with which the locals are unfamiliar and on first taste, unsatisfied.  But as the feast progresses, the gathering becomes more and more lively, the food tasting better and better with each bite.  

At the end of the feast, the two women, fearing that she will leave since the feast is over, ask the lady what she plans to do.  She replies by saying that she is not leaving, for she spent all her winnings on the feast.  “That is the cost of a meal for friends at Café Anglaise,” she states.  

The story is a story of unmerited grace, where the Christ-figure both upsets and reconciles.  The narrative, which shows a lot more Gospel than cultural criticism will allow us to admit, tells us a several things.  

  1. The human Jesus really was a human, who appears to us in the state of brokenness and need. Therefore, the redemption offered in Christ is one offered through a body.
  2. The price of grace can be paid only by Christ: It is inaccessible without him.
  3. The promise of grace is never revoked, for it promises bodily resurrection and rehabilitation.

TRINITY, THE BODY, AND MARRIAGE

Before we start judging gay people for the supposedly distinctive unrighteousness of their marriages, straight Christians need to first have a positive understanding of what marriage is and what it does.  And for us Christians, that means taking the resurrection seriously.  In fact, taking the resurrection seriously is the only way that the Christian view of marriage makes any sense.

The resurrection, we confess in the creeds, is bodily; the Christ who leaves the grave on Easter morning is not only alive, but he is alive and breathing. The resurrection we profess is embodied, which makes the marriage of two people not simply a sign of invisible grace, but a physical embodiment of the promise God gives in Christ, the only promise that could ever be unconditional.  

As we saw in the Song of Songs, the relationality of the Trinity is what marriage ought to point to.  And insofar as one person of the Trinity is, in fact, a Person (albeit with a capital P), then the relationship expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, provides the necessary centerpiece of the physical bond we call marriage.  

In fact, without that piece, marriage is simple a soluble spiritual bond that cannot sustain itself, and that will inevitably not take seriously the importance of the body.  That is, without the resurrection, Christian marriage becomes unintelligible, because the body becomes meaningful. 

In the ancient world, between the 1st and 4th centuries, a proto-religion called Gnosticism came out of the early Christian tradition. You’ve probably heard the name before.  In fact, you’ve probably been a practicing gnostic before (don’t feel bad about it; its America’s religion, really).  There were two central things, thematically speaking, that made Gnosticism different from the early Christians: their conception of the body, and their notion of salvation.  The latter, for Gnostics, informed the former.  They thought of the body as encumbering the soul, the freedom of which is the ultimate salvation.  

We may not want to admit it, but we (as a society) are much more prone to thinking of bodies in this way, in this negative light that ties the body to a negative materiality.  For Gnostics, salvation ultimately ended in the release from the body and the ascent of the pure soul.  

Despite its ravaging popularity, even to the point of being a distinct part of our philosophical inheritance, the Gnostic notion of the body is utterly different from the one offered in Christ and in our marriage to Him.  

The marriage rites, which quote from Genesis (something we will talk about next week), tell us that the couple “cleaves” to each other.  The couple, that is, literally physically attach to each other (yes, that means what you think it means).  The resurrection and the ascension, the moments in which God raises both Christ and humanity with Him, are bodily acts, and in that vein give our bodies a substantive meaning – a positive meaning.  

Further, the ascension, which is the visible sign of the unity of the Trinity in which all of humanity is invited to participate, actually makes our material lives good.  The goodness of the body of Christ, raised into active participation in the unity of love and grace, raises our bodies into that goodness as well.  When Christ returns from the dead in the physical body that was nailed to the cross, the bodies we have were given a good meaning. 

The resurrection, assured in the ascension, makes the bodies we have important conduits of grace.  Grace comes not in a disembodied, vaporous form, but in the substantive body of Christ. That body was made naked and vulnerable to us, such that we might “see the Father” (John 14:9).  The vulnerability of Christ’s body is a sign to us of the goodness of our own vulnerability.  And remember, the body the disciples see after the resurrection – it’s still vulnerable.  Jesus urges Thomas to “put your finger here; see my pierced hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27).  

Nowhere is the vulnerability of our bodies more evident than in marriage.  

Thus, all the acts of marriage, and especially sex, are the truly parabolic moments that signify a couple’s reflection of the Trinity.  We have to remember that the Trinity, whose love we attempt to reflect in marriage, is the constant self-disclosure and love and grace to itself, which requires of it an absolute vulnerability.  Each of the members of the Trinity is always already open and vulnerable to the others.  

When we open ourselves to others (literally and metaphorically) and become vulnerable, our three-way relationship with us, our partner, and God becomes intelligible.  Our nakedness takes on a theological meaning, because it reflects the same nakedness that binds the Trinity together.  

Thus, marriage is not only an outward sign of an inward grace, but a physical sign of a bodily grace.  God, who is all in all through Christ in the unity of the Spirit, cannot help but raise our bodies, too.  It is only from that stance that we can begin to evaluate, in a Christian sense, the goodness, or not, of nuptial unity.  That is, if we are to evaluate marriages as a church, then this positive understanding of the goodness of our bodies and the reflection of the Trinity that is a centerpiece of the sanctifying function that marriages serve for the community called the Church.  

That grace, moreover, is the means by which marriages become sanctifying bonds given as a gift to the Church for its edification.  More on that next week.  To end, I want to offer you a “Charge for a Wedding,” written by Eugene F. Rogers, a theologian who was my first teacher at UVA, which does not depend on male-female normativity for the coherence of Christian marriage:  

“Dearly beloved: we have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of these God’s human creatures, [x and y], in Holy Matrimony.  Marriage signifies the mystery of the love that God bears for human beings, in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith with us.  That love is mysterious to us in that, unlike us, God just is love, an interior community, never lonely, already rich.  That love is open to us in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith in God’s very self, as these two desire, befriend, and keep faith with each other.  And God’s Spirit internally witnesses and blesses and keeps faith with the love in God as today we externally witness and bless the love of these two human creatures in God’s image.  Today the celebration, blessing, and witnessing of this wedding catch us up into a parable of the inner love and life of God.” 


Session Four

The Clobber Passages and Creation (AKA: “The Good Stuff”)

Where We Are

Last week, having solidified our understanding of Bible reading as a communal enterprise, we started to talk about sexuality through a positive, substantive understanding of marriage and its theological purpose:  to reflect the mutual joy and vulnerability that constitutes the life of the Trinity.

And Now… the Good Stuff

After three weeks of re-learning how to read scripture, I know you are all anxious to get to the texts in contention. The day has finally arrived.  The “clobber passages” are finally here.  Just by the name, we must note the violence these passages have done, not only to certain LGBT people, but to the Church as a whole.  The “clobber passages” have done harm to the body of Christ called the Church not only because we throw them at each other with such disdain for the other, but because when we do so, we resist and reject the idea that reading the Bible is a Churchwide enterprise for the purpose of discernment, not destruction.

That is, when we read these passages and (1) take them out of context, (2) use them to hurt one another, and (3) refuse to open ourselves to any interpretation other than the one we supposedly conclude on our own, we preclude God from working through the process of discernment.  Like David Fitch told us a few weeks ago, such actions are the simple reiterations of cultural antagonisms.

Thus, the fact that we have even coined the term “clobber passages” belies our captivity to the ideology of the world, and the need for the freedom Christ’s grace provides.  Before we even begin, then, we need to set out, once again, our communal assumptions.  Doing so provides a consistent reminder that keeps us framed well within both tradition and the concrete world we inhabit.  The interpretation of Holy Scripture is one of the most important tasks assigned to the Church, and in such a tumultuous world, this very activity of discerning the work of the Spirit in scripture and our lives can show the world the alternative that is Christ.

By the same token, narrow, closed interpretations cannot do justice to the complexity of the issue at hand.  It is inadequate discipleship to approach this issue with a “the Bible says it’s wrong” attitude. Such a closed attitude treats scripture as a dead letter, and it fails to ask what the Holy Spirit might be speaking through the Word of God to the Church today.

It is also insufficient to respond to this issue with the contrary attitude which says, “Well, I know how I feel about this matter.” Such an individualistic attitude fails to take seriously the testimony of the larger Christian community, both past and present. The Church is a community, and its testimony is predicated not on individual suppositions, but on the community’s work in discerning God’s work.

With that, allow me one more remark about the nature of what we are doing here. Homosexuality is an issue that strikes at God’s intention for our relationships. Whatever answer one gives to this debate, it is clear that God intends for our conservations and discernment to be marked by mercy, humility and love.  This study, which we are undertaking for the sake of the Church and in the assurance of the Gospel, must be undertaken with the conviction that our world, being a profoundly polarized world, needs a sanctuary, a place where complex issues can be discussed, where God’s will can be discerned, and where such dialogue is guaranteed to happen with a love born of grace and a hospitality tempered by humility.

This conviction necessarily takes every side of the issue with sincerity and with the assumption that each person comes seeking God and what God is doing in the world.  It is inadequate to assume otherwise. If we treat this issue with silence, we do a deep injustice not only to LGBT people in our congregation, but to the Church as a whole. Christ came to forgive all sin, not to keep his people silent.

With that, let’s remind ourselves of the guiding parameters from the first session: 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance, of Gentile behavior. 

    2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

    3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (”I know Jesus said, but I say to you.”). 

    4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriage was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

    5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

    6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

    7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

    8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

The Good Stuff, Part 1 – Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis 19.1-29 tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a familiar, yet little understood passage that many insist is a clear moment of God’s wrathful judgment levied against homosexual activity.  Clergy, laypeople, and theologians often make reference to this story to shore up their accounts of the absolute heterosexual proscription of the Bible.

In the story, a mob of men from the city bang on Lot’s door. Their apparent intention is to gang-rape Lot’s visitors, whom the reader already knows are really angels. No reason is given in the text for why the men of the city should be so moved. Rather, their threat stands as a sort of symbol in the story for the city’s general wickedness.  That is, the specific intention of the mob is a byproduct of the city’s captivity to sin.

The angels rescue Lot’s family and later pronounce the city’s destruction. Despite the propensity of some to read this narrative as an anti-homosexual text, no where in the story itself or in the rest of scripture is Sodom’s sin identified as homosexuality. Instead of homosexuality, the prophet Ezekiel identified Sodom’s chief sin to be: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16.49). In discerning scripture’s will for homosexuality, it is prudent for the Church to look to other texts.

Further, reading the text in this fashion forces one to draw an analogy between gang-rape and consensual homosexual relations. This is a textual and a logical stretch, at best.  Especially, in light of the work we have done in the past few weeks to resituate our communal understanding of marriage within the life of the Trinity, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah could hardly function as an example of such relationships.  If there is some condemnation of homosexual activity here, it is most certainly not of the kind that concerns the Church.  There is nothing that even remotely resembles the faithful, monogamous kind of nuptial relationships that are under consideration here.

Bonus Note:

The activity of the mob is, as the text tells us, one unnatural to the human condition. That is, there is nothing about the people in the mob that naturally inclined them to gang-rape. Whether or not you believe being gay is a matter of nature or nurture, gay people are who they are, and that will not change.

The attribution of the mob’s acts to their nature, and thus the blame of judgment on homosexual activity, does not hold.  After all, the members of the mob had wives.

The Good Stuff Part 2 – The Household Codes

Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 belong to a portion of Leviticus referred to by scholars as the “Holiness Codes.” If you read them, you will see that they clearly prohibit male [but not female— because the texts are most interested in preventing unclear lines of inheritance] homosexual behavior. They seem straightforward and clear. Case closed, right?

As clear as these texts are, however, they are not satisfactory texts for many Christians. The Holiness Codes, after all, contain many moral admonitions that have been ignored by Christians since the days of the early Church. These are matters related to food regulations and the ritual necessity of circumcision. Both “Acts” and “Romans” confirm for us that these codes do not apply to the life of the Church.  It is inconsistent with the larger Christian tradition to pull these texts out of Leviticus for the purpose of debate when the communal consensus has been that they belong to a code that is no longer normative for followers of Jesus. In fact, even the biblical literalist would have to acknowledge that while Leviticus prohibits male homosexual behavior, it makes no mention of female homosexual relationships. Indeed, such a jump to the condemnation of all homosexual relationships would be outside the bounds of a strict interpretive lens.

As interesting and provocative as these passages are, they are not binding to us unless we also do not eat bacon.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear Paul’s Gospel announcement that “for freedom [from the Law] Christ has set us free,” I first think of bacon.

The Good Stuff Part 3 – The New Testament

As we noted in our list of assumptions, the Gospels show Jesus teaching within the bounds of male-female normativity.  That is, Jesus does not denounce homosexuality, but he does not condone it either.  He is strongly within the bounds of male-female relations.  To be fair, Paul does reinterpret some of Jesus’ teachings, but he does not question those bounds.

Beyond the Gospels, homosexuality and homosexual behavior receives few mentions.  For now, we will leave Romans 1 aside.  We will pick up on that next week.

For now, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.10.

The First Letter to the Corinthians is a corrective that Paul issues out of frustration over their illicit actions.  The Corinthians, as bible readers and church-goers will remember, believed that they were already enjoying the exalted resurrection life. They concluded, therefore, that traditional moral conventions no longer applied to them. An aggravated Paul calls the Corinthians “wrong-doers.” To illustrate what he means by wrong-doer, Paul very helpfully provides them with a list of the sorts of people he is including the Corinthians among: “…fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers.”

For us, as Bible readers, it is important to note two things: 

  1. Sodomy does not equal homosexuality. Sodomy is a particular sexual act, while homosexuality is a sexual orientation.  The two are not exchangeable, equivocal terms.
  2. Where we find homosexuality, especially in lists like this, it is often serving a rhetorical purpose, more so than being treated as a topic in itself.

1 Timothy makes a similar move.  Timothy presumes that homosexuality is wrong, but 1 Timothy is not concerned with examining it in its own right. Instead, Timothy provides a list of behaviors and vices that are opposed to the Gospel, such as: “fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers.”

In an earlier lesson, we talked about approaching scripture with a larger hermeneutical frame through which we interpret specific passages.  In passages like these, such a hermeneutic is requisite for proper ecclesial interpretation.  As much as these passages declare homosexuality as inconsistent with the Gospel, the broader theological condition that the New Testament diagnoses is that we are all incompatible with the Gospel.

That theological conviction aside, the acts described here are, again, not the kind of relationships that concern the Church presently.  While it may seem like I am side-stepping the problem here, it is important to reflect on what kind of questions we want to ask, as a community, when it comes to this issue.  The nuptial vows we take in our wedding do not reflect individualized actions and vices that occur outside the bounds of our relationships, but rather the life and grace of the Trinity that has the possibility of being reflected in our relationships. Such distinctions are important when we interpret passages like this.

What it is that we are after is a concrete, positive understandings of relationships in the life of the Church – relationships formed in the image of grace.

Reframing Normativity – Genesis 1

When the “clobber passages” have worn themselves down, the conversation usually turns to Genesis and the account of creation.  Genesis 1 details the story of creation in pairs, and the heteronormative, supposedly binary creation of Adam and Eve, along with their complementarity, is used to support the doctrine of marriage.

There is no denying the force of the Creation narrative on discussions of relationships, marriage, and human sexuality.  The beauty of the creation story seems bound up in the duality of the pairings.  More negatively, such a binary view necessarily flows into an interpretation that sees non-heterosexual relations and people as a result of the Fall.

However, the narrative of creation is not primarily about the pairs that mark its ends.  Creation, as St. Gregory of Nyssa argues, is the script of the revelation of God as love.  Insofar as that is true, there must be a relationship of congruence between the Creator and creation.  Along with Christ, creation is the “primary act of God’s self-expression and an important part of God’s self-revelation to us.”

With this frame, we can posit the creation narrative not as a strict narrative of ontology (a fancy word for the nature and existence of things), but rather, as a broad libretto that delineates the ends of the diversity creation inaugurates.

Creation, in other words, is “non-binary.”

The mystery such a conception of creation reveals is the notion that the pairings given in Genesis 1 are each “spectrums within which a variety of expressions occur.”

Take light, for an example.  

Just as with day and night, light and darkness do not name the only possible options available within God’s creation. It’s not, that is, either light or dark. As I write this essay, it’s dusk.

The first act of creation is the creation of light and, as we know from quantum physics, light is “itself one, but with variety that’s visible when it’s passed through a prism.”  Further, if creation is an expression of the triune Creator, then, of necessity, it cannot be contained by binary sets of parameters.  Creation must reflect the full spectrum of the goodness of God.

The phrase “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” thus, has force only as a rhetorical insult, with little interpretive basis behind it. The phrase assumes an absolute doublet pairing, lacking the room of diversity reflected in every pairing of the preceding creation narrative.

A non-binary conception of creation, despite how counter-intuitive it might strike us, actually proceeds from the source of creation:  God as Trinity, a unity of oneness that makes room for diversity.  The cosmos mirrors such diverse unity, and the demarcation of creation as such with pairs, indicative, but not wholly descriptive of its inner diversity, opens for us a new way of seeing the pairing of Adam and Eve: descriptive, normative, but not proscriptive, nor exhaustive.    

In Conclusion… Procreation?

You are probably wondering about the command ordered to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply.”  This is not an incidental question, for most orthodox Jews even today will name “Be fruitful and multiply” as God’s very first commandment to his creatures.

As the ancient wedding rite makes clear, a willingness for a married couple to welcome children into their life (without condition— this is why Christians are against abortion) is an attribute constituitive of any understanding of Christian (or Jewish) marriage. After the clobber passages are set aside, Christians will often cite the inability of gay Christians to bear biological children as a disqualification of their marriage as Christian marriage. While this point is more constructive than resorting to the clobber passages, it often inappropriately elevates the role of child-rearing as a Christian vocation and, in doing so, dismisses the vocation of single Christians and adoptive Christian parents. Still, the command to create like our Creator is an important one for Christians to address.

I want to conclude by commenting briefly on this and bringing us back into the original frame of our conversation.

The command, so often thought to bear only on Adam and Eve, is really a creative command issued to all of creation for the sake of creation.  That is, the procreative act is a necessary byproduct of creation’s contingency, which is a fancy way of saying that creation, unlike its Creator, does not have itself as its foundation, and thus must have certain procreative capacities to ensure its continuity.  Moreover, the command to procreate comes after the declaration of everything as “very good,” which means that the diversity of the continuum of creation is imputed a goodness in its relation to God prior to any requisite necessities.

What does that mean?

It means that the inherent created “very goodness” of those who constitute a Christian marriage is not invalidated or insufficient by marriages which cannot have children or choose not to have children. Logically, this would apply to gay Christians every bit as much as it would apply to infertile Christians.

Christian couples are required to welcome children into their marriage (should children come); they’re not required to have children.

Further— and this is key for it’s oft forgotten— Christians believe the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is now a closed commandment.

The fullness of creation, in terms of Christian doctrine, is fulfilled in its entirety in the coming of Christ. That is, as Paul declares in Galatians and Romans, Christ fills all commandments, including the procreative command. What’s more, the need to fill the earth is no longer necessary, for, as the Bible declares to us in Ephesians, the Fullness of Christ is a Fullness that already now fills all of creation precisely because it is God condescending into His creation itself.  The Creator enters creation, and in so doing, fills creation to its absolute core.

The crucified and risen Christ is in all of creation; such that, all of creation is a sacrament, rendering the command in Genesis not just closed but obsolete.

Our discussions of sexuality, keeping within the interpretive frame set out above, must acknowledge the coming of the Creator as the fulfillment of the world, and with it, the final completeness of the creative act.  The love that inaugurated the world, the love that every Christian marriage has the capacity to reflect, was made flesh.

Session Five

The Class Concludes

Where We Are 

Last week, we started to delve into the good stuff, also known as the “clobber passages.”  We discussed how the naming of them as such also names the powers that hold us captive insofar as we engage the passages to harm our neighbor.  The Sin, the Devil, the Enemy, he cannot be dealt with until we acknowledge that he is indeed at play and at work.  Part of the aim of last week’s session was to try and turn us towards a new understanding of those passages, such that we can attune ourselves to the ways we misconstrue them at the cost of the Church.  

A Note on Purpose and Method

It may not be entirely obvious why I have structured this class the way I have.  I want to clarify this, and in doing so clarify also what my purpose in this class is.  

I wanted to start by rethinking how we read the Bible.  So much of what we discussed in the earlier sessions was meant to frame why the Bible, the Church’s unifying document that teaches the narrative of God’s grace in and for the world, can become such a source of antagonism, dis-grace, division, and rupture for the Church.  I want to urge us towards a deeper understanding, both of Sin, and of Faith, as given in Christ.  By rethinking how we read the Bible, and thus impressing on you the need to re-read it, I want to show what the Bible makes evidently clear: sinners are the only people reading it.  That statement, as obvious as it may be, seems to disappear when we approach the Bible, with all its intricacies and difficulties.  Despite what we may think, the Enemy is always at work in the world, even (and perhaps, especially) when we try to read the Bible.  

For that reason, the lesson on discernment and Bible-reading as a churchwide endeavor seemed the obvious next step.  As individuals approaching the text, it is much harder to identify and see where Sin is working in and through us.  The Church serves this function of accountability.  As a community, we can hold each other accountable to the grace given through the cross of Christ.  The Church is the place where we can learn, teach, and discern the work of God in His grace.  Thus, reading the Bible as a community formed in the image of Christ is the best defense against the Enemy, because the Church is the people through which the grace of God is shown to be at work in the world, by bringing sinners and strangers into communion with each other.  

Only with such an understanding of the depth and difficulty of the task of reading could we begin to approach the Bible anew and afresh, with the openness to hear the Spirit speak.  In reopening the Bible, I am not seeking to convert or evangelize.  Despite what the WCA says about me, I am not part of the gay mafia, and I am not trying to push a liberal agenda.  

Positively speaking, I am trying to get us to realize that, as a Church called and formed by grace, I am seeking simply to show that it is possible to live in community with others who think differently than us.  The work of discernment is how we open ourselves to God, such that, through our baptism, we allow ourselves to be in communion with each other.  

Romans 1: 18-32

Last week, there was one text we left out of the discussion of the “clobber passages”: Romans 1:18-32.  The reason I did not include Romans in our discussion is that it does not particularly fit into the category of “clobber passages” in the same way as the others do.  As we saw, the “clobber passages” are notable for the ease with which they occupy our ideological language.  The “clobber passages” are those with which we can effortlessly and comfortably, fundamentally attempt to excise God’s active work in the Church, while also being persuaded that what we are doing is God’s work.  

This is a diagnosable problem on all sides, from the most conservative to the most leftist.  To throw Sodom and Gomorrah at someone, without regard for who they are made to be in light of the cross (physical, embodied symbols of God’s grace), functions in the same way as blinding someone with the colors of the rainbow, disregarding that the Church holds true that it is the cross that makes us equal (in our sin), not the terms of secular ideology.  It is not by chance that Paul’s focus in Romans 1 is also on the work of the cross, cutting against our attempts at self-righteousness.  

Romans 1.18-32 is the key scriptural text that Christians on both sides of this debate must wrestle with when it comes to homosexuality. It is the only passage in scripture that treats the subject in more than an illustrative fashion, and it is the only passage in scripture that reflects on it in theological terms.

No matter what you conclude about this passage and its understanding of homosexuality, the theological context is crucial. That is, we have to understand what Paul is doing, not just in these verses, but in the first chapter of Romans, and the epistle, as a whole.  In the first chapter, Paul is attempting to demonstrate how the Gospel, rather than a set of philosophical precepts or moral teachings, is the power of God active in the world and, in fact, acting to overturn the world (the incarnate God is not an apolitical agent – though his politics are not like our own).

The Gospel, for Paul, is where the very righteousness of God is present.  And if it is present, it is active.  That is, Paul understands God’s righteousness not as a noun or adjective, but as a verb.  The Gospel – the story it tells about the work of God in Christ on the cross through the Spirit – is God’s way of making righteousness present and at work in the world.  

Thus, Paul sees that Jesus is the active embodiment, the incarnation, of God’s righteousness, and in chapter 1 of Romans, he is taking it as his task to detail the vast difference, the abyss between the righteousness of God disclosed in Christ, and the particular unrighteousness of fallen humanity.  Paul’s work in Romans is to diagnose the theological problem that makes the world the world.

Verses 19-32 serve for Paul as his exhibits of the evidence for the unrighteousness of the fallen world. Paul catalogs homosexuality as part of his thesis. Homosexuality’s inclusion in this series of illustrations should not obscure Paul’s larger rhetorical point. As verse 21 indicates, the cited sins all fall under the more general, and more damning, indictment that these fallen sinners have failed to honor God and render him his due thanksgiving. The sin Paul is zeroing in on, in other words, is idolatry.

In what way does Paul understand homosexuality as idolatry?

A majority of biblical scholars and cultural historians concur that Paul has in mind not monogamous homosexual relationships as we might know today, but heterosexuals in the wider Greco-Roman culture who engaged in homosexual acts purely for the sake of sex. That is, his focus is not, say, marriage.  His focus is, instead, sex taken from its place as a unitive and reflective theological motion.  This means that Paul is critiquing those who have made sex an end in itself, unattached to any sacred or intimate relationship of trust. In Paul’s mind, sex has become (or, is one example of) an idol.  

It is also necessary that readers do not miss Paul’s larger argument and the implications it bears for how we think of homosexuality. Paul, in chapter 1 of Romans, is not warning his readers of God’s wrath to come if they should engage in such sinful, idolatrous acts.  Paul’s point is, rather, that the world has already come under (and been delivered from) God’s wrath.  The presence of the idolatry of sex is not cast as a sin deserving of God’s wrath, but rather as proof of God’s wrath.  This may sound harsh, and it would be so, if not for the cross.  

God’s wrath, displayed in the death of Christ (of Godself) on the cross, exposes sin for what it is.  For Paul, then, the inclusion of the language of homosexuality is not meant to single out homosexuals as particularly deserving of God’s wrath (which is, by the way, exhausted on the body of Christ).  Rather, in diagnosing the theological condition of humanity, Paul sees the idolatry of sex, of which unfaithful homosexual acts are an illustrative example, as proof of God’s wrath.  Again, the indictment here, as I see it, is not against homosexuality proper, but against the idolatry of sex.

While this may be cold comfort to gay Christians, it should preclude Christians from singling out homosexuals as peculiarly deserving of God’s wrath. Indeed, if one is faithful and literal to the text of Paul’s argument, homosexuality is no more grave a sin than those who are “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” 

Paul, quite intentionally I think, provides an exhaustive and all-inclusive list. After all, his point is that all of creation is groaning in rebellion to God and we are all victims of and participants in unrighteousness.

On the other hand, and to be fair, Paul’s theological point in Romans also gives grist to the argument that many Christians make, that homosexuality violates God’s creative intent for humanity. I do not want to skirt by this; after all, my aim here is not to convert anyone to any particular view.  While gay Christians may feel that they were created so, readers of Paul can make the theological claim that homosexuality is a sign of how Sin in our fallen world has distorted God’s aims in creation. Nothing in creation, some might posit, presently resembles what God intended in the beginning.

Readers must remember, as well, Paul’s claim in 2 Corinthians 5.17, that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”  That is, the old narrative of creation is left behind.  The creation and intention of God for creation is not only made new, but is made right through the rectifying power of God’s righteousness, incarnate in Christ. 

Paul’s writing in Romans is dense and difficult. Readers should not forget that Paul’s argument is a theological one, not a moral one. To be faithful to the text, the arguments and conclusions one makes about homosexuality, at least in terms of Romans, should be theological ones, and they should be theological ones couched in the exhaustive list of sins Paul enumerates in verses 29-31.

Another word of caution to those who debate these matters, and the word of caution comes from Paul. As Paul’s reasoning continues into chapter two of Romans, Paul warns that, “You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (2.1). 

The Grafting of Gentiles

In his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays acknowledges that the New Testament provides no definitive, applicable “rule” on homosexuality. The New Testament, as in the case of Romans 1, offers only theological principles against homosexuality, yet Hays stresses that scripture’s negative prohibitions regarding homosexuality be read against the larger backdrop of the male-female union, which scripture presents as the normative location for love and intimacy. 

However marginal or unclear are the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality, the scriptural canon clearly and repeatedly affirms that God made man and woman for one another. Any contemporary discernment over homosexuality must struggle with this positive norm that is the overwhelming witness of the scriptural narrative

There is, however, another way of thinking about homosexuality that can serve to help balance our present discernment in the bounds of scriptural cannon and tradition.  We should remember here the advice of David Fitch: grounding our discernment in the stories of real people, in the reality and complex materiality of sexuality.  And we should also heed the advice of Luke Timothy Johnson, who notes that, “The burden of proof required to overturn scriptural precedents is heavy, but it is a burden that has been born before. The Church cannot, should not, define itself in response to political pressure or popularity polls. But it is called to discern the work of God in human lives and adapt its self-understanding in response to the work of God.”

To those who would worry that this advocates turning the Church into a replication of modernity, fear not.  Johnson’s advice is not advice to rush ahead and simple acquiesce to culture at every turn.  What Johnson gives us is the possibility of a hermeneutic of openness within the Church.  That is, Johnson’s advice is to maintain a posture of humility to being open to listening to the stories of God’s people with intent, grace, and the full armor of tradition.

Because scripture consistently adopts a negative view of homosexuality and affirms the heterosexual norm, we should listen to Hays, who argues that any change to the Church’s traditional teaching must come only “after sustained and agonizing scrutiny by a consensus of the faithful.” 

This agonizing is not dissimilar from the work Paul does in all his corpus, but especially in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians to understand theologically the grafting of the Gentiles into the body of Christ.  As in the famous line, Paul writes that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Galatians 3.28).  That is, in Christ’s death and resurrection (and the grace and salvation poured from there), the distinction between opposed groups is abolished.  For Christians, that means that each person in the body of Christ becomes an occasion for grace.  

Referring back to our notes on marriage, relationships are made possible by such work along Christological lines.  Relationships, of which marriage is the pinnacle, are opened to the work of Christ, precisely because God has made the relationship of the Trinity accessible to us in the incarnate Body of the Son.  

Eugene Rogers takes this to be the foundation on which gay and lesbian Christians in monogamous relation with one another, can be grafted into the body of Christ.  He posits that the relationship into which we are grafted through our baptisms is precisely the relationship Paul highlights in the adoption of the Gentiles into God’s salvific work, noting, “The sting is this:  In saving the Gentiles, God shows solidarity with something of their nature, the very feature that led the Jew Paul to distinguish himself from them.”  

The nature with which God shows solidarity to the Gentiles is the same nature with which God shows solidarity with the Jews: their sin and excess.  It is on the basis and mutual affirmation of our sin that God shows solidarity in adopting us into the life of the Trinity.  On the grafting of the Gentiles, Rogers writes:

The baptismal formula is not merely descriptive of the eschatological community, but normative…the salvation of almost all Christians, those who are not ethnically Jews, and do not observe the Torah, depends on taking [Romans 11:21-2] seriously, not only because it reflects on the cause of their salvation in God’s gracious grafting of an unpeople into God’s people, but also because it regulates relations within God’s people.”

Rogers, in analogizing this to the grafting of gay and lesbians Christians into the Church, concludes that it is only by affirming our baptismal relationship to each other that we can seriously think through the issue itself.  Our baptismal relation, which unites us in our death, allows us to discern the relations we ought to affirm and engender in our own community.  

Conclusion

Rogers also offers a simple question for us to ponder: how can we deny the Spirit, when it moves right in front of our eyes?

What Rogers is implying with this question is that we open our eyes to the work of the Spirit in gay relationships.  What he means by the work of the Spirit is the opening of grace to two sinners called into mutual life together in monogamous marriage.  If marriage is a site of grace, then the Church ought to consider whether gay marriage can also be such a site.  The grace of God in Christ knows no bounds.  What the Church needs to consider is whether, given all that has been said, we ought to affirm grace in the relationships of gay Christians.

Following Up on the Class

Dear Annandale UMC Members and Friends,

Your Way Forward Task Group has appreciated your attendance and participation at the Scripture and Sexuality Bible Study sessions led by Reverend Jason during June. We pray these sessions have been helpful to you as we study together how faithful Christians can have different views and understandings about the compatibility of committed, monogamous, LBBTQIA+ relationships with Christian teachings. Jason will finish the study this Sunday, June 30, at 9:45 am, when he will discuss an important passage from Romans 1.

As you know, our congregation has a diversity of beliefs regarding LGBTQIA+ relationships.  We know this diversity can cause tension and feelings of uncertainty about the future.  We each need to pray.  And our task group remains committed to supporting you as you prayerfully discern God’s direction for yourself and for our church.  As you discern, we encourage you to keep in mind the teaching from St. Augustine, which Reverend Jason shared with us at the June 2 Bible Study:

“In essentials, unity;  in doubtful matters, liberty;  in all things, charity.”

We also encourage you to use the Prayer Liturgy, authored by Jon Page of our task group and available in the atrium, in your prayer time. We pray this liturgy is helpful to you as we pray for unity in discerning our way forward, based on God’s Word.

The Way Forward and the decisions of the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis remain a major topic of discussion in the United Methodist Church across the country.   On May 20 – 22, approximately 600 centrist and progressive representatives from across the U.S. attended a meeting of the UMC Next organization to discuss next steps.  Task Group members heard reports from a few of the Virginia representatives, who attended the meeting, in early June.  The UMC Next organization envisions a new Methodist movement emerging over the coming months that is fully inclusive and redemptive.   The group will meet again this fall in Kansas City.  In addition, as Reverend Jason has reported, last week attendees at the Virginia Annual Conference elected  delegates to the 2020 General Conference and to the2020 Southeast Jurisdictional Conference (where bishops are elected).  The Virginia delegates all hold a centrist/progressive viewpoint, as has been the trend for delegations from many other conferences across the country.   But still, there is much work to be done to prepare for the 2020 General Conference, which is the next opportunity for the UMC to chart a new way forward embracing unity instead of division. 

Our task group will continue to monitor developments from Virginia and across the country and report to you in a timely fashion.   Please let us know if you have any questions or comments, by contacting any of our task group members or placing your comment, with your name, in the Way Forward Task Group box outside the church office.

Way Forward Task Group

Task Group Chairperson: Bill Iwig

Task Group Members:  Pam Adams, Elvira Arteaga, Bill Chambers, Harry Day, Bill Harrod, Jan Harrod, Sophie Luckenbaugh, Chenda Lee, Jon Page, Christi Schwarten, Pat Sherfey, Peter Snitzer, Jr., and Terri Ruhter.