Colleagues across the country will soon be heading to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This body only meets every four years, and is the only structure of our denomination that can make changes to our doctrine or official stance on any issue. One of the stances that is usually put to consideration for repeal regards our position on the issues surrounding homosexuality.
I have good friends who are actively seeking the removal of any and all language that discriminates against homosexual persons. I am deeply impressed with the passion and devotion that is applied by these colleagues.
That said, the hermeneutics are starting to disturb me. A hermeneutic is a mindset with which one approaches a passage of scripture. Think of it as a lens, if you will. The one that is disturbing me currently is one that has been around a while now. It goes something like this: “How can we be expected to observe the teachings of Scripture when the culture they wrote from is so different from our own.”
“We’ve grown beyond those teachings.”
The problem with this mode of thinking is simple: Scripture is there to define how we approach our culture and impact it for the purpose of transforming it — not the other way round.
Tracking the Conversation
I follow several of our leading thinkers. One of those bright theologians is Rev. John Meunier. Rev. Meunier is one of our best and brightest. You should follow him on Twitter and his blog. A few days ago, John noted that one of our bishops had made a theological statement that didn’t have a lot of theology to it. I agreed with John completely. Bishops have an obligation to support their statements, especially when they run counter to the doctrines of the Church.
Then, John really impressed me. He stated that he was open to the idea of someone providing some theological discourse to support a change in our doctrine regarding issues surrounding homosexuality.
Don’t get this wrong. This is not a statement in favor of a change. I agree with John that we must have these conversations. And the conversations must make sense.
So I dropped back by Rev. Meunier’s blog today. When I arrived, he had a post that took me to another blog. There, I found the writing of Rev. Becca Clark. She had recently written of her intent to approach General Conference in a blog post entitled, “Diary of a Delegate: Homophobia and the sin of commission.”
Needless to say, I was interested. I hope you read it.
While written with a very enthusiastic heart, I found myself wishing for more.
Rev. Clark is passionate about her views, and I applaud her heartfelt approach. But I cannot find the logic in her argument any more than I could in Bishop Grant Hagiya‘s statements. The disconnect I feel has everything to do with the lack of clear exegetical explanation.
I felt a clear connection in our mutual desire to reach people for Jesus Christ. In fact, I sense a deep and abiding desire to do God’s will in both of these Christ-followers. I simply find the method to be flawed, or at least partial in this case. There is very little that is more disturbing to me that a willingness to jettison the authority of Scripture just because the culture of the writers’ context does not mesh with our own cultural context.
Rev. Clark provides some context. From her blog:
Delving into the context of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, we find the practice of homosexuality in Greco-Roman culture to be used primarily for cultic practice (normally heterosexual men engaging in homosexual activity in attempt to sway the will of the gods), or the use and abuse of young boys by older men in relationships that were neither mutual nor consensual.
I agree that homosexuality in Paul’s day and the committed monogamous relationships that are prevalent today are extremely different. But I’m not sure that this was the only context. There are the Levitical passages to consider, and they remain unqualified by any contradiction in the New Testament, direct or otherwise.
Yes, the contexts of today and the First Century are different. Yes, we have made some improvements (finally) in equality between gender and race. But I find that to be in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church as related in Acts. Those changes have been a long time coming. They are clearly marked in Scripture for anyone who wishes to do the pains-taking spade work of exegesis — literally, “to draw out” in this case, the meaning of the text.
I’m not seeing it. And not just in this blog. I have welcomed persons into my home and the churches I’ve served with the intention of coming to know them as persons beloved by God. I am intent upon hearing their side and coming to understand their situation as best I can. I’ve sought the understanding of greater minds than my own.
In practically every deep and scholarly conversation, the topic of context and relevance continues to come up, essentially short-circuiting the authority of Scripture.
That way lies chaos.
Is God bound by Scripture? Heavens no. Are we lost without it? I think perhaps we might be. What else do we have?
The only clear solution will be the right interpretation of the texts. Is there a passage that we are reading incorrectly? Then we must correct it.
I hope that we have better reasons to change our doctrine than this. We cannot justify departing from our beliefs simply because we have already begun to do so.
Her comments and replies indicate a deeper sense of scholarship on this issue, and I hope that you will read them. Rev. Clark appears to be deeply committed to this course of action.
But I also hope that our theologians can do better than to describe the differences in our thinking. We must be able to make sense of our statements without short-circuiting the process of thinking through them. And we owe too great a debt to our Scripture and traditions to simply by-pass or short-circuit that end of the Wesleyan quadrilateral.
A quick word of thanks to Rev. Becca Clark. Rarely have I been engaged by one so willing to fill the conversation with so much grace — and her blog’s commenters followed her lead. I am grateful that she and others were careful to note that my comments come not from homophobia or bigotry, but on a careful consideration of the texts through the lenses of tradition, experience, and reason.
I continue to welcome the conversation.
Author Bio: Joey Reed
Joey is an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church serving at Grace UMC. He is still figuring it all out with the help of his wife Laurinda and children Jack and Rebecca. They live in Jackson, Tennessee and enjoy a nice popsicle from time to time.