On August 20, 2019 the United Methodist Insight website posted a video by Bishop Richard Wilke titled “A Plea to the United Methodist Church.” There are several points he makes with which I agree; however, there are some points of disagreement and some mischaracterizations that I would like to address. What follows is an open letter in response to the Bishop’s video.
I would like to thank you for your many years of faithful service to the United Methodist Church. I know many people who have benefitted greatly from their participation in the Disciple Bible Study series. Thank you.
You mentioned that your thinking began to change about homosexuality when your daughter shared her sexual orientation with you. I am glad that your daughter experiences some measure of happiness and wholeness. You stated that you and your wife were at peace with her homosexuality, in part because you knew that her homosexuality was not as a result of her upbringing. The viewer is left to infer that because there were (from your perspective) no environmental factors to which you can attribute your daughter’s same-sex attraction, there must be a biological basis for same-sex attraction. If my inference is correct, I must tell you that you are in error. There is no scientific consensus on the biological etiology of same-sex attraction. Neither genetic studies, nor studies of gay twins, nor studies of brain size, volume, or function have revealed consistent findings to support the claim that there is necessary and sufficient biological cause for same-sex attraction or behavior. To morally justify same-sex behavior based on biological reductionism is in error. Even the science concluded that there were a biological cause for same sex attraction, it still would not justify same-sex sexual behavior since science is only a way to verify our experience, which is subject to the Scriptures.
I appreciate very much the fact that your daughter’s coming out drove you to examine the Scriptures more closely. You may have influenced more United Methodists to begin reading and studying the Bible than anyone in the history of American Methodism. I share your perspective on several points. For instance, I agree that proof-texting is highly problematic. I also agree that the Sodom and Gomorrah passage is very weak support in teaching against same-sex behavior. The primary sin of those cities was inhospitality and violence. I don’t think, however, that the fact that the men of the city desired to gang-rape Lot’s (perceived) male guests can be entirely discounted.
However, I strongly disagree with your statement that the holiness code in Leviticus was not intended for a universal morality. You imply that there are no universal applications to the holiness code. That is simply not true. It is true that Jesus set aside the dietary restrictions, so those no longer apply. However, a cursory examination of the Leviticus 18 disproves your point. The following acts are prohibited that are still ethically unacceptable today: sex with the wife of a blood relative, sex with your mother, sex with your father’s wife, sex with your sister, sex with your granddaughter, sex with your maternal or paternal aunt, sex with your daughter-in-law, sex with your sister-in-law, sex with a neice, sex with your neighbor’s wife, child sacrifice, and bestiality. I don’t know of anyone who would endorse any of these behaviors today as ethically acceptable. It is also important to note that the only sin listed that is identified as an abomination is same-sex sexual behavior. Please note, I am not saying that people who experience same-sex attraction are abominations. I absolutely disavow that notion, and find it abhorrent. God’s love extends to everyone as we are all created by him. To say that “neither Jews nor Christians obey the holiness code today” is simply false. We do obey it. But it is complex because some of it Jesus and Paul told us is irrelevant to holiness (e.g. the food laws), some of it, like the prohibition of weaving two types of fibers, is clearly culturally bound, while some of the holiness code, as I have demonstrated above, is clearly still applicable to our time and culture. This is why we need to use the best resources and methods available to interpret the Bible.
To say that Paul only knew of pederasty (man-boy sex) and temple prostitution is potentially an overstatement. No one really knows what Paul knew, but there is evidence that in Greek society there were long-term same-sex relationships among both men and women. I agree with you that Paul’s larger point in Romans 1-3 is that we are all sinners. However, in Romans 1 where Paul discusses male and female same-sex behavior, he does so as a specific example of the immorality of Greek society. Yes, all of us have fallen short; some of us have fallen short in our sex lives.
It is unfortunate that we in the church have allowed our culture to frame the way we view same-sex attraction and behavior as well as the church’s response to it. So many committed Christian parents have faced the dilemma of having a child come out as gay. In the parent’s mind there seems to be a choice, “Either I can love my child or reject or modify my faith.” This is a false choice. Our broader culture tells us that if we love someone, we must accept that person as they are; If we do not accept them for who they are then we hate them. This is false. I love my wife, but occasionally we both think that the other has lost their minds. We don’t agree on everything all the time. But we do love each other all the time. The same is true in the way parents relate to their same-sex attracted sons and daughters. Parents can maintain their traditional, orthodox view of holy sexuality AND love their same-sex attracted child at the same time. Rick Warren has a great quote, “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”
Jesus didn’t buy into this “nonsense.” When he called Matthew, who was very likely to have been an exploitive tax-collector, Matthew didn’t keep on committing the sin of economic exploitation. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery that he didn’t condemn her, but he also told her not to sin in the future. There’s no biblical evidence, but I have a hard time believing that the woman at the well had a seventh husband or live-in lover. Over and over again Jesus attracted sinners with whom he was able to establish the kind of relationship in which he was able to call them to repentance and holy living. That should be the goal of the church with all types of sinners today, though we have admittedly done a very poor job of late.
I agree with you that the church needs to extend greater hospitality to the LGBT community, just as Jesus would if he were physically present among us today. In relating to people who are same-sex attracted, we must exhibit the same kind of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience that Paul writes about in Colossians 3:12. I 100% agree with you that there is no way that we can or should reject any member of the LGBT community. To do so would be an abandonment of the ministry that Christ has left us to fulfill.
However, we also cannot compromise on biblical standards for human sexuality. Over and over again in Scripture, one man and one woman in an exclusive, lifelong commitment to one another is lifted up as the standard. Any deviation from that standard is sin. This includes (but not limited to) premarital sex, extramarital sex, divorce and remarriage except in the case of spousal adultery, and, yes, same-sex sexual activity. And in all these instances repentance, forgiveness and restoration is possible (1 Corinthians 6:11). It is possible for parents to love and celebrate their children without affirming the choices they make—including their sexual behavioral choices. I am reminded of a quote attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to their sin.”
Our job as a church is to extend the love and grace of God in Christ to everyone, including those individuals who are same-sex attracted, Gender Dysphoric, and all sexually marginalized people. We are called to encourage one another in the body of Christ as we seek how to best live out the new identity we acquire as a result of the presence of God in Christ in our lives.
Grace & Peace,
Wade Arnold, MDiv, PhD
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