Another Way Forward or: Why “Holy Conferencing” Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

On November 16th, 2016, Americans flocked to their assigned polling stations. The election cycle had been particularly brutal with the partisanship at its zenith. And while countless citizens waited for the election results to come in, a handful of people gathered for worship at Duke Divinity School to hear Stanley Hauerwas preach.

It’s a good sermon, you can read it in his recent book Minding The Web, but there’s one part that has really stuck with me over the last few years:

“I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas. Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, that is a deep mistake. It is often over-looked, but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election, 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”

Annual Conference is often experienced as the most determinative week in the life of United Methodism. Sure, we have a General Conference every four years that establishes the global budget and a handful of other truly important matters. But every year, every Annual Conference meets to discern the future of the local church as it pertains to missional strategies, ordination, and conference structures. And we worship occasionally, but that certainly feels like an afterthought most of the time.

And within the regular movements and machinations of Annual Conference there is an element of conferencing that is so engrained into who we are that we no longer question its’ subversiveness – Robert’s Rules of Order, and specifically voting in general.

I don’t know the exact date of when the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations sold their souls to the organization of Robert, but I do know for sure that it has nothing to do with the gospel.

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Take Hauerwas’ point: The only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus. They thought they knew what they were doing and they nailed the Lord to the cross. There are, of course, other moments of important decision in the New Testament, but they don’t happen through a pre-arranged structure, or through secret ballots, and certainly not through electronic devices. 

There isn’t even campaigning for particular people or ideologies.

When the apostles needed to choose a new disciple to replace Judas they did so with the casting of lots.

When the apostles encounter the Spirit’s movement among the Gentiles they simply went along with the flow rather than creating subcommittees to study a new way forward for the Good News.

But that’s not how we handle things in the United Methodist Church. 

For years I’ve entertained the thought of approaching one of the open microphones to make a motion (under the guidelines of Robert) to amend our general rules and practices so that EVERY vote would be done with the casting of lots. I’m sure that it would be debated, and ultimately struck down, but the craziest thing is it would have the potential of being more faithful than whatever it is we are already doing.

Instead of listening for and discerning the movement of the Spirit, we “take matters into our own hands” by exhibiting our democratic rights. Which means, to put it another way, that the UMC has adopted a secular means of deliberation that mirrors corporate America more than the living Word of the Lord.

Rev. Dr. Dennis Perry, who is retiring at this year’s Virginia Annual Conference says: “We have conflated effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked, most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”

During this Annual Conference cycle there has been a lot of behind the scenes politicking in order to establish slates of candidates to be voted upon for the 2020 General Conference. Different camps/tribes are hoping to either overturn or strengthen the Traditional Plan from GC 2019 that created stiffer penalties for clergy who preside over same-sex weddings and Bishops/Conferences that ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

Those who lean to the right have their slate of candidates and those who lean to the left have their own slate of candidates. But on both sides, two of the primary factors for consideration have been electability and knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order.

So here’s my question: What does it say about the United Methodist Church that when discerning the future of God’s church we want to elect individuals who have name-recognition and who are aware of a parliamentary process that has nothing to do with the Bible?

Robert’s Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing and neither is sitting down for an election. They might keep us attentive to the matters at hand, but they also leave us more polarized than we were when we started. 

So, here’s another way forward in light of GC 2019 and our continued Annual Conferencing – 

Get rid of Robert’s Rules of Order. Throw it away and never look back. Will Annual Conference become chaotic and difficult to keep under control? Of course, but that’s what the Holy Spirit does best. Do you think the disciples waited for someone to make a motion to accept the Holy Spirit before it was poured out on Pentecost?

And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of voting altogether. We can either work through consensus building, or cast lots like they did during the time of Jesus. Will it be difficult, and will we feel like its’ unfair? Of course, but God’s grace is entirely unfair – it’s for everyone.

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper organization is the key to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do or what we control – instead, it’s about what God did and does and whether or not we have the eyes, ears, and minds to perceive it.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that has more to do with Sears than it does to the kingdom of God.

Here on the other side of GC 2019, our conferencing is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To continually give ourselves over to Robert and his rules is to admit how drunk we are with manifesting our own destiny. 

My fear is that we are so entrenched in our ways, that we are no longer listening to The Way. 

If we’re honest, none of our committees would elect Jesus to do much of anything. He is far too radical, too perverse, and he associates himself with all the wrong people. He wouldn’t sit around for all of the parliamentary procedures before marching out to do his own thing.

I just hope that we would have the presence of mind to follow Him, rather than trying to show Him where to go. 

Terms And Conditions May Apply

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not know what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

I think honesty is a pretty good thing to strive for in the church.

While we are steeped in a world of deception, when we never quite know who or what to trust, surely in the church we could do for some transparency.

So I’ll start with this: It’s been a long and difficult week.

I traveled to St. Louis with two of my closest friends, who happen to be clergy in the UMC, and with whom I host and produce a number of podcasts. 

We weren’t really sure what to expect. We sat high above the arena in the press section and were witnesses to every moment of the conference. We tried to write about what we saw and what we felt, and we also reached out to people of all sides of LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion debate so that we could share, as well as we could, what was going on and what was at stake.

We put out a conversation we had with a pastor who was fired without trial for presiding over a same-sex union. We talked with a man who leads a conservative lobbying group who was strongly advocating for the Traditional Plan. We interviewed a retired bishop about his experiences throughout his career and how they led to a moment like this one. We spoke with a gay pastor and his partner. And we reached out to a lot of people who simply said they didn’t want to talk.

And all the while we waited. We watched the legislative angling in which people from every side of the spectrum argued for their vision to become reality. We watched as protestors stood up to sing hymns in order to drown out people from an opposing view-point. We watched as bishops struggled to keep the room in order as different proposals were brought to the floor.

And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all the fighting and debating, THE vote came before the delegates of the general conference. They were simply running out of time and needed to get everything settled. 

Incidentally, we were on a time crunch to leave the arena promptly because they needed to dumps tons of dirt on the floor in preparation for the Monster Truck Rally that was scheduled for the evening.

It took exactly 60 seconds for all of the delegates to cast their votes through their electronic devices. And for 60 seconds most of the people in the room were wondering the same things:

Would the global United Methodist Church adopt the Traditional Plan that continues to ban LGBTQIA persons from ordained ministry? Would the church double down on punishments for clergy who preside over same sex weddings? Would the language of incompatibility be reinforced and therefore resonate strongly across the globe?

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God does a lot of ungodly things in the Bible, and in particular through the person of Jesus. 

We could expect that God in the flesh would sit tight in a particular region, waiting for the people to gather, but Jesus goes walking all over the place. 

We might expect that God would share a clear and cogent vision for what it means to live a faithful life, but Jesus tells these strange and bizarre parables that leave people scratching their heads. 

We might imagine that God would command people to tell everyone about the Messiah being in their midst, but Jesus usually order people to keep their mouths shut.

So it comes to pass that Jesus calls Peter, John, and James to go up onto the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, his face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly two men were standing next to him, Moses and Elijah.

Peter and the others don’t know what to make of it. Scripture doesn’t even tell us how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. But ever eager Peter makes the bold claim that they should stay up on the mountain even though the two figures were talking with Jesus about his departure in Jerusalem. In many ways, Peter wanted everything to stay the way it was, he wanted to build houses on top of the mountain, perhaps to avoid the reality of what might happen down in the valley.

And in that precise moment of Peter’s rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.

I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It stands as a high point, both literally and figuratively, in the gospel stories. Whatever the disciples think they know about Jesus takes on a whole new meaning of power and majesty and might, when two of the greatest figures from Israel’s history are flanking him on his left and right. 

Moreover, in these two particular persons, it’s as if the whole of the Old Testament is conferring with Jesus.

Moses is the Law.

Elijah is the Prophets. 

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It’s a great moment for preaching and teaching because everything changes after this divine declaration – all eyes are now aimed toward Jerusalem. The team has huddled together on the mountaintop and there’s no turning back from the cross.

And then the cloud overshadows all of them, and the disciples were terrified.

I imagine that the waiting in that moment was akin to the breathless waiting in the convention center at General Conference. So much would hang one whatever happened next, and yet in that moment of darkness the mind wanders all over the places and through every possibility.

Throughout the arena there were a number of screens that would display the occasional votes, and after the requisite 60 seconds, the results were made available to everyone with eyes to see.

The Traditional Plan passed.

438 to 384

53% to 47%

What happened next was a strange thing to behold. 

At first the room was truly silent, completely unlike it had been in the previous days. And suddenly a group of delegates began to gather in the very center of the room, they embraced one another as the tears began flowing down their faces, and they started to sing. 

This is my story.

This is my song.

Praising my Savior all the day long…

In their singing and in their weeping, the dreams of a different future for the UMC were brought to a halt.

And then something else began to take place. Other delegates rose from their seats, and they made their own circle off to the side, and they started dancing, and clapping, and celebrating the results.

Never in my life have I been witness to such tremendous suffering and such exalted joy only an arm’s length away from each other.

And we call ourselves the church. 

When the disciples cowered in fear as the cloud overshadowed them, they waited for whatever would come next.

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And the disciples kept silent in those days and told no one about what they had seen,.

There were a lot of people at the Special General Conference last week. There was plenty of talking and fighting and arguing. There were quite a few moments where the Bible was weaponized to knock down someone else for trying to make a theological argument.

And though we started the whole thing in prayer, and though we had a cross up at the front of the room, there was one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings: Jesus.

Sure, I heard a lot about what it says in Leviticus. I heard a lot about Paul. I heard people quote precisely from John Wesley. But Jesus? 

I honestly don’t know where Jesus was while we were trying to figure out the future of his church. 

In fairness to our Lord, it felt like he had better things to do than witness the devolution of an institution whose motto is “Do No Harm.”

It seems like we’ve spent so much time listening to ourselves, that we’ve forgotten what the voice cried out from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration.

I don’t know what the future holds for the UMC. I’m not even sure what it means to be a United Methodist right now. Open hearts, open minds, open doors right?

But from the time that Peter quaked in fear on top of the mountain, Christians have always known that what we’ve always been taught and what God is saying today aren’t always exactly the same thing. 

Christians have known since that horrific moment where the crowds chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus that voting and democratic decision making have plenty of flaws.

Christians have known since that first Easter morning, that resurrection is only possible on the path that includes the cross.

In a few minutes we will gather at the table, as countless Christians have done so before us. We do so as a United Methodist Church, whatever that means, but more importantly we do so as disciples of Jesus. Despite what a Book of Discipline might say, there are no terms and conditions on this moment. Nothing can preclude us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

So when we come to the table, when we cling to the cross, listen for the voice crying out from the overshadowing cloud. 

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.

The Future Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Call Special General Conference on human sexuality, I led a three part Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. During our first class I unpacked all of the letter from the LGBTQIA acronym, and in the second class we looked at the five passages in scripture that mention homosexuality. To conclude the class we debated whether or not the UMC should change its current language.

Considering the fact that many people in the room felt strongly about the future of the UMC, I wanted to make some of what I taught and some of what was discussed available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find some of my notes and some of the reactions from people in the class. 

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding the call to remain the same or change, but merely as a brief and general overview. And, to be clear, the opinions/comments below are not from me alone and represent comments from the entire class. 

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The Future Is Important

The current doctrinal position of the United Methodist Church is that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This manifests itself in a number of ways from self-avowed practicing homosexuals being barred from ordination in the UMC, to clergy being punished for presiding over same-sex unions, to some pastors using the language to prevent members of the LGBTQIA community from becoming members in the churches they serve. 

For decades the denomination has debated our current position and whether or not to enforce our doctrinal position, or to change it.

Why Should The UMC Maintain Its Position?

The witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality. Though mentioned rather infrequently, the mentions are unified in its being against the perspective of the Law. 

We are a global church and there are vary different opinions about homosexuality throughout the world, but theological and cultural. In order to stay unified, we need to make sure that the language is applicable throughout the globe.

Salvation is at stake. We don’t want to encourage anyone to disobey the commands of God should it remove from them the possibility of their heavenly reward. 

Why Should The UMC Change Its Position?

Though the witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality, it is often included in a list of laws, some of which were abandoned within the first century of the church. It appear incongruous to emphasize some laws over the others, particularly when homosexuality is mentioned less than other moral/ethical concerns like adultery, divorce, dietary restrictions, etc.

Homosexuality it not a choice. Why then would we tell people they are incompatible if they are unable to change who they are?

Questions about sexuality often lead to despair in young people, particularly those who are involved with a church. If we are a church who believes than some are incompatible, then we are telling people who question their identity that God has abandoned them.

Jesus would not reject homosexuals – he would welcome them with open arms. 

Homosexuals have as many gifts for ministry as heterosexuals do.

Conclusions

The future is important for the United Methodist Church. What happens in the next few weeks will largely determine (for better and worse) what that future will look like. For some there is hope that maintaining the integrity of the Biblical witness will carry the church into the future. For others there is hope that opening the doors for homosexual ordination and marriage will carry us into the future.

No matter what happens, some people will leave the church and some churches will leave the denomination. The sheer fact that we are being compelled to discern and vote on something like this points at the irony of a name like the UNITED Methodist Church. 

If you would like to read more about the plans being presented, and the ramifications of each, you can read about them here: Overview of Plans to 2019 General Conference

If

1 Corinthians 15.12-20

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 

I worry about the future of our church.

Not just Cokesbury, but also the greater United Methodist Church.

We have been debating for decades about the inclusion or exclusion of gay individuals from the church. And in a week, representatives from the entire denomination will be meeting in St. Louis to discern and decide the future of God’s church.

At the heart of the matter is our church’s doctrine that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Some want the language to remain, and others want it gone. 

I worry because I don’t know what’s going to happen next week.

Any accurate reading of the Bible should make it clear that homosexuality goes against the plain truth of the Word of God. As one preacher warns, “In overstepping the boundary lines God has drawn by making special rights for gays and lesbians, we have taken steps in the direction of inviting the judgment of God upon our land.”

This step of gay rights that some are arguing for in the church is but another stepping stone toward the immorality and lawlessness that will be characteristic of the last days. 

Attempts to change our church doctrine represents a denial of all that we believe in, and no one should force it on us.

It’s not that we don’t care about homosexuals, but it’s that our rights will be taken away.

Unchristian views will be forced upon us and our children for we will be forced to go against our personal morals.

There are people who are endeavoring to disturb God’s established order, it is not in line with the Bible, do not let people lead you astray.

Those leading the movement toward change do not believe the Bible any longer, but every good, intelligent, and orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know what is happening is not of God.

When you run into conflict with God’s established order you have trouble. 

You do not produce harmony.

You produce destruction and devastation.

Our church is in the greatest danger that it has ever been in in its history.

We’ve gotten away from the Bible.

The right of segregation…

Hold on, let me find my spot…

The right of segregation is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures both by precept and by example…

I’m sorry everyone. I brought the wrong sermon with me today.

I’ve borrowed my argument from the wrong century.

Everything I just read to you are quotes from white preachers in the 1950s and 60s who were in support of racial segregation.

All I’ve done is simply taken out racial integration and substituted in with the phrases about homosexuals in the church.

I guess the arguments I’ve been hearing from people in the United Methodist Church have sounded so similar that I got them confused. 

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If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

Paul was worried about his comrades in faith in Corinth – that’s what the whole letter has basically been about. They were apparently drifting away from the path of truth and life he Paul, though his words, attempts to steer those new to the faith back to the way that is Jesus the Christ.

He caught wind that they were no longer sharing the eucharist together and he writes about the body of Christ with many members. He learned that they were engaging in internal competitions about who was the best and he address how Christ alone is the head of the body. 

And now, toward the end, he confronts the real heart of the matter – questions about the resurrection of the dead.

Paul is screaming through the pages of his letter: “This is it you Corinthians! It’s this or nothing. Everything depends upon whether or not this is true.”

As I said last week, for Paul this was of first importance: Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ rose again.

That is the story that captivated much of the Mediterranean world in the decades following the event. It is the story that is still catching hold of new Christians all across the world.

It is a profound announcement about things that happened.

It’s not a collection of generic religious principles and laws.

It’s not a list of things to do.

The very heart of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

This passage, though known and often quoted by Christian-types, has a finality and punch to it that can come across as rather frightening.

Paul puts it like this: If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools and we are still in our sins.

The power of Paul’s wisdom is often overlooked in the church today. We are far more captivated by the likes of Noah and his Ark and David fighting Goliath than we are with a first century man who made it his life’s work to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The great heroes of the Bible are more interesting than the letters of correct theology.

And yet, we forget, that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel accounts were written down.

We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, Christianity would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to the gentiles like us.

We forget that Paul is the one who handed on to us what was of first importance.

And among the things he shares with the Corinthians, this is of the utmost: 

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been destroyed and Christian preaching becomes nothing more than endless delusions that offer lies and empty gestures.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with falsehoods and expect people to live into a new world order that doesn’t exist.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then all we can offer the world is a pious lie that veils people from the truth that we are powerless and truly alone.

But, brothers and sisters, be assured: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God. 

Death has been defeated in the death of Jesus Christ. 

This is not something we want to be true, or need to be true, or imagine to be true.

It is so far beyond what we could want, need, or imagine.

It is simply the truth of God’s power and majesty and might.

Jesus was raised from the dead.

One of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not contingent on whether we believe it or not. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still resurrected. 

But what we do, what we stand for, is only intelligible because Christ is raised. 

It is down right foolish to teach our children to turn the other cheek unless the resurrection is real.

It is absurd to give our money to something like a church unless the resurrection is real.

It is truly irresponsible to pray for and love our enemies unless the resurrection is real.

And yet, the church, and to be specific, the United Methodist Church is drawing near to the edge of a cliff about the definition of what is or is not compatible with Christian teaching.

I’ll be the first to admit that Paul mentions a lot of sins throughout his letters, aspects of living that draw us away from God almighty. 

Some of them include not caring for the poor and the foreigners in our midst, others are focused on the sin of letting women speak in church, and some of them are about how we engage with others in a sexual manner.

But here in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul talks about the most important aspect of our faith, the only sins that he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – all of them.

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It is crazy that our church has the potential of going up (or down) in flames in the next two weeks, all over an argument about what does and what does not count as a sin when every one of our sins has already been up in the cross of Jesus Christ! 

Paul says that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins, which is another way of saying that since Christ has been raised from the grace, we are no longer in our sins. 

Paul, in another letter, is quick to claim that nothing can separate from the love of God in Jesus Christ and that there is nothing we can do, truly nothing, that can negate what Christ has already done for us. 

But we’d rather spend our time arguing about who is living in sin, and who isn’t. We want to know where the line is drawn in the sand and we want to know, for sure, which side we are on, and which side they are on.

We’ve done it before.

Slavery.

Segregation.

Women’s subordination.

All theological positions about what was or wasn’t sin that people fought tooth and nail over.

We’re doing it right now with regard to homosexuality.

And the saddest thing of all is that this isn’t the late debate we will have.

Whether we’re progressive or traditional, whether we lean one way or another, according to Paul it doesn’t matter how correctly we interpret the bible, nor does it matter with whom we share our bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that Christ died and rose for us and we are no longer in our sins.

That doesn’t give us the freedom to go and do whatever we want.

But it does free us from the self-righteous judgments we make against people with whom we disagree.

God’s grace is the unmerited gift that is not dependent on our beliefs or our piety or our moral accomplishments.

But we live in a world of the Law. We so desperately want to know what is right and what is wrong, because we want to know that we’re right so that we can lord it over those who are wrong.

In the end, the only thing the Law shows us is that we all fail to be obedient. 

But the Law isn’t the end – in fact Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law.

That’s the story of the gospel. 

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God got down from the throne, and condescended to our miserable existence to rescue us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God broke forth from the tomb and free from the chains of death so that death would never be the final word.

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God died and lived again so that we would no longer be defined by our sins.

There is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.

The Law will never do more than condemn us in our sins, until that incredible and truly transformative moment while we were still sinners, grace shows up in the person of Jesus Christ and liberates us from every sin without a single condition attached.

The gospel is not about if we do something or not.

The gospel is not about if we love someone or not.

The gospel is not about if people are compatible or not. 

The gospel is the extravagant, outrageous, and even absurd gift of grace, love, and resurrection.

Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else. Amen. 

Scripture Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Called Special General Conference on Human Sexuality, I have been leading a Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. We met for our second class on Sunday, and having already unpacked all of the letters of the acronym LGBTQIA, we jumped into the Bible to examine all five times that homosexuality is referenced. 

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Considering the fact that many people in the room were shocked to discover how minor of a topic homosexuality is in the Bible, I wanted to make some of what I taught available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find the passages in question (all from the NRSV) and some of my thoughts regarding exegesis and interpretation.

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding homosexuality and the Bible, but merely as a brief reflection. 

Homosexuality And The Bible

The Bible hardly ever discuss homosexual behavior. In terms of emphasis, it is a minor concern when compared with other moral or ethical concerns such as economic injustice, adultery, slavery, and divorce. There are only five direct references to homosexuality in the entirety of the Bible – two in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. Though, specifically, the references are only found in Leviticus and in the Pauline corpus.

Leviticus 18.22

“You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Interesting, the holiness code in Leviticus only prohibits male homosexual intercourse. This is not to say that females were not engaging in homosexual relationships, or weren’t being persecuted for homosexual relationships, its just not mentioned. The holiness code contains a great number of specific prohibitions though later we find the listed punishment for such behavior.

Leviticus 20.13

“If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

Here we discover the punishment for male homosexual relations: death. However, this is not the only behavior that caries the weight of such a stiff penalty – Adultery, incest, and bestiality were also treated with the same and ultimate punishment. 

Regarding the two references in the Old Testament, quoting two verses from Leviticus does not necessarily settle the question for Christians today. There are a great number of laws, commandments, and expectations made of God’s people that were disregarded even by the first century in the Christian church. These include such things as circumcision and dietary practices. Some will make the case that the argument against homosexuality should be similarly abandoned because the are part of a purity rule and culture that is no longer morally relevant today. And that leads us to the New Testament…

1 Corinthians 6.9-10

“Do you know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”

The two parts of significance, in NRSV English, are male prostitutes and sodomites. Which come from the Greek MALAKOI and ARSENOKOITAI respectively. Different translations offer additional interpretative moves, but for the de facto translation in the UMC, the New Revised Standard Version, MALAKOI (male prostitutes) is not a technical term that literally means homosexual. When it does appear in Greek writing from around the time 1 Corinthians was written, in was used as a slang term to refer to the passive partner, often young boys, in homosexual activity. Which raises the question about agency in terms of whether or not these types of relationship were willful, or if they were forced upon a young and therefore powerless boy. Or, to put it another way, there is certainly a question about whether it’s the homosexual behavior or the rape involved that Paul is drawing attention to. 

Interestingly, ARSENKOITAI (sodomite) is not found in any Greek text outside the Bible earlier than 1 Corinthians. Though there are some connections with the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) when homosexual behavior is mentioned in the previous passages from Leviticus. The English rendering of “sodomites” is particularly striking because it can refer to homosexual acts, but it also used to refer to oral sex which also takes place between heterosexuals.

1 Timothy 1.8-11

“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and the sinful, for the unholy and the profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

ARSENKOITAI (sodomites) appears again in this list of prohibited vices that include everything from lying to slave trading to murder. Which, coming from Paul, is interesting considering the fact that he was murdering Christians prior to his Damascus road experience. Moreover, when compared with other items listed, Paul considers the act of lying to be equally bad with homosexual behavior which I have yet to hear ever mentioned during conversation in the UMC about the incompatibility of individual Christians. 

Romans 1.26-27

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received their own persons the due penalty of their error.”

This is the only passage in the entirety of the Biblical witness that refers to lesbian sexual interactions and other that Leviticus is the passage most often cited when the debate about homosexuality is raised in the church. In Romans 1 Paul is not setting out to establish a new holiness code, or a new sexual ethic, nor is Paul warning the Christians in Rome about God’s judgment of those who engage in particular behaviors. Instead, Paul is assessing the disorder of humanity – at the root of Sin is a refusal to be grateful for God. 

Or, to put it differently, here and elsewhere in the Pauline letters, homosexual acts are no worse than other examples of whatever Paul might deem unrighteousness. It is to be regarded similarly with coveting, gossiping, or even disrespecting one’s parents.

In all of these references in scripture, they are almost always read in isolation and are used in a proof-texting manner; someone will lift the verse out of context and apply it in any way they see fit. This is no more striking that in Romans 1 which is often raised without reading into the first verse of chapter 2. It’s like Paul is pushing all the buttons to get everyone’s attention and then the real zinger comes with Romans 2.1 but we forget to read that far:

Therefore 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!”

Therefore, for Paul, the self-righteous judgment against homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself.

There is no easy path forward for the United Methodist Church, but I believe Paul’s witness about our own self-righteousness is a cautionary word toward anyone who believe they know who is, or who is not, compatible with Christian teaching, whatever that means.

Or, to quote Jesus (who incidentally has nothing to say about homosexuality):

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?”

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Words Are Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Called Special General Conference on Human Sexuality, I am leading a Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. We met for our first of three classes on Sunday and my plan was to give a brief overview of some important words and then jump into the few passages in scripture that deal with homosexuality. However, when I started detailing what the UMC’s Book of Discipline says and then defining the different parts of the LGBTQIA acronym, it became abundantly clear that we wouldn’t have time to even open our bibles.

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It grieves me deeply that we (the church) often talks about great swaths of people with the most over-generalized terms, understandings, and words. I had wrongly assumed that I wouldn’t need to spend time defining anything when in fact the overwhelming majority of our time on Sunday was focused solely on definitions.

Problematically, for the UMC, when we talk about homosexuality we use that word as a catch-all for anyone who is part of the LGBTQIA community. And so, when the Book of Discipline says, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” (Paragraph 161F) many churches take it a step further to declare the incompatibility of anyone within the LGBTQIA community.

And yet, the experience of a lesbian is inherently different than someone who is transgender or intersex or asexual.

Considering the amount of time that was necessary to unpack the language on Sunday, I wanted to make some of what I taught available to a wider audience. Below you can find the paragraphs in the Book of Discipline that address human sexuality (though mostly just homosexuality), in addition to the standard definition for all the the parts of LGBTQIA.

  1. The UMC’s current positions on human sexuality:
    1. “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all person are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage…” (Paragraph 161F)
    2. “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and church not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay member and friends. We commit ourselves in be in ministry for and with all persons. (Paragraph 161F)
    3. “Fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” (clergy expectations) (Paragraph 304)
    4. “A bishop, clergy member, or a local pastor may be tried when charged with the following offense: practices declared by the UMC to be incompatible with Christian teaching, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.” (Paragraph 2702)
  1. LGBTQIA
    1. What’s the difference between Gender and Sex?
      1. Gender is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCT used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity. 
      2. Sex is a MEDICALLY CONSTRUCTED categorization. Sex is often assigned based on the appearance of the genitalia either in ultrasound images or at birth.
    2. L – Lesbian
      1. A woman whose primary sexual and effectual orientation is toward people of the same gender.
    3. G – Gay
      1. A sexual and affectional orientation toward people of the same gender.
    4. B – Bisexual
      1. A person whose primary sexual and affectional orientation is toward people of the same and other genders, or towards people regardless of their gender.
    5. T – Transgender
      1. Adjective used most often as an umbrella term, and frequently abbreviated as “trans.” It describes a wide range of identities and experiences of people whose gender identity and/or expression differs from conventional expectations based on their assigned sex at birth. Not all trans people undergo medical transition. This term is also used for those who express a gender outside of the man/woman binary and/or having no gender or multiple genders. 
    6. Q – Queer OR Questioning
      1. Historically queer has been used as a slur against people whose gender, expression, or sexuality do not conform to dominate expectations. However some have reclaimed the word and identify as such.
      2. Questioning refers to the process of exploring one’s own gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation. 
    7. I – Intersex
      1. Adjective used to describe the experience of NATURALLY developing primary or secondary sex characteristics that do not fit neatly into society’s definition of male or female. It is an umbrella term that covers a lot of people. Many visibly intersex people are mutilated in infancy and early childhood by doctors to make the individual’s sex characteristics conform to what society’s idea of what normal bodies are supposed to look like. Intersex people are relatively common. Hermaphrodite is an outdated and inaccurate term used to described intersex people.
    8. A – Asexual
      1. A sexual orientation generally characterized by not feeling sexual attraction or a desire for partnered sexuality. It is different from celibacy in that celibacy is an abstention from sex, whereas asexual can and do have sex they just do not feel sexual desires.