Archives for February 2016

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part II

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

In this series of blog posts, I am addressing the approaches taken by Dr. Donald Haynes in his recent article A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality. The previous post is HERE. This discussion on the proper understanding and application of scriptural teaching to the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons is the most important discussion we can have, in that Scripture is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. Here I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Using the results of scientific inquiry to overturn the teachings of Scripture.

Haynes says, “While the Bible makes seven references to homosexual conduct, it never mentions homosexuality as a genetic sexual orientation.” But there is no such thing as “genetic sexual orientation.” Scientists have identified no “gay gene.” The American Psychological Association states: “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation … no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.” So Haynes’ appeal to science is undercut from the beginning by that very science.

Haynes goes on, “What if a genetically homosexual person cannot wish or pray or choose one’s way out of their same sex attraction? Would it not be cruel of God to bring someone into the human family only for the purpose of condemning them?” Here, I believe Haynes is engaging in theological exaggeration to support his point. He characterizes the argument in a way that no orthodox Wesleyan would agree with.

First, we must be clear that God does not condemn anyone for their attractions or desires. Otherwise, all of us would be condemned! It is only when those attractions or desires lead to behavior that is contrary to God’s will that it becomes a sin (James 1:13-15). Alternatively, if we entertain and nurture desires or attractions that lead to sin, we may be guilty of sin (Matthew 5:22, 28). But even when we sin, we have the possibility of forgiveness and restoration through the grace of Jesus Christ. God’s goal is to reshape both our actions and our desires in the image of Jesus.

Second, Haynes overlooks the fact that we all have a “sin orientation” – that each of us has an inborn tendency to have desires and attractions toward sin. The attraction could be toward anger, greed, revenge, lying, or promiscuity. These attractions toward sin are not the result of how God made us, but of humanity’s fall into sin and rebellion (Genesis 3). We all battle sinful desires and seek God’s grace to withstand and overcome them. Just as we will not be free of all sinful desires until we get to heaven, we should not expect that persons with same-sex attraction will be free of all instances of that attraction until they get to heaven.

But while we cannot “wish or pray or choose” our way out of attractions toward sin, we can indeed pray and choose not to succumb to those attractions and engage in the sin itself. Haynes is not asking us to have grace toward persons who have fallen into same-sex sin, so that they may receive forgiveness and restoration. He is asking us to redefine a sin as not-sin. He is asking the church to teach that homosexual conduct is not sinful, but to be affirmed in the same ways as heterosexual conduct. That is quite a different matter.

While we welcome the insights of science (which are often tentative and incomplete), we ground our understanding about morality, right and wrong, in the timeless truths of Scripture. Otherwise, we have given up the authority of Scripture as our primary guide to faith and life.

  1. Arguing from silence.

Haynes says, “Holy Scripture never refers to homosexuality in the context of a loving relationship between two consenting adults whose sexual orientation might be naturally homosexual, and who have a committed, monogamous relationship or marriage.” Leaving aside the point that science does not support that persons “might be naturally homosexual,” what does Haynes’ statement mean?

It could mean that the biblical authors were unaware of the possibility of a loving, committed same-sex relationship. However, historical research has demonstrated that such relationships did exist in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (see Plato’s Symposium and Philo of Alexandria’s Contemplative Life, cited in Gagnon, page 137, note 33-34). Certainly, Paul would have been aware of such relationships in the context of the much more libertine sexual climate of the Mediterranean world of his time. And if we believe that God is the ultimate author of Scripture, he is certainly not unaware of the possible lifestyles that could exist.

It could mean that the biblical authors meant to condemn only abusive or idolatrous same-sex relationships, while allowing loving, committed ones. Given that every reference in Scripture to homosexual behavior is negative, one would think that the authors would mention the exception that merited acceptance, in order to clarify what the Bible really teaches.

It could mean that the biblical authors did not mention loving, committed same-sex relationships because they believed that the existing references adequately covered the issue. If the prohibition in Leviticus is taken to be of all same-sex behavior, then there would be no point in the authors reinforcing that this also applied to loving, committed relationships. The bottom line is that there is no approving reference to same-sex relationships, even though the Bible spans over 2,000 years of human history and encompasses a wide variety of cultures, including Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.

Arguments from silence are always fraught with uncertainty and not something one can build one’s theology on.

  1. Ignoring Scriptures that don’t support your viewpoint.

One of the most significant shortcomings in Haynes’ article is that he ignores the consistent and complimentary heterosexual thread through Scripture based on Genesis 1 and 2, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. When asked about the possible circumstances of divorce, Jesus pointed his listeners back to God’s original intention for marriage and human sexuality, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created us male and female, as complementary and equal persons who jointly exhibit the full-orbed image of God (1:27). Out of this gender difference and complementarity, God forges a one-flesh unity in the commitment of heterosexual marriage (2:24). Throughout Scripture, the expression of our sexuality is envisioned to lie only within this God-sanctioned relationship.

It is to heterosexual marriage that Paul turns to picture the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Here the difference is as important as the complementarity. Christ and the Church are different in many ways, yet the Church aspires to a Christ-like life, and the two find unity in their relationship as Bride and Groom, culminating in the great marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

Haynes does not explain how the constant thread of heterosexual marriage from Genesis to Revelation supports the affirmation of same-sex relationships. He also does not explain how such affirmation would affect the theological significance given to marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

Haynes also glosses over the list of ten different behavioral sins in I Corinthians 6:9 that are condemned by Paul, with the note that some of the Corinthians were each of these things, but had been redeemed by Jesus Christ. NLT translates one of those words as “those practicing homosexuality”. The important point here is that the Greek word Paul uses, arsenokoitai, is a direct transcription of the two words used in the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22. It constitutes a direct allusion and restatement of the Levitical prohibition by Paul as binding on Christians (indeed, all people). To ignore this connection is to miss a significant verification that this Old Testament law holds true for New Testament Christians.

I hope these blog posts are helpful in thinking through how we as the church interpret the Bible on this sensitive issue. My next post will look at ways we improperly compare one biblical teaching with another and how we can distort the teaching of Scripture by focusing too much on one biblical truth.

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part I

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

Understanding and applying the teachings of Scripture to our daily lives is not rocket science, but it is also not kindergarten. Thankfully, many of the most important teachings of Scripture are straightforward and understood from a plain reading of the biblical words. Other teachings, however, are more difficult to glean from Scripture without a basic knowledge of the historical background and the rules of interpretation that have been developed over the centuries to aid such understanding.

Unfortunately, a teaching of Scripture that was once considered clear and easily understood has now been obscured and complicated by many efforts to rationalize a change in the church’s position. I am speaking of the church’s understanding of homosexuality. A recent article by Dr. Donald Haynes illustrates some of the pitfalls of improper biblical interpretation. While I have great respect for Dr. Haynes and his teaching and writing over the decades, I was disappointed by the approach he took toward Scripture in this article.

Because we believe in the authority of Scripture as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice,” it is important that we discuss and critique one another’s interpretations of Scripture. Biblical interpretation is done not solely as an isolated individual, but in community with brothers and sisters in Christ, and particularly in community with Christian leaders down through the centuries. Therefore, our approaches to Scripture ought to be open to discussion with one another, that we might learn from each other. In that vein, I would like to take several blog posts to engage Haynes’ approach to interpreting biblical teaching.

My overarching critique of Haynes’ approach is the same one I have of many others who engage the Bible on the subject of human sexuality. Namely, they often seem to have a conclusion in mind (the affirmation of same-sex practice) and then seek to find ways to explain away or disregard the teaching of Scripture in order to bring it into harmony with that conclusion.  I would like to use Haynes’ article as a way to point out some ways that Scripture is often misunderstood and misapplied.

  1. Misclassifying certain verses and/or lumping unlike verses together into a category that can be disregarded.

Dr. Haynes places the foundational verses relating to homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) into the category of “Mosaic cultic laws, most of which we ignore.” He then goes on to cite various laws from Leviticus that we no longer observe, such as prohibitions against eating blood, crossbreeding animals, and blending fabrics. He could have also cited the prohibitions against eating certain foods, like pork. “By what logic do we insist that God still wills that homosexual conduct be punished if we merely wink at the others? In Christ’s death on the cross, I believe we are saved by grace through faith, ‘not of works lest anyone should boast.’”

Haynes has a theological problem here, in that he seems to discount the need for Christian disciples to maintain our conduct within biblical boundaries of behavior. Yes, we are saved by grace and not by works. Our success or failure in living by God’s standards is not what determines our salvation. But God saves us to live a godly life. We are saved for a life of holiness, not just from a life of sin. The New Testament is replete with instructions on how Christians are to live (more on that in a moment). Our acknowledgement that we are saved by grace through faith does not relieve us of the responsibility to determine as best we can how God wants us to live, and then by God’s grace to do our best to live that way.

Haynes’ interpretive problem here is that he classifies the prohibitions against homosexual conduct as “cultic laws”—laws relating to the Old Testament system of sacrifice and worship that included a heavy emphasis on ritual. But if Haynes wants to classify all of Leviticus’ “Holiness Code” as cultic and no longer applicable today, he has to throw out the laws against incest, adultery, bestiality (all in Leviticus 18), stealing, lying, idolatry, fraud, mistreating the blind, slander, hatred, revenge, sorcery, prostitution, and cheating in business (all in Leviticus 19). Nearly all Christians would agree that these laws still apply today. There is no indication that they are connected exclusively to Old Testament ritual.

United Methodist doctrinal standards helpfully distinguish between “the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites” and “civil precepts” on the one hand, versus “the commandments which are called moral.” “No Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience” to this latter type of commandment (Articles of Religion, Article VI). It is plain that laws relating to sexuality are not ceremonial or governmental in nature, but moral (in contrast to the other examples Haynes points out). That is how we can distinguish the Old Testament commandments that still bind us today. These distinctions, by the way, are based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, not dreamed up by later church leaders (for example, Mark 7:14-18, Acts 10, Hebrews 8-10).

Haynes seems also to want to say that only the Old Testament commandments that are quoted in the New Testament are still applicable today. But it hurts his case that prohibitions against homosexuality are repeated in the New Testament, as well, which leads to our next point.

  1. Misinterpreting and misapplying the biblical and cultural context to nullify the teaching in question.

Haynes turns to Romans 1:24-27 and limits Paul to “raging against the Roman culture of idolatry.” Haynes goes on, “Given that he’s writing from Corinth – a city known as the ‘sin city’ of the Mediterranean world – Paul was likely referring to both the male and female prostitutes that were the norm in pagan temples.”

It is important to note that not all pagan religions of the time involved temple prostitution; only a few did. It would be a mistake to read idolatry into all the prohibitions against homosexual conduct, as idolatry is not the basis of the prohibitions in I Corinthians 6 or I Timothy 1. More importantly in Romans, Paul sees homosexual conduct as a result of idolatry, rather than an expression of idolatry. Of course, there is an element of idolatry in the “worship” of the “perfect body” that is sometimes found in particularly the male gay community. But that same idolatry of the human body can be found even more frequently in the heterosexual community, so it is not distinctive to homosexuality. Therefore, it would again be a mistake to say that Paul is only concerned about homosexual conduct that is found in pagan temples or that is related to idolatry.

My next blog post will address the proper use of science in interpreting Scripture, as well as other interpretive shortcomings in Haynes’ approach to biblical teachings on homosexuality.

Ministry Board Shirks Responsibility

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Book of Discipline

The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference board of ordained ministry recently decided to recommend a woman married to another woman for commissioning as a deacon. BWAC communicator Erik Alsgaard and Good News’ Walter Fenton reported that the board recommended Tara “T.C.” Morrow for commissioning as a Provisional Deacon. If that recommendation is endorsed by the clergy session of the annual conference on June 1, she would be commissioned by Bishop Marcus Matthews.

Paragraph 304.3 of The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” Morrow’s commissioning would be a clear violation of that provision.

This recommendation marks a failure of the vetting process for clergy candidates in Baltimore-Washington Conference from top to bottom. Morrow would have had to receive an annual recommendation from her local church charge conference, which clearly would have known she was living in a relationship not affirmed by the church. She would also have had to receive a recommendation from her district committee on ordained ministry, which should have known she was married to another woman. (The recommendation of another self-avowed practicing lesbian for ordained ministry in the Rio Texas Conference in 2013 gained a lot of notoriety in the church press.) And the recommendation of the conference board of ordained ministry requires a 75 percent majority vote in order to pass. That means at least three-fourths of the board approved recommending her for commissioning, despite knowing of her situation.

At every level, the vetting process failed. If Morrow had been living with a man without being married to him, there would have been no excuse for these three bodies to certify her candidacy or recommend her for commissioning. But because she is married to a woman, all three bodies failed to do their due diligence and/or deliberately decided to disregard the requirements of the church.

As Alsgaard reported, “’Two people of the same gender being married or living together is a basis for investigation,’ [board of ordained ministry chair Rev. Charles] Parker said, ‘not a basis for a decision,’ citing ruling 1263 of the Judicial Council – the church’s version of the United States Supreme Court. ‘Self-avowed’ is defined by the Book of Discipline (footnote 1 for ¶304.3) where a person has ‘openly acknowledged to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, Board of Ordained Ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.’ ‘Practicing,’ Parker said, according to Judicial Council rulings 1027 and 980, is understood to mean ‘genital sex’ with a person of the same gender.”

“Parker, who serves as senior pastor at Metropolitan Memorial UMC in Washington, D.C., said that the Board engaged in a process with and for Morrow that sought to rid itself of the denomination’s ‘unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” model,’ and create a spirit of openness and honesty in the Board’s deliberations.” Ironically, according to the article, “In the case of Morrow, he said, ‘we all know that she is married. We can make assumptions, but we don’t tend to question candidates on their specific sexual practices whether they are hetero or homosexual.’”

While creating “a spirit of openness and honesty in the Board’s deliberations” is laudable, it is no substitute for fulfilling the responsibilities assigned to the board by the Book of Discipline. The board is required to ask candidates for provisional membership this question: “You have agreed as a candidate for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and the most effective witness of the gospel, and in consideration of their influence as ministers, to make a complete dedication of yourself to the highest ideals of the Christian life, and to this end agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and the knowledge and love of God. What is your understanding of this agreement?” (Discipline, ¶ 324.9o)

Knowing that Morrow was living in a relationship not affirmed by the church should have provoked further questions from the board. But they “don’t tend to question candidates on their specific sexual practices.” That is simply irresponsible. And it is the “don’t ask” part of the “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In other words, the board, in seeking to “rid itself of the denomination’s ‘unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” model,’” actually persisted in it. The opposite of “don’t ask” is to ask—and the board failed to do so.

If a candidate came before the board with indications they had been in treatment for alcoholism or drug abuse, it would be incumbent upon the board to inquire further about the candidate’s treatment, recovery, and suitability for ordained ministry. The board had to examine dozens of pages of material submitted by the candidate, including a psychological exam, a physical exam, and a theological exam. Any or all of these might indicate further questions to be asked in order to clarify a candidate’s suitability. Yet in this one instance, knowing what it knew, the board failed to inquire.

The board of ordained ministry is assigned the responsibility on behalf of the church to examine in detail every candidate for ordained ministry in order to ensure that the persons are qualified and suitable to serve. This is a fiduciary responsibility they exercise on behalf of all of us. It is impossible for all the clergy members of an annual conference to get to know each of the candidates and make their own assessment of the candidates’ qualifications. We entrust the board with this responsibility. When the board fails in its responsibility, it erodes the trust that we all have in the church and its processes.

The blatant disregard of the requirements of the Discipline exhibited by the board is one reason that many evangelicals are frustrated at the church and angry with their more progressive colleagues. If church leaders cannot be trusted to follow our agreed-upon covenant, then there is little hope for a healthy future for the church.

That is why the Renewal and Reform Coalition is promoting legislation at the 2016 General Conference that would close loopholes and enhance accountability to our covenant. In the absence of voluntary compliance and trust, more forthright rules are required. One of the proposals is to broaden the definition of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include persons living in a same-sex union or marriage with a person of the same gender. By the public act of such a marriage service, the person is acknowledging that they are living as a homosexual person. Such determination should be automatic, not requiring a trial or other forms of verbal gymnastics to demonstrate an obvious reality.

The bottom line is that many progressives want to make it impossible for the church to maintain its scriptural teachings and requirements. But that would be a church without integrity. And a church without integrity can have no unity. It would be an unhealthy body that would collapse in upon itself.

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Change on Marriage and Homosexuality Could Cost UM Church Millions of Members

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By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

 

As the 2016 General Conference approaches, progressive United Methodists are pulling out all the stops to push for a change in the denomination’s position that would allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. They seem to be taking this course in total disregard of any possible negative consequences for the future of United Methodism.

The United Methodist Church is already facing a projected drop in membership of about 130,000 members per year in the next few years. That is the equivalent of eliminating the Arkansas Annual Conference or the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference every year! What would be the impact on U.S. membership of a shift in the denomination’s positions on marriage and sexuality?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) provides a cautionary example that continues to unfold. According to a recent article in Charisma based on analysis in the Presbyterian Layman, the PCUSA has lost  nearly 285,000 members in the three years since they granted denominational approval for same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. This represents the loss of 100,000 more members than the previous three-year period. Over the past three years, the denomination has lost nearly 15 percent of its membership.

In the wake of the radical PCUSA decision, hundreds of PCUSA congregations have withdrawn to unite with a more evangelical Presbyterian denomination. Additionally, thousands of more conservative members have left the PCUSA to join the independent church down the street.

The picture is not getting any brighter for the PCUSA. Denominational officials project membership losses for 2015 and 2016 of 100,000 per year, with losses of 75,000 per year in 2017-2020. Carmen Fowler LaBerge, President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee observed that “year over year losses of more than 90,000 members per year is institutionally unsustainable. To put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of closing an average of 1,000 PCUSA churches a year.” Since 2005, the PCUSA has lost over 645,000 members. Projected losses of 500,000 over the next five years will bring the total loss to 1.15 million members, cutting the denomination’s 2005 membership nearly in half.

Predictably, it is not the loss of members that is stirring the Presbyterian pot, but the loss of revenue from per capita assessments (their equivalent of UM apportionments). Revenue to the national PCUSA is projected to drop from $13.5 million in 2012 to $11 million in 2020. Under proposed budgets, the national PCUS will run a half-million-dollar deficit in 2016, with deficits exceeding $1 million starting in 2018. In the absence of drastic budget cuts, the unrestricted reserves are projected to run out in 2021. In the meantime, denominational askings are proposed to rise 23 percent by 2018 from their 2010 level. By 2020, the askings will be 30 percent higher than 2010. Where there are fewer members, they will need to pay proportionately more to keep the denominational machinery going—or the machinery will begin to be dismantled.

What if this took place in The United Methodist Church? What if the UM Church adopted the Connectional Table proposal to permit same-sex marriage and ordination? What if the same fallout happened to U.S. membership in our denomination that took place in the PCUSA?

Can you imagine being down to 3.5 million members in the year 2030 from the current 7 million? Can you imagine losing or closing over 10,000 congregations (one-third of the current total) over the next ten years? Can you imagine the need to raise apportionments by one-third over the next 15 years, even with yearly budget cuts? By 2030, U.S. membership would be less than one-third of the global United Methodist makeup (unless the more conservative churches in Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of the Philippines also withdrew from the denomination). The ministries of our denomination would be left at only a shell of their former strength.

Is this picture of precipitous decline the preferred future of progressive United Methodists? Despite the cautionary example of not only the PCUSA, but also The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, progressive UM’s insist that “it won’t happen to us.” The idea that “we’re different” is only a whistling in the dark denial of reality. The United Methodist Church consistently polls as more conservative at the grass-roots level than any other mainline denomination. If other mainline churches suffered such grievous turmoil and membership loss in the wake of adopting gay-affirming stances, what basis is there to think that the UM Church would react any differently?

One hopes that progressives and sympathetic moderates will take another look at the damage done to other denominations before persisting in trying to inflict the same on our own UM Church.

NOTE: for a previous blog on the PCUSA membership situation, see “Changes in PC(USA) Bode Ill for Methodism”

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