Archives for August 2017

Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue? (Part II)

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

As the Commission on a Way Forward does its work toward providing a proposal to resolve the impasse in our church over whether same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching” or not, there is a lively debate springing up across the church about the essential nature of this question. Is the church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality an essential issue, one over which it may be appropriate for denominations to separate?

I have already surveyed some of the reasoning behind the essential nature of the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. Here are more thoughts on the matter.

Third, the affirmation of same-sex relations would undermine the theological importance of heterosexual marriage in the Bible. Theologically, marriage is used to represent the relationship between God and the people of Israel (Old Testament) and between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32, Revelation). God and God’s people are different from one another, not the same. It is that difference that is symbolized in the difference between male and female in marriage. Our understanding of the nature of God and how God relates with his covenant people is at stake—another essential matter.

Fourth, the New Testament emphasizes the importance of avoiding sexual immorality. As Paul puts it, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body … You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (I Corinthians 6:18-20). The term “sexual immorality” (Greek: porneia) describes all forms of sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage, including homosexuality. Its meaning in the New Testament world is informed by the list of sexual sins itemized in Leviticus 18.

As mentioned earlier, one of the few stipulations placed by the early church on Gentile believers was to avoid sexual immorality (Acts 15). Commands to avoid sexual immorality appear in at least ten New Testament letters out of 21. Such explicit commands also appear in Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Revelation. Sexual immorality is mentioned at least as often as idolatry in the New Testament. As such, it seems to be a pretty essential concern for Christians, especially in a hedonistic, sex-saturated culture like ours that is so similar in that regard to biblical times.

Fifth, it makes no theological sense to say that behaviors that the Bible forbids can be legitimate Christian behaviors. Can you imagine saying that adultery is an acceptable practice for Christians? Or theft? Or slander? Or murder? Of course, Christians are guilty of all of these from time to time. We are all broken people and occasionally fall into sin. But we acknowledge it is sin. We don’t try to justify it by saying that God would approve of this behavior. There are times when the Church gets into trouble by trying to justify sinful behavior, like greed or many types of divorce or racism. But this is the Church being inconsistent with its own teachings and needing to be reformed and corrected. We have allowed the Church to be co-opted by the value system of the world frequently during our 2,000-year history. We should not allow it to happen again with regard to our sexual ethics.

Finally, the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is an essential issue because to do otherwise creates a damaging confusion in the minds of our people and those we want to reach with the Gospel. One United Methodist congregation will be proclaiming that same-sex attractions are part of God’s good creation and ought to be embraced and affirmed by faithful Christian disciples. Another United Methodist congregation down the road will be proclaiming that same-sex attractions are part of the brokenness of our sinful world and ought to be resisted by faithful Christian disciples. One congregation will perform same-sex marriages or have a non-celibate gay pastor, while the congregation down the road believes that to perform same-sex marriages or have a non-celibate gay pastor is contrary to God’s will. The message is contradictory and confusing to the community, as well as to the congregational members—what does your denomination really believe about this? This confusion will be a stumbling block to effective evangelism and discipleship.

What’s more, those who affirm same-sex relationships are hurt when fellow United Methodists say that such relationships are sinful, while those who believe same-sex relationships are inappropriate for Christians are hurt when fellow United Methodists insist that such relationships are blessed by God and consistent with Scripture. If we have opposite understandings of what a disciple of Jesus Christ acts like, how can we both be making disciples of Jesus Christ? We are working at cross purposes with each other and causing harm to each other.

It sounds hopeful to say that the church’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics are not essential matters. We can agree to disagree and still function together in one church body. But for many reasons, such a compatibilist position is not theologically or practically realistic.

  1. To affirm same-sex relationships is to undermine the reliability and authority of Scripture, as well as to contravene our United Methodist doctrinal standards.
  2. To affirm same-sex relationships opens the door to further possible revisions to the Christian understanding of marriage, leading to further potential disregard for the teachings of Scripture and the 2,000-year-old tradition of the Christian Church.
  3. To affirm same-sex relationships undermines the theological significance of heterosexual, monogamous marriage in Scripture as a picture of God’s relationships with his people.
  4. To affirm same-sex relationships goes counter to the heavy emphasis in the New Testament on avoiding all types of sexual immorality, belying the importance that biblical writers gave to this question.
  5. To affirm same-sex relationships puts the church’s stamp of approval on a behavior that Scripture defines as inappropriate for Christians, injecting into church teaching a destructive accommodation to worldly values.
  6. To affirm same-sex relationships as a non-essential matter creates a Christian Church that is communicating mixed messages about marriage and sexuality, working at cross-purposes with itself, and causing confusion and harm to Christians and non-Christians alike.

I would like to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But that would open the door to further confusion, weaken biblical authority, deepen theological imprecision and uncertainty, and continue causing harm to one another within the church. That is not a recipe for enhancing the mission and vitality of The United Methodist Church. We would be better served by acknowledging reality and creating structural separation that would allow people to engage in ministry unhindered by continued conflict over an issue that many deem essential to the Christian faith.

Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue? (Part I)

The Rev. Frank Schaefer (third from right) stands with family and supporters during a prayer service for unity at Court Square Park in Memphis, Tennessee, prior to the Oct. 22 oral hearing on his case by the United Methodist Judicial Council. Mike Dubose, UMNS.

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

As the Commission on a Way Forward does its work toward providing a proposal to resolve the impasse in our church over whether same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching” or not, there is a lively debate springing up across the church about the essential nature of this question. Is the church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality an essential issue, one over which it may be appropriate for denominations to separate?

Some argue that it is a non-essential issue, that Christians can disagree about the definition of marriage, can function differently with regard to what marriage ceremonies clergy should perform, and still live together in the same denomination. This group is often called “compatibilists” because they can live compatibly together with Christians who believe and practice differently than they do. Compatibilists often cannot fathom why we can’t all just get along. They often blame “incompatibilists” on both ends of the spectrum for dividing the church (in their view, illegitimately).

I would like to make the case that the church’s teaching on marriage and same-sex relationships is an essential issue, one over which churches may legitimately experience division. I approach it from the standpoint of one who affirms the current position of the church that all LGBTQ persons are loved by God and of sacred worth. That affirmation stands on its own.

Simultaneously, I affirm United Methodism’s teaching that same-sex relations are contrary to God’s will as expressed in Scripture and the teachings of the Church down through the centuries. I could just as easily make the case that this is an essential issue from the standpoint of those who affirm same-sex relationships and would perform same-sex marriages. The ongoing and escalating disobedience we see in The United Methodist Church is a sign that many progressives, too, believe this is essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us establish from the start that the actions of believers and the teachings of the church are closely related. Our beliefs matter because they affect the way we live. Because we believe that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” we renounce racism and all forms of ethnic and gender prejudice (Galatians 3:28). We oppose certain behaviors as unchristian because they contradict essential doctrines that Christians believe.

We often think that Christian orthodoxy is defined only by assent to certain essential doctrines alone. But James reminds us that “even the demons believe” there is one God (James 2:19), but it does not make them Christians without the deeds that spring from faith.

It is instructive to notice that the requirements the early church placed on Gentile believers were not doctrinal, but ethical. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28-29). John Wesley prioritized right actions over right beliefs. “Right opinion is at best but a very slender part of religion, (which properly and directly consists in right tempers, words, and actions,) and frequently it is no part of religion” (Letter to the Bishop of Gloucestershire).

This does not mean that doctrine is unimportant. But right doctrine or orthodox beliefs must result in right actions in order to be spiritually effective. So orthopraxis is just as important as orthodoxy.

So why is the church’s teaching on the nature of marriage and the acceptability of same-sex relationships an essential matter—part of an orthopraxis that defines who we are as United Methodist Christians?

First, the affirmation of same-sex relations would call into question the reliability and authority of Scripture. As noted New Testament scholar Dr. Richard Hayes summarizes, “The few biblical texts that do address the topic of homosexual behavior, however, are unambiguously and unremittingly negative in their judgment.” And “we must affirm that the New Testament tells us the truth about ourselves as sinners and as God’s sexual creatures: marriage between man and woman is the normative form for human sexual fulfillment, and homosexuality is one among many tragic signs that we are a broken people, alienated from God’s loving purpose” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 381, 399-400, emphasis original).

Several interpretive schemes have been proposed to reinterpret the biblical evidence in such a way as to allow same-sex relationships to be affirmed. However, they have all been refuted by biblical scholars far more knowledgeable than I (and beyond the scope of this article to address). The fact is that the Bible is unequivocally clear about this question. To say that the Bible is wrong on this matter is to undermine its reliability as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Article IV of our Confession of Faith goes on to state, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” For the church to affirm same-sex relationships would be to make something an article of faith that is not revealed in or established by Scripture. As a contravention of our doctrinal standards, that is an essential matter.

Second, to redefine marriage in a way that is different from the biblical definition opens the door to further revisions. Once we have discounted the Bible’s teachings that marriage ought to be between one man and one woman, what is to prevent us from discounting teachings about the need for exclusivity within marriage or the number of people who can participate in a marriage? Once the line is crossed, there is no other line that cannot also in theory be crossed. At that point, the Bible ceases to be our supreme authority, and we have allowed other considerations to outweigh the teachings of Scripture. Again, this is an essential issue as a repudiation of our doctrinal position that Scripture is our primary authority for faith and life.

It is not unreasonable for people to believe that the church’s teaching is an essential matter about which there must be agreement in order to have denominational coherence. I will explore this matter further in Part II of this blog.