By Thomas A. Lambrecht
I appreciate the opportunity to engage the views of the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, who could face a church trial for performing a same-sex marriage in defiance of UMC polity. He was in the difficult position of discerning how to balance his desire to love and affirm his son (who asked him to officiate at his same-sex wedding) with UM clergy commitments. In his explanation for taking this step, Dr. Ogletree lifts up the importance of “tradition, reason and experience in informing our efforts to comprehend and appropriate the biblical witness.” He contrasts these aspects with “attempts to settle complex theological and ethical issues by ‘proof texting,’ i.e., the citation of carefully selected biblical texts. . . .”
Dr. Ogletree sets up a false choice between listening to the voices of tradition, reason and experience on the one hand, and biblical proof texting on the other. The United Methodist way of approaching theological and ethical issues is to look primarily to Scripture, which is “to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. 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” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). To understand, interpret and apply scriptural teaching in our own lives, we are guided by tradition (the wisdom of Christian scholars and the Church before us), reason (the rational and logical synthesis of biblical teachings) and experience (“the personal appropriation of God’s forgiving and empowering grace,” Discipline, p. 85). These are guides to understanding Scripture, not independent sources of authority that are able to overturn or displace Scripture.
With his approach, Dr. Ogletree jettisons Scripture and tradition, which uniformly advocate for human sexual expression within heterosexual marriage, in favor of the last 50 years of human reason and experience, which have fostered the sexual revolution and its demolition of boundary after boundary around human sexual relationships and practices.
The Bible teaches that every human being has “inherent dignity” and infinite value. So much so, that in his love for each one of us flawed human beings, God sent his one and only Son to suffer, die and be raised again for our redemption. Because we are so loved by God, he laid out in Scripture the truth about what we were created for and how we can live a life that leads to flourishing, not just for ourselves, but for all humanity.
It would be the opposite of love for us to refrain from speaking out when people, through ignorance or willfulness, depart from God’s moral framework. Whether the departure be greed, idolatry, gossip, lying, murder, or sexual immorality, these and all other transgressions violate the order God inherently placed in the world and lead to physical, social, environmental, emotional and spiritual deterioration.
The Bible teaches that human sexuality is ideally reserved for monogamous heterosexual marriage. This is far more than “proof texting” from a few “carefully selected biblical texts.” Genesis 2:21-25 (cited by Jesus in Matthew 19:4-6) explains that humanity was created by God male and female for each other, to live together in the exclusive one-flesh unity of marriage. The Old Testament repeatedly uses heterosexual marriage to portray the relationship between God and his chosen people, such that idolatry is described as spiritual adultery. Paul uses heterosexual marriage to portray the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).
Many biblical stories depict the adverse consequences of crossing God-given sexual boundaries. Nearly every instance of polygamy in the Bible, for example, includes negative repercussions. The half-dozen passages specifically opposing homosexual behavior appear in both Testaments and must be seen in this larger context.
Biblical teaching on human sexuality covers a span of at least 1,300 years, in cultures widely different from one another. It applied in diverse circumstances from primitive agrarian society to well-developed urban locales, from pious Jews to “pagan” Gentiles, and even in the heart of Rome’s notorious sexual licentiousness.
Based on this brief tour of biblical teaching, it does not make sense to claim that this teaching is limited only to the culture of Bible times. It represents instead God’s timeless will for human flourishing in this sacred and highly charged area. To set aside this teaching would require a monumental standard of evidence.
Dr. Ogletree does not elaborate on what tradition says. The tradition of biblical interpretation and moral and ethical reasoning is nearly unanimous in the first 1,900 years of the church’s existence in support of the heterosexual monogamous boundaries of human sexuality. If we are to think that we know better today than 1,900 years’ worth of Spirit-led Christians, we would need very solid reasons indeed.
Experience is a subjective teacher, varying from one person to another, and not something we can build a theological or ethical framework on. I would point out the experience of our society over the last 50 years of increasing sexual “freedom”: marriage rates plummeting 37 percent since 1982 and out-of-wedlock births increasing from the historical level of 4 percent to the current 40 percent of all births, condemning millions of children to a life apart from at least one biological parent and most of them to a lifetime of poverty. Since changing sexual mores has not worked for us, why make additional changes?
Finally, I would like to address how we make changes in the church. Dr. Ogletree favors the approach of “ecclesiastical disobedience.” This strikes me as a fancy word for “coercion.” In other words, if the church will not willingly change its moral standards to approve of homosexuality, proponents will force the church to do so through acts of disobedience. Where in the Bible does it say we are entitled to force others to change their beliefs? The way of integrity would submit that if a person can no longer subscribe to the standards of a church denomination, he/she should leave that denomination and seek another more congenial.
It is good to seek greater understanding of God’s will for human living. In the process, however, we must not abandon the scriptural standard of God’s revelation for the sake of changeable human wisdom. And proponents of homosexuality must not tear the church apart with their coercive tactics.