Beginning Saturday, February 23, the United Methodist Church is holding a special called session of its General Conference, the official decision-making body of the denomination. Eight hundred sixty-four delegates—half laity and half clergy—will join with the Council of Bishops to pray, discuss, and debate the question of how the United Methodist Church should move forward regarding its position on same-sex marriage in the hope of discerning God’s will for the denomination.
Over the next few days I’ll be posting several short articles outlining my thoughts on the upcoming vote and why I support the One Church Plan recommended by a majority of our Council of Bishops.
Here’s the order in which I anticipate publishing the posts this week:
- Living in the Tension: A Church of the Via Media – (click to read)
- The Bible Says It … That Settles It – today; see below
- “Do You See This Woman?”
- The Case for Allowing Same-Sex Marriage
- Where Do We Go From Here?
Over the last six months I’ve received more than 400 e-mails from laity and clergy across Kansas and Nebraska. They wrote to share their views concerning same-sex marriage and urging the delegates to vote for one or the other plan being presented at General Conference this weekend. I read each one. An informal tally I did several weeks ago put the number of e-mail at 60 percent in favor of the One Church Plan and 40 percent in favor of the Traditional Plan.
Most of the e-mails were gracious. A few were angry or uncharitable. Some were simply direct. I was grateful for each and the time each person put into sharing their views.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the e-mails I received this last week, “What does the Bible say? (Old and New Testament) Remember your oath you took when ordained. You have to vote according to scripture … Please do not try to rewrite the Bible and say it is the best thing to do.” The writer of this e-mail, like many others supporting the Traditional Plan, was clear that if you value the Bible you will vote for the Traditional Plan.
I’d like to preface the rest of my comments with a word about Scripture and its importance in my life. I believe that the Scriptures are our “primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine”; that “Scripture is primary,” that it “reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation,” and “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” And I affirm everything else the Book of Discipline says about Scripture in our Doctrinal Standards found in paragraph 104 and in the section on Scripture in paragraph 105.
I’ve spent the last forty years studying the Scriptures. I begin every day reading the Bible. I spend time meditating upon its words. I work to memorize Scripture. I pray the Scriptures (I’m currently praying through the Psalms). I teach and preach the Scriptures, spend ten hours a week in in-depth study of Scripture, and, most importantly to me, I seek to live the Scriptures. I love the Bible.
But because I love the Bible and have studied it daily most of my life, I also recognize how wonderfully complex the book is. While Paul teaches us that the Bible was inspired by God, the biblical authors were not mindless amanuenses, simply taking dictation. They were human beings, writing in particular times and places, and for particular purposes. We see their personalities in their writings. We recognize their differing writing styles and vocabularies. Their life experiences and their historical context shaped their faith, theology, and ethics.
It is for these reasons that the biblical authors at times wrote things that today we rightly reject. We no longer believe it is permissible for one nation to kill every man, woman, and child of another nation; we call this genocide and consider it a war crime, though Israel was commanded to do this more than thirty times. We no longer beat our children with rods and if we observed this we would report the parent for child abuse, even though Proverbs repeatedly commends the practice. We no longer practice polygamy nor have concubines, though many of the Bible’s authors and heroes practiced polygamy and had concubines. We don’t believe that rebellious children should be put to death, nor that work on the Sabbath be a capital crime. We don’t believe women should keep silent in the church, nor do we require them to pray with their heads covered. And though the Bible introduced important regulations regarding slavery, it permitted slavery, including the beating of slaves, seeing the slave as the property of the master. And while the New Testament authors could have forbidden slave-holding among Christians, saving slaves centuries of human misery, they seem not to have imagined a world without slavery.
The Bible does not work according to the, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” formula. Instead, we must read its words in the light of their historical context, try to understand why the authors wrote what they wrote, and read its less humane verses (calls for vengeance, for example) in the light of its loftier verses (calls for love, mercy, and compassion). Most importantly as Christians, we are to read all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ, his life, teachings, ministry, death, and resurrection. He is the only unmitigated Word of God.
I was teaching this at a conference several years ago and a clergy person raised his hand and said, “Well, it sounds like you’re just picking and choosing.” I asked him, “Do you have a pension fund?” He nodded yes. “A savings account?” Again, he nodded yes. I asked, “What part of Jesus words, ‘Don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth’ did you not understand?” Was he picking and choosing? Perhaps. Or perhaps he recognized that the world we live in today is different than the biblical world and that we need to take Jesus’ words seriously but not always literally.
Which brings us to the question we’re debating this weekend at General Conference. As I see it, we’re ultimately asking if the five passages in the Bible that prohibit some form of same-sex acts express God’s heart and perspective on gay and lesbian people who desire to share their lives together in marriage, or rather, if they express the perspectives and reactions of ancient Israel and first century Paul? Are these passages among the less humane biblical passages, or the loftier? To put it as clearly as possible, drawing upon Romans and Leviticus, does God look at gay and lesbian people, and their desire for relationship, as degraded, unnatural, shameful, an abomination and, according to Leviticus 20:13, cause for them to be put to death?
I love the Bible, and I read it, study it, pray it, and seek to live it. And just as I don’t believe that genocide, slavery, beating children with rods, and forcing women to remain silent in the church reflect God’s heart and character, neither do I believe that God sees the gay and lesbian people who attend the church I pastor, many of whom are married and raising children, who serve in ministry, seek to love God and to love their neighbor and reflect the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, as degraded, shameful, abominations, and certainly not worthy of death. The Bible says it, but I don’t believe that settles it.
This is another reason why I support the One Church Plan.