A Response to Adam Hamilton’s Recent Post on the Bible and Homosexuality

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Adam Hamilton has once more entered into the fray of making pronouncements about what the Bible does and does not advocate when it comes to same sex sexual activity and same sex marriage, and you can read his post here, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/6876/the-bible-homosexuality-and-the-umc-part-one
only the first of four such posts leading up to the General Conference in a couple of weeks.

My concern is with the misinterpretation of the Bible in this post as well as the misrepresentation of Methodist cultural trends at various points and so once you’ve read what Adam says, then consider the following response.

In the first place, I quite agree with Adam that the deeper issue is not what we think about what the Book of Discipline says on these matters, but rather what we think about the Bible. It should be said from the outset that there is no universal way that Methodists think about the Bible, the matter simply can’t be globalized that way. Having taught and preached all over our church for the last 30 plus years, if I were to offer a guess as to how most Methodists interpret the Bible, both laity and clergy, I would suggest that they tend to most certainly interpret it in a more conservative manner than Adam’s own interpretation of the Biblical data, in particular when it comes to issues of human sexuality.

And even more to the point, Adam’s view on this matter is well out of line with the vast majority of Christians world-wide– Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. The fact that there is a growing trend in certain European and North American contexts towards the acceptance of gay marriage and same sex sexual expression is frankly a distinctly minority report when it comes to world Christendom. Having taught in various place in Africa, and the Far East and India and Russia, places where Methodist churches are actually growing in number and size in various cases, I can assure you that the vast majority of those folks do not agree with Adam Hamilton on these matters. It is liberal Protestants in North America and Europe who are out of step with the majority opinion on these issues. And that majority opinion is not a new one, since for 2,000 years of church history, the church has not endorsed such lifestyles and practices, and frankly, neither did John Wesley or the Bible.

In regard to John Wesley’s views, our theological forbear, I would suggest one read his tract on ‘Thoughts on Celibacy’. He would frankly strongly reject the views of Adam Hamilton and his kin on these issues. For Wesley, as for Jesus and various Biblical writers, the followers of Christ had two options— celibacy in singleness, or fidelity in heterosexual monogamy. There was not a third option which involved a redefinition of the meaning of the word marriage, the meaning of the words husband or wife, or the meaning of the words mother and father. But as Adam says, the real issue is what the Bible actually teaches on these matters. Let’s start with Jesus.

Mt. 19 is clear enough, it seems to me. Jesus, based on his own interpretation of the creation order, says that men and women were created for each other by God, and they alone can share a one flesh union in marriage which can lead to the possible production of children, one of God’s greatest blessings. No relationship which cannot turn men and women into husbands and wives and hopefully also fathers and mothers was considered in early Judaism a marriage of any sort. Nor was it considered a marriage by Paul or other of the earliest Christians. Every child deserves if at all possible to have a good mother and father and to know who their mother and father are. It is far too easy to play the context card and to suggest that poor Jesus or Paul were just victims of their own cultural myopia or cultural biases. This is especially inappropriate when their views on marriage were shaped primarily by their own Biblical theology, not by their social contexts. If anything, Jesus and his followers took an even more conservative view on marriage and fidelity in heterosexual monogamy than their own Jewish contemporaries.

What I find especially surprising and unhelpful in Adam’s post are the following three paragraphs, meant to make us think that Christians have always been picking and choosing which bits of the Bible they regard as God’s Word, and which are not (leaving of course the final authority of what counts as God’s Word up to our own all too modern judgments). Here are the paragraphs which appeared on Adam’s blog, and then on the Ministry Matters website….

“Had the early church held these assumptions consistently, they would never have reached the decisions that circumcision was no longer required of Christians, or that Christians were no longer bound by much that is found in the Law of Moses. We would still be worshipping on Saturdays, eating only what was kosher, offering animal sacrifices, and administering capital punishment for everything from working on the Sabbath to rebelliousness on the part of children (Jesus never explicitly taught that these portions of the Scripture were no longer binding upon his followers; this call was made by the apostles at the urging of Paul).

Further if we consistently applied these same assumptions to what Paul teaches about women in the New Testament, the female members of the United Methodist Church would pray with their heads covered; they would remain silent in the church; and they would not be permitted to teach in any church gathering where men were present. This is, in fact, how many conservative Christian bodies still read the Scriptures, hence I recently received a note from a member of a fundamentalist Baptist church who stated unequivocally that United Methodists are “unscriptural Christians because you ordain women.”

There are more than 200 verses in the Bible that allow slavery as an acceptable practice, even permitting the beating of slaves with rods. The New Testament authors, as with their forebears, could not imagine a world without slavery. If Methodist Christians consistently held that everything in the Bible is God’s Word and that it is unchanging — and by this they meant that what the Bible allows we must allow, and that what the Bible forbids we must forbid — we’d still support the practice of slavery today.”

Let’s talk about that first paragraph first. It seems to be entirely ignorant of the fact that Jesus himself said he was inaugurating a new covenant, not merely renewing the old one, a covenant in which, according to Mark 7, Jesus declared all foods clean, a covenant which according to Jesus himself had as its covenant sign baptism, not circumcision. Paul is even clearer on this matter. He tells us in both Galatians 4 and in 2 Cor. 3 that the old Mosaic covenant is not binding on Christians, whether Gentiles or Jews. Consider what he says in 1 Cor. 9 about “to the Jew I became a Jew…” This is a very odd thing for a formerly Pharisaic Jew to say if he still thought he had to keep the Mosaic covenant. Were their Judaizers amongst the early Christians that disagreed with Paul (and indeed with Jesus), on these matters? Of course there were, but their views did not prevail and are not endorsed in our NT.

Moving on to the second, even more problematic paragraph, I must say I am stunned about what Adam suggests was Paul’s view of women. I did my doctoral dissertation on Women in the Earliest Churches, and this caricature of Paul’s view of women is just that— a caricature. Paul had women co-workers of every sort— there was the first deacon, Phoebe (Rom. 16), an apostle named Junia (also Rom. 16), women teachers like Priscilla (see Acts 18 for example), women prophetesses and I could go on and on. The passage in 1 Cor. 11 refers to the authorization of women to pray and prophesy in church, so long as they wear a headcovering! Why wear a headcovering? Paul says it is a symbol of authority, like say a clerical collar, indicating this woman has been authorized from God to speak. Paul is not simply endorsing either a Jewish or Greco-Roman custom (men covered their heads in worship in both religious contexts), but creating a new Christian custom that allowed women to speak in various ways in worship. Furthermore, 1 Cor. 14 does not retract with the other hand what Paul allows in 1 Cor. 11. There Paul is talking about the asking of questions during the time of the interpretations of the prophecies, and he says to certain women who were interrupting the service, ask your questions at home. Paul simply doesn’t want to turn worship into a Q+A session. He is not banning women speaking in general, he is simply saying a certain kind of speech is inappropriate in worship. Had men been guilty of this, he would have simply corrected the men. He’s dealing with a problem, and the same can be said about 1 Tim. 2. In short, Adam’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians needs a tune up!

Then he turns to the issue of slavery, an institution which was already ubiquitous in Paul’s world, and which Paul is not endorsing in Col. 3-4/Ephes. 5-6. To the contrary, Paul is starting where his audience already is, and moving them in a more Christian direction, first ameliorating the harshest aspect of domestic slavery, and then where there is an opportunity as in the letter to Philemon he says bluntly that Onesimus should be received back by Philemon ‘no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother in Christ’. Here we see Paul putting the leaven of the Gospel into the house church situation, and changing a pernicious institution from the inside out. Anyone who has bothered to study what Paul says about slavery and compared that to what, say Plutarch says, will notice immediately that Paul is critiquing and correcting and existing problem and working towards the abolition of the practice. But you can’t change such huge social institutions in an instance, so Paul must let the Gospel do its work within the context of the conscience of the Christian homeowners. It is not an accident that in the second and following centuries, Christians refused to sell people into slavery, bought people out of slavery, and did not take Paul’s words as an endorsement of slavery. As Philemon makes clear, Paul was for its abolition, and he was using the social dynamite of the Gospel to blow up the practice among Christian house churches.

I bring all this up, because you simply cannot use either Paul’s view of women or the slavery passages in the NT to argue— ‘well since the Bible is wrong on these things, it must also be wrong on same sex sexual matters’. In fact the Bible isn’t wrong on these important matters, and a pick and choose hermeneutic does not do justice to the real thrust of God’s NT Word. I could go on, but I would stress that what Adam is calling for is the abandonment of what the NT teaches on the key subjects of what counts as appropriate human sexual and what counts as marriage. And there is no justification for doing so on the basis of a misreading of what the NT says on various other subjects.

Finally, it is absolutely not the case that Paul is simply referring to temple prostitution of pederasty when he critiques same sex sexual activity. Rom. 1.18-32 makes clear that he sees all such same sex activities whether by males or females as unnatural, and involving the exchanging God’s plan for humanity for an all too human one. He holds much the same views as did Philo on this subject. And finally there is a reason Jesus says to non-married persons you should be like eunuchs for the Kingdom. He means that sexual expression should be reserved for the context of heterosexual marriage which can produce a one flesh union between male and female, and the possibility of parenthood. Jesus does not offer us alternate definitions of marriage or of singleness….. which is precisely why the United Methodist Discipline reads as it does on these matters, and hopefully will always read that way.


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