The following is a paragraph from a C.K. Barrett sermon on the Law of Moses delivered during Lent, 1949 which is still very much appropos for our situation today.
Law of course always has this importance. It has it in Methodism. I know well the importance in Methodism of the warm heart and all that; but never forget the importance of Methodist Law and Discipline. We are witnessing a sad relaxation of Methodist Discipline in these days which is very dangerous. It would have horrified John Wesley. Law was the making of Israel and it was also the making of Methodism. As the Wesley’s went about they found from time to time clergymen who did know the meaning of the Gospel; but they were solitary and ineffectual until they were grafted in to the closely knit and unbelievably active and virile organism of early Methodism. Hence to a great extent our lack of power today. We say ‘yes he’s a good fellow he ought to be a member’. Wesley would have asked ‘Do you desire to flee from the wrath to come? Do you repent of your sins? Do you seek mercy in Christ?’ Someday I think I shall find an opportunity of speaking to you on Wesley’s Twelve Rules; there is much wisdom in them (even in the most maligned of them). ‘Never be unemployed, never be triflingly employed. You have nothing to do but save souls.’ A return to this godly discipline would do us a world of good….. Again and again you may read in his Journal his conviction that the work of evangelism and the pursuit of holiness went hand in hand. When the members of the Society grew slack in their personal Christian living, they ceased to make any impact on the people around them. It is when they saw bright and clear the ideal of Christian holiness, of perfect love, that they became an evangelistic force….The truth is God’s truth, not yours; it does not change with changing circumstances.
The direct relevance to our current conversations in the United Methodist Church and our future ones in 2018-19 should be clear. Clergy of whatever description that are in direct defiance of some fundamental policy of the Methodist Discipline including its ethical principles, whether it be about human sexuality or marriage or some other crucial issue, are no longer acting as United Methodists in any sense of the word. They have broken the covenant and the trust on which it is based, and violated our connectional system. Furthermore, those who think this is merely a matter of Methodist rules, ignoring 2,000 years of Church praxis when it come to issues of what does and does not count as Christian marriage (remember, we are not talking about secular re-definitions of marriage that may or may not comport with Christian marriage), and completely ignoring John Wesley’s teaching on celibacy in singleness, never mind what the Bible says about same-sex sexual expression and relationships based on such activities, are in violation of the holiness codes of the Bible, Methodism, and the Disciplines.
Those who deliberately violate our Discipline are also in major violation of the various Methodist holiness movements that arose in 19th century Methodism, not least of which was the movements that produced the Salvation Army, the Women’s Temperance movements and so on. It is not merely the Bible that these violations flout, it is also our more recent important Methodist history. Of course the more fundamental problem is the abandonment of the basic Reformation principle in such matters that the Bible rightly interpreted in its original contexts is the final authority in all such matters. Human experience is not the final authority, nor is what may seem logical in our current milieu. It might be different if this was a matter of issues that the Bible does not address directly or is silent on, but Christian marriage and and proper human sexual expression are issues that the Bible has plenty to say about, as does 2,000 years of Christian tradition Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. In the upcoming discussions in 2018-19, while we should all hope that they may be productive for one and all, what they should not be is an attempt to negotiate away some fundamental principles when it comes to what we were called to by the Wesleys and their successors—- ‘holiness of heart and life’ and the ‘spreading of holiness’ across the land which includes but is not limited to a commitment to sexual purity.
Let’s briefly deal with an argument that is all too common and just as often flawed that keeps appearing in these discussions. The argument goes like this— ‘that was ethics way back then, and blessed their hearts, they did the best they could, but we now know so much more and better than they did about things like human sexuality and what sexual ethics should look like.’ Now there is a grain of truth in this– we do know more about human nature than they did, about genetics, about DNA, etc. We also know more about sociology and psychology and issues of human nurture. However, and it is a crucial however, none of this surplus of knowledge teaches us that any human being is hard-wired to have to behave in this way or that in regard to their inclinations. Predispositions are not predeterminations. There may be tendencies one is born with, say towards same sex or opposite sex attraction, but tendencies are not determinations, one still has a choice about behavior. And furthermore, since we are all fallen creatures it is absolutely fallacious to say, all the tendencies and inclinations I have or were born with are good and from God. On no reading of Biblical ethics could you ever come to that conclusion. Most human beings are born with some defects, flaws, abnormalities, whether physiological, psychological, or sociological. The argument ‘God made me this way’ completely fails to take into account human fallenness, whether or not one believes in a literal Adam and Eve or not. Original sin is an important Christian doctrine affirmed by Jesus and Paul as well as others. Jesus speaks of laws given by Moses about divorce due to ‘the inherent hardness of human hearts’. Paul in Romans 5.12-21 makes very clear that the whole human race has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. A theology of creation without a theology of the Fall is not fully Biblical, and leaves a theology of the need for all of us to be saved hanging in the wind. We need all three.
Long story short, the argument ‘that’s an antiquated idea found in Rom. 1.18-32 and it’s no longer valid, is rather like arguing ‘adultery is wrong on Monday, but by Thursday it will be fine and acceptable sexual practice’. My point is this—-the passage of time is irrelevant when it comes to God’s ethical standards for human behavior, because human nature is the same now as then, and God’s Word has not changed (and yes friends, the Bible is not merely human guesses about what God wants and demands of us, it is a revelation of the mind and heart of God through the personalities and thoughts of his inspired human beings).
When Paul defines the will of God for every Christian he emphasizes ‘the will of God is your sanctification’ particularly when it comes to the matter of sexual purity. It is worth repeating exactly what Paul says on these matters in 1 Thess. 4——-“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.”
It was clear enough to the earliest Christians what this meant for them— fidelity in heterosexual monogamy, the only proper context for Christian sexual expression, and celibacy in singleness in all other contexts. This was the practice of the early church and the earliest interpreters of Paul, and I know of no exceptions. In other words, they were called upon, as Jews before them had been, to avoid all the sexual aberrations of their predominantly pagan culture— including fornication, incest, beastiality, pederasty, adultery, and same sex sexual partnering between consenting adults.
Rather than going the way of all flesh, the Methodist Church should be praying for a revival of fidelity to the Bible, to the Christian tradition of marriage, and to the more specific Methodist holiness tradition. Without these things we not merely cease to be United Methodists, we cease to be Methodists period, and it may be wondered whether we haven’t abandoned a Christian ethical stance on marriage and human sexuality altogether.