The Methodists, slavery, and homosexuality: is history repeating itself?

I grew up United Methodist. I was baptized and confirmed United Methodist, and remained a Methodist until my early adulthood, when I attended the Disciples of Christ briefly before joining my current denomination (the United Church of Christ).

One of the main reasons I have not considered rejoining the UMC in recent years is because of its stance on GLBT matters: in short, the current (2012) Book of Discipline states that

“the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church” (220).

The denomination extends this doctrine to same-sex marriage, so it was perhaps not surprising last week when a United Methodist minister was convicted and suspended by the church for 30 days and ordered to renounce his support for same-sex marriage.

It’s inevitable that at some point the United Methodist Church will openly affirm gay and lesbian marriages and clergy. Why? Because its own history and methodology (pun intended) point in that direction.

As I’ve written about before, American Protestantism is divided between ecumenical and evangelical camps. The ecumenical denominations are those we now consider “mainline,” and include roughly those denominations that belong to the National Council of Churches. The evangelical groups are those that, in contrast, have received the bulk of the attention (and membership) over the past fifty to sixty years or so. These are the denominations, led by the very large Southern Baptist Convention, that typically disallow women clergy and have been most vocal against homosexuality and abortion, and which defend these positions by appealing to a central, albeit relatively new, doctrine: that of Biblical infallibility.

It’s no coincidence that an approach to the Bible is at the fore of what distinguishes mainline and evangelical Protestantism. It was the embrace of science and scholarly Biblical criticism in the 19th century by the former, and their rejection by the latter, which led to the split that has in many ways defined Christianity in America ever since. Conservative Christians were (and still are) anxious about the revelations that have come from said scholarship: insights into the authorship, sometimes over generations, of specific books of the Bible before thought to have been written by a single, prophetic individual; insights into parts of the Bible that simply weren’t there in their original forms; and of course, the overall humanness that is revealed by studying the Bible critically in the same way we do any other piece of ancient literature.

These differing approaches are often revealed in subtle ways. You might hear a conservative, evangelical pastor refer to the Bible as “written by God,” or in the very least, he (for it’s always a he) will refer to “Matthew” writing the gospel named after him. But mainline ministers will more often refer to “the author” (because he is in fact anonymous) and “the authors of the Bible.” Even though mainline clergy certainly believe, as a whole, that the Bible is inspired, this distinction cannot be exaggerated. For mainline Protestants, the Bible was written by men, which requires us to examine its pages in light of history, contemporary literature, and scholarly criticism.

In this, the United Methodist Church is on pretty much the same page as any other mainline Protestant denomination. On page 82 of the Book of Discipline, the Methodists affirm:

We are aided by scholarly inquiry and personal insight, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we work with each text, we take into account what we have been able to learn about the original context and intention of that text. In this understanding we draw upon the careful historical, literary, and textual studies of recent years, which have enriched our understanding of the Bible.

Like other mainline Protestants, then, the Methodists defer to modern scholarship. And this deferral takes shape most often with respect to historical context: parts of the Bible simply reflect the ancient ideologies of the authors when it was written. In broader scholarship, this has been extended to cases of homosexuality: what precisely Paul or others were envisioning when and if they spoke of homoeroticism is still an open debate, since the nature of sexuality in general in antiquity is still very much an open debate (and in any case will probably never be concluded to coincide perfectly with our own concepts of sexuality).

And while evangelical denominations speciously claim that Scripture prohibits abortion, the Book of Discipline, while reluctant on the issue, nevertheless affirms the legal right of abortion and trusts its members to enter into prayerful consideration when faced with such a decision:

“We call on all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy” (113).

If the UMC can trust its members to act in accordance with their conscience on an issue as explosive as abortion, how can it continue to draw a hard line on homosexuality, an issue whose Biblical proof-texting is at least as questionable?

In fact, the Methodists (and most mainline Protestants) pay little heed to superficial proof-texting. As the Book of Discipline goes on to say:

While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.

These four — scripture, tradition, experience, and reason — are the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, named after the denomination’s founder and the cornerstone of its methodology. In short, continued hostility toward homosexuality only meets one criterion of these: namely, tradition. As illustrated before, Methodists defer to mainstream Biblical scholarship, and there is hardly consensus to suggest that the “homosexuality” as understood by the ancients is the same kind of homosexuality with which we are dealing today. Reason also fails to hold up, as all medical, scientific, psychological, and other assorted scholarly professional disciplines agree that same-sex attraction is a perfectly normative expression of human sexuality.

Experience should be increasingly the most obvious persuader: the stance that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” is increasingly out of step with the experiences of millions of people, whose gay friends, neighbors, and family members exhibit Christianity better than many. It is also increasingly out of step with the Methodists’ own clergy, who keep getting prosecuted for officiating same-sex ceremonies, leading thousands of ministers to petition the UMC hierarchy for an end to such trials.

And so, as Paul says to the unnamed interlocutor in Romans 2:1 who applauds or perhaps even utters the infamous condemnations of Romans 1:26-27, the Methodists are “without excuse.” Tradition is all that stands in the way of fully embracing gay and lesbian clergy and weddings, and tradition has been challenged before: women did not gain ordination rights in the Methodist Church until 1956 (and not in the Evangelical United Brethren Church until it merged with the Methodists in 1968). And even after taking a brave stance against slavery at the famous Christmas Conference in 1784, the Book of Discipline apologetically notes that “regrettably, the church gradually retreated from that courageous stand,” no doubt because so many considered slavery to be an institution sanctioned by the Bible. The church would go on to split over slavery, a north-south division that may well happen again over homosexuality.

If a split comes, let it come. There are times when courage should be shown even in the face of possible membership decline or financial loss (something that has already greeted most mainline denominations that have done the right thing); more and more Methodist clergy are coming around to that historic stand. Here’s praying there are many more willing to join them, so that a future Book of Discipline needn’t offer the same contrition it now feels over slavery.


Don M. BurrowsAbout Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and columnist who is now completing his Ph.D. in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.

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  • Matt Kellon Robinson

    The author seems to believe that historical considerations should throw the reader into some whirl of subjectivism. Though much of higher criticism is racked with erroneous assumptions, contextual, cultural, and historical investigations are embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. Besides this, the author would not only have us to believe that enlightenment epistemology rules the day in mainline Protestantism, but defines the direction of said churches. Though a fundamentalist myself, it is clear to me that post-liberal/narrative theology is the future of mainline Protestantism. Moreover, Biblical exegesis is of great importance for Yale School theologians. I hardly believe that many serious theologians would simply disregard select passages as “the author’s opinions.” Rather, Methodism as well as other mainline denominations may very well trend toward a Bible centered worldview. The influence of scholars like N T Wright, Richard Hay, Ross Wagner, and others gives me hope for mainline churches. With this said, (and as the aforementioned Hays has established) homosexuality is simply not compatible with Christ nor His Church. Amazing how for some Biblical morality remains intact in their view….with, of course, the convenient exception of passages that conflict with their worldview. Culture has become an idol to many.

    • Snooterpoot

      This is a classic case of hypocrisy. Do you force your wife to sleep in another room during menses? Do you advocate stoning disobedient children? Do you wear clothing of mixed fibers?

      Do you think that a woman who is raped should be forced to marry her rapist because she is no longer a virgin?

      You accuse others of ignoring scripture that doesn’t conform to their world view or that is inconvenient for them. Well pot, meet kettle.

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

      You’d be surprised how many Methodists patently disagree with you, as well as the influence of the theologians you mention.They are, of course entitled to their opinions, but no one has to consider their opinions as expert or valid.

      Homosexuality has always been compatible with Christianity. There have always been LGBT members of the church. They have always served in some capacity, as pastors, choir directors, musicians, artists, theologians, teachers, deacons and authors. The church hasn’t suffered one bit by their presence among us,

      Decide if you will, that the compatibility is lacking and that its just a cultural influence. The rest of us will recognize what is otherwise.

  • jeff_jos72

    Fact check:
    Did you know that the bible never condoned slavery as we perceive it today? Unbelievers who are ignorant of a time past, and the history thereof, like to point to scripture which uses that word, to say that the bible condoned slavery.

    The Hebrew terms used in reference to slavery, and its meanings; עָבַד, auvadh, “to serve;” the noun, עֶבֶד, evedh, “servant” or “bondman,” one contracting service for a term of years; שָּׂכִיר, saukir, a “hired servant” daily or weekly; אָמָה, aumau, and שִׁפְחָה, shiphechau, “maid-servant” or “handmaid;” but there is no term in Hebrew synonymous with our word slave, for all the terms applied to servants are equally applicable and applied to free persons.

    My point, you people claim to know bible, but you cannot know bible if you don’t study the Hebrew words, their history, culture, and Torah. You don’t even have God’s name right. Slaves were merley servants who worked under contract, to tend the flocks, or whatever. Most were foreigners, or owed their lords, etc.

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

      We know quite well that the Bible condoned slavery. The book of Philemon proves that alone. And then we have the detailed rules of what slave owners should do about ownership, and all the loopholes around them. We have an ugly history that shows how Christians used the Bible to enslave millions, and used scripture to justify the ownership of human beings. The Bible spoke to a different people in a different time, yet the lack of language against slavery shows that in this, we would consider the practice and the teaching to be immoral, and wrong.

      And slavery…most were foreigners huh? Try again. Many were war captives, ripped from their homes and families, many were sold into slavery by family members, many more were born into it. Slaves had no rights. They could be bought of sold, they had no voice in the legal system, the only autonomy they were allowed was at the whim of their owners, and that could be easily removed. They could be beaten, raped, impregnated, murdered, and a slave could not defend themselves. It was difficult to gain freedom, and to do so, was the exception, not the rule. Just because the Mosaic code stated time limits for certain types of slaves, (not all mind, of course…those loopholes were there) in the Jewish world, (who also wrote that very detailed code in during the Babylonian occupation) in no way means means that it was practiced. History shows that it wasn’t.

      • jeff_jos72

        Exedus 21: 16 “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.” Servants sold their services for a time, just as we sell ourselves to corporations or companies today. However, these were different times, so they had a different way of life, and culture. Slavery as we experienced, was the kidnapping, abuse, and the forced labor of other people, the Bible detest that. The Bible calls us to freedom.

        • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

          Oh the rules were not that simple. Male slaves could be freed after a time period, females or slaves who were not of Israelite origin were not so lucky. The only way a female could get freedom, most of the time was marrying into the family, which usually meant she moved from a slave used for sex, to a wife, usually a minor one. Women could also be forced into marrying their captors, so another form of slavery as she would have no choice in the matter, being essentially a sex slave.

          A slave of a non-Israelite origin was considered inheritable property as were any offspring. They chances for freedom were dismal, especially if they were female.

          Also, there were hired workers, who were more expensive as they demanded salaries, so of course cheaper slaves were preferred. A slave could buy their freedom, but that would have been quite difficult, seeing they earned no salary and the price was valued at what a hired servant would earn in 49 years.

          The ancient Israelites only did what their neighbors did, selling daughters into sex slavery in hopes that the masters would provide eventual freedom through marriage, selling children to pay off debts or themselves, forcing people into slavery because of military conquest. It was barbaric, and tragically common.

          I suspect that our forefathers, used the “foreigner” clause in keeping slaves from Africa, the Americas and their offspring into perpetuity, seeing it as a “sound biblical practice”. It was still barbaric, and tragic.

          • jeff_jos72

            Slavery is humanely regulated in the legal portions of the Old Testament, and in the epistles of the New Testament slaveholders are exhorted to show kindness to slaves. Slave, in the Hebrew word “saukir” for example, meant Hired Servant. The Servant would make a contract with the Master, or lord of the house. He would work for that person for the time allotted in the contract, and in return, the slaves were given a nice bed to lay his head, and provisions rather than sleeping out in the cold hard corners. As a matter of fact, slaves (servants) had it good. Let me give you an example of these modern day “slaves”, a butler.

            People today have been taught to have this idea that slavery (saukir) in the bible meant the same as what black people went through back then. Yes there was forced servitude, which the bible detest, as I stated in my previous comment; for example, Egypt, holding the Jews captive.

            Nahum M Sarna, ‘Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary Series:

            ‘Although slaves were viewed as the property of heads of households, the latter were not free to brutalize or abuse even non-Israelite members of the household. On the contrary, explicit prohibitions of the oppression/exploitation of slaves appear repeatedly in the Mosaic legislation. In two most remarkable texts, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19, Yahweh charges all Israelites to love (‘aheb) aliens (gerim) who reside in their midst, that is, the foreign members of their households, like they do themselves and to treat these outsiders with the same respect they show their ethnic countrymen.’

            I could go on, but for the sake of lengthy conversation of the historical times, and the law of Moses for the people to live by in the land, I will stop here. Any questions?

          • Don M. Burrows

            Of course, it’s a historical fallacy to suggest that the laws and customs governing ancient Israel are the same as those in Roman times, when the epistles were written, leaving aside whether or not your reading of the Hebrew Bible is correct.
            The NT epistles may at times exhort masters to be kind to their slaves, but they also suggest slaves obey their masters with fear and trembling, at times even if they are being beaten by them. The authors of these epistles are not unaware of the nature of Roman slavery, which is hardly as benign as you are trying to make it by focusing on Mosaic law in an isolated geographic region centuries before.
            It’s true that ancient slavery was not exactly like antebellum slavery in the American South; it’s incorrect to say it was merely a form of employment. It was brutal, self-annihilating, and a fate no one wished upon themselves. That the writers of the New Testament fail to take a moral stance against that institution in their own day is hardly surprising, but nonetheless unfortunate. Scores of apologists since the abolition movement have attempted to apologize away that failing, but no credible scholar of antiquity would consider said arguments to have much weight.

          • jeff_jos72

            Obey with fear and trembling is used in various parts of the bible (2 Cor 7:15-16 And his [Titus] affection for you is even greater, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling.). Fear, and trembling was an incorrect translation. The correct translation is respect, and submission. Now we know forced slavery (servants) was condemned by the bible. Look at the whole chapter. Paul was telling them to respect authority, and true authority comes from God, meaning that you should respect your higher authority, and be submissive to authority. I have no time to explain the history, but consider this. If slavery is as you think in the bible, wouldn’t Paul be saying somewhat the same thing that Dr. Martin Luther King was saying? Martin Luther said that you should revolt peacefully, without violence. So, back then, if slave masters, or the kings are persecuting God’s people for their belief, in the same manner that the Messiah humbled himself unto death, and the disciples didn’t resist their government, but imprisoned for what they believe, peacefully. The people of God, always respected their authority, even when they were evil. God was always the defender in those times.
            However, I understand why you want to demonize the bible. You probably think that if God is imperfect, and not as perfect as we make him out to be, God is probably wrong about Homosexuality. Remember, no man knows the mind of God, the mind of God is higher than any can fathom. God is just, and fair.

            I know the whole take on slavery by the LGBT community (Not all involved) is to make a case for themselves to say hey, if God condone slavery which is wrong, then maybe his condemnation of Homosexuality was a mistake, or is wrong also.

          • Don M. Burrows

            I’ve got far better things to do than this debate (hence the delay in response), but it’s absurd to say that “fear and trembling” is the incorrect translation. What you are doing it substituting interpretation for translation. You don’t like what the Greek says, so you’re using your own theological interpretation to simply change the translation.

            “I have no time to explain the history.” I don’t need to you explain the history to me. I’m very well aware of the history and culture of the Roman world, especially in the time contemporaneous with these passages. The epistles that include household codes are clearly aimed at mitigating the reputation some Christians had by reasserting imperial ideology about slaves, women, etc. Slavery was forced, brutal, and ubiquitous. It was not indentured servitude, not “employment,” it was slavery, and included beatings, sexual gratification of the master, crucifixions — you name it.

            I’m not “demonizing” the Bible simply by pointing out these inconvenient facts. That’s clearly what you want to suggest, so that you can maintain a doctrine about the Bible to which you adhere, but the vast majority of Christian institutions worldwide know and understand that the Bible is a product of its ancient context and should be read as such.

            There’s a big difference between what MLK did and what the NT epistles do. MLK preached *against* racism and discrimination, even while encouraging non-violent (but certainly not *legal*) resistance. The NT authors not only urge obedience, they never once explicitly denounce the ancient institution of slavery. Never. You can keep suggesting they do, using passages that you must apply to slavery but which are not in fact about that institution, but never once, *not even when Paul is returning an escaped slave*, do the epistle writers say, “this slavery thing is wrong, anyway.” They don’t because they were part of ancient ideology, slavery was taken for granted, and no one questioned whether it was OK. This is not my opinion — this is the undisputed consensus of all scholarship on antiquity that is not apologetically trying to excuse the Bible for failing to do what no other ancient author does.

          • jeff_jos72

            Everyone has their own definition of history, and meaning of the bible. The scholars of that time were proven to have a wrong understanding of Torah also. When Yahshua came, the Scribes and Paresis, were both proven to have no understanding of Yahweh’s word, and even today (history repeats itself), they still use the foreign name of Yahweh, and his son Yahshua, and claim to know bible, and the history thereof. Believe what you must. I have talked to Hebrew speaking people, and Jews concerning this.

          • Don M. Burrows

            Congrats on talking to modern-day, Hebrew-speaking people. Not sure how that will help you with texts written in Greek, by non-Jews, in the eastern Roman Empire, 2,000 years ago.
            Everyone does not have his own definition of history, nor “meaning of the Bible.” There are some things that are hard facts, verifiable through scores of sources from antiquity, and what ancient slavery was, and where the late epistles fit within the world, is hardly up for dispute, except, again, among those who are trying to apologize for the Bible to make it fit within their doctrinal understanding of it.

          • jeff_jos72

            Your very idea of the word “slavery” is modern, and I expect this word is what have you confounded. You see the translation of the language by the old English was either slave, servant, or other. The laws of Yahweh clearly states that one should not kidnap someone, and sell them into slavery, or in other words, for them to work against their will. I agree, slavery, how we define it today means forced labor, usually by kidnapping. One would agree that our employment is slaver, by the definition of slavery used in the bible most times. Pharo of Egypt had slaves (as we understand slavery in our modern day). The bible also translates slavery in the context of being a slave to God. I am sorry that modern day understanding has clouded your understanding of scripture.

          • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

            So I guess you just ignore the book of Philemon, OR the wealth of historical evidence that easily refutes your ridiculous claim, much less your assumption that the author of this piece is ignorant of his topic…trust me he’s not.

            And for the record, talking to a Hebrew speaking person today, is nothing like speaking to one in the first century. Languages evolve, significantly over time. Look at our language English. I am pretty sure that if you traveled back in time to England during the time of William the Conqueror, you would have a hell of a time conserving with anyone in England.

          • jeff_jos72

            Importantly, the Law of Moses made no provision for any slave trade. It was permissible to purchase men and women who voluntarily sold themselves into indentured service, but not to sell them (Exodus 21:2, Leviticus 25:39, 42, 45, Deuteronomy 15:12). Taking men and women and enslaving them against their will, or selling them into slavery, was expressly forbidden on pain of death (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7). So your theory is wrong about being forced into slaver, I mentioned that before also, maybe not on your replies. Marriage was mostly contractual back then also. Remember, these people lived differently from how we live now. You are looking at things from your modern day perspective.

    • AtalantaBethulia
    • AtalantaBethulia

      While we consider exactly what the Bible meant by the slavery it endorsed, we fail to hold alongside this issue the reality that it unequivocally endorsed genocide. So… there’s that.