Unity is Difficult, Not Impossible (Part 2)

by Dan Johnson

This is my second post (of four) on why keeping our United Methodist Church united is so difficult – but hopefully not impossible. Today I look at the position of those who hold to a traditional reading of the Bible.

2. The Traditionalist View: Personal Conscience and the Authority of Scripture

While there are a few passages in the Book of Leviticus, which most scholars disregard as belonging to a cultic system that is no longer relevant, the key passage is Romans 1: 26 – 32 in which Paul passes very strong, condemning judgment on homosexuality and those who practice it (and a long list of 20 other things, which are almost never mentioned by those who champion this text as the key text). This is a non-negotiable for traditional Christians. In addition, those who hold this view cite the entire Biblical witness as having no affirmation whatsoever of homosexual practices, as well as the long, historic, united voice of the Christian Church on this issue – until recent years For those who hold this view, it is a matter of personal conscience and their understanding of the authority of Scripture, and to betray those would be unacceptable.

Adam Hamilton and others point out that the view of the Bible toward some topics has evolved, especially through the influence of Jesus – such as slavery (which was accepted throughout much of the Bible), women’s position and rights, and other topics that Jesus referenced in the Sermon on the Mount: “You’ve heard it said of old, but I say unto you…” The traditionalists’ response is that there were always voices in Scripture calling for positive change in these areas, but not so in the area of sexuality.

Any attempts to suggest that Paul was really talking about pedophilia, disposable intimate relationships or the widespread degradation within Roman society as exemplified in his of 20 plus moral areas, rather than committed, loving covenantal relationships are seen as unconvincing. Similarly dismissed as unacceptable are suggestions that this passage should be read through the lens of the whole of Scriptural testimony of God’s love for all and Jesus’ love for all. And the fact that Jesus never mentions homosexuality is deemed an inadequate argument from silence. A similar dismissal is given for any suggestion that this has more to do with the “interpretation” of Scripture rather than “authority” of Scripture. Add to that the weight of the long history of this traditional reading of Scripture.

Additionally there is the argument that all across the world, especially the developing world where Christianity is the strongest, the traditional reading of Scripture is almost universally unquestioned. I saw this first hand when I taught in Nigeria and also as part of my work with UM churches in Russia. For many persons in these cultures, even to hint that a different view of sexuality might be possible is beyond imagining, and a change in the Book of Discipline would likely bring massive turmoil.

To what extent this view is primarily cultural and what is a literal (faithful?) reading of Scripture is unclear to many of us in the west, but it isn’t unclear at all in these countries. To suggest that the understanding of both human sexuality and human rights in these cultures is mostly uninformed by modern psychology and the democratic process is denounced as western arrogance, even though most western, traditional Christians would decry the fact that in many of these countries homosexuality is illegal and oppression of persons of this orientation is often violent and widespread. Presumably no one holding this traditional view would condone such behavior, but there is reason to be concerned that the traditional view may have led to and contributed to prejudice, ill treatment and oppression of persons of a homosexual lifestyle, something surely Paul, and most assuredly Jesus, would never have wanted. This alone might make one wonder if the traditional view is as well grounded in Scripture as it is claimed.

Most of us know or have known – I certainly have known and do know gay/lesbian persons who have felt unsafe in the United Methodist Church, and even in the UMC I recently served (not with other members but with the legislative language in the Book of Discipline), which is in a fairly progressive university town and church, a fact that grieved my pastoral heart and caused me to be concerned about a view that would cause such a reaction in a longtime, faithful member.

I’m not suggesting you should agree or disagree with those who hold this traditional position, rather, I’m trying to understand in my own mind and to invite you to understand why and how those who view this issue as a matter of Biblical authority can feel so passionate about it, and why they believe they cannot be in a church with those who see this matter differently. Nor should these persons be dismissed as “ignorant, biblicists and legalists,” as all three titles are unfair to most of the holders of this view that I know. They love Jesus, they love Scripture, they love others, and they would say that their love for Scripture informs the way they can best love others, even though it may not appear to be as loving as others think it should be, and certainly not to those who are the object of that “love.”

But I think you can see yet another reason why it is so difficult to keep our United Methodist Church united, but I do remain hopeful that it can and will remain united. Is there a way that United Methodists in Lagos, Nigeria and United Methodists in San Francisco, California can be united in the same Church? Is there a way that we can envision the Body of Christ in such a way that Christ followers across the whole wide world can live in unity? I hope so. I truly hope so. With so much division and hatred and so little seeking of understanding, is there a way the followers of the One who sought to gather all of God’s children together might illuminate a way of harmony and love that will model for the world what the world so desperately longs for?

So, I conclude this post the same way that I concluded my previous one, asking you to pray for the Bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward which is trying to navigate these tumultuous waters. Stay tuned.