by Rev. Dr. James C. Howell
As we come to this lovely season when we dig into the Scriptures, which Martin Luther called “the swaddling clothes in which Christ is laid,” I want to share why my commitments and devotion to the Bible compel me to be a Uniting Methodist who favors the One Church Plan for our denomination. Our shared dream is for the coming of Christ, “who is our peace, who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
I enjoy robust dialogue and even arguments with my fellow United Methodists on how we discern God’s way for us regarding human sexuality. What puzzles me, although I understand, and don’t really mind so much, is when someone interrogates me with a question like:
- Have you read Romans 1?
- Have you considered what Paul wrote to Timothy?
What possible reply might there be?
- No, what is this Romans?
- Who was Timothy?
I might concede that the stereotype has some truth: conservatives have fixed their attention on Scripture more than progressives. But many progressives are great students of the Bible, and just because you can quote a verse doesn’t mean you understand the heart of the Bible. I wouldn’t ask a conservative, “Have you read what Jesus says about divorce in Mark 10?”
I’m a Bible guy. Always have been, always will be. I adore Scripture. I study it, in the original languages, constantly. I read commentaries, cover to cover, just for fun. I have humbly and zealously submitted my life, and my ministry, to the inspired Word of God. The question isn’t “Have I read Romans 1?” Rather, it is “How do we read the Scriptures we all believe to be inspired?” And not just the texts blatantly about homosexuality. All the texts.
There are no un-interpreted texts. We strain to see clearly the heart of God’s word given mind-boggling gaps of time (the passing of 2,000 years), language (Hebrew and Greek don’t flow easily into English), and culture. We all inevitably read into texts our own prejudices, our own preferred outcomes. We Bible readers are broken, needing immense mercy – to receive it from God and to extend it to others.
Some smart alecky people point to quirky texts like not wearing blended fabrics to prove we don’t adhere to texts literally. That’s not very helpful. What’s wiser is to consider how some texts apply directly to us (like “When you have a dinner party, invite those who can’t invite you in return,” Luke 14:12), and how others require some translation into our world – like the Bible’s clear and constant demand that you should not loan or borrow money at interest. I can respect someone who refuses then to work for a bank or have a mortgage. But my hunch is that we cut to the heart and see how in our day, as in Bible times, interest can grind the poor into ever greater poverty. The very clear principle is to do all we can to keep the poor from sliding into ever worsening poverty. Bankers and mortgage-holders might even help.
So why then does the Bible not only allow the One Church model but, for Bible lovers like me, even require it? One Church embraces the humbling reality that Bible devotees understand what the Bible has to say about intimacy differently. Conservatives have an insightful reading of Scripture on homosexuality. I can’t and don’t even wish to prove that they are wrong. The texts that deal with homosexuality are indeed clear; I have no doubt the men who wrote Scripture didn’t favor same gender marriage. I do wonder though, since we read a single Bible passage always in concert with the rest of the Bible, if those texts have gotten isolated from other texts about the image of God in all of us (Genesis 1:27), about no condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), about welcoming instead of obliterating the identity of others (Acts 8:38).
The question is: Are the clear homosexuality texts like the clear Invite-others-to-dinner texts? or like the Don’t-loan-at-interest texts needing interpretation? I lean toward the latter. God can clear this up for us definitively once we get to heaven. But we’ll be having that conversation in heaven. Salvation depends on the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary, not on whether you or I think right on an ethical issue – thankfully. We fallen sinners are wrong about so many things.
How can I find space, embrace and nobility for LGBTQ people in Scripture? Ordination is easy: God can use anybody. In Scripture, God seems determined to use the shocking, unlikely people, the despised and lowly.
When it comes to who can marry: I am obsessed with the increasing rarity which is Christian marriage. Churches, mine included, happily marry heterosexuals who have limited or zero understanding of what is a holy or theological marriage. The Bible’s understanding of marriage is hardly “Male + Female = Good.” For Paul, marriage is to put on display Christ’s love for the church, and what sacrificial love can be (Ephesians 5:25). Marriage is a mystery (Ephesians 5:32) – musterion meaning not a puzzle but something sacramental, pointing to the divine reality. Marriage is a calling: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It’s about being subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21).
Our United Methodist liturgy includes “You have so consecrated the covenant of Christian marriage that in it is represented the covenant between Christ and his church… Bear witness to the love of God in this world… These rings… signify to us the union between Christ and his church.” Marriage is training in holiness. We sing “When Love is found and hope comes home, sing and be glad that two are one. When love has flowered in trust and care, build both each day that love may dare to reach beyond home’s warmth and light, to serve and strive for truth and right.” I do not see why same gender couples cannot be and do these things. I have seen same gender couples who very much embody this kind of joyful, faithful holiness. Yes, the Bible loves male-female marriage and procreation. To my knowledge, so do all LGBTQ Christians I know, and their friends and relatives.
We of course encourage all United Methodist couples to strive for physical holiness. I tremble a little, though, every time I speak of holiness of the body and holiness in intimacy, as we ordained people must. Telling another person how to behave tiptoes up to the edge of works righteousness – and I shudder when I recall that Jesus was harshly criticized for hanging around with the morally suspect – and that his only harsh critique was reserved for the holy and pious people who knew what everyone else should be doing and not doing. Holiness matters, and yet I am not called or able to pass judgment on anybody – again, thankfully. Holiness doesn’t save; mercy will.
I’m not writing now about weddings out in society. I am focused only on United Methodist Christians who hear the call to be married, and want their marriage to be holy, a sacramental witness to God’s love in a broken world. We do not see this sort of marriage very often – and the world is desperate for it. Should we crush a would-be married couple who want to be Christ for the world, while not minding the straights who lackadaisically marry and grace a pew now and then? Might a holy same gender marriage awaken something beautiful in straight marriages?
One Church, I think, implies that we differ on how we bring Scripture to life in relationships. Jesus, it’s fair to say, dreamed of holiness for all of us. And yet for him, the demands of righteousness got eclipsed every time he embraced outsiders; to be like Jesus, to be Jesus, to be his Body now on earth, we would be wise to err, when we err, on the side of hospitality rather than righteousness and certainly than condemnation.
One Church also implies that we fall far short of what God is asking of us if we are ready to be rid of others in Christ’s Body. I have labored for many years to keep our Church together around the Scripture essentials:
- God in Creation
- God incarnate in Christ
- Christ crucified and risen
- Forgiveness and redemption in him
I am grieved to look into the eyes of my brothers and sisters who wish to be rid of me. Scripture assures me God wants us to be together. Jesus is still praying for our unity (John 17), and does not wish for any of us flawed, confused, noble, tawdry, lovely and broken members of his Body to leave or be cast aside. Friends, let us “bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends.”
This post originally appeared on the blog of Rev. Dr. James C. Howell.