Scripture, Wesley, and the Way Forward (Part One in a Series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

pic- bible and communionWhat about the Bible? What about Wesley?  These are important questions in the midst of our struggles, as a denomination and as a congregation, around issues of sexuality and the future of the church.  As a follow-up resource to our conversations on the “Way Forward,” this paper is an attempt to put my perspective on these questions into written form. While there are other texts, the focus here is on key New Testament passages, with some comments on what Wesley had to say about them, and then followed with some questions to lead us into our next gathering.

Perhaps the most important New Testament passage for the debate on homosexuality is found in the first chapter of Romans, specifically vs.26-27.  From this passage, and others, many claim that same-sex intimacy, in any form, is a distortion of the God’s intended purpose and design for us.  For this argument, we can go back to Genesis 1:27 where we read, “Male and female, God created them.”

At the same time, we must note that these verses in Romans are given within the context of a larger statement about idolatry. We are told that idolatry results in us exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worship the creature rather than the creator. The word Idolatry starts with “I.”  It is the effort to manipulate spiritual forces to get our own way.   In the culture being addressed by Paul, rituals involving sex were common ways to engage in this manipulation.  Paul uses “unnatural” intercourse as an illustration.  And the Paul follows this illustration with a long list of “unnatural” acts that are against the will of God, including envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, insolence, and boastfulness (v.28-31). These acts and attitudes point to a disorientation of life and estranged from God.

This list also provokes a critical question: “Is there anyone not on this list?”  The answer must be “no.” We are all in need of grace.  Apart from God’s grace, we will bring despair and destruction. Furthermore, it would be a disservice to Paul, and to the Word of God, to not read this passage to its conclusion.  Paul conclude this passage by saying: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.” (2:1).

As United Methodists, it is important to note what John Wesley says about this in his “Notes on the New Testament,” which are part of our doctrine.  He speaks of the “heathen Romans” and the “emperors themselves,” being given us to “vile affections” and “unnatural lust.” He points out that this passage is about “abominable idolatries” where God gives us over to the “vilest abominations.” The word abomination literally means to go against our nature as those created in the image of God.  And then he lists these “vilest abominations” — Injustice, Unmercifulness, Fornication – “which includes every species of uncleanliness,” Maliciousness – a temper that delights in hurting others, Whispering – to defame others, and Backbiting – speaking against others behind their backs. In his notes of this passage, Wesley emphasizes the point that Paul is trying to make.  If we judge others we only condemn ourselves.

Here are some inferences to be made regarding the issue at hand. First, same-sex sexual relationships are used as an illustration to make a larger point.  To turn the illustration into the main point is a hasty generalization that dishonors the intent of the passage.   Secondly, the point of Paul’s argument is that we all fall short and should not single some out for judgment.  Thirdly, from the context it seems that what is being opposed is forms of idolatry and acts that lead to “exchanging the truth of creator for the worship of the creature.” It can be argued that it is not a prohibition of intimacy between two committed people wanting to express love in the way that is natural for them, but rather about an insatiable lust that leads to excessive, dangerous, and even abusive sexual behavior, even to the point of (what we would call today) heterosexuals “exchanging” their natural proclivity and engaging in homosexual encounters.

For one more inference here, the tenor of this passage suggests that we focus on the actions that bring harm to us all and provide “means of grace” to address them together, rather than projecting onto others and how they need to change.  In Wesley commentary on this passage, “fornication” is the only one mentioned that involves sexual expression. In other Notes, Wesley uses this term as a cover term for all acts of sexual immorality. The Greek word is “pornia.” It may be defined as sex when another is objectified or objectifies themselves and allows themselves to be abused.  What if we were more focused on providing help with this?

There are two other passages in the New Testament to which people often turn, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11.  In both of these passages we find a list of vices that do not represent the kingdom.  More specifically, we see a list of certain types of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” — not apart from God’s amazing grace. The list includes the idolaters, fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers (NRSV, 1 Cor 6:9), along with murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching…(NRSV, I Tim 1:9-10).   Lists like this are common in most cultures, ancient and contemporary, given to motivate people to work at staying off the list. There are also some theological issues around categorizing people by their actions rather than by their “heart.”

Two of the characterizations, male prostitutes and sodomites (NRSV), potentially inform this debate. First, the Greek word, malakoi, translated as male prostitute (NRSV and pre-2011 version of the NIV) literally means “soft.” In other places in Greek literature this word is used to imply cowardice, laziness, weakness, and in some cases, was used to describe a man who is effeminate, which was viewed as a vice by many.  The Gospels use this word to compare the “soft” or “luxurious” clothing worn by those in royal palaces with the cloth worn by John the Baptist (Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:25).  Today, many scholars maintain that, when it is used in relations to sex, the reference is almost certainly to the passive, weak, or feminine partner.  Wesley build upon the King James translation as “effeminate,” which brings another set of issues which I will address more thoroughly in another post.  With all of this, here is the bottom line — we are not exactly sure what Paul had in mind when he included this word in his list.  It may or may not be about sex at all, or sex may be one way this sin can be manifested.

It is worth noting how John Wesley understood this word. He uses this word in a couple of different ways. In the broadest sense, Wesley uses the words “soft,” “weak,” and “effeminate” together to describe those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.”  That kind of lifestyle leads to spiritual “softness” or “weakness.” He gives this description so frequently that it becomes impossible to project this “sin” only on to a particular type of person with no implications for us all.  This is a temptation we all face.  At the same time, in his commentary on First Corinthians he does have a particular type of person in mind, although it is not clearly defined.  He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  He concludes that we are never secure from the greatest sins when we do not guard against those which are thought to be the least. For Wesley, this word does point to sin, but without direct or only sexual implications.  To be “too soft” on our own sin is dangerous.  While some scholars narrow this word to a form of sexual vice, Wesley clearly sees this in a broader context, calling all of us to look in the mirror.  To project sin only onto others is, in itself, an act in need of repentance.

The next Greek word, arsenoloitai, is even more problematic.  It is a combination of two words, one meaning “male” and the other meaning “bed,” usually with sexual innuendo. While very rare in ancient literature, it is most seen as a reference to exploitation and abuse – using male “strength,” or “domination” in sexual encounters, being abusive, taking advantage of another, perhaps regardless of gender.  It is also only about “men.” In some contemporary translations, it is used to denote the active partner in a same-sex (male) intercourse. In the history of translation, it has also been associated with pedophile or abuse of boys or children (This is how Luther, for example, translated it).  It has also been translated with general words like abominations, and in recent years, with the word homosexual. In the NRSV, it is translated as “sodomite.”  Sodomy has been associated with same-sex intimacy, but from a scriptural perspective, it is also associated with abusive treatment of the stranger and those who were vulnerable.  We cannot be certain that this word refers to same sex intimacy at all, and even if it does, it most likely refers to specific forms, namely acts that are exploitive, coercive, degrading, and abusive.  Some would argue that it is not about two people, of any orientation, who desire to express love and commitment to one another and grow together in the virtues of faith.

In Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, we find an expanded understanding of the word.  In association with the word, Wesley uses words like “abusive” and “assault.” In Wesley’s notes on Ezekiel 16:49, Wesley says that the sin of Sodom was “fullness of bread,” “excess in eating and drinking,” and Sodom’s refusal “to help strangers.”  Arrogance, gluttony, and laziness in helping the poor and needy was the source of their fall. Following the message of the prophets, Wesley wants to remind us that “Their doings were abominable, but thine have been worse.” (Note on Ezekiel 16:47).  In other words, when we see this word we cannot only think of “those people.”  On this whole, this term is used in the context of exploitive, abusive, neglectful, selfish, and harmful behavior and is not about personal sexual identity.

Beyond these references, there is very little.  It is often noted that Jesus has no direct word on this topic.  Jesus does, however, affirm marriage between one man and one women, and that the two become “one flesh.”  When Wesley mentions this, he interprets it as a clear prohibition against two things: polygamy and divorce.  He says this more than once. On the other side, and in the context of how there is no marriage in heaven, Jesus speaks of “eunuchs” who are born this way, or made this way, or choose this way to glorify God.  Many argue that the term eunuch was used in the ancient world as a euphemism for those we might call “gay” today.  Wesley, in his commentary, tells us that we cannot always take this term literally.  Those are some possible references from the New Testament that add to the richness of the conversation.

In the scriptures it is possible to show a progression of views on various issues. For example, we see an evolution towards inclusion, respect, and value of women.  Corresponding to this progression, we also see an increasingly restrictive view of sexuality, especially in matters of monogamy, divorce, and abuse, in order to provide more protection of women. If this progression is true, then one can ask: Could this be applied here? Could we move towards acceptance of people who claim this as part of their identity and, at the same time, promote a more restrictive sexual ethic -promoting monogamy, commitment, and faithfulness?

Here are some more possible questions: Is it possible for the church to lead the way in promoting a healthy sexual ethic that applies to all, rather than expecting some to live by a higher standard while becoming more and more lax with others – with divorce for example?  Or do we need two different sets of ethical considerations? Do we focus on how a specific group needs to change, or on the transformation needed by all – to be renewed in the image of Christ, to grow in the virtues of faith, and in our love for God and one another?  What if we rallied together around the higher sense of holiness?

How might we place this debate under “master texts” meant to guide our interpretation of all scripture – text like the great summary of all the law and prophets, where we are called to love God and love neighbor. Another possible “master text” could be where Paul begs the church to live up to its calling, and to do so with all humility, patience, and kindness, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace (Eph 4:1-3).  How does this calling shape the debate before us?

Is it possible for us to be the church together with people having different opinions on this and allow pastors and congregations to serve in ways they deem appropriate, within the larger doctrine of the church?  Does God want us to divide into like-minded camps?  Can we truly practice love in that kind of environment?  Do different voices help us to grow in faithfulness and fruitfulness or hamper this growth?  What virtues are needed for us to be the body of Christ in the world?

And finally, since we are all called to transformation, from one degree of glory to glory, in the image of Christ, we all can ask: Where do I need to be transformed in order to reflect the heart of the gospel in this time and place?  I suspect the church, and thus the world, would be well served if we were all more focused on that.  Can people on each “side” find ways to respect the concerns and hopes of those on the other side? What would that look like for you?

Sources Include:

Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, (Abingdon Press, 2014)   (And other key resources)

Amy DeLong and Tex Sample, The Loyal Oppostion: Struggling with the Church on Homosexuality (Abingdon Press, 2000).

Bill Arnold, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World (Seedbed, 2014)

Jeffrey Siker, editor, Homosexuality and the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).  (Available for free at Google Books)

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Westminster /John Knox Press, 2004)

Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teachings of Paul, (Abingdon Press, 1985)

John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Public Domain)

Author: Michael Roberts

I am the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. I love this work! Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful children, all adults, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.min).

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