In the previous post, I looked at key scriptures used to inform our current debate over same-sex relationships in the church. As a part of that post, another question surfaced for me: Did John Wesley have anything to say about this? Are there any direct references in this in the Standard Sermons or Notes on the Scriptures (which are part of our doctrine)? I did discover help here – and shared some of that in the previous post. With the next few posts, I will focus in more detail on some key words and concepts. First, I will explore the use of the word “effeminacy.” In following posts, I will explore his understanding of sodomy, marriage/divorce/singleness, the “vilest abominations,” holiness, and we’ll see from there. First up – the “effeminate.”
On several occasions, Wesley uses the word “effeminate.” He is not above using this word in a culturally-conditioned derogatory way. He often combines this word with the word “soft” or “weak.” He talks, for example, about how great confusion comes from “weak and effeminate” rulers. He compares effeminacy in a man to arrogance in a woman. He speaks against wearing clothes that might “confound those sexes which God hath distinguished,” except if one needs to do this to “escape for one’s life.” In these passages, Wesley is mostly addressing men. He does not appear to have the same concern for women. While ahead of his time, he was still part of a radically paternalistic culture.
The most relevant passage for this topic is his commentary on I Corinthian 6:9. Here the Apostle Paul gives a list of sins. The word translated “effeminate,” by the King James and by Wesley, is one that has caused wide debate among biblical scholars, with little consensus across various languages. The word literally means “soft” and is used, even in scripture, to describe the weak, luxurious, or self-indulgent (See Matt 11:8, for example). In Wesley’s day, it might have been used as a euphemism for the “soft” or submissive partner in a same-sex relationship, as oppose to the aggressor or abuser (which is the next word). In this light, it has also been translated as “male prostitution.” (In the NRSV, for example). Many scholars, however, point to evidence (even in scripture) of it being used more broadly, beyond a sexual context.
In his commentary of this passage from First Corinthians, Wesley seems to have a particular type of person in mind. 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. That’s his assessment of this word in this context.
Looking beyond this usage, Wesley uses the same word to point to sin beyond sexuality. Frequently, he uses this word to speak of those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross.” He uses this word to denote spiritual softness or weakness. He calls us to be aware of our temptation “to sloth, indolence, love of ease, softness, delicacy; to hatred of self-denial, and taking up our cross.” Wesley’s default is to first call us to self-examination. He clearly sees this word in a broader context, calling all of us to look in the mirror.
In this analysis we are faced with a stereotypical view of women and men that does not match with our modern sensibilities. Wesley’s general attitude towards all thing s“effeminate” was colored by the times in which he lives. At the same time, there is evident for some struggle with these views, especially when it comes to women being able to provide ministry and even preach. For example, Wesley notices that women can exhibit “strong faith,” and he see this as evidence for the transforming power of Christ, enabling women to “overcome their natural fearfulness” and “great disadvantage, as having less courage than men.” This illustration would be offensive today, if it were not put in historical and cultural context.
At the same time, we must note the positive way in which Wesley uses the word “soft.” He was a strong advocate of “softness of the right kind” – softness that yields compassion, mercy, and kindness. He calls for a “softening of the heart” and for a “soft, yielding spirit.” In his commentary of the phrase “Love is kind,” he describes “kindness” with the word “soft.” He also says that peacemakers are those able to “quiet turbulent passions” and “soften the minds of contending parties.” This kind of softness is a sign of true religion, and we see this word used over and over again in this way.
In our current debate, I wonder what it would mean if we were more committed to “holy softness.” In a great line, Wesley reminds us that “Love (and only love) can soften and melt and pierce and break an adamantine heart.” I had to look up the word “adamantine.” It means to be adamant (duh)– inflexible, unyielding, rigid. In contrast to the negative use of the “effeminate,” we might use the word “masculine” here. What would our witness be if we spent less time on securing our place and power within “contending parties,” and more time being peacemakers in the most holy of senses? What if we focused first on giving witness to the softer virtues of patience, kindness, gentleness, bearing one another in love and being eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace? (Eph 4:1-3). In the midst of our disagreements, which we will always have, what if our first desire was to learn how to love one another better in the midst of community? Is this not at the very heart of Christian holiness? A strong case can be made for Wesley shouting “yes.”
Personally, I’m just not willing to throw in the towel and give up on the spiritual strength it would take for us to meet in the middle where true love is possible, where we could truly give witness to the kin-dom of God, where we could hold up the cross together. Anything other than this is weakness and softness that will never glorify God.
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