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)

Middle Way Behavior (The Wesleyan Way)

A Mempic- trinity 3e put out by the Wesleyan Covenant Association says, “We actually believe what the UMC says it BELIEVES…and how THAT MAKES us anything but the CENTER, I have no idea.”

It’s a nice soundbite and rings true at a basic level.  If being in the center is equated with being in the majority of the global church, then this is a valid claim. – at least at this time and on specific issues.  Likewise, if being in the center is about beliefs, then this statement is accurate as well.  From this perspective, to be in the center is to affirm the official position on any given issue, and by implication, to also be right.

In the light of this claim, it is important that we, as Wesleyans, acknowledge another perspective on what it means to be in the center.  John Wesley calls us to the middle way.  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs.  He is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, Methodists are to BEHAVE in the middle.  We do so because our faith is not centered in doctrines or opinions, but in a relationship with a Living Lord, and in virtues that promote life-giving relationships in the world.  This is not to imply that doctrines and opinions are unimportant, but only that they are resources to support the larger purpose.  To confuse means with ends can easily lead to a betrayal of the Body as a whole.  It is a first step to dividing the body into “us” and “them,” in support of sides or causes.

One important example of this calling to behave in the middle is found in Wesley’s sermon, “The Witness of the Spirit.”  Here Wesley defines the middle way in opposition to both extremism and enthusiasm.  He is concerned about the temptation to mistake our own imaginations for the witness of the Spirit, and thus to become “the worst kind of enthusiasts,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.   When one is “drunk from [this] spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.

Continuing this thought, Wesley turns to the other extreme where “reasonable people,” who “see the dreadful effects of this delusion,” assert that “the witness of the Spirit” must have only belonged to the apostolic age and that the Spirit does not move among us in the same way.  At this extreme, people are weary of any claim of God’s direct guidance. Here, faith runs the risk of drying up into an intellectual exercise or becoming little more than a resource to help us feel good about ourselves.

In seeing the harm done by these extremes, Wesley asks: “May we not steer a middle course?  Can we not distance ourselves from the extremes of error and enthusiasm without denying the gift of God and giving up the great privilege of being God’s children?”  He is convinced that we can steer this middle way.

To do so, we must see ourselves as people who BEHAVE in the middle.  As Wesleyans, the evidence of the Spirit is not found in our enthusiastic defense of our way as God way, but rather in the opposite; the Spirit is revealed in the “holy tempers” of humility, gentleness, patience, temperance, and “kindly affection for all.”  The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

In a culture that seems to thrive on extremes and divisiveness, on winning and pitting ourselves against one another, what would it look like if we could “steer a middle course?” What if this was the focus of our conversation? Would this not be much more in line with the witness of the Spirit?  For one more quote from this sermon, this witness just might save us all from “the pain of proud wrath.”

RIGHTEOUSNESS AS THE WAY FORWARD (A Word from Wesley)

img_0502-1 The bishops’ commission has been named and people are talking.  I’ve read a few comments about the liberals and/or the conservatives on the list, as well as many prayers. My prayer is that this commission, and all of us, will be able to rise above the contention, and truly witness to Christ’s love for all. As you may know, I’ve been engaged in this project of reading Wesley to re-hear what he has to say about matters before us.  There is so much!  I would say that his use of the word “righteousness” is among the most relevant words for us today.

In his sermon “The Lord Our Righteousness,” Wesley starts by grieving the dreadful contests that arise among the body of Christ. He is disheartened by the way we can turn our “weapons against each other.”  For Wesley, the primary cause is attachment to opinions and modes of faith-expression which leads us to lose sight of our common faith and our common cause.

So, the question becomes, how do we rise above the evil fray? – and yes, Wesley does call it evil.  A glimpse of true righteousness helps.  In a long and involved exposition, Wesley says that true righteousness is found in the One who is the image of God for us.  In Christ, we see a reflection of who we are called to be.  At the heart of true righteousness is “love,” a word more fully illuminated by the virtues of reverence, humility, patience, and gentleness.   This understanding of righteousness stands in sharp contrast to the more common definition of justifying our positions as right over and against others.  True righteousness is rooted in peace rather than war.

In several other places, Wesley cautions us against those who are overly enthusiastic for their positions and are “righteous over much.”  Anytime we put our trust in ourselves and magnify our own ways as “right” for everyone, then we block the light of Christ’s righteousness rather than reflect it.  May this not happen to those commissioned to lead us forward.

In this sermon on true righteousness, Wesley stews over the broad diversity within the church of his day, focusing on differing denominational confessions and practices.  In the midst of much contention, he truly sees this diversity as an opportunity to give witness to Christ and to grow, if not in agreement, certainly in love. With great optimism, Wesley believes that it is possible for us to “take off the filthy rags” of our own righteousness and put on Christ, where we partake of the “same precious faith” even as we celebrate our diverse expressions of this faith.  I wonder, are we up for this kind of courageous witness?

Wesley also quotes “Mr. Hervey,” with words “worthy to be written in letters of gold:” “We are not solicitous as to any particular set of phrases. Only let [us all] be humbled as repenting criminals at Christ’s feet, let [us] rely as devoted pensioners on his merits…” Meeting on the common ground of Christ’s merits, and with the call to love by the virtues of true righteousness, there is no room for “contention about this or that particular phrase,” according to Wesley, or condemning others as “Antinomians” or law/covenant breakers.  There is no place for divisive or destructive “wrangling” over opinions and expressions of faith – not as we stand together as “repenting criminals at Christ’s feet.”  To count ourselves among such “contending parties,” says Wesley, is to be “an enemy of peace, and a troubler of Israel, and a disturber of the Church of God.”

In our current contention, there is much labeling of self and others, often in flowery and soft spoken attacks. There is so much “us-them” language, and talk of “winning” and “defeating.”  Is it possible for us to rise above the fray? The answer is, “Yes!”  We can “join hearts and hands in service to our great Master,” even as we “think and let think” on matters of opinion and practice. We can stand together as “repenting criminals” on the common ground of Christ’s righteousness, rather than our own, and we can truly grow in Christ’s love. I can’t help but believe that this is our time to embrace this identity and give such a witness to the world.

Patience As the Way Forward

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“We’ve been patient long enough.”  “It is time to make a decision.”  These statements echo through our denomination.  Yet, into this kind of environment, John Wesley lifts up the word “patience.”  If we are to truly find a way forward, it may be very important that we let this virtue get through to our anxious hearts.

Wesley makes it clear that patience is so more than “waiting.”  It is certainly more than fear-ridden fretfulness, where we bury our heads in the sand, hoping a problem will go away.  Patience is a “gracious temper,” a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience holds the “middle way,” he says, staying in between the extremes. Even as we advocate for opinions and positions, Christians behave in the middle, staying connected to all with respect, humility, and compassion.  Standing on the solid rock of God’s love, we avoid “impatience with contradictions,” to use a phrase from Wesley.  We honor diversity of opinion as those who see in a “mirror dimly.”  We listen and learn. We embrace our differences as opportunity to learn how to love more fully and truly glorify God.  In this way Wesley characterizes patience as the “manifestation of the perfect love of God.”  That’s how important this virtue is. It is our witness to the world.

And now for the deep theological reason for placing patience at the heart of how we engage one another – instantaneous entire sanctification!  It’s not a phrase we hear every day, but it was key for Wesley.

Why be patient with ourselves and others? Because we are new creations in Christ.  From the moment our hearts were first opened to the saving love of Christ, a transformation happened and is happening.  Deep within, we have already been transformed “from inward sinfulness to inward holiness.”  Deep within, our “pride and haughtiness” have been transformed into virtue of true holiness – “calmness, meekness, and gentleness.”  With deep theological insight, Wesley warns against undervaluing what happens in justification.  Justification is so much more than a forensic pardon or act of blind grace — as in “oh yeah, you’re forgiven or “You have a ticket to heaven” — but with no real expectation of change.  In Christ, we are sanctified! And yet, from our vantage point, this sanctification comes in degrees, much like the growth of a child into maturity.  The key insight for Wesley is that we grow “into” this sanctification, not “towards” it. Our life becomes a journey of living into our new identity as “born again” children of God.

And so, we can truly be patient, with ourselves and others, because of what God has already done and will do.   We honor that! With holy patience, we learn to “not be angry at those who differ from [our] opinion, nor entertain hard thoughts concerning them.” We can give thanks for the way God is working in them, even if it is different from our desired timeframe or perspective. Our focus is ONLY this:  to see that this transformation “is wrought in our own soul, if we desire to dwell with God in glory.”

Wesley builds his sermon “On Patience” upon the words, “Count it as a joy knowing that the trails of your faith teach patience.”  (James 1:4). He points out that we are not saved from temptation.  In fact, we can count temptation as a gift. God works through patience to bring us to maturity in faith, where we learn that we cannot return evil for evil, barrier for barrier, or attempts to divide with more division.  In Christ, we find ways to bless even in the midst of such tension.

Impatience with others, or with the church, is a sure sign that we are off track in our journey. It is possibly a sign that we have reverted back to spiritual childhood, often accompanied with spiritual temper tantrums. We must be patient with even this, yet when we are in this state it is probably wise of the church to not give us a gavel.

The Wide Narrow Way (A Wesleyan Perspective)

phonto-1How’s this for a timely thought from John Wesley? Wesley calls us to purify our hearts from “all party-zeal,” from “prejudice, bigotry, narrowness of spirit; from impetuosity, and impatience of contradiction…” (Sermon: National Sins and Miseries).  I want to explore a few of these conditions.

Party zeal! Wesley speaks often of the problems caused by zealousness for the “part” rather than the whole within the body of Christ.  In contrast, he calls is to be peacemakers, willing to step “over all these narrow bounds” with a love that is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way. Sometimes, “party-zeal” leads us into the trap of too hastily judging others, based on our “opinions,” while seeing little need to be patience with ourselves because we are already models of true faithfulness – at least in our own eyes.

Impatience with contradiction!  As finite beings, our relationships are rarely neat and uniform, free of differences or paradox. Within the church there is so much diversity among those seeking to be faithful in the midst of such varied circumstances.  This diversity is the context in which we learn how to love, and thus be the church. Impatience with contradictions betrays the call to this holy and humble love.

Narrowness of spirit!  Our orthodox faith, built upon the doctrine of the trinity, is meant to expand our understanding of God and actually keep us from narrow agendas.  In reality, however, the opposite can happen.  A focus on “right belief” and “right opinion” can lead to a narrowing of our capacity to love. The way out of this temptation is to focus on “holy virtues” over “right opinions,” and on people more than positions. With this focus, we are able to glorify God rather than just call attention to ourselves.

The Narrow Way! The way into God’s kingdom is by the narrow gate.  As Wesley makes clear, the wide and easy way is the way of division, contention, power, and judgment. That’s the way of the world.  The true narrow way is the way of “poverty of spirit” — recognizing that we all lack the means to achieve what we really want.  Into our poverty, Christ comes with the indescribable riches of God’s grace, with light to overcome all forms of darkness. In this same vein, the narrow way is the way of “holy mourning, of meekness, of mercy.” These are the virtues by which we connect to others and, together, show the way of God.  The narrow way is the way of “ordering conversations aright,” and thus working for unity of spirit always in the bond of peace. Along this way, we discover the wideness of God’s mercy and grace.

At one point, Wesley says that he would rather listen to a “generous heathen” than a “poor narrow-souled Christian.” As a hindrance to the health of the Body, Wesley also speaks of the “enthusiasm of weak and narrow souls,” who are “always righteous over much.” (See Sermon: The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption).   We might conclude that narrow souls follow the wide way of the world — allowing party zeal, impatience, judgment, bigotry and bitterness to “disease” the whole body.  Souls that are wide in love follow the narrow way, the “road less travelled.”  And make no mistake, this narrow way is hard, for it requires us to give up our righteousness and to risk the wrath of those bound by fear.  Following this way can only be done by a deep trust in God.

Through this narrow gate, Wesley pushes us even farther.  We may strive to enter by the narrow way and still build a barrier to the holy love that God desires for us. The deepest places in our hearts may still be wide open to the ways of the world.  This is one reason why, for Wesleyans, the “road less traveled” always calls for deep and constant self-examination more than a focus on others. There is always spiritual work to be done within ourselves as we enter into the fields of God’s abundant love.  (See Sermon: Upon the Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 11).  That’s the Wesleyan way!

(Up Next: Patience as a Way Forward)