The Foundation of Methodism (A timely paraphrase of Wesley’s sermon “On Laying the Foundation”

IMG_1851 (2)_LIHere is a paraphrase of the sermon John Wesley preached as the foundation was laid for a new chapel in London in 1778. It gives a powerful and timely summary of what methodism is all about. I visited Wesley Chapel in London last week and was moved, once again, by John Wesley’s consistent call to a higher unity within the church. Often the church has fallen short of this calling, but Wesley never gave up on the vision.  What might we learn from this commitment?

Number 23:23 –  “See what God has done!”

At the risk of appearing ostentatious or being called an enthusiast who confuses the Holy Spirit with their own ego, I want to give an account of the rise of Methodism from my personal perspective.

I start 1725, when a young student at Oxford was very much affected by Kempis’s “Christian Pattern,” and Bishop Taylor’s “Rules of Holy Living and Dying.” He was inspired to live by these rules and let them guide him. In time, others joined in this desire. Together we read scripture, prayed, and provoked one another to engage in good works. On this journey, we were orthodox in every way, firmly committed to the creeds and to the doctrines of the Church, as contained in the Articles and Homilies. The regularity of our gatherings led others to call us names. “Methodist” was at the top of the list.  It was an allusion to physicians who once flourished in Rome and, for us, was used as a term of derision and ridicule. In time, we embraced the term. But in the moment, we have no conception that this would become a movement.

The next key turn came in 1735 when my brother Charles, Mr. Ingham, and I were led to travel to the new colony of Georgia. Our purpose was to preach to the natives, but we found ourselves primarily attending to the spiritual needs of colonists in Savannah and modeling methodism for them.  While there, I was totally committed to the Church and to orthodoxy.  I even turned away a Lutheran pastor because he was not “episcopally ordained” and called on him to be “re-baptized” into the true church. Thankfully I have been delivered from this misguided zeal, where people are turned away from God so that we can feel good about our own faithfulness.

I returned to England in 1738, content to study in Oxford and bury myself in “beloved obscurity.”  But then God awakened my soul.  Along with others, I began to preach what some called an “unfashionable doctrine.” And yet, people came! Many were “cut to the heart.” Some came to me in tears inquiring what was needed to be saved.  I asked them to meet with me, and, without plan or design, the Methodist society was born. These societies, as renewal groups within the church, became places where people could help one another “work out their own salvation.”

That’s how Methodism began. But what is this movement about? What is methodism? We need to be continually reminded. Methodism is not a new religion. In fact, at its heart, it is nothing other than the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Bible, and, I am confident, the religion of the Church of England.  It is the true religion rooted in love – the love that first comes to us from God, and so fills our hearts that we are then empowered to love others.

This love is the great medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world.  Wherever this love reigns, virtue and true happiness come; there is humility, gentleness, patience, peace beyond human understanding, and joy unspeakable. This is the religion of the Bible, as no one can deny who reads it with any attention.  Jesus declares this love to be the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. It is at the heart of all we call “true religion.”

And yes, this love is at the heart of our Church. It is found in the liturgies and homilies. It is found in our prayers, so beautifully summed up in that one comprehensive petition that is said so often: “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, O God, and worthily magnify your holy name.” As long as we hold to this love we can faithfully address all extraneous issues and varying perspectives within the larger church. Our diversity of perspectives keeps us humble and trusting in the real presence of the Holy Spirit to sort it all out. This sorting is not our work, but God’s work. In God’s love there is room for all, and together, and only together, are we able to practice the virtues of true holiness and grow in the grace of true religion.

In our beloved Church, many have been called, in this time, to preach repentance to sinners. Thousands have come to hear this word.   Many have been deeply convinced of their sins, their evil tempers, their inability to help themselves, and of the ineffectiveness of their outward religious practices. The love of God has filled their hearts and they have been led to love others with this same holy love.  God has called us to give witness to this work. May nothing else distract us.

This love that we preach must be free from enthusiasm – that zeal for our own opinions about things beyond the core of faith. Often in renewal movements, this misguided zeal finds its way into the body.  May this not happen among us. We do not put our stress on anything, as necessary for salvation, other than what is plainly contained in the word of God.  And of all things contained within the scriptures, we assess them in relationship to what Jesus calls the sum of it all – love of God and of our neighbor as a part of ourselves. (This is the chief among the “master-texts” by which we evaluate all revelatory claims, even those in scripture).

Likewise, this love must be free of bigotry. We refrain from all party zeal where our own opinions and allegiances to particular branches within the church cloud the call to unity and to bearing one another in love. We contend for nothing circumstantial as if it were essential to a relationship with God.  We do not seek to build “our” church by relying on violence and division.  We rely on no method other than reason and persuasion, while giving witness to the virtues of holiness – patience, kindness, and humility – and believing that the Holy Spirit really is at work.

No doubt, there have been other revivals that have led to division and polarization in the church. We have seen this among the Presbyterians, the Independents, the Anabaptists, and the Quakers. And after this separation they did little good except to their own little body. Bigotry grew between parties. And as a result of this lack of a higher sense of unity, the hope of general reform suffered.

And yes, there have been Methodist (so-called) who have gone this way as well, with Whitefield and Ingham among them. But, I want to be clear, this move toward division is a move away from the vision of methodism. When true to our calling, we will never form a separate sect but, in principle, always stay connected together within the Church.  When societies leave the church, our observation is that they swiftly crumble into nothing, having been uprooted from the good soil and nourishment of the larger community and from being a part of something bigger than themselves and their opinions about what is right. When we are planted in this rich soil of the larger faith, we are then able to bear good fruit – fruit that will last.

Therefore, whoever you are, I invite you to examine your own heart before God, rather than to occupy your time in judging others. Are you rooted in the love of God? Does your heart glow with gratitude to the God who loves you and gave his Son so that you “might not perish but have eternal life?” Are you bearing the fruit of this love? If so, then let us come together and magnify the Lord by establishing peace and good-will among us.   IF YOUR HEART IS AS MY HEART, GIVE ME YOUR HAND. Let us unite together in our desire for the restoration of the image of God in every soul.  Let us all give ourselves, not to contention, but to love and to good works; always remembering those deep words, (as God engraves them on our hearts!) “God is love; and those who dwell in love, dwell in God, and God in them.”  Amen.

Michael Roberts

 

More On Marriage (an addendum in the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576From the previous post on marriage, divorce, and singleness, my radar has been up, and I have noticed some things. First, I noticed an AT&T commercial targeting people “moving out of the friend-zone and moving in together.”  Right after this, I saw an ad for Chevrolet touting an SUV to help couples “move in together.”   I am sure the marketers did their research and chose these words carefully.  The word marriage was not used.

The institution of marriage has evolved and changed for centuries.  We see this in the bible as well. The Declaration of Intention in our liturgy, for example, is rooted in a time when most marriages where arranged.  Likewise, we no longer use the word “obey.” It has not been long since women were seen as subjects of their husbands.  Now, it seems that many have no use for the institution at all. People are waiting longer to get married. Traditional ceremonies no longer make sense to many.  I’ve talked to young-adults who are hesitant to get married in a church believing that some of their friends would not be welcomed (at least that’s the perception). They don’t want to get married in the church because they care about others and love them.  That is interesting to me.

All of this leads me back to the purpose of marriage as outlined by Wesley.  Beyond “repairing the species,” as he called it, the purpose of marriage is to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. That’s what make marriage good for individuals and for society as a whole.  It “tempers” us.

Most assuredly, in our current debate, the church cannot adopt an “anything goes” position.  The One-Church option has been depicted in this way, but it is not fair in my opinion. Rather, this plan provides the opportunity for us to come to the table together and work to establish a strong sexual ethic for all — rooted in monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when personal sacrifice is required, and a desire to grow in the virtues of holiness.  Such a conversation would require the humility to say we don’t fully understand sexual identity, but we can agree on the values and practices needed for faithfulness and fruitfulness.

Listen to the culture around us.  It is marked by division, divorce, polarization, building up by putting down, claiming our own righteousness, seeking the easy way, and “moving in together” without any steadfast commitments.  Why are we accommodating to the culture?  Are we not called to a higher unity rooted in humility, faithfulness, kindness, commitment, and love?

We can do better.  I invite you to bring people together and have this discussion.  Can we develop a strong sexual ethic for all?  What would be on your list of virtues needed?  If we are truly seeking a way forward, it seems to me that this would be a conversation worth having.

Next up – The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (an addendum in the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

Wesley on Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness (Part four in a series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576The term “human sexuality” is often used to characterize the debate before us.  This strikes me as a bit disingenuous.  It seems that we are so focused on one dimension of human sexuality, that we actually neglect our calling to be pastoral and prophetic in many dimensions of human sexuality — marriage, divorce, singleness, equality, roles, expectations, abuse, exploitation, and words in the lists in scripture like fornication and adultery.  I want to explore Wesley’s guidance on some of these issues as they relate to our big debate — specifically looking at the purpose of marriage, the reasons for prohibitions on divorce, and the call to singleness.

First marriage.  What is the purpose of marriage?  In Wesley’s commentary on the scriptures, he gives two purposes.  In the context of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 20, Wesley speaks of the need for marriage because we are subject to “the law of mortality,” and “the species is in need of continuous repair.”  Thus, the first purpose of marriage is reproduction or the “repairing” of the species.

The second reason for marriage is found in Wesley’s commentary on I Thess 4:4, and moves us to think about social and spiritual “repairing.”  Wesley says, “marriage is not designed to inflame, but to conquer, natural desires.”  Marriage is given to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. To bear these fruits, much attention and intentionality is needed.

While Wesley does not comment on it, there is another reason for marriage in the scriptures. The Apostle Paul says that we should marry if we cannot control ourselves. He says that it is better to marry than to “burn with lust” (I Cor 7:8-9).   Being consumed with passion, where we begin to see others as objects for our pleasure, is not good for the soul or society. (A biblical word for this is “pornia,” usually translated as “fornication.” Wesley uses this term in a much broader, and more inclusive, way than we see elsewhere).

These “reasons” call for several thoughtful and serious questions. How is marriage good for souls and for society as a whole?  Is it possible that other types of unions, beyond traditional views of marriage, could foster true holiness as described by Wesley?  What if the church promoted a strong ethic of monogamy, commitment, faithfulness, and intentional growth in the virtues of faith for all?  Given the moral choice, is it better to be in a relationship where this is possible, or to be told that “burning in lust” is the only option from the church?  Is it possible to reserve the term marriage for traditional purposes, and to still bless other kinds of unions?

What about divorce?  Relying on scripture, Wesley holds the church to a high standard, and “ministers” to a higher standard.  He makes it clear that the prohibitions apply equally to women and to men and speaks against the law that allowed men to write a divorce decree “on any trifling occasion.”  He speaks strongly against the notion of “putting away” a wife to pursuit other desires.  He makes no exceptions accept for adultery.  He speaks of marriage as one man and one woman, and the two becoming “one flesh.” Every time this is mentioned, Wesley makes the connection with the church’s stance against polygamy and divorce.  Such unions of commitment and faithfulness help society guard against these two ills.  From Wesley’s perspective, that is the value behind promoting strong commitment.

As a pastor, I must acknowledge that I have supported many people through divorces.  I have sought the grace to discern circumstances in individual cases, to offer forgiveness, and to affirm the possiblity for new beginnings. I have also tried to be responsive to the fact that divorce often leaves others hurt and broken. My experience is that it is never one sided.  With that said, I feel that the church has become lax on this issue.  There is little stigma.  Even pastors can be divorced and remarried multiple times, with no explanation needed, and continue to serve in leadership.  Often, we even celebrate it.

If we err on the side of grace in divorce, it begs the question:  Could we give this same grace to others seeking to live in faithful, covenant relationships and to grow in God’s love? Why would we withhold that from them and turn them away from the church?

Singleness? In the scriptures singleness is seen as a gift given from God.  With this understanding, the question becomes: can singleness then be imposed on people as an expectation of the church?  Wesley provides some commentary on Matthew 19:12 where, in the context of teaching on marriage, Jesus speaks of eunuchs who choose singleness.  Jesus says that some eunuchs are made this way, some are born this way, and some choose this way. Wesley points out that it is not for everyone, but “only for those few who are able to receive the gift.”  In his commentary on I Cor 7:7 he joins with Paul in wishing that all unmarried “men” would “remain eunuchs for the kingdom,” but acknowledges that all are not gifted in this way.  Throughout history the word “eunuch” has been used as a euphemism for those we might call “gay” today.  Wesley hints at this himself in his commentary on Acts 10:27 and Daniel 1:3 by telling us that we cannot always take the term “eunuch” literally.  There was a time when eunuchs – understood literally or as a euphemism – were put into the same category as gentiles and foreigners.  They were not admitted to worship or into the congregation.  In the New Testament we see this barrier broken.  It begs the question, are there any implications of this issue for our current debate?

Do these understanding of marriage, divorce, and singleness inform our current debate? One way to make some connection is to note the progression in the scriptures towards a more restrictive view of sexuality, especially in matters of monogamy, divorce, and abuse.  This progression comes out of a growing need to protect women and children and provide a secure environment for them.  Is it possible for us to apply this principle to the debate before us? Could we promote a healthy sexual ethic that applies to all, rather than expecting some to live by a higher standard while becoming more lax with others – with divorce for example?  Could we move towards acceptance of people, while at the same time, promote a more restrictive sexual ethic -promoting monogamy, commitment, and faithfulness, with lots of forgiveness and grace as well?  Could that be a part of our way forward?

Wesley and the Sin of Sodom (Part Three in the Series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576In this series, the next word from Wesley is “sodomy.”  Wesley uses this word in several places. While we often associate this word with sexual sin, and even homosexual practice, Wesley takes a much broader and more biblical view.  In Wesley’s commentary, he uses this word to describe abusive and harmful actions against others.  Wesley also uses the word “assault” to describe this sin.  At another point, Wesley expands the meaning by highlighting what is said about the sin of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:49.  In Wesley’s notes, he 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 were the source of Sodom’s fall. That’s straight from the Bible!   In another place, Israel is compared to Sodom for their wickedness. This wickedness is defined as failure to seek justice for the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow (Note on Isaiah 1:9-17).  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).   This broad and biblical view of the word gives us all cause to look in the mirror rather than project sin onto others.

In the list of sins found in I Corinthians 6, the original Greek word in question is “arsenkoitos.”  It is translated as “sodomy” by Wesley. (We also see this in the NRSV). There are no known previous usages of this word, so it is assumed by many that Paul coined the term.  The word is a combination of two words meaning “male” and “bed,” probably used with sexual overtones. Since there is no literary context for this word, it has been translated and interpreted in many ways. It has been used for men who use others as prostitutes or who use their strength (masculinity) to exploit others. It has also been defined as masturbation, pervert, abusers of boy or children, and with general words like “abominations.”  In the last century it has been translated with the word “homosexual,” thus associating this word with behaviors listed above. With this association, it is understandable why the word “homosexual” has become offensive to many, and is no longer used as a description of one’s identity.  By associating this term with abusive and exploitive behavior, it is “incompatible” with Christian teachings.

In more recent years some translations have combined this word with the previous word to describe the passive and active male (not female) partners in a same-sex relationship.  This move is problematic in many ways.  It veers from the original meaning of the words. It covers up the biblical and historical precedence for using this word to describe abusive and harmful behavior. It also removes the possibility of such a relationship being moral and life-giving. It makes it possible to use this passage against Christians seeking to live faithfully and to grow in the virtues of Christ through their relationship, perhaps with more commitment than those making the accusations. Is this biblical? Is it right? Is our judgment, and the call to accountability, in the proper place?

In any responsible reading of scripture, this word cannot be used to project sin only on to others or seen only in terms of sexuality.  Wesley would not approve.  When confronted with lists like in I Corinthians 6, the first calling is to self-examination. This list, for example, includes “fornicators.” Wesley uses this word to cover “every kind of [sexual] uncleaniness” and the harm that comes from it. The Greek word is “pornia.” It is sex when another is objectified or used, or when one allows themselves to be objectified or used, thus causing harm. I wonder if this would not be a better cause for us. This list also includes “drunkards.” At one point, Wesley speaks of being “drunk with the blood of the saints” believing we can judge others. The list is long, but the point is clear.  When we are “washed” and “sanctified” in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God, we behave differently.  We learn to live in love.

To avoid the labeling that makes it so easy for us to project sin onto others, I like the paraphrase of these verses found in “The Message.” It reads, “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.”  Praise be to God.

Wesley and the Effeminate (Part two in a Series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576In 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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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)