A Way Forward: Bible Study and Holy Conversation – Session 1

Last nway forwardight we started an eight-session gathering at the Well (our Wednesday Night Program) leading up to General Conference.  Here are my notes for session one, which was intended to set the tone and give an update on where we are at this point. The big goal for this process is clarity about who we are as a congregation, regardless of what happens in St. Louis…

I want to invite all of you into a vision.  In a very real sense I want you to envision this place in 100 years.  Picture our spiritual grandchildren (and some biological grandchildren) worshiping here and gathering here to grow in a relationship with a living Lord.  In 100 years from now they may come in flying cars, or beam in, or have mini interactive screens projecting from their eyes –who knows — but they will be here – and I believe will be worshiping in the Wesleyan tradition in some way.

What does that mean? What does it mean to envision a congregation worshiping here in the Wesleyan tradition in one hundred years? Here are a few summary statements:

  • It means that they will err towards grace over judgement.
  • They will be open to people who are different.
  • They will see that our primary task on this earth is to learn how to love more fully and grow in the virtues of patience, kindness, forgiveness, humility, generosity and gracefulness. In Wesleyan language, this is called Holiness.
  • They will hold fast to the core truths of the faith (as outlined in the creeds we say every week) and beyond that they will “think and let think.” (How many of you have heard that?)
  • They will see salvation as more than a decision about the future, but a present reality connecting us to eternity. (This is from Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons).

Can you envision this kind of congregation here in the future?  During these next few weeks, I want to invite you into this vision. And I will be bold to say that this is a calling from God.  I do want you to trust me on that, but not totally take my word for it. I don’t have the whole answer. We’ve got to figure that out together.  And, to do so, we must stay connected to God’s inspiration and guidance, in two essential ways – through the Holy Spirit and through the Scriptures. We need to plant this vision into the scriptures, prayer, and tradition of the church and see if this vision can grow from there.

With that hope, I’ll start with a passage that we will use to frame this whole conversation.  (On screen) The Apostle Paul says, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…” (Eph 4:1-6).  We will look at this text, and several others, as we journey together these next few weeks.  Tonight, I want to focus briefly on a couple of words. The first one is “beg.”  The Apostle Paul is doing more than “inviting” us into a vision.  Inviting is a bit soft. Paul is begging, urging, pleading with us to live into the calling of God upon our lives. And here is an important thing to note.  This calling is not rooted in doctrine or policies – these are important as resources and guides – but are not at the core of this calling– this is not about defending doctrine — at the core of our calling is to a particular way of behaving; it is about how we treat one another.  Paul begs us to give a particular kind of witness to the world in how we love one another.

There is one other word that I want to highlight tonight — Unity (as a preview).  The normative function of the Spirit is to lead us into unity – with synonym like reconciliation, community, and harmony. I suppose the Spirit could lead to division and divorce in some circumstances, but that would be very rare.  I don’t think we are that special – that we are above or beyond the calling to engage in the hard work of loving one another. Therefore, we can presume that the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this is to lead us into unity.  (We will see this through many passages).

And so, if we can start with this premise, then we need to understand what this unity is and is not.  Here are a few summary statements that will guide us:

  • Biblical unity is not defined by uniformity. These are not the same thing. In fact, a great case can be made that biblical unity is actually found in the opposite of uniformity.
  • Unity is found in the body of Christ with many and diverse parts, gifts, perspectives.
  • Unity is found in a community where virtues like patience, kindness, and humility are required. These virtues are not needed in a community where everyone is the same.
  • Unity is found in love that “never insists on its own way.” That is our challenge.

We are called to give witness to this kind of unity or community.   That has always been a part of who we are as United Methodist Christians.

With that I want to get to our purpose tonight and that is to give an overview and update on the Way Forward at the denominational level.  (Go to onechurchplan.org and show the Countdown to General Conference in February and talk a little about this) At this special called session of General Conference there will be 3 proposals that have come from the Bishops and the Way Forward Commission. The charge of this commission and to the bishops was to work towards unity and help us find a way forward together.  (We have given this background before and it is available). Tonight, I want to focus on an updated versions of the plans — and my impressions.

I will start with the plan that has gotten the least attention until this week when our Bishop came out with his call for us to give this plan a new look…

 The Connectional Conference Plan. 

(for details see the Bishop’s Reflections at arumc.org or the ARUMC Facebook page)

In brief, this plan does call us to unity in a higher way than our opinions on the issues at hand, while at the same time protects convictions around these issues.  Through a series of complicated legislative moves, this plan would create one church with three branches – progressive, traditional and unity, all around one issue — and conferences, congregations, and clergy could vote to align themselves with a particular branch. This plan would require the passing of multiple constitutional amendments (elaborate a bit).  For a few impressions that might fit with other plans as well, I personally don’t like the labels.  Such labels can imprison us and lock us out of our own growth.  I don’t want to be a part of a church where everyone is expected to think the same way.  That takes away possibilities for transformation, which comes, most often in my experience, when we are free to question and seek and be challenged by others.  Withdrawing into like-minded camps may be comfortable but it is not healthy for the Body of Christ. Then I ask, “what about the next issue?” Are we going to create more branches?   And finally, I must ask why this proposal is getting renewed attention at this point.  Many are speculating that three options make it harder for anything to pass.

The Traditional Plan

This plan is built around the firm conviction that the church cannot allow or bless any covenant relationship where sex might be involved that is not between a biological male and female.  In addition, no one can serve in ordained leadership who have relationships outside of this same arrangement. Within this plan, a person’s sexuality takes precedence over calling, gifts, faithfulness, character, and fruitfulness.  This plan not only keeps all restrictive language around homosexuality within the Book of Discipline, but it also strengthens ways to enforce all prohibitions that are currently there.  In its original form, this plan sets up a structure for the bishops to enforce these restrictions.  The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (a body like the Supreme Court) ruled that many parts of this plan were unconstitutional, including a section that said that bishops were never intended to be an “inquisitional court.”  With this ruling, the plan was modified to ask General Conference to form a separate body which would serve this function of policing and enforcing around this one issue.  This plan would possibility lead to an increase in church trials and hard decisions.  One way that this plan mitigates this possibility is by offering, what is called, a “gracious exit” for all who do not want to live by this strict standard and who believe that there are other ways to faithfully interpret scripture and live together as the Body of Christ.

The One Church Plan 

(See onechurchplan.org and my blog, connectedinchrist.net. I have written a lot on this and thus makes it hard to summary)

This plan removes language that calls the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teachings.  It does not, however, add any language that says it is compatible. In many places, it adds language to protect convictions and religious freedoms of all in various contexts and cultures.  No conference, congregation, or clergy would ever be compelled to act contrary to their convictions.  This plan defaults to a traditional understanding of marriage, while offering congregations the opportunity to change their wedding policies to allow for same-sex unions or marriage. This is the only time a vote would be needed within this plan.  In addition, a pastor could not perform (or offer the vows) for such a union at the church without this direct consent by the congregation.  (Even now, pastors can participate in such ceremonies short of leading the vows).  This plan would also allow boards of ordained ministry to develop their own evaluation systems for who they would ordain around issues of sexuality.  With that said, it is also important to note that this plan clearly upholds biblical values of monogamy, faithfulness, and relationships where people can truly grow in the love of God. The plan even strengthens a commitment to these values.  These values would be the primary criteria for evaluating candidates for ministry, while still allowing conferences to include the same restrictions that are currently in place if that was the will of the body.  This plan provides “a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.”  To explain this, I did write one piece where I called this the “Very Traditional One Church Plan.”

Another Option is that nothing passes.  This is a real possibility.  It is one of the reasons that I want to spend the next few weeks, not talking directly about General Conference and what might happen, but about who we are as a congregation regardless of what happens.  What do we represent?  How are we to live as a witness to the love of God?  How will we love one another and give witness to true unity in the midst of whatever happens or doesn’t happen?

Table Discussion:

We had around 70 in the room, gathering around tables.  We invited them to reflect together on this initial question: “what questions do you bring to this conversation, to become a part of our conversation the next few weeks?” Here are the questions reported back from the tables:

  • Are same-sex couples welcomed to be full participating members of our church? Depending on which plan is passed, would they feel welcomed? What can we do to encourage them to remain a part of the church?
  • What can pastors do, or not do, now? What freedom do you have now to marry or not marry couples?
  • What are the values we want to promote in covenant relationships and marriages? Monogamy, faithfulness, etc., or focus primarily on sexuality?  Are there different values for different people?
  • What happens to gay clergy who are in the closet? What about those who come out or already have in the hope of change?
  • Would the Conference be able to ordain a gay pastor?
  • If and when a vote happens at the church, with the youth get to participate in the vote?
  • How will we support one another post decision? If a majority likes the decision, how do we support the minority?  How do we stay Conway FUMC once a decision for one side or the other is made?
  • What are the financial implications? If we lose people, we lose money as well?
  • How do we draw more people into this conversation so that people aren’t just waiting for a decision to be made and then decision whether to stay or go?
  • How do any of these plans bring about unity? Why is unity important?
  • How can I “defend” my opinion, with good theological and biblical grounding, with family members who have a very different perspective?
  • What glorifies God? To hold true to traditional views?  To support marriages?  To turn people away who want to live in committed relationship that honor God and helps them to grow in God’s love? Does that glorify God?
  • What if nothing changes? Or what if we come together around a witness and nothing changes at General Conference?

Our Unified Witness and the Way Forward

IMG_4577Another popular argument against the One Church Plan involves the fact that different churches would have different policies on gay marriages or unions.  A pastor might have to say to a visitor that some churches have voted to change the default policy of the church (which according to the plan is the traditional view). The concern is that we would not have a unified witness as a denomination.

This argument would carry more weight for me if we were uniform in other ways.  I could go to the five United Methodist Churches in our city and would probably experience communion is five different ways. The liturgy and style of worship would be different.  Some would say a creed, for example, and in others some may have never heard a creed. Different versions of the bible would be read.  The Sunday School curriculum would be different – some of it not United Methodist.  And, there would be wide theological and political differences on many issues.

This does beg the question, “so how are we united?”  This is a question worthy of our coming to the table together.  At this table I suspect we would find much common ground in key doctrines. We could point, for example, to Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons where he outlines salvation by grace through faith.  Here we learn that salvation for us is more than a decision and more than a future reality for us; it is a present reality and involves our growing into all that God has created us to be. At this table, we would find unity in the word love, which is the concept Wesley used to point to a higher unity than any theological opinion.  We would find unity in our calling to “steer a middle course,” to use Wesley’s language, and to grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, and never in terms of judgement and self-righteousness. I do believe that we would be able to affirm a theological spirit that binds us together.  We would find our unity under the “canopy of cosmic grace” (to build upon a phrase from both John and Charles Wesley).

Perhaps this conversation with a hypothetical visitor would lead to an opportunity to share Wesley’s timely work, “The Character of a Methodist.”  Here Wesley repeats a theological position that he shares consistently, where he affirms core affirmations of faith such as our belief that Christ is the eternal love of God incarnate in the world, but beyond these core affirmations (“as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity”) “we think and let think.”  To paraphrase, “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not found in any theological opinion or style of worship or system of religion. All of this is ‘quite wide of the point.’”  Our unity is found in the love of God that fills our hearts (Romans 5:5) and in our desire to share this love with one another.

With this “character,” we accept people wherever they are on their faith-journey and believe that a variety of perspectives helps all of us to grow. We come together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to forgive, bless, and honor one another.  In this way we practice for our place as citizens of God’s expansive kingdom which is always bigger than our finite perspectives.  While we proclaim the core doctrines of the Christian faith as given to us through the scriptures and historic creeds, we are also willing to ask questions of interpretation, to struggle with difficult issues, and to engage one another with respect and compassion.  It is the kind of “character” and “unity” that this world needs.

In sum, our unity is beyond uniformity.  It is a harmonious unity.  As Paul exhorts, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14). By having churches with different programs, personalities, and perspectives we only expand our witness and extend God’s love to a world in need.  This kind of diversity can be seen as a great blessing.

Authority of Scripture, a Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward

pic- bible and communion“It’s really about the authority of scripture.” “Your interpretation undermines a high view of scripture.”  These talking points are at the core of many arguments around the Way Forward.  In light of this rhetoric, I want to think through the issue of hermeneutics (the system we use for interpreting the scriptures) and reflect upon how we might do this in a Wesleyan way. (It is a longer than usual post).

As Wesleyans, we must start by affirming that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation.   At the same time, Wesley makes it clear that some passages take “hold of our conscience” in a special way and serve as “master text” (my language) to help us interpret all revelatory claims, even those in scripture (See Sermon 91, “On Charity” and Sermon 132 “On Laying the Foundation”).  In his notes on the New Testament, Wesley gives us this rule – to interpret every doubtful scripture through the grand truths that run through the whole (Note on Roman 12:6). On several occasions he calls us to assess all scriptures through key passages built around the word “love,” starting with what Jesus calls the summary of it all — Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley also turns frequently to I Corinthians 13, calling the love defined here as the ““chief of all graces” and the “royal law.” This love is patient and kind and never insist on its own way.  In terms of hermeneutics, we are called to filter all scriptures through these and other passages that serve as lenses to provide clarity to the whole.  For you, what would some of the other key passages be?

In one hermeneutical approach that is often criticized, the suggestion has been made that we divide the scriptures into categories, with one category for passages that express the timeless values of God, another for passages that express culturally conditioned values, and a third for texts that do not fit with the will of God as we have come to know it through the lens of Christ. This framework can be helpful for discerning core truths and navigating difficult passages.  Nevertheless, with this method, it is tempting to simply throw out passages that do not fit with our sensibilities.  To provide some perspective, I would say that inspiration is found in the fact that our predecessors did not “clean up” the scriptures. They gave us the gift of struggling with all texts to help us discern how we might live faithfully and fruitfully in the context we are given. The method of interpreting through the lens of key passages is very helpful in this struggle.  We might call it a hermeneutic of struggle in community to discern God’s will for us in our time and place.

As Wesleyans, we honor the whole of scripture by noticing the context, exploring the history, understanding the words, and seeking God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We believe that the scriptures come to life as we engage them in relationship, using tradition, reason, and experience as resources. We seek common ground in key values that illuminate the whole beyond the sometimes culturally-conditioned realities — and here the list is long – slavery, women, children, diet, dress, war and peace, wealth and poverty, property, inclusion of others, the kind of leadership that is needed, and yes understandings of marriage and divorce, just to get started. When we apply one hermeneutical to an issue that might affect us and then draw a hard line on another issue for others, it perhaps says more about our own prejudices than it does about our desire to live faithfully and practice love.   Wesley consistently call is to self-examination rather than judgment.  This would be another hallmark of a Wesleyan hermeneutic.

When it comes to issues around covenant relationships, this method allows us to give priority to virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. Often, this level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice. This surface focus can actually foster justifications and excuses for more harmful and self-serving behaviors.

Through this hermeneutic, we avoid “proof-texting,” or the picking of verses to prove an opinion.  And yet this practice continues.  When opinions run strong, it is tempting to select certain texts while ignoring others. Doing this, however, is not unlike the use of the “slippery slope” fallacy (as challenged in a previous post) where negative consequences are assumed while ignoring other possibilities.  Here we can add another official fallacy – the fallacy of misusing an authoritative source to affirm one interpretation on one issue without acknowledging other possibilities. A faithful way forward cannot be built on such sand.

And now a drum roll please.  The most important dimension of a Wesleyan hermeneutic is our trust that the Holy Spirit is at work…and that God is big enough to work uniquely with all of us through our incarnate realities of cultural circumstances, personalities, gifts, interests, and identities this side of heaven.  In God we trust! We do not have to judge.  Our job is to learn how to love one another. This is the way we participate in making the path straight for “all flesh to see the salvation of God.”

Examples from Wesley to support this understanding could fill volumes.  For one example, in his sermon on “The Witness of the Spirit,” 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, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  The truths of scripture are actually hidden, rather than revealed, when we use the Word to prove something to others and thus cause division.  Wesley likened this to the “worst kind of enthusiasm,” 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.  Scriptures come to life when we engage them together and “steer a middle course.”   As Wesleyans, the witness of the Spirit is revealed when we come together to practice faith and grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.” 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.

Through this hermeneutical lens, I have written a series on Scripture, Wesley and the Way Forward. After an overview (found in Feb of 2018), I dealt with Wesley’s teaching on effeminacy, sodomy, marriage, divorce, and more. Believe me, it is not all one-sided. Room is given for more than one interpretation.  In my opinion, to use the argument that there is only one perspective on the issues before us actually belittles a high view of the authority of scripture. It makes it more about power over others. It might make a good sound bite, but it does not honor the high calling that we have been given to be the Body of Christ in the world.

The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (A part of the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It is interesting to me that divorce figures so prominently in our debate on the way forward.  In our Annual Conference, for example, one pastor wrote a beautiful reflection on how his own divorce led to a change of heart. This sparked a defense of divorce by others, arguing that we have permission to be gracious to the divorced and remarried, but there is no biblical justification to extend this same permission for same-sex unions, for one example.

It is true that our statement on divorce in the Book of Discipline is redemptive and gracious. In my mind, this makes it very relevant to our current debate. In this statement, divorce is described as a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.”  Implied is the need to address the “brokenness” before we embrace the “alternative.”  If we do not engage the “regrettable,” in “grief over the devastating consequences,” we are likely to become indifferent to both divorce and remarriage. We will come to see it as an “acceptable” alternative. We will minimize the devastation and block out the pain. I have seen this happen among us. Even pastoral leaders can be divorced and remarried multiple times and it is a non-issue among us – at least in public discussions.

I wonder if our indifference to divorce and remarriage plays a role in the permission some feel to call for divorce or schism in the church.  It is even argued that we might be able to love one another better if we would go our separate ways. Perhaps this alternative, and our impatience with difference perspectives among us, will glorify God. That seems to be the claim.

In this call for divorce or schism, we also hear a lot of blaming. It is so tempting to project the cause of brokenness onto others. I love the way Wesley so eloquently described the extent of our brokenness in his sermon, “The Mystery of Iniquity.”  Building upon the Apostle Paul he says, “No one is righteous, not one.” And in this same sermon he says that the “grand objection of the infidels against Christianity” is how Christians themselves live and claim their own righteousness.  Not acknowledging our own brokenness contributes so much to the brokenness in the world.   For Wesley, in this sermon, our first calling is to watch and pray.  It is not to defend God and try to fix others on our terms.  It is God alone who transforms, and we all need to be more focused on our own need for transformation than we do on others.  In this sermon, Wesley gives this beautiful vision of a God who “will arise and maintain his own cause and the whole creation shall then be delivered from both moral and natural corruption. Sin shall be no more.  Holiness and happiness will cover creation, and the whole race of humankind shall know, love, and serve God, and reign with God forever and ever!” This is what is in store for us! What if we all did more confessing of our own brokenness, rather than trying to fix others, and together put our trust in God to bring this vision to fruition for all – even in ways beyond our human understanding?  That would lead to much healing.

From a biblical and wesleyan perspective, marriage itself is an acknowledgment of brokenness.  It is a part of our collective brokenness. In heaven, when all brokenness is healed, marriage will not be needed.  Marriage, as we have seen in the series, is an institution meant to bring healing.  Its primary purpose, beyond reproduction, is to help us grow in the virtues of holiness – humility, patience, kindness, and love. What if we found a way to honor all who want to make commitments, practice faithfulness, and bear the fruit if this holiness? What if we all were so focused on our own need of healing that we really didn’t have much time to point our finger at others. What if, instead, we worked at finding ways to honor one another?

In a culture of divorce and division, schism and polarization, why would we accommodate to this culture?  Are we not called to give witness to a higher vision? Is it not worth seeking the “mediation” called for in the BOD’s statement on divorce and to pour our energy into how we might stay united in love? I wonder.

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.