By Cynthia B. Astle, OSL
I feel that I must begin my part in this series with a confession: When it comes to yet another conversation on the Church’s relationship with LGBTQ people, I’m about as jaded as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. On this issue, for me at least, it seems “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
You see, I’ve been reporting on the Church’s relationship with LGBTQ people for more than 25 years. I’ve heard all the biblical arguments. I’ve seen the demonstrations at each General Conference of my own United Methodist Church since 1988. What’s more, I sat through nearly three years of meetings with the United Methodist Committee to Study Homosexuality from 1989 to 1992, and read more than once the report that resulted from those meetings.
Despite all that effort on the part of many people, virtually nothing has changed in my denomination. United Methodism’s 2012 General Conference, its global lawmaking body, reaffirmed a 40-year-old stance that holds homosexual practice to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It even rejected a reasonable compromise that would have acknowledged that the church now has a divided mind on the subject, with many more Christians finding committed, covenantal same-sex unions to be acceptable within the spectrum of human sexuality.
The “Christian teaching” on which this stance is based hinges primarily on two passages of scripture: Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27. Neither of these passages equivocates on the matter. Each clearly states that same-sex intercourse (primarily between males, although Romans does include women) is sinful, attributing that judgment to God. Thus, in a surface reading of scripture, there is no option for Christians who claim a “biblical” faith. Homosexual practice must be condemned as contrary to the will of God, i.e., sin, and therefore unacceptable in the faith community.
The argument behind this assertion is fairly simple: If we allow that homosexual practice can be accepted by Christians, then the Bible is wrong, and if the Bible is in error, then our Christian faith has no basis. Error regarding the acceptability of same-sex practice would mean the possibility of error in all other parts of scripture, most especially in regard to the unique status of Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God, crucified and resurrected, the Savior of the world.
For millions of Christians around the world, biblical inerrancy is more than a theological argument. It has become an article of faith. Furthermore, homosexuality is seen among some cultures, especially in Africa, as a disease of the decadent West, much like Greek culture was viewed in the time of the Apostle Paul, author of Romans. When combined with cultural conditioning that holds males dominant over society, and therefore always to be the dominant partner in sexual intimacy, the inerrancy concept becomes the epitome of what Church authorities most seek to preserve: control over Christianity and by extension control over society as well.
Clearly this is an intractable impasse. If you accept scripture as an inerrant authority, then you are a faithful Christian. If you don’t, you’re a heretic and an apostate, cast out from the faith community into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:22, 22:13 and 25:30).
So where are we left in this scriptural dilemma? If the faith community cannot rely on its foundational document as authoritative, how is it to proceed? My answer is: Our hope still rests upon the grace of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Darkwood Brew’s most recent episode alluded to this reality by focusing upon Acts 10:10-18, in which Peter has a vision of non-kosher food that leads him to go with a Gentile delegation to preach the gospel.
From my own tradition, the best evidence of God’s grace at work in our theologizing comes from Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. An 18th century Oxford don, Wesley devised a theological method that interprets scripture by means of church tradition, experience and reason. (Noted author and spiritual director Fr. Richard Rohr wrote recently that he wants to toss out reason because he thinks it keeps us too much in our heads, but I’m too much of a Wesleyan to let it go just yet). Unfortunately Wesley’s method has become known as the Quadrilateral, which implies equilibrium among all four tools. In reality, if we were to visualize Wesley’s method, it would look more like a three-legged stool, with scripture as the seat and tradition, experience and reason the legs.
Properly applied, Wesley’s method can unpack scripture, including the passages relating to same-sex intercourse, in ways relevant to our own era. We can accept the authority of scripture while acknowledging that it may well contain passages, even prescriptions, which are outdated or superseded by more recent experience and human reason. This is crucial to the issue of LGBTQ inclusion, because biblical interpretation lies at the heart of the question for Christians.
The genius of Wesley’s method is that when used with integrity by all parties, interpreting scripture by means of tradition, experience and reason creates a space for God’s Holy Spirit to work in human minds and hearts. We can allow that different people perceive different aspects of the Spirit and still be within the bounds of faithfulness. We can discard labels such as “liberal” and “fundamentalist” that are incomplete and demonizing. In short, we need no longer practice “zero-sum” spirituality, in which for one to be “right” (orthodox) in belief it is necessary that one’s adversary be “wrong” (heterodox).
The key to this or any scriptural interpretation rests on a willingness to engage with the text honestly and humbly. After all, we are not the Eternal Mystery, whose thoughts we limited humans cannot comprehend. Our assurance is that the consistent overarching witness of scripture shows God’s will bending toward love and justice in all relationships, exemplified best by Jesus Christ.
Cynthia B. Astle, OSL, of Dallas, TX, is a certified spiritual director and veteran religion communicator. Her websites are United Methodist Insight, a forum for discerning God’s will for the future of The United Methodist Church, and Watermarked, a blog on Christian discipleship and spiritual direction.