What is love? If you’re anything like my 12 year old daughter, you have already responded, aloud or perhaps in your head, “baby don’t hurt me!” Silly songs that easily get stuck in your head aside, what is love that doesn’t hurt?
In response to Phil Robertson’s Duck Dynasty controversy and the defrocking of Phil Schaefer, a former United Methodist Pastor in Pennsylvania, over performing a wedding ceremony for his gay son, many were the calls for love along with accusations of hate-filled bigotry against evangelical Christians who believe that sex is for marriage and marriage is for one man and one woman. Now this belief excludes numerous varieties of sexual activity in which many, even many self-proclaimed evangelical Christians, are engaged. Yet it seems that most of the ire against this belief comes mainly from those who insist that homosexual activity, at least of the monogamous variety, must be excluded from the above positive prescription along with its implicit negative proscriptions. I suspect, however, that not all homosexuals, or heterosexuals for that matter, are all that thrilled about the exclusively monogamous nature of the above traditional Christian prescription. Nonetheless, it is deemed particularly and especially hateful and hostile toward people engaged in same sex relationships, monogamous or otherwise.
This appraisal comes from self-identified progressive Christians, as well as other gay rights advocates. They declare that Christians who hold to the longstanding call to sexual holiness are unloving, unkind, and cruel, even to the point of causing the suicidal tendencies and actual suicides of homosexuals. In the case of the later accusation one blogger, whose title was “What you Believe about Homosexuality doesn’t Matter”, went on to suggest that it does really matter what you believe because if you believe that homosexuality is sin and you express that belief then it may lead to the death of homosexuals.
“We are past the time for debate. We no longer have the luxury to consider the original meaning of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. We are now faced with the reality that there are lives at stake. So whatever you believe about homosexuality, keep it to yourself.”
In other words, believe what you want, but just keep your mouth shut!
That deceptively titled article was shared and promoted by some of my progressive clergy colleagues. A few weeks ago I also watched a documentary that promoted that same accusation, that traditional Christian beliefs about sex are dangerous enough to cause homosexuals to commit suicide. Never mind the fact that to speak in such simplistic cause and effect terms is naively dubious at best and quite insidious at worst (see the work of Professor Robert Gagnon that highlights studies that show higher rates of psychological problems including suicidal tendencies among homosexuals even where it is culturally celebrated and promoted by the majority). Of course, if homosexuality is akin to 100% genetic characteristics such as race or eye color then it would be quite cruel to call it sin, but it is not. It is far more like other unchosen sexual desires and chosen sexual behaviors than obvious immutable genetic traits. No one chooses their desires, or many of their thoughts for that matter, but people do choose to act on their desires or to abstain all the time. Acting on certain desires may have negative immediate and/or long term negative consequences, and just because a desire wasn’t chosen doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to be acted on. We all deny ourselves in this way all the time, for our own good and that of others.
Nonetheless, “Jesus was all about love,” they say. “If what you say doesn’t come from love, then it is bankrupt, plain and simple,” they insist. They quote the Bible, the same one that many of the same ones quite easily malign and dismiss as being filled with many silly and even hateful things that should be ignored (then they accuse the other side of picking and choosing of course), “love one another” (John 13:34). They say to be a “true” Christian this means you must “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, where Jesus is actually quoting from Leviticus of all places! Lev 19:18 to be exact), and of course follow the golden rule to treat others the way you want to be treated (Matt 7:12). Of course to some the only possible interpretation of any of these is that we must affirm homosexual behavior as good. Anything less is absolutely vile and hateful and possibly even deadly for homosexuals. Even though self-denial is at the very heart of the gospel according to Jesus (Mark 8:34-36), who was the Love of God in the flesh, some of them insist that this is too cruel to for those involved homosexual activity (although, undoubtedly, some heterosexuals think it too cruel as well and many progressives are in agreement there too).
Again, the fallback argument is usually because they were just created this way like some people were created with blue eyes, which is actually demonstrably false. When this fails, though, the backup plan seems to be the “Love = Love” slogan, although there are obviously more possible permutations of that formula than the T-Shirts I’ve seen indicate (i.e. man-woman, man-man, woman-woman, but they leave off men-woman, women-man in all the possible numbers and combinations. But now I’m hearing some, even self-identified Christians claim that any combination/number is fine as long as it is consensual). One progressive theologian in a class I took said that she couldn’t even say that all extramarital affairs were wrong, because sometimes “it’s just complicated.” But the fulcrum of this shift away from the Christian sexual ethic in general is quite clearly centered on the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage, which, by the way, some progressive activists are now openly admitting that they are lying when they say they want marriage equality because what they really want is the destruction of marriage altogether.
It seems quite evident that the lines have been clearly drawn and the debate is over, and ironically this is being declared by many of the “open-minded”, “Tolerant” progressives themselves who have advocated so vociferously for “dialogue.” For the progressive side, the most vocal at least, the only way to be a “true” Christian is to fully accept homosexual behavior as good. GLADD, other liberal pundits, and progressive Christians, among them some of my own colleagues in the United Methodist Church, have explicitly declared as much (for example see Bishop Spong’s remarks here). I think in the case of the later, especially among us United Methodists, it is helpful because it reveals that we are not only of “two minds”, but of two spirits that are antithetical to each other. I do realize, however, that there are some who are sincerely in the gray smoke of confusion rising from the skirmish, which is often the result, I believe, of deliberate confusion of the issue to create a pseudo moral ambiguity as a smokescreen for self-will and disobedience. Some just need a bit more encouragement to take a leap of faith out of the gray cloud either into the light, or darkness depending on your perspective.
Some posted quotes of Jesus calling for love of enemies without any commentary or mention of any specific issue, but quite obviously in the context of the present controversy over homosexuality. I take this as an acknowledgment that the two sides, “the two minds” to use the language of some UM clergy who are calling Methodists to join them the muddled middle of pretending that we’re really of the same spirit, are not on the same team. I think this is good, because I think the debate has been over for a long time as far as these two spirits are concerned, and that is longer than the present debate. Maybe this will help us quit pretending that we are in harmony in the main, but only differ on peripheral issues, while we go about wasting time and resources on “dialogue.” The debate is over, and the line is being drawing around this issue as the litmus test for authentic Christian faith, and that by many on the progressive side. But all of this is just a symptom of a much deeper divide on some very central issues, and it takes us back to the question of love. What is love?
I agree wholeheartedly with the statement that my progressive colleagues make, that Jesus was all about love, but I disagree wholeheartedly with the meaning that they give it. Jesus was all about love, but the love that He was all about, was the love of God, who is the very essence of pure love. The love of God, however, is rooted and grounded and defined by truth and Jesus declared God’s word to be truth, the truth by which we are to be sanctified, set apart as God’s children (John 17:17), and by which real unity is to be achieved (read the whole of Jesus’ prayer in John 17).
God’s Word, the truth, was most clearly revealed and expressed in Jesus of Nazareth (Heb 1:1-4), and the life and significance of Jesus is most clearly revealed in Holy Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. In the Bible the type of love that Jesus espoused was not one that was contrary to the written word, but the fulfillment of it, the sum of its heart, which is perfect obedience to the perfect will of God. Biblical love, the kind of love Jesus preached was inextricably tied to the keeping of God’s commands, particularly as it pertained to what has often been referred to as the moral law, what Jesus called the weightier matters, “justice, mercy, and faith” (Matt 23:23 NRSV) He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill, not to lower the bar but to raise it, not to give us a license to break the commandments, not even the least of them, and to teach others to do the same (Matt 5:17-20), but so that “the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). From a Biblical perspective “love” is inextricably tied to keeping God’s commandments (quite clear in the context of Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18, and made quite explicit by Jesus in John 14:15 and by other biblical writers (i.e. Rom 13:8-10, 1 John 5:2-3). Love is not the abdication of the commandments, but the essence and summary of what they are all about. In other words, the love that the Bible speaks of has covenant loyalty written all over it.
Romans 13:10 makes it clear that the response to the first question I posed above was basically correct, “Oh baby, Don’t hurt me no more!” “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:10). You can’t love a neighbor by committing adultery against or with him or her, or by stealing from her, and breaking any other commandment against him or with him (Rom 13:9). Moreover, contrary to the opinion of some you can’t love your neighbor by failing to warn them about the inherent dangers of living against God’s commandments and we find God’s commandments in Scripture. The verse leading up to Leviticus 19:18, verse 17 says a neighbor is to reprove a neighbor of wrongdoing or the neighbor will incur guilt himself. Jesus clearly affirmed this command Himself (Matt 18:15, Luke 17:3) with an emphasis on forgiveness and humility, as well as did other biblical writers (Gal 6:1-3; James 5:19-20). Inevitably this brings up the question, mostly the argument, of why then do we pick and choose to obey and uphold certain commandments and ignore others like the prohibition against eating shell fish (Lev 11:12), apparently the favorite whipping post of some who want to beat the word into submission to their own desires and worldly fad and fashions (2 Tim 4:1-5).
We Methodists have guidance from our founder John Wesley, who made a clear distinction between universal and timeless moral law and limited and temporary ceremonial and civil law designed exclusively and particularly for the elect ethnic nation of Israel. It is also necessary to understand that the Bible is not primarily a collection of arbitrary rules all of which have the same priority and purpose for everyone and all time (i.e. the temporary purpose of Torah given to Israel explained in Gal. 3:19-4:7, also see the work of N.T. Wright). Rather it is primarily a collection of different kinds of literature that overall conveys the story of the Creator Who was rejected by the humans, who were created in God’s image with free choice, for idols of their own making and to their own liking.
The story is one of a god, whom scripture repeatedly declares to be the One True God, who continues to try to reveal Himself to humans lost in a world of false gods with false promises and hopes who find themselves desperately and hopelessly at odds with God and each other with the result that the whole creation suffers. It’s a story of a Sovereign and Merciful God Who continues to seek after the love of humans seemingly against all odds. When humans insist on their own way He often obliges, at least to a certain extent. God allows humans to do their own will, all the while warning and calling them and endeavoring to lift them up to a higher standard, a better way, the best way even. At times and for certain periods of time he makes concessions to the hardness of human hearts. He regulates and restricts practices among his chosen nation, Israel, that are less than God’s best, such as slavery. We must understand that not everything the Bible records does God condone as the absolute good.
Jesus illustrates this in the case of divorce where in the law given to Moses divorce was allowed, but Jesus insists, not by dismissing Scripture altogether, but by referring to the Scripture that points to God’s primary will for people in this world given in the creation account, a lifelong committed union between one man and one woman (Mark 10:1-12). This is God’s best for people in this world, but divorce was only a concession. You also see this dynamic in 1 Sam 8 where Israel demands a King, which God interpreted as their rejection of him being King over them and warned them that it would not be the best for them. He gave them what they wanted anyway with His blessing, at least in a lesser sense, and provided guidance for the new situation. At any rate, the point is the Bible has to be interpreted in a serious way that takes this dynamic into consideration and not in frivolous and cavalier ways that allow us to dismiss the moral commands that don’t please our flesh, and that goes for all of us and all the commands.
So the question is are the sexual prohibitions, including those against same sex relations, restated in the New Testament in an authoritative way. Yes, I believe they are, and with even more clarity and intensity. I’m not going to rehash all this against all the possible objections here. I would just refer you to read the work that’s already been done by conservatives and liberals and decide for yourself what you will believe. Nonetheless, the reason that conservatives insist upon upholding the New Testament’s ethics regarding sexuality as traditionally interpreted doesn’t make us unloving. Quite the contrary it means that we are being loving in the Biblical sense of the term, if it is carried out in a spirit of meekness and humility (Matt 7:1-5, Jesus didn’t say ignore specks by the way; Gal 6:1-4).
What it boils down to is this. The sexual ethic upheld in the New Testament is that for Christians sex is for marriage and marriage is for one man and one woman for life, with Biblical guidance for possible exceptions while still living in a fallen world (See Richard Hays Moral Vision of the New Testament, Ch. 15). Regarding homosexuality specifically, it would be inclusive of any New Testament prohibition against fornication and exclusive of any prescription for sexual holiness. I won’t rehash the New Testament texts that explicitly condemn homosexual activity in detail, but Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10, and 1 Tim 1:10 are the texts that explicitly place it in the category of sin. Of course, there are progressive objections that what these texts say aren’t that clear as to whether the condemnation there would include monogamous, committed, loving homosexual relationships. Yet, there are conservative (i.e. Richard Hays, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, and Robert Gagnon) and liberal scholars (i.e. Dan O. Via, Phyillis Tickle) alike who acknowledge that in historical context all forms of homosexual expression are there clearly condemned. From my own extensive reading and listening on this topic, there seems to be three main camps. 1. The traditional view that homosexual behavior is clearly and univocally defined as sin in Scripture and therefore must not be practiced or encouraged by Christians. 2. The traditional view held by virtually all Christians until the 1960’s is wrong and the Scriptures never condemned all forms of homosexuality. The church has just misunderstood what the Bible says all these centuries. 3. Scripture does indeed clearly and unequivocally condemn all forms of homosexuality, but the Scripture is simply wrong. We know better today.
As with many things, an argument and an emotional appeal can be made within all three, and people simply have to decide what they are willing to risk their faith and allegiance on. I stand firmly within the first camp from a very informed position. I’ve read and listened to arguments and appeals from all three camps, and I have put in a lot of work. I’ve been persuaded by the exegesis and historical analyses of Hays, Witheringon, Wright, Gagnon, and others and I’ve been moved by the emotional appeals of Gene Robinson and others who have insisted that they are simply created to live out a homosexual life to be fulfilled and that the progressive positions have helped them to come to terms with who they are. I’ve been completely unimpressed by the progressive exegetical arguments, and simply mystified by the absurdity of those who insist that people can’t be expected to have their sexual desires/attractions changed or even abstain from them but people should be allowed to and even encouraged to have their bodies changed to match their feelings of who they are in terms of gender. So, you can’t change so-called “inborn” sexual desires/attractions to match your body, but you can change your body, even when it’s the one you were clearly born with, in order to match your feelings about your gender?!
The bottom line is this, we “conservatives” believe that the Scripture is in fact clear and in fact correct with regard to what is and is not appropriate for sexual activity for Christians, which we believe is the creators will for all human creatures. We also believe that the warning, about exclusion from the Kingdom of God regarding this and other sins should be taken seriously. Therefore in the name of love, the love of the God of the Bible and of our sisters and brothers in the faith and of all our fellow humans we feel compelled to speak what we believe to be the truth. Speaking the truth in love even when it may be unfashionable is anything but unkind and unloving. To not speak, to stop in the name of the progressive definition of love, would be what is really cruel.
In his book “Life Together” (p. 107), Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.” Yet the severe rebuke is sometimes painful to hear, especially for our sinful and prideful flesh, which Jesus call us to crucify anyway. Nonetheless it is love, a sure and tried and true love that may even get the messenger crucified, in the court of public opinion, or in the case of Jesus and many of his early followers on an actual Roman cross. This kind of love has never, nor will it ever win popularity contests in this world. John Wesley and the early Methodists were also accused of being cruel and unkind, yes even by fellow clergy, for insisting that people, even baptized Christians, must be born again. Regarding what “one who loves the souls of men and is grieved that any of them should perish” should do when he observes anyone actively engaged in wilful sin, Wesley insisted rather sarcastically in the face of accusations of being unloving that what was really cruel was to “utterly block up his way to salvation, and send him to hell, out of mere charity!” (Sermon 45, “The New Birth” IV:4). Now that is what would really hurt!