An Honest Question about Sexual Immorality

On the Via Media Methodist website, Rev. Paul Brown stated in a comment to me that the presenting issue over homosexuality is this one:

The issue is not whether sexual immorality is wrong, but whether loving, monogamous same sex relationships are sexually immoral.

I agree with him that this is the point of contention.   I believe that the answer is not as gray as he and many progressive Methodists would have us believe.   Scripture, over 3,000 years of Jewish-Christian teaching, the General Conference of the UMC and the bulk of Methodists around the world seem to be quite settled that same-sex sex is sexually immoral.


I want to ask a different question here and I would truly like to hear a progressive or reconciling United Methodist’s take on it.   Imagine the above issue being framed this way:

The issue is not whether sexual immorality is wrong, but whether loving, monogamous incestuous relationships are sexually immoral.

Let’s assume for the purpose of this question that this is an adult father and daughter who have taken steps so that they cannot bear children (something gay couples cannot do as well).

If you are a pastor or lay person who affirms that homosexuality is a moral good, do you affirm the same for a loving, monogamous incestuous relationship?   If you do, why? If not, then based on what authority?

Thanks for taking the time to consider this. I hope it brings forth some fruitful dialog.





10 thoughts on “An Honest Question about Sexual Immorality

  1. Will you allow for dialogue from outside of the UMC — say, from an Episcopalian who is neither progressive nor conservative, yet moderate, but one who struggles with his own same-sex attraction, remains single and celibate (at least as a goal), but detects a flaw in the recontextualizing of this conversation by the introduction of incest? (Just wondering … haha.)

      • Yay! Over the last two years, I’ve read widely on this subject. From the likes of ultra-conservatives like Dr. Michael Brown, moderates like Stanley Grenz and Richard Hays, to progressives like James Brownson, what I can gather is that the ultimate question — at least from the progressive camp — is whether what the authors of Scripture referred to as homosexual encounters were what we would call, today, typical homosexual behavior between two people of the same gender with genuine affection and/or loyalty to one another.

        Progressives believe that what is referred to throughout both testaments regarding homosexuality is something related to idolatry (pagan worship connected to sexual acts within a temple, which in some cases included homosexual sex, especially as it was enacted between older men and young boys) or violence (a la Sodom and Gomorrah), but not to two same-gendered persons with life-long, committed ambitions.

        Now, to suggest that we question whether incest is tantamount to homosexual engagements between two committed individuals is, I believe, to miss the mark of the conversation. Usually, no one questions the disturbing conditions and abusive nature of incest, and whether what is referred to in Scripture regarding incest is what we mean today by “incest.”

        I think a certain presupposition must already be in place in order to ask your question: “The issue is not whether sexual immorality is wrong, but whether loving, monogamous incestuous relationships are sexually immoral.” Perhaps, at least from the progressive position, your question appears as a loaded one, something analogous to: homosexual engagement of any sort whatsoever is, obviously, considered sinful and immoral; and since we would all agree that incest, too, is immoral — even abusive by nature — then the shock value of including incest in the dialogue is certain to doom the progressive stance on homosexuality.

        That is how your question may appear to many: unfair, especially since what is really being asked is not whether we can now approve of sexual immorality by way of affirming committed homosexuality, but whether homosexuality as we view it today was how it was viewed two to four thousand years ago.

        (After re-reading this, I so hope I was clear, lol.)

      • Credendum, thanks for your comment, and yes, it was clear. I appreciate your candor. Just to lay my cards out, I was once a progressive who argued those points above. My final ethics paper at Duke Divinity was on that topic. I’m convinced I was wrong for a number of reasons, but to your comment about the question seeming loaded, perhaps this will make it appear less so:

        For the sake of argument, lets say that it is true that both homosexuality and incest were condemned in scripture because of their abusive, cultic nature. What I would like to know is, why is one considered OK today (loving, same-sex partnerships) but the other (loving, incestuous partnerships) is not?

        You said “we would all agree that incest is immoral – even abusive by nature” and therefore this sets my question on uneven footing, but I’m wondering on what grounds is incest immoral? The father and daughter who love each other and wish to get married, both consenting…how is that abusive? If you were to tell this love-struck couple that their relationship was abusive would that not be the same as a straight man telling a gay couple that their relationship is abusive? If not, why?

        I hope that is helpful. Looking forward to your feedback.

      • More to the point: Scripture appears clear that incest is sinful and everyone agrees: progressives, moderates, and conservatives. Even non-believers who are not well-versed in scriptural ethics would agree that incest “feels” wrong, and by “feels,” we would assume some innate sense in one’s conscience that it is wrong.

        Now, with homosexuality, that innate sense of it being wrong is not so universally obvious — especially to those of us with a same-sex attracted framework. If we look to Scripture as a guide, we clearly see evidences that same-sex sex of some kind is proscribed, but what kind? If we merely assume that the proscription is of any kind, then your case and/or question is very appropriate. But that notion is being challenged today, and that is why I think your question will not be found convincing or even convicting to progressives.

        In other words, perhaps there is a better question to engage progressives on this issue, something akin to: “The issue is not whether sexual immorality is wrong, but whether loving, monogamous same-sex relationships are even possible.” I have my own jaded and cynical reasons for asking such a question, and they center around my experiences with many in same-sex relationships, nearly all of which never last — or, if they do, they are in no sense monogamous. Which questions the very core of the viability of homosexual relationships, in my opinion.

        (I know someone could easily challenge me on this point, highlighting that they know so-and-so couple who have been together 35 years, etc. While I’m not making too strictly a blanket statement here, not when qualified, at least, I am suggesting that homosexual relationships in a very general sense do not last, and we must ask why. I could go on but I don’t want to stray from the original post.)

      • Your proposed question is a good one, and I don’t disagree with your position there, but to your point about what feels universally wrong or not, are we basing our morality on what “feels” wrong? This is why I want to ask: On what authority does the person affirming same-sex sex say that incest is immoral? If the answer is just that: It feels wrong, then at least it’s an answer, which is better than what I’ve gotten in the past. I disagree with that foundation for morality, but at least it’s a beginning.

        Would you agree that with homosexuality, even as little as 20 years ago, far more people “felt” it was wrong? I believe media has done a fantastic job in changing public perception about something that was once universally considered sin. Do you think that can’t happen with incest, or any thing else?

        You write,

        “Now, with homosexuality, that innate sense of it being wrong is not so universally obvious — especially to those of us with a same-sex attracted framework.”

        Is it possible that in 20 years someone might write the same thing, changing just a few words, to read:

        Now, with same-family sex, that innate sense of it being wrong is not so universally obvious — especially to those of us with a same-family sex attracted framework.

        See what I mean? If all we have to go by is what feels right, then what is preventing this from being the case?

      • Okay, I see your case much better and clearer now, and not until this is teased out did the issue become so clear.

        I believe incest is wrong because I understand what it is, and Scripture informs me that it is sin. Personally, I believe homosexual sex is wrong, as I understand both what it is and what I believe Scripture teaches on the issue. I also acknowledge that others disagree with me, that there remains a possibility that I could be wrong about my perspective on that issue with regard to Scripture, while I continue to dig deeper in studying the history, cultural contexts, etymology, etc.

        Yes, I think that 20 years ago there was a larger cultural sense that confessed homosexuality as being wrong, and even “felt” wrong.

        By the same token, a hundred years ago there was a cultural sense among white conservatives — even white evangelicals — that slavery and racism were justified, and that interracial relationships were sinful. Some of them even used the Bible in order to justify their sinful views. Not until some very brave progressives began standing up and against bigotry was changed effected. Still, today, this is an issue among some white people.

        So, what do we do? We, as believers, go back to the Bible and view the issue again. I think progressives are doing that with regard to homosexuality, and that is why we’re discussing this issue today. Actually, I’m glad we’re discussing this issue today for at least two significant reasons: 1) this means we care about what Scripture teaches and what God values; and 2) we’re learning to treat gay people with dignity and respect.

        The conservative branch of Christianity, as you well know, has a horrible track record with mistreating gay people. In one sense, I’m grateful for progressives for bringing attention to the fact that gay people are created in the image of God and deserve love and respect like everyone else. I have personally benefited from their endeavor.

        What progressives have made a bit more difficult, though, is advancing the conservative (and perhaps moderate) message that, though everyone is created in the image of God, He calls us all to repentance, trust in Christ, and to live a holy life — a holy life which would include gay persons to remain celibate. Do you think that is the heart of this issue?

      • Credendum,
        Sorry for not replying sooner. Busy few days! Yes, I think that is at the heart of this issue. I have great respect for you and the insight you bring here. I hope you’ll continue to share. I would be very interested to hear your testimony, should you ever feel so inclined to share it. On my other blog, we have been sharing testimonies from people seeking to live sexually holy lives.

        grace and peace to you,

  2. Yes to Credendum’s articulate response. And just for the record, I’ve never identified as a theological “progressive”! Although I guess it’s fair since I called you a fundamentalist… 🙂

  3. Good discussion, guys. I’ve read quite a bit on the topic as well, and like many issues it comes down to faith. What are you going to believe based on what you know so far. Based on what I’ve learned and heard from all sides of the issue we are a long way from needing to abandon the traditional Christian position or from labeling this an indifferent matter. To traditionalists like myself and Chad I say don’t make a special class of sinner out of anyone. To progressives don’t make a special exemption for certain people either. To all when it comes to Scripture exercise a hermeneutic of reverent caution, with regards to our own desires one of humble and penitent suspicion, and with regards to how we treat each other do so with the love and truthfulness of God. Credendum, on all counts I think you have succeeded.

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