If Paul Can Contradict Jesus on Divorce, Why Can’t We Reevaluate Paul on Homosexuality?

Jason Micheli —  June 25, 2014 — 16 Comments

rainbow-cross_aprilThis past weekend my cranny of Methodism in Virginia, clergy and lay, gathered for our annual conference. The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Doing Bureaucracy Better than the IRS.’

Actually, it had something to do with the Holy Spirit, but you get the idea. The Spirit does blow where it will (John 3) but I’m pressed to think of any scripture where the Spirit blows as slowly or trepidatiously as United Methodism.

The most only anticipated item on this year’s agenda was Resolution 1, a move to petition the larger denomination to amend its official language about homosexuality at it’s global gathering in 2 years.

After the flurry of whereas’ the salient portion of the resolution read:

“Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”…from the Book of Discipline…”

As soon as the motion was opened up for debate, a counter-motion was offered to table, ignore, stick-our-head-in-the-sand, push-to-the-back-burner, pull the blankie-over-our-eyes-and-pretend-this-issue-is-not-under-our-bed suspend discussion indefinitely so that we could instead engage in a ‘conversation’ on homosexuality in our denomination.

Even though this conversation has already gone on for decades and the respective sides have long since calcified and even though the ‘let’s have a conversation instead’ motion strikes me as not unlike those clergyman who tried to persuade Martin Luther King to ‘wait’ (‘this “wait” has almost always meant never’ King replied from his cell), here’s my ‘conversation-starter:’

If Paul can contradict Jesus on divorce, why can’t we reevaluate Paul on homosexuality?

Brian-BlountIn his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, biblical scholar Brian Blount advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective.

Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for the ethical re-evaluation of homosexuality.

For example, Blount points out, the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce.

Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce.

Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus allow the stipulation of divorce in cases of sexual infidelity (5.31-32).

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (1 Corinthians 7.10-11).

Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.

In other words, when it comes to divorce, Paul offers up his own ‘You’ve heard it said (from the lips of the Word Incarnate) but I say to you…’

The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.

In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ.

Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery.

Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ teaching in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to re-evaluate Paul today.

When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount.

If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner.

It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.

It’s possible for Christians today to say faithfully ‘You’ve heard it said (from Paul) but, with the Spirit, we say to you…’

 

Jason Micheli

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16 responses to If Paul Can Contradict Jesus on Divorce, Why Can’t We Reevaluate Paul on Homosexuality?

  1. Out of curiosity Jason, do you agree with Blount’s assessment of what Paul did to Jesus’ teaching on divorce?

    • I do. Paul creates room where divorce is permissible while Jesus is as unambiguous about divorce as on any subject (save wealth perhaps). More telling, perhaps, is that the Church tends to agree that this is what Paul does as most traditions would be reticent to take Jesus’ tack on divorce as their official position.

  2. This is exactly the line of thinking that made me change my opinion on women leadership, egalitarian marriage, and homosexual marriage. Those 3 + slavery seem to require a consistent approach.

    In 1 Cor 8, Paul also modifies what the other apostles say is permissible for gentiles, which itself was a modification of the law. (Acts 15:19-20) Both verses stress that the Gospel is greater than rules. (Acts 15 – don’t put barriers up to new Christians. 1 Cor 8 – don’t let your rights harm others’ faith)

    • I wonder, Eric, if homosexuality is such an issue for Christians because it’s the last one in that list you cite on which to defend a certain doctrine of scriptural authority.

      • I think it has more to do with the science vs. faith false dichotomy. One needs to understand through science that same sex orientation is an immutable characteristic and not a moral failing. The same anti-science view can be seen in articles about mental illness that emphasis repentance (see Heath Lambert or nouthetic counseling)

        It’s sad how a emphasis on a 6000 year old Earth have made some Christians anti-science. It’s worse that this makes them harm LBGT and the mentally ill.

        • Hi Eric, you appear quite certain that same-sex attraction is an immutable trait. Do you have any definitive science to back up that statement?

          In any case, I would like to correct one thing you wrote: “same sex orientation is an immutable characteristic and not a moral failing.” All Christians that I know who oppose changing the UMC position do not describe or equate (nor believe) that same sex orientation is a moral failing.

          • Hi Jean, I’m not aware of any science that contradicts that statement. The APA has this summary: http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexual-orientation.aspx Some people do choose to either repress their orientation or focus only on the hetero part of it. Some people have found only one opposite person attractive and chosen to marry that person. Others chose chastity.

            When you say its not a moral failing, I assume you are talking about the orientation not the action. I was referring to the action. Like Paul said about food sacrificed to idols (1 cor 8) or celebrating certain days (Romans 14), ” 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). 5 …Each person must have their own convictions. ”

            Each person must decide if their relationship glorifies God. Since marriage is God’s provision for lust (1 Cor 7), we should not block the way out of that temptation (1 Cor 10:13 “Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it”).

            So, Jean, would you condemn someone who is fully convinced in their own mind that they are glorifying God and are acting with thanksgiving to God?

          • H EricP,

            “So, Jean, would you condemn someone who is fully convinced in their own mind that they are glorifying God and are acting with thanksgiving to God?”

            I neither judge nor condemn anyone. If I gave that impression, then I must be communicating poorly and apologize.

            However, I’m not commanded to bless, and the church is not commanded to bless, any activity which in the fully convinced mind of someone is glorifying God. I sincerely hope that does not become the standard for holiness in the UMC.

          • I’m confused. How can you say something does not meet a standard of holiness without judging it? If one marriage you would bless and the other you (or the UMC) would not, how is that different from condemning the latter?

          • Hi EricP,

            You asked if I would condemn “someone”…. You questioned my right to judge someone else’s servants. I don’t do those things.

            That doesn’t mean I have to bless whatever they do or believe.

  3. I don’t even think you can take what Paul talks about in Romans 1 and equate it today with what we mean when we are talking about same-sex relationships. The context is just way too different.

    • Jason Micheli June 26, 2014 at 2:08 PM

      I agree. I’ve alway thought it strange, along those lines, that we can acknowledge how stoning is culturally-bound but want to insist that one of the predicates (homosexuality) to those stipulations is not culture-bound.

  4. In my opinion, it is a gross mischaracterization to say that Paul contradicts Jesus on divorce. At most, Paul relaxes the prohibition on divorce (where the unbelieving spouse wants the divorce) in a situation not envisioned by Jesus (i.e., a believer who is married to an unbeliever). So, no, this is not a legitimate argument for the proposition that Christians today can reevaluating Paul’s teaching on homosexuality.

  5. I attended the Virginia Annual Conference last weekend–first time for me. I had heard a lot of pros and cons about the meeting and decided to take it in and evaluate for myself. I have spent a career working in and around large organizations and I have an appreciation for what it takes to move institutions on a controversial subject. While homosexuality has been debated in the church for some time, most people at the conference had only seen the resolution for the first time when they received their meeting materials. One of the leaders of the move to change the official language moved that the resolution be tabled when our Bishop announced earlier in the meeting that the conference was organizing a series of meetings throughout Virginia on homosexuality between now and the next Annual Conference. It is anticipated that the resolution will be brought to a vote at that time. The resolution will still be timely to be considered at the global conference. I support the resolution but I have had the opportunity to reflect on my own experience and benefit from the experience of others. I believe that a serious discussion with the view that the resolution will be considered next year will give a lot of folks the opportunity to reflect the way I have.

  6. did God REALLY say…

    Smooth words they are, from the serpent who “corrected” the Word!

    Jason, are we to suppose that paganism of the day did not invariably include sexual immorality? Sure it did! With this in mind, surely what Paul was saying was ENTIRELY compatible with what Jesus taught, which was that secular immorality was cause for divorce.

    I hope my UMC brothers and sisters in Christ will not be so easily confused by these tactics.

    To go around “re-evaluating” God’s word is to make shipwreck of one’s life, as Paul called it.

    The Word of God is invariable according to scripture. God is above cultural practices which we (and the serpent’s whispers yet today) try to say are different and are cause for changing what his Word says. Did God REALLY say… Did Jesus REALLY say… did Paul REALLY say… well here’s what they should have said, or what it means TODAY….

    No, that is HOGWASH! No matter how many people have their own version of the truth. Look at the 400 prophets of Ahab, and only 1 who clung to the truth. Who was right? The one. Ahab died in battle, just as prophesied, even though he tried to hide. Truth does not have anything to do with majority, or trends, or “culture”. Truth is from God’s light illuminationg what is real, what is fact, and that does not ever change.

    Also the Bible squarley addresses how the term science would get thrown around and seriously does not do anything to change the reality of God’s standards which have not and will not change.

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