Archives For A Better Conversation

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…’

 

5058886937_3bcf357e06_zThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

First today is this piece by John Milbank.

John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is without a doubt one of the most influential works of theology of the last 50 years. It sparked the Radical Orthodoxy movement and is the jumping off point of another nearly as important book: David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. 

Here’s Milbank’s argument:

During the course of recent debates in the British Parliament over the proposed legalisation of gay marriage, it has gradually become apparent that the proposal itself is impossible. For legislators have recognised that it would be intolerable to define gay marriage in terms equivalent to “consummation,” or to permit “adultery” as legitimate ground for gay divorce.

Thus, despite the telling squeamishness in much contemporary conversation on homosexuality, which invariably steers away from its physical aspects, the legislators have been forced tacitly to admit the different nature of both gay sexuality and of gay sociality. But such an admission destroys the assumption behind the legislation and the coherence of what the legislation proposes to enact.

The assumption behind the legislation is that “fairness” must involve the application of universal rights to each individual in the same way and in the same respects. But this admission reveals that, in the current instance, such application would prove grossly unfair, inappropriate and unrealistic.

The coherence of the legislation depends upon erasing the clear distinction between civil union (which is already available for both straight and gay couples) on the one hand, andmarriage on the other. But if the binding and loosing of gay and straight marriage are stipulated in different ways, then in effect such a distinction has been reinstated.

The suspicion arises that the proposed legislation before the British Parliament seeks only an empty change in nomenclature – this is borne out by the fact that the intended circumscription of gay marriage is so diluted as to render it indistinguishable from gay civil partnership.

Why, then, should Christians worry, if this is all just a matter of terminology? Can we not live with differing definitions of marriage? Perhaps, in order to safeguard the churches from pressures to conform to the norm, we should now welcome a withdrawal from the churches of their rights as a civil marriage broker. This would leave the churches free, in their turn, to claim that only natural and sacramental marriage are genuinely “marriage,” while state marriage is mere civil union. They could trump secularisation by declaring that the era of civil marriage had been a failed experiment.

This may, indeed, be the direction that the churches now need to take. However, the graver fear surrounding the new legislation is that secular thought will not so readily let go of the demand for absolutely equal rights based on identical definitions. In that case, we face an altogether more drastic prospect. Not only would “marriage” have been redefined so as to include gay marriage, it would inevitably be redefined even for heterosexual people in homosexual terms. Thus “consummation” and “adultery” would cease to be seen as having any relevance to the binding and loosing of straight unions.

Many may welcome such a development as yet a further removal of state intrusion into our private lives, but that would be to fail to consider all the implications. In the first place, it would end public recognition of the importance of marriage as a union of sexual difference. But the joining together and harmonisation of the asymmetrical perspectives of the two sexes are crucial both to kinship relations over time and to social peace. Where the reality of sexual difference is denied, then it gets reinvented in perverse ways – just as the over-sexualisation of women and the confinement of men to a marginalised machismo.

Secondly, it would end the public legal recognition of a social reality defined in terms of the natural link between sex and procreation. In direct consequence, the natural children of heterosexual couples would then be only legally their children if the state decided that they might be legally “adopted” by them.

And this, I argue, reveals what is really at issue here. There was no demand for “gay marriage” and this has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.

Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.

For the individual, the experience of a natural-cultural unity is most fundamentally felt in the sense that her natural birth is from an interpersonal (and so “cultural”) act of loving encounter – even if this be but a one-night stand. This provides a sense that one’s very biological roots are suffused with an interpersonal narrative. Again, to lose this “grammar” would be to compromise our deepest sense of humanity, and risk a further handing over of power to market and state tyrannies supported by myths both of pure human nature and technocratic artifice.

It is for this reason that practices of surrogate motherhood and sperm-donation (as distinct from the artificial assistance of a personal sexual union) should be rejected. For the biopolitical rupture which they invite is revealed by the irresolvable impasse to which they give rise. Increasingly, children resulting from anonymous artificial insemination are rightly demanding to know who their natural parents are, for they know that, in part, we indeed are our biology. But this request is in principle intolerable for donors who gave their sperm or wombs on the understanding that this was an anonymous donation for public benefit.

The recipe for psychological confusion, family division and social conflict involved here is all too evident and cannot be averted. In this instance we have sleep-walked into the legalisation of practices whose logic and implications have never been seriously debated.

From this it follows that we should not re-define birth as essentially artificial and disconnected from the sexual act – which by no means implies that each and every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, only that the link in general should not be severed. The price for this severance is surely the commodification of birth by the market, the quasi-eugenic control of reproduction by the state, and the corruption of the parent-child relation to one of a narcissistic self-projection.

Once the above practices have been rejected, then it follows that a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage.

The fact that this optimum condition cannot be fulfilled by many valid heterosexual marriages is entirely irrelevant, for they still fulfil through ideal intention this linkage, besides sustaining the union of sexual difference which is the other aspect of marriage’s inherently heterosexual character.

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ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to those of you who don’t use Greek, is the theological term for:

“things indifferent.”

How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?

As John Wesley is reputed to have said about Christians and their beliefs:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.

Of course, proving that we Methodists get our doctrinal slipperyness honestly, how do you determine what is ‘essential?’

Who determines what is essential?

And perhaps most important of all: how do they determine it?

Historically, essential doctrines have always been discerned and debated over time by means of ecumenical councils. Think Nicea or Chalcedon and the creeds which they produced as a result of their consensus.

Presently, as any sentient creature knows, issues of marriage and homosexuality divide the ‘big C’ Church with passion and biblical motivation on both sides and no small amount of fatigue in the middle.

As much as those in the middle would like to move on from the issue and get about the Church’s ‘mission,’ we can’t.

As much as those on the ‘progressive’ side would like the Church to hurry up and get with the times, we can’t.

And as much as the traditional side would like to persist in its tradition and ignore the segment of her Body which believes the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction, we can’t.

That’s because marriage- and sex within marriage- is not ἀδιάφορα. It’s a belief about which the universal Church has always held a particular, universally-held view.

It’s too important a belief, in other words, for individual churches (or individual Christians for that matter) to chart their own path.

Likewise, it’s too important a belief to ignore what many Christians believe the Holy Spirit has persuaded them about the matter.

Marriage is not ἀδιάφορα; therefore, marriage is a belief that necessarily calls out an even more essential marriage: ours to Christ. The Church’s unity.

And so, like any marriage, we’re stuck with each other for the long haul and, as in any marriage, we need to figure this out together. In conversation.

Here’s how NT Wright put it in his final address as bishop:

“Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. 

The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. 

Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate. 

But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.

No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other…to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart.”

 

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And it may not be one that you want to hear.

One of the perks of adding another pastor to our staff is that A) I don’t have to preach as much and B) I have the chance to teach an adult class on Sunday mornings during our contemporary service.

We’re working our way, bit by bit, through Mark’s Gospel. For his spare artistry, pregnant irony and subversive Jesus Mark’s Gospel is far and away my favorite of the four narratives.

Recently we tackled chapter 3.20 – 4.1, which contains this little stick of theological dynamite:

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

Needless to say, the idea of loving, compassionate Jesus categorizing a particular sin as ‘unforgivable’ less than a quarter of the way into the Gospel didn’t sit too well with the members of the class.

‘He doesn’t really mean unforgivable, does he?’

‘Jesus is just being rhetorical right? Exaggerating?’

‘I thought God forgives everything?’

When I asked them what they thought Jesus meant by ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ there was little variance in the responses:

‘Cursing God’

‘Rejecting that Jesus is the Messiah.’

‘Refusing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’

‘Resisting the Spirit’s work to make us confess that Jesus is God.’

All told there responses don’t deviate very much from the neanderthal Calvinist, John Piper, defines the blasphemy:

The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven.’

My friend Morgan recently posted on this same topic, reflecting on how John MacArthur went off the rails and accused most of his Pentecostal brethren of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ by attributing words and directions to the Spirit that the Spirit did not give.

Certainly I’m sure there’s a good deal of such attribution in Pentecostalism but that would be called idolatry- or anthropomorphism- not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

What John Piper and John MacArthur and even the folks in my class failed to do was read Jesus’ words within the context of Mark’s early chapters.

In chapter 1, right after Jesus speaks on stage for the first time about how the Kingdom of God has arrived, he casts out a demon in church. By doing so, Jesus usurps the authority of the temple priests, whom, Mark leads us to surmise, had previously turned the possessed man away.

Jesus leaves church that day telling people to keep hush- not to keep his ‘Messianic secret’ but because now he’s a marked man.

And ritually impure to boot, which is why he retreats away.

Skip ahead to the end of chapter 2. Offstage the scribes apparently have been dispatched to follow Jesus, presumably for the purpose of finding a chargeable offense against him.

Jesus encounters a leper, who asks Jesus to make him clean.

Jesus touches him.

And only then cleanses him.

Both instances violating the law. The first renders Jesus ritually impure again. He’s literally taking on the sin of the people, making himself an outcast.

Oh yeah, and Jesus applies to himself the divine-political title ‘Son of Man’ in the heated exchange that ensues with the scribes.

In chapter 2, Mark tells us that Jesus is reclining ‘on his left elbow’ with sinners and tax collectors. Chilling with them, in other words. He’s accused of carousing with them, eating and drinking. This is the first time the word ‘disciple’ to reference Jesus’ followers.

In chapter 3, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, violating the law and presuming to possess the authority to interpret the law in one fail swoop.

Starting in the initial chapter, each of these encounters elicits increasing hostility towards Jesus- from the temple priests, from the scribes and even from his family, who think Jesus has gone insane.

The scribes, keepers of the ancient texts and the interpretation of them, presume they’re on God’s side. So they accuse Jesus of being demonic.

Those in power have the power to impugn the motives and character of those not in power.

Jesus turns it back on them with the little quip Abraham Lincoln made even more famous about a house divided against itself.

Jesus’ point is different from Abe’s: if I’m demonic how is it I could exorcise demons?

Conclusion: only someone on God’s side could exorcise demons.

Ergo: those who assume they’re on God’s side…aren’t.

‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is the culminating, summary charge that erupts as the conclusion to the increasingly hostile encounters Jesus has with the keepers of the status quo.

As such, any interpretation of what constitutes such a blasphemy should be read in light of those exchanges.

The scribes for ideological reasons- and even Jesus’ own family- refuse to see the liberating work of God right before their eyes.

Refuse to see this new healing, liberating activity of Jesus as GOD’S WORK.

It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus heal and exorcise and cast out. It’s just that their ideology, their interpretation of what God said or did in the past, doesn’t conform to what Jesus is doing in the present.

And so they reject Jesus and attribute the demonic to him.

After all, it’s not like the scribes were wrong in their interpretation of the law. Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal in the temple. He shouldn’t be touching lepers. Who told him he could heal on the Sabbath…not God’s word that’s for sure.

To make it plain, what so many interpretations of what constitutes ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ miss is why Jesus would specify the Holy Spirit.

What is it about the Holy Spirit Jesus wants us to take notice?

This is where Trinitarian language always comes in handy. Because the Holy Spirit, we profess, is the revelation of God in our midst, in the present, in the here and now.

The Holy Spirit is what reminds us that God didn’t speak or work in the past.

God continues to speak and work in the present.

God can do a new thing.

And that new thing might even go against everything we’ve understood about what God did and said in the past.

God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.

If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit =

So reifying your understanding of how God willed and spoke in the past- in scripture- that you’re willfully blind to see the liberating, healing work of God in the present.

And if you’ve connect the dots and want to blow me off as a knee-jerk liberal then fine.

Except, be warned, Jesus says it’s unforgivable.

 

 

_44832997_churchwithrainbowbanner “This story is the shadow side of the way the world works. It is, to me, the flip side of the coin of Phillip’s story. One pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his partner of 19 years when it becomes legal, and he must retire and rescind his credentials so as to live in peace. Another pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his mistress after being brought up on charges, and he is permitted to retire and serve a really great church. These things do not balance for me on the scales of justice.”

This is a snippet from a sermon by Mandy Sloan Flemmingreverend mama.icon

Mandy was one of the few Methodist compatriots I had in the Calvinist confines of Princeton. She’s a good writer and preacher. Here’s a sermon I saw her post recently, reflecting on the occasion of her senior pastor retiring- turning in his ordination credentials- in order to marry his partner of 2 decades, a union allowed by DOMA but forbid by the Methodist Book of Discipline.

Adding a needed nuance to the debate over gay marriage/ordination in the Church, Mandy contrasts the forced retirement of a gay clergyman who is faithful to his partner with the hushed shuffle and promotion of an unfaithful bishop she and I both served under in New Jersey.

Indeed, ironically, the adulterous bishop actually guest taught one of our United Methodist polity classes.

That is, he instructed us on the ins-and-outs of our Church’s laws.

Here’s her sermon. It’s worth the read:

———————————————

1 Samuel 16:1-13
            Friends, last week, we received some startling news. Even for those of us who might have known that our beloved Phillip Thomason was considering retirement, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the powerful vision of our beloved pastor taking off his stole and laying it on the altar. To be clear, this is Phillip’s choice, and one that he celebrates. He has gotten married to his beloved partner of 19 years, and they share this crazy and wonderful notion that they should be able to live together in holy matrimony for the rest of their lives. For those of you who don’t understand why he needed to give up his credentials, it is because the United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being ordained. You and I can talk all day long about the ignorance that’s implied in this description, but they are the rules by which we must abide for now. Phillip has gladly chosen to give up the credentials he has earned and honored; no one has taken them from him. It might have been unexpected, but “No one expects the Spanish inquisition!”
I am so proud of my colleague, but I am so furious at the Methodist church.
Much has happened since the last time I was in this pulpit, which was the Sunday after DOMA was struck down. Since June, we have heard of countless couples heading to California or Washington or … Provincetown to make their vows to one another. The only sad thing about this is that all of my beloved friends are holding destination weddings, and I keep missing them. But, this is the way the world is working right now. The IRS is officially more progressive than the church on this issue, which might be the most bizarre evolution to date.
But, the last time I preached, I told you about the story of Ruth and Naomi, and how these women took vows to one another, and managed to create a new family together. In Ruth, Chapter 4:13, we hear that, “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! … 17The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.”
            Today, our story picks up during this generation, as we hear about the youngest child of Jesse, the handsome, ruddy boy named David who is anointed king. Since Obed was born to Ruth and Naomi, the Israelites have found themselves in dire need of someone to rule over them. They have begged the Lord for a king, that they might be ruled as other nations are ruled. They came to Samuel, who was the prophet born of a faithful, yet barren, woman named Hannah. She prayed for a child, and the prophet at the temple, named Eli, ensured her that God had heard her cries. When Samuel was weaned, she brought him to Eli at the Temple, where Samuel lived and served God.
When he was very young, Samuel heard God’s voice calling him, and he did not comprehend that it was God, and not Eli calling to him. Eli said, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’” (1 Samuel 3:9). From that time on, Samuel became the messenger of God’s will to others. After many years of defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Israelites finally came to Samuel and said, “you are old, and your sons to not follow in your ways. Give us a king to govern us” (1 Samuel, 8:6). Samuel was despondent, fearing as though he had failed to be a leader for his people, but God said, “Listen to the voice of the people in all they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). Because of this, God told Samuel to warn the Israelites that the king they would receive would be greedy, unyielding, self-serving. They refused to listen to this caution, and God anointed Saul as king.
Now, when evaluating the merits of leadership, a story cannot help but be political. Ten years ago in May, I was on the verge of graduating from seminary and was hopeful that a small, United Methodist Church in New Jersey would have the need for a pastor. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, and it is the heartland of American Methodism. Our annual conference gathering was so large it had to be assembled at the Convention Center in Atlantic City where the Miss America pageant was held. There was no shortage of people in New Jersey, and the last thing they needed was one more person trying to noodle her way into the conference.
And yet, one week before I graduated, I got a call from a woman who was serving as a District Superintendent. She had a church near Jackson, NJ that she was wondering if I would like to serve. A few days later, I met with the good and kind folks at West Farms UMC, and a month later, I was their pastor.
Now, I tell you this story because it relates, not to me, but to the leadership at that time. My District Superintendent was not dearly beloved by my congregation; they feared she was trying to merge them or close the doors of their tiny church home. But, she had some great gifts for ministry. She was an elegant writer and a beautiful pray-er. I have her to thank for entrusting me with my first pulpit, my first congregation. You can imagine my surprise when, two years later she retired and married our former Bishop. He had retired under allegations of inappropriate behavior, and now, they live in New York City, where he serves as the lead pastor for a United Methodist Church in the village. MG_5743-199x300
This story is the shadow side of the way the world works. It is, to me, the flip side of the coin of Phillip’s story. One pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his partner of 19 years when it becomes legal, and he must retire and rescind his credentials so as to live in peace. Another pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his mistress after being brought up on charges, and he is permitted to retire and serve a really great church. These things do not balance for me on the scales of justice.
But, if there is one thing we know about God, it is that God’s justice does not calculate like ours. In the story of Saul, God is persuaded by the Israelites to give them a king, and so he offers them a very poor choice. Saul does, in fact, attempt to lead the Israelites. He even builds an altar (just the one) to the Lord after decades of serving as king, countless battles with the Philistines, horrific bloodshed, and irrational behaviors (14:35). The Lord is unimpressed, because time and again, Saul is disobedient, following God’s commands only in part, leaving Samuel to come in and clean up his mess, account for his behavior, or do his awful, dirty work. There is no justice in this.
In the passage just before our text today, Saul receives word from Samuel that he is to “utterly destroy the Amalekites,” for what they have done to in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Saul summoned the people and killed every living soul, except for the valuable livestock, as well as the Agag, king of the Amalekites. The Lord is furious, and tells Samuel that Saul can no longer serve as king. When Samuel shares this news with Saul, he tries to defend himself, saying that his plan was to sacrifice the sheep and cattle to the Lord, but Samuel explains that “to obey is better than to sacrifice, for rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (15:22-23). It is then Samuel’s job to assassinate King Agag, a task he is mournful to complete. When Samuel retreats to Ramah, he grieves Saul and all that has occurred. More interestingly, the text tells us the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. God has regrets; God is mutable – changeable – persuadeable. God lives with guilt and grief.
            This is where we find Samuel, a tired and lonely prophet, who had done his best to stop the anointing of Saul and explain to the Israelites that they had no need for an earthly king, for the God of all heaven was already their king. But, God, who never ceases to listen and be moved by God’s people, allows another king to be anointed. He tells Samuel to cease his grieving over Saul, and to go to Jesse, Ruth’s grandson – the son of Obed  – a man from Bethlehem. One of Jesse’s children has already been chosen by God to be the next king of the Israelites. Samuel comes to Bethlehem with a heifer, so as to offer a sacrifice before the Lord, he finds Jesse and his sons.
The first son to greet him is Eliab, and Samuel thinks that this man will be the next king, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord!” But, God offers this insight to Samuel, his trusted prophet, “Do not look on his appearance or on his height, because I have rejected him; the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). After rejecting Jesse’s seven sons, Samuel asks if he has met all of them. In a story that has a comical similarity to Cinderella’s, the young boy who is tending the sheep is brought to Samuel. It is David, young, ruddy, and handsome, who is in possession of the monarchical glass slipper, and this child is the one whom the Lord tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, and Samuel departs for Ramah.
The story line we follow from Ruth to Obed to Jesse to David is filled with utter humanity and God’s never-failing attempt to stay in relationship with God’s people. But, there is something more than a monarchy that leads us from one generation to the next. It is the Prophet, the go-between, the means by which we hear both the word of God and the advocate for the people. This story is about God and Samuel. This relationship is the means by which God and the Israelites maintain their ongoing connection. Samuel is the faithful hearer and the brave voice.
It may seem, today, as though our beloved friend and pastor is being taken from us by an unjust system, but, my friends, there is something we have not yet considered. We, ourselves, are the faithful hearers. Phillip may be for us an irreplaceable voice of love and acceptance, but we have being willing to listen. So, what does that make us? The new king, ruddy and handsome, anointed to lead, and pray and dance before the Lord with glass slippers in our pockets? No, because we are not a simple Cinderella story. We are not the underdog, the unexpected, the overlooked. Perhaps, but what is true is that we are to be a continuation of Samuel’s lineage. We are to be the prophets, the go-betweens. We are to be the ones with the courage to speak up, to witness to injustice, to petition God with our prayers, and who are willing to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Amen and Amen.

largeThat liberal Christians do not pay appropriate deference to scripture is certainly a common assumption among Christians on the other end of the spectrum, and, as Derek Penwell points out, that assumption is something of a hermeneutical dodge.

A friend brought this article to my attention:

I’d had a long day talking to young ministers and seminarians. So, when I lowered myself into the jacuzzi at the hotel, I wasn’t looking for conversation. I just wanted to let the heat work its magic.

Apparently, though, the gray haired man in an over-sized NASCAR t-shirt misread my closed eyes and generally round-shouldered posture as a signal that I was in the market for a little friendly fellow traveler chinwag.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Louisville.”

“I love how you people from Looey-ville say it. Say it again.”

“Looh-a-vul,” I said, playing along.

“That’s it! I love that! What brings you out to California?”

“I was giving a talk to some young ministers and seminarians at Claremont.”

He gave me a knowing look. “If you’re a church guy, you don’t want to spend any more time in California than you have to. It’s Obama country out here, full of liberals. And I’ve got a pretty good idea about your politics, being a church guy and all. I suspect your political leanings are pretty much like mine: starts with an ‘R’ and not a ‘D.’

Apparently finding a response from me unnecessary, he plowed on. “Yeah, this state is a Mecca (sly wink) for lefties. You probably heard we got gay marriage here again (exaggerated eye-roll). And I know how you feel about that. Am I right?”

This time I didn’t wait for him not to wait for me: “Actually, I’m proud to be in California on this historic day when marriage for all people begins again in earnest.” And, being unable to help myself, I said, “I suspect God’s proud of California today, too.”

At that point, the discussion hit something of a lull, which wasn’t my intent, but a fact I considered serendipitous nevertheless. My conversation partner quickly excused himself, and I went back to staring at the inside of my eyelids.

As I sat there soaking in the jets of heated water, I recalled an exchange I’d had with a seminary president about this very issue earlier in the day. The seminary president made the comment that those Christians who support the full inclusion of LGBT people have done a lousy job over the past twenty years disabusing people of the mistaken notion that one can be supportive of LGBT people or one can believe the Bible — but not both at the same time.

He’s right, you know — the seminary president. My exchange with the jacuzzi conservative only served to illustrate the casual assumption that Christian support of LGBT folks is a hermeneutical dodge … “because, you know, everybody understands that the Bible says God hates gay people (Well, God doesn’t hate gay people; God hates the sin and not the sinner — just like we do. You know what we mean.).”

Unfortunately, all too well.

But here’s the thing: Liberal Christians love the Bible. No, seriously. We love the Bible. We just refuse to treat it as though it is a set of timeless golden tablets that says all that needs to be said once and for all about everything of importance. (It doesn’t say anything, for instance, about why the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years.)

We liberals refuse to treat the Bible as a casuistical rule book for every conceivable eventuality, or as a precise blue print for every possible organizational contingency.

Liberal Christians aren’t liberal in spite of the Bible, but because of it. They don’t pursue justice for LGBT people because they haven’t read Scripture, but precisely because they have. And in the arc of the narrative of God’s interaction with humanity, liberal Christians find a radical expansiveness, an urgent desire to broaden the embrace of God’s hospitality to include those whom the religious big shots are always kicking to the sidelines.

In fact, on behalf of liberal Christians, I’m calling for a moratorium on the Liberals-hate-the-Bible meme. I’d like to suggest that the burden of proof should be on those who would read the Hebrew prophets and the Jesus of the Gospels and come away thinking that God has no problem tightening the screws on the abused and the powerless:

“Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden … and I will make sure that, until you get your life together to suit Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee, your weariness and heavy laden-ness will increase exponentially.”

Look. If Christians are ever going to establish credibility with anyone besides themselves, they’re going to have to start reading the Bible through the same eyes as the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time–those folks whom the religious power brokers are convinced don’t quite measure up.

The problem with assuming liberal Christians hate the Bible isn’t just that it fails to take liberals seriously, but that it fails to take the Bible seriously.

Cue eye-rolling.

 

largeA number of you have asked me my thoughts on the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling last week. I’m not sure if I have anything new to say on the topic. You can search for previous posts on the blog or scroll through the ones here.

Rather than rehashing previous essays, I thought I’d offer you these thoughts from Adam Hamilton, the de facto pontifex maximus of the UMC. Usually, I’m left nonplussed by the fiercely moderate tone Hamilton strikes in his writing and speaking; it’s often pastoral to the point of being vanilla.

Here in this pastoral letter, however, I think Hamilton hits just the right notes while being both clear and bold.

I’m sitting in front of my computer today finishing a chapter on the New Testament epistles for my new book on Making Sense of the Bible. The chapter is called, “Reading Someone Else’s Mail.” In it I am trying to help the reader understand the importance of reading and interpreting the 21 New Testament epistles in the light of the culture and circumstances in which they were written. The New Testament letters were written to answer questions, to give instruction and pastoral guidance, and to address concerns among first century Christians living throughout the Roman Empire.

To help readers think about what a difference time and culture make in one’s perspective and the kind of advice, guidance and instruction one might give, I invited readers to imagine a Christian leader writing a letter to Christians in America in 1950 versus the same leader writing today.

In 1950 the Cold War was going on and the Soviet Union was our enemy. In 1950, 3 out of 4 college grads were men and women were seldom found in leadership positions even in the church (women could not be ordained pastors in the Methodist Church until 1956). Separate But Equal had been the accepted norm for the races since the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson so that even in Kansas City African Americans could not swim in the public pools with white children. This norm was accepted by most white Christians. Though in 1948 the Supreme Court rendered them unenforceable, deed restrictions continued to keep Jews and other minorities from purchasing homes in many of the more desirable neighborhoods in our city. All of this in a “Christian” culture where more than 90% of the people who wrote the laws considered themselves Christians.

The world has changed a great deal in 63 years. The Soviet Union no longer exists, more than half of all college grads today are women, “Separate but Equal” is unthinkable to most Christians, and no one would dream of deed restrictions to separate people of different religion or race from a community. But many Christians could not imagine the world we live in today back in 1950.

How different our world is today from the first century Roman world. Yet often we read the New Testament as though the letters of the apostles were speaking directly to us. They do speak powerfully to our time, but there are elements of the letters that are clearly shaped by the cultural norms of the times. Slavery and the subordination of women are two of these norms reflected in the New Testament which 21st century Christians no longer believe reflect God’s heart and character even though they are recognized in the New Testament epistles.

One of the things that precipitated my decision to write this book on scriptures is the conflict over homosexuality in the church. As I’ve taught our congregation, within the Christian faith the question of homosexuality is not a question of biblical authority, but biblical interpretation. Both conservatives and liberals agree that there are places where the Bible reflects the cultural norms and needs of the times rather than the timeless will of God. Even the apostles recognized this, as we see in Acts 15 when they decided that most of the Law of Moses – the early church’s Bible – was no longer binding upon Christians. The apostles were recognizing that the needs of the children of Israel, and the expectations of God for his people were different in the first century than when Moses had led the Israelites 1,300 years earlier. The apostles continued to value the law of Moses and saw much of it as timeless, but there were sections they believed were no longer applicable.

The question conservatives, moderates and liberals in the church disagree upon is whether the handful of verses on same-sex intimacy, are like the passages on slavery, women’s subordination and those sections of the Law of Moses the apostles set aside.

This week there were three news making events that were focused on this issue. The first was a week ago when Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International, publicly apologized for the ways that Exodus had hurt gay and lesbian people in its work. It’s board then voted unanimously to close down the ministry. Exodus International was founded 37 years ago and was the leading advocate in America of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy in which they held out the hope that same-sex attraction could be “cured.” You can read Chambers’ remarkable apology here. This created waves within large sections of the Christian community.

Then on Wednesday of this week the Supreme Court issued two decisions related to homosexuality. The first was concerning a case brought by 84-year-old Edith Windsor who was partner with Thea Spyer for 44 years. They married in 2007. When Thea died in 2009 the Federal Government did not recognize them as married because of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that the State of New York did recognize their marriage. Consequently Edith had to pay estate taxes on half of their shared property – something that married couples do not have to do when one mate dies. Edith paid $363,000 to the IRS and $275,000 to New York (who recognizes gay marriage but follows IRS tax practices).

The Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that applied to this case and thus the Federal Government had to recognize a legal marriage because it was legally recognized in the State of New York and must return the taxes paid.

Had Edith lived in Kansas or Missouri she would have still been required to pay the estate tax as though she and Theo were not married because neither state recognizes same sex marriages from other states. The Supreme Court’s ruling has no effect on what happens in Kansas and Missouri.

The second Supreme Court decision was that private parties do not have “standing” to defend state constitutional amendments that the state itself refuses to defend. This related to Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional amendment that was passed in California with strong support from conservative and evangelical churches in 2008 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman thus overturning a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 allowing gay marriage. In essence the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday turned the case back to the lower courts, refusing to rule on its merits which had the affect of reinstituting gay marriage in California.

Because these are both limited decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court there will be more cases brought before the court in the years ahead.

There’s a major sea of change happening in our culture and world regarding our understanding of sexual orientation. Conservatives believe the church must stand its ground – its ground being an opposition to same-sex relationships. The basis for this are two Old Testament passages and three New Testament passages condemning same-sex intimacy as well as the broader model of heterosexuality found throughout the Bible.

Yet a large number of Christians are beginning to see the issue differently. This is particularly true for a younger generation of Christians.

I was recently in a meeting with ten pastors of large evangelical churches. Every one of them was wrestling with this issue in their congregation. Some were committed to “holding the line” while others were questioning, as I have been for some time, whether these passages in the scripture actually capture the heart of God toward gay and lesbian people, or if they might be more like those scripture passages that accepted slavery and the subordination of women – a reflection of historic cultural norms not necessarily the heart of God.

You can try to pretend that the issue will go away, but, as we’ve seen this week, that is highly unlikely. You can leave churches that are open to wrestling with the issue like ours in order to find churches that “hold the line.” But it seems unlikely that even those who “hold the line” will see this issue the same in the years ahead.

As a church we don’t all see eye to eye on this. Your pastors don’t all agree about this. And we’ve learned to be okay with that. We have to learn to agree to disagree on this issue as our society and the broader church are going to continue to wrestle with this issue – it is not going away and greater change is coming. As a church we’ve committed to be a place that welcomes everyone. We’ve committed to be a church where thoughtful, committed Christians on both sides will agree to disagree with respect and love.

I personally believe that twenty years from now most churches will welcome gay and lesbian families, will call gay and lesbian people to live lives of faithfulness and sacrificial love in their relationship just as they call heterosexual couples to do, and that they will see the passages on same-sex attraction as reflecting cultural norms just as the passages on slavery and on the subordination of women reflected cultural norm and not God’s heart and timeless will.

imagesIf you’re a theology nerd like me, trolling Christian blogs into the wee hours, you notice how many Christians are obsessed over the homosexuality issue. Perhaps rightly so.

Either way, the arguments tend to run one of two ways.

One line of argument is suggest that the progressive perspective runs counter to what Christians have believed over two millennia.

Another line of argument harvests writing from Paul and Acts to hold that current cultural shifts are the ongoing work of God.

Karl Barth might respond to both these arguments by asking: “Who cares?”

In concluding he prolegomena (§1.7.2-3) of his Church Dogmatics, Barth takes a last stab at keeping theology thoroughly biblical in a way that contrast with both Catholic and Modernist theology.

While Barth is aware of how theology is a deeply contextualized endeavor, he’s equally sensitive to how this fact is subject to losing the plot in one of two ways.

In one way, there is the (Catholic, Fundamentalist) danger of turning theology into a repetition of the past. Good theology becomes merely repeating what Thomas Aquinas said, say. Our understanding of what scripture is shackled to what John Calvin believed scripture said. Historical Christianity becomes tantamount to what the church today- and always- should believe and preach.

In another, equally fraught way, theology is always done within a particular culture, which can lead to us simply listening to culture as our defining standard.

This is the mistake of liberal modernism, of unreflectively assuming that what is happening in the world or in culture is equivalent to what God is doing in the world. Eventually, the danger is real that we end up with something that is no longer recognizably Christian.

The work of theology, as Barth understands it, is never simply or uncritically to affirm either what the Church once said and believed or what the world presently says and believes.

Because Christianity is always embodied by sinful people in particular locations, the faith of the past and the present must always be open to correction and criticism.

The Christianity of the past can never become what scripture is, our canon. Rather scripture must always bring the Christianity of the past and the present into critical, revealing light.

I think this is the refreshing both/and manner of Barth’s theology: a recognition that we must never be content with the faith as its been passed down to us because the Bible, as the living word of God will always correct where we have screwed up and carry us to fresh expressions in new times and places.

As you may know from this blog, I spent the Memorial Day weekend at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. That place is just one example of how the Christianity of the past got ample wrong and should not be accepted or rotely repeated without examining it in light of the converting, living Word.

We’re done with chapter 1 of the Dogmatics…on to chapter 2 and Barth’s treatment of ‘revelation.’

METHODIST1-articleLargeThe NY Times story about the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree has been all over the web (at least the church nerd part of it). Ogletree is a United Methodist clergyman and professor of ethics at Yale Divinity School.

Ogletree recently performed a wedding ceremony in New York for his gay son, which obviously violates the current law of the United Methodist Church.

Ogletree is hardly the only Methodist pastor to preside over a heterodox wedding ceremony but, given his post at Yale and his former work in the Civil Rights movement, he’s the highest profile pastor to do so.

Ogletree’s move has set off the predictable- and, to me, increasingly uninteresting- condemnations. Some Methodist leaders in the New York area are pushing for a court trial.

Considering Ogletree’s age and retired status, such a trial would be a symbolic- and expensive- charade. But I’ll get off my soapbox.

You can read the story here.

Since yesterday’s Times story came out, I’ve seen numerous FB postings about it.

A few of you even forwarded the story to my email, asking me for my response.

My initial responses had nothing to do with the issue per se. They came to me in this order:

1. It struck me as (morally) gross that someone would refer to a father presiding at his own son’s wedding as ‘a crime.’ Making a father’s love sound like colluding with the holocaust is just bad character. Enough said.

2. I don’t think pastors should be performing religious rituals for their children or family members- baptisms, weddings, funerals. Dads should be dads, moms should moms etc. Don’t confuse one role with another.

After thinking about the article some more and what my requested ‘response’ would be I settled on this: 

Arguments in favor of gay marriage need to be more theological.

The Ogletree article, and Ogletree himself, largely views the issue through the lens of Civil Rights. That’s fine and that’s one (secular) way to approach it; however, Christians should be thinking Christianly about the issue.

What’s more, since the conservative argument for ‘traditional marriage’ trades heavily in scriptural and theological jargon, it’s all the more important for a counter proposal to employ the resources of scripture and theological reasoning.

Gene Rogers was my very first teacher of theology, back when I was an undergrad at UVA. As a theologian, he’s ‘conservative’ or, better put, he’s ‘post-liberal.’ He also happens to be gay.

Here’s an excerpt from him making precisely the sort of theological argument- one that is ‘conservative’ in its respect of and adherence to the historic tradition- I wish more Christians and clergy attempted to make:

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke.

Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it.

The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke? Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question.

And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness? Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others. Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another. Says Williams:

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates.

But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings. I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion.

I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

You can read the full of Rogers’ here

 

barth_1_3Okay, so my blogging worlds collided this week as my ‘Surrendering My Wedding Credentials’ post provoked questions from people about how I understand scripture and homosexuality.

Meanwhile, my posts about ‘Barth, Piper and the Word of God’ prompted questions about whether Barth’s construal of scripture’s authority allows room for an acceptance of committed homosexual relationships.

At least those aren’t, like, loaded, controversial questions. Psyche.

Barth’s understanding of the word of God functions not only as a program of rethinking  what the word of God itself might be, but also of deconstructing common ways of conceiving the word that allow us to presume that we have mastered it–rather than always being in a position for it instead to master us:

‘Is it clear to our generation in life as well as thought that the serious element in serious theological work is grounded in the fact that its object is never in any circumstances at our command…?’ 

Behind the curtain of the Church Dogmatics, I think, is Barth attempting to assert a Doctrine of the Word of God (as living and authoritative) after the advent of modern, critical study of the Bible.

Over and against modern, critical scholarship which approaches deconstructs scriptural texts as dead, historical documents, Barth paves a middle way, acknowledging the human element in scripture’s authorship- and thus its imperfect nature- that is central to modern, critical scholarship, yet all the while stressing the freedom and power of God to incarnate afresh today the fallible human words of texts and people.

Here’s the crux of the matter as I see it:

If Barth’s understanding of the “word of God” is on target, it frees room for God to speak differently at different times through the same human words.

If scripture is human testimony to the One Word of God, which God can put to use in different times and different places, then there is no reason why God cannot speak a different word using the very same words of scripture.

Indeed did God not do this in the first century as the first disciple communities went back to their old familiar Hebrew Bible and discovered that God was using them to speak a much different and surprising word of a crucified Messiah?

For Barth then, there is both the binding of God to the story of Scripture but also the freedom of God in its use and reception in the church. 

Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God contains resonance with how my teacher, 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. Blount1

In his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for such ethical re-evaluation.

Blount points out that the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce. Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce. 

But in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (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.

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’ tradition in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to such discernment today.

Or, as Barth might say: God didn’t speak once for all in scripture. God spoke definitively in Jesus Christ, the One Word of God, but God still speaks 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.

What’s important in Barth’s and Blount’s views is that the Church’s discernment on the topic of homosexuality cannot be a one-dimensional ‘the Bible says X,Y or Z’ assessment. What Barth and Blount would caution, I suspect, is that in the name of fidelity to the word of God (scripture) Christians inadvertently shackle the freedom of the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.