Critique of Methodist report on homosexual relationships
[The report is atThe numbers in brackets refer to the numbered sections in the report.]
Why am I as an Anglican bothering to write a critique of a Methodist report recommending the acceptance of same-sex marriage? There are various reasons:
· The Anglican and Methodist Churches are drawing very close together and my wife and I currently are involved with Methodist Churches as well as Anglican (and a Baptist Chapel).
· The Anglican Church is likely to follow suit with the Methodists over same-sex marriage, using similar arguments.
But the main reason is that this Methodist initiative is currently the main one on the subject and I have recently come to see the spiritual battle being fought in connection with the pro-gay marriage movement in the church. It is not primarily to establish same-sex marriage. The enemy of our souls wants to press Christians, including fairly conservative evangelical Christians, to change their view of Scripture to a more liberal version. What is happening through the pressures to accept, or at least tolerate, homosexual behaviour is that people with a high view of Scripture are being subtly misled, not just about homosexual practice but, more important, about how they interpret Scripture. This is leading to erroneous interpretation and is undermining the authority of God’s Word. That is the real purpose of this spiritual attack.
I want to make one other thing very clear. Homosexuals, as people, should be treated with the same Christian love and respect as heterosexuals. There is no justification for any other attitude. What we are taking about is behaviour, not people.
GOD IN LOVE UNITES US*:
Present situation over homosexual relationships in Methodism
Since 2006 the Methodist Church has allowed members and ministers to be in same sex civil partnerships and since 2014 same-sex civil marriages (0.4.6; 2.7.1; 4.3.1). Then in 2018 the Conference decided that local churches could allow their premises to be used to conduct public thanksgivings for same-sex couples who have solemnised a civil marriage or partnership, presided over by an appropriate minister, probationer or member (4.3.4). In 2020 all Methodists are being encouraged to read the report and discuss it, with a view to each chapel which is licensed for weddings to decide whether to allow same-sex marriages to take place in their building. But even when they decide against, all Methodists are encouraged to remain united with those who hold the opposite view
Interpretation of key biblical passages
The report refers (very briefly) to several key biblical passages which traditionally have been seen as clearly teaching that homosexual practice and same-sex marriage are wrong. (The fact that the report’s dealing with Scripture is very brief is a cause of concern in itself). The report states: “These texts have, however, been much discussed and fiercely debated. Some people have experienced them being used to justify all manner of prejudice, exclusion and even, sadly, violence. They, and others, have often read and interpreted the texts in other ways” (4.3.12).
That comment is basically saying that these passages are there but we can’t be sure what they mean. But in fact the passages are clear and they do disapprove of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage. The reason why people say they’re not clear is because they don’t want to accept what they say.
a. The report refers to Lev 18:22 “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” and Lev 20:13 “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.”
The report states: “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 occur in the Holiness Codes, which define the religious, civic and cultural identity of the people of God (‘Israel’). This was above all to be done through separation. For example, Israel should keep separate from other nations (the Gentiles) in all things; male and female should be kept distinct; different kinds of seed should be sown in separate fields; different kinds of material should not be woven together in the same garment.”157
The report adds: “These and other things are not differentiated in the codes. It is hard to pick some out some of them as still binding and dispense with the others without importing other criteria from outside the texts themselves. Moreover, in Matthew 15:10-11, 17-20 Jesus says that holiness is not so much a matter of external act as of inner disposition, in other words whether what is being done is done to love God and love one’s neighbour.”
b. The report refers to 1 Cor 6:9-10 “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” and 1 Tim 1:9-10 “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practising homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.”
The report comments: “It is hard to establish exactly the meaning of the words used in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. It is the case that the most commonly visible forms of same-sex acts in the predominately Gentile world would be prostitution and pederasty. In any event, it is not possible to generalise with confidence from the terms used and to conclude that non-exploitative, consenting and loving same-sex acts are necessarily condemned by them.”
c. The report refers to Rom 1:26-27 “God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
The report states: “Romans 1:26-27 occur in a passage which is about idolatry. It is aimed at showing that all the Gentiles have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, whereas chapter 2 turns to show how all the Jews have also sinned and fallen short of God’s glory through disobedience. Paul may be thinking of ritual prostitution and excessive sexual acts committed in connection with pagan cults and temples (which have ‘idols’). He may be assuming that all people are heterosexually oriented, and that all same-sex behaviour is the result of choices to act against that orientation (an idea which no longer accords with what is known today about human nature). “Idolaters fail to give God glory and gratitude. God allows them to lose control in erotic passion, which brings them dishonour”.158
Seven different attitudes to biblical authority
In the Appendix I deal with these seven views which are not included in this main report but are included in the booklet associated with this report “And Love Unites Us: Additional Study Guide” which has been circulated to Methodist members for discussion.
This rather subjective pick and choose approach to Scripture contradicts the high view of biblical inspiration which the New Testament itself affirms: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16); also the writers “though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). So Scripture is “God breathed” and the writers “were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This does not square with the view expressed in the previous paragraph. Also, as quoted above, Jesus said “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:18-19). This is not “mov[ing] away from arguments about the precise meaning and implication of terms in particular texts, to judgements about their importance within the context of the whole range of voices that make up the Bible.” It is Jesus saying we must respect the authority of the Word of God in detail.
The main argument in favour of approving gay marriage
“The Task Group has found it important to recognise that marriage has not always been understood in the same way, nor to have required what we now think of as good or holy relating … There is indeed a history of seemingly unjust and patriarchal practices being affirmed in Christian liturgies, and of various biblical texts being cited as justification for doing so. Specific examples would include the practice of women being given from the authority of a father to that of a husband; the transfer with them of property and resources to husbands; and women promising to obey their husbands” (3.2.1). The group would not want the church to go back to emphasising procreation in marriage “In line with our developing theology of relationships and marriage, the Task Group would want to affirm and rejoice in self-giving love wherever it can be found” (4.3.18).
The reason for not wanting to emphasise procreation is that “The Task Group believes that the ‘companionship’ model of marriage that the Methodist Church has developed over the years in terms of mixed-sex relationships, applies, theologically and practically, just as well to the same-sex marriages that are now permitted by the law of the land in most parts of the United Kingdom. The purposes, qualities and practices of marriage relationships that we have identified in this report as enabling those relationships to flourish can be applied to same-sex committed loving relationships as well as to mixed-sex relationships” (4.3.19)
“Consequently, we believe that, in awe and humility, the Methodist Church needs to recognise that it is being called by God to take the next steps in the development of its understanding of relationships and marriage. Those steps include enabling people of the same sex to commit themselves to each other in Christian marriage services. There is a strong case that, if marriage is what the Methodist Church says it is, and is as wonderful as it says it is, this Church cannot remain true to the God of justice and love by continuing to deny it to those same-sex couples who desire it so deeply” (4.3.20).
What this report does is largely to marginalise one of the obvious major purposes of marriage in order to be try to justify same-sex marriage – namely the procreation of children. This is not legitimate and shows how, in order to support gay marriage, the group has de facto to ignore a major part of relevant biblical teaching. Of course, some heterosexual couples do not have children, and, of course, it is important to stress the beauty of a good relationship, but to say that this justifies same-sex marriage is special pleading. It is obvious throughout Scripture that procreation is a major purpose of marriage, and there is, after all, a need to perpetuate the human race.
To largely ignore and minimise procreation as a purpose of marriage and then to claim that justifies same-sex marriage is also special pleading. That this is the main argument of the report shows that same-sex marriage cannot be justified from Scripture.
The role of human sexual complementarity
It also needs to be pointed out that male and female human bodies are clearly designed to belong together including for procreation (not same sex relationships)!
But the report seeks to undermine the idea of complementarity “The idea that we need another human to complete us, is closely related to the concept of gender complementarity, in which women and men are understood to have different roles which complement each other. Yet gender complementarity often suggests fixed roles for men and women, in a way which can result in a valuing of one gender (often the male gender) over the other and the justification of gender discrimination and oppression. It often further assumes there are only two genders (male and female), which fit together in a mixed-sex relationship. The 1990 report, however, commented on a diversity of sexuality, and there has been a growing understanding of the diversity both of sexuality and of gender in the intervening years” (1.4.3).
“….Since 1979, reports on sexuality to the Conference have noted a diversity of human sexual identities. In previous decades, the dominant way of speaking of sex and gender was in simple binary terms, that is, of male and female, men and women. This was accompanied by the assumption that everyone should fall into these categories and express their sexuality as heterosexual/mixed-sex. This connects with the way the term “sex” is commonly used to mean mixed-sex intercourse. Observations from the sciences now reveal that the situation is much more complex and diverse when it comes to the development of our sexual and gender identities, which can be much more fluid than previously assumed” (1.5.2).
Yet, just because there have in the past been stereotypes and dominance that does not in itself mean that the differences between male and female are not important, nor does it mean that complementarity is not hugely enriching
In addition, the vast majority of people are content with being either male or female. Yes, there are those who face difficulties of sexual confusion (although some of this, especially in the case of children, is caused by the propaganda of the transgender lobby). Such people may require help and support but we cannot ignore the obvious fact that the norm is either male or female. The report overemphasises the ‘fluidity’ in order to undermine the complementarity of the sexes and the importance of procreation. This does not mean that people have to fit into stereotypes, not does it require a view of male dominance. This overemphasis is another indication of special pleading.
Other weak arguments
World population and homosexuality
“The Task Group has also reflected on whether the context of a world population explosion has something to say to our developing understanding of the diversity of expressions of sexuality. Susannah Cornwall, a contemporary theologian of sexuality … argues that the ‘theological sanctioning of only one type of sexual activity – that is, fertile penetrative sex between a male and a female’ – no longer makes sense” (1.4.7).
The argument in favour of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage from world population is, frankly, scraping beneath the barrel, not the bottom of the barrel! The fact that the group took it seriously is another indication that they are arguing for the indefensible.
Eschatology and New Testament teaching on sexual relationships
The report says: “There is not much said directly in the New Testament about how sexual relationships were to be conducted. In New Testament times, the belief that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent led to the early Christians continuing traditional Jewish models of the family” (2.3.3).
The implication here is that if there hadn’t been such an emphasis on eschatology in NT times the early Christians may have moved towards approving same-sex marriage. This too is special pleading.
Was Jesus ignoring the biblical law?
The report states: “It is also sometimes said that for marriage to be other than between one man and one woman is not moral. Morality can be seen as a set of standards for good or bad behaviour and character that are adopted by a person or society, ostensibly to promote welfare. For Christians, those standards are outworkings of God’s holy nature. In the Old Testament, they lead to ordinances which condemn some particular forms of sexual conduct, amongst other things. However, Jesus is seen as fulfilling the law (Matthew 5:17) in a way that brings everything under two basic principles of ‘loving God and loving others’ (Matthew 22:36-40). In fulfilling those principles, people are to bear each other’s burdens and gently restore those who transgress. So far as the ordinances about sexual conduct are concerned, it is noticeable that the emphasis of Jesus and Paul “is entirely on the quality of the relationship, and in particular that it should be a covenant of total sexual fidelity and indissoluble union”. It can be argued that it is no less moral to see that fulfilled in same-sex relationships as in mixed-sex ones” (4.3.10).
The implication of this argument is that Jesus ignored the “ordinances which condemn some particular forms of sexual conduct.” Yet Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:17-19). For Jesus, love included keeping the law. This argument is simply wrong.
Natural and unnatural
The report refers to people opposed to same-sex relationships and states: “A basic reason often given for this opposition is that anything other than a sexual relationship between a man and a woman is said to be not natural. This is sometimes due to a dislike or fear of habits and practices that are not our own, or beyond our personal experience. At other times, it is because an assumption is being made that what is good for human beings is what is in accordance with the principles engrained in nature, and that those principles can be discerned by reason. Yet what is declared to be ‘natural’ and what is not is often what is in accord with the judgement and self-interest of the powerful. What are perceived to be principles of nature are often more like social conventions” (4.3.9).
The reference to the “self-interest of the powerful” is too extreme to be relevant. Also to call traditional sexual relationships (related to the physiological make up of human beings and the importance of procreation) only a social convention is ludicrous.
The report goes on to state “Moreover, the fact that same-sex activity has now been discerned in many classes of animals makes it difficult to argue that it is not ‘natural’ for humans because it does not occur among other animals.” The implication is that because some animals may indulge in same-sex relationships it is natural for humans to do so.
Eunuchs, levirate marriage and polygamy
The report speaks of biblical examples of people who are sexual exceptions. It refers to the facts that eunuchs will be blessed by God and that the Ethiopian eunuch was included amongst the people of God (4.3.13). It implies that since they are ‘sexually other’ and are blessed by God this justifies same-sex relationships. But the fact that God blesses heterosexuals who have been castrated for a purpose says nothing about homosexual relationships.
It also refers to levirate marriage – where a man marries his brother’s widow in order to provide for her and preserve his brother’s inheritance and to polygamy (4.3.13). But, again, these are heterosexual relationships and so irrelevant to the argument for same sex relationships.
It continues to refer to exceptional sexual relationships: “One argument sometimes made against same-sex marriage is that it is not mentioned in the Bible; and that every mention of marriage in the Bible involves a man and (at least) one woman. Other Methodist reports, however, have stated that we should not limit our ideas of what God might do to those things which have occurred historically within biblical times” (4.3.17). But this is not a serious argument, it is wishful thinking.
Another strong emphasis in the report is on Methodists who disagree over same-sex relationships staying together in fellowship. The Preface is entitled “A personal invitation to journey on in love, faith and joy.” The report wants Methodists to “hold together in practice as a Christ-centred community of equal persons who hold differing convictions about relationships and marriage” (0.4.7).
It adds: “The summary in Romans 14:13 of Paul’s advice on how to live with contradictory convictions amongst the members of the body of Christ still stands: ‘Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of one another.’” But Paul is not referring to something as important as proper sexual relations. He is referring to disagreement over food (or special days): “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (Rom 14:2-3 cf vv 6, 16-23).
It is quite clear that Paul would not say the same thing about same-sex relationships. Paul writes to the Corinthians “ I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (1 Cor 5:9-11). It follows that if, as seems clear to the unprejudiced reader, Scripture condemns homosexual behaviour (as well as other sexual sins) we cannot just happily and meekly live with those who defend such behaviour. Such an approach is clearly contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. We cannot just ‘live and let live’ on this issue. We must separate ourselves. That may mean a congregation taking a stand against denominational compromise, or an individual ceasing to be a full member. It doesn’t necessarily mean departing from a local congregation if it remains true to Scripture. I seriously considered leaving the Church of England many years ago but the Lord made it quite clear he was saying “Stay put, but don’t stay quiet.” I didn’t stay quiet.
This appendix is about five of the seven “Models of Biblical Authority” from the 1998 Conference Report (two are more conservative), which are regarded as legitimate options but which are manifestly contradictory to proper submission to God’s Word. This is a cause of deep concern. In the following quotations I highlight the errors. The numbers are references from the booklet entitled “And Love Unites Us: Additional Study Guide” which has been circulated to Methodist members. My comments are in borders.
a. “ The Bible is the essential foundation on which Christian faith and life are built. However, its teachings were formed in particular historical and cultural contexts, and must therefore be read in that light. The way to apply biblical teaching in today's very different context is not always obvious or straightforward. Reason is an important (God-given) gift which must be used to the full in this process of interpretation.”
“This view emphasizes that the Word of God is contained in a collection of books written in times and places very different from our own and cannot simply be read as a message for our own situation. We must work out by the use of reason how far and in what way the ancient text can appropriately be applied to the modern situation.”
b. “ The Bible's teaching, while foundational and authoritative for Christians, needs to be interpreted by the Church. In practice it is the interpretation and guidance offered by Church leaders and preachers which provides authoritative teaching. Church tradition is therefore of high importance a practical source of authority.”
“This view is concerned to stress that the people of God, the Church, existed before the Bible and that the Bible therefore does not exist independently of the Church. Interpretation of the Bible is essentially a matter for the Church community, and especially its appointed leaders, rather than for private individuals.”
c. “ The Bible is one of the main ways in which God speaks to the believer. However, the movement of God's Spirit is free and unpredictable, and it is what the Spirit is doing today that is of the greatest importance. The Bible helps to interpret experience, but much stress is placed on spiritual experience itself, which conveys its own compelling authority.”
“On this view, to give too high a status to the Bible may prevent us from hearing what God is saying to us today. We should be guided principally by the convictions which emerge from our own Christian experience as individuals and as a church community which on occasion will go against the main thrust of the Bibles teaching.”
d. “ The Bible witnesses to God's revelation of himself through history and supremely through Jesus Christ. However the Bible is not itself that revelation, but only the witness to it. Christians must therefore discern where and to what extent they perceive the true gospel witness in the various voices of the Bible. Reason, tradition and experience are as important as the biblical witnesses.”
“This view emphasizes that the Bible mediates the Word of God but is not identical with the Word of God We can discover which parts of the Bible are God's Word for us only if we make use of all the resources of reason, church tradition and experience.”
e. “ The Bible comprises a diverse and often contradictory collection of documents which represent the experiences of various people in various times and places. The Christian’s task is to follow, in some way, the example of Christ. And to the extent that the Bible records evidence of his character and teaching it offers a useful resource. However, in the late 20th century it is simply not possible to obey all its teachings since these stem from very human authors and often represent the ideology of particular groups or classes in an ancient and foreign culture. Reason and experience provide much more important tools for faith and practice.”
“This view also stresses that the Bible was written by people addressing particular times and situations. But, guided by the insights of, for example, feminist and liberation theologies, it further argues that before we can discover in it God's Word for us we must strip away from it those elements which betray the vested interests of particular groups, for instance, the interests of male dominance or of political and economic power-blocks.”