Hi Dojo readers,
Recently a post by a retired United Methodist minister from my home state of Georgia has been making the rounds. It comes after the results of the special 2019 General Conference in which Global Methodism voted to uphold traditional orthodox Methodist views on human sexuality and to take disciplinary action against those Methodist clergy who openly disobey UM doctrine.
Not everyone was happy. Progressive celebrity pastors and Bishops took to the internet to voice their outrage at the “harm” done by the church voting to uphold what God’s people have believed and taught for 3,400+ years. Those who once decried traditional Methodists for being willing to leave the denomination if the vote had gone the other way—who lamented the unpardonable sin of ‘disunity’—now find themselves gathering to discuss doing that very same thing in the near future, it seems.
To be clear, Disciple Dojo’s position has always been that we are not “united” in anything other than institutional finance infrastructure, and our differences are foundational and irreconcilable to the point of being almost two different religions. Like Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses, Traditionalist and Progressive United Methodists use the same words and terminology…but with VASTLY different meanings.
The previously mentioned missive by the retired UM Pastor is a perfect case in point. It was published on the denomination’s social media feed and I have take the time to respond to it during my flight back from India (where I was visiting local pastor friends there who are—to say the least—extremely puzzled by the situation!). I have left the original piece intact and only include my comments interspersed in bold.
I would welcome an open public dialogue on this subject anytime with anyone (including Rev. McCormick) so that our differences can be brought to light in a way that is insightful and will help rather than “harm” all who seek to be Methodists during this time of denominational upheaval in North America.
Commentary: 'Be careful using the Bible'
(JM Commentary: Especially if you are unfamiliar with basic hermeneutic principles)
By the Rev. James R. McCormick
Feb. 5, 2019 | CUMMING, Ga.
One must be careful in using the Bible as a source of moral standards. Throughout history, the Bible has too often been used to justify one’s own moral preferences rather than to seek God’s will about human behavior. The Bible has been quoted to support slavery and segregation. The Bible continues to be used to oppose women’s work outside the home and female ordination. These are two separate issues; neither of which pertains to discussion of sexual ethics.
Others quote the same Bible to oppose slavery and segregation and to affirm women’s rights as equal to men’s. This is disingenuous at best, for even staunch Complementarians affirm women as equal to men. They merely believe the callings God gives the genders are different and complimentary. I am not a Complementarian myself, but presenting the issue like this is either rhetorically dishonest or ignorant of Complementarian theology.
In studying the Bible, it is necessary to realize that often God is cited as supporting whatever values are normative at that time in history. Cited by who? To what specifically is McCormick referring? This is so vague a statement as to be almost meaningless without actual examples. Those are “timely” standards — standards valued for a time — but not necessarily “timeless” standards that are applicable for all time and all circumstances.
Remember that the Bible affirms Abraham having sexual relations with Hagar, Sarah’s maid, in order to produce his first son, Ishmael. This is quite simply false. The Bible does not “affirm” this anymore than it “affirms” Lamech taking two wives or Noah getting drunk in his tent. That a retired UMC Pastor cannot (or chooses not to) distinguish between what the Bible DEscribes vs what the Bible PREscibes speaks volumes to the lack of basic hermeneutics among much of our UM clergy. Only later did Sarah produce Isaac, through whom Jews trace their ancestry. Remember King Solomon’s legendary 1,000 wives and concubines. Yes. And Remember how his taking them specifically marked the downfall of the entire kingdom of Israel? It would be nice if more Methodists studied the Hebrew Scriptures in depth rather than cherry picking from them for occasional sermons or illustrations. As an Old Testament teacher and lifelong Methodist I can attest firsthand to the overall lack of basic understanding of Jesus’ Bible among our denomination (and Christians in general fro that matter). Today we would call Abraham’s and Solomon’s sexual actions adultery, and not condone such actions for the behavior of others. As would Torah, Prophets, and Jesus. Remember that, in ancient Israel, eating shellfish and wearing clothing of two different fabrics at the same time were called “abominations.” Yes, Israel lived under the Sinai Covenant as a nation and the laws of the covenant spanned all aspects of life. That Covenant was brought to completion by the arrival of the long-promised New Covenant (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36) and thus those laws are no longer the operative covenant laws for God’s people. It has nothing to do with us “knowing better” now. It has everything to do with what Covenant we live under. Again...this is basic hermeneutics 101, and every UM Pastor should know this after their first year in seminary. Walking too many paces on the Sabbath was considered sinful. Not by Torah. This was a later tradition that the Pharisees added that was never demanded by God. And, it was permissible to make slaves of captured enemies. But only for 7 years at most, after which they were to be sent away with provisions and blessing unless they chose to remain as an ‘ebed to their new household. We must always remember that Biblical slavery =/= Colonial chattle slavery. They are apples and oranges, and the colonial slave trade would never have arisen if Torah and Gospel teachings on it had been followed within Christendom. So much of what was considered sinful or acceptable was simply the norms or standards that were practiced by the majority of the people, but condemned today. But why? Not because of the passing of time. Something actually changed in Covenant history. Something monumental. Something called the Gospel.
Sadly, that practice has not changed. As a child, I was not allowed to have playing cards in our house. Dancing and even going to the movies were frowned upon, and drinking alcoholic beverages was not allowed. I was told that Jesus and his disciples drank only grape juice! Our former legalistic folk-theology should not lead us to swing to the opposite end of the spectrum. Rather, we should seek faithful exegetical balance instead of reactionary progressive revisionism.
Today, all of those things are permissible even by religious people, showing that moral standards do evolve. Or...that people simply don’t follow the unbiblical folk-theology McCormick and others were raised with, but which the Church never proclaimed as doctrine. I remember the insightful words of James Russell Lowell: “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.” This is only “insightful” in that it serves as a candid window into what drives McCormick’s theology: what C.S. Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery.” The pride of modernism should have been burned away in the ovens of Dachau or bled out in the killing fields of Cambodia. Alas, it seems many Methodists missed the 20th Century’s main lesson.
That brings us to a question sharply dividing the Christian community in our time: How are we to think about and act toward the LGBTQ community? We know that the majority of Americans do not oppose homosexual relations (or sexual relationships outside of marriage), yet others believe that while every person is a child of God, homosexual behavior is a choice (this is a red herring. Orientation is not a choice. Having sex is. Those are two different things that, again, a UM Pastor should know to distinguish between) and is sinful, and marriage is only to be affirmed when between a man and a woman. A key question for me is: Is that position simply an expression of ancient and current cultural norms, or is that the timeless moral position, sanctioned by God?
Think about this: The writers of the Bible did not know about germs. That’s why some thought that when a person became sick, they were possessed by demons. Jesus Himself seemed pretty clear that some people’s maladies were from demonic influence, whether or not germs were involved is immaterial. There is no dichotomy between demonic use of physical means to oppress, as we are integrated beings, spirit/soul/body. Again, this is basic Christian Theology. Today, almost all people of faith understand germs and infections, and they treat such conditions with antibiotics such as penicillin.
The writers of the Bible also did not know about genetics, but we do. We understand that we do not choose the color of our eyes, the texture of our hair or the pigment of our skin. The Bible writers did not believe these things either. Likewise, most scientists and psychologists of today believe that same-gender orientation is not a matter of choice. They also do not believe it is caused simply by genetics. Rather as any developmental psychologist will attest, the interplay between nature and nurture, particularly pertaining to the development of sexual gender identity in children is a complex matrix of factors. Anyone who takes it as either a matter of simple choice, or a matter of pure genetics like left-handedness, is showing their ignorance of the subject at a foundational level and doing a disservice to the greater public discussion of the topic by attempting to speak authoritatively on it as clergy.
Let’s go a bit deeper into the issue of morality. How do we distinguish between values that are “timely” — those that are affirmed as norms by the majority of people at one time in history, but are changed or updated in another generation because of new understandings, and the values that are “timeless” and applicable in all situations and at all times in history? What is an eternal value? Here is where the Bible, taken as a whole and seen in its depths, can guide us.
At creation, it is clear that human beings were the ultimate purpose of creation: “Created a little less than God, and crowned with glory and honor” (Psalms 8). We have been created in the image of God, called into being by God breathing His Spirit into us. All of the Bible is about how we are to be in a right relationship with God, and that relationship with God being expressed in a right relationship with ourselves and with others.
Second only to God, humans are the most important entities in existence. Therefore, what is moral in a timeless sense is whatever is helpful to human beings, and what is immoral is whatever is hurtful to human beings. That is a timeless value. It is also a completely pagan one. This definition of morality is NOWHERE taught in Scripture. It puts the onus of determining what is moral and what is immoral on our limited perspective and determinations of what causes “harm.” In contrast to this unbiblical concept, the actual texts of Scripture place the onus on determining what is and is not moral upon God’s revelation to humanity, both in Scripture and in nature (Psalm 19). When left to our own devices, humans are notoriously terrible and determining what does and does not cause “harm.” Apart from objective grounding in God’s self-revelation, “harm” becomes simply a synonym for “what I don’t like.” In fact, the very first sin in all of Scripture illustrates the falsehood of McCormick’s thesis: there was nothing inherently discernibly “harmful” about the fruit that man and woman ate. It was specifically seen as “pleasing to the eye” and “good for food.” It was, in fact, part of God’s “good” creation, after all. The ONLY evidence of its “harmfulness” was God’s specific prohibition of it and warning of the consequences. Oh, how this mirrors so many sexual expressions discussions in our Mainline Protestant circles. It cuts across all times and circumstances. It helps us separate temporary customs from values that are lasting.
Why oppose slavery and segregation? Because they are hurtful. Why do the Ten Commandments forbid murder, stealing, lying, adultery and coveting? Because they are hurtful. On the other hand, what is hurtful about playing cards, dancing or having a glass of wine with a meal? Or having an open marriage? Or having sex with another consenting adult for money? Or praying to an idol? Or not worshipping God but being a good person outwardly?
If a person is born with a same-gender orientation, why must they be prohibited from having an intimate relationship with another person, forced into isolation and loneliness, just because many people unfairly oppose that? Why assume not having sex is the same thing as being “forced into isolation and loneliness”? Why ignore the praise Jesus gave to Eunuchs? Why overlook the testimonies of countless unmarried saints throughout the ages? Could it be because sex and marriage have become an idol in American Protestantism? And why if the situation is as described by McCormick would God speak of celibacy as a gift, of denying oneself as the core of the Gospel, and of sex being only to be exprienced within the confines of husband-wife marriage throughout the New Testament? The fact that some Christians do not approve does not make such a relationship hurtful. Correct. It’s the fact that GOD does not approve which makes it so.
Almost everyone affirms close, caring relationships between men and between women. We become concerned only when the sexual component is added. Why? All close relationships are much more than sexual. Even heterosexual marriage is about friendship, mutuality and caring. We should wrestle with the reality that close, same-sex friendships are applauded; it is only when the sexual component is added that we become concerned. Again, why? Because that is the aspect that is prohibited from anyone who is not husband and wife. Anyone. Why not have the same moral standards for same-gender relationships as for heterosexual relationships: no promiscuity, no coercion, no insensitivity. Instead, seek commitment, faithfulness, mutual sensitivity, caring and support. Because the two are not synonymous. They are two fundamentally different kinds of relationships. Who does that hurt? The participants, according to Scripture. Instead, it treats all people as persons of equal worth, as children of God, and encouraged to enjoy mutually affirming, intimate, helpful relationships with others. While ignoring the words of Jesus and His Apostles to the contrary, of course.
To “love your neighbor” is to do the helpful thing and to avoid doing the hurtful thing, even when cultural conditioning makes that uncomfortable. The irony of this sentence should not go unnoticed. Helping, not hurting, looks and sounds like Jesus to me.
The Rev. James R. McCormick is a retired United Methodist pastor in Cumming, Georgia.
News contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
JM Smith (M.Div, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the founder of DiscipleDojo.org, an online Discipleship resource ministry in Charlotte, NC.