This week Bishop Martin McLee of the New York Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church announced that he was dismissing a church trial against the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree. Ogletree, an 80-year-old retired United Methodist pastor and former seminary dean, officiated at a same-sex wedding in the fall of 2012. The wedding was of his son, Thomas to his partner, Nicholas. In doing so he violated official church law in the United Methodist Church.
Many found these charges embarrassing. Why would the United Methodist Church put an 80 year-old retired pastor on trial for officiating at his son’s same-sex marriage? Others are outraged that the bishop dismissed the charges since the action was a clear violation of our Book of Discipline. One United Methodist noted in response that we are “no longer a biblical church.”
This last comment strikes at the heart of the real issue behind the debate about homosexuality and the Christian faith. The real issue for the church is not homosexuality, but the Bible. And the underlying issue regarding the Bible is what kind of book the Bible is and how God has spoken, and continues to speak through it. The answers to these questions determine how we read the handful of passages in the Bible that seem to speak to some form of same-sex sexual activity.
In my upcoming book, Making Sense of the Bible, I suggest that there are three “buckets” into which scriptures fall:
- Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
- Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
- Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.
Bucket one scriptures include passages like the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor. They include passages that call us to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,” and to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Most of the Bible fits into this category – capturing God’s heart, character and timeless will for humanity.
Bucket two scriptures, those that expressed God’s will for his people in a specific time and circumstances but which do not express the timeless will of God, include the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law. The Apostles, in Acts 15, determined that most of the laws like these were no longer binding upon Christians.
The idea of a third bucket, passages that never reflected God’s heart and will, is disconcerting to some. It challenges some deeply held beliefs about how God spoke and continues to speak through the biblical authors. Here are a few examples of scripture I don’t believe ever accurately captured God’s heart, character, or will: Leviticus 21:9 requires that if the daughter of a priest becomes a prostitute she must be burned to death. In Exodus 21:20-21, God permits slave-owners to beat their slaves with rods provided they don’t die within the first 48 hours after the beating “for the slave is his property.” God commands the destruction of every man, woman, and child in 31 Canaanite cities and later killis 70,000 Israelites in punishment for David taking a census. These passages seem to me to be completely inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ who cared for prostitutes, commanded that we love our enemies, and gave his life to save sinners.
Whether you believe in two buckets or three, the question remains, Which bucket do the five passages of scripture that reference same-sex intimacy fall into? Consider Leviticus 20:13 in which God is said to command: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Anyone who has a child that is gay would rightly ask, “Did God ever really command that gay and lesbian children be put to death?” They might also ask, “Does God really see my child, or the love they share for their partner, as an abomination?” The United Methodist Book of Discipline condemns violence against gay and lesbian people and implores families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends, and affirms that all people are of “sacred worth.” It recognizes, as do most United Methodists today, that at least part of Leviticus 20:13 belongs to bucket two or bucket three.
Most conservatives, moderates, and progressives that I know in the United Methodist Church seek to be biblical Christians. They read their Bibles, study the scriptures, and seek to live them. Where they disagree is whether the handful of scriptures that condemn same-sex sexual activity belong to bucket one, two, or three. Do these passages describe God’s heart and timeless will, or might they have been addressing specific forms of same-sex activity in ancient Israel and in the first century Greco-Roman world, or perhaps they may not have captured God’s heart and character at all?
How we answer the questions of what scripture is, how when and why it was written, and the way in which God influenced its human authors shapes how we make sense of issues like homosexuality.
These questions, along with other questions that thoughtful people wrestle with when they read the Bible, are what I seek to address in my new book, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today, which releases on March 18. To read the introduction and first chapter, click here.