by Rev. Bob Kaylor
I recently put together a four-week study on human sexuality for my UM congregation here in Colorado. It’s not something I was excited to do, given the current level of rancor about the topic in our culture and denomination, but as we move toward General Conference 2020 and congregations prepare to make decisions in advance of a probably denominational separation, I felt like it was important to have “the talk” with my people. Granted, it’s tough enough to have that “talk” with your own teenagers let alone a crowd of people, but the reasons for doing so are the same: you want them to be able to make good choices based on good information, and be able to articulate their convictions more clearly and compassionately while understanding the convictions of others.
I also wanted to be better informed myself, which I think is a major part of the pastoral task. I am theologically traditional in my thinking, but I wanted to learn as much as possible all the relevant biblical texts, arguments, and worldviews that inform different understandings of human sexuality across the spectrum. So, I embarked on a deep reading of a wide variety of both affirming and traditional sources over a couple of months prior to teaching the course. I read a total of 18 books and, as I discovered, still barely scratched the surface on the literature that is out there concerning the controversial subject of sexuality and LGBT+ inclusion in the church.
Through the process of teaching the course, there are a few things that I learned that might be helpful to pastors and laypersons who want to go beyond the current polemics and open up a real, informed, and helpful dialogue about sex within the local church:
1. It’s important to get people thinking about thinking. Most people in the church have convictions about human sexuality, but they don’t often evaluate the worldview and experiences that spark those convictions. Traditionalists will often cite that their view is “biblical,” but many haven’t actually read the relevant biblical texts in context, nor have they considered the witness of the whole Bible. Affirming folks will most often point to their experience of relationships with LGBT+ loved ones and assume that experience and the culture’s experience have moved beyond the traditional biblical prohibitions. People will resort to shorthand expressions of their convictions as if they are fully orbed arguments and the final word–things like “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” on the one hand, and “Love is love” on the other.
But these are neither helpful nor are they responsible hermeneutics from which to begin. We need to go deeper and evaluate how we got here as a culture and as a church. To begin the course, for example, I looked at the evolution of our culture’s worldview on sex from the dualism of Descartes, to Kant’s idea that the “mind is the law-giver of nature,” to Freud’s belief that sex is “the main purpose of our entire mental apparatus.” The continuing sexual revolution in western culture is still informed by philosophers and psychologists who are long dead but still exert tremendous influence on our sexual worldview, both inside and outside the church. Similarly, the biblical worldview is often reduced to lobbing different verses back and forth rather than taking a deeper look at both the literary and historical contexts of the whole Bible and how it still informs us today.
We’ve got to get people “thinking about thinking,” in others words–to evaluate their convictions, to be able to name their a priori assumptions, and recognize that no one’s worldview develops in a vacuum.
2. We all have to take the Scriptures seriously. It’s not accurate to simply say, as many traditionalists tend to do, that affirming folks “don’t take the Bible seriously.” It’s also inaccurate for affirming centrists and progressives to dismiss traditionalists as “biblical literalists.” We need to do better than those straw man caricatures. I was impressed, for example, by affirming scholars like David Gushee who worked with the relevant texts, and though I did not find his conclusions compelling, I did need to take his exegesis seriously. Similarly, affirming folks cannot merely dismiss the biblical text or explain it away by assuming anachronistic concepts–such as the idea that Paul would not have known anything about consensual, monogamous, life-long same sex partnerships when he wrote Romans. The internal witness of mutual responsibility in the text and the weight of extra-biblical historical evidence simply does not support that conclusion. Good scholars on both sides of the debate will take biblical and historical arguments seriously. We have to do our homework and read the text deeply, in context, and in dialogue with both the academy and the church.
During the course, I did my best to outline both the traditional and affirming views of each relevant text, bringing in dialogue with a variety of sources. This not only enables people to see the whole picture, but also to be able to articulate their position and the position of those with whom they disagree accurately and without caricature. We cannot merely wave away the Bible and say, “Well, it’s just a matter of interpretation;” nor can we simply say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” We have to train our people in the disciplines of biblical study, particularly around controversial issues, and help them draw informed conclusions.
3. We must recognize that all of our sexual orientations are disoriented. As part of the study, I took a hard look at Romans 1 and Paul’s words about same-sex practice in verses 26 and 27. I tend to agree with most biblical scholars (both traditional and affirming) that this is really the key text to examine when it comes to talking about the issue at hand. An affirming view would say that Paul isn’t referring to what we know now as loving, consensual, monogamous same-sex relationships. A traditional view would note that Paul uses the language of mutual responsibility and that his inclusion of female same-sex relations in his condemnation proves that he’s actually talking about all same-sex sexual practice.
What most people miss, however, is that Romans 1 and 2 aren’t all about same-sex practice. We’ve turned a bright spotlight on what, for Paul, is really a subset of a much larger argument—that all humanity, including our collective orientations toward sex, is sinful and worthy of condemnation. If there’s anything that grounds the unity of the church it’s this: we’re all in the same boat when it comes to sin.
That’s why at the beginning of Romans 2, Paul issues a “gotcha” notice: “Therefore, you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (Romans 2:1). That’s just a foretaste of the ultimate bomb that Paul drops in 3:23—that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And, yeah, “all means all.”
My point is that when we’re talking about human sexuality, including homosexuality, we’re talking about the fact that we all live in a post-Genesis 3 world. Sin has warped all of our desires, and though many do their best to live the ideal of Genesis 1 and 2, we are all still, in one sense or another, “Naked and Ashamed” (which is the real human reality show!). When I talk about human sexuality, in other words, I ultimately have to start with myself and my own struggles. There’s a reason, for example, that “yoga pants” is a topic that comes up regularly in my weekly band meeting! There’s plenty of repentance to go around.
The truth is that we all need to get real here and realize that we need to do a better job of working out and living out a comprehensive Christian sexual ethic, particularly in the midst of a sexually charged secular culture. This is a question that both traditionalists and progressives need to address in their particular contexts. As has often been rightly said by some in the midst of the debate, we’re not ultimately dealing with issues here; we’re dealing with people. People are messy and all people are in a mess because of the effects of capital-S Sin on all of our lives. We must look to the whole counsel of Scripture and Christian tradition to help us with that, not just a few verses. Not only that, we need each other. We need spiritual friendships, mutual accountability, support, and love in order to live out God’s best for us.
4. The ministry of Jesus challenges us all. Perhaps the most important biblical texts that we need to address, in the end, are the ones that reveal how Jesus ministered to people who were on the margins and struggling with a host of sins. His approach was neither to simply validate them and their brokenness, nor was it to heap condemnation and judgment upon them. Jesus built relationships with people, offering them his presence, and their lives were changed. He entered into the messy lives of people and didn’t worry about his reputation or about being made “unclean” by association. He saw the full humanity for which people were created and sought to help them restore that humanity through grace, love, and forgiveness.
Yes, Jesus certainly held positions on moral matters. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, reveals that Jesus was willing to go even further than the Pharisees in getting at the purpose of the law. Think of his teaching on divorce, for example, as a violation of God’s intended order in creation. To say that Jesus disregarded the law is simply inaccurate. He came to fulfill it and, in doing so, demonstrated its proper application. He would agree with the Pharisees standing around the woman caught in adultery that adultery is a serious sin (John 8:1-11). But then he gets down in the dirt and offers her a posture of forgiveness while challenging the hypocrisy of her accusers. Whatever position we hold on human sexuality, we all need to have the posture of Jesus in ministry with others. It’s a posture that takes seriously both holiness and humility, repentance and renewal, care and correction.
5. Most people simply want to do the right thing. I think this is the reality that’s missing in the midst of all our debate and wrangling. I think that most United Methodists want to do the right thing–we just strongly disagree on what that is. We’re generally nice people, no matter our position, and we don’t intentionally want to hurt anyone. Some think that we hurt people when we don’t embrace their behavioral choices based on their sexual orientation; others think that we hurt people when we fail to tell them the truth about God’s design for sex. That’s really the core of our deep disagreement. Yes, each “side” has their lunatic fringe who really are hateful of the other, but I have found that to be the rare exception and not the rule. Most United Methodists love all people, want God’s best for them, and want them to thrive. How we help people to live the life God intends is the issue.
I suspect that the problem of “niceness” will be the missiological challenge in the new forms of Methodism that emerge out of the ashes of the UMC. We’re all going to have to make choices that will redefine the church’s social location and influence. The real question is, “How will we reach a sexually-charged culture with the gospel?” Centrists and progressives will have to determine how their message differs from the mainstream culture enough to actually get people to engage with the church. After all, why get up on Sunday morning and go to church if I can get the same message from watching Ellen? Traditionalists will have to become comfortable with being culturally weird and unpopular again. Their sexual ethics will be seen as strange, restrictive, and oppressive, much like the Roman world viewed the sexual ethics of the early church.
Ultimately, the goal of the gospel is not relevance, niceness, or popularity, however. It’s about the fruit of lives changed for the Kingdom. That involves a willingness to speak the truth in love and with humility, no matter if it at first hurts us or the ones to whom we speak it. The human condition under Sin is such that it requires the Holy Spirit to do some real soul surgery and, like any surgery, it often starts with a scalpel of conviction.
Perhaps these new forms of Methodism will allow us to speak the truth with a conviction that goes beyond “niceness.” Time will tell who was right and who was wrong. One does not determine who was on the “right side of history” in advance (that’s History 101). Jesus did say, however, that the difference between truth and falsehood will be known by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). We would all do well to take that seriously.
Have the conversation. No matter your current position on these matters, I encourage my fellow pastors to be bold enough to have “the talk” with your people. It’s not easy, nor should it be; but it is necessary. Do your homework, be fair and articulate, avoid straw men and, especially, model the way of Jesus.
You’ll be glad you did.
To view the videos of the “One Flesh” series I taught, along with the slides and a reading list, click here: Tri-Lakes UMC One Flesh Series
Bob Kaylor is Lead Pastor at Tri-Lakes UMC in the Mountain Sky Annual Conference. He is a senior writer for Homiletics mag, Husband, Dad, Author, Historian, Drummer, Asbury Seminary grad, & Pittsburgh sports fan. You can follow him on twitter at @revbkaylor. He serves on the Council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.