What would John Wesley have said about this debate in the church?
Last Spring the United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, met for its quadrennial ten-day general conference. Among its actions, the United Methodists reaffirmed their doctrinal statement that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching (CT, June 17, 1996, p. 58). This affirmation, however, did not occur without heated debate.
One issue that arose during the debate was how to weigh a traditional understanding of Scripture with what science and the lives of gays and lesbians are telling us about homosexuality. This issue is of special importance to United Methodists because of the theological legacy of John Wesley, who allowed tradition, reason, and experience to inform his theological positions.
Wesley, the founder of Methodism, affirmed the primacy of scriptural authority. But he also acknowledged the genuine, albeit secondary, religious authority of tradition, reason, and experience. By doing so, Wesley simply made explicit what is implicit in all theological reflection, even when it ostensibly is based on Scripture alone.
Given this so-called quadrilateral of religious authority, how should Methodists—or any Christian interested in considering a breadth of relevant data—view homosexuality? Although Wesley did not specifically deal with the issue of homosexuality, his theological legacy provides a comprehensive and integrative way of evaluating it.
Many Christians fear that acceptance of religious authority other than Scripture leads inexorably to the breakdown of historic Christian beliefs. This is not the case. Wesley remained thoroughly orthodox in his theology, and he expected his followers to do the same. He described himself as a man of one book, emphasizing his submission to the primary authority of the written Word of God. So we may ask, how would Wesley have dealt with the biblical evidence regarding homosexuality?
Historically, Scripture has been interpreted as prohibiting the practice of homosexuality. But some biblical scholars have now challenged interpretations of key texts. Some Old Testament scholars maintain that the infamous story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) is not relevant to homosexuality; it deals more with inhospitality and violence.
Likewise, some New Testament scholars have questioned whether Paul is really such a hard-liner against homosexual activity. They speculate that Paul was specifically addressing Greco-Roman culture, in which homosexual behavior took the form of male prostitution and pederasty (the practice of adolescent boys selling themselves for sex with older men); thus Paul's condemnations (Rom. 1:27; 1 Cor. 6:9), they argue, had more to do with lust and exploitation than homosexual activity in general.
If nothing else, the work of these contemporary scholars reminds us that we cannot understand Scripture without thoroughly considering its literary, cultural, and theological context. And when we thoroughly consider the various contexts of Scripture, we discover that its teaching remains consistent: Scripture prohibits homosexual activity.
The New Testament, particularly Paul's writings, assumed and affirmed the Old Testament prohibitions against homosexual behavior (see Lev. 18:22; 20:13). Paul did not make a distinction among various forms of homosexuality, and he seemed not to define homosexual activity so narrowly as male prostitution and pederasty (see 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).
Moreover, what the Bible says primarily about sexual conduct is that God intends for a man and a woman to live in a monogamous, lifelong relationship with each other. This was stated as the intention of Creation (Gen. 2:24), and it was reaffirmed by Jesus himself (Matt. 19: 4-6). Departures from this biblical norm, whether homosexual or heterosexual (pre- and extra-marital sex), are sin.
Although Scripture prohibits homosexual activity, it does not consider it the worst of sins or an unforgivable sin. Scripture further reminds us that none of us is without sin, and we should not be quick to judge others (Rom. 2:1).
Wesley understood tradition as representing the ways in which Christians have understood and applied scriptural teachings throughout church history. It both informs and safeguards our understanding of Scripture. Just as we need to listen to the understandings of Christians in other denominations and countries today, heeding tradition means paying attention to the wisdom of the saints who have gone before us.
The preponderance of church tradition condemned homosexual activity. The weight of history contributes significantly to our confidence in the stance that most Christians take today: homosexual activity is outside God's intention for human sexuality.
Tradition is dynamic and—as the Protestant Reformers maintained—open to reformation. In the case of homosexuality, what may need reforming is our attitude toward persons with a same-sex orientation. Unfortunately, throughout much of our history, the church has not only opposed homosexuality but has been violent in its condemnation. In contrast to these sometimes hateful reactions, the New Testament is humane in what it says about those struggling with sin. Jesus and the apostles emphasized compassion and understanding, not condemnation, and so we have to become more effective in ministering to homosexual persons without compromising the biblical standards for human sexuality.
Wesley saw reason as representing our power of thinking, comprehending, and inferring. Too often we seek easy solutions to questions and concerns that arise with regard to homosexuality. But maturity in Christian thinking requires that our investigation should precede claims rather than our claims preceding investigation.
We need to test our beliefs and not consider them self-authenticating or beyond question. Reason would have us consider new evidence with open minds, such as the causes of homosexuality. Thus a reasoned approach to homosexuality would keep in check all knee-jerk reactions: both a homophobic response that condemns certain persons as "perverts" and discriminates against them; and conversely, a "homomaniacal" attitude that accuses all persons with a traditional perspective on homosexuality of being "homophobic."
A reasonable spirit also respects the beliefs of others who disagree with us. We will be able to act more redemptively, especially toward homosexuals, when we first try to understand their perspective.
Today many resist the integration of experience into their theology. After all, experience—including religious experience—is so subjective and easily distorted. But Wesley considered experience to be inextricably bound up with all theological reflection. Experience represents a vital dimension of Christian life, and it needs to be taken into account in our theological reflection.
However, Wesley did not consider experience as self-authenticating. Just because a person claimed to have a revelatory experience, it still needed to come under the scrutiny of Scripture, as well as that of tradition and reason. Our personal experience is ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways, some of which are deceptive. One's personal experience does not represent the highest religious authority. Experience properly construed is interpreted in the light of biblical revelation.
The problem with the homosexuality debates today is that the "testimonies" of some gay and lesbian Christians are considered self-authenticating. The rationalization or acceptance of their behavior is deemed to be valid just because that is what they are experiencing. What is becomes confused with what ought to be —the normative.
So we should not allow personal experience to usurp the primacy of scriptural authority; but what about new scientific evidence on the experience of homosexuality? Are we sticking our heads in the sand if we oppose science?
Wesley would encourage us to consider carefully what science tells us. Indeed, science has provided a number of helpful insights for reflecting upon homosexuality. The distinction between homosexual activity and homosexual orientation helps us to realize that—like alcoholism—homosexuals may be dealing with a psychological and/or biological orientation that should be viewed as given rather than chosen. Additional evidence may be uncovered on the origins of a same-sex preference, whether it is genetic or hormonal or some combination of multiple factors.
Although homosexual orientation is not a distinction made or understood by biblical writers, it adds a significant dimension to our overall consideration of homosexuality. The distinction may not change our biblical understanding of the appropriateness of homosexual activity, but it will affect how we view and minister to those who may be experiencing psychological and/or biological factors beyond their control.
The sum of the whole
In searching for resolution to issues on homosexuality, we do not seek a balance of views drawn from Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Balance mistakenly communicates the idea of equilateral authority. This was not the historic understanding of Wesley, who affirmed the primacy of scriptural authority. Instead we should integrate the relevant data in an appropriate manner, allowing Scripture to lead us.
Scripture provides sufficiently clear instruction, at least with regard to the morality of homosexual activity. If Scripture were not clear on the subject, then tradition, reason, and experience might offer more helpful insight. In fact, on homosexual activity, Scripture seems clearer than tradition, reason, or experience.
Scripture further tells us that we are to love our neighbors and have compassion upon those who are tempted to act contrary to God's will. But can we as Christians claim that we are known for our compassion toward homosexuals? To be sure, Scripture tells us that we should discipline those who intentionally and habitually disregard the teachings of Scripture. But most of us go the extra mile when working with people who struggle with other kinds of temptations.
I applaud the decision of the United Methodist Church to reaffirm its stance that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. This affirmation not only conforms to Scripture, which remains the primary source of religious authority, it also conforms to church tradition, logical reasoning, and experience as understood from a Wesleyan perspective.
I also applaud the ongoing concern of United Methodists for the holistic well-being of homosexuals and for their civil rights. A Wesleyan approach not only lends itself to a comprehensive and integrative approach to homosexuality; it understands and treats people realistically and compassionately, because, as Mildred Wynkoop says, Wesley's theology is "a theology of love."
Above all, Scripture tells us we are to love our neighbors and have compassion on those who struggle with temptations. Jesus called people to repentance, but he also astounded others by the compassion he demonstrated toward those caught in temptation and sin. Can it be said of us that we surprise others by the sympathy and compassion we extend toward homosexuals?
Donald A. D. Thorsen is professor of theology in the Graduate School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California.
See page 35 for "What Wolfhart Pannenberg says about this debate in the church.
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