Category Archives: Society and Religion

A gentle response to Adam Hamilton

umc logoAdam Hamilton has attracted a lot of negative attention regarding his latest book and the presupposition that there are three buckets of interpretation for Scripture. This had led to charges of liberalism and the like.

I have, much to some of my friends’ consternation, defended him upon the grounds that at least one previous Christian sect looked at the Old Testament the same way. The sect that gave us the Pseudo-Clementine homilies viewed the Old Testament as a mixture of three parts. Some is under the guidance of God, some by Moses, and some by the evil one. They didn’t go through with scissors, but they did seek to understand the Old Testament through a lens that preserved Scripture and understood it rationally without going into the realm of Marcionism. They begin, of course, with Jesus (Matthew 19.8). Hamilton’s three buckets (not that he refers to this part of Christian history) seems to parallel this but without any support from Tradition.1

Until the other day. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, like many, reacted to the Supreme Court decision. He rightly noted,

…that the Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the U.S. Constitution, not the Bible.  The Court is not asked to discern God’s will, or what constitutes ethical or moral behavior for Christians.  Likewise, Christians do not determine their morals from public opinion polls.


Further, he writes,

…the Bible has also taught me that the Bible is at times complicated.  Within its pages we learn of the heart, character, and will of God, but we also find on its pages things that we might question.  Things that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God.

One of the many issues people have with this is that it is so subjective. Does a pastor have the right to say what is timeless or not? Surely not only the Roman pontiff would stake such a claim. Further, who says what is God’s will and what is questionable? Do we not then make it where we only accept something as God’s will if we do not question it — and thus create a God of our own choosing? And that is where the problem surfaces. He gives the standard list of problems modern people have with the Old Testament usually offered by skeptics and antagonists, ending with:

The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

This is from the New Testament, the document that provides the interpretative measure for the Old Testament (for Christians), the same document that provides for the founding of the religion Rev. Hamilton adheres. Without a single reference to either the New Testament, to the Patristics, or the Wesley, not to mention any scholarship, confessional or otherwise, Adam Hamilton (the most respected and powerful pastor in The United Methodist Church) writes,

The Bible, in its writing, content, and canonization, is wonderfully complex and we do not do it justice, nor are we always able to discern God’s will, simply by quoting a handful of verses.  If it worked this way we’d still embrace slavery, polygamy, and concubinage.  Victims of rape would still be forced to wed their rapists. We’d not allow women to serve as pastors; but rather, we’d require them to remain silent in the church.

But that’s wrong. There is a lot of theology in the Catholic Church that prevents women from being ordained — and only in a few various free churches have I seen a requirement to women to be silent. The Church Fathers recognized the complexity but they never took that license to ignore Scripture. Rev. Hamilton often criticizes what others call the plain sense (the literalist reading) reading while he himself engages in the same literalistic reading and in doing so mischaracterizes Scripture. And, believe it or not, as complex as we want to make it, Scripture in The United Methodist Church, is interpreted through the Sermons and Notes of John Wesley. These are called the doctrinal standards and serve as models of exposition.

Yes, scholarship aids us, but my suspicion is that many like to point to the complexity of Scripture so as to avoid what it may or may not say. Even as United Methodists, we have guidelines and helps in understanding Scripture from a theological standpoint. That is why we don’t require women to keep quiet and why women are pastors. Not because we disobey Scripture, but because we struggled with it, what it has said and what it might say.

The canonization is rather simple. There is not only the writings of the Church Fathers on this, but some excellent current resources that I could offer Rev. Hamilton (including my own theory). The NT canon is actually pretty natural. But, let me move on.

The New Testament, I would argue (and not alone, mind you), condemns  “slavery, polygamy, and concubinage.” Indeed, what we see in some of the later books in the Old Testament is the same thing — the ending of such practices. Yes, Scripture is complex and does not deserve a literalist reading, but neither does it deserve the continued charge of “complexity” in order to elevate our own ability to properly read it (or to ignore it).

But my biggest issue this: If Rev. Hamilton sees in Scripture these things, and yet refuses to do them, where does he place Scripture? Sure, Adam Hamilton is known as a rather nuanced individual. And having read this post several times, I know exactly the path around it.  But he has a responsibility to his parish (and if he is modeling himself on Wesley, then the world is his parish) to teach better than this. It is not enough to say “if we are literal, then we would force rape victims to marry their rapists” and point to that as a reason to condone monogamous homosexual unions.

Our homosexual friends, brothers and sisters, deserve something better than that.

And then there is this:

I don’t believe God makes us gay or straight.  I think sexual orientation is developed in most of us at a very early age through some combination of nature and nurture.  Heterosexuality is normative, but roughly 5% of the population is drawn to love someone of the same gender in the same way that heterosexuals are drawn to love the opposite gender.2

I am deeply troubled by this, not only as someone who believes many are born gay, but by someone who listens to anti-gay comments about the gay agenda making kids gay. This is highly irresponsible as it leads credence to the notion of reparative therapy, something proved not only ineffective but likewise destructive. Not only does this tableau rasa stand against biblical and Church teaching, but likewise science. My concern is that this sounds like he is putting people into buckets — while ignoring those who see SSM as a struggle, or those who do not identify as Gay (or straight).

I hope that Rev. Hamilton, one of The United Methodist Church’s most visible leaders, will be more responsible with his words in the future.

  1. Perhaps, had he referenced Tradition, he would have noted the Catholic view of Scriptural interpretation, which is far better than dividing the Old Testament up or placing it into buckets.
  2. The statement seems to be at odds with itself. If we are born orientation neutral, then how is heterosexuality normative? Does that mean that if given enough time and Supreme Court decisions, homosexuality could be normative?

Taxation and the free exercise of religion in post-marriage equality USA

Logo of the Internal Revenue Service
Logo of the Internal Revenue Service (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Oppenheimer is the first out of the gate in suggesting that it is now time to remove the tax exemptions on churches and other religious groups (synagogues, mosques, etc…). He writes, “It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.”

For from being the destroyer of worlds, Oppenheimer has some solid points. Sometimes, these non-profit institutions invade the public political arena (contra state laws) a little too much. Second, and this is really important, Oppenheimer writes, “…the religious exemption has forced the IRS to decide what’s a religion, and thus has entangled church and state in the worst way.”

However, his history is a bit off. The tax exempt status did not begin in 1909 as a response to charitable giving. Indeed, tax exemption for churches is quite early and follows a rather Constantian view of religion. The Founders interpreted the first amendment very straightforwardly, avoiding the taxation of churches for very particular (and non-Christian) reasons.

First, St Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles, far from being the bad theocratic monster modern conspiracy theorists paint him to be, preserved the religious freedom of the Empire to a very large extent. He famously said, “The struggle for deathlessness must be free,” while embracing something of a modern notion of religious pluralism. While he did support the Christian church, he did not enforce it nor did he exclude — through the power of the purse or otherwise — other expressions of the race to deathlessness.

Second, tax exempt status started early in the history of the Republic:

The Constitution solved this problem by abolishing European-style church establishment, but it hardly ended the accordance of benefits to churches, particularly in the area of taxation. Virginia exempted churches from paying property taxes in 1777, followed by New York in 1799 and the city of Washington in 1802. The Seventh Congress also passed a property tax exemption in 1802…European rulers had used taxes to prohibit the free exercise of religion before, and Americans didn’t want it to happen here.

In Europe, since long after the time of St. Constantine the Great, the power of the purse has been used to subdue rival religious claimants. Christians have waged economic war against other Christians. (Christians are not the only ones to use economic weapons to squash religious dissent.) The Founders, aware of this, attempted to remove this obstacle to religious pluralism. This is why tax-exemption started so early and was approved by a Congress so close to the Founders. While it has been expanded, it stems from the religious wars of continental Europe.

So, I guess, the question is: Would taxes prohibit the free exercise of religion?

Our case law, American/European history, and the history of religion as a whole says yes.

I wonder how many people who support taxing churches likewise hated the Citizens United decision because they recognize that it can be used to end freedom of speech… 

But, with that said, shouldn’t there be a way to prevent bilking organizations like Scientology from claiming religion status? Likewise, maybe Churches should respect the legal boundaries they adopt when using tax-exempt status. Further, at some point, millionaire pastors and multi-millionaire ministries should consider their own status, taxed or otherwise.

What sayeth ye?

update… Allan Bevere has a post up on why churches being taxed simply won’t happen

the Treaty of Tripoli and some wise Orthodox words

 People are struggling with the Supreme Court decision yesterday. Many Christians who support it are not showing the grace Scripture requires of them. There is barely a calming voice in this. 

So let me point this out:  
And from David Dunn, and Orthodox Christian:

Such efforts demonstrate a fundamental – even idolatrous – misunderstanding of the meaning of “holy matrimony,” effectively denying Christ by vesting the state with divine authority.

Orthodox Christianity has survived far longer and far more antagonistic homelands than what evangelicals face today. 

They demanded nothing from their governments in regard to protecting their sacraments. And yet they survived and have grown and have lived and have worshiped God. Not even Stalin could destroy the Orthosox Church. 

Anyway, maybe people should actually understand the separation of Church and State… And be sure to read Allen Bevere‘s The Politics of Witness to see how badly both sides of the American political spectrum misuses the Church. 

How to end Gay Marriage

English: The front of the United States Suprem...
English: The front of the United States Supreme Court building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the Dred Scott decision. Within a few years, this “law of the land” was changed to reflect the new political reality — that slavery was constitutionally forbidden, specifically by the 13th amendment.

Today, 26 June 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States, handed down the decision that says that the equal right to marry is a constitutional right. They used the 14th Amendment, an amendment used several times in equality issues.

I see a lot of my friends freaking out about this, unnecessarily. Many believe that religious freedom is now over. It is not. Justice Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, state,

Those who adhere to religious doctrines may continue to advocate with utmost sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.

We have already covered current state laws in regards to protecting denominational stances, not that any evidence, logic, or reason matters to either side.

But, I want to quickly address ways to overtune it if you are so inclined.

  • “Marriage equality” is based on the 14th amendment. This amendment is the amendment that “brought the Constitution down” to street level. It required States to then be bound by the rights guaranteed under the US Constitution. One could try to overturn it. There is a small movement, usually based on “birthright citizenship” in existence. At least one current GOP presidential candidate sort of supports that.
  • Write a constitutional amendment to say that marriage is between one man and one woman. This is actually a long considered thought — but can’t get off the ground.
  • Remove the State from the marriage process altogether.
  • Some consider it possible that you could remove this judicial review from SCOTUS, but others disagree.

None of these are likely, to be honest. The real question is, in a pluralistic society, should you move to forbid it?

One of the things Christians need to realize — they have used the State to preserve the status of “marriage” (except for preventing divorce, it seems) but the State is neutral in such things, especially in our Republic. This is not a redefinition of marriage any more than allowing the State to first define it is.

So now what?

Well, here is some reading material for you.

I find it troublesome that so many American Christians think that this is the end of the world. And I find it so disheartening the logic on both sides. Love doesn’t win; the 14th amendment “wins.” This is not mocking God, but the logical conclusion to the 14th amendment and the modern notion of rights.

Frankly, if you are a conservative Christian, you should “rejoice.” If you are a Christian that supports equal monogamous marriage, then rejoice.

And for the love of all that is holy, this is not a mandate for the Church. The Church should never bow to the State. The thing about political realities is that they can change by a vote.

What are your thoughts about today?


Dr Stephen W. Rankin on Wesleyan orthodox thinking

This is Dr Stephen Rankin‘s presentation and discussion on Wesleyan orthodox thinking. Pay attention.

I personally think we need a larger conference devote to Wesleyan orthodoxy, or maybe orthodoxy within Wesleyan thought… or maybe “Dear God, please let the Methodist people start thinking again…”

Anyway, enjoy.