So this is going around again…

This piece, written by Luke Timothy Johnson, is going around in the (so called) centrist United Methodist Circles. It was first put out in 2007. Mt. Johnson is a New Testament scholar of some note as well as a former Roman Catholic Priest. Because this is going around again, I think it appropriate to make some brief reflections on what he wrote a decade ago, what it has to do with United Methodist theology, and to point out some fundamental flaw in his reasoning. I bring it up only because it is being offered as evidence that many faith traditions are wrestling with scripture regarding these questions. This piece does not wrestle with scripture however, it replaces scripture as God’s revelation to us with human experience as God’s revelation to us. That is not wrestling with scripture, it is replacing it. If this serves as a justification for various Methodist groups, and it is being presented as just that, then they have only affirmed what many of us have said. Scripture as the authority by which all the truths of faith are measured has been replaced by personal experiences as the measure of truth.  Worth noting is that his opinions are also not in line with Roman Catholic teaching on the matter, so he is speaking from his own understanding and not the understanding of the Roman Catholic church. I encourage you to read the piece linked above in it’s entirety. I will use the style of quoting relevant sections and commenting on them below the quote.
“Is the present crisis in Christian denominations over homosexuality really about sex? I don’t think so.”
Here is the first problem with his piece, and it is the very first line. He begins with the presupposition that this is not about sexual morality, but about something else entirely. This of course only serves to change the conversation away from sexual ethics and into an entirely different realm.
“The church could devote its energies to resisting the widespread commodification of sex in our culture, the manipulation of sexual attraction in order to sell products. It could fight the exploitation of women and children caught in a vast web of international prostitution and pornography. It could correct the perceptions that enabled pedophilia to be practiced and protected among clergy. It could name the many ways that straight males enable such distorted and diseased forms of sexuality.”
Now he has created a false dichotomy saying that if the church is concerned about “A” it is therefor not doing anything about “B”. This is simply not true in the least. The church has taught about a wide variety of subjects over it’s history, often at the same time. If your pastor were to give a sermon about the necessity of feeding the poor, would you automatically assume that he did not care about providing them clothes or shelter? Of course not because we recognize that people, just like the church, can have a variety of concerns.  It also puts the church on the defensive for continuing in the same understanding of sexual ethics over the history of Christianity on the matter, not to mention the same understanding of our Jewish forerunners as well. It gives the perception that somehow the church has just now started to care and nothing could be further from the truth. There are centuries of consistent teachings on sexual morality that can be referenced.
“And accepting covenanted love between persons of the same sex represents the same downward spiral with regard to Scripture, since the Bible nowhere speaks positively or even neutrally about same-sex love (glossing over the relationship of Jonathan and David, see 1 Samuel 18–2 Samuel 1).”
So yes, David and Johnathan loved each other. I will go so far as to say that there was a covenant involved in their love. I love other men also, and share covenants with them. This is not the issue. Here he is trying to go down the path that if two men love each other and have chosen to make a covenant with each other, it must be a homosexual relationship. This is not only false and a dangerous reading into scripture, if we follow that example into the New Testament, we see a deeply close and conventional relationship between Jesus and His disciples. Should we then believe that Jesus was a homosexual as well based upon the same evidence (really, the lack of evidence)? Don’t laugh, many have. The idea that David and Johnathan were somehow romantically involved was popularized by John Bozwell whose primary academic purpose was to show that homosexuality has always existed and been accepted in history going so far as to claim that there were homosexual weddings of Catholic monks. He is one of the forerunners of “queer (so called) theology”. His ideas are distinctly modern, have been panned by his academic peers as inaccurate, based upon assumption and confirmation bias, and are not largely respected in the academic or theological communities. Others have caught on to the claim and tried to provide their own evidences from scripture, but all such evidence requires you to read more into the story than is present in the text, and to assume that you know the motivation of two men who lived thousands of years ago.
“Of course, Christianity as actually practiced has never lived in precise accord with the Scriptures. War stands in tension with Jesus’ command of nonviolence, while divorce, even under another name (annulment), defies Jesus’ clear prohibition.”
Except by Jesus of course, who wasn’t a Christian, but a Jew. That is another rant entirely. Just War is a commonly accepted understanding of violence between nations and when it is acceptable and when it is not. It is certainly a part of Catholic theology. Jesus did not forbid divorce, but He did put some restrictions upon it. There is some pretty heavy theology about the keys to the kingdom passed to the Apostles involving divorce as well links between idolatry and adultery, but let’s be clear about this. This is not new in the least and the theology surrounding marriage and divorce in the Catholic tradition is robust. It is also robust in the Orthodox tradition and even in the Wesleyan tradition, but it is rather hard to find in the UMC. The point here about divorce however is that Jesus did not forbid it, he restricted it. A priest should know such things.
“And which Christians have ever observed the exhortation in Leviticus to stone psychics and put adulterers to death? But make this point to those opposed to same-sex unions, and you’re liable to find it turned back against you.”
The only book of the Bible less understood than Leviticus has got to be The Revelation to Saint John. The Catholic tradition, as well as pretty much every Christian tradition, recognizes that just as we are not obligated to follow the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law, we are still very much bound by the moral aspects of it. Frankly, not understanding that is a poor understanding of the image of God we are all created in and poor creation theology. A priest should know better. It’s not turning it back against anyone to say this, it is affirming what the church catholic has taught since it’s founding.
“For them, the authority of Scripture and tradition resides in a set of commands, and loyalty is a matter of obedience. If the church has always taught that same-sex relations are wrong, and the Bible consistently forbids it, then the question is closed.”
It is not loyalty to be obedient to the commands in scripture, it is the love of God. All through out the scriptures, love of God and of Christ is tied to obedience. This is inescapable in even casual readings of scripture. But yes, if the tradition of the church has always said it and the scriptures clearly forbid it, then the question is indeed closed as it has already been answered over and over again through the centuries. That is the whole point of the faith once and for all delivered after all.
“It is not difficult to understand these positions; indeed, they were probably held by many of us at some point until our lives and the lives of those we love made us begin to question them. So we can—and should—understand the mix of fear and anger that fuels the passionate defense of such positions. “
Here is where we get to the seriously dangerous stuff, as well as some of the scripted assumptions that are proven wrong over and over again yet still persist. We all thought it was wrong until it was someone that we love. To translate, when someone that we love is not following the scriptures, we should just change them.
As an aside, I am not angry, nor am I afraid. Not of, or at, this topic at the very least. I am pretty tired of hearing that I am.
“I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.”
Did you catch that? The higher authority that the former priest appeals to is the weight of our own experiences. He has set personal experience as an authority higher than the Bible. This should not come as a surprise to many of us who have been saying this is the case for some time, but it is surprising to have someone actually admit it.
By he way, what is rejected as sin is not the attraction, but rather the actions taken regarding the attraction. This is the same for all of us, and extends beyond sexual desire as well. We all have desires. Some are in line with the will of God and some are not. What we do with that desire is the issue. He of course rejects that and makes untruthful claims about what most of those with a traditional sexual ethic actually believe. He also exhibits (again) a very poor understanding of the image of God we are created in as well as how it has become marred and is in need of restoration.
Stick with me here. I do not think that God is a monster. For example, I do not think that a child born with serious cognitive disabilities is God’s ultimate plan, it is a result of sin entering into the world and the world falling and being in need of restoration. I do not think that children born with crippling genetic disorders is God’s ultimate plan. I do not think that children who die within days of birth for any number of health concerns is God’s ultimate plan. If it were, God becomes a hideous monster who actively desires the death of the most innocent and defenseless among us. Are we prepared to think this way of God? I ask because that is what is required if the condition we are born in is the determining factor of what God’s plan entails. How we are born really has no bearing on the topic at hand. What we do with the life we are born into is, and always has been, the issue. We, and indeed the entire world, is in desperate need of God’s promised restoration. Nothing in this world is God’s ultimate end point. The end point is the new heaven and earth when we all get to hang out the way it was intended from the beginning. In short, none of us are born as God originally had intended, but yes, all of us have been lovingly created, marred as we are, to reflect the glory of God.
This has already drug on to long. The piece goes on to talk about slavery, which has nothing to do with anything, as well as the Gentiles being allowed into the faith claiming making some terrible claims about that as well. It’s nothing new, just the repackaged old arguments that require a nearly complete re-imagining of the meaning of scripture from start to finish to justify it.
The end of ll of this is simple. There are two competing views of Christianity at play here. One view says that experience informs what scripture means, and the other says that scripture helps us to better understand the experiences that we have. Both can not be correct. One says that the fallen and marred experiences of humanity define God, and the other says that God, and our identity through Christ He has provided, defines us. In case you are not catching on, one is idolatry of the highest order setting man up to define God and the other is faithful obedience as an expression of love for The Creator. A lot happens to the faiths that are present in scripture that are based in idolatry, and none of it is positive. The question is the same today as it has been through out history and even asked in scripture. Choose you this day whom you will serve. The first competing views answers that question in a way that serves man. The second competing view answers as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. So choose you this day…and choose wisely.

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