Joseph Tognetti wrote a piece attempting to start a conversation. In it he asked some pertinent questions that I myself have pondered over time. I encourage you to read his piece and answer those questions in the interest of an actual conversation instead of the normal accusation that seems to occur. Once you are done reading his, please return here to see the answers I have come up with and share your own with us all.
The first question is “To what degree is the statement biblical?” I am going to take a leap and assume that we all agree with the statement in principal save for the statements that affirm that the only proper expression of sexual intimacy are heterosexual marriage. (“Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”) This really is where we disagree it seems. The question is to what degree is it Biblical. The answer is fairly simple. If we take the words of Jesus seriously and we assume that He meant what he said, then it is very Biblical. Jesus, while speaking on divorce, affirms that the intent of God from the beginning is one man and one woman. There are those who will counter with differing ideas and thoughts. Some will say that this was said because no one could conceive of two of the same gender marrying. Well, I submit that Jesus did not shy away from making controversial statements, nor did He shy away from saying things that would upset the normal social order. I have every confidence that if Christ wanted to say anything other than what he did, He would have had no problem doing so. Some will say that this Jesus was just speaking to His audience in a way that they would understand, but it was not meant to be a binding statement. I will counter with Jesus quite frankly often said things people did not understand. He had no problem doing so it seems. Don’t believe me? Read the gospels and see how often the disciples are confused by His teachings. There are more arguments against this understanding I imagine, but all of them share a few things in common. First, they are distinctly modern (mostly since about Kinsey), they all require radically different understandings of scripture than the early church had, and are still not the majority thinking of actual Biblical scholars (as opposed to people like me who like to pretend to be amateur theologians, but who in reality are at best, rank amateurs). There simply in not a lot of evidence that would be sufficient to over turn nearly 2,000 years of Christian teaching (not to mention the Jewish teachings before that). We do not even need to really address the (improperly) so called clobber verses to answer the question as we have a teaching in red letters and everything. I am happy to talk about those verses, but again, the understanding of them requires one to drastically depart from what has been church teaching and drift into highly speculative understandings that there is little evidence of.
“How much of it reflects sound theology…” I guess that really depends on what you call sound theology. If you believe that the early fathers represented sound theology passed down through the traditions of the church into our Wesleyan understanding of scripture, then it does indeed represent sound theology. First, from John Wesley in his standard sermons (Sermon 38, “A Caution Against Bigotry.”), which are a part of our doctrinal standards. I add a note here to explain that in Wesley’s day “sodomite” was used to mean a variety of things which included sex between two of the same gender, not a pejorative specifically against homosexual men as it is commonly used today.
““These monsters might almost make us overlook the works of the devil that are wrought in our own country. But, alas! We cannot open our eyes even here without seeing them on every side. Is it a small proof of his power that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience!””
From Wesley’s notes on the New Testament, also part of our standards of faith we get the following in commentary on Romans 1″24-27:
““Romans 1:24. Wherefore — One punishment of sin is from the very nature of it, as Romans 1:27; another, as here, is from vindictive justice. Uncleanness — Ungodliness and uncleanness are frequently joined, 1 Thessalonians 4:5 as are the knowledge of God and purity. God gave them up — By withdrawing his restraining grace.
25. Who changed the truth — The true worship of God. Into a lie — False, abominable idolatries. And worshipped — Inwardly. And served — Outwardly.
26. Therefore God gave them up to vile affections — To which the heathen Romans were then abandoned to the last degree; and none more than the emperors themselves.
27. Receiving the just recompense of their error — Their idolatry being punished with that unnatural lust, which was as horrible a dishonor to the body, as their idolatry was to God.””
I will note that in many of his essays and letters he spoke against such things as well. I do not include those quotations here as they are not formally a part of our doctrinal standards, but they do make clear his thoughts on the matter. If interested, I suggest Works of John Wesley, Abingdon Press, Richard P. Heitzenrater, Ed.
I will here list several other quotes by revered members of the church throughout history. The list is not exhaustive.
“No sin in the world grips the soul as the accursed sodomy; this sin has always been detested by all those who live according to God.… Deviant passion is close to madness; this vice disturbs the intellect, destroys elevation and generosity of soul, brings the mind down from great thoughts to the lowliest, makes the person slothful, irascible, obstinate and obdurate, servile and soft and incapable of anything; furthermore, agitated by an insatiable craving for pleasure, the person follows not reason but frenzy.… They become blind and, when their thoughts should soar to high and great things, they are broken down and reduced to vile and useless and putrid things, which could never make them happy…. Just as people participate in the glory of God in different degrees, so also in hell some suffer more than others. He who lived with this vice of sodomy suffers more than another, for this is the greatest sin.” (St. Bernardine of Siena, Sermon XXXIX in Prediche volgari, pp. 896-897, 915) St. Bernardine of Sienna 1380-1444′
“”But they act in a contrary way, for they come full of impurity to this mystery, and not only of that impurity to which, through the fragility of your weak nature, you are all naturally inclined (although reason, when free will permits, can quiet the rebellion of nature), but these wretches not only do not bridle this fragility, but do worse, committing that accursed sin against nature, and as blind and fools, with the light of their intellect darkened, they do not know the stench and misery in which they are.”(St. Catherine of Sienna, The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, Ltd., 1925), p. 255) St. Catherine of Sienna 1346-1380
“”Given the sin of impiety through which they sinned against the divine nature , the punishment that led them to sin against their own nature followed…. I say, therefore, that since they changed into lies the truth about God, He brought them to ignominious passions, that is, to sins against nature; not that God led them to evil, but only that he abandoned them to evil….
“If all the sins of the flesh are worthy of condemnation because by them man allows himself to be dominated by that which he has of the animal nature, much more deserving of condemnation are the sins against nature by which man degrades his own animal nature….
“Man can sin against nature in two ways. First, when he sins against his specific rational nature, acting contrary to reason. In this sense, we can say that every sin is a sin against man’s nature, because it is against man’s right reason….
“Secondly, man sins against nature when he goes against his generic nature, that is to say, his animal nature. Now, it is evident that, in accord with natural order, the union of the sexes among animals is ordered towards conception. From this it follows that every sexual intercourse that cannot lead to conception is opposed to man’s animal nature.”(St. Thomas Aquinas, Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, Cap. 1, Lec. 8, (Our translation.))
“”Truly, this vice is never to be compared with any other vice because it surpasses the enormity of all vices.… It defiles everything, stains everything, pollutes everything. And as for itself, it permits nothing pure, nothing clean, nothing other than filth.…
“The miserable flesh burns with the heat of lust; the cold mind trembles with the rancor of suspicion; and in the heart of the miserable man chaos boils like Tartarus …. In fact, after this most poisonous serpent once sinks its fangs into the unhappy soul, sense is snatched away, memory is borne off, the sharpness of the mind is obscured. It becomes unmindful of God and even forgetful of itself. This plague undermines the foundation of faith, weakens the strength of hope, destroys the bond of charity; it takes away justice, subverts fortitude, banishes temperance, blunts the keenness of prudence.
“And what more should I say since it expels the whole host of the virtues from the chamber of the human heart and introduces every barbarous vice as if the bolts of the doors were pulled out.” (St. Peter Damian, Book of Gomorrah, Pierre J. Payer, trans., (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982), pp. 63-64)
“Sacred Scripture itself confirms that sulfur evokes the stench of the flesh, as it speaks of the rain of fire and sulfur poured upon Sodom by the Lord. He had decided to punish Sodom for the crimes of the flesh, and the very type of punishment he chose emphasized the shame of that crime. For sulfur stinks, and fire burns. So it was just that Sodomites, burning with perverse desires arising from the flesh like stench, should perish by fire and sulfur so that through this just punishment they would realize the evil they had committed, led by a perverse desire.” (Morales sur Job, Part III, Vol. I, book 14, no. 23, p. 353. St. Gregory)
“Those offences which be contrary to nature are everywhere and at all times to be held in detestation and punished; such were those of the Sodomites, which should all nations commit, they should all be held guilty of the same crime by the divine law, which hath not so made men that they should in that way abuse one another. For even that fellowship which should be between God and us is violated, when that same nature of which He is author is polluted by the perversity of lust.” ( Book III, Chap. 8, no. 15, St. Augustine)
“But if thou scoffest at hearing of hell and believest not that fire, remember Sodom. For we have seen, surely we have seen, even in this present life, a semblance of hell. For since many would utterly disbelieve the things to come after the resurrection, hearing now of an unquenchable fire, God brings them to a right mind by things present. For such is the burning of Sodom, and that conflagration!…
“Consider how great is that sin, to have forced hell to appear even before its time!… For that rain was unwonted, for the intercourse was contrary to nature, and it deluged the land, since lust had done so with their souls. Wherefore also the rain was the opposite of the customary rain. Now not only did it fail to stir up the womb of the earth to the production of fruits, but made it even useless for the reception of seed. For such was also the intercourse of the men, making a body of this sort more worthless than the very land of Sodom. And what is there more detestable than a man who hath pandered himself, or what more execrable?” ( Homily IV Romans 1:26-27 St. John Chrysostom)
“ having forbidden all unlawful marriage, and all unseemly practice, and the union of women with women and men with men.”(W. J. Ferrar, trans., Demonstratio Evangelica, Book 4, Chap. 10, Eusebius of Caesarea)
“But all the other frenzies of passions–impious both toward the bodies and toward the sexes–beyond the laws of nature, we banish not only from the threshold, but from all shelter of the Church, because they are not sins, but monstrosities.” ( Fr. S. Thelwall, trans., On Modesty, Chap. 4, Tertullian before he was a heretic)
“”But though such is our character (Oh! why should I speak of things unfit to be uttered?), the things said of us are an example of the proverb, ‘The harlot reproves the chaste.’ For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure – who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations, outraging all the noblest and comeliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonoring the fair workmanship of God.” ( Fr.. B. P. Pratten, trans., A Plea For The Christians, Chap. 34 Athenagoras of Athens)
“The land of the Sodomites, a part of Canaan afterwards called Palestinian Syria, was brimful of innumerable iniquities, particularly such as arise from gluttony and lewdness, and multiplied and enlarged every other possible pleasure with so formidable a menace that it had at last been condemned by the Judge of All…Incapable of bearing such satiety, plunging like cattle, they threw off from their necks the law of nature and applied themselves to…forbidden forms of intercourse. Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbors, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which the active partner shares with the passive; and so when they tried to beget children they were discovered to be incapable of any but a sterile seed. Yet the discovery availed them not, so much stronger was the force of the lust which mastered them. Then, as little by little they accustomed those who were by nature men to submit to play the part of women, they saddled them with the formidable curse of a female disease. For not only did they emasculate their bodies by luxury and voluptuousness but they worked a further degeneration in their souls and, as far as in them lay, were corrupting the whole of mankind.”(Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC to AD 50). Jewish philosopher, theologian, and contemporary of Jesus and Paul. Writing on the life of Abraham.)
I have purposely taken a great deal of space here to demonstrate that there is an understanding of this that runs from the time of Philo of Alexandria until now. This is not a new thing. Condemnation of sex between two of the same gender is not new. Understanding marriage as properly being one man and one woman is not new. This list, while by no means exhaustive, does include those praised for their understandings of scripture. So, if the theology is not sound, it has not been sound historically, and it means that the church has been nearly universally wrong about sexual morality and marriage for 2,000 years. I find that difficult to believe at best.
“What parts of this statement reflect our faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” This is answered in our articles of religion best I think. I will quote the relevant article here.
Article VI — Of the Old Testament
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.
Yes, there is some ambiguity here admittedly. There is nothing in scripture that I am aware of that says proper sexual expression is anything other than a moral command. If we love Christ, that is to say the triune God, then we will follow His commands. Some of those commands have to do with proper sexual expression. Because of this, the church must teach proper sexual expression and the community of believers must hold each other accountable for the same. Our faith may be individual but it can not be forgotten that it also communal. We do indeed stress personal holiness, but also social holiness. That means that not only our personal lives must be holy, but also the communal life we share and express through the teachings and actions of the church. That is part of the commands called moral too. “Be holy because I the Lord you God am Holy.” That does not sound like an option to me.
“How does this statement reflect a perspective of human sexuality rooted in our common faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ?” The answer to this really can be found above. Because we have responded to the grace shown us and believe, we have willingly submitted to the will of the God, though the risen Christ. His will is for us to be a holy people set apart, that is to say in the world but not of the world.
“How much of this statement do we all agree with, and how much of it divides us? Are those divisions reconcilable?” For the most part, I imagine that the disagreement lies in what is the proper expression of marriage and is sex between two of the same gender ever acceptable. I don’t find these positions reconcilable simple because a church that says it may or may not be a sin depending on your geographic location is a church that is confused and that does not recognize the responsibility that it has in instructing holy living and teaching the truth and will of God. That goes for any matter really. We would not (I hope) say that slavery is a sin in America, but acceptable in China, so neither should we say sex between two of the same gender is acceptable in America, but a sin in Africa for example. The other reason is that marriage is the reflection of Christ’s relationship with His bride, the church. If we can not get the earthly representation of that divine relationship correct, are we really the bride?
There is a lot more that I could say, but I have already gone on to long. I think that a good bit of this conversation lies in our understandings of grace and the law. I think that one of the largest issues that the UMC is facing is an inaddiquate theology on the body and marriage. Mostly we have let the big tent united under our standards of faith become a tent without sides united under some pension plans and general boards and agencies. I hope that this will perhaps spur the conversation that Joseph Tognetti started forward some.