Here in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, we’ve been encouraged to read Steve Harper’s recent book, For the Sake of the Bride. Bishop Huie is preparing us to have discussions in the various districts.
I’ve just finished the book & have a few reflections:
- The need to be centered on and driven by love is essential – but often forgotten or redefined out of existence.
- I respect Harper’s admission that all the biblical material that relates to same sex activity is negative – AND the contextualization of that (particularly in Romans 1) with the universality of sin. I’m careful to do that as well whenever I teach or preach from that text.
- I, too, have learned much from E. Stanley Jones. I barely knew the name when I began at Asbury Seminary and reckon learning more of his work to be one of the high points of my education there.
- I especially like the way Harper & ESJ center on Jesus. I know no other way to be Christian. We rarely go wrong when we center on Jesus. Sure, we might recruit Jesus as an adjunct to our own causes, but that often collapses Jesus into an idealized version of ourselves.
- Humility is essential. As one with a philosophical temperament, I know I can be wrong. As John Wesley noted, I currently believe (a) all my beliefs are correct, taken individually (otherwise they wouldn’t be my beliefs) and (b) that it is highly unlikely that all my beliefs, taken as a whole, are correct (given my track record of having to make corrections). I have a high capacity for doubt. Jesus is all I hang on to.
- Unlike Harper, I am not convinced that marriage can be moved beyond the traditional model of gender complementarity. (Phillip Blond and Roger Scruton give a secular argument for gender complementarity in marriage while simultaneously endorsing gay unions and urging churches to approve them.) Now on the one hand, the sociological hand, my doubt is clearly misguided. It is a sociological fact that marriage can be anything a particular society causes it to be. We currently have same-gender marriage in at least some states (and countries) so it is an undeniable fact that same gender marriage is a reality. My doubts on the possibility are from the direction of theology and the biblical approach to marriage. It is clearly obvious also that both Christians and others who hold to the gender complementarity understanding of marriage have often done marriage poorly. The prevalence of abuse, infidelity, and the like make a mockery of claims to honor the “sanctity of marriage.” (Harper doesn’t use this argument in his book.) Doing a thing poorly is different from not doing a thing; I’m just not at a point where I can see same-gender “marriage” as marriage.
- Harper makes much of the concept of “dualistic thinking,” but he ties it so closely to the mere act of differentiation that I don’t see how it can stand. We can say, “There are two SIDES in the current debate. We need to transcend the dualistic thinking of SIDES and do LOVE instead.” This isn’t setting aside dualism, but trading one dualism for another. The old SIDES (both of them) are “non-love,” the new is “real love.” The end result he wants, which he clarifies toward the end of the book, is that the problem of dualism is that it results in hierarchy. That may be the case. Though rejecting hierarchy in the abstract strikes me as impossible (we have to order perceived goods as we live our lives), the rejection or at least reduction of hierarchical thinking is often a good thing. I think his case might be strengthened if he explicitly argued in favor of differentiation (many) instead of rejecting dualism.
- Finally with regard to core claim of his book, I think he is correct that the only way forward is to meet & talk. His mention of the creeds of the early church is important here. If I had written that section I would have made more of the fact that creating those creeds took a lot of time. What we use as the Nicene Creed began at the Council of Nicea in 325 but most of the final article wasn’t added until 381. Even then the issues continued to be debated. We complain about working on this issue for 40 years. We lack the capacity (patience?) to imagine that reaching a decision about some issues can take a really long time.
- Moving outside the book: I don’t have a position of much authority in the church. I’ve never been a delegate to GC or JC, and lack the political astuteness (and patience) to imagine being such. Even so, though I am one who counts myself as a member of the Confessing Movement and supportive of the church’s current position, I have no desire to approach the matter legalistically. I don’t want to go hunting for those who’ve got it wrong. (Maybe Gamaliel was on to something.) I don’t think our hierarchical polity helps us here. There is so much power and control from above (on this and other issues), that our relationships are warped. Our current Discipline pushes us toward a “one size fits all” approach, leading to the fear our side might lose: we take losing in this kind of system to be losing everything. We also have the problem of trust. Before the issue of homosexuality even comes to the table we don’t trust each other: Pastors don’t trust DSs or bishops, DSs don’t trust pastors or churches, churches don’t trust pastors or cabinets.
- Moving farther afield, I think we need to do more work on the question of “orientation.” It’s become a primary concept in this debate. Orientation may be a useful concept, but if it’s limited to issues of sexuality and framed in the context of determinism, I don’t find it tenable. I find a variety of “orientations” in myself and cannot take these to be automatically good or bad merely on the basis of their being my orientation.
- Finally, and here I go back to Harper’s book, though he frames the book as a “third way” in the debate, I’m afraid that I’m still looking. Saying that we should love each other and talk together is opposed to the way of controversy aimed at winning. Saying that we adopt the notion that sexual immorality is the thing to be avoided, and that sexual immorality is defined as sex outside of marriage, and making the move to see same gender marriage as acceptable, is not a third way. I can’t help but read it as a position that requires complete capitulation on the part of the traditionalists. If there’s another way to read this move, please chime in.