What should the church teach and practice regarding homosexuality? Our debates have been escalating for decades and have reached a fever pitch. Several denominations have already split because of their disagreements. The United Methodist Church is threatening to be next.
Dr. Bill Arnold, a United Methodist professor of Old Testament, is one of the most recent voices in that debate. He makes some strong and unique arguments in his new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality.
Among other things, the book serves as an extended response to Adam Hamilton’s 2008 book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics. Hamilton’s view has been championed as the “middle way,” the agree-to-disagree view, the gray area between polarized black-and-white camps. Arnold argues that no such middle way is possible in this case (or in many of the other cases Hamilton discusses).
I’ll share my review of the book next week (NOW AVAILABLE HERE). But for now, Dr. Arnold has allowed me the privilege to interview him about his book, the church’s debate about homosexuality, and the future of the United Methodist Church.
Thanks for your time, Dr. Arnold.
On the surface, this is an unusual book. It’s a book-length review of something that came out six years ago. It’s an Old Testament professor writing about modern theology and ethics. So why did you think this book was needed in the first place? Why choose Adam Hamilton’s book as your “conversation partner”? And why is an Old Testament professor writing this kind of book at all?
While the book engages Adam’s, I prefer to see it as a collegial discussion over coffee. We happen to disagree. As I explain in the Preface, I only read his book in 2012, on my way to General Conference in Tampa. But I also hope my readers will see the book as more than an extended review. In reality, the first two chapters attempt to critique and deconstruct what Adam has proposed. Then in chapters 3–6, I reconstruct a different way of looking at the debate in the church over human sexuality. These are chapters in which I hope to offer something original and genuinely helpful to the church, rather than merely interacting with Adam’s proposals.
I chose Adam as a “conversation partner” frankly because he is so influential in our church. Most of what he has accomplished is laudable. I celebrate the way God has used him in his ministry, and continues to use him. But I also believe that because of his success, our church has not thought critically enough about his proposals related to same-sex practices.
And, Yes, I’m an Old Testament teacher. One reviewer said it was odd that an OT scholar/professor should engage in dialogue with a pastoral theologian, and another friend has privately scolded me for coming down out of the “ivory tower” to address “real life” problems I don’t understand. I find this whole thing interesting. We academics get slammed for being “ivory tower” and not writing or speaking about things people care about. Then when we do, we get slammed for writing or speaking about things people care about. I admit in the book that I stepped significantly out of my comfort zone to write this book. I often imagine what it would have been like to stay in my world of Hebrew exegesis and the book of Deuteronomy. Safer, to be sure. But the story I tell in the preface about my experience at General Conference 2012 emboldened me to step into the public arena, to clear my throat, to express my views. I think of my interaction with Adam as a mutual engagement of ideas, an exchange of differing opinions, and the power and value of that engagement lies in the ideas and truths expressed, regardless of the source.
Have you talked directly with Adam Hamilton about the disagreements you list in the book—either before or since its writing? How have those conversations gone?
Yes. I had met him a few times, but we had never talked about these issues. As I say, I was not fully aware of his views until I read his book in April 2012. And to answer your question more fully, I need to explain the process I went through to write the book. I had the ideas, basic outline, and general plan for the book on the airplane back from Tampa. I wrote the first chapter that fall, but then I placed the book aside. I frankly didn’t want to continue it. Gradually, during the Spring Semester, 2013, I felt convicted that I should return to the manuscript and keep writing. So during the summer, I placed aside several other writing projects, which I still consider to be my primary calling, in order to write this book for the church. All along the way, I argued with myself (or with God) about whether or not I was really going to publish this.
Once I came to realize that yes, indeed, I was really going to offer this for publication, then I contacted Adam. I explained to him what I was planning, and we engaged in an email discussion. I wish it could have been more substantive and in person. But this was the best we could do. You asked how the conversations have gone. I suppose they have gone as you might expect. We are simply not going to agree on this issue, even if we are together on many other issues. We’re always collegial and gentlemanly, if that’s what you mean. In some ways, I hope we can model how Christians can disagree, and do it in a Christian manner.
Your approach surprised me. I expected a biblical studies person to do a deep-dive into some of the biblical passages on homosexuality. Instead, your book taught me a lot about logical fallacies (I counted 29 uses of the word fallacy), theological method, and myths in the contemporary ethical debate. Why’d you choose this approach?
I suppose it’s about the needs I perceived in the church. We have several extensive treatments of the biblical data related to same-sex practices. I especially benefitted from Richard Hays, Robert Gagnon, William Webb, Richard M. Davidson, and others. I also took the opportunity to engage the counter arguments represented in the works of Sylvia Keesmaat and Luke Timothy Johnson, although my critiques of their work will not appear until this fall in another publication. The point is, I didn’t need to rehash all that work. Besides, the church isn’t listening to the scriptural evidence anyway. I spent quite a lot of time on hermeneutical method and explaining why scripture is important. But in general, the church needs to be reminded today, in my opinion, about “theological reasoning” as I say in the subtitle.
You say, “We don’t need a newly reformed Christianity. We need instead a Methodism that is renewed and empowered to continue the social work of spreading scriptural holiness across the land, as the early Methodists did.” Could you say more? What’s the difference between “reformed” and “renewed”? And what does the UMC lack for the kind of renewal and empowerment you mention?
That quote comes from a larger critique of Adam’s approach, which proposes a new generation of Christians of the middle-way should combine parts of both extremes (Falwell or Spong) into a new Christianity. He believes this reformed Christianity will be created by people who see more gray than black-&-white. This call for a new reformation borrows a theme from the Emerging Church, which I think is trendy and already waning in influence. I think this call for a new reformation is overreaching, and what we really need is renewal of what we have in Wesleyan theology. A fresh proclamation of our theology is what the world needs. I really believe that. But we’re distracted and torn apart by conflict. We need renewal and empowerment, not new answers to controversial debates.
You argue that there is no middle way on the issue of same-sex practices. It’s a fork in the road. Either we approve them, or we don’t. But some people will say we don’t have to force everyone down the same path. We don’t require all of our pastors to remain in lock-step on our beliefs about creation, or our stance on tobacco use, for instance. So why enforce conformity on this issue?
Our statement on sexuality emphasizes the sacred worth of all persons, and is clear that we do not condemn individuals for experiencing same-sex attraction. The pressure on our church today is on the specific questions of ordination and the nature of Christian marriage. And how these relate to same-sex practices presents the church with the single most important social issue of our day.
The pressure to address the question would not be as great for congregationalist denominations. They have mechanisms for letting each congregation decide. But Methodism defines itself as connectional, and sees this as one of the most important ways we participate in the one, catholic, universal church. Of course, we don’t all agree on every issue. But as a connectional church, our Social Principles offer the world our best theological thinking on every aspect of life in the modern world. How can this not include official statements embraced by the connection on human sexuality?
You had a great section at the end of the book, debunking myths in the current debate. This quote stood out to me:
“The church’s teaching about sex is not the problem, and liberation from that teaching has not provided healthy freedom. On the contrary, it can be argued that the church failed to influence culture in the 1960s, losing its voice and failing to condemn nonmarital sexual practices of all kinds.”
You suggest that the church lost its voice on sexual issues fifty years ago. Might it be hard for people to respect a stance on same-sex intimacy from a church that has, as you say, “failed to condemn nonmarital sexual practices of all kinds”? Have we lost the right to speak on sexuality? Or are we starting in the wrong place by making same-sex practices our focus?
Yes, in one sense we are starting in the wrong place. We’re here because North American culture is driving the UMC quickly toward becoming another example of “cultural Christianity” rather than biblical Christianity.
That quote is part of a discussion of the “myth of liberation” in the current debate. My point is that the church lost the battle during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, in which “liberation” was a central theme. And once the church lost its influence in the culture, we simply grew quiet on sexual promiscuity generally, whether we’re talking about multiple marriages without just cause for divorce or premarital cohabitation. The church has grown silent on those topics and is now unfortunately fixated on same-sex practices. But you’re right, the church exists to teach the world and offer the world a higher way, a more excellent ethic that is ultimately satisfying to God and more fulfilling as human beings in this created order. The church extends grace and care to persons experiencing same-sex attraction. It’s vitally important that the church find new and creative ways to do that. But we also offer everyone in the church, no matter our sexual experiences or preferences, a way of holy living that ultimately fits our souls for communion with God.
Two of the most prominent violations of the UMC stance on same-sex marriages involve UM pastors who officiated the weddings of their gay sons. I’m sure situations like that would cause someone to do a lot of soul-searching. If you’ll indulge a hypothetical—a gay son comes to you and says, “Dad, I’m getting married. I hope you’ll be at the wedding. I’d really like you to officiate it.” What do you say?
Great question. As I say in the preface to the book, I had long talks with two of my three sons about this topic while I was writing the book. (Our youngest son was on deployment with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan at the time.) They were helpful chats because they don’t all agree with everything I’ve said here. But this is something that never came up. I think and hope my first impulse would be to assure him how much I love him, and how much I will never allow anything to break our relationship. I think my sons know me well enough, have gone through enough with me to know, I would probably grab him and hug him first, and then start talking about it. Of course the next part of my answer is hypothetical, so I can only say this is what I hope I would do. But I hope I would say I would attend the ceremony, and express my unhesitating love for my son, but that I could not perform the ceremony. I think any of my sons would understand this. A wedding ceremony is God’s stamp of approval, acknowledging that God honors and blesses, and approves of love between two people, and finally, that God approves the sexualization of that relationship. When I perform wedding ceremonies, I’m an instrument of God’s grace to approve and bless that union. I would hope my son would love and respect me enough to understand my position, and welcome my presence in attendance at the ceremony, but accept my decision not to perform the ceremony. That would be incredibly difficult and painful. I don’t want to minimize the pain others have gone through in making this decision. But just as they say it’s a question of pastoral integrity that leads them to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies, I respond that indeed, it’s integrity that drives me to say I simply cannot perform them. I think my sons would understand that.
A lot of different proposals are coming out right now regarding the impasse in the UMC. Another group just recently issued a press release through Good News Magazine that essentially said it’s time to acknowledge our differences and work toward an amicable split. If you had to propose or endorse a way forward for the UMC, what would you say right now? To get more realistic, what do you think is most likely for our future?
Well, those are two different questions. Because I’m basically a pessimist, I need to say I don’t have much hope for keeping us together. But I’m also not part of those groups calling for a split or amicable separation. I prefer staying together as a denomination, but finding ways to hold bishops and annual conferences accountable to the “sacred trust,” as the Book of Discipline says, that binds us together. We’re in this mess because some have chosen deliberately to break faith with the connection, which they consider biblical disobedience. I consider it schismatic.
I also don’t favor proposals circulating just now that favor allowing the local congregation to decide the question of marriage/civil unions, and annual conferences’ Boards of Ordained Ministries to decide the question of ordination. I don’t support those proposals for two main reasons. First, on the authority of the local church to decide the question of marriage/unions, I believe this would make us congregationalists. Our connectionalism is one of the hallmarks of Methodism, which also locates us squarely in the one, catholic, universal Church. The idea of turning to local congregations to settle this important and sensitive issue reconfigures Methodism significantly. Second, on the ordination question, I cannot image the confusion and chaos created at the conference level. I make no claim to be an expert on the appointment system. But this strikes me as “everyone doing what is right in their own eyes” chaos (you might have expected an Old Testament allusion).
And just for fun… You’ve been a delegate to the past two General Conferences. You were the second person nominated in the Kentucky Conference last time, and the person who was nominated before you is now a bishop. If nominated for the episcopacy, will you run? If elected, will you serve?
No, and no.
Thank you, that is all.
Dr. Arnold’s book is Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality. For anyone in the United Methodist Church, or anyone with an interest in this debate, it’s worth picking up.
I’ll be writing more about the book. Sign up to receive free updates.