As our beloved United Methodism is threatened with being “dis-united.” Many of my friends say they cannot remain in a church where some parishioners are gay and married. I feel constrained to share my own journey with persons who experienced the personal reality of being told by beloved people that they are gay, or persons whom I love telling me they are gay. To me, we must address this issue through relationships rather than theological concepts. We also need to see the scripture through what we perceive to be the “mind of Christ” rather than Mosaic law. Thirdly, as my custom is, let’s look at the contemporary issue through Mr. Wesley’s sermons
My Relationships View
I remember so well nineteen years ago when a 1955 college classmate called to tell us she was stopping by for a visit. A few hours after she arrived, we learned her reason. She needed to talk with someone about her daughter’s recent announcement that she was a lesbian and has a partner. When my friend was told this on the day of her daughter’s college graduation, she could not respond. She left in tears to catch a plane. At the airport, she had an epiphany like experience of God’s presence. Knowing she had to go back and embrace her daughter, she met her daughter running down the concourse, crying. The two knew that love overcomes fear and a difference in lifestyle. I was honored that after an absence of twenty years, she trusted me with her burden to share. My friend is a Southern farm girl who married a Japanese where they were missionaries. They were theologically “liberal.” One of the sons is theologically fundamentalist. He immediately said that his sister would not be welcome at the family’s annual week at the beach. She would be personna non grata. In the ensuing years, all the brothers have come around and the family is again united in love.
Last summer I had the funeral eulogy for my friend, “Bill.” He was elected by his college peers to be a class officer. In seminary four of us shared an apartment for a year. He dropped out to teach school. Two years later he came to see me–about 1960. We talked until the wee hours and about 3:00 a.m. he told me that he needed to tell me he was gay.
Later he decided to marry a girl who had a child out of wedlock and he want to rescue her from social ostracism. I performed the ceremony. They later adopted a baby; then had a “biological” child. I baptized the children. For thirty two years, he was a good provider and had the disposition of a kind, gentle, generous man. As husband and wife, they co-existed. At his funeral over fifty former students showed up after seeing his obituary in the newspaper. Eleven rose to share that this teacher had been the difference between their being a “failure” and a “success” in their life. Some were mechanics and plumbers, one was clergy, several were school teachers like their mentor. As his “confessor” for over half a century, I venture to say he never had a sexual relationship with a single one of them.
In my own psyche, I do not have a clue to what it might mean to be a homosexual. However, I think Mr. Wesley’s 18th century language describes my feelings:
“No man can choose for or prescribe to another. Everyone must follow the dictates of his own conscience in simplicity and sincerity. He must be full persuaded in his own mind and then act according to the best light he has. Nor has any creature the power to constrain another to walk by his own rule. God has given no right to any of the children of men thus to lord it over the conscience of his brethren. Every wise man will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him…he bears with those who differ with him…. Tis certain, as long as we ‘know in part,’ all men will not see all things alike. It is the unavoidable consequence of the present weakness and shortness of human understanding that we be of several minds, in religion as in common life. Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart though we are not of one mind?“
Scripture and the Mind of Christ
The current debate over homosexuality and its relational expression in gay marriage sends us into more scriptural study of previously obscure Bible verses than any subject in a long time. The Book of Leviticus contains in its chapters 17–26 “the holiness code.” Chapter 18 is the law of the Hebrew cult regarding sexual relations. The eighteenth verse of that chapter does not address homosexuality as a lifestyle nor a sexual orientation. Rather it speaks specifically to the prohibition of “sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable practice.” The holiness code continues in chapter 19:19 to forbid ” the cross-breeding of livestock, planting a field with two kinds of seeds, and wearing clothes make from two kinds of material.” Leviticus 19:26 forbids eating anything with blood. The holiness code requires “when immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens.”(19:33 CEV)
Jesus ignored Leviticus 18:22; instead he quoted “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”(19:18 RSV) “Neighbor” here means “fellow Jew.” Reading further, however, one comes to 19:33–“...you shall love the alien as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” When Jesus was asked, “who is my neighbor,” he expanded the Christian ethic even more. Specifically, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. His whole ministry is filled with instances when he reached over ethnic, gender, health, and socio-economic boundaries to love people–Gentiles, women, lepers and mentally ill, poor, rich, etc. From his conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, we learn how Jews detested Samaritans ! Now, does this regard homosexuals? (I report; you decide.)
Paul was a Pharisee, a “fundamentalist” who had kept every jot and tittle of Mosaic law. In Romans 2:1 He insisted that of us have “fallen short of the glory of God.”(8:23) However, in 2:4 he wrote, “Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life?” He goes on to say, “Gentiles don’t have the law, but when they instinctively know what the Law requires, they are a law unto themselves…they show proof of the law written on their hearts.”(2:14)
In Romans 13, Paul rehearses some of the Law; then concludes “The commandments… are all summed up in one word: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is what fulfills the Law.” (Romans 13:9-10)
What Wesley Says
In his “Catholic Spirit” sermon, Wesley first reels off a paragraph of scriptural quotations on loving God and loving neighbor, ending with I John 4:7-8–“Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” Acknowledging that quoting Bible verses seldom convinces people to mend their ways or change their attitudes; he preaches, “All men approve of this, but do all men practice it? Daily experience shows the contrary.”
In the early part of the sermon, “Christian Perfection,” Wesley defines “in what sense Christians are not perfect.” “No one then is perfect in this life as to be free from ignorance. Nor secondly from mistake, seeing those who ‘know not’ are ever liable to err….” He continues, “The best and wisest of men are frequently mistaken even with regard to facts, believing those things not to have been which really are, or those to have been done which were not…. They may believe past or present actions which were or are evil to be good ; and such as were good to be evil.”
Concerning what the Bible says, he preached, “…with regard to the Holy Scriptures themselves, as careful as they are to avoid it, the best of men are liable to mistake and do mistake them day by day…. Hence even the children of God are not agreed as to the interpretation of many places in Holy Writ; nor is their difference of opinion any proof that they are not the children of God on either side. But it is a proof that we are no more to expect any living man to be infallible than to be omniscient.”
Wesley then says that perfection does not exempt us from “infirmities.'” Here he is referring mostly to mentally/emotionally challenging circumstances in our psyche. I find his insight helpful, though, for persons who are belligerent about homosexuality, insisting that a homosexual can will oneself to become heterosexual, or that all homosexuals are eternally lost. If we can do not more, can we not be sufficiently charitable to see homosexuality as what Wesley calls an “infirmity”? (I know this is offensive to homosexuals, but cannot this 18th century insight at least move us toward giving each other what Elton Trueblood and Leslie Weatherhead called “a place to stand”?)
Fourthly, for Wesley, perfection does not mean being free from temptation. He concludes by insisting that “however high a degree one is perfect, he hath still the need to ‘grow in grace’ and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Saviour.” Is not the essence of “growing in grace” necessarily “growing in love.” Must not each of us search our soul to see if we a centered in God’s love?
Did Wesley ever mention homosexuality? Not to my knowledge. Would any of his observations of human nature in his sermon, “Christian Perfection” shed any light on the monumental debate in United Methodism regarding gay marriage? To some, the answer is, “no.” To me, the answer is “yes.”
I agree with his premise: “To be ignorant of many things and to mistake in some is the necessary condition of humanity.” He also said, “I do not mean ‘be of my opinion.’ You need not; neither do I mean, ‘I will be of your opinion.’ I cannot. Keep you your opinion and I mine. Only ‘give me thine hand.’ This is catholic or universal love.”