Few topics generate as much heated conflict among Christians as homosexuality does. Should pastors solemnize and churches recognize same-sex marriages? Should denominations ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians for ministry? The conflict over these questions has been evident among mainline Protestant churches for some time now, but it is increasingly appearing among evangelical Protestant churches too.
In 2008, Adam Hamilton—who pastors America’s largest United Methodist church in Leawood, Kansas—published Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. In that book, he argued that a “third way” on the topic of homosexuality was both possible and preferable—as well as on other topics that divide Christian. The book was influential among United Methodist pastors and more broadly on what one might call “liberal” evangelicals.
Bill T. Arnold is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, as well as a professor of Old Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Seeing Black and White in a Gray World is his critique of Hamilton’s book, focusing on the need for a theological approach to the question of homosexuality, one that he believes is lacking from Hamilton’s book.
Arnold lays out his case clearly, logically, and graciously. He argues that a “third way” on homosexuality is not possible because solemnizing same-sex marriages and ordaining non-celibate LGBT persons is either right or wrong as a matter of moral principle. A “third way” is not preferable because unity should not be bought through a compromise of moral principle. And a “third way” does not necessarily represent progress because the Church always stands in a tensive relationship with culture, with the goal of transforming it. To do this, the church must sometimes issue a prophetic critique of cultural trends, such as the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, not just a spiritual affirmation of them.
Arnold also argues that the traditional Methodist process of theological reasoning—the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—should lead the United Methodist Church to reject same-sex marriage. He pinpoints the crux of the controversy in that denomination as a debate between what Scripture teaches about homosexual conduct on the one hand and a contemporary social construction of homosexual experience on the other. In his judgment, too many Methodists—including Hamilton, to a degree—give experience a weight equal to or greater than Scripture. This, he points out, is not how the Quadrilateral is supposed to work. Tradition, reason, and experience may confirm what Scripture teaches—or help us understand it better—but they cannot be used as independent norms that contradict and overturn explicit biblical prohibitions.
Finally, Arnold repeatedly points to the longstanding practices of the United Methodist Church a moderate way to deal with the controversy. These practices combine the teaching of holiness with the practice of hospitality, the former a core doctrinal tenet and the latter an important moral virtue. The biblical affirmation of marriage as a man-woman institution need not—must not!—be construed as permission to be unkind or unloving to people who experience same-sex attraction. By the same token, the biblical practice of hospitality cannot be taken as an endorsement of sexual practices the Bible prohibits.
Proponents of same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church will probably not like Seeing Black and White in a Gray World. But it seems to me that whether or not they agree with Arnold on the topic of homosexuality, they must agree with him that there is no “third way.” If Scripture prohibits same-sex practices, the United Methodist Church cannot permit them. If Scripture permits same-sex practices, the United Methodist Church cannot prohibit them. There is no mediating alternative, no “gray.” There is only “black” or “white.” This means that Adam Hamilton’s search for an alternative is doomed to fail.
Those of us outside the United Methodist Church, in evangelical Protestant churches that do not affirm same-sex marriage, would do well to read Arnold’s book too. It sheds light on the debate over homosexuality in the Church without generating more heat.
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