Expert Testimony to Cal-Nev Investigation II

Expert Testimony on Holy Unions for the UMC Clergy Committee on Investigation

Tolbert, Mary A.
Executive Director, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion; George H. Atkinson Professor of Biblical Studies

In early February 2000, PSR faculty members Jeffrey Kuan, Karen Lebacqz, and Mary A. Tolbert served as expert witnesses in the "Holy Union" hearing held by The United Methodist Church California-Nevada Annual Conference Committe on Investigation for Clergy Members. The hearing was held to determine whether 67 Annual Conference clergy should be tried for their participation in the public Holy Union blessing of two women in January 1999. The following is the testimony of Mary A. Tolbert.


I presently serve as the George H. Atkinson Professor of Biblical Studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, a post I have held since 1994. Prior to that time, I was for thirteen years Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. I received my doctorate in Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago in 1977 and have been teaching mainly professional ministerial students and Ph.D. students for most of the twenty-three years since that time. I am presently the Convener (chair) of the Biblical Studies Area of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. My published works concentrate on the New Testament gospels, including especially the parables of Jesus and the Gospel of Mark, and more recently on the issues of social location and biblical interpretation and the ethics of biblical interpretation.


In my testimony before the Committee, I wish to concentrate on three points, all developed from the standpoint of New Testament studies, which is my area of expertise. Since the ministers who participated in the holy union service on January 16, 1999 believed that their actions were taken against an unjust Social Principle of the church, which prohibits ministers from celebrating homosexual unions, I will discuss the New Testament grounds for that Principle. While I recognize that in the Methodist tradition the Bible is only one source of authority in the "quadrilateral" view, it is an important source nonetheless, especially in this case. I will investigate the "thinness" and uncertainness of the New Testament material rejecting homoeroticism (1) and will contrast that to the "thickness" and certainty of the New Testament material rejecting divorce and remarriage, ceremonies not prohibited by the Social Principles.

Secondly, because the ministers being investigated claim that their actions of disobedience stem from an attempt to follow the example of Jesus in the gospels, I will briefly discuss the ethical stances of Jesus vis-a-vis religious tradition and established religious authority.

Finally, I wish to conclude with a few comments about the ethics of biblical interpretation; in other words, I want to reflect on how we can use this ancient and foreign set of texts, the Bible, in the 21st century as a blessing on God's creation and not as a curse.

The New Testament on Homoeroticism:

The first point that must be made about the views of the New Testament writers on homoeroticism is the general absence of such views. Jesus in the gospels says nothing at all about the topic, nor can we find any discussion in Acts, Revelation, or any of the later general or catholic epistles. Indeed, there are only three possible references to homoeroticism in the entire New Testament, two from Paul and one in a Deutero-Pauline epistle; these are Romans 1:26-27, I Cor 6:9 and I Tim 1:10. The two latter references, which are part of vice lists, are particularly problematic because they rely on an interpretation of a Greek work, arsenokoites, whose actual meaning is unknown. As far as scholars have been able to determine, Paul's use of arsenokoites in I Cor is its first usage in all of Greek literature. Moreover, most of the extant occurrences of the word after Paul are dependent on him. While some scholars associate the word with homoeroticism by hypothesizing that it is derived from the Septuagint translation of Lev 20:13, which contains both arsenos (male) and koiten (bed) in the same sentence, (2) the most recent and thorough historical and linguistic investigation of the term has thrown considerable doubt on the adequacy of that hypothesis. Professor Dale Martin of Yale University, pointing out that deriving the meaning of any word from its component parts is a "naive and indefensible" linguistic practice (think, for example, of trying to determine the meaning of "manhood" from "man" and "hood"), has instead investigated all of the extant uses of the term, including those few which may not be dependent on Paul, arguing that the meaning of any word must be determined by its contexts of usage. (3) Drawing on the work of many other scholars, Martin contends that vice lists tend not to be random listings but rather ordered groupings in which sins of similar types are mentioned together (e.g., sexual vices, economic vices, sins of violence, etc.). Oddly, if the word means simply homoerotic sex acts, arsenokoites appears not in the expected groupings of sexual vices, but most often in the grouping of sins "related to economic injustice or exploitation" (4) (e.g., stealing, kidnaping, robbery, defrauding, etc). Occasionally, as in 1 Cor 6:9, it appears on the border between sexual sins and economic ones. Based on his careful study of the contexts in which all known examples of this word appear, Martin concludes that arsenokoites must have had a more specific meaning in Greco-Roman culture than just homoerotic activity in general. While no sure meanings can now be determined for this allusive word, Martin judges that "it seems to have referred to some kind of economic exploitation by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily homosexual sex." (5)

Our inability to be able to say with any assurance what this single word in the vice lists of 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1 actually means, removes these verses completely from any usefulness in the discussion of homoeroticism in the New Testament, leaving as the sole basis of an appeal to New Testament authority for a church principle rejecting lesbians and gay men, Paul's brief assertion in Rom 1:26-27, and that passage, too, is filled with controversy. (6) Let me mention only a few of the problems in the passage. In v. 26, Paul speaks of "their women exchanging natural intercourse for that which is against nature (para physin)." If Paul is speaking here of female homoerotic behavior, then it is the only verse in the entire Bible even to mention that subject. But is that what Paul is referring to? Most of the Early Church Fathers who discussed this text and some modern scholars as well assume that Paul was speaking about what we today would call heterosexual relations, in which these women were exchanging normal sexual intercourse with men, which could lead to pregnancy, for sexual relations which could not, such as anal or oral sex. (7) Conversely, several modern scholars, citing the parallel with verse 27, which explicitly says that men were exchanging natural relations with women for lust for other men, argue that Paul was indeed referring here to female homoeroticism, even if later Church Fathers did not always read him that way. (8)

Whatever the truth about Rom 1:26 might be, verse 27 seems to be a really clear rejection of male homoeroticism, and as such the only one the New Testament has to offer. However, it needs to be pointed out, even with this verse, that what Paul might have considered "natural" sexual relations are likely quite different from our concepts today. Paul's reference to the fact that these people "exchanged" natural relations for those "against nature," indicates his close affiliation with the understanding of sexuality of his time. In Mediterranean antiquity, sexual "orientation" was an unknown concept. Proper sexual relations were determined primarily by social standing or status rather than by gender or "orientation." Sexuality was always understood to be the combination of dominance and submission; consequently, "natural" sexual relations occurred only between socially dominant persons and socially submissive persons. Since women were assumed to be "by nature" submissive, the sexual relation of a free man with a woman was always "natural," as were sexual relations between free men and slaves (either male or female) and, at least in classical Greece, between free men and boys. What most upset ancient moralists, both Roman and Jewish, was any attempt to reverse those "natural" roles. For a man to have sex with another adult man meant one of them would have to be the "woman," the penetrated one, a shameful and degrading position. For women to have sexual relations with other women meant someone would have to be the "man" or "penetrator," a monstrous act of pride and shamelessness. (9) Paul, like his contemporary moralists, believed that all people were capable of natural sexual relations, in which the "natural" roles of the dominant person and the submissive person were honored, but that some men (and perhaps women) willfully gave up those natural roles to take the dishonorable position, which was against their "nature." In reflecting on this ancient moralistic argument against homoeroticism, which seems to lie behind Paul's own views, it is important for us in the present to notice the extent to which it rests on an overwhelming foundation of misogyny; because the submissive, penetrated role of women was so despised, any man who willingly took that position had to be deeply perverted. I fear that misogyny still lies behind much of the hostility directed toward gay men and lesbians, even in the church.

There is certainly more that can be said about the Romans passage. Since Paul's condemnation occurs in the context of his discussion of Gentile idolatry (see, Romans 1:18ff), it appears that Paul understands the origin of homoeroticism to lie in such idolatry, which may be why he does not consider it an issue for Jews or the nascent Christian community. Moreover, the entire point of Romans 1-3 is to convince everyone, Gentile and Jew alike, that they are all sinners who stand in need of the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is a sad perversion of Paul's purpose to read this passage as singling out homosexual people as sinners, while all others are somehow righteous in God's sight. But let us grant here that there is indeed at least one clear reference in the New Testament to the "sinful" nature of homoerotic desire. Does that justify the formation of a church principle excluding such people from the full fellowship and blessing of the church? In order to raise more sharply the question of justice, a short comparison with another controversial issue in the New Testament might be helpful: that of divorce and remarriage.

There is no rule, whether for guidance or as binding, in the Social Principles that prohibits United Methodist ministers from re-marrying previously divorced people or performing those services in United Methodist churches. However, if we look at the New Testament witness on this issue we find abundant confirmation of its sinfulness. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus forbids divorce and asserts that anyone who marries a divorced person commits adultery (Matt 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18), a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus twice issues this prohibition, once in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:31-32) and again in a controversy with lawyers who argue that Moses allowed such measures (cf., Deut. 24:1-4). While in Matthew Jesus seems to soften his decree by allowing a special exemption for "unchastity" (Gk: porneia), in Mark and in Luke the decree is categorical: no divorce is allowed and anyone who marries a divorced person commits adultery, a sin about which the entire Bible has very much to say, indeed. Even Paul knows of this "word of the Lord" and repeats it in its categorical form for the Corinthians (I Cor 7:10-11). Except for wondering what Matthew might have intended by "unchastity," there is no scholarly debate over the meaning of the words used in these passages nor the clear demands of the passages themselves. Thus, the New Testament authority of Jesus and Paul both are adamantly clear that divorce is forbidden to followers of Jesus and additionally that the remarriage of a divorced person constitutes adultery, a serious sin. Yet, in UMC churches all over this country, UMC clergy are conferring the church's blessings on unions which the New Testament clearly and unequivocally calls adulterous. (10)

Now, let us compare these two issues. On the one hand, we have one clear verse in Paul's letter to the Romans that condemns homoeroticism as sinful, which constitutes the entire reliable witness of the New Testament on the topic. Based at least in part on such biblical authority, the UMC has decided to prohibit its clergy from blessing unions of gay men or lesbians. On the other hand, we have clear sayings and stories in each of the synoptic gospels and in Paul's letters which categorically forbid divorce and remarriage for followers of Jesus, and yet, no Social Principle in the Book of Discipline forbids United Methodist churches or clergy from celebrating and blessing such unions; indeed, according to biblical authority, the UMC is in practice, weekly, if not daily, putting its blessing on adultery. The radically, even wildly, different treatment these two issues, and the people affected by them, receive under present rulings of the church would have to be evaluated by any fair person, I think, as profoundly unjust. (11) I judge that the deep inconsistency of the use of the Bible in present church policy has indeed created a situation of clear injustice, and thus, I agree with the 67 clergy accused here that their act should be seen as a protest against blatant injustice.

What would Jesus do?

In responding to this conspicuous situation of injustice, many of the accused clergy have claimed that their act of disobedience was the result of a higher call to "do what Jesus would do" in such a situation. In trying to evaluate the New Testament grounds for such a claim, one needs to recognize that knowing absolutely "what Jesus would do" in a contemporary situation is an impossibility; we must instead rely on the Spirit to guide our actions in these many new settings and situations. Having said that, however, it is certainly possible to look at the manner in which Jesus' actions are portrayed in the gospels for possible analogies to present conflicts and battles. Would the Jesus of the gospels side with those who have been marginalized, humiliated and excluded as sinners by some of the reigning religious authorities? If the question is put in that manner, the answer is most obviously "yes, he would."

The gospels agree on the fact that Jesus associated with and indeed often had "table fellowship" with a general group described as "tax collectors and sinners" or sometimes just "sinners" (see, e.g., Matt 9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1; 18:13-14). Although historically pre-70 C.E. Judaism was a very diverse movement with shifting power relations between these groups, the NT gospels portray a fairly monolithic group of powerful Jews in authority over the beliefs of the people, including Pharisees, scribes (or lawyers), Sadducees, and temple authorities like chief priests. According to the gospels this group rejected some other Jews whom they defined as "sinners" and refused to have any contact with them because their actions violated the Law of Moses. The category "sinners" included people we might today think of as "sinners" like adulterers, thieves, murderers, etc, but the largest portion of the group were probably people whose occupations or living situations prevented them from keeping the Law, like tax-collectors (who were assumed to cheat and had close dealings with Gentiles, all of whom were unclean sinners), butchers, actors, all Gentiles, store owners, lepers, people of low status and/or low economic means, etc. In eating with these people, Jesus was not simply acting hospitably, he was acting radically and prophetically. To share table fellowship in ancient Jewish culture was a declaration of friendship and equal status. Thus, in eating with "sinners" Jesus was in effect declaring himself one of them and declaring them his equals in status and centrality. It is critically important to recognize that Jesus did not demand they change occupations or social status in order to have this fellowship with him, tax-collectors remained tax-collectors, Gentiles remained Gentiles, etc. Indeed, it is precisely his radical inclusion of those whom the majority of Jewish authorities rejected as unclean or unworthy that, according to the synoptic gospels, deeply angered the Jewish authorities and led to their rejection of him. As the NT gospels present the story, it would probably not be too much of an overstatement to say that Jesus' acts of disobedience to reigning religious authority, by his radical inclusion of those marginalized and rejected by that tradition, was one element that led directly to his crucifixion. To demonstrate God's equal love for those whom traditional religious authorities rejected as sinners, Jesus was willing to risk his life.

While this is not the only analogy the life of Jesus might provide to this current situation, it is certainly a dominant one in scripture. Lesbians and gay men are currently marginalized, prevented from ordination, treated as an under class, even seen by many as unclean sinners. The official authority of the UMC has formalized their marginalization and humiliation by preventing its clergy from blessing their unions of love and life-long fidelity. To offer this group not simply hospitality but radical inclusion in the full life of the Christian community as they are, without demanding that they become who they are not, would seem a fitting analogy to Jesus' prophetic acts of table fellowship with "sinners" in the New Testament. Thus, it seems to me that the New Testament depiction of Jesus does provide grounds for the claim that disobedience to church rules that stigmatize and marginalize one group as worse or more unworthy than any others because of who they are, would indeed be "what Jesus would do." To take such prophetic action, Jesus was willing to risk his life, and these 67 ministers were willing to risk their careers. It would be a profound shame, if almost two thousand years after Jesus' crucifixion, the church founded by him should similarly punish those who are attempting to follow his prophetic example.

The Ethics of Biblical Interpretation

I believe how we interpret and especially how we apply biblical mandates to contemporary situations must be understood, not solely as an exegetical activity, but as a theological and ethical one as well, and our resulting use of scripture must be judged by clearly argued Christian ethical and theological criteria. Biblical exegesis, which is my area of expertise, is designed to determine, or try to determine, the most historically probable construction of what an author might have meant in writing what he or she did. Paul might well have believed that some forms of homoeroticism known to him were sinful, and he most certainly did believe that slavery was morally neutral, that chastity was the best form of Christian life (with marriage only a grudging option as a remedy for lust [see I Cor 7]), that it was "against nature" for men to wear long hair, etc. And it is quite probable historically that both he and Jesus taught that divorce and re- marriage constituted adultery. All of these positions carry some portion of historical probability, as determined by contemporary biblical scholarship. The question facing the church, however, is not whether Paul or even Jesus believed these things but whether or not contemporary Christians, guided by the Spirit, do or should believe these things.

At the very minimum, contemporary application of biblical mandates by church bodies must be consistently applied. If some biblical assertions, which affect the majority of church members, are dismissed because of considerations of supposed cultural difference, then cultural difference must be taken seriously for all biblical mandates, even those affecting only a minority within the church. Listing side by side, as the Book of Discipline now does, article # 65C, which prohibits United Methodist clergy from performing holy unions for gay men and lesbians and thus rigidly enforces a woefully skimpy and contested New Testament "teaching," and article # 65D, which recognizes, sadly, the prevalence of divorce and explicitly permits remarriage, thus completely ignoring a heavily witnessed, historically probable biblical mandate of Jesus himself, can only be judged as a radically inconsistent use of the Bible. Indeed, even more might be said because ignoring a biblical rule that affects the heterosexual majority of United Methodists, while enforcing a much "thinner" biblical rule that affects only a minority of United Methodists, it seems to me, could quite justly be designated an act of profound hypocrisy, undermining the integrity of both the church and the gospel it is in the world to preach.

See also:


1. I prefer to use the term "homoeroticism" when discussing antiquity because "homosexual" and "heterosexual" are 20th century creations used to define one's "sexual orientation," a concept completely unknown in antiquity. For a good general discussion of the various understandings of homoeroticism in antiquity, which forms the cultural context of all the biblical passages, see, Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998).

2. For this view, see, e.g., Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 83, 106-107 and more recently Mark D. Smith, "Ancient Bisexuality and the Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27" JAAR 64/2 (1996): 247, although Smith disagrees with Scroggs' conclusion about the meaning of the word. For a similar reading of the word, though on somewhat different grounds, see also David Wright, "Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10)" VC 38 (1984):125-53.

3. "Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences" in Robert L. Brawley, ed., Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), pp. 118-123. For similar cautions about defining this word, see Nissinen, pp. 113-122.

4. Martin, p. 120.

5. Ibid.

6. The most thorough and detailed recent exegesis of this passage in Romans can be found in Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 215-66; see also, Nissinen, pp. 103-113; Stanley Stowers, A Re-Reading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); and Smith, "Ancient Bisexuality."

7. The most recent argument for this position, which also cites much of the ancient discussion, can be found in James E. Miller, "The Practices of Romans 1:26: Homosexual or Heterosexual?" Novum Testamentum 37 (1995):1-11.

8. See, especially, Brooten and Smith, "Ancient Bisexuality."

9. For more in-depth discussion of these issues, see, e.g., Brooten, and Nissinen.

10. The very next section of the of the Book of Disciple following the prohibition against holy unions for homosexuals, section # 65D, contains the following blatant contradiction of scripture: "Divorce does not preclude a new marriage." Indeed, in the UMC, divorced and re-married people can be ordained, can be bishops, and can hold all the offices of the church. If we follow the clear meaning of scripture, we would be forced to say that the UMC is riddled throughout with adulterers.

11. In addition to divorce and remarriage, Walter Wink in a recent article lists thirteen other biblical sexual mores that contemporary Protestant Christians either reject or ignore; see, Wink, "Homosexuality and the Bible" in Walter Wink, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), pp. 33-49.


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