The church's present statements clearly distinguish between "homosexuals" as persons and "homosexual practice." That is a valid distinction and I am prepared to concede that those who defend the church's statements genuinely affirm the God-given worth of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. I am also prepared to assume the sincerity of those who condemn "homosexual practice" but say that they welcome gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons fully into the life of the church. I believe, however, that is an internally inconsistent position. You cannot have it both ways: Either everyone is fully invited into the life of the church, including all of its rites and ministries, or they are not. Denying gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons access to the church's rites that bless loving relationships between two persons committed to life-long fidelity to each other does not welcome them fully into the life of the church. It discriminates against a class or category of persons defined by who they are (their "status"). As such, this debate is about justice for all persons in the church.
The debate about "homosexual practice" is also about the "authority of scripture." Those who condemn such behavior have claimed that they alone uphold the "authority of scripture." That claim should not go unanswered! Biblical scholars of the highest international reputation differ over the interpretation of the few passages that directly address this issue, so that no consensus exists on the basic question of whether those passages are talking about the same behavior that the church today wants to condemn (i.e., whether they condemn same-gender long-term committed relationships as well as same-gender sexual behavior, or whether they only condemn same-gender exploitative sexual behavior, namely, pederasty and male temple prostitution). The church does not advance the "authority of scripture" by dismissing out of hand the biblical scholarship on one side of this debate. [I do not have the space to repeat what others have written. See the little booklet, The Church Studies Homosexuality, which came from a UMC commission and is available from Cokesbury. Victor Paul Furnish also has a very helpful chapter on homosexuality in his book The Moral Teaching of Paul (Abingdon Press, also available from Cokesbury).]
Furthermore, in this debate a few, rather minor, passages have functioned for the "anti side" as absolute "law" in a way that no other texts on moral issues do. For example, to mention only passages that deal with sexual behavior, although the church's departure from biblical teachings about slavery also come to mind: Whereas we have no saying of Jesus on this issue, a dominical saying categorically forbids divorce (Mark 10.1-12). How does the church's teaching about divorce take account of the "authority" of this scripture? The church has chosen, instead, to make the law of Moses, which allows divorce (Deut 24.1-4), and the softer saying of Jesus in Matt 19.9, the "law" of the church. The Bible also directly condemns intercourse during menstruation (Lev 18.19 and 15.19-24) but that is not on the church's list of condemned sexual behavior. The Bible also permits many sexual behaviors that the church condemns today: for example, prostitution (Gen 38.12-19 and Josh 2.1-7 but condemned by Paul in 1 Cor 6.12-20) and sex with slaves (Gen 16.1-6, 2 Sam 5.13, Judges 19-21). And Bible defines adultery in terms of the marital status of the woman and the property rights of men over women: According to the Bible, consensual intercourse between men and women must not violate the marital and property rights of men (for all the above, see Walter Wink, "Homosexuality and the Bible," Christian Century, 1979). Apparently the "authority of scripture" does not mean that the church must always take what the Bible says as absolute law, just because the Bible says it; other considerations enter into the "life application" of biblical teachings. It is legitimate to apply the same "authority of scripture" that the church applies to such passages also to the few, minor passages about same-gender sexual behavior.
Finally, I am unwilling to concede that the few, minor passages about same- gender sexual behavior define the center of the church, Christian life, and the gospel. Scripture has a lot more to say about breaking down walls of hostility between peoples, about inviting all peoples to the table of the Lord, about accepting people just as God created them. The center of Jesus' life are acts of acceptance of those whom society rejected simply because of who they are (see, e.g., Mark 7.24-30 [par. Matt 15.21-28] and Acts 10).
Another place to begin applying the "authority of scripture" to today's debates about commitment convenants and sexual behavior is with what Paul says about love, sex, and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 (see Victor Paul Furnish's chapter by a similar title in The Moral Teaching of Paul). The church would do a great service to heterosexual and homosexual persons if its statements made it clear that the church blesses all couples who reject exploitative sexual behavior in any form and who make a long-term commitment to mutual love and respect.
David J. Lull
New York Annual Conference
April 10, 1998