The Rev. Dr. James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer, published a popular blog post yesterday about sex, marriage, and sexual sin—the issues that threaten to split our denomination in 2019. He says that his post is “something of a final resort” as an appeal for unity, rather than division.
In response to it, I posted the following on Facebook:
While I appreciate Rev. Howell’s irenic tone here, I would have to “die on that same hill” with Talbot Davis, in part because the apostles in Acts 15 seemed willing to. Or else why include the caveat of verse 20 against porneia [Greek for “sexual immorality”]? And what did porneia mean to the apostles, and does it mean something different today and why?
But even to have that discussion involves exegesis and hermeneutics—and before long we’re knee-deep in a discussion about the authority of scripture. Still, Howell says we’re not really arguing theology. Really? It feels like we are. As much as Howell wants us to listen to one another, I don’t feel “listened to” when he says otherwise. In fact, I feel patronized. But enough about my feelings! Good arguments don’t depend on feelings. (Do they?)
He gives reasons why our disagreement isn’t over an “essential” of Christian faith. But surely he knows that “my side” has a counter argument. Why does he give no evidence that he’s heard it? If he has, surely he wouldn’t resort, for example, to an argument over the Articles of Religion, the General Rules, or Wesley’s sermons. What about the Bible? I don’t think anyone on my side will be persuaded apart from a biblical argument.
But Rev. Howell and I do agree on this: Essentials of the Christian faith are worth splitting over.
I also posted a similar comment on his blog. He wrote this in reply:
But can’t you feel your (and my, we all do it) selectivity? Exegesis couldn’t be clearer regarding what to do with our possessions, or with whom you eat dinner, or whether to accumulate pension funds, etc. We roundly ignore these items or rationalize, don’t we? But then on homosexuality we become literalists?
To which I wrote,
I’m confused, James. Are you saying that you believe the church’s traditional doctrine on sexuality is correct, but, since we fall short in all these other areas, we’re hypocrites to try to follow it?
By all means, the Law can only condemn us. And when it does, we fall on our knees and thank God for the cross of his Son Jesus. We don’t shrug and say something like, “My greed, or my hypocrisy, or my idolatry is no big deal.” It is a big deal; it will send us to hell apart from Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
So do we ignore or rationalize other ways in which we sin? I’m sure we do. We’re terrible sinners, after all. But inasmuch as we become aware of our sin, we repent. And as pastors we teach our flock to do the same.
Do you disagree? Have I misunderstood you?
I want to underscore one point I make above: Despite protests to the contrary, Dr. Howell hasn’t heard me—or people on “my side”—if he doesn’t understand why we believe these issues related to sex are essential to Christian faith. We make this argument from scripture—not from creeds, confessions, or founding documents of our denomination. If the Bible is our ultimate authority that guides faith and practice (which United Methodists say they believe), then it’s no use arguing from lesser authorities.
By the way, the same creeds, confessions, and founding documents that fail to mention sexual sin also fail to mention any number of sins about which Dr. Howell and Methodists on the left wing have also “become literalists.” By Dr. Howell’s logic, should we disregard the Bible’s teaching on immigrants, for example, because we ignore so many other “clear” teachings of scripture? I suspect he would say no.
Because of scripture, we believe that without repentance, the practice of homosexuality—alongside many other sins that all of us have committed—risks excluding us from God’s kingdom eternally. While I don’t expect Dr. Howell to agree with this conviction, I do expect him and my fellow United Methodists who disagree with “my side” to understand what’s at stake for us.
Please don’t patronize us by saying that we’re not really arguing theology or that matters pertaining to (nothing less than) eternal life or death aren’t “essential.”
If you believed what we believe about this or any other sin, you would agree that, in the interest of love, it is essential.