Friday, May 27, 2016

You Can't Pick and Choose Which Scriptures You Will Follow

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 
Leviticus 20:13

In the ongoing debate about homosexuality one of the common arguments made by traditionalists is that “You can’t pick and choose which scriptures you will follow and which you will ignore.” The Bible, they argue, clearly condemns same sex relationships and we cannot ignore the biblical judgment.

The argument sounds good, even if you know that in order to read the Bible faithfully we have to make judgments. Very few of the most hardened biblical literalists, while arguing vociferously for the condemnation of same sex relationships believe that the penalty for such relationships should be death. As Adam Hamilton pointed out, we already agree that the second part of the verse is not to be taken literally, what makes the traditionalists think that the first part is still sacred?

But the flaw in that argument runs much deeper than that internal inconsistency.

I believe the first person to point out this deeper and more fundamental problem was the late (great) Walter Muelder.

Dr. Muelder was Dean of the Boston University School of Theology from 1945 to 1972. He was an influential theologian and ecumenist, and a major force in the development of Christian Social Ethics as a discipline. 

He was a brilliant thinker and a dedicated scholar.

Beyond that, he was in so many ways the quintessential Methodist, the embodiment of all the virtues of personal and social holiness.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Boston University to pursue a Ph.D., Muelder was Dean of the School of Theology and a Professor of Christian Social Ethics. He was one of Dr. King’s teachers, and Muelder’s ethics made a deep impact on King.

Dr. Muelder was passionate about peace and justice, and civil rights until the end of his life.

He died at the age of 97, on June 12, 2004, from a sudden heart attack. He had not been ill. Like Moses, his mind was “unimpaired.” and “his vigor had not abated.”

On June 9, 2004, just three days before he died, after an earlier General Conference failed to advance the cause of LGBTQ inclusion, Dean Muelder addressed the retired pastors of our United Methodist Conference with this challenge:

“We retired ministers have an ongoing role to play in the conflicts, such as those on homosexuality, which threatened to split the church at the last General Conference. We are in constant dialogue with clergy and laity who are rightfully troubled by these issues. We can help hold the church together by reminding people to think comprehensively and holistically about these questions. The positions taken by militant opponents are often narrowly based by appeals to the authority of single verses of Scripture as decisively conclusive.

“We need to remind the whole church that Methodism has a fourfold basis for making authoritative positions, namely: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative. No literal appeal to isolated scripture passages is sufficient. We have to understand the historical nature of Scripture as a whole and relate any passage to the Bible as a whole, to the evolving tradition both within the Biblical period, to historical Methodism, to the best scientific reasoning, and to a comprehensive awareness of evolving experience. This fourfold coherence is essential for maintaining authoritative doctrine and practice.

“As retired ministers we are constantly in contact with members of the contemporary church and hence we are part of its ongoing dialogue to maintain the unity of the church.”

There is enormous wisdom and insight in those brief remarks.

His first point may be the most important. Those who militantly oppose the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the United Methodist Church are basing their arguments on a narrow reading of isolated texts. Those few texts can NEVER be decisive.

His second point is a reminder of our United Methodist heritage. We have “a fourfold basis” for making authoritative decisions, “namely: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.” 

In 1972 when the Book of Discipline first declared the “practice of homosexuality” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” Dean Muelder was basically in agreement. Over the years, his judgment shifted. Those condemnatory biblical texts did not disappear, but there was new scholarship. Evaluating that new scholarship in the context of the whole Bible caused him to rethink his assumptions. Reason, experience, a changing tradition, and new biblical scholarship came together in a convincing way. 

A third point is the very essence of Walter Muelder’s genius, and anyone who took even a single class with him will be able to hear this as if he were speaking it out loud as you read it: “It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative.” The Dean never jumped to conclusions and consequently he did not often change his mind. But the thoroughness of a decision never closed his mind to the possibility of change.

The idea is not to explore scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as if they were unrelated areas of inquiry and then string them together as if that constituted an authoritative result. We must search for a coherent understanding. And it is that coherence which is authoritative.

We can’t pick and choose our scriptures. “We have to understand the historical nature of Scripture as a whole and relate any passage to the Bible as a whole, to the evolving tradition both within the Biblical period, to historical Methodism, to the best scientific reasoning, and to a comprehensive awareness of evolving experience. This fourfold coherence is essential for maintaining authoritative doctrine and practice.”

Within the biblical word, we have to use the whole Bible. Isolated texts can never be decisive. In the tradition of John Wesley, we have a fourfold basis for arriving at ethical and theological insights: scripture, reason, tradition and experience. And then that wonderful sentence, “It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative.” 

Dean Muelder was convinced that a faithful study of scripture in the context of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, would lead us to the full acceptance of Gay and Lesbian persons in the United Methodist Church. 

After three more failed General Conferences, one wonders whether we can get there as a united church.


  1. Coming to the same conclusion, but worded differently, "All Christians pick and choose which portions of the they interpret Bible literally, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern." From 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible -

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity

    1. Thanks, Roger, for reading the post and for your thoughtful commentary on Progressive biblical interpretation.

  2. As I recall, the so called Wesleyan Quadrilateral first entered the language of the BoD under the influence of Albert Outler in the 1968 General Conference. Dr. Outler acknowledged almost from the start that he regretted this formulation because so many people took exception to some or all of it. Wesley never used the term, although his writings certainly contain elements of all of it. But by the 1972 GC, some people expressed concern that the formulation gave only equal status to scripture, so the BoD related language began to be changed. For my understanding, the quadrilateral as articulated by Dr. Outler, has it about right. However, I don't have a lot of patience with trying to tease out of texts that are at least 3,000 years old, probably much older, rules for today. I acknowledge that the Levitical text is there, although I don't think it referred to the kind of love-based homosexuality that we experience today. I simply do not believe that it is relevant. I find the Hebrew Bible a pretty good observer of and commentary on the human condition. It's even an arbiter of certain basic rules of behavior (see the Decalogue), but to use it as a proof text for almost any current exigency is absurd. It's no more relevant in that context than Hammurabi's Code. We are a nation of laws, and those laws have declared that homosexual relationships are permitted. It's time the church caught up.

  3. Note: Dean Muelder talks about the Methodist quadrilateral. Not a "Wesleyan quadrilateral". Muelder emphasizes the coherence of Methodist thinking: not isolated verses we choose to pick from scripture. Harold DeWolf, Dean of the Wesley School of Theology, suggests a similar approach in his systematic theology, "Theology for a Living Church" [not the precise title, but I'm working from memory]. DeWolf argues that we learn from, and follow, the entire trajectory. Think of an airplane: sometimes in clouds and sometimes in clear. What matters is the entire journey.

    Muelder and DeWolf are traditional Methodists. Yes, there have been biblical literalists, but not the main body of the Methodist Church. Think I am mistaken? Consider that Wesley's Commentary is two or three times longer than the New Testament. Much of it is like a jazz riff on a couple of verses. If we were to be literalists, the text -- a;one -- would be enough.

    1. I believe that Harold DeWolf was MLK's dissertation adviser. His Ph.D. was in systematic theology, not Christian Social Ethics.

    2. Years ago Edward Carnell, Harold DeWolf, and William Hordern each wrote a book in a triology: The Case for Orthodoxy; The Case for Neo-Orthodoxy; the Case for Liberalism. Hordern was my major professor at Garrett and I deeply respected him. One summer I took a course with Harold DeWolf over the three books. He was a great professor as well. But I told both DeWolf and Hordern that Carnell's case for Orthodoxy was the most convincing of the three. In that book he laid out principles for Biblical interpretation that I still use today. Orthodoxy (as presented by Carnell) is not literalism; it does not appeal to isolated texts; it is progressive (New Testament interpets the Old; the epistles interpret the gospels). I was also involved in the doctrinal task force of 1988 which basically corrected the poor statement of 1972. Despite Outler, the quadrilateral was not all that Wesleyan. I would say so especially as it is being used today. Experience, for example, was never used by Wesley as a source of revelation. Wesley would never have made comments about evolving human understandings. Experience is the confirming work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts on the truths of Scripture. The argument that the Bible did not know about loving same-sex sexual relationships, is scary. I have counseled individuals who gave me the same arguments about adulterous relationships they were in. It seems so good so it must be right. Best we not tear down the foundations and try to build new authority systems on sand.

    3. Thank for reading the blog and for your thoughtful comments.

      Needless to say, we are in profound disagreement on almost every point. I want to comment on just one. You write that, "Orthodoxy (as presented by Carnell) is not literalism; it does not appeal to isolated texts; it is progressive (New Testament interpets the Old; the epistles interpret the gospels)."

      Unfortunately, those who claim to be orthodox today are far more conservative than those who were understood to be orthodox in the middle of the 20th century. William Barclay was orthodox (leaning toward conservative) when he wrote his commentaries, but he appears progressive today.

      The appeal to isolated texts was not common among those calling themselves orthodox (as opposed to Fundamentalists and biblical literalists) until we came into the present controversy over same sex relationships.

      Finally, there is nothing progressive about interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the Greek, or the Gospels in light of Paul. We do (try to) read everything through the eyes of Christ, but that is a different issue.

      Again, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  4. Those who suggest that a biblical understanding of homosexuality has little in common with our current understanding are right on target.

    Yet, that is just the beginning.

    In truth, the Bible actually has NOTHING to say about homosexuality.

    Since all who wrote, edited, or otherwise contributed to the making of the Bible were presumed to be straight . . .

    and since (according to Bible writers) God created every person straight, it was categorically impossible for anybody to be homosexual.

    Therefore, all Scriptures written about (what we now call) homosexuality, were written (the writers assumed) by heterosexual people as warning to other heterosexual people.

    In that context, one can understand why homosexuality seemed reprehensible!

    Why would 2 straight men who were 100% heterosexual desire to have sex with each other?