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.
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.