Opinion: Christ-centered unity is still possible

Jesus wants witnesses to him, not coercers of others

Mar 30, 2015 by

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Mennonite Church USA faces the pivotal question of what unites us and what divides. The dominant issue in our time is acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the church.

It’s a question of what constitutes the body of Christ: Regeneration and baptism into a redeeming community? Commonality of specific core beliefs? Agreement on ethical standards? Consent to organizational agreements and structures?

The New Testament confronts us with the proposition that belonging to the church of Jesus Christ depends on the confession that Jesus is Lord. Jesus established this norm in calling people to follow him. It involved no belief in a specific theory of the atonement, understanding of the Trinity or commitment to a certain biblical hermeneutic. Rather, it was a commitment to relationship with and obedience to Jesus.

We have exchanged this fundamental dynamic that unites for a set of opinions that divide. Front and center in the debates about the future of the denomination are the 1995 Confession of Faith and the 2001 Membership Guidelines. These are considered foundational and sacred.

The critical issue in all the discussion about these two documents relates to the statement in the Confession’s Article 19, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” Nearly all the emphasis is put on “between one man and one woman.” Many congregations and most all conferences are at variance with regard to “for life,” having found biblical reasons to accept divorced and remarried people.

The core question is: When does our disagreeing with someone else’s belief and practice interrupt our relationship with Jesus and our unity with other followers of Jesus Christ? Jesus calls us to be witnesses to him, not coercers of others. Moves to expel or to separate are tactics of coercion rather than witness. Does the ordination in another congregation or conference compromise my identity as a follower of Jesus Christ? Jesus warns us to be concerned about our own obedience rather than that of others.

In January, a group met in Hartville, Ohio, to create a new structure as an alternative to MC USA. While they articulated values of obedience to God, faithfulness to Jesus, transformation through the Holy Spirit and “embodiment of the Anabaptist tradition in our contemporary context,” the triggers for this event were the licensing of a pastor in Mountain States Mennonite Conference and Eastern Mennonite University’s re-examination of its hiring policy with regard to people in covenanted same-sex relationships.

This movement away from unity results from a difference of understanding about the interpretation of Scripture and the authority of denominational structures to impose discipline.

Lancaster Mennonite Conference (of which I am a member and which holds my credentials as a retired ordained minister) participated in this effort to create an alternative to membership in MC USA. The dynamics that push Lancaster in this direction are deeply imbedded in its history as a conference that has emphasized boundary setting and authority structures. Divisions in the past have occurred because of one faction’s belief that its interpretation trumps that of another’s and that purity or faithfulness requires separation.

There are forces within Lancaster today that insist that if Lancaster does not separate from MC USA, they will leave Lancaster. It’s a political cudgel.

Scripture suggests another way is possible: that we recognize our unity resides in our mutual confession that Jesus is Lord. Renewal and fruit-bearing result from having our life grounded in Jesus and his life flowing in and through us.

In Rom. 14:1-15:7, Paul seeks to keep the church together in spite of disagreement about important issues. He pleads for unity based on the mutual confession that Jesus is Lord rather than agreement on the ethical issues that divided them. Paul deals with these as “disputable issues.” He exhorted the Romans to mutual acceptance and attitude correction. The ones with stricter interpretation were not to judge those more liberal. Those with freer conscience were not to despise those more conservative. That kind of attitude shift would go a long way to pulling us back from the brink of schism.

Is it possible that even at this late date the momentum can shift and our rush toward division be turned back? From a human perspective it seems unlikely. But with renewed yieldedness to our Lord and openness to the Holy Spirit, it is not impossible.

God’s answer to our situation involves rethinking how we conceive being the church of Jesus Christ. We will have to eliminate the idea that my faithfulness involves coercing others to my point of view. We need to learn respect for those with whom we disagree and to love them. We need to understand that my purity is not determined by what a congregation or a conference across the continent or across the country does. My faithfulness is manifest in how I follow Christ and in the integrity and power of my witness to Jesus. The confession that Jesus is Lord brings us together.

John M. Miller, of Leola, Pa., served with his wife, Doris, as a missionary in Mexico and taught missions and social ethics in seminaries. He is a member of Stumptown Mennonite Church.


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  • Harold Miller

    We need every call and encouragement toward unity that we can find. So I’m glad that John is writing an article like this.

    His article would have been stronger without two parts, though.

    John says that when we talk about Article 19 we should focus on the ‘for life’ part as much or more than the ‘one man and one woman’ part. He sees the ‘for life’ part as where most of our conferences are at variance, “having found biblical reasons to accept divorced and remarried people.” Really? All the conferences (and their congregations and credentialed leaders) work hard to keep marriages together; the ideal toward which they strive is ‘for life.’ The reason for focus on ‘one man and one woman’ is because that is the place where conferences and congregations and pastors are working to get the ideal changed.

    Second, John takes Rom. 14:1-15:7 as Paul saying that the church should stay together in spite of disagreement on ethical issues. No, Paul in Rom 14 is talking about “things indifferent” (literal translation), about opinions, about things God has not spoken on and so they are a matter of personal conscience or preference. About those we should offer mutual acceptance. But there are some acts that violate God’s will. When a man was sleeping with his father’s wife (1 Cor 5), Paul didn’t practice welcome or the unity of hospitality. Paul didn’t put unity higher than faithfulness; nor did Jesus (Matt 18).

    Keep working toward unity, John. And may you give encouragement that helps.

    • Charlie Kraybill

      Was Paul God? Are the words of Paul equivalent to the words of God? Did Paul believe he was composing inspired and infallible scripture? (I don’t think so.) It amazes me how the church tries to make critical decisions based on off-the-cuff remarks lifted from the correspondence of a first-century oddball who clearly could have benefited from the assistance of modern psychotropics. Rather than struggling to decipher the mind of Paul, we should be relying on our own God-given powers of rational thinking, in our own modern context, to figure out the right way to go.

      • John A. King

        So with your comment, you are throwing away Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesian, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. While you are at it, you might as well throw out James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John and Jude, because by your line of reasoning, they were fallible people also who wrote those letters. Heck, you might as well throw out Revelation, too, because God’s words were recorded by a human being who is fallible. Well, then, while you are at it, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts were written by people and their unique interpretation of what Jesus did in Earth.

        Do you have any theological ground from which to stand, other than your own rational mind?

      • Ross Lynn Bender

        Hey Charlie, Paul may have been a first-century oddball, just as you and I are 21st century oddballs, but there is much to learn from his experience. Paul was a violent persecutor of Jesus’ followers who had a violent confrontation with the risen Christ that knocked him off his feet and put him out of commission for a few years. When he returned to action, he was a fervent evangelist for Jesus who confronted and condemned the harsh and brutal Roman empire and its treatment of women, slaves, and boys. He inveighed against the way that the ultra-masculine and patriarchal system of the day gave “real men” the right to use everyone else as their personal sex toys.

        To quote Anthony Weber in his essay and book review “Defending Paul”: “… Paul’s banning of adultery and fornication created a community that elevated women, chastised the promiscuous men, and offered a way of life that would stabilize the community instead of destroy it.”

        On a personal note, Charlie, I have good memories of our attending together the Mennonite Pentecost service in Philadelphia in 2004. Your photos of the event are on my website. It would be great if we could get together again and chat.

    • John M. Miller

      Harold, thank you for your affirmation of placing a high value on unity. You raise the question of how we can most effectively work for that unity. I think the critical issues are how we handle our differences and how we recognize and express our unity with regard to our different convictions.

      I recognize the truth of your statement that pastors continue to work to maintain the “for life” aspect of the marriage covenant. That does not change the truth of my observation that we have found biblical reasons to accept divorced and remarried people. In my experience as a missionary in Mexico, I with others struggled to understand how God’s grace affirmed persons with tangled marital histories in their new-found experience of transformation by the gospel of Jesus Christ. I suspect you have had similar experience. Further, as a pastor, I have encountered those situations in which I understood that divorce seemed to be the truest expression of God’s grace in marriage that was destructive. Even then, I did not give up the ideal that God’s ideal was marriage for life.

      You correctly observe that some of us have come to understand that the Bible does not require opposite-sex marriage as the inviolable norm. That does not change our understanding that it is the most common expression and that most biblical mention has that in mind. I’m sure you must be aware of the careful work of biblical scholars that has reached the conclusion that same-sex sexuality is God-given and that the Bible teaching on sexuality and marriage would apply the same moral norms for same-sex and opposite sex—celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. I expect that you have given careful attention to Gerald W. Schlabach’s article in the Christian Century “What is marriage now? A Pauline case for same-sex marriage.” I also find Ken Wilson’s *A Letter to My Congregation* makes a solid biblical case. So, indeed, the goal is to change the church’s understanding of the norm as a matter of faithfulness to the biblical message. The question then boils down to whether this difference of interpretation is one that should divide the church.

      So it comes down to whether this is a matter parallel to the issues Paul was dealing with in Romans 14:1-15:7. I’m going to have to ask for your help here. I just scanned down through the text again in my Greek interlinear and did not spot where the term “things indifferent” occurs. Would you please give the reference? I agree that there are some things that are wrong, and God does not call us to unity without attention of how to deal with these issues. Nevertheless, I think that in the present circumstance when persons of equal commitment to faithfulness to the lordship of Jesus disagree on interpretation, we should find a basis for not dividing our existing fellowship as a denomination of the church of Jesus Christ.

      • berryfriesen

        John, two related questions for you to mull. 1. What is the relationship between “justice” and “equality.” The first word is used many, many times in the Bible, the second only once (Phil. 2). 2. Does justice require a redefinition of the biblical norm, or can justice also be found in a sincere welcome of those who do not fit the norm?

        Within these questions, there is ground for unity between the two camps, but to date little interest in exploring it. Perhaps your desire for denominational unity will prompt you to do that.

        • John M. Miller

          Berry, thanks for your engagement with the issue. I apologize for delay in my response. I just now noted your question.

          I would welcome your understanding of the difference between justice and equality. I do not thing that justice always requires equal treatment. It is clear to me that as a parent doing what is right for each of my children meant doing what was right for each. That was not always equal.

          However, doing what was right for each required not favoring one over the other but seeking what was best for each. It did require a sense of fairness, or to use your term, justice.

          Erich Fromm in what I consider a good definition of love describes it as seeking the well-being or good of the other. Both justice and love require that in dealing with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters we seek those words and actions that result in their well-being. I have come to the conclusion that on the basis of a right reading of the Bible that includes calling for the same moral standard for same-sex love as for opposite-sex love, i.e., chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage.

          I find strong evangelical voices joining with me in this call. If you have not considered them, I commend to you Tony and Peggy Campolo’s lectures, Ken Wilson’s book, and Gerald Schlabach’s carefully reasoned essay in the Christian Century. If you can’t find them, I can give you the links. If you find any deficiency in my reasoning or in their arguments, I welcome your critique.

          • Berry Friesen

            John, best I can tell (and I’m no scholar), the Bible uses the word sometimes translated as “justice” and sometimes as “righteousness” to
            refer to shalom. It is communal, multi-generational, positive and reflective of the wisdom of God in the way society functions and its members flourish. It is not about you and me (and whether we have the same amount of whatever), but about all of us together, including those yet unborn.

            Social equality is a much more individualized concept, which asks whether I have the same social benefits as you do. It has deep roots in atomized Western societies where we have little or no communal sense and give little thought to the impacts of our lives on future generations.

            We can say with a high degree of confidence that the Bible does not support our Western tendency to equate “equality” and “justice”. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the concerns of equality, only that we need to be aware of the difference.

            I have read Ken Wilson’s interview at ESA’s publication and agreed with much of it. Notice that he does not “affirm” same-sex unions (because
            he finds nothing in scripture that affirms), but nevertheless welcomes gay and lesbian couples into fellowship (I hold the same position.) Thus, he would answer the second question I posed to you in my prior comment by leaving the biblical norm intact, but refusing to use that norm as the basis for turning people away.

            John, if advocates for change were to adopt Wilson’s position, then it indeed would yet be possible to hold our church together. But his distinction between “affirmation” and “inclusion” is anathema to most who advocate for change. Where do you stand on that, John?

          • John M. Miller

            Let me start with the basics. I agree that the righteousness/justice of God function to bring about shalom. The Hebrew Scripture uses two words to refer to these qualities rooted in God’s holiness: “mishpat” and “tsadaq”. In Genesis 18:19 in the foundational covenant with Abraham, they are translated “righteousness and justice” (NRSV et al.) or “justice and judgment” (KJV). It is the NT that uses one word for both, i.e., “dikaiosuné”. These are the means, shalom is the result.

            You may be right that the biblical perspective views these dynamics more in terms of society as a whole and our modern society sees equality in terms of individual rights, but I don’t think it is valid to assume that the focus on the society as a whole diminishes concern for the individual. The Micah vision for the shalom of God among the nations ends with “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.” Well-being of individuals is a part of the vision of shalom for society.

            If I detect the direction of your argument—I confess I may not have read you aright—you seem to be saying that equality for gay and lesbian marriage may not be in line with the biblical vision of shalom for society. Have I caught your gist?

            I would argue that values and policies that harm individual or deprive them of equal recognition in society are not helpful for shalom. Further, I don’t think you have read Wilson rightly. In his book he states that he would perform same-sex marriages. I think his argument for the rightness of this position on biblical grounds is well made. I gather that you believe this position makes division of the denomination inevitable. That may be so as long as there are those—and they are many—who find affirmation intolerable. My contention is that it doesn’t have to be so if we accept Paul’s exhortation to not allow this difference in understanding to divide us.

          • Berry Friesen

            Wilson welcomes and marries, but does not affirm. His is a third-way position. Because you hold him in high regard, and because the church usually adopts such a posture vis-a-vis practices that are not affirmed by scripture, I did not expect you to find his position incomprehensible.

            Mennonites claim to be third way people, yet on this issue there is hardly any support for the third way on the MWR comment board. Everyone is going for broke, and broke is what we will get.

          • John M. Miller

            Berry, to better understand your position I located the interview to which you refer. I found these paragraphs throw light on what you say.

            “It was an interesting question. It wasn’t “Would we be welcome?”—because, sure, everyone is welcome at our church—but accepted, which is the language Paul uses in Romans 14, right? Accept one another as Christ has accepted you. And that meant full embrace. That meant no exclusionary policies, including disqualifications from leadership positions over such things.”
            . . . .
            “But I want to make it clear that I’m not adopting the language of
            affirmation, even though the approach I take is inclusive. We have a
            completely nonexclusionary approach, but I’m not characterizing it as
            open and affirming because I think the language of affirmation—moral
            affirmation—is not the language of the gospel. It may get us to the
            right place, which is nonexclusion, but it gets us there the wrong way,
            because it sets up this unintended consequence—the idea that in order
            for us to have unity of the Spirit, to fully accept each other, to use
            Paul’s language in Romans 14, we also need to affirm each other’s moral standing on this issue or that issue. And that’s just not so; we don’t. We can’t. If we go down that road we’re on the path of moralism. And that’s not Christianity. Morals are important in Christianity, but
            Christianity is not the new moralism.”

            I confess I do not understand the distinction Wilson draws between “acceptance” and “affirmation.” He refers to it as a matter of language, and as I read what he says in context, he seems to want to draw a distinction between himself and churches that have reached the position of total inclusion on what he considers grounds other than the radical call of the gospel. Even there he hedges.

            Can you explain to me what the distinction is? I base my position of acceptance and affirmation on what I understand the biblical message to be. I do not see it as accepting or affirming something that is morally wrong, and I don’t think Wilson does either. It seems to me he is more concerned about camps of churches and the language associated than a question of moral theology. Help me out if you can.

          • Berry Friesen

            John, the witness of Torah and the prophets affirms that the union of woman and man reflects God’s wisdom and justice, those two attributes of YHWH we need for shalom. We can never make a statement such as that about same-gender unions.

            This is the tradition we have received. We can say what we want about it, but it remains.

            Jesus affirmed the witness of Torah and the prophets and said he had come to fulfill its vision (Matt. 5:17). He explicitly described humanity as created at the beginning “male and female” meant to “become one
            flesh” (Matt. 19:4-5). This too is part of the tradition we have received.

            The first part of our problem is that we have used this affirmation of scripture to exclude and punish. Jesus never did that; in fact, he denounced those (such as us) who do that. Instead, he holds up the light and invites all to draw near. This is at the heart of Jesus’ new way of fulfilling Torah and the prophets.

            “But,” we protest, “when we approach the light, our confusion is more visible than ever!” True enough. We see that dynamic at work throughout Paul’s letters regarding a whole range of issues.

            Our crisis within MC USA is irreconcilable because one side insists on putting same-sex unions in a class of confusion far removed from all
            of the other ones we have long been willing to work with, and because the other side insists on renouncing the Bible’s strong affirmation of male-female unions. Unless we move off those positions, there will be no unity. Instead, there will only be a quiet and steady exodus away from the denomination.

          • John M. Miller

            Berry, I’m disappointed that you have not clarified a rational distinction between “acceptance” and “affirmation” which was at issue.

            Now you appeal to an argument from your understanding of the Torah. The Creation narratives and other teachings are cast in terms of the predominant patterns of human cultures. One might say this is the norm. A norm does not intrinsically rule out variations from the norm. This is true of Jesus teaching with regard to divorce.

            The argument for same-sex love and marriage is based on other fundamental themes of Scripture. I state my view in a rather simple biblical theology.

            1. In Genesis the primary reason for the creation of Eve was the need for companionship. “It is not good for Human to be alone.” The reason given was not sex.

            2. Psalm 139:13 affirms that the way we are knit together in the womb, the way we are formed in our sexual identity is by God’s hand and should be received as a gift from God. The evidence is overwhelming that sexual identity is not a choice for most people.

            3. Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 7 establishes that it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire. One cannot accept marriage for oneself and demand celibacy of others and fulfill the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Gerald Schlabach makes a far more sophisticated argument to the same end.

            You may be right that separation is inevitable if we make our disagreement about the interpretation of Scripture with regard to this ethical issue the basis of the decision. That was the whole point of my contribution to the conversation, i.e., that our common identity in the confession that Jesus is Lord should be greater than our disagreement on this particular issue. I recognize that for many, it is a deal breaker.

  • Barbara Brooks

    I’m sure the MC USA will arrive at unity within a few years. Eventually everyone who holds a conservative view of scripture will leave. Barbara Brooks

  • John Gingrich

    I have lived all my 60+ years in the pew in Lancaster conference and so I have seen the tremendous changes from the 1960’s to the present. John is right in that the structure and boundary setting at the bishop board level look like a top-down authority. In spite of this however, people have been asserting their independence in the only way this type of structure allows. When individuals and congregations feel they have no vote and no voice the only choice left is to leave. It is usually not an attempt at coercion or power, it is simply the assumption the church does not hear and value the deep convictions held by these individuals. When we are not valued in a group we take the logical next step and leave, assuming everyone will be happier. This is a big part of the dynamic in the denomination at present. The convictions of the people who hold to the traditional scriptural interpretations of sexual purity are seeing the denomination moving toward allowing the progressive interpretations in the name of unity. The CLC recommendations are the latest example of this. It feels like we have no voice and no vote and our convictions are not valued, in fact we hear them scorned by some. I don’t have an answer or proposal, but don’t think it strange when a group which feels unwelcome decides to leave.

    • John M. Miller

      John, I think you raise a significant issue: How can we honor one another with divergent convictions regarding what the Bible, especially the gospel of Jesus calls us to in our response to the same-sex sexuality issues that confront the church? Can we honor those who hold a more restrictive view regarding same-sex marriage and at the same time allow those who hold an accepting view to follow their convictions? Is it possible for the denomination to allow for both positions, or is it your view that to be honored in your conviction for the traditional interpretation that what you call “progressive interpretations” have to be rejected?

      My appeal is that we consider this parallel to the issues Paul addresses in Romans 14:1-15:7 and honor each other because of our shared identity in the confession that Jesus is Lord, that we honor Jesus’ prayer that we be one “so that the world may believe.” This would put our mutual identity in Christ above our difference of convictions about what the Bible teaches with regard to same-sex sexuality.

      • John Gingrich

        The Augustine quote: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In in all things, love” is what you are appealing to and asking us to declare this issue of sexual purity to be “non-essential”. The question has two levels. 1) Does the scripture allow same- sex unions, and 2) If we personally believe it does not, are we willing to be united in fellowship with those who believe it does? I believe until we come to consensus on the first question we will not be able to resolve the conflict in the denomination. I love the sharing of the emblems on Ash Wednesday with Methodists and Presbyterians in our community Lenten service and experience a unity of church in that setting. However, the testimony of my lived-out beliefs that I want to communicate to my children and grandchildren is in a committed fellowship of Anabaptist believers.

        • John M. Miller

          I catch the force of your argument, although I am not fully satisfied with this way of framing the question, esp. when you say “asking us to declare this issue of sexual purity to be ‘non-essential'”. Those of us who advocate for accepting same-sex marriage aren’t saying that sexual purity is a non-essential. We advocate for the same morality for same-sex sexuality that we believe is required for opposite-sex sexuality, i.e., chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage. However, we are saying that our differences in understanding should not be a cause for division just as Paul argued that difference of understanding about circumcision or the Sabbath should not divide the church in his time. Yes, the question of whether Scripture allows same-sex marriage is the key issue. I think the only way that can be resolved is in on-going, open conversation. I know of churches that have spent a year or two discussing the issue with a great degree of mutual respect. In the end, not all agree, but I think they find ways to live together as the body of Christ.

          • John Gingrich

            This will be my last word of clarification. If the scriptures do not allow same-sex unions, then this issue becomes “essential” and the church needs unity in declaring it so. Anabaptism was born on the plain reading of and obedience to scripture and that is why we will not find unity till we can resolve the question I posed above.

      • Elaine Fehr

        Mr. Miller, can we agree that Romans 14:1-15:7 pertains to things in which we have liberty to exercise choice in, for example – what to eat and drink and for what to regard as observance days? Shouldn’t matters such as sexual immorality, in which we do not have liberty (including homosexual behaviour), be dealt with in accordance with 1 Corinthians 5?

        • John M. Miller

          Elaine, both you and John Gingrich are correct that if the issue is one of accepting immorality, then the church needs to draw a line and reject immoral conduct. But that is precisely the question at hand. We have in the church today two ways of interpreting the biblical texts that speak to the issue of same-sex sexuality. You may not have read or agreed with the interpretations that understand that the five texts in the Bible that mention same-sex sins in fact condemn sex in connection with idolatry, i.e., temple prostitution, sex with slaves that is not an expression of mutual love but of inordinate power, and pederasty. I and the advocates of acceptance hold to a Bible-based morality that applies the same standard to same-sex and opposite-sex sexuality, i.e., chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage. We believe that the biblical command to love our neighbor as our self requires honoring others in their sexual identity as we honor the way we ourselves have been born as the creation of God.

          • Elaine Fehr

            John, can you help me understand where you find any reference to “sex in connection with idolatry, i.e., temple prostitution, sex with slaves that is not an expression of mutual love but of inordinate power, and pederasty” in Romans 1?

            I find only a very clear definition of what homosexuality is in verses 26-27: “For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.”

            Note these key phrases that pertain to homosexuality:
            “women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature”
            “men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another”
            And in that context, it is clear that “men with men committing what is shameful” refers to same-sex sexual relations.

          • John M. Miller

            The texts you cite from Romans 1 are part of a larger argument that begins in v. 18. After his greeting, (vv. 1-7) and opening statement (vv. 8-17) Paul begins setting the framework for his presentation of how we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul’s first point is his argument for the lostness of humanity without the gospel of Jesus Christ. His first subpoint is the lostness of the pagan world. (vv. 18-32) In 2:1-11 he argues for the lostness of the Jews and clinches his major point in v. 12, “All who have sinned apart from the law will perish apart from the law and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

            The issue of sexual sin is a part of the first subpoint about those who “did not honor God as God” (v.21) and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal human being or bird or four-footed animals or reptiles.” This describes the idolatry that frames the sexual sins mentioned in vv. 26, 27. To be fair, one has to say that does not describe the faith of the children of the church who have grown to have faith in God and to commit their lives to God when they accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Whatever Paul is describing, it seems evident to me that he is not talking about the desires of those who either have come to Christ through their nurture in the church or who have come to Christ by the call of the gospel from a non-religious background. Their same-sex sexuality is no more sinful than the opposite-sex sexuality of the majority. It seems clear that Paul is not addressing the normal sexual desire and expression of Christians in line with the same teaching for both same-sex and opposite sex persons, i.e., chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage.

            I did not say that the sins of sex with slaves and pederasty was referred to in the Romans passage. I think the best interpretation of the malakoi and arsenokoitai of 1 Cor. 6:9 finds in it a reference to pederasty. I don’t find a direct reference to the kind of abuse slave owners inflicted on their slaves, but I believe it was a sin prevalent in the Greco-Roman world that is condemned by the moral teaching of the gospel.

          • Elaine Fehr

            John, the Bible says that homosexual activity is the exchange of “the natural use for what is against nature” (Romans 1). On the other hand, even though heterosexual activity outside of one man/one woman marriage is sin, the Bible never refers to heterosexuality as unnatural. By God’s design, the bodies of males and females complement each other.

            In Leviticus 18, God calls the act of a man lying with another man as they would with a woman “an abomination”. Can you provide scripture to indicate that same-sex relations are not an abomination in God’s eyes when it occurs within professing Christians’ marriages?

            As a final note, when we commit our lives to God and receive Jesus Christ as our Lord, we are required to put our sinful desires aside (repentance). None of us are exempt, including those with homosexual desires.

          • John M. Miller

            Elaine, in Romans 1:26, Paul says that “BECAUSE OF THIS [Emphasis added.], God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” To interpret this text accurately, we need to consider what Paul refers to when he says, “because of this.” The previous statement says, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” This precondition is necessary to identify the conduct Paul condemns and is absent in the cases of Christians who honor God and seek to live in faithfulness to their God-given sexual identity. For many, heterosexual marriage would be to deny their natural identity, a violation of the principle Paul establishes. If one wants to make an argument from nature, I believe one has to take into account a biblical theology of sex and marriage.

            In Genesis, the primary reason given for the creation of Eve is that it is not good for Human (Heb. Adam) to be alone. The primary need is companionship, not sex. Psalm 139:19 indicates that we are formed in our mother’s womb by the hand of God. There is overwhelming evidence that people do not choose their sexuality, and biblical theology affirms our identity is God-given. This is true for both heterosexuals and same-sex individuals. We should not dishonor what God has shaped. Finally, while Paul advocates that celibacy is the ideal, that it is better to marry than to burn. This holds true for persons regardless of sexual orientation.

            You refer to Leviticus 18, as do many persons taking v. 22 out of context. I do not have time to get into all the interpretive issues, but there are many conducts mentioned in the Holiness Code of Leviticus that we do not take as directives for our lives under Christ. I imagine that even you wear clothing with mixed materials.

            You ask if I can provide any “scripture to indicate that same-sex relations are not an abomination in God’s eyes when it occurs within professing Christians’ marriages.” I have given you above my rather simple, straightforward biblical theology to support same-sex marriage. I hold the same ethical ideal for same-sex and opposite-sex sexuality, i.e., chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage. I think we do great harm when we condemn in others that which we accept for ourselves. I believe it is wrong to equate God-given desires for sexual relations in a covenant of marriage with sinful desires. Of course, all of us need to repent, as you say, for sinful desires. But i cannot equate God-given desires with sinful desires.

            As I have to others, if you want to consider a well-reasoned, thorough treatment of the biblical argument, I commend to you Gerald Schlabach’s article “What Is Marriage Now?” in the Oct 20, 2014, Christian Century.

          • Berry Friesen

            According to Neil Elliott (“The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire”), “Paul’s contemporaries perceived a single reality, sexual desire, which could attach to people of either gender.” So Paul did not have the categories of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” in mind when he wrote because such categories did not then exist.

            Paul understood YHWH to have created humanity in two forms, male and female, who in their difference become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), fulfill YHWH’s call “to be fruitful and multiple” (Gen. 1:28), and illustrate the “great mystery” of love (Eph. 5:32).

            In Romans 1, he drew on this biblical tradition and a description of the debased behavior of Rome’s elite to debunk the Empire’s idolatrous claim to be the source of wisdom, justice and mercy. Note that the fundamental error was not the fashioning of graven images, but the claim to be a source of wisdom and justice superior to YHWH.

            I take Romans 1 to suggest (1) the relationship between culture and the erotic sensibility is dynamic, and (2) the church must constructively engage this dynamic without pretending YHWH created whatever behaviors human desire has comes up with. This leaves much still to be decided for us as a church, but it is a start.

          • John M. Miller

            Berry, I find a lot of good substance in this depiction of what Paul was dealing with in terms of the culture and sexual ideology of the Roman Empire. In fact, I find support for my contention that the sexual misconduct Paul addresses is essentially related to the idolatry issue as I have argued. I think this affirms my point that because of this, the condemnation does not apply to our Christian sisters and brothers who worship God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Their sense of identity and faith commitment are not to be questioned nor equated with this idolatrous undergirding structure of what Paul condemns.

            It is your conclusions based on a different theological argument that I question. With regard to your (1), while I agree with the general premise, I disagree with where you seem to be going with this. I think you imply that this interaction with culture explains the sexual orientation of same-sex oriented persons. I don’t find an adequate theoretical basis for that conclusion and it flies in the face of the empirical evidence. While cultural presuppositions and mores create the social milieu in which sexuality is expressed and approved or condemned, it does not define the identity experience of individuals. I expect that you can verify that by examining your own experience as a heterosexual. At least I can. By the same token, we should honor same-sex oriented persons in the validity of their experience.

            In your (2), you basically claim that the biological forms of YWH’s creation are determinative of sexuality. It is not my claim that YWH creates the behaviors, but I think it cannot be denied that in terms of Psa. 139:13 that we can honor that the sense of sexual identity, “inward parts” (note this is not outward form), as God-given. Anyone who recognizes that the Genesis account does not give a historical account of a 6/24/7 creation should be able to recognize that the account of binary body form differentiation is not a full definition of sexuality. Empirical evidence points to psychological bases for identity as determinative.

            Did Paul understand this? I don’t think a high view of Scripture requires that the biblical writers were abnormal in that they had an intellectual grasp of all scientific facts of the 20th-21st centuries. Part of the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church into the full truth of revelation given in Jesus allows us to incorporate truth in this time that was hidden in the time Paul wrote. Not that it changes the truth of what Paul says about the connection between idolatry and sexual misconduct, but it helps us know what that means in this time. I conclude that it does not preclude honoring the sexual identity of our Christian brothers and sisters whose same-sex sexuality is accepted as a gift from God and honored within the church.

          • Charlie Kraybill

            The problem with a “high view of scripture” is that it locks one into one’s bigotry. If you believe the Bible is infallible and inerrant, it follows that you are commanded to discriminate. Thus, you think: “It’s not my fault I have to discriminate against the gays, it’s the Bible’s fault.”

            Only when one takes the Bible down from its pedestal, letting go of the notion that it has to be perfect to be of any use, only at that point can one realize that discrimination against gay persons is a sin. And that realization, a gift which comes from utilizing our God-given reasoning powers, trumps whatever is found in the book.

            A high view of scripture, in my opinion, is an *accurate* view of scripture. And an accurate view of scripture can only be had by utilizing the best of modern biblical scholarship, together with the brains God gave us.

          • John M. Miller

            Charlie, what you define as a “high view of scripture” is not what I had in mind. I read you as still fighting the battles of your youth. I reject inerrancy as a component of a high view of Scripture, and it would take a good bit of discussion with regard to what is meant by “infallibility” to reach some kind of mutual understanding.

            I grant you that there are persons who probably share your view of what these terms mean who use the Bible in ways that result in the attitude you describe, i.e., “It’s not my fault I have to discriminate against the gays, it’s the Bible’s fault.” If taking down the Bible from its pedestal means developing a viable hermeneutic, then I agree. Nevertheless, I believe that an understanding of God’s work for redemption of humanity is embedded in the story found in the Bible and that story needs to be read through the lens of God’s revelation in Jesus. It’s necessary to sorting out how we as Christians and the church respond to all the variations of sexuality in our times.

            Having said that, I find nothing in your last paragraph to disagree with. It may be we are closer together than one might have imagined.

          • Berry Friesen

            Charlie, as you’ve pointed out many times, there is surprising variety in the way our faith tradition has “bound and loosed” in regard to human sexuality. This variety reflects each faith community’s responsibility to
            discern its location and make judgments that bear witness to YHWH’s
            shalom.

            With regard to same-sex unions, John Miller wants traditionalists and
            progressives to do this “binding and loosing” together. To build unity, John
            offers fresh interpretations of difficult texts and a rueful reading of Paul:
            if only he had read more journal articles and hadn’t spent so much time interacting with the casualties of the libertine lifestyle of Greco-Roman Ephesus, Thessalonica, Philippi and Corinth, then he wouldn’t have been such a rube and might have understood that the bisexuality of the Roman elite was YHWH’s creation.

            Alas, I don’t think John’s approach will build unity. Traditionalists know of the Bible’s affirmation of male-female unions and they know Paul’s insight into this social construct we call “human sexuality” is worthy of respect.

            Your approach offers the advantage of candor, but also will fail to build unity. And my approach (affirm the biblical bias and then move on to
            binding and loosing) does not interest progressives. So as Levi Miller suggests in the April issue of The Mennonite, it seems we are about to embark on a kind of experiment where most everyone will be able to find a modern Mennonite congregation that suits his/her/____ tastes. The results will be available for evaluation twenty years from now.

          • John M. Miller

            Charlie, I had been hoping for your response, but since you haven’t and a fair part of Berry’s post is addressed to my views, I take this opportunity to add my voice.

            As Berry says, I’m an advocate of traditionalists and progressives binding and loosing together. I think the two categories fit well into what Paul designates the the different camps in Romans 14:1-15:7. I guess he would prefer to ignore what Paul says and split the church into two camps, a further incidence of the disunity that Jesus prays against. I prefer to go with Jesus and Paul.

            And since he has been unable to answer my biblical arguments, he resorts to caricature. He chooses not to address the careful biblical exegesis and exposition of Gerald W. Schlabach or the extensive work of Ken Wilson, let alone challenge the extensive work of Ted Grimsrud. Rather than address the issues of biblical interpretation, he prefers to attempt to make his case by ridicule. Knowing him as a scholar and one concerned about issues of justice, I had expected better.

            Next, rather than work with a careful reading of Scripture with regard to human sexuality, he chooses to assume his conclusions and not respond to the relation of empirical science, i.e., the study of God’s world, God’s creation, to the biblical material. Scholars understand this is a necessary component of biblical interpretation. In his statement, “Traditionalists know of the Bible’s affirmation of male-female unions and they know Paul’s insight into this social construct we call “human sexuality” is worthy of respect” he assumes his conclusion without actually dealing with the issues at stake. I would be delighted to engage him on the actual issues.

            Finally, he refers to the acerbic article by Levi Miller—I assume with the assumption that it will bring good outcomes. This has received ample discussion on MennoNerds, so I will not go into a lengthy treatment here. But the deficiencies of that article demonstrate that there are those determined to hold onto their views and divide the church no matter how inadequate their rationale.

            (I really don’t like this addressing each other through Charlie, in the third person. We live close to each other. Why don’t we meet for coffee and enjoy the advantages of face to face. :)

          • Berry Friesen

            John, you present yourself as one seeking unity, but then show little interest in how you can win traditionalists to your cause of opening the church’s doors to gay and lesbian persons. Such a stance is worthy of parody, IMO.

            But if my assessment of you is incorrect, then I would be happy to sit down over coffee and speak more about the path to unity. My number is in the book.

            As I’ve already indicated, I have little patience with the point of view that Paul’s thinking was distorted by all the “bad” same-sex unions he had observed and his lack of a sophisticated social analysis. Such a view of Paul is a non-starter.

          • John M. Miller

            I don’t comprehend what you are asking for when you say I “show little interest in how [I] can win traditionalists to [my] cause of opening the church’s doors to gay and lesbian persons.” If you are saying that I see little possibility of convincing a majority to my understanding of the biblical message, I agree that is true. I’ve been engaged in these discussions for a number of years with multiple persons. I’ve offered my understanding of a biblical theology that supports same-sex marriage and referred to what I consider some of the best biblical arguments of others. To no avail as far as you are concerned. And the same is true with others. It involves various issues with regard to how we read the Bible and our interpretive frames. What do you suggest?

            I’m just as convinced that those who have done the careful hermeneutical work and speak out of compassion and pastoral concerns for the acceptance of GLBT persons, including the possibility of marriage, will not revert to prior understandings leading to prohibition. This is the reality of the church. I don’t sense any openness on your part to give credibility to their careful work seeking to know God’s will. You don’t even offer respect for those who differ from you but instead think parody is appropriate. I think we need to honor each other in spite of our differences.

            And yes, I do believe that God calls us to love one another as Christ has loved us. And to unity in spite of our differences. You continue to caricature my approach, that I share with others, that seeks to interpret Paul’s statements in terms of their epistolary and cultural context, comparing scripture with scripture to align with the themes of God’s grace and acceptance of all persons as basic to the gospel. What troubles me most is your dismissive and derisive attitude to sisters and brothers in the church who you might acknowledge as just as sincere in their beliefs as you are in yours.

            As long as that is your attitude, I agree that meeting for coffee might be pointless. Nevertheless, I would be glad to meet if you can meet me as a brother in Christ who shares the same desire as you to be faithful to the biblical message and the good news that comes to us in Jesus Christ.

          • Berry Friesen

            OK then, John, let’s have coffee and talk face-to-face. Are you in the book?

            My interest is not in persuasion, but in finding a path forward where traditionalists and progressive can walk together with gay and lesbian persons. In my comments, I have suggested biblical understandings that would help traditionalists do that: (1) male/female unions as normative; (2) social/cultural factors impact sexual identity and expression; (3) the church can fully accept those who do not fit the norm while continuing to affirm the norm; (4) the church’s role within the new creation to bind and loose.

          • Charlie Kraybill

            Unacceptable, Berry. Your insistence on male/female unions as normative — that’s a non-starter. No self-respecting gay/lesbian Mennonite activist would go along with that. So all your flowery highfalutin proposals are for naught. Therefore, I’m going to bind you up, and cut you loose. Is that the correct usage of “binding and loosing”? John? Anyone? BTW, I’m not in the book, but if either one of you guys are ever in NYC I hope you’ll buy me dinner, and maybe flowers, and a show. I know some nice places down on Christopher Street.

          • Berry Friesen

            Fair enough, Charlie. Social movements do it, political movements do it, and so can you.

            But New York City? I never leave Lancaster.

          • John M. Miller

            Now, Charlie, you’ve read JHY and know what it means. Feigned ignorance won’t cut it when your in a bind. But if I ever get to NYC, which is unlikely, I’d expect you as host to buy my dinner. I’ll pass on the entertainment. Now if you’ll look me up when you come to the Caunty, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee and a donut.

          • Charlie Kraybill

            For the record, I have never read John Howard Yoder. And it’s now certain that I never will.

          • John M. Miller

            Charlie, I don’t know how you got through seminary without reading Yoder, but I recognize he is not the foundation of our theology. And I can’t fault you for not wanting to read him now. His life was such a contradiction to his theology. Nevertheless, with his powerful intellect, he did seem to get it right with regard to what “binding” and “loosing” meant in Jesus’ use of the term. Here is a quote from House Church Central that credits Yoder for its understanding:

            “The phrase is best interpreted by its use among the rabbis of the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It was concerned with moral decision making in areas not clearly commanded in Scripture. To “bind” a particular behavior or ethic was to make that behavior obligatory; to “loose” it was to make it optional. So the power to bind and loose is, essentially, to have the power to make decisions in the church. House church theology, rooted in Matthew 18 (where it is used in the context of church discipline), holds that the power to bind and loose requires Scripture, the gathered people, and the Holy Spirit. This is very different from the edict of a strong leader, the vote of a democratic constituency, or even the working of a group toward a consensus. All of these are human centered, not Spirit centered. Human decision making in the church quenches the Spirit.

            “Binding and loosing is best understood as following the rule of Christ, who works through the Spirit to direct the decisions in the local church. When the gathered people meet with hearts open to the Holy Spirit’s quiet voice, they will discover the will of their Lord and therefore will make decisions that are honored in heaven because, indeed, those decisions originated in heaven. Deeply suspicious of any kind of authority, the people who’s history begot house church theology felt that the Holy Spirit spoke most clearly through the corporate assembly, not any one individual. This is completely consistent with first century synagogues that were the model of the early churches–no first century Hebrew thinking person would picture himself as anything but a part of a larger, corporate assembly (our word “church” comes from the Greek word that means “assembly”). Their mind set was a corporate one that we in the modern house church movement struggle to reclaim.”

          • Charlie Kraybill

            John, I never went to seminary. I’m not sure where you picked up the idea that I did. The closest I ever got to seminary was a course in basic Hebrew with G.I. Lehman when I was attending Eastern Mennonite Bible College in Harrisonburg. As for Yoder, I tried to read “Politics of Jesus” back then but it bored me to tears, and I’m thankful now that I never got past the first chapter or two.

            With regard to “binding and loosing,” I appreciate your description, and it is a new concept for me. However, from my vantage point as someone outside the church bubble, “binding and loosing” sounds very much like a human-centered authoritarian process to me, even though the participants may believe they’re operating under divine guidance. The view from outside the church bubble is quite different from the inside view, John. You should give it a try sometime. Or hang out with some folks who live on the outside and try to see through their eyes.

          • John M. Miller

            Yes, I had the idea that you went to seminary from back in MennoLink days. Glad to have my error corrected.

            And, yes, binding and loosing is inside the church dynamic. However, I see it as a search to find God’s truth for life situations, and like it or not you regularly are a voice for sanity in these discussions. You bring a valuable voice from outside the cathedral perspective. You might be surprised at how much I’ve engaged those outside the sanctum.

            Anyway, keep up the good work of keeping us honest.

          • John M. Miller

            I had debated with myself whether to reply to this or not since we will have opportunity to talk tomorrow. But since this is a public forum, I’ll post a couple of thoughts here.

            I have noted at some place or the other that I can accept opposite-sex marriage—”unions” is too libertine for me—as normative as long as it is understood that “norm” indicates

            1. a standard, model, or pattern.
            2. general level or average, e.g., Two cars per family is the norm in most suburban communities. (Dictionary.com)
            Per this definition, although two cars per family is the norm, it does not rule out one car, no car, or 6 car families.

            As for biblical understandings, unless traditionalists recognize there is a case to be made that is based on a sincere effort to understand what the Bible teachers that differs from their own, I don’t think continuing together is a viable option.

          • Charlie Kraybill

            John, I have no idea what “binding and loosing” means. It’s one of those churchy phrases that never made sense to me, so I can’t speak to it.

            As for Paul, here’s what I know about him: He believed that he was a super-apostle (possessed of more authority and knowledge than the other apostles) because the cosmic Christ (the spirit of the resurrected Jesus) spoke to him directly. In other words, he heard Jesus’s voice in his head, and took direction from this voice. And this voice told him, among many things, that the end of the age was imminent, and that worldly activities were rather pointless, including the institution of marriage. This is why Paul encouraged his followers to not bother getting married, to stay single, like himself. Clearly, Paul was wrong about all that. We don’t know whether Paul didn’t understand what the voice in his head was saying, or whether the voice gave him bad information. But either way, Paul’s knowledge about the timing of the end of the age, as well as his perspective on the advisability of marriage, were woefully incorrect. Far from being a super-apostle with special knowledge and authority, Paul was just a man who heard voices in his head. So I don’t know why we would want to consult Paul regarding the institution of marriage, or sexuality issues, at all.

            You say you prefer to go with Jesus *and* Paul. I say this is an impossibility. The historic Jesus and the historic Paul were not on the same page. In my view, one must decide whether to go with Paul *or* with Jesus. You can’t do both. As for me and my house, we’re with the historic Jesus.

          • John M. Miller

            Well, Charlie, I’d have thought with your erudition you would have known what “binding and loosing” means. But that’s pretty much beside the point and I’ll not try to spell it out.

            On one thing we do agree—Paul is not Jesus. I have a bit of a different take on Paul. I think his experience of encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road was real and life changing. I view his effort to translate the meaning of the life and ministry of Jesus into a message for the Greco-Roman culture in which he witnessed as a necessary task in communicating the gospel in new cultures. It’s always a razor’s edge to walk the line to make the gospel understandable and adapting too much and losing the message. This was also true in the later translations, e.g., in the theological debates of the ecumenical councils. In my view, those debates that translated the good news of God’s reign manifest in Jesus as he walked among the people with his message of God’s love, liberation, deliverance, and healing into creeds that largely betrayed what Jesus was about. But I go astray from the topic at hand.

            I do not read Paul as the Muslims read the Qur’an. Which I fear is the way many of Christians today read the Bible, looking for texts taken out of their textual and cultural contexts. This is at the heart of my debate with Berry and Elaine. In my view, to rightly interpret what Paul says, one must be fully cognizant of the overall structure of his argument, in this case in the Roman epistle, and of the cultural context. One also needs to be self-aware with regards to our cultural context and of one’s motivations in the hermeneutical work.

            I guess our major difference is that I view the biblical canon as just that, the measure of what we can and should believe, what defines the church. I do recognize that the Bible is the church’s book, i.e., that the canon was determined by the faith community. One cannot claim that that process was infallible. At the same time, I honor your critical stance that sees the human dimension of the whole enterprise. I made the statement the other day that “God is larger than Christianity.” And I recently came across an essay that posits that if we replace God with the Bible, we lose the dynamic of interacting with God who is present among us by a false fixation on the words of the text. If we can see those texts as witnessing to a God active in the life of people and open ourselves to interacting with that same God, we open ourselves to a broader and more enriching experience.

          • John M. Miller

            Charlie, I replied to your post and after some further thought wanted to go back and edit my response, but unfortunately it was already beyond my access. I wanted to correct my statement about your fighting the battles of your youth. It’s not so much that as engaging a critical issue in our day of how Scripture is viewed. Please excuse my misguided thought.

            My further thought is that we differ in what we understand to be a “high view” of Scripture. You talk about taking the Bible “down from its pedestal.” My thought is that it’s not so much reducing its authority, which is what I understand your phrase to mean, but developing a right hermeneutic. That means understanding correctly how the Bible was written, for what purpose within the faith communities, and how that understanding translates into the faith and moral issues of our time. Again, I expect we may not be as far apart as one might suppose.

          • Elaine Fehr

            John, in short, I will just say that what were “shameful lusts” then are still shameful lusts now. Putting those shameful lusts within the context of marriage only defiles what God intended marriage to be. When practised by professing “Christians”, sin becomes more serious, not less serious (2 Peter 2:18-22). As well, there is no salvation without repentance (Luke 13:3). I find nothing in scripture that backs up a same-sex marriage.

            Bible.org has a good commentary entitled “Study and Exposition of Romans 1:18-32” for anyone who is interested in learning the truth of this matter.

          • John M. Miller

            Did you read Gerald Schlabach’s substantial essay? It would seem not. I would appreciate reading your careful critique of what he says. I will check out Bible dot org.

            I think it is a mistake to equate God-given desires with shameful lusts. There is a vast difference between the two.

          • Elaine Fehr

            I have now taken the time to read Gerald Schlabach’s essay. What he has done is taken one small portion from 1 Corinthians 7 (verses 8&9) to try and build a case for same-sex marriage. He does this without regard for God’s one and only model for marriage: one man (husband)/one woman (wife), even though that is the context in which verses 8&9 speak to that issue. You may have noticed that his essay was otherwise void of any scriptural support.

          • John M. Miller

            I’m glad you’ve taken the time to read Schlabach’s essay. I’m puzzled by your critique and authoritarian statement that discount his careful work. Let me attempt to point out a couple of things.

            Your first point is that he takes “one small portion from 1 Corinthians 7 (verses 8&9) to try and build a case for same-sex marriage.” I might note that those who hold your view take two verses out of Romans 1 and without careful exegesis in the context of the Epistle build a case against same-sex marriage when that may not be what Paul is talking about? (Btw, I read the material at Bible dot org and found that the writer dismisses the factor of idolatry out of hand without showing why he considers that to be the case.) I think Schlabach takes seriously the place of the “small portion” as you call it and does a superb job of exegesis and exposition.

            You might make the same argument against my belief that Psa. 139:13 posits that the way we are born can be asserted as the basis for belief that we may regard our sexual identity as a gift from God. How can I base an important point of theology on one verse? I believe that this affirmation is in accordance with what we know about God as the source of life and relationship to all creation. Yet I base my belief on this one verse. Why would you think that is invalid?

            Your second negation is based on a personal construct that you do not support with adequate scriptural argument, i.e., “without regard for God’s one and only model for marriage: one man (husband)/one woman (wife).” I grant you that when marriage is mentioned in the Bible it is mentioned as male/female. I don’t think that you can sustain the argument that the Bible does not also mention men with multiple wives. Jacob comes to mind—two wives and two concubines. I could mention others. Further, of logical necessity, the sole mention one pattern does not thereby exclude other possibilities. Even though two cars per family is the norm in most suburban communities, it doesn’t mean there can’t be one-car, no-car, or 5-car families. The fact that the Bible mentions only male/female marriage—the predominant form in most cultures—does not mean that same-sex marriage is not a possibility that fits the biblical norms as well.

            Sometimes I wonder why we end up at opposite sides of these questions. Does it have strictly to do with exegesis of the texts, is it related to our relative attunement to overarching biblical themes, or is it because of whether we are empathetic to the suffering of GLBT persons who want to be part of the church. When I read of the pain of those who are rejected by the church because of the way they have been born, my heart seeks an understanding of God’s word in Scripture that offers the good news of Jesus to them. It seems to me, and you may disagree, that others put a personally preferred understanding of the text above the suffering or real people, perhaps believing that love requires them to insist on their view of morality over the value of persons. Just wondering.

  • Elaine Fehr

    It is suggested here that the church look to Rom. 14:1-15:7 in order to remain united in dealing with the issue of sexual immorality within the church. However, Romans 14:1-15:7 pertains to things in which we have liberty – for instance, what to eat and drink and what to regard as observance days. Sexual immorality in the church is not a matter of liberty. For that, 1 Corinthians 5 is most helpful in showing us how that should be handled.

  • Don Bromley

    Romans 14 refers to matters of indifference, such as eating meat or observing certain holy days. It does not refer to moral issues, such as sexual immorality (porneia), which Jesus spoke about. I wrote about Wilson’s usage of Romans 14 at thinktheology dot org.

    • John M. Miller

      Don, I’ve now had a chance to read your argument at Think Theology. You make a stalwart effort to show that the issues surround same-sex ethical issues are distinct from the kind of issues Paul is dealing with in Romans 14:1-15:7. “But actual issues of sin and morality are not disputable matters!” The weakness that I find in your argument is that you assume your conclusion with regard to the very issue that is at stake.

      In other words, you reach the conclusion that all same-sex erotic activity is sinful, relying mostly on Richard Hays *The Moral Vision of the New Testament* and this quote, “Though only a few biblical texts speak of homoerotic activity, all that do mention it express unqualified disapproval. Thus, on this issue, there is no synthetic problem for New Testament ethics.” You fail to deal with the crux of the argument which is that when these texts are exegeted in terms of the scriptural and cultural context, something that Wilson does superbly, they do not refer to nor apply to same-sex love and marriage.

      I am well aware of the arguments of Robert Gagnon and Hayes in the larger context, and Willard Swartley within the Mennonite community of scholars. But I’m sure you must also be aware that beyond Wilson there is a solid body of scholarship, including the renowned Christian ethicist David P. Gushee, who writes a Foreword for Wilson’s book, that understands the biblical teaching as not condemning, in fact approving of same-sex love and marriage. Within our own Mennonite community of scholars, Ted Grimsrud at Eastern Mennonite University has done an impressive amount of biblical theological argument supporting the understanding that the overall message of the Bible leads to affirmation.(His work is available online at peacetheology [dot] net.) And the ex-Mennonite, now Roman Catholic theologian Gerald Schlabach has a powerful, well-reasoned article in the Oct 20, 2014, Christian Century. If you have any interest in considering the countervailing view to the position you hold, I commend it to your attention.

      So while we agree that some of the obvious examples that you refer to of sexual sins are not disputable matters, I think you fail to make the case that same-sex love and marriage with the same norms as opposite-sex love and marriage is a moral issue that is not one on which followers of Jesus may have different understandings and hence falls into the category Paul deals with and Wilson describes as disputable.

      • Don Bromley

        John, do you believe that the Apostle Paul intended his condemnation of same-sex activity to be universal, or only applicable to certain scenarios? If you could go back in time and ask St. Paul, “Does this apply even to a loving same-sex couple in a monogamous covenant relationship?”, would he pause to consider his answer, or say, “Wow, I never really considered that as a possibility.” No, of course not. The prohibition was not conditional, it was universal and based upon created order.

        So, if Paul would not have considered *any* same-gender sexual activity to be permissible under any circumstances, how is it reasonable to use Romans 14 to argue that he would consider this a “disputable matter”? Would he argue, like he does in Romans 14 for eating meat, that it doesn’t matter one way or the other whether one has gay sex?

        • John M. Miller

          Well, Don, it’s clear that you think that Paul would think like you do. :) I’m not so sure. I do believe that the expressions of same-sex sexuality that Paul condemns are universally applicable, and I condemn them as well. Those of us, or at a very minimum some of us who think God approves of same-sex marriage would and do condemn the kinds of violations of healthy sexuality that Paul condemns.

          You ask whether Paul would approve of a “loving same-sex couple in a monogamous covenant relationship.” I think we have in 1 Cor. 7 the basis to consider how he would answer that question. I trust that rather than your assumption based on your own frames of thought. You can Google the most thorough treatment of that text that I know of, i.e., “What is marriage now?” by Gerald Schlabach in the Oct. 20 Christian Century.

          If you are willing to enter careful dialog based on the information we have in Scripture, I invite you to read Schlabach’s article and come back at me with a careful critique of what he says.

          • Don Bromley

            John, it is indisputable that first-century Jews considered any same-sex acts to be inherently abhorrent and sinful. There are no qualifying statements that would indicate that the Scriptural prohibitions are limited to *certain* forms of homosexual activity; they are universal. The same can be said for the prohibitions on incest and bestiality. We are free to disagree with Scripture on this issue.

      • Don Bromley

        I am sympathetic toward David Gushee and other scholars who have changed their position on this issue after a family member came out as LGBT. However, it should be clear that they did not come to their position first by studying the Scriptures. Rather, they came to a new position and then sought ways to make Scripture accommodating to their new position.

        • John M. Miller

          This may be true. I cannot speak for others as much as tell my own story. I came to change my position when two or three other persons engaged me in a discussion of what the biblical texts actually say. For a period of some 4-6 week on a discussion on MennoLink, an open forum for members, in the 1990s, I came to a new understanding of the texts in their context and in the light of the broad themes of Scripture.

          I do think it is true that persons come to the Bible with fresh questions as they encounter real persons in their struggles. I changed my understanding of the possibility of accepting divorced and remarried persons or legally divorced persons living in unmarried relationships when dealing with actual persons as a missionary in Mexico. These persons came to Christ under my ministry and I saw their lives changed by God’s grace. My background Mennonite church would not have accepted them for baptism. I could not refuse it and there has been good fruit.

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