Institute on Religion and Democracy
August 28, 2000
At its annual "Ministers Week" lectures, United Methodist Perkins School of Theology in Dallas hosted a debate over the church's approach to homosexuality, among other issues facing the church. Taking a pro-homosexuality approach was Victor Furnish, a professor at Perkins. Defending the traditional Christian stance was Richard Hayes of Duke Divinity School in North Carolina.
Over 500 clergy and laity attended the Perkins event, held in February. Other speakers besides Furnish and Hayes included Asbury Theological Seminary President Maxie Dunnam, liberal Perkins faculty members Minerva Carcano, Alyce McKenzie and Joerg Rieger, liberal Catholic theologian Charles Curran, and retired Bolivian Methodist Bishop Mortimer Arias. Dunnam and Hayes appeared to be the only major lecturers who, in their remarks, spoke from a clearly evangelical or firmly orthodox perspective.
Furnish and Hayes were the speakers who spoke at length about the major controversy that plagues United Methodism: homosexuality. They were both frank about their beliefs regarding the Bible. For Furnish, the Scriptures are not the final authority but an incomplete record that points to a higher authority. For Hayes, the Bible is definitive as God's revealed will.
Furnish warned against accepting the "words of the Bible as collectively the Word of God." He instead looks for guidance from the "kergymatic core" of the Bible that affirms the love and faithfulness of God. ("Kergyma" is a Greek word describing the salvation role of Jesus Christ.) This "core" excludes what the Bible says about the physical world, political institutions, domestic and social relationships, and sex. The Bible's attitudes towards these areas are all "time-bound and culturally conditioned" and therefore not necessarily reliable guides for today, according to Furnish.
"This means we must resist speaking ponderously of Scriptures as providing norms that are valid for all times and places," Furnish surmised. "Specific moral norms are always derived from one truly absolute norm, which is the grace and faithfulness of God." He did not describe how God's grace can be fully defined without reliance on the biblical text.
Furnish called the Bible the church's "family album," illustrating where beliefs and moral standards stood at various times, but all of which are part of a "constantly moving body of river."
"We do the Bible no honor by regarding it as an inert static body of teachings boxed up and tied tight by the creeds and church laws," Furnish said. The Bible must "remain open to critique and correction like all of our creeds and statements of faith."
The Bible's sexual morality was created by the "patriarchalism," "stereotyping of gender roles," and "total ignorance concerning the complexities of sexual identity," according to Furnish. For the church to establish which parts of the Bible still carry "authority," he said Scripture must conform to what we know about God as disclosed in Christ. And it must accord with what we know about "creation."
As an example, Furnish claimed that the Scriptures ascribe to Jesus several different teachings about divorce. The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies have dramatically changed their teachings about divorce over the last 100 years, he pointed out. So too can the church evolve in its teachings about sexuality, he urged.
Specific Scriptures that condemn homosexual behavior are "simply no longer credible," Furnished claimed. "None can stand unchallenged given what modern research is teaching us about human sexuality," he said. The Apostle Paul had "no knowledge of sexual orientation."
The Bible's expectation of sexual monogamy passes Furnish's two-fold test of conforming to what we know of God's love and to our modern knowledge of the world, he said. But the Bible's prohibitions against homosexual behavior and divorce fail this test.
Hays responded to Furnish by declaring that the biblical texts about homosexuality speak with one voice, and "there is no serious doubt about their meaning." The argument that Jesus never addressed homosexuality shows a "lack of historical perspective," Hays insisted. Jesus was a first century Jew who agreed with Jewish teaching that homosexual conduct was a "gentile vice." If he had taught anything else it would have been the "basis for controversy and slander by his enemies."
Although all scriptural texts agree in their disapproval of homosexuality, Hays said a theological position should not be based exclusively on such a small number of passages. Instead, his own views, and those of the historic church, are based on a constant message through both Old and New Testaments that man and woman are created for each other.
Hays said that a homosexual orientation, even if involuntary, is not morally neutral. All of us live in the flesh within a fallen creation and are prone to sins that are not freely chosen. "The Bible undercuts our obsession with sexual fulfillment," Hays surmised. "Lives of freedom, joy and service are possible without sexual relations." The Bible does not make sexuality the "basis for defining a person's identity or for finding meaning and fulfillment in life."
Although the Bible does speak of sexual practices, it never acknowledges classes of persons based on sexual practice, Hays said. And the Bible "never considers sexuality merely a private matter between consenting adults."
In describing his differences with Victor Furnish, Hays said Furnish gives authority only to the Bible's "kerygmatic core." In other words, the Bible must be tested by modern science and experience. For Furnish, the Bible is reliable only when speaking about God's power and love.
"My way of understanding the authority of the Bible is different," Hays confessed. "It is not a body of rules," he admitted. But he said it authorizes moral judgment in four ways:  by moral rules,  by more generalized moral principles,  through models of faithful living and  by outlining a "larger symbolic world." All of these are potentially valid, he said.
"The Bible tells a story with which we find our identity," Hays said. "The Bible doesn't always tell us what we should do. But when it does we should listen long and hard before not to doing it." He argued against the church' s acceptance of modern studies that are "influenced by understandings of humanity that are at odd with the New Testament."
"We cannot decide what it means to live in holiness before God by doing empirical studies taking polls about contemporary sexual practices," Hays insisted. "Contemporary culture, which prides itself on its understanding of human sexuality, has produced enormous confusion, anxiety and debasement in our sexual lives."
Victor Furnish proposes to judge biblical material based on what is "credible" for "modern people," Hays noted. He called Furnish's proposal ironic, since modern people have produced an unprecedented epidemic of divorce, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and rampant abortions.
"In view of our propensity for self-deception, I think it is prudent and necessary to let Scripture and Christian tradition order the life of the church on this painfully controversial matter," Hays concluded.
But other speakers besides Furnished espoused pro-homosexuality arguments. Charles Curran, a Catholic priest who lost his teaching position at Catholic University because of his open disagreement with Roman Catholic teachings on sexuality, now teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He urged "freedom" on "doubtful" issues that are "peripheral" to the faith, such as homosexuality.
"What we have today is an understanding of the homosexual orientation that we did not have before," Curran said. "I don't see how you can demand celibacy of people with a homosexual orientation." He argued that a truly catholic and universal church tries to embrace vastly different Christian perspectives.
Joerg Rieger, who teaches systematic theology at Perkins, sounded a similar theme. "The presence of gays and lesbians in the church might provide us with a unique opportunity to think through the question of what really matters in the church and in theology today," he said.
"We need to rethink also what it means to live in committed partnerships," Rieger said. "And we will find that we need to rethink not only our attitude towards homosexual relationships, but out attitude towards heterosexual relationships a well."
Asbury Theological Seminary president Maxie Dunnam emphasized that it is not simply homosexuality but the understanding of scriptural authority that is dividing the church.
"Is it any wonder that our church is in turmoil when men and women preparing for the ministry are being mentored in the faith by persons who disregard our founding and primary source documents so as to diminish the Bible as God's Word?" Dunnam asked rhetorically.
"Is it any wonder that there's confusion in the church when such teaching violates our stated understanding of Scripture and our doctrinal standards," he asked again, citing the church's Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and Wesley's Sermons and Notes Upon the New Testament.
Dunnam said those who have represented this "revisionist stance" have been slow to be "direct and honest" about their disagreements with historic church beliefs. "We are deeply divided over what has become a fundamental fault line: the authority of Scripture and the person and work of Jesus Christ," he emphasized.
Dunnam especially focused on the dangers of doctrinal pluralism, which claims that "all roads lead to God," directly contradicting both Scripture and the "central understanding of the church" for 2000 years. "Doctrinal pluralism is an untenable principles to guide us. It will divide or render impotent the church as saving force."
"True inclusiveness requires that we center our faith in a living and loving Christ and in the love and power of the Holy Spirit that can work in us," Dunnam concluded.