July 10, 2015

Talbot Davis: Reuniting Christology and Sexology

Rev. Talbot Davis is pastor of the massive, diverse Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.  He serves on the board of directors of the Western North Carolina Conference Evangelical Movement (WNCCEM) and blogs at The Heart of the Matter.  Talbot is the author of “Head Scratchers: When the Words of Jesus Don’t Make Sense,” “The Storm Before the Calm,” and “The Shadow of a Doubt,” all from Abingdon Press. This article was originally posted on MinistryMatters.com and is re-posted here with permission.

 

Don’t you hate it when your strongest disagreement is with your closest friends?

Here’s how that’s working in my life. In the same-sex relationship, intimacy and marriage debate that is currently dominating United Methodist news, I have a collection of colleagues with whom I am in substantial agreement on almost every theological issue.

That is, we hold to a high view of the authority of Scripture, an ongoing concern for the salvation of all people, a belief in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, and most essentially, a commitment to what is commonly called a “high Christology.”

By “high Christology” I mean an understanding that Jesus is not godly. He is God. He is not a great man. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is not one of many. He is the one and only. Along with my friends, I treasure the truths we read in John 1:1-4, Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1:1-4 and Philippians 2:5-11. Every knee really will bow and every tongue really will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And yet a number of those same “high Christology” colleagues also embrace a new relational ethic in which same-sex marriages would ultimately be approved by and occur in United Methodist churches. With great passion and convincing articulation, they claim that you can at the same time affirm the historic creeds of the Christian faith and an evolving understanding of human sexuality. The list of these friends includes people like Steve Harper, one of my seminary professors, Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter, Methodism’s highest profile voices, and the voices you hear among the new cadre of colleagues from the Via Media Methodists site (an organization which, to be clear, has taken no official stand on changing the language in the Book Of Discipline.)

So I want to share a few lines with you on why I believe such a view is both intellectually and biblically untenable. In short, why a high Christology must be reunited with an ancient sexology. My points below will center primarily-though-not-exclusively on Paul’s texts, as he is the source of both the strongest language and the greatest disagreement in the same-sex marriage debate.

  1. Pauline consistency. The New Testament’s strongest proclamations regarding the divinity of Christ are in the letters of Paul. Specifically, Colossians 1 & 2, Philippians 2, and 1 Corinthians 15. For Paul, Jesus is Risen King, not wandering prophet. Paul is not alone here, of course — John 1 and Hebrews 1 are certainly part of Christology’s Mt. Rushmore — yet his voice is both persistent and persuasive.

Yet that same Paul is every bit as consistent and clear regarding Christian sexual ethic: celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage. Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 and even the comprehensively simple command of 1 Corinthians 7:2: “But since there is sexual immorality occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” I don’t think we can celebrate Paul in one breath and disregard him with another.

  1. Resurrection ethics.Paul’s rhetorical logic in 1 Corinthians creeps up on most of us. He argues for sexual restraint from Christ’s resurrection. Let me show you what I mean.

What is a presenting dilemma in 1 Corinthians? Sexual permissiveness, manifest most egregiously with the man who “is sleeping with his father’s wife” (1 Cor 5:2).

What is the solution? “Flee sexual immorality” (6:18).

Why? “Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit” (6:19).

Why are our bodies so significant? Because they will be raised from the dead (15:12-13).

And how do we know our bodies will be raised from the dead? Because “Christ has been raised from the dead” (15:12).

The ethics of chapters 5 and 6, then, cannot be separated from the theology of chapter 15. We who claim Christ live into a resurrection ethic in which our bodies are holy because they are everlasting.

Adam Hamilton has said, “Orthodoxy relates to theological essentials captured in the creeds.” But when did we separate the theological from the ethical? Isn’t that why James is in the canon?

The notion that Jesus’ resurrection is “theological” or “creedal” while our sexual behavior is merely ethical is exactly the kind of Greek-not-Hebrew thinking that Paul spends most of 1 Corinthians correcting. I fear my UMC colleagues are falling prey to their own modern-day Gnosticism, as much as I’m sure that thought shocks them. As I have written earlier, your body is the most theological thing about you.

Of course, the creeds don’t mention homosexuality specifically. They don’t mention adultery either. Does that mean faithfulness in marriage is no longer part of orthodoxy? That orthodoxy is only what you believe in your head and not what you do with your body? Such a dichotomy deserves a place in the dustbin of history, along with the Gnosticism of which this thinking is simply a 21st century derivative.

  1. Modern hubris. During a conversation I had with a “high Christology” friend one time, he remarked with great confidence that when Paul speaks of same-sex relationships in Romans 1 he was no doubt referring to exploitive relationships, up to and including pedophilia. Indeed, my friend said, Paul could have no concept of a modern-day monogamous same-sex romance.

However, as Ben Witherington and Richard Hays have shown, Paul’s language in Romans gives no hint of exploitation and every indication of equality. Indeed Paul’s acknowledgment of female-centric homosexuality mitigates the modern theory that he was speaking of male masters and boy slaves. We do ourselves a disservice with we assume that we are the sexual sophisticates and Paul was a simpleton. Paul lived and ministered in the midst of a culture that was every bit as oversexed as is our own

  1. The fallacy Of The women’s ordination – racial equality – homosexual inclusion argument.Those on my theological left frequently argue that in the same way the church progressed through the years to embrace female ordination and racial equality, so it is moving in the right direction when it comes to homosexual marriage. It’s the right side of history argument in religious clothing.

And it is purely an invention of convenience. Even the most conservative among us in the United Methodist Church acknowledge that within the Bible there is conversation (that’s why we call it a library at Good Shepherd.) And when it comes to women’s issues, the subject of slavery, and even harmonious relationships within the church, there is conversation within the books of the Bible. Conversation within leads to conversation beyond, and that’s why the UMC has heard the “yes” of Acts 2 louder than the “no” of 1 Timothy 2 when it comes to the ordination of women.

However, there is no such conversation within and among the texts of Scripture when it comes to homosexual intercourse. Every mention is negative. Consensus within mandates fidelity beyond.

So here is my plea to my Christological friends: Recognize the logical impossibility of your position. Elevate your sexology to the deservedly lofty heights of your Christology.

Because just as Jesus is not ours to reimagine, neither is marriage ours to redefine.


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