Last spring, United Methodism’s Denmark and California-Pacific Conferences submitted long-shot pleas to have the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council invalidate our denomination’s official teaching in our governing Book of Discipline that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” You can read the request and arguments from the former here.
In response, I have submitted “friend of the court” briefs to the UMC Judicial Council in which I comprehensively responded to the arguments of the petitioners and outlined how disapproval of homosexuality has already been embedded in our denomination’s Doctrinal Standards, many generations before the 1972 General Conference declared homosexual practice to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The key background here is that there are different levels of authority to official United Methodist statements approved by General Conference. Any resolution in the UMC Book of Resolutions automatically expires after eight years (unless specific action is taken to re-adopt it), and this collection has been officially described as “not legally binding,” for the most part. Within the Book of Discipline (every part of which remains permanent unless specific action is taken to amend it), the Social Principles are not church law by themselves, but do have the force of church law in quite a number of circumstances. The rest of the Book of Discipline is more unambiguously binding church law. And then the first few pages of the Discipline are the UMC’s foundational Constitution, which is much harder to change than the rest of the Discipline.
But even more fundamental are the UMC’s “Doctrinal Standards.” This does NOT refer to marketing slogans about open hearts, minds, and doors, nor about any little phrase widely used among us. The content of our denomination’s core doctrine is not a matter of debatable opinion between different factions about what is most core about United Methodist values. Rather, our Discipline makes clear that our doctrinal standards include the specific documents of the Methodist Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith of the former Evangelical United Brethren Church, John Wesley’s “Standard Sermons,” and John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. You can read them all here. The key “Restrictive Rules” in our Constitution basically forbid even General Conference, our denomination’s supreme governing body, from contradicting this core doctrine, especially the First Restrictive Rule (¶17 of the present Discipline), which declares that no General Conference has any right to ever “revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”
The requests of the Denmark and California-Pacific Conferences basically ask the Judicial Council to rule that the determination that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” which is now embedded in some non-constitutional parts of our Discipline, is somehow contrary to the more foundational Doctrinal Standards, and so is invalid for the UMC to hold.
The question of this moral stance’s compatibility with the UMC Doctrinal Standards is much more narrowly focused than more common debates in which people argue from very different foundations about what a church’s teaching and policies on sexual morality should be. When I was in the very liberal environment of Harvard Divinity School, I found that people there had for the most part given up on earlier efforts to argue that the Bible does not really condemn consensual homosexual practice. With that particular academic debate having been settled in favor of traditionalist interpretations, the broader efforts of seeking church approval for homosexual unions have moved on to other arguments, from more honestly attacking high views of biblical authority to arguing largely on the basis of emotions and subjective personal testimonials.
It is rather bold to claim that statements added to the UMC Discipline on homosexuality are somehow “contrary to” the UMC’s foundational Doctrinal Standards. But I have not seen much effort expended to actually argue for this claim, a claim that seems to amount to a not-carefully-thought-out effort of the petitioners to ask the Judicial Council to achieve judicially what they could not accomplish legislatively.
But when one moves beyond vague rhetoric and lofty slogans to actually examine the documents of the UMC Doctrinal Standards, it becomes very clear that there is not only no contradiction between these standards and more recent United Methodist statements disapproving of homosexual practice, but furthermore that disapproval of homosexual practice is already inextricably embedded in the UMC’s core doctrine.
Beyond the UMC, people can construct arguments based on all kinds of reasons why religious affirmation of gay relationships is a good thing, as many friends who are more inclined towards Unitarian Universalism or other religious persuasions do. People of course have the option of trying to find or create other denominations whose doctrinal foundation is more favorable to LGBTQ liberationist causes.
But within the specific context of United Methodism, our denomination’s core doctrine leaves no room for directly and explicitly affirming homosexual practice.
Acknowledging this is not a matter of opinion or faction, but rather of basic intellectual honesty.
What follows are excerpts (slightly edited) from relevant “friend of the court” arguments I submitted to the UMC Judicial Council to consider as it reviews the requests from the Denmark and California-Pacific Conferences. It is worth noting that I and others submitting briefs on various sides of these cases have exchanged courtesy copies of our respective briefs, and I have not seen any serious attempts to refute my arguments about the relevant content of our Doctrinal Standards, although all others involved in these cases have been given plenty of opportunity to try.
Readers not terribly interested in the “insider baseball” arguments about how all four of the documents cited above are each part of the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards, and eager to get to the heart of my argument for the actual relevant teachings of these Doctrinal Standards, may just skip over the first excerpt from my “friend of the court” brief below and scroll right down to the second section.
The Doctrinal Standards of The United Methodist Church consist of at least four of the five documents now incorporated as ¶104 of the 2016 Book of Discipline. In defining our terms, we must be clear on what is included in “our present existing and established standards of doctrine” in the First Restrictive Rule (¶17). “Standards of doctrine” is quite obviously identical in meaning to “doctrinal standards.” So these synonymous phrases can be used interchangeably.
Contrary to the contention of the letter from the Denmark Conference, ¶3 says absolutely nothing about defining or limiting our Doctrinal Standards to only the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. In fact, it includes no mention of the phrase “doctrinal standards” or any variation thereof. Rather, it provides the needed clarification that the versions of these two documents that are accepted by our denomination are those versions that were officially in use at the time of the 1968 merger. This is an important clarification, since the Confession went through a number of different revisions over the years, while the present Articles are significantly different from those originally inherited from the Church of England and in use in Methodism’s earliest days. But the Denmark letter mistakenly misinterprets a constitutional paragraph that only addresses one issue (which of the multiple historical versions of the Articles and Confession are now official for our denomination) as instead addressing an entirely separate issue (the boundaries of all of our Doctrinal Standards protected by the Restrictive Rules).
The exact language of the First Restrictive Rule has been in place with the same wording since the 1808 edition of The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church (EXHIBIT A), with this same precise wording found continuously in subsequent Methodist Disciplines through the 1968 merger (EXHIBIT B). Furthermore, what is presently the Fifth Restrictive Rule (¶21), which separately protects the General Rules from change, has also been in place since 1808, when it was the Fourth Restrictive Rule, with some slight and substantially inconsequential wording changes (EXHIBITS A & B).
So the General Rules have since 1808 been covered separately by their own Restrictive Rule. And the EUB Confession of Faith cannot have been intended to be included among “our present existing and established standards of doctrine” by pre-1968 Methodist Disciplines, as the Confession was not a “present existing” Doctrinal Standard for Methodists prior to 1968. Now the Confession is separately covered by its very own Second Restrictive Rule. Finally, it would be extremely illogical, redundant, and grammatically bizarre for the “present existing and established standards of doctrine” addressed in the second half of the First Restrictive to mean nothing more than the Articles of Religion already addressed in the first half of the First Restrictive Rule. So the “present existing and established standards of doctrine” of ¶17 must include something other than the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, and General Rules.
Indeed, ¶103 (which, as part of the Discipline, amounts to a definitive statement by no less an authority than General Conference) notes not only that the 1968 merger incorporated both the Methodist Articles and EUB Confession “as doctrinal standards for the new church,” but in relation to the phrase we are now considering, recalls that “Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were understood specifically to be included in our present existing and established standards of doctrine.” This was stated even more strongly in 1968 on page 35 of The United Methodist Church’s very first Book of Discipline, in the preface to “Part II: Doctrinal Statements and General Rules” (EXHIBIT C), which was also a definitive statement by General Conference. On page 35, the third paragraph officially acknowledged that “our present existing and established standards of doctrine” was a phrase that “[i]n its original reference … included as a minimum John Wesley’s forty-four Sermons on Several Occasions and his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament” (emphasis added). This same paragraph also notes that the Methodist Episcopal Church (our denomination’s largest predecessor body) approved these as doctrinal standards in 1785, after already having these particular Sermons and Notes “defined” as “Standards” for American Methodists as early as 1773. So given this history, this paragraph recalls that Methodist Articles of Religion were subsequently added to these Sermons and Notes as additional standards of doctrine (in 1808) – NOT the other way around. The present ¶103 also notes the history of how before 1784, “Mr. Wesley’s Notes Upon the New Testament and four volumes of Sermons … contained the standard exposition of Methodist teaching,” being formalized as binding standards for British Methodists through the 1763 “Model Deed” (adopted well before the great divergence between American and British Methodism in 1784) and understood by American Methodists to be key parts of their “basic doctrine and discipline,” and how later for the new Methodist Episcopal Church, “Wesley’s Sermons and Notes … continued to function as the tradition standard exposition of distinctive Methodist teaching.” For the First Restrictive Rule to have meaningful authority in protecting our Doctrinal Standards, no further academic arguments over whether or not earlier inclusions of Wesley’s Sermons and Notes rose to the level of “formal definition,” not even statements made by General Conference itself, can have the authority to remove the status of Wesley’s Sermons and Notes as protected Doctrinal Standards.
In any case, the aforementioned statement from the 1968 Discipline represents a formal, defining statement from General Conference acknowledging that “our present existing and established standards of doctrine” includes Wesley’s Sermons and Notes. This same Preface (EXHIBIT C) includes language (quoted in Judicial Council Decision #243) calling Wesley’s Sermons and Notes as “the Wesleyan ‘standards,’” and something distinct from the Methodist Articles and EUB Confession, but treating all three as part of one large category of doctrinal standards.
Furthermore, the organization of the Discipline itself makes clear that Wesley’s Sermons and Notes are part of our “Doctrinal Standards” and hence part of “our present existing standards of doctrine.” The opening of ¶104 puts the entirety of the paragraph under the heading, “OUR DOCTRINAL STANDARDS AND GENERAL RULES.” So then everything in the paragraph other than the General Rules must, of logical necessity, constitute “Our Doctrinal Standards.” (Others may wish to argue about whether or not the General Rules also constitute doctrinal standards, but that need not be addressed in our present case.) ¶104 includes the entirety of the Methodist Articles, EUB Confession, and General Rules, and also heading and bibliographic information for “THE STANDARD SERMONS OF WESLEY” and “THE EXPLANATORY NOTES UPON THE NEW TESTAMENT.” Notably, the latter two references are not among the small parts of ¶104 whose status is expressly qualified with footnotes given to non-constitutional “legislative enactment” standards or standards that were otherwise not part of the original Methodist doctrinal standards. By this listing in ¶104, the content of Wesley’s Sermons and Notes is incorporated into the Discipline as part of our Doctrinal Standards. If the publishers of the Discipline had actually included the entirety of these two texts in ¶104, this would have obviously made our Disciplines too unworkably long. But these texts are readily available from libraries, booksellers, and online.
For example, Northwest Nazarene University, affiliated with a World Methodist Council sister denomination, has a Wesley Center Online which is a splendid, convenient resource for Wesleyan texts. Wesley’s explanatory Notes on the Bible (including the New Testament portion to which our Doctrinal Standards are limited) can be found at this link:
And his Standard Sermons can all be read here:
Finally, it has been widely noted that the original Methodist Articles of Religion lack clear articulation of several very important distinctive aspects of Wesleyan theology. Therefore, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes have throughout our tradition’s history served as indispensable “guardrails” for making clear that official Methodist doctrinal theology included entire sanctification and excluded certain Calvinist understandings of predestination, for example, especially before the mergers that began in 1939. And it is quite obvious that any particular theological standard being found in Wesley’s Sermons or Notes but not in the Methodist Articles of Religion cannot be sufficient grounds for ruling such a standard to be unacceptable for theological teaching and practice in our denomination. Otherwise, we would have to blatantly misinterpret the First Restrictive Rule to require the abandonment of rather central parts of our Wesleyan theological heritage, and/or treat John Wesley himself as some sort of apostate from “United Methodist” doctrine. That can hardly have been this Rule’s intention!
The Disciplinary standard in question is entirely consistent with, and directly echoes key portions of, the Doctrinal Standards, and so is not essentially new. Statements elsewhere in the Discipline calling homosexual practice inherently “incompatible with Christian teaching” have not been shown in any way to clearly, directly, or irreconciliably conflict with any particular part of the Doctrinal Standards. For there to be such a conflict, there would need to be found somewhere within the content of the five documents of ¶104 a statement that amounts to unambiguously clear, positive approval of homosexual practice, or which otherwise is in clear, direct, and irreconcilable conflict with the now-challenged sentences. But the petitioners basically admit that they were unable to find any such statement anywhere in the Doctrinal Standards. Finding such a statement would be a major game-changer for our denomination’s internal controversies. But the fact is that neither the petitioners today nor any supporter of church approval of homosexuality has ever been able to find a single such statement in any one of the five constituent documents of our denomination’s Doctrinal Standards (each of which, as noted in sub-section B above, is widely available) across so many decades of intense intra-denominational debate, for the simple reason that no such statement exists.
Even if the petitioners were correct in claiming that “The question of homosexuality is not addressed in the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church,” that would in no way bar the General Conference from adopting a stance on homosexuality (or on Internet gambling) today….
However, the fact is that the petitioners are incorrect in asserting that “homosexuality is not addressed in the doctrinal standards.” So the challenged declaratory statement is not a completely new standard from what was already in place. Without using the precise words found in ¶¶161G and 304.3, there are several places in our Doctrinal Standards which affirm the same basic values related to homosexual practice. …
The first known use of the term “homosexuality” was in the late 1800s, a full century after Wesley’s death.[ii] Given the realities of how the English language has evolved, determining what our Doctrinal Standards say about “the practice of homosexuality” necessitates seeking different words that convey the same meaning, or at least overlapping meanings.
1. The Methodist Articles and EUB Confession of Faith. Article IV of the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church (“The Holy Bible”) states that “the Holy Bible … is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Today even liberal biblical scholars admit the clear facts that every time homosexual practice is undeniably mentioned in the Old or New Testaments, it is condemned. No serious biblical scholar today has offered any example of any verse that clearly, unambiguously, and non-speculatively affirms homosexual practice. A few passages from esteemed United Methodist New Testament scholar Richard Hays’s acclaimed The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation – A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HaperOne) are worth highlighting:
- “The few biblical texts that do address the topic of homosexual behavior, however, are unambiguously and unremittingly negative in their judgment.” (p381, emphasis original)
- On Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: “It is worth noting that for the act of ‘lying with a male as with a woman’ is categorically proscribed; motives for the act are not treated as a morally significant factor.” (p381, emphases original)
- “The fact is that Paul treats all homosexual activity as prima facie evidence of humanity’s tragic confusion and alienation from God the Creator.” (p389, emphasis original)
- “The biblical witness against homosexual practices is univocal.” (p389)
- “The New Testament never considers sexual conduct a matter of purely private concern between consenting adults. According to Paul, everything we do as Christians, including our sexual practices, affects the whole body of Christ.” (p392)
- “…the New Testament offers no loopholes or exception clauses that might allow for the acceptance of homosexual practices under some circumstances.” (p394)
- “If Jesus or his followers had practiced or countenanced homosexuality, it would have been profoundly scandalous within first-century Jewish culture. Such a controversy would surely have left traces in the tradition, as did Jesus’ practice of having table fellowship with prostitutes and tax collectors. But there are no traces of such controversy.” (p395)
So any intellectually serious revisionist argument for Church acceptance of homosexual practice must, of necessity, be based upon rejecting our Church’s “high” view of Scripture as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Many people have views based on not treating Scripture as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” But it is fundamentally intellectually dishonest for anyone to claim that such views are consistent with United Methodist doctrine.
To highlight one clear scriptural example, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, produced by the liberal National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, translates Leviticus 18:22 as “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Some revisionists have tried to argue that Leviticus and its moral commands are no longer authoritative for Christians. But no such room is allowed by our UMC Doctrinal Standards. In fact, Methodist Article of Religion V (“Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”) expressly includes Leviticus in its list of the Old Testament books “whose authority” our Church accepts as canonical. Furthermore, Methodist Article VI (“Of the Old Testament”) defends the Old Testament as “not contrary to the New,” affirms the traditional three-part distinction between the ceremonial, civil, and moral parts of Old Testament law, and declares rather strongly that “no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.” So while Christians are not bound by ceremonial Jewish law (related to such things as the sacrificial system replaced by Christ or treating certain animal species as always unclean for food), and in the words of Article VI, such “civil precepts” as the death penalty prescribed for homosexual practice in Leviticus 20:13 need not “be received in any commonwealth,” we are still bound to live according to such underlying moral judgments as that homosexual practice is something to be avoided. This affirmation of the continuing obligation of Christians to obey “the moral law” is also found in Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon Matthew 5:17.[iii] That Leviticus 18:22 belongs in the category of moral commandments is clear enough from its lack of any civil component, its lack of any inherent or explicitly specified connection to the old ceremonial sacrificial system, its exclusion from the Old Testament teachings explicitly modified by Jesus, and the fact that Gentile converts to Christianity were especially instructed to avoid “sexual immorality” by the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 – a largely Jewish group whose understanding of this phrase would have been shaped by Leviticus 18. But it may be simpler to observe this verse’s placement directly between two other prohibitions that few would dispute classifying as moral and still binding for Christians today: child sacrifice and bestiality!
Several New Testament passages are also directly relevant:
Romans 1:26-27 – 26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – 9Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 10Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Timothy 1:8-11 – 8But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; 9Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; 11According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust
While the above quotations are taken from the King James Version (KJV), as this was widely in use in Wesley’s day,[iv] several other translations make the homosexuality references in the second and third passages clearer and less euphemistic. What the KJV translates in 1 Corinthians as “abusers of themselves with mankind,” others translate as “men who have sex with men” (New International Version), “Those … who practice homosexuality” (New Living Translation), or “men who practice homosexuality” (English Standard Version). What the KJV translates in 1 Timothy as “them that defile themselves with mankind,” others translate as “those practicing homosexuality” (New International Version), “people … who practice homosexuality” (New Living Translation), “men who practice homosexuality” (English Standard Version), or “people who have intercourse with the same sex” (the Common English Version, which our UMC’s own Abingdon Press recently played a key role in producing).
For several verses, we must keep in mind that the use of androcentric – i.e., male-centered – wording was standard practice in biblical Hebrew, like many Western languages before the last 60 years or so, with the original audiences readily understanding that the obvious parallels would also apply to women, as contextually appropriate. By this very standard, most Christians readily accept that the Ten Commandments’ prohibition of a man coveting his neighbor’s wife (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 5:21) also conveys a parallel prohibition for women, against coveting their neighbors’ husbands. To be consistent with already uncontroversial readings of such passages as the Ten Commandments, most or all of the biblical condemnations of male homosexual practice would also apply to female homosexual practice.
The bottom line is that according to what the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards call our denomination’s “true rule and guide for faith and practice,” consensual homosexual practice – or at the very least, homosexual intercourse between two men – is categorically, without exception, “an abomination” from which the people of God must abstain, homosexual desire is “unnatural” for women as well as men, and homosexual practice is classified along with lists of other serious sins (such as idolatry and “whoremongering”) which can exclude people from the Kingdom of God if there is never repentance, with no exceptions offered. And lest there be any doubt, our Doctrinal Standards explicitly affirm the “authority” of the one biblical book in which the first two foundational verses cited above appear, and state that “no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of” the moral component of its commandments. This is entirely and quite obviously consistent with (relatively milder) statements in the Discipline calling homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
2. The Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. Those seeking revisionist readings of the above-cited passages will find no ally in John Wesley. Wesley’s writings do not address homosexuality, or polygamy, at too much great length, as he accepted the basically uncontested disapproval by eighteenth century Anglicanism of these practices. So beyond a few brief comments indicating his acceptance of the consensus that existed in his church in disapproving of homosexual practice – and also of any other sexual intercourse outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage – there was no need for him to launch any extended defense of this position. If Wesley favored a more tolerant attitude towards homosexual practice, or revisionist interpretations of Scripture that would have made the categorical disapprovals of homosexual practice limited to only certain contexts, he had more than enough opportunity to make this clear in his commentary on the entire Bible and his dozens of sermons. But he chose to do no such thing. Instead, his Explanatory Notes on the Old as well as New Testaments let all of the Bible verses that most directly condemn homosexual practice (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1: 26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; and 1 Timothy 1:8-11) stand as authoritative, with no hint of limiting their condemnation of anyone’s choice to engage in homosexual relations in any context.
Wesley removes any remaining room for doubt in his Notes on a few passages. His Notes on Romans 1:26-27 describes the homosexual desires of men and women as “that unnatural lust, which was as horrible a dishonour to the body, as their idolatry was to God.”[v] This language echoes his notes on Jude 7, in which he does not limit his disapproval of the would-be homosexual rapists of Sodom (Genesis 19) to the violently inhospitable nature of what they attempted, but specifically condemns their “unnatural lusts.”[vi] He also calls the final category of offenders in 1 Corinthians 6:9 “sodomites” in a clearly disapproving way, classifying them alongside “idolaters” as individuals guilty of especially serious sins.[vii] (For the record, I do not personally like the term “sodomite” and do not use it. But in this case we are stuck with the language we have inherited.) Whatever else “sodomites” may include, no one seriously disputes that it would at least include men who engage in homosexual intercourse with other men.
So this part of our Doctrinal Standards rather explicitly condemns even the desire of men or women to engage in homosexual practice as an “unnatural lust, which [is] as horrible a dishonour to the body, as … idolatry [is] to God,” and in another place also classify homosexual practice (at least as much as can be encompassed by the word “sodomy”) as being about as serious a sin as idolatry. The (relatively milder) Disciplinary statements calling homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching” are quite obviously entirely consistent and harmonious with this strong language already written into our Doctrinal Standards.
Furthermore, Wesley’s Notes on Ephesians 5:1-11 explain that the commandment “to reprove” (i.e., openly disapprove of) sexual sin and other varieties of “unfruitful works of darkness” by noting, “To avoid them is not enough.”[viii] By openly disapproving of one kind of sexual sin, ¶¶161.G and 304.3 are fulfilling this explicit mandate from our Doctrinal Standards.
3. The Standard Sermons of Wesley. Among the Standard Sermons included in our Doctrinal Standards is Sermon #38: A Caution Against Bigotry.[ix] In Section I.11 of this part of our Doctrinal Standards, Wesley classifies “sodomites” as part of a list of different types of sinners, listing “sodomites” immediately after robbers and immediately before murderers! Specifically, Wesley judged that the fact that “common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land” to be proof of the devil’s power.
Again, I am uncomfortable with the word “sodomite.” But we have no power to change eighteenth-century English language usage. The fact remains that in Wesley’s day this was a very negative term applied to individuals who engaged in homosexual practice. And so this amounts to yet another part of our Doctrinal Standards that categorizes homosexual practice as a sin like robbery or murder, and describes its widespread practice as proof of the devil’s power.
Much broadly relevant material is found elsewhere in the Standard Sermons, but for the sake of being concise and avoiding debatable theological and academic questions, I will briefly note only a few. In Sermon #25: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon On The Mount – Discourse Five, Wesley tells us that “In some sense it may be said that whosoever openly breaks any commandment teaches others the same; for example speaks, and many times louder than precept” (III.3) and that “if an ordinary sinner teaches by his example, how much more a sinful Minister, — even if he does not attempt to defend, excuse, or extenuate his sin” because the minister’s life example alone teaches “his congregation” (III.5). So according to this part of our Doctrinal Standards, a central question for whether or not our clergy should be asked to follow the standards of ¶304.3 is the question of whether or not they should teach, via their example, that homosexual practice is sinful and to be avoided. This question is already clearly answered elsewhere in our Doctrinal Standards, as noted above. Furthermore, repeatedly in his Standard Sermons, Wesley stressed the supreme binding authority of ALL of Scripture, leaving no room for any exclusion of the above-cited passages related to homosexuality. He stressed that “All that is written in the book of God we are to declare,” without ignoring passages that some may find offensive,[x] and defined Christian faith as including, AT A MINIMUM, “an unshaken assent to all that God hath revealed in Scripture”[xi] or “believ[ing], both that Jesus is the Christ, and that all Scripture, having been given by inspiration of God, is true as God is true,”[xii] and also much more (emphases added).[xiii] In a similar vein, point 10 of his Preface to his doctrinally standard Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament says of the Bible, “Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess,” while point 11 declares that its “inspired writers” enjoyed “[a]n exact knowledge of the truth” along with “a precise expression of their meaning,” and point 12 affirms that the language they used “is exact in the highest degree: for the words which were given them accurately answered the impression made upon their minds….”[xiv] Thus, our Doctrinal Standards offer plenty of room for forbidding our clergy from engaging in behaviors our Doctrinal Standards have long accepted to be sinful, while they offer rather little room for selectively treating certain challenging parts of Scripture, such as those cited above, as “defects,” ignorant, or inaccurate.
Again, by their own essential admission, the petitioners have been unable to find a single clear positive affirmation of homosexual practice anywhere within the Doctrinal Standards. On the other hand, this sub-section … has demonstrated more than enough distinct instances and ways in which our Doctrinal Standards have already affirmed the basic value judgment of disapproving of homosexuality practice. Therefore, it is not just “not inconsistent,” but quite obviously positively consistent with our Doctrinal Standards for the General Conference to call homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching,” which really amounts to merely re-affirming what is already in our Doctrinal Standards, rather than saying anything substantially new. For the preceding sentence to be false, someone would need to definitively and conclusively refute and disprove EVERY one of the instances and ways noted above of these Standards’ disapproval of homosexuality. As of this writing, I am unaware of any serious attempt made to dispute even one of them.
[i] Cf. Wesley’s Standard Sermons, Vol. 1 (Sermons 1-26), Ed. Edward H. Sugden (Nashville: Methodist Episcopal Church, South Publishing House); available from https://archive.org/stream/10305045.76.emory.edu/10305045_76_djvu.txt. This book’s Introduction (on page 13) lists nine sermons later added to the original forty-four Standard Sermons to account for some longer lists and higher numbers of “standard sermons” sometimes being referenced. Note that EVERY sermon specifically discussed in this brief is listed in the Wesley Center Online’s list of Wesley’s “Standard Sermons” but is NOT among the nine added later, and so must be one of the original forty-four Standard Sermons. Cf. http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons
[x] I.5 of Sermon #36 – The Law Established Through Faith: Discourse Two; http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-36-the-law-established-through-faith-discourse-two/
[xi] Section I.7 of Sermon #17 – The Circumcision of the Heart: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-17-the-circumcision-of-the-heart/
[xii] Section I.1-3 of Sermon #18 – The Marks of the New Birth: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-18-the-marks-of-the-new-birth/
[xiii] Cf. Section I.2 of Sermon #1 – Salvation By Faith and Section II.5 of Sermon #2 – The Almost Christian.
[xiv] “Preface to the New Testament Notes,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesleys-notes-on-the-bible/preface-to-the-new-testament-notes/