Two professors from Candler School of Theology, an influential United Methodist Seminary, sparred in a debate near Atlanta arguing for and against embrace of same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church.
Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia, hosted the May 8th debate between Kevin Watson and Kendall Soulen on the topic of same-sex marriage in the church. Watson is a distinguished scholar of Methodist history who argued the traditionalist perspective. He is the one of the few traditionalist faculty members at Candler School of Theology.
Soulen is a professor of Systematic Theology at Candler. He has written extensively on the Trinity and Christian-Jewish relations.
Watson argued that the current position of the UMC is correct, and same-sex marriage is not permissible in the church. Soulen argued the opposing position: that the official position of the UMC is wrong and same-sex marriage should be permissible in the church.
Watson broke his argument into two parts. First, he established the clear Biblical teaching on the issue of same-sex marriage, and then he spoke directly to those who disagreed with him and highlighted some oft-repeated counterarguments. In establishing the Biblical teaching on the issue of homosexuality and by extension same-sex marriage, Watson listed a series of passages from the Old and New Testaments that explicitly condemn homosexual behavior.
Watson also commented on the proceedings from the Jerusalem Council, which tried to remove as many restrictions on Christianity as possible so that Gentiles would have easier conversion. However, sexual immorality remained forbidden. Finally, Watson drew support from the creation story and specifically how mankind was created male and female. He used this to draw in the procreative aspect of marriage which specifically precludes same-sex marriage.
In talking to those who do not support the teaching of the UMC and support same-sex marriage. Watson had the following critiques. First, he asked those who support same-sex marriage to keep in mind that their views are now the views of the majority culture in the United States, and to understand the challenges that come with this. In particular, he asked them to understand that their views must be representative of Christian ethics first and foremost rather than cultural ethics.
Second, Watson highlighted a series of liberal arguments that he feels are neither representative of his views nor helpful to the ongoing conversation. These include: comparisons of the current debate on same-sex marriage to previous debates on slavery and women’s ordination, hypocrisy in sexual ethics on the part of heterosexuals, appeals to agree to disagree, and appeals to “just love everyone”. Watson countered that these are unhelpful for a variety of reasons, but the final appeal to “just love everyone” strikes at the heart of the disagreement between liberals and traditionalists within the UMC. Both sides believe that they are loving to those who experience same-sex attraction, but they disagree about what is the loving thing to do.
Liberals believe that it is loving to affirm people and let them marry whoever they wish. But the Bible teaches that sin always has consequences and thus traditionalists believe that the loving thing to do is to discourage sin.
Soulen addressed biblical marriage, asserting that same-sex marriage fits within a Biblical mold. He also addressed the scriptural objections to homosexuality more broadly.
Soulen’s central idea is that Christian marriage is properly conceived of as a school of holiness, and that this school is not limited to only heterosexuals, but that homosexuals are also welcome. This comes from his unusual idea of marriage. Soulen first asked the question: what is the purpose of marriage? He found three answers in the Bible: procreation; a fence against sin and temptation; and in order that the two shall become one. Soulen concludes that the final purpose, that the two shall become one, is the primary purpose of marriage after invalidating the others.
This is the foundation for Soulen’s idea of marriage as a school of holiness. In living with someone else, he argues that our love is made more perfect and more like God’s love. Soulen argues that homosexuals are as capable of pursuing this goal within marriage as heterosexuals and that the institution of marriage should be extended to them as well.
After establishing his reasoning for the acceptance of same-sex marriage, Soulen addressed Biblical objections against homosexual behavior. However, instead of addressing the Biblical texts directly, Soulen takes a different approach. He first establishes the hypocrisy principle that Jesus speaks on in Matthew 7:3, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log that is in your own eye” (ESV). Soulen takes this to mean that Jesus condemns those who make a difficult path for others while making their own path easy. In the New Testament this idea is applied to the Pharisees. However, Soulen also applies it to heterosexuals and homosexuals in the church. In his view it is not right for the heterosexual majority to disallow same-sex marriage while taking a permissive view towards heterosexual sexual sin. According to Soulen the proper response to this injustice is to allow same-sex marriage within the church.
The debate on human sexuality and same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church has raged for years and this debate alone is unlikely to solve anything. However, it was a helpful illustration of the arguments for each side. Watson argued that the Bible should be taken at face value and that its condemnations of homosexual behavior should be taken seriously. Soulen argued that same-sex marriage fits within the bounds of Christian marriage, and that by denying marriage to homosexuals, the church perpetrates an injustice of holding heterosexuals and homosexuals to different standards of behavior.
The full video of the debate can be viewed here