Candler Professors Spar on Gay Marriage in United Methodism

on July 18, 2019

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

  1. Comment by Eternity Matters on July 18, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    “These include: comparisons of the current debate on same-sex marriage to previous debates on slavery and women’s ordination”

    The “Christian” Left begs the question by assuming women’s ordination was correct. It wasn’t, and denominations that follow it end up with all sorts of other errors.

    And skin color is morally neutral while slavery is not. How dare they compare sexual perversions with slavery!

    “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.”

    He’s right – sort of. But his solution is to ignore all sexual sin, where the right solution is to call all sin what it is – homosexual or heterosexual.

  2. Comment by Jeff Labala on July 27, 2019 at 1:52 pm

    Eternity Matters and all those Christians who believe the ordination of women is unscriptural, please read my book, Women in the Preaching Ministry: radical feminism or proper biblical interpretation? Then, let me know what you think. Please know I am not a liberal. For me, I follow the dictum of the Reformers–the Bible is its own interpreter. Secondly, there is a basic difference between something being in the Bible, that is taking the Bible literally, and it being scriptural, that is a valid and appropriate Christian meaning or interpretation. Secondly, there is such a thing as the Christian meaning of Scripture. As an example of this point, take Malachi 4:5. One meaning of the text, the literal meaning held by the religious leaders of the day, was biblically valid and appropriate, but not the Christian meaning, while Jesus’s meaning was.(See Luke 9:9-11). The point is the Bible is polysemic, it has diversity of meaning, and not all meanings are Christian meanings. You can get the book on Or, I could send you a copy if you so desire. Be blessed as we all seek to rightly handle the Word of God. Jeff Labala

  3. Comment by Loren J Golden on July 28, 2019 at 8:59 am

    How do you address the fact that Paul, writing with the apostolic authority granted him under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the context of I Timothy 2.8-15, which immediately precedes the qualifications for the offices of overseer (or bishop; Gk. epískopos; synonymous with elder/Gk. presbúteros; see Acts 20.17,28, Tit. 5,7) and deacon (or servant; Gk. diákonous) in I Timothy 3, explicitly states in v. 12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet”, and that the requirements for both offices in the following chapter includes that they be “the husband of one wife” (lit. a “one-woman man”; Gk. miâs gunaikòs ándra; vv. 2,12; see also Tit. 1.6)?

  4. Comment by Loren J Golden on July 28, 2019 at 9:01 am

    The first Titus reference should be 1.5,7.

  5. Comment by Jeff Labala on July 31, 2019 at 5:33 pm

    Loren, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I wished you had read the book. Apparently, you have not.The first thing you will notice is the Timothy passage adorns the cover of the book. It stares you right in the face and grabs your attention. The first chapter has as its epigraph an affirmation of the inspiration of the Bible. We diligently sought to address the major issues by opponents of women in the Preaching ministry. Please read the book. All the questions you raised are addressed. We take the Bible seriously.You may get a copy from me. Let me know. Thank you for your desire to start a dialogue, and as we seek to be faithful in rightly handling the Word of Truth. Have a blessed day in the Lord. Your brother in the faith

  6. Comment by Jeff Labala on July 31, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    P.S. Loren, by getting you a copy of the book, I mean a complimentary copy. Be blessed.

  7. Comment by Dan on July 18, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    So Soulen is arguing from a false premise, which means he can never reach a true conclusion. Steely Dan wrote a song about this – “Pretzel Logic”

  8. Comment by diaphone64 on July 18, 2019 at 6:38 pm

    Of course Soulen misuses the “two shall become one” phrase to imply it can be ANY two people. But every time that phrase is used in the Bible it is explicitly referring to a man and a woman as the two becoming one.

  9. Comment by David on July 19, 2019 at 10:52 am

    “Becoming one” can apparently have several meanings in Hebrew, but having sex is the one most likely in this case.

  10. Comment by William on July 18, 2019 at 7:51 pm

    You would think that by now liberal intellectuals and scholars would have discovered ancient manuscripts disproving the Bible and supporting their positions. But, they apparently haven’t, unless they’re circulating these among themselves in secret.

    So far, all they can do is dispute and disagree with the Bible, like children disagreeing with parental rules, while drawing their often bizarre conclusions using self-designed convoluted and incoherent interpretation tactics. When they attempt to cite Scripture, they always use unrelated passages to draw their often juvenile conclusions.

    Bottom line — much of the conflict now present in the UMC can be placed at the feet of liberal places like Candler.

    What a day it would be for traditionalists to seize the initiative and start strongly demanding that their liberal brethren verify their positions through the Bible and push back hard when they can only attack, disagree with, and misuse the Bible as their only method of defending their positions.

  11. Comment by Pat on July 19, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    Well said!

  12. Comment by Dr. Todd on July 18, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    The argument raised about hypocrisy in dealing with heterosexual sin is a very weak one. The proper answer – where such hypocrisy actually exists – is to reinforce the Biblical and traditional standards for heterosexual sex in the first place, not allow all standards to slip equally low.

  13. Comment by William on July 19, 2019 at 6:58 am

    Exactly. Two wrongs have never made a right. The wrongs always pick up speed and start multiplying. The UMC has been mostly missing in action for much of the sexual revolution and the divorce epidemic, failing to actually confront and address these radical, cultural wrenching phenomena. Instead, we entered into classic denial, hiding, and burying of head in the sand modes. Out of that, enter the Great Deceiver with all his tactics — thus our present schism.

  14. Comment by Pat on July 19, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    Right again!

  15. Comment by Dr. Todd on July 20, 2019 at 9:49 am

    Did you actually read what I wrote before you declared it “Wrong!”? I do believe I was making the same point you were. Step up and enforce the whole counsel of God on sexual matters.

  16. Comment by Dr. Todd on July 20, 2019 at 9:50 am

    Oops, my bad.

  17. Comment by Mark on July 18, 2019 at 10:06 pm

    It appears that both presenters evaded the topic of natural law, which is a decisive argument against marriage redefinition.

  18. Comment by Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary on July 18, 2019 at 10:22 pm

    In the meantime, the laity (those with whom I remain in contact years after retirement from the clergy) are weary of this debate and generally non-supportive of the LGBTQAI+ agenda.

    When the dust settles after a split in the UMC, both sides will look out at the pews and find that more than a handful will have mirrored the exodus of the Von Trapp family in “The Sound of Music.”

  19. Comment by JR on July 19, 2019 at 9:38 am

    Already done.

    The current debate for me is, do I bother to join another church at all?

  20. Comment by Lee D. Cary on July 19, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    Sure you do, JR.

    The UMC is just the last of the Seven Sisters to come apart. Christendom is not endangered, except by those atheists, agnostic and religious sects who see Christians as infidels and foolish, who stand by silently as Christians across the globe are persecuted.

  21. Comment by David on July 19, 2019 at 10:46 am

    Of course, the issue arises as to why the UMC has to perform marriages at all. All marriages in the US are with the permission of the state. No religious entity perform valid marriages without this. Indeed, in countries that follow Napoleonic law, couples typically have a mandatory civil marriage first followed by an optional religious one. Early Christianity regarded celibacy as the ideal lifestyle. Indeed, one pope commented that the “lust in marriage” would be punished. If you do a little online research, you will find that Christianity did not involve itself in marriage for its first thousand years.

  22. Comment by Palamas on July 19, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    The assertion that “Christianity did not involve itself in marriage for its first thousand years” is a myth based on the lack of a specific declaration of sacramentality in the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Verona (1184). However, the fifth-century Council of Florence declared, “The seventh sacrament is marriage, which is a figure of the union of Christ and the church,” obviously based on Ephesians 5. And the Orthodox Church, which doesn’t recognize the Council of Verona, has celebrated marriage since at least the fifth century (there are weddings rings showing Christ joining husband and wife from Byzantium from that period). None of which answers the question of what the church should do about marriage now.

  23. Comment by Pudentiana on July 19, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    Years ago, I was fascinated by a wedding sermon preached by a Scots Presbyterian who specifically said he was performing something unique called a Christian marriage which had a different definition and purpose than the regular kind. This was a powerful sermon as it is one of the few I really remember after 40 years. We have cheapened marriage so much, no wonder it has become celebrated more at the reception than the ceremony. The preciousness of Christ’s love for the Church and vice versa is not reflected in much anymore. May God forgive us and restore to us the joy of our salvation and the power of His love in our marriages.

  24. Comment by William on July 19, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    The left attached marriage and the traditional family with a vengeance paralleling the sexual revolution. Enter same-sex marriage and the left did an about face and declared marriage one of the wonders of the world, for gay couples that is.

  25. Comment by William on July 20, 2019 at 7:42 am

    ….. ATTACKED marriage

  26. Comment by Skipper on July 23, 2019 at 10:42 am

    It is somewhat encouraging that there is anyone on the staff at Candler who still supports the Biblical / Methodist / Christian view. Those supporting the New Morality don’t realize the New Morality is not new at all, but was around in days of old tempting people just like today.

  27. Comment by bob on July 26, 2019 at 8:54 pm

    The hermeneutical approach of Soulen is not new. Joseph Smith employed a similar perspective in the 1830’s, as did Mary Baker Eddy in the 1870’s-80’s in addressing scripture in fresh ways and finding truths all previous Christians had misplaced. So, using the same ‘lateral the football of truth’ approach, they could, and their followers still do, find in scripture everything from the plurality of gods, to the notion God once was a man, to to the unreality of matter or disease.

  28. Comment by Henry on August 9, 2019 at 4:24 am

    As someone who is gay and a casual Christian
    A) I’m so tired of this topic. So are most people.
    B) I don’t care if the church supports gay marriage. Gays can’t reproduce and most are not religious at all, yet LGBT made it their #1 goal to redefine a religious sacrament. Go figure. What’s interesting is according to statistics, only 20% of 25-year-olds are married. So marriage is not even popular among younger heterosexuals. And I know very few gays who are married. Most have no interest but will complain about it anyway.

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