Tuesday, November 27, 2012

An UnTenable Argument

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, has written a controversial blog post called "Why the Church is Concerned with Same-Sex Marriage and Ordination."

I spent a semester as an Asbury student, taking two online classes for credit after I graduated from the Candler School of Theology, but I do not personally know Dr. Tennent. Though much of his theological worldview runs counter to mine, I do know him to be a gracious writer and generous speaker.

However, Dr. Tennent has written a piece for his blog which strikes me as full of arguments which are specious at best, and completely unfair to those with whom he disagrees. Because his was a public post in a public forum, I feel compelled to respond publicly.

Tennent argues that the (conservative) church's preoccupation with the issue of human sexuality "is not, as is often said, because this sin is being singled out from all the others," but rather because "any attempt to relocate any sin from the New Testament 'sin lists' to the celebrative, normative list must be addressed because it strikes at the heart of the gospel itself." I hope you will read the whole article to see his full argument.

I think a fair summary of his argument would go like this:
1. The Bible makes clear that the practice of homosexuality is a sin.
2. Those who seek full acceptance of people who identify as LGBTQ are deeply misguided, or worse.
3. This church is not preoccupied with homosexuality because of its sexual nature.
4. The church is preoccupied with homosexuality because those with whom we disagree are trying to take an aberration (a sin) and make it normative, even holy.
5. Taking sin and making it normative is deeply threatening to the church. And
6. We must stand against that which strikes at the heart of the Gospel.

Of the six parts of his argument I have identified, it is the characterization of his ideological opponents (#2) which I find to be most outrageous. Let me briefly explain why it is this part, and not the others, that spurs me to respond.

I do not find part #1 (the scriptural argument against homosexuality) so outrageous because I am very familiar with these arguments. I grew up in a free-church tradition that did not ordain women, did not allow divorced elders, and did not share the Wesleyan emphasis on grace that is so foundational to United Methodism. While I do not happen to agree that the Bible makes clear that the practice of homosexuality is a sin (I do not happen to agree that the Bible is terribly clear about many aspects of 21st century life), I do believe that one can make such a scriptural argument without too much trouble. To dismiss this scriptural argument without engaging it theologically is to do an injustice to the multifaceted issue of human sexuality. Disagree with Dr. Tennent's interpretation, if you want, but you must admit that there is, in fact, a scriptural argument to be made to the contrary, just as there is a scriptural argument to be made against the ordination of women, or for the legitimization of slavery. Just because there is an argument does not make it the right argument.

Nor am I particularly upset by parts 3 and 4 of Dr. Tennent's argument, the notion that human sexuality is a hot topic independent of its sexual nature. I have no reason to question the motives of those who so strongly oppose homosexuality. I may disagree with their arguments, but I do not necessarily believe that, as some have suggested, this segment of the church is preoccupied with sex because of some unresolved personal issues of sexual identity. I find that kind of accusation unhelpful and sophomoric. I don't think, of course, that the issue of full inclusion is the boogeyman Dr. Tennent makes it out to be, but I do not question his motives.

As to parts 5 and 6 of Dr. Tennent's argument, the notion that making sin normative is threatening to the church, well, I would just add that I agree wholeheartedly. We are called to stand against sin and injustice, in all of its forms (even, I would add, when that sin is institutional).

It is part 2 to which I want to respond, the part of Dr. Tennent's argument that those who disagree with him are misguided, or worse. I must admit that, as I first read Dr. Tennent's post last night before bed, I turned to my spouse and said to her, "This is one of the most completely unfair arguments I have ever read." I left this comment on his blog last night:
Dr. Tennent:
I want to thank you for engaging an important (and difficult) issue. I have a different perspective, and in the spirit of holy conferencing, I want to offer a thought. I am not interested here in arguing the basic point as it relates to homosexuality and scripture. Both sides of that argument are well-documented. I’d like to point to something much more basic: the way in which you are casting those who support ordination and marriage rites for homosexual persons.

You call those who disagree with you “convinced by weak exegesis.” You suggest that they are so unfaithful as to change belief simply because they prefer the prevailing culture. You call the Christians who disagree with you weak-minded enough to convince themselves of something you argue they wish the Bible said. And you equate those who question traditional Biblical interpretations of this issue with Satan.

All of this in the first four sentences.

I truly am not trying to kick up dust. But I have to believe that if we are going to live together–if not long-term in the same denomination, then at least on the same earth–we have to do better.

Again, I truly appreciate your honest engagement. It is more than many would offer.

It is usually the case that a night of sleep finds me less worked up than the evening before. I have, at times, regretted something written just before bed. But after sleeping on it, I think I should have taken my response even further.

It is one thing to believe passionately. I wish more people did. But when passion spills over into corrupting the way in which I see the Imago Dei in you, I have moved beyond passion into something akin to rage. So much of what I see in Dr. Tennent's argument is not a clear-headed argument about the scriptural basis for the United Methodist Church's status quo understanding of sexuality, but rather an attack on his opponents. He casts his understanding of Christianity as superior because his opponents are "convinced by weak exegesis," or worse, "convinced [by] themselves." He says--not implies, but says!--that his opponents trust culture more than God on the issue of homosexuality. He says--not implies, but says!--that his opponents brush aside scripture and adopt the same argument used by "the enemy" as "a wedge . . . against God's word."

I am not quite sure how to respond to these charges, which is, of course, precisely the point. If, as Dr. Tennent says, anyone who disagrees with his position is misguided or inspired by Satan, how can there be any response but sheepish, silent agreement? I find this kind of argument both unhelpful and unnecessarily divisive, for it does not allow for nuance or disagreement. Just as I must acknowledge that there is a scriptural argument against the ordination of homosexuals, for instance, he should acknowledge that there is a legitimate argument for marriage equality and gay ordination that does not involve the inspiration of the devil.

Part of our fiber as United Methodists is the notion that though we may disagree about many things, we recognize that the image of God is in all people, even those with whom we disagree. John Wesley put it this way:

But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.

If we are to love alike, there is no time for such scurrilous attacks. Let us disagree, but let us disagree charitably. If we cannot put aside "these smaller differences"--and perhaps it is true that the current structure of the United Methodist Church is ill-equipped for disagreement--we are doomed.

I am sad to say that in one post from a well-respected administrator and church leader, I see much of the problem of the frayed connection laid bare. Instead of casting our opponents as weak-minded (indeed, instead of casting fellow Christians as opponents at all), we must acknowledge the full humanity of those with whom we disagree. Instead of dismissing the notion that disagreement is normal, even over difficult issues, we must find a way to all live together. I am confident that God is strong enough to handle these differences. Once we acknowledge these differences as legitimate disagreements--and not some theologically lazy, weak-minded capitulation--perhaps we can move on the business of being of one heart, though we are not of one opinion.

(Image from Flikr user christophertitzer. Creative Commons)


  1. Dalton, if his point 2 were not made -- even he did not argue that people who disagreed are wrong -- would you not have any objection to his post?

    I ask because it seems to me that point 2 is not really part of his argument. You do not logically need to assert point 2 to get where he is going. Of course, point 2 is implied in his entire argument. If he did not think others were wrong, he would not bother to argue the case at all.

    I'm just trying to be sure I understand your concern her.

    1. Thanks, John. I would argue that point 2 is not that people who disagreed are wrong. Point 2 is that people who disagree with him are a) unfaithful or b) weak-minded. "Wrong" is an epistemological category. "Unfaithful" and "weak-minded" are judgments on people that go beyond the specific issue at hand and speak to something deeper. As I argue in the post, I believe this "something deeper" is about the obscuring of the image of God in the other.

      So in a sense, I have trouble getting beyond this issue into the rest of the meat of his argument, because the argument seems so colored by the idea that any arguments to be made in defense of gay ordination/marriage equality are preposterous on their face, and that anyone who makes them is inherently foolish. Thus, if I were to respond (as I have), I must value culture over the Gospel, or I am inspired by the devil.

      I agree that point 2 is not necessary for his argument, but that is precisely the issue. The only reason I can see for such unfair comments (or, at least, unfair as I have deemed them) is to paint his ideological opponents as fools. It sounds to me like great rhetoric, but poor ecclesiology.

      So my whole issue is not about hurt feelings, but rather about the importance of seeing the image of God in another--and being open/vulnerable to others in such a way that does justice to the power of that image. Why, when that kind of vulnerability happens, amazing things can occur. You might even find your mind changed about issues you once thought to be fundamental. But until you are open to the Holy Spirit—even when you read your Bible!—you will miss out on this great gift.

      The last thing I will say is that I do have other objections, but my point is that until we can get past this business of writing off those with whom we disagree, I don't know how to start addressing those objections in a way that is productive and not simply about expressing my own opinion in an echo chamber. I already know what I believe. I am interested in conversation--holy conferencing, even--in order that we may do God's will.

      (For the record, I fully admit that I might be wrong about all of this. I don’t think so, but I certainly have my moments of doubt. I haven’t written anything in this post that I don’t deeply believe, but I would be lying if I told you that I have slept well the last couple of nights.)