In Rejecting Gay Bishop, Methodist Court Shows The Folly Of Relying On Scripture For Moral Guidance

04/29/2017 09:17 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2017

The United Methodist’s Judicial Council, its highest court, has declared that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto violated church law. Why? Not for lack of personal virtue or dedication to her calling. Bishop Oliveto is a married woman, and by all accounts, a passionate member of the clergy.

Trouble is, she married a woman. To anyone free of ancient prejudices, the injustice of condemning Oliveto is plain. How can love be wrong? How can love enfolded in commitment and fidelity be wrong? What possible harm can her marriage cause? Not even the claim of setting a “bad” example holds water. People do not choose their spouses on the example set by clergy. If they did, there’d be no Catholic children, and poor, sultry Elizabeth Taylor could never have married even once.

But Oliveto’s act of commitment, the Judicial Council found, stands in contradiction to a 1972 amendment to the denomination’s Book of Discipline, which states that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

Why not? “The practice of homosexuality,” it says, “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

And what teaching would that be? Oh, you know, the “Good Book.” The one that has God thundering in Leviticus 18: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” And that’s only one of several such verses. Clear enough, right?

Well, not really. First of all, since we’re talking about Bishop Karen Oliveto, we must note that there’s no mention here, or anywhere in the Old Testament, about woman lying with woman.

Ah, but the keen-eyed reader asks, what of the New Testament? Well, there things become more complicated. In 1 Romans, Paul looses a tirade about some unnamed people who turned their backs on God and indulged in, er, Roman-style orgies. Things got so wild, he says, that “God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature.” (1 Romans 26, KJV).

In a few other places, Paul huffs and puffs about those who “abuse themselves with mankind,” but there is no other mention of women at all. Is the vague verse above enough to go on? United Methodists who cite it have a hypocrisy problem.

If Paul is the “Christian teaching” that overrides informed, reasoned, and compassionate justice, then how can the denomination turns its back when that sexless saint from Tarsus declares: “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband ... and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, NRSV). Jesus provides a loophole for men, but is generally down on divorce: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9, NRSV)

Now, that’s clear! But when the Bible hits home for heteros, United Methodists go all squishy: “when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved.” Yeah, yeah, keep ‘em in your prayers. But ban divorce? Nuh-uh.

So, am I arguing for Methodists to follow the lead of Rome and double down on hypocrisy by doing away with divorce and adding annulments? Of course not.

I am trying to help you see that the Bible may be many things — historical treasure, poetical comfort, and sacred scripture — but as a moral guide, it is hopeless. Some claim to follow its commands literally, but they deceive themselves. No one can do so, for the Bible is a hodgepodge of contradictions and morally obscure or outrageous injunctions.

A few examples: the Ten Commandments include a prohibition against graven images, yet in Exodus 25 God orders Moses to oversee the creation of two golden cherubim to decorate the Ark of the Covenant. One time exemption? Maybe, but show me a church bare of statuary, stained glass windows, or a framed portrait of Jesus. Oh wait, you say “graven image” means “foreign idol”? Come to exegesis!

And just as well, ‘cause there’s a lot that needs interpreting away. Like slavery, or selling one’s daughter, or in the tragic event that she is raped forcing her to marry her rapist, or genocide against those who worship differently, or stoning to death a rebellious child (how has any Christian survived his teenage years?), or the silencing of women, or the sin of weaving clothes out of different threads ... on and on it goes.

Look at the Bible with fresh eyes, and you’ll find the record of ancient peoples who, lacking any police force, detectives, or proper jails, did their best to construct rules for getting along with each other and used the fear of God to enforce them. Look even closer and you’ll find that those in power often bent the rules in their favor. I suppose God might have wanted the people to heap silver, gold, and fatted calves on their priests, exempt them from any real work, and give them a retirement plan (Numbers 7 - 8), but I find it more likely that the priests themselves heard the Word of God that way.

Which brings us back to the present. I’ve shown that the United Methodist Church is interpreting the Bible to privilege the heterosexual majority while sanctimoniously applying ancient “laws” in a questionable way to Bishop Oliveto. But more important, I hope I’ve shown that Methodists, and all other religionists, would do well abandon the effort to apply scriptural codes to contemporary life. Draw inspiration, by all means, but recognize that the hard work of thinking through right and wrong remains a moral duty for us all.

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