Shortly after a formal complaint was filed against me for officiating at a same-sex marriage, I was asked to meet with Bishop Young Jin Cho. Before our meeting Bishop Cho suggested I read Bishop Timothy Whitaker’s statement titled “The Church and Homosexuality.”

When I met with Bishop Cho, and a few others, I was surprised to be discussing the issue itself rather than a resolution of the complaint against me. He specifically questioned me about key arguments in Bishop Whitaker’s statement. As I only had the article for a short time, I could not counter some of Bishop Whitaker’s stronger arguments. At the same time, I welcome the challenge presented by his statement. I don’t know of a more thoughtful argument from an episcopal leader than that offered by Bishop Whitaker and I believe it deserves a thoughtful response.

What follows below is the response, with a few editorial changes, I sent to Bishop Cho after our meeting.

Dear Bishop Cho,

I know Bishop Whitaker from my time serving with him on the Virginia Conference Board of Discipleship, and I have deep respect for him. That said, I find myself disagreeing with him on numerous points. To be fair to Bishop Whitaker, he wrote this in 2006. I don’t know if he still stands by it, but as far as I know he has not retracted or edited it. More importantly, as your recommendation shows, his statement is still influencing church leaders. Much has changed since he wrote this and I think he needs to revise it. He wrote, “I offer this essay as a contribution to the discussion of homosexuality in the church. I do not claim to be absolutely right, and I welcome criticism of my views.” I offer this critique with the same humility and welcome criticism. But I also offer this as part of my justification for officiating at a same-sex marriage.

Bishop Whitaker wrote: “While there is division in the church over homosexuality, it should be stated that the church has a position. I am in agreement with the basic position of the church, which is consistent with the historic Christian view and larger ecumenical consensus in the world today.” This opening statement highlights my point that Bishop Whitaker needs to revise his statement. I don’t think the words “ecumenical consensus” were accurate even for 2006, much less in 2015. There is no ecumenical consensus. Various churches have changed, or are in the process of changing, their statements and policies on homosexuality. The United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and our sister church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America have all changed their statements and policies. Our own Council of Bishops has finally, if reluctantly, acknowledged that they are “not of one mind” on this question.

Bishop Whitaker wrote: “One of the problems in the discussion is that the language being used is laden with assumptions on which there is no agreement. I prefer the term ‘same-sex attraction’ to describe the phenomenon usually called ‘homosexuality.’ This term describes the fact there are persons who are attracted to other persons of the same sex. It does not imply what the possible causes of the phenomenon might be. It does not imply that this attraction is constitutional, as ‘orientation’ does, nor does it deny it.” Why not go ahead and confirm it as an orientation? The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Association of Social Workers identify sexual orientation as “not merely a personal characteristic that can be defined in isolation. Rather, one’s sexual orientation defines the universe of persons with whom one is likely to find the satisfying and fulfilling relationships.” (1) So, this is way more than an attraction—it is the way homosexual persons find satisfying and fulfilling relationships (that include sexual relations). The derogatory language in the Book of Discipline and our discriminatory policies make is harder for our LGBTQ members to develop satisfying and fulfilling relationships.

Bishop Whitaker wrote: “The traditional Christian view is that turning same-sex attraction into an erotic desire and practicing sexual acts with a person of the same sex are contrary to God’s purposes for human beings.” Homosexual persons do not turn same-sex attraction into erotic desires—these desires are natural just like they are for heterosexual persons. It is their orientation! They can deny them just like heterosexual persons but how many of us heterosexuals choose a life of sexual abstinence? In his first letter to Corinthians (7.7) Paul refers to celibacy as a gift, a charism—it is NOT a discipline imposed on the unwilling.

Bishop Whitaker wrote: “The main reason I prefer to refer to someone as a person who experiences same-sex attraction rather than as a “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian” is because this way of speaking is more fitting for the church, which views all people as persons created in the image of God. That is, the church views our identity in terms of our relationship to God, not in terms of our sexual identity.” I wholeheartedly agree with Bishop Whitaker that Christian identity is rooted in our relationship with God rather than our sexual orientation. My LGBTQ friends don’t want to be defined by their sexual orientation—they want to be viewed a persons and as persons of faith first. It is the Church that has made sexual orientation such a big deal and has ruled that only heterosexuals can “practice” their sexuality.

Bishop Whitaker wrote: “There seems to be an increasing tendency in American culture to view homosexuality as an alternative to heterosexuality and provide a legal means for homosexuals to enter into same-sex unions whether these unions are called ‘marriages’ or not.” I believe Bishop Whitaker is simply mistaken here. I don’t think American culture views homosexuality as an alternative. Over the last few decades Americans have been learning to view homosexuality as an orientation, not a choice. Although the causes of adult sexual orientation have not been fully explained by science, there is clarity among scientists that sexual orientation forms at a very early age and that it is seldom a matter of choice. (2) The most recent research suggests sexual orientation has its origins in our biology and genetics. The American Psychological Association offers this guidance:

“There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person’s sexuality. In summary, it is important to recognize that there are probably many reasons for a person’s sexual orientation and the reasons may be different for different people.” (3)

Bishop Whitaker wrote: “The debate about homosexuality is not about doctrine, but it is about discipline. That is, it is about what kind of direction the church should give about how Christians should live.” I disagree with Bishop Whitaker. The debate is more fundamental. It is rooted in John Wesley’s first rule for his societies: “Do no harm.” Those of us working for change believe the Book of Discipline is doing serious harm to LGBTQ persons, their families, and the Church. The derogatory language, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” hurts LGBTQ people by telling them that their natural desires are wrong and offensive to God. As noted earlier, this language hinders them in establishing long-term sustaining and fulfilling relationships. It hurts their families in two different ways: supportive families feel the rejection of the church for their child, and families who share the church’s condemnation of “homosexual practice” feel alienated from their child. It harms the church by depriving it of the energy, gifts and graces of LGBTQ persons who could enrich the church in so many ways. And, lastly, it is alienating a generation of youth and young adults who increasingly find the church’s position harsh, ignorant, and unloving.

“Research conducted by the pro-Christian Barna Group in 2007 on Americans age 16-29 found that ‘anti-homosexual’ was the dominant perception of modern Christians. Ninety-one percent of non-Christians and 80 percent of Christians in this group used this word to describe Christians.” (4)

Bishop Whitaker wrote: “Revisionists who seek a change in the church’s position assert that when placed in their original historical context, these prohibitions are aimed at homosexual practices in Canaanite shrines or pederasty in Greco-Roman society. (The latter point misses the apostle Paul’s allusion to women, as well as to men, in Romans 1:26-27.) At least, the revisionists claim the writers had no awareness of homosexual ‘orientation’ nor considered the possibility of a monogamous same-sex relationship as we do in modern American society. Therefore, they argue is it not appropriate for the church to apply these prohibitions to relationships not envisioned by the writers.” I think Bishop Whitaker put this very well, but I disagree with his use of the term “revisionist.” Calling these scholars “revisionist” casts them in an ideological light that prejudices the outcome. More importantly, I agree with the Biblical scholars he calls revisionist not because their ideas are novel, but because I think they are right about the historical and cultural context of these Biblical texts. Two Biblical scholars of note are my guides in this: Walter Wink and Walter Brueggemann. Their views represent those of a growing number of scholars. C.S. Pearce, of Claremont School of Theology, writes in the Los Angeles Times “Most New Testament Greek scholars now point out that there are only three passages that deal with homosexuality in the New Testament — Romans 1:23-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 — and those passages don’t deal with homosexuality as we define it today but rather with temple prostitution and other abuses. Because of dated (and often loved) translations, many versions of the Bible imply otherwise.” (5)

In this section on theology, Bishop Whitaker notes that there are Biblical antecedents for reinterpretations of scripture regarding slavery and women’s leadership in the Church, but he finds no such antecedent for a reinterpretation regarding homosexuality. He examines the effort to find such an antecedent but finds it inadequate. He writes: “Perhaps the best approach would be to view the inclusion of Gentiles into the church as a precedent for ‘inclusion’ of persons in same-sex relationships. This approach should be contemplated, but the difficulty is that the church’s inclusion of Gentiles by the illumination of the Spirit was confirmed by searching the Scriptures and finding in them the blessing of God to Abraham to be a father of many nations and the universalism of some of the prophets.” I think Bishop Whitaker has found the right antecedent but that he has drawn the wrong conclusion. He writes “the illumination of the Spirit was confirmed by searching the Scriptures,” but this is not true to the plain reading of the text. The text reads: “44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[a] and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.”(Acts 10:44-48, NIV) The believers with Peter did not search the scriptures, rather they witnessed the power of God, and the gifts and graces of God at work in these new converts. The apostle Peter had been prepared to recognize God’s work in them by a dream in which God commanded him,Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)

Peter and the other disciples saw and understood that God accepted and blessed them. That is our task today—to accept and bless those that God has already blessed! We use the Wesleyan quadrilateral (scripture, reason, tradition and experience) to determine doctrine. Bishop Whitaker seems to ignore the role of experience. In this case, the disciples showed that experience was absolutely convincing. Many of us can testify today to the wonderful and amazing gifts of grace and gifts of ministry of our LGBTQ friends. I have been the beneficiary of the ministry of the Rev. DeLyn Celec and Sarah Celec, the couple whose wedding is the reason I am writing you now.

Bishop Whitaker writes: “At the same time, the church knows the power of human sexuality can also be a destructive force of self-indulgence or exploitation. That is why the church traditionally has balanced affirmation with ascesis or self-discipline. Ascesis involves transfiguring eros (sexual love or desire) into agape (divine love), thus providing a means of grace for one to enter more closely into communion with God. The contemporary culture has been so sexualized that many cannot envision a way of life that does not involve the fulfillment of sexual desire. Yet, the church does envision a way of life that involves spiritual fulfillment and intimacy with other human beings without sexual intercourse.” If this is true, let heterosexual persons lead the way. Why do so few heterosexual persons choose celibacy? Why must homosexual persons do all the ascesis? We are not advocating unbridled license for homosexual persons but marriage. Marriage, in both cases, requires transfiguring eros into agape. We see many examples of this in long-term same-sex relationships and marriage.

Bishop Whitaker writes: “Some would downplay the role of nature, i.e. our nature as male and female fitted for each other in a sexual relationship, and they would emphasize human culture as the arena where sexuality can find new expressions.” This argument from human anatomy and fitted parts is frankly embarrassing. Sex in marriage is about honoring one another and the giving and receiving of pleasure for the sake of unity. Many same-sex couples fulfill the procreative role by adopting or through artificial insemination or by other creative acts of service.

Bishop Whitaker wrote: “There is the question of whether or not persons with same-sex attraction can be ‘changed’ so they no longer experience this attraction. The testimonies of persons are mixed with some saying they have been changed and others vehemently refuting this possibility. Few of us understand the phenomenon of same-sex attraction well enough to give a definitive answer for all persons.” If he was writing today, I hope Bishop Whitaker would want to retract this paragraph. Reparative therapy has been widely rejected by health and medical organizations. This is as much a question as whether there is climate change. “Mainstream health organizations critical of conversion therapy include the American Medical Association,[105] American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, theNational Association of School Psychologists, and the American Academy of Physician Assistants.[11][106][107]” (6)

Furthermore, in 2013 Alan Chambers, President of Exodus International, the leading Christian program of reparative therapy, acknowledged that he had harmed many LGBTQ person through reparative therapy. In his apology to LGBTQ persons, Chambers said, “”For quite some time, we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.” (7)

In distinguishing Church teaching from popular culture, Bishop Whitaker wrote: “The church has to be in the culture, but distinctive from it. There is always a struggle by the church in every cultural context to know how and where to mark the boundaries between the church and culture. On the one hand, the church has to exist in, and relate to, the culture. On the other hand, the church is not free to relate to the culture in ways that violate the church’s obedience to its Lord according to its best judgment as it is illumined and guided by the Spirit of God.” Sadly, sometimes the culture is ahead of the church in listening to what justice requires. This was true, not everywhere but in many cases, with regard to slavery and women’s leadership.

Bishop Whitaker continues on this theme: “As Americans we cannot help but think and act according to our own culture’s world-view. It is not easy to transcend the world-view of one’s own culture. As attitudes about homosexuality in American culture change, Christians in America are influenced by these changes. There are those who think the church should adapt to new attitudes and understandings. They want the church to provide a spiritual home for people where the tension between the Christian tradition and the culture is relaxed. The problem is that such an adaptation would place The United Methodist Church in a position of alienation from the transcultural historic and global Christian perspective.” As noted earlier, no ecumenical Christian consensus exists–our churches are in disarray. This is an occasion where our Church needs to lead. When one considers the awful attitudes and atrocities toward LGBTQ persons in many African and Middle Eastern countries, often reflecting attitudes of the Church, the need for our leadership becomes apparent. Bishop Whitaker concludes: “If The United Methodist Church changes its basic position on homosexuality, then it will be making a move toward modern Western culture, but against a historic and global ecumenical consensus. Some would justify this move as the prophetic action of a church in the vanguard of enlightenment.” No Bishop Whitaker, those of us seeking a fully inclusive church do not see ourselves as vanguards of the enlightenment. Rather we see ourselves in the tradition of prophets who cried out for justice for the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable. And, we humbly seek to follow our Lord who so identified with the “least of these” that what we do to them is what we do to our Lord.

Yours in service to Jesus Christ, and toward a Just Resolution,

[Author’s note: The outcome of this complaint was not a Just Resolution. It was simply a Complaint Resolution. I was suspended for three months–March 15-June 15–and I am still on suspension.]

John D. Copenhaver, Jr. Jan. 15, 2015 Slightly revised June 10, 2015
Author of “A Better Way Forward” 

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Footnotes:

1. “Homosexuality” in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality#Orientation_and_behavior Last modified on 10 January 2015. Accessed 13 Jan. 2015.
2. “Fact and Information Sheet About: Sexual Orientation” from “Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality” by the American Psychological Association. Undated. http://www.jmu.edu/safezone/wm_library/Sexual%20Orientation%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf Accessed 10 June 2015
3. Ibid.
4. “How the Christian Right’s Homophobia Scares Away Religious Young People” in Alternet. http://www.alternet.org/story/155462/how_the_christian_right%27s_homophobia_scares_away_religious_young_people May 16, 2012. Accessed 15 Jan. 2015
5. “The Christian Case for Gay Marriage” in the Los Angeles Times. Dec. 2, 2012 http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/02/opinion/la-oe-pearce-christianity-gay-marriage-20121202 Accessed 13 Jan. 2015
6. “Conversion Therapy” in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversion_therapy#Medical.2C_scientific_and_legal_views. 6 Jan. 2015. Accessed 13 Jan. 2015
7. “Group apologizes to gay community, shuts down ‘cure’ ministry” in CNN News. http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/20/us/exodus-international-shutdown/ July 8, 2013 Accessed 15 Jan. 2015

Rev. Dr. John D. Copenhaver

The Rev. John D. Copenhaver is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Shenandoah University and a retired clergy member of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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