By Charles Kiker
Alan Bean frequently blogs about the messy middle, a term he uses to describe ministers and congregations inhibited from seriously proclaiming the good news of the kingdom by their captivity to the prevailing culture.
The messy middle—I might call it the messy muddle—came up most recently in Alan’s blog regarding the Rev. Frank Schaeffer, the Pennsylvania United Methodist minister who was recently defrocked for officiating at his gay son’s gay wedding.
Most United Methodist churches are messy middle churches, where, as Alan describes it, pastor and congregation alike wait for a clear cultural consensus to emerge before speaking out on any cultural issue. And this probably would describe the church Schaeffer served.
But a funny thing happened to Schaeffer on his way to whatever it was he was on his way to. He discovered his children were gay. Schaeffer had been pretty conventional in his views regarding homosexuality and same sex marriage. But when the issue intruded itself into his family, he began to rethink his views. But he was still silent. After all, there could be serious repercussions. But when his son wanted to marry his male partner, he took the plunge and performed the ceremony. The United Methodist Book of Discipline strictly forbids Methodist ministers to officiate at same sex weddings, so, at a church trial, Schaeffer was defrocked. Schaeffer expresses no remorse for his action, and vows “never to be silent again” on this issue.
He has broken out of the messy middle.
Enter Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection with its main campus in Leawood, Kansas, the largest United Methodist Church in the United States; it has been called the most influential mainline church in America. I would expect it to be a messy middle church and that a pastor of this sort of church would be sure to keep a steady hand at the helm and never to rock the boat. Hamilton has a conservative background, having done his undergraduate work at Oral Roberts University. I think of Hamilton as a moderately progressive evangelical. He has produced many congregationally oriented video series. I have seen some of them, and found them helpful. He is the author of nineteen books. I have only read his latest: Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. Hamilton has done his scholarly work, but he does not write as a scholar to or for scholars. He writes as a concerned churchman to and for people, both believers and non-believers, who are disturbed and concerned about some of the things they find in the Bible. He writes for people who are considering abandoning the faith or rejecting it because of some of the things they find in the Bible.
A partial preview of the Table of Contents reveals chapters regarding the canon (how some works made it into the Bible and others did not); “Is the Bible Inspired?” (He answers that one with a qualified “Yes”); “Is the Bible the Word of God?” (Jesus, according to the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, is THE Word of God, so he answers that one as well with a qualified “Yes.”) “Is the Bible Inerrant and Infallible? (No). He is not a Fundamentalist, although he says he believes in 4 ½ of the five fundamentals. The five fundamentals link inspiration of the Bible with inerrancy; thus the ½. He also deals with creationism, young earthism, the flood (“Were There Dinosaurs on the Ark?”); with instances of genocidal commands attributed to God in the Old Testament. And he has a chapter on “Homosexuality and the Bible.” And that brings us back to Frank Schaeffer, homosexuality, and gay marriage.
Hamilton uses the image of three possible buckets in which to place “problem” biblical passages: one bucket would be for passages reflecting God’s eternal, never changing will for all times, places, and circumstances. A second bucket would be for passages reflecting God’s will for certain times in the past but no longer reflecting God’s will—(most conservatives would place Old Testament dietary rules and some ritual practices in this bucket). A third bucket would be for passages which never reflected God’s perfect will. Almost no Christians would put the genocide passages in bucket #1. Most conservatives would put passages regarding homosexuality in bucket #1, while many progressive evangelicals would put them in bucket #2 or #3. Hamilton finds it interesting that few of the conservatives putting the Leviticus passages prohibiting homosexuality in bucket #1, few if any of them, not even Fred Phelps, would put the immediately following verses proscribing the death penalty for homosexuals in that bucket.
In the Old Testament, Hamilton reminds us of the men of Sodom desiring sex with Lot’s angel guest (Genesis 19; see the near parallel in Judges 19) and suggests that this may be the background for the texts prohibiting sexual relations between men in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:1. Thus these texts may deal with homosexual rape, as in the Sodom incident in Genesis 19 and a near parallel in Judges 19, and with the practice of pagan temple homosexual prostitution. In the case of Paul in Romans, he mentions the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty, which would be a form of homosexual rape committed against juvenile males. None of this can be considered a context for loving, committed relationship between consenting males.
Schaeffer was lead to reconsider his attitudes toward homosexuality by his family. Hamilton’s encounters in ministry with committed Christians of homosexual orientation moved him to wider acceptance.
Schaeffer went one step farther, and disobeyed clear church law by performing the wedding of same sex partners, one of those partners being his son. Hamilton is clear that he understands the United Methodist position. If he has broken church law by performing such ceremonies he does not tell us. Nor does he indicate what he will do if (when?) a couple in his church asks him to take that step. Given what he has written, he would be hard pressed to honor the request.
Schaeffer ministered in a messy middle context. Hamilton still does. Both have sent a clear message from the messy middle. We will no doubt hear more in the future.