The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:
"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after."
- Ecclesiastes 1:1-3, 9-11
With all his wisdom, King Solomon appears to have become a cynic as he aged. Of course, one could argue that 300 wives and 600 concubines will do that to a man. Whatever the case, wisdom gives a measure of understanding that’s greater than knowledge, allowing a person to see the outcome of knowledge. A little wisdom would go a long way today. We have all sorts of knowledge without benefit of the wisdom of its application. Sometimes, our knowledge isn’t even really knowledge at all.
Recently, several friends have contacted me regarding the discernment of church affiliation among Methodists. The last among old-line Protestant denominations to reach the point of division, Methodists are finally splintering apart over the presenting issue of sexuality. The Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians reached their threshold of conflict some years ago, but the Methodists continued to “duke it out” in the trenches until 2019, when a called session of the General Conference, specifically for a decision regarding division, ended in yet another stalemate of accusation, hurt, and conflict. Covid-19 and the lockdowns slowed the process, but from the close of that Conference, there was little doubt that traditional Christian pastors and churches intended to exit the UMC.
I’m disabled. I don’t really have a local church. I’m not exiting anything because my pastoral covenant is with the UMC. While I would not say that the UMC has always kept good faith with me, it sometimes has, and I think I’ve tried to keep my side of the covenant. That said, there are a great many claims being made in the church and in the culture that not only lack wisdom, but reveal a surprising lack of knowledge among us. Our cultural icons, from social media to the halls of our nation’s leaders, take pride in progressing into new, advanced realms of human sophistication, but I think this is a like a hall of mirrors, in which something is repeated for so long, the original source is lost and only unreality remains. What is true for American society is true in the UMC, and it’s also true in the new Global Methodist denomination. If we all accept what passes for education in our academies and in the larger culture, then this simply means most of us lack the knowledge that is the necessary prerequisite for wisdom.
Thirty years ago in seminary, Vic Furnish was the reigning New Testament scholar, and he specialized in the writings of St. Paul. Additionally, he was one of the most respected expositors of the view that Paul and the world of the New Testament did not understand homosexuality in terms of committed homosexual relationships. Through his scholarship, as well as that of others, the last couple of generations of pastors were and are educated to believe that homosexuality today is somehow different from homosexuality in the Bible. We hear this claim made over and over again from a great many pulpits.
The argument goes something like, “Paul’s letters applied to temple prostitutes and such, and monogamous homosexual relationships as we have today were unknown to Paul. So, the Bible doesn’t really speak to homosexuality today. Since people are born with innate desires, we must honor those as God-given and grant them the status enjoyed by heterosexual marriage.” The 2015 Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court granted homosexual marriage equal status under the law, but that is not quite the same thing as acceptance within the church.
What concerns me is that our discussions about contemporary sexuality and gender identity assume a mantle of social advancement and superior knowledge regarding human desires and attractions. The entire basis of the call for changing moral standards is based upon “all we know now.” But as King Solomon pointed out, there is nothing new under the sun. Over the years – and especially in recent years as I’ve sought to understand – the teasing claim that “those who possess a PhD know more and more about less and less until they possess a great deal of knowledge about very little,” has ceased to be funny. What we think we know is not an advancement, and what we do not know can cause enormous harm.
Before the Son of God became incarnate in Jesus, Plato, the great Greek philosopher who influenced the whole of western civilization, held that the purest form of love – both personal and sexual – was between an adult man and a prepubescent boy. Extant writings from that time approvingly refer to liaisons between men and boys as young as eight or nine years old.
Born when Plato was around forty- to forty-five-years-old, the other great Greek philosopher of the fourth century Before Christ, Aristotle argued that women were simply men who had not formed correctly in the womb, making women “deformed” beings of less value than the fully formed male. Like Plato, Aristotle did not believe authentic love could exist between a man and a woman because she was a lesser, deformed being. Greco-Roman marriage never included same-sex forms of marriage because children could not be produced in such marriages, which, of course, is still true today. But the ideal love promoted by the great minds in the birth of western civilization was between two males. Because women had less personhood, records of the lives of women are commensurately less, but Paul indicated lesbianism was also common in Roman society.
This was the culture of Greco-Roman antiquity. In a recent conversation, a gentleman told me he had heard Alexander the Great had a male lover. I couldn’t say because I know very little about Alexander the Great, but inasmuch as homosexual love affairs were commonplace, especially among the rulers and the elite of Greco-Roman society, I wouldn’t be surprised. A little over a hundred years after the death of St. Paul, the Roman Emperor Hadrian had a young male lover, Antinous, to whom he was so committed that, following Antinous' early death before he was twenty, the emperor deified his consort, so he would be worshiped alongside Hadrian himself.
My first point is that the fundamental premise “Paul knew nothing of contemporary committed homosexual relationships” is false. The Jews lived in the midst of Roman culture, and the life of Jesus was localized among the Jewish people around Jerusalem located far away from Rome, the center of the empire. The same cannot be said of Paul, who traveled all over the first century Roman empire. The cultural endorsement and encouragement of homosexual lovers, especially among men, would have been inescapably obvious to Paul, even if we assume there were no conspicuous expressions of Roman culture in ancient Judea. That has to be a questionable assumption, since Pilate had his court there as much as a governor of that time had a court. Likewise, King Herod held court in Jerusalem, and he certainly was steeped in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century.
Often, figures from the past who were involved in homosexual affairs – men such as Alexander the Great, for example, assuming he did so – are heralded as evidence of the natural state of same sex attraction and homosexual love. Well, yes, indeed, that is true. However, the claim that desires are natural leads to two points that invite us to think about our own assumptions.
First, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander, Hadrian, Pilate, and Herod were not Christians. Christianity, specifically Jesus Christ Himself, held up monogamous, lifelong, heterosexual marriage as the intent designed by the Holy Trinity. Christianity has been the singular voice for monogamous, heterosexual marriage in history. All history. All around the world. Even Judaism embraced polygamy, although that declined over the centuries as Christianity spread and lifelong heterosexual marriage prevailed as normative. As Christians took seriously the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, the Jews also began to turn to that standard themselves.
The second point for our consideration is just plain scary. The encouragement of male homosexual love came at the cost of the value of women. When women complain about the oppressive patriarchy of Christianity, we reveal that we know nothing about the horrors to which women are and were subjected in other cultures and centuries. In the earliest centuries of Christianity, women flocked to the church because it was the only place they were treated as equals with full human personhood. Christians were the only social subset who truly valued women because Jesus valued women.
Yes, I know Paul said several things that women today call misogyny, but that is again a failure in our education. Paul was not a misogynist, but that’s a conversation for another day.
When we in the church debate issues around gender and sexuality, we should know more than we do. Contemporary culture is not doing anything new. To the contrary, culture, which sees itself as bravely entering advanced, uncharted territories, is reverting to the very old, the ancient, even. In so doing, we have already witnessed the diminishment of women in competitive sports as advocates for transgender athletes demand for rights to participate. The female body is not as strong as the male body. This is indisputable. I’m not speaking of character, intellect, fortitude, or anything else. The female body lacks the musculoskeletal size and strength of the male body, irrespective of the introduction of female hormones, which is why we never see women transition to men and expect to compete in male athletic events.
Even more dangerous, however, is the increasing tolerance of the long-marginalized and still-illegal adult-child sexual attraction. The North American Man-Boy Love Association, NAMBLA, has been around for over forty years, but its efforts to normalize adult-child sexual liaisons has never gained acceptance. Where NAMBLA has failed, MAPs is a growing “identity” on the fringe of society, but lacking the stigma of NAMBLA. MAPs stand for Minor Attracted Persons. Once we make the argument that attraction is engrained from our birth, how are we to respond to MAPs?
There really is nothing new under the sun. Men and boys have had sexual affairs for millennia. What changed that was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a measure of delusion - or at least deep confusion - in Christians jumping on the bandwagon of progress. Why Christians now want to reverse the greatest advances for women and children in the history of the world is incomprehensible to me. That we live in a culture of fluid gender and sexual expression is undeniable, but that Christians would join the culture when Christian teaching is precisely what redirected sexuality from its hedonistic abandon makes no sense.
Are we now going to endorse the idea that women are less than men? We laugh, but realize this: women are not treasured in our society. We and/or our daughters are hyper-sexualized competitors in the markets of education and jobs. The cultural feminine identity is not life-bearer, but rather, unrestricted, irresponsible sex without the burden of consequences. And we call this “advancement” for women – again, a topic for another day.
The Son of God came into the world for us and for our salvation. That salvation comes in the form of new life in Jesus Christ, born of the Holy Spirit into our Father’s family. Our salvation, however, is not a ‘once and done’ decision we make. It is the lifelong effort to grow and to transform into persons of life instead of persons of death, a transformation made possible only by the grace of God and the gift of the Spirit to create us anew. Embracing the old is something we all do because the old, the person of death, is known and comfortable. Continuing in that which harms us is easier than dying to self and rising with Christ to new life, whether we’re talking about sexuality, selfishness, arrogance, gluttony, or any other favored sin. But this is the Gospel, that we can die to ourselves and be raised with Christ Jesus into abundant, everlasting life.
The latest and only truly new thing that has happened since the time of Solomon is what God has done and satan’s response. The Son of God entering the world as a Baby, becoming a Man and conquering death through the Cross and Resurrection – that is one new thing under the sun. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit to all people, forming the Christian church and granting mere mortals the eternal, divine Spirit to adopt us as children of God is another new thing since King Solomon.
Although it took centuries, eventually satan responded with the rise of Marxist communism, an ideology that sadly is found inside some church teaching these days. Karl Marx loathed even the idea of God, but his writings were made acceptable because the great minds of two or three preceding centuries were overconfident in humanity’s capacity for all knowledge apart from God. Come to think of it, that’s not really a new idea either. In fact, that hubris dates back to Genesis 3.
A measure of humility is in order. We are not wise. We are not even very smart. But if we humble ourselves a bit, we will discover life beyond measure in the God Who seeks all people to draw us into the wellspring of life pouring forth from His throne. That life alone is worth all that we have, all that we want, and all that we must “sacrifice.” It is greater than we can describe, but available to experience now, at least in part - the eternal, last thing for which we were created.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau
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