What Do Quakers Consider Sin? What Does God?

July 25, 2013

Note:  The new issue of Quaker Theology (#23) is now available for online reading. Contents include responses by the editors of QT and six Friends to a press statement on “Quakers and Homosexuality” by Friends Church Kenya.  I wrote one of the six, and the text of my piece is below. The other responses are worth reading as well, and can be found here:  http://quaker.org/quest/QT-23-Friends-Church-Kenya-vs-Homosexuals-Text-and-Responses-Quaker-Theology-Number-23.html

In the United States, “marriage equality” has been the phrase at the center of the recent controversy about sexual orientation. Should same sex couples be allowed to marry, or should marriage be limited to opposite sex couples? In this political debate, “equality” and “freedom” have been the central terms.

For those seeking to follow God’s will, however, the religious terms of the issue are quite different. For us, there is no escaping the question of sin. We may all be equal in God’s eyes, and may all be free to choose our life’s path, but what path does God want us to follow? Which way lies sin, and which way lies righteousness?

Governments may come to allow same sex marriage on an equal footing with opposite sex marriage, but then governments allow many forms of sinful behavior from adultery to gambling. The test in the political sphere is not whether some behavior is sinful but whether it will demonstrably cause harm to others. So long as we believe there is no harm to others, we believe individuals ought to be equally free to pursue the path they please.

But for those who choose to submit to God’s will, the path that pleases them will be the path that is pleasing to God.  And so, even as marriage equality triumphs in state after state, and even as public opinion polls show increasing majorities for allowing same sex marriage, religious denominations continue to be locked in a cold stalemate about what God wills with regard to acceptable sexual relationships.

Lutherans are divided. Presbyterians are divided. Methodists are divided. Even with their autocratic governance, Roman Catholics are divided.  And so forth down the line of U.S. denominations.  With a few exceptions, the question of sinfulness of same-sex sexual acts is a contentious one within Christian religious denominations.

As a general rule, the more inclined a denomination is to see the Bible as the only and complete authoritative word of God, the more likely it is to view homosexuality as a sin. Thus, Evangelicals and Pentecostals are strongly inclined to view homosexuality as sinful, pointing to six to ten Bible verses they believe specifically excoriate homosexuality.

Quakers in the United States are divided exactly on these lines. FGC and other liberal Friends are more inclined to welcome gays, lesbians and transgendered people, and to affirm committed same sex relationships. Evangelical Friends are much more inclined to decry homosexuality as sinful, and same-sex unions (even if legal) as illegitimate. Many Conservative Friends (viewing the Bible as important, but not the final word) are tending toward a welcoming and affirming stance. FUM Friends are divided about the matter roughly in terms of whether they accept any spiritual authority beyond the Bible.

With such a tense and explosive argument ongoing in the United States among Christians, we need no additional fuel for the controversy. But with so many Quakers in East Africa, a strong statement from the Friends Church Kenya (purporting to speak for all Kenyan Friends) decrying homosexuality as “a sin that is roundly condemned in scripture” compels the attention of Quakers everywhere.

The argument of the Kenyan statement rests entirely upon eight Bible verses, two in the Hebrew Testament, and six in the New Testament Letters, five of these in letters attributed to Paul.  Three of these texts—Ephesians 5:3-5, Galatians 5:19-21, and Jude 1:7—are simple exhortations to avoid “sexual immorality.” They add nothing to an understanding of whether homosexuality should be considered sinful sexual immorality.

The best reading of the other five (Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22-23, Romans 1:26-27, 1Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:9,10) is by no mean simple or straightforward.  There are questions of translation, for example, and questions of cultural and historical context. It is unclear whether some of them even are concerned with homosexuality, as we understand that term today. (And let us remember, that word was coined in the late 19th century to demarcate something deviant.) The passages are worth study and discussion, and a great deal has been written about them. But by no means does it suffice to simply list the passages to declare the matter clearly settled.  There are many Biblically observant Christians (I am one) who do not see these passages as telling us anything substantial about God’s will with regard to same sex sexual orientation or behavior.

Ask yourself this: would you accept a listing of Biblical passages speaking approvingly of slavery as settling the question of God’s will with regard to slavery? Remember, there are dozens. How about a list of Bible passages urging women to be silent and subservient? Again there are many.

I have no knowledge of why Kenyan Friends undertook to write this recent statement, but every church statement declaring homosexuality as sinful has a story about how it came to be written. Generally, that story has more to do with political currents than spiritual leadings. In the United States, references to homosexuality were extremely rare in denominational teachings until a few decades ago.

In 1963, a group of British Friends wrote “Toward a Quaker View of Sex,” a remarkable, wise and broad-reaching pamphlet that affirmed loving, homosexual relationships. It met with sharp antagonism especially among evangelical Friends.  That was a surprising, isolated controversy until the 1970s when more evangelical yearly meetings in the United States began making statements declaring homosexuality a sin – statements that resemble the recent statement from Friends Church Kenya.

In Indiana Yearly Meeting, for example, an FUM yearly meeting that has recently come to schism over the issue, the authoritative statement was not adopted until 1982.  It declares “Indiana Yearly Meeting believes homosexual practices to be contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind. We believe the Holy Spirit and Scriptures witness to this.” It then lists five Bible verses: four of those enumerated by Kenyan Friends and one additional verse from Leviticus (adding Leviticus 18:22-23). Though reference is made to the Holy Spirit, no support is tendered for the ‘homosexuality is a sin’ view than the list of five Bible verses.

What animated that 1982 Minute? Let us come back to the political terrain for a moment.

In the United States, we can usefully date the beginning of advocacy among gays and lesbians for full and equal recognition as human beings to June 28, 1969, when homosexuals in Greenwich Village (New York City) resisted police raids against them in what have come to be called the Stonewall Riots, named after a gay bar frequently raided by police. Before then, homosexuals had submitted to social stigma and legal persecution.  After Stonewall, gays and lesbians increasingly insisted on an end to such policies and practices. Efforts to end discrimination of gays and lesbians blossomed across the U.S.

The rise of a gay rights movement quickly triggered a political backlash. In 1977, less than a decade after Stonewall, entertainer Anita Bryant began a campaign to overturn a new anti-discrimination employment law in Dade County Florida. She made that cause national in creating a group called Save Our Children. That same year, James Dobson founded Focus on the Family. (Friends may remember an episode in the summer of 1977 when conflict over homosexuality erupted at an international conference of Quakers held in Wichita, Kansas, almost destroying the event.) Harvey Milk, a gay activist and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was assassinated in 1978. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, declaring a war on homosexuals.  And three years later, Indiana Yearly Meeting felt prompted to declare homosexuality a sin.

Indiana Yearly Meeting’s 1982 Minute came about, I understand, because the pastor of West Elkton (Ohio) Friends testified at a child custody hearing on behalf of a woman, a meeting attender, who had divorced her husband and had settled into a relationship with lesbian partner. Some members of the meeting complained to the Yearly Meeting office; some in leadership across the yearly meeting mobilized in opposition. And so the Yearly Meeting came to discuss homosexuality and to minute its view. Thus arose a statement now seen as fundamental enough to shatter the Yearly Meeting when some Friends raise questions about what the Bible, read as best we can, really says is sin in these matters.

When IYM wrote that 1982 minute, whose water was it carrying? Today, whose water is being carried by the statement of Friends Church Kenya? Likely there are political currents buffeting the Friends Church in Kenya – just as in the U.S. in recent decades.

I would not have us turn our attention away from the Bible. Rather, I would have us take care to see what God is saying to us through the Bible, not just grab snippets (treacherous-to-translate-snippets) to decide the matter settled.

I would not have us abandon the religious discernment of what is sin in favor of engagement with the political realm’s search for equality and freedom. But I would have us listen together deeply and tenderly for God’s will in all matters of sexuality, not jut the sexuality of those who may seem unlike us.

I would have us remember that, in the Gospels, Jesus says not one word about homosexuality. Over and over he gathers in love those who others—especially political and religious authorities—would scorn.

In our times, Jesus will continue to speak to us, quietly but persistently, leading us to shed our prejudices, even those of very long standing. Authoritative statements, however firm or forceful, will not create a bulwark against God’s love.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Bible, Homosexuality, Sin and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to What Do Quakers Consider Sin? What Does God?

  1. Friend,

    I am very sad to hear that Indiana YM has divided over this issue. Why is this particular issue serious enough to cause a schism? Why in Indiana could we not live with our differences until way opened?

  2. Doug Bakke says:

    Friend Bennett,
    I have read and heard many thoughtful words from many perspectives on this difficult and divisive topic, your’s among them. Thank you. The writer or speaker discusses homosexuality based upon a careful examination of the words and contexts of relevant Biblical passages that may or may not condemn it then applying that reasoning to the current cultural situation. I see this to be a “cart before the horse” approach to the matter. When discussing sexual behaviors (or other behaviors as well) should we not rather ask: What does God affirm and promote for us who seek to walk in the Way? There are many forms of sexual relationships mentioned in the Bible: polygamy, rape, homosexuality, adultery, etc. None of these are affirmed as God’s best intention for His creation. Rather, these are all portrayed, for various reasons, as examples of human failings. The only form of human sexual relations that the Bible does affirm is that between one man and one women within the bounds of a covenant marriage (Genesis 1, Matthew 19, e.g.). George Fox said: “I believe in the Bible and it plainly writ.” Plainly, based upon the Bible, the form of human sexuality that God favors is traditional marriage. Yes, there are many forms of human sexuality that our contemporary societies tolerate. Yes, there are those who struggle with their sexuality and all that implies. Yes, as his followers Jesus calls us to love those whom the world views as unlovable (the least among us). And yet, as in the case of the women caught in adultery, Jesus calls us who follow him to a higher standard (as he did to his contemporary Israelites). Though he does not condemn her (as we must not either) he advises her in parting: “…go therefore and sin no more.” The struggle has always been for us to do as Jesus did: to love the sinner and hate the sin. With Jesus’ help we can do that.

    • Clem says:

      Friend Bakke, this is not the first time( exposed by biblical “science”) that an erroneous interpretation of Scripture, due to generalized supposition, has been put forward. Scripture scholars now see that the word for lewdness(porneia) in Matthew(19:9) should not be translated as “adultery” but rather “incest”, as a particular situation facing that church community – whereby Roman family members were marrying to retain wealth and title. Matthew’s “exception clause”, as it has been called, was never meant to grant Christian divorce on the grounds of adultery; yet that is what happened due to cultural/historical precedent that had nothing to do with the biblical situation at hand.
      God knows, because God’s ways and thinking are Not ours, that the truest and humblest form of religious interpretation/discernment is grounded in loving agnosis.

      • Doug Bakke says:

        Friend Clem, before making further remarks, let me say Thanks to you, and the others commenting, for a thoughtful, respectful and (I pray) Spirit lead discussion. I cited Matt. 19 not from the perspective of divorce, which, on the face of it, is what the passage is discussing. Rather, I reference that passage as one of Jesus encouraging or defending marriage between one man and one women by limiting the societal allowances for its’ dissolution. I am trying to see this matter (and others) from the view of what God’s promotes and encourages; affirms and honours not from what He condemns or is “sinful”. “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

    • Bill Rushby says:

      I think this comment is very much to the point. Thanks, Doug Bakke!

  3. treegestalt says:

    I’m coming to a new way of discerning “What is ‘sin'” — but that’s for a full post on my own site. Meanwhile, ‘sinfulness’ can be a matter of direct harm to self or others; but something Jesus said is suggestive: about “cutting off” whatever we’re using harmfully and “poking out” whatever ways of seeing might lead us into ‘sin’ … There’s nothing intrinsically ‘sinful’ about having a hand or an eye or anything else that might be misplaced; what strikes me as essentially-sinful is:

    What do people do to our own minds in efforts to justify some possession or activity we’ve come to treasure? — whether this might be a sexual practice, or a habit like drinking chocolate — or feeling justified in condemning some other person for desires they themselves perceive to be a God-given aspect of who they truly were created to be.

    “Ears shut tight”? — “potential state of sin.”

    We aren’t expected to tell God what is wrong or what is okay, but to listen. If we’re busy seeking and mobilizing reasons to ignore whatever we might be told that way: “I’ll listen, God, if you tell me ‘A’, but not ‘B’…” That’s traveling iffy ground.

    [Arguing with God — long tradition going back to Abraham. Arguing dishonestly — not so good.]

    “Scriptural” arguments, as you say, are witnesses to consider, but aren’t The Witness.

  4. Howard says:

    In biblical times, epilepsy and mental illness were seen as demon possession; yet today they are seen as simply illnesses. The New Testament condemned being in debt; yet nearly every Christian and pastor in today’s world has a mortgage, car loan, and/or credit cards. Women were admonished by Paul to not be leaders in the church; but where would your church/meeting be today without the leadership of women? Slavery was viewed as an acceptable social norm all throughout the Bible and into the mid 1800’s; yet who today would dare to hold that view?

    Friends, why make an idol out of the Bible by hanging onto the words in it that prevent the full action of the Holy Spirit in your hearts? By doing so, you stumble your brothers and sisters from even wanting to read this great collection of spiritual inspiration.

    By reading the Bible, it is obvious that there has been a progressive understanding within the human heart that God has immense, unconditional love that has become more clear throughout the ages. To use the Bible as a rule book in order to limit the expanse of that love, is what is truly sinful; perhaps even a sin against the Holy Spirit. Think long and hard before you do that.

  5. Doug Bakke says:

    Friend Howard, as one who holds the Bible to be inspired by God (neither absolutely literal nor inerrant) I regard it as one leg of the “three-legged stool” upon which my Faith (meaning “trust”) in God rests. While the Bible is the foundational document of Christianity (and the primary source of knowledge about Jesus) it is balanced by: the living and collected historical testimony of those who follow Jesus seeking to be lead by his Spirit; and my own existential experience of the reality of Jesus alive in me. If any one of these legs are shortened (or completely cut-off as some have done) the “stool” becomes very hard, or impossible to balance Faith upon. The Bible is not, in this context, “worshipped as an idol”; nor is it a “rule book”. It is, however, (along with the two other legs of my metaphorical stool) essential to a relationship with; understanding of; and daily walk with Jesus in His Way.

    • Howard says:

      Sorry my Friend, anything that has become “essential to a relationship with; understanding of; and daily walk with Jesus in His Way”, has by default become one’s idol. Viewing the Bible as helpful is one thing; making it “essential”, is making it one’s God. The Isrealites thought the Golden Calf was essential in order to worship God. That’s what made it an idol.

      This is no insignificant matter. Idols always make it difficult to have an invisible relationship directly with God. Idols become one’s intermediator, overriding the action of the Holy Spirit directly upon us. The Bible is certainly helpful to prepare us to receive the Holy Spirit’s leading. But to use it so literally as a measuring stick for the action of the Holy Spirit upon one’s heart, is to put it above that Holy Spirit itself.

    • Bill Rushby says:

      Barclay writes of the Scriptures: “…we do look upon them as the only fit outward judge of controversies among Christians; and that whatsoever doctrine is contrary unto their testimony may therefore justly be rejected as false.”

      • treegestalt says:

        I was referring to the book Barclay was talking about, but it applies to his as well. Barclay will tell you that the Spirit is our most direct route to truth — and that its aid is a necessity for understanding the Bible rightly. The Bible, if you read it with your spirit open to Guidance, testifies via a multitude of test cases of people trying to follow what God is telling them directly (prophets etc) vs people trying to follow secondhand instructions without the need of understanding the full meaning first (which would, of course, demand that they face God more directly — and who knows what that might lead to?.) I am told that we are all meant to be prophets, but it will take us awhile to grow into that.

  6. Bill Rushby says:

    The book Barclay was writing about was the Bible. It declares that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…” II Timothy 3:16 Barclay’s dictum that: “whatsoever doctrine is contrary unto their [Biblical] testimony may therefore justly be rejected as false” seems clearly consistent with New Testament teaching.

    Barclay’s *Apology* itself is a rendering in systematic propositional form of the classical consensus concerning Quaker faith and practice. One can disagree with what Barclay wrote about the role of the Bible in Quaker faith and practice, but calling his position, as expressed by Doug Bakke, “idolatrous” is out of order!

    • treegestalt says:

      The Pharisees consistently tried to base their teachings and practices on the Bible they had, as they understood it, but Jesus repeatedly had to point out that this was leading them to wrong judgements. This, within our Bible, suggests that using our understanding of our Bible as the basis for our judgements, as the Pharisees did with their portion, is subject to the same error: proclaiming the teachings of men to be the commandments of God.

      It was a theological commonplace in Barclay’s day that only the Spirit of God aiding us could enable anyone to properly understand the Bible [as evidenced by the myriad differences in interpretation that people have battered one another about] and this belief was itself derived from the Bible.

      The Christian scriptures have great value as testimony to the nature of God, as people have come to better understand it over the centuries. Using them rather than God as our authority would imply that God couldn’t make his intentions known more directly [as happens throughout the Bible.]

      • Bill Rushby says:

        I am sorry, Treegestalt. No one has suggested substituting knowledge of the Bible for a direct relationship with Christ. I don’t think that either Bakke or I ever implied that this would be a proper course of action.

        That the Bible is a necessary part of the Christian life is a different matter! We cannot fully understand God’s will without the testimony of the Scriptures, nor can we distinguish between Gospel truth and fallible human judgments without the Bible as a point of reference external to our own egos.

  7. The basic problems with using the Bible as benchmark when defining sin are that you still have to interpret a text that is notoriously malleable in the hands of interpreters; that it offers not just vague or open testimony, but contradictory testimony on many things; and that, in any event, we ignore its apparent testimony when social/moral evolution clearly outruns it. As Friend Howard has said, we have done so in the case of slavery and women’s submission to men; I guess I didn’t realize that scripture considered debt a sin, though clearly Jesus considered sin a debt (“forgive us our debts”—the literal word here—”as we forgive our debtors”).

    And we’ve changed our minds against the Bible both ways: we have decided that things the Bible says are a sin are not a sin, and we have decided that things the Bible takes for granted are, in fact, sins. It took—what?—nearly 200 years or more for the people of the United States to more or less agree that slavery was a sin—after more than three thousand years of taking it for granted. On the other hand, we Friends realized almost right away that Paul was wrong when he denied women the right to be God’s revelators. Well, let’s say that Margaret Fell and her husband and other early Friends understood Paul differently than did their peers.

    Furthermore, it just isn’t true that “the Bible” defines marriage as between one man and one woman. From 1800 BCE, a rough date for the patriarchs/matriarchs, until some unknown date that might even be near Jesus’ time, marriage could be between one man and apparently as many women as he could support. For some of that time, marriage included “concubines”, a modern translation for a wife who was also your slave. My point is that “the Bible” is less a single book with a single vision of family life given by a God who never changes, and more a library of books by many authors and editors/redactors who were all trying very faithfully, I believe, to meet the spiritual needs of their readers with their best understanding of God’s wishes for them.

    But perhaps the biggest problem is that the Bible’s testimony on family life ends in the first century of the common era, but God’s revelation—does it ever end? How could it ever end? Why would we think that it had ended? And if it has never ended, then how do we receive it? How do we test it? How do we act upon it?

    Imagine if the canon had not been arbitrarily and politically closed in the fourth century CE, that instead the faithful insights of prophetic voices had continued to find a place in the library. Why would Revelation be included and not Hildegard of Bingen or Meister Eckhardt, or Thomas Berry? Why do we let an emperor and a bunch of dead bishops decide for us when God’s revelation should have ended?

    We need to rethink the whole edifice of biblical authority over moral judgment.

  8. Howard says:

    I spent twenty years profusely studying the Bible to determine right from wrong. It was indeed my idol because I in essence ignored the truths about it so elegantly outlined by Friend Steven. These realities are not negative judgements regarding the Bible. They are realities that allow us to take the idol that WE have made, off of the throne so we can experience it as it was meant to be experienced. My own choice to make the Bible an idol blinded me from the full action of the Holy Spirit in my life, and I (not the Bible) denied myself the full experience of God’s love and grace.

    Once the Light came upon me and I realized the Bible was a collection of writings from those long ago who sought God as I am now doing, I saw it in perspective. And I realized that there are so many other inspired writings from many faithful Christians that are also worthy of my consideration.

    The early Catholic Church leadership collected these particular early Christian writings and ancient Jewish writings into one volume and stamped them “God’s Word” for the purpose of controlling Christians’ thought and behavior. The big mistake of the Protestant reformation was that it did not also reform this idolistic view of the Bible, as well. As Quakers, who are committed to let God speak to us just as he spoke to the ancients, the first thing we must do in order for this to happen is that we must give up all of our idols and put them in their proper place in our lives.

  9. Bill Rushby says:

    Howard wrote: “The early Catholic Church leadership collected these particular early Christian writings and ancient Jewish writings into one volume and stamped them “God’s Word” for the purpose of controlling Christians’ thought and behavior.”

    As far as I know, the Biblical-era Jews and the early church ratified the collective discernment of their faith communities when they included some writings in the canon and not others. It was an expression of the consensus, not the heavy political decision some make it out to have been.

    The same is true of Robert Barclay’s *Apology*. He didn’t invent its contents, and attempt to use them to control discernment in the Quaker movement. Instead, he gave written expression to what was already the collective judgment of the Society of Friends.

    Steven’s observation that the Bible is a library, not a single book, is a valid one. And its multiplicity of perspectives offers a built-in intra-canonical means for correcting our understanding of God’s will. However, throwing out the canon in favor of a “free for all” approach would be dangerous and reckless. I (and other Friends like me) would leave that approach to the heterodox Friends and the Unitarians! History will render its own judgment concerning which approach is the wisest and most Godly.

  10. treegestalt says:

    The testimony of the Scriptures [like everything else that comes to us] helps us understand God’s will; but it does this by plugging us in to “the conversation so far.” This book, in other words, records human experience [Every book of it is attributed, rightly or not, to a human author] regarding ‘what God tells us of his intentions, as we understand them.’

    Like its authors, we interpret the intention behind its words with our fallible human judgments; whatever points of reference we find in it get filtered through these; and we can far better comprehend its contents by reading its words as mere pointers to the only One truly beyond our egos.

  11. Bill Rushby says:

    The Bible is the story of the Divine-human encounter, not merely a “record of human experience”. Part of why it so scary and aggravating for some people is that it has an objectivity and relatively fixed nature, and does not lend itself to facile rationalization of current ideologies as “continuing revelation” of a rather amorphous “Inner Light”.

    • treegestalt says:

      “Every ‘book’ of it attributed to a human author.” What is scary and aggravating for many people is their own inability to believe in the objective and fixed reality of that Light it points us to, however subjectively we subjects are bound to view both it and the Light itself. [You may wish to relocate further talk on this to Quakerquaker?]

  12. Dan Coppock says:

    Though Jesus does not mention homosexuality, he does say “there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man” Mark 7:15. Even though he then talks about food to his disciples, he’s talking about arcane laws that have nothing to do with spirituality or relationship to the Father. It’s the murkier, banal sins that lurk in the heart are much more dangerous. Those of us who support gay and trans people do so often because we have spent time with them and know them well enough to see that they have virtually the same struggles with those sins of the heart as “normal” people. Why would God hold them to a different standard than to straight people? Why can’t we trust that they have the same relationship and sanctity of God if we can discern that their relationship is healthy and blessed?

    Paul carries on that argument in the circumcision debates, and though he does mention homosexuality (or something very like it), it’s in the same form of scolding that he used to admonish women who speak in church. In the spirit of testing everything, if we see that there are gay and trans relationships that are full of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and temperance, why would we put a law against it? Galatians 5:22-23

  13. Pingback: Indiana YM | Clare Flourish

  14. philipem1000 says:

    I do not agree that the test in the political sphere is properly characterized; I believe that the MORAL question of one’s behavior is whether or not it harms others.

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