Perhaps the least discussed but most incoherent aspect of the United Methodist Church’s divide over human sexuality is the fact that we don’t have a robust and common definition of sin. The statement at the center of our brokenness – “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” – surely rests on the conviction that sexual acts with someone of the same gender are sinful in some intrinsic way, but very little is ever said about what sin is such that certain actions could be considered sin or not.
There are, to be sure, some traditional notions of sin that are presumed to be operative. Sin is something like “missing the mark,” “breaking fellowship with others,” “causing harm,” “disobedience to God,” “outside of God’s design,” or a variety of other sometimes nuanced and varied ways of talking about sin from Christian history and the Bible. What they share is at least a generic notion that something about a given action is wrong, unfaithful, divisive, broken, problematic, or otherwise bad.
As a theoretical exercise, there is obvious value in attempting to determine if an action or category of action can be appropriately labeled “sin” or not. Something as clear and near universal as “thou shalt not steal” points away from the harm we might do others by taking what isn’t ours; it points toward our need to find sufficiency in the gifts of God; and it points toward the necessity of trust in community.
As anyone who has ever taken a course in ethics knows, the moment we start to evaluate actual, specific, real world actions, things get far more complicated. Perhaps the “sin” was stealing a loaf of bread. But what if stealing was the only way a parent could imagine feeding their child? Surely allowing a child to starve would have been just as sinful as taking bread. And what if the desperate parent was only in that position because the bread maker had cheated the parent out of the paycheck they’d been anticipating to feed their child? And what if paying for the bread would be funding a business that runs on the exploitation of workers through labor trafficking?
Ethical debates can complicate a seemingly simple action almost infinitely. No complication makes theft an intrinsically good thing, but each nuance and circumstance challenges us to more closely consider what might be properly labeled sin and to consider whether any conceivable action could be sinless. In every case, an action’s sinfulness or lack thereof is determined to a significant extent by an arbitrary designation of the context we are willing to consider in evaluating that action.
Lest this exercise seem too academic to be relevant, the same exact dynamic plays out in scripture – most clearly in Matthew 12. Jesus and the disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, which was an explicitly sinful action. When called on it, Jesus didn’t deny that work on the Sabbath was sinful nor that plucking grain counts as work. Instead, Jesus complicated the Pharisees portrait of what mattered in evaluating their actions by quoting scripture and pointing to the hunger of the disciples. Again, doing so does not make plucking grain on the Sabbath intrinsically good – but it certainly challenges us to consider the meaning and implications of labeling an action “sin.”
When human sexuality is debated in the UMC, whether or not homosexuality falls on the “sin” side of the line is often central to the conversation. Conservatives say yes. Liberals say no or ignore the question altogether. Rarely do we pay enough attention to what is meant by sin such that both sides could even be engaging with the same underlying questions.
To meaningfully engage would require us to start with a prior conviction in Methodist thought – that we are uniquely insistent upon Grace as the foundation for all that follows. At the risk of oversimplifying, starting with Grace means at least starting with the conviction that we are first given the unearned love of God and everything about faith and a faithful life is a reflection of and response to the love and relationship God offers.
1st John 4:10 begins, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” In the words of Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
To start with the love and relationship God offers and embrace the assumption that any law or faithful Christian action is grounded in love of God and neighbor is to necessarily define sin in relation to that love and relationship. In other words, sin is necessarily a secondary concept that only takes on life and meaning in so far as it names an action that falls short of, breaks, harms, or otherwise distorts the love and grace of God. The distortion sin may cause is never a generic flaw; it is specifically a distortion of God’s relationship with us.
When we instead act as though there is a “sin” box and a “not sin” box into which any action must be placed, we treat sin as though the concept has inherent meaning. We might go about labeling theoretical actions as sin or not. And then, as above, start complicating our analysis by bringing in all sorts of considerations that render an action more or less palatable. Perhaps we arrive at some sort of score card for complicated cases: +2 for feeding your child, -1 for stealing bread, -(-1) for having been harmed by the baker first. As long as it’s not a negative score we might at least give it a pass. Or if we want to be hard liners we might say any negative points involved at any point means it’s a sin and a sin is a sin no matter how big or small.
Such analysis fails to account for at least two problems.
First, every action can be found to be sinful on some level if we simply define the context differently. Buying cheap vegetables in the US from the wrong store might facilitate child labor exploitation in Central America. Staying at the wrong hotel might make you complicit in labor trafficking. Whether or not it is fair to blame anyone for third or fourth order consequences is irrelevant to the fact that a choice of what counts must be made and that choice is significantly determinative of the resulting “score.”
Second, failing to make explicit the disconnect between a given action and the love and relationship of God treats sin as a primary concept. Instead of scoring/losing points for action, intent, result, utility, and whatever other aspect of a given situation we deem relevant at whatever level of analysis we choose, sin should be measured relative to the components of Godly love and relationship – such as consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, truthfulness, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, or respect.
The extent to which any action breaks relationship by subverting (or simply failing to build up) these relational components is the extent to which that action may be appropriately viewed as sinful. To be sure, such analysis guarantees that every action will fall short in at least some way and the fact that there is no way to require the level at which analysis of a given action must take place ensures that there will be no objectively “correct” way to “score” anything. In other words, God is God, we are not. The best we can do is strive to relate to one another with the love and relationship presumed in 1st John 4:10.
To the extent that sin is falling short of the love and relationship of God rather than some objectively defined list of particular actions, we must be extremely wary of holding fast to theoretical definitions of actions traditionally understood to be sinful unless we can articulate the particular ways in which that action inherently and even now falls short. Sexuality presents us with a fairly unique case. (Considering whether or not there is a conversation worth having about the possibility of Godly sex outside of marriage may be a conversation worth having, but it is a question outside the scope of what follows. I am here taking for granted that sex and sexuality are only appropriately expressed and acted upon within marriage.)
A traditional understanding of sex as appropriate only in the context of monogamous marriage between a man and woman is surely informed partly by the positive concepts of relationship building above. For instance, the role monogamy can play in building trust is obvious even if one doesn’t believe monogamy is necessary for trust and even though it certainly isn’t sufficient. Conversely, lying to a spouse will undoubtedly harm trust in many, though perhaps not all, cases.
Marriage, then, is a particular, covenantal expression of the love God is. Our hope is certainly to be as if not more intimate, vulnerable, committed, accountable, sacrificial, etc in marriage than any other relationship. No human relationship can perfectly embody the love of God. But marriage is at least the commitment through which what is different is not allowed to take precedence over what binds those two people together. As in the body of Christ, our unity in diversity makes us greater together because we then have eyes for sight, ears to hear, and a nose to smell; so in marriage, our unity in difference makes us greater than the sum of our parts.
On these terms, the strongest case I can discern against marriage between two persons of the same gender is that a stronger marriage bond is one that overcomes a greater amount of difference. Because gender would be definitionally the same, that marriage could not overcome as much difference as a heterosexual marriage. That claim, however, is remarkably tenuous given that there is no functional, hierarchical, or complementarian difference believed to exist between male and female in the UMC. No definition or difference of gender is ever offered or argued other than the simple statement that God created us male and female.
How could a difference without distinction be the sufficient cause to prohibit same gender persons from entering a marriage covenant? How, especially, could the lack of one specific difference be sufficient to prohibit marriage given the pervasive assumption and reality that we already view marriage as a union between two people who are more alike than not? And if nothing else, how could this specific lack of difference be sufficient to render same gender marriage impossible, while no other difference (or lack thereof) is ever even relevant to any argument about any marriage? The only exception might be the encouragement for Christians to marry other Christians so as not to be “unequally yoked,” but here again it is our expectation that married people be more alike, not less, that drives the argument.
What, then, would be the constructive case against same gender marriage or sexuality? In other words, what constructive embodiment of the love and relationship God has for us is impossible within a monogamous, covenantally committed same gender couple? If there is something, I have no idea what it would be. If not, I can’t see any way to view same gender marriage as sinful that does not finally rest on an arbitrary choice or score card to determine which traditional or scriptural prohibitions and ethical exhortations to hold onto (perhaps don’t murder or steal) and which must be open to change or reinterpretation over time (such as divorce or women in leadership).
Given how often and how radically the Bible, Jesus included, pushes us to reimagine tradition in light of the particular shape of the love of God and never the other way around (in short – the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath), “tradition says” is hardly a sufficient battle cry for labeling a specific action to be sinful in all times and places. I cannot help but place the burden of proof on those who would wish to maintain a traditional definition of marriage to offer any hint as to where same gender marriage or sexuality falls substantively shorter from God’s love and relationship than the marriage and sex between husband and wife. And I cannot help but see a faulty understanding of sin playing the pivotal role in justifying the status quo.