Samuel M. Powell
An account of an overheard dialog
Many years ago—decades, in fact—I attended my first Nazarene Theology Conference, giddy with the prospect of rubbing shoulders with denominational luminaries both academic and administrative. I anticipated three days of stimulating ideas, with penetrating analysis of challenging issues. The event did not exactly live up to my youthful and overblown expectations. There was, however, one moment that remains with me. During one session, after an interesting afternoon presentation on the Socratic dialog as a model for theological conversation, I felt myself falling asleep as the next speaker droned on, searching for a thesis. I went for a walk and, on the way, I heard voices emerging from a room, engaged in a spirited conversation. Since I had come to the conference in search of such conversation, I stopped and shamelessly listened in.
I recognized the voices as two veteran Nazarene academics of blessed memory, one a biblical scholar, the other a theologian. Both are now as dead as their conversation was lively. The biblical scholar (whom I will call “W”) was relating his experience at a recent meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. He had heard a presentation that he found both forceful and troubling.
“What was the topic?” the theologian (whom I will call “R”) asked.
W: “The passages in the Bible about homosexuality. The scholar was very thorough—he covered them all, I think. Wrong, of course, dreadfully wrong in his interpretation.”
R: “You corrected him, I assume?”
W: “That’s just the thing. Each point seemed plausible and each led logically to the next, so that by the time he was done, I felt as confused as a freshman theology student.”
R: “Hopefully you’re not still confused—are you?”
W: “Oh, absolutely not. While he was talking, I felt that I was under a spell of some sort, but as soon as the presentation was over, my orthodox convictions returned.”
R: “As strong as ever, I trust.”
R: “What were these points that shook your assurance?”
W: “He started by asking why, if we accept the authority of Leviticus’ condemnation of homosexuality, we don’t also accept its condemnation of another abomination—having intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period.”
R: “That’s in Leviticus?” R seemed, from the tone of his voice, incredulous.
W: “It is, and just a verse or two away from the passage about homosexuality.”
R: “Well, but that’s Leviticus. As you know, we are not under law, but under grace.”
W: “Yes, but it’s not just the law of Moses—the prophet Ezekiel insists that such intercourse is completely inconsistent with righteousness.”
R: “Well, we know that the Old Testament contains much that is irrelevant to us today. All those food laws and such.”
W: “But that’s just it—his next point was about the New Testament. You know how Paul says, in Romans 1, that homosexuals have given up the ‘natural function?’ Well, the scholar asked why, if we accept the argument from nature in Romans 1, we ignore Paul’s argument from nature in 1 Corinthians 11.”
Though widely regarded in Nazarene circles as a theological genius and polymath, R must not have known the reference, for W went on to explain: “It’s where Paul says that nature teaches that long hair on men is a disgrace. The scholar, I think, may have had a good point, don’t you think? I does seem wrong to arbitrarily pick and choose which biblical passages we accept and which we don’t.”
R: “Of course it’s wrong. But no one could possibly accuse us of that. Everyone knows the church operates by sound and consistent hermeneutical principles when it formulates its ethics. Everyone except the poor fools who’ve been indoctrinated by liberal theology.” He said this last part in a somewhat accusatory tone.
W was silent. I wish that I had been in the room so that I could determine whether this silence stemmed from thoughtful agreement or from something else.
R: “What did he have to say about the New Testament’s other unassailable foundations of the truth about homosexuality?”
Apparently, W was not sure which unassailable truths R was referring to, for R went on: “1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. I mean, no one can doubt that here Paul condemned homosexuality expressly and categorically.”
W: “In fact he did have a question about these verses. Why, he asked, did the church place so much weight on passages where the meaning of the key terms is uncertain.”
R: “Uncertain! Where did this impudent clod get his education? Any student of first year Greek knows the meaning of those words—‘effeminate,’ ‘men who have sex with men,’ ‘those practicing homosexuality.’ It’s as plain as day.’
W: “Um, perhaps we should be a bit more hesitant on this point.”
R: “What? This infidel hasn’t persuaded you, has he?”
W: “No, of course not.”
There seemed to be a note of caution in his voice. I knew him to be a man of impeccable orthodoxy as well as being an accomplished biblical scholar, sensitive to the occasional bumps in the road as he practiced his scholarship in service to the church. Although he would never criticize orthodox dogma or ecclesiastical edicts publicly, on at least one occasion I had heard him gently and tentatively question whether some official doctrine (I forget now which it was) was as securely biblical as the leaders of the church proclaimed. At the same time, I knew that R simply did not understand how a biblical scholar could question church doctrine, assuming that the scholar was a Bible-believing Christian. He was not, of course, trained in biblical scholarship, but no one could doubt his adamant rejection of its results.
“It’s just that,” W continued, “well, I did some study of the matter after the conference and, well, let’s just say that this issue deserves further consideration. Scholars don’t seem to agree on exactly how to translate those key terms.”
R: “Well, there’s no lack of agreement among Evangelical scholars. Maybe you should stop associating with liberal scholars—there’s a danger that their ideas will rub off on you. ‘Bad company corrupts good character,’ you know.”
W: “Yes—sound advice. Of course, that’s one reason I’m here at this Nazarene conference—no possibility of dangerous ideas being touted here.”
R: “Indeed. We’re perfectly safe here, inoculated against error. Everyone can go home secure in the truth, with new and even stronger reasons for believing what the church teaches. Still, we have to be careful—you were wise to share all this in private. We don’t want to get our people worried.”
W: “I agree. I do, however, wish that we could find a way to discuss these things.”
R: “I don’t see what there is to discuss, but perhaps something could be arranged—a small gathering of responsible people. Of course, we would need to include church leaders. General Superintendents, possibly a few of the more, um, significant DSs, college presidents, heads of departments. Someone would have to be in charge to make sure that the conversation moved in the right direction. I mean, theology is not a rushing river that creates its own channels. We must carefully guide it. Well, back to this liberal scholar’s questions. Were there more?”
W: “Oh, I’m afraid so. He questioned whether the focus of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was really homosexuality?”
R: “What? He’s obviously delusional.”
W: “Oh, no doubt. Still, he scored points with the audience—mostly fellow liberals, I’m sure—by suggesting that the story was actually about rape or an attempt to dishonor Lot. I must admit I had never considered these possibilities. He provided references to studies that, he claimed, supported his questioning. Would you like me to send them to you?”
R: “Absolutely not. What are the ramblings of a few liberal scholars compared to the unanimous voice of the church? Why contaminate my thoughts with such poison? I’m surprised you gave it a moment’s consideration.”
W: “Oh, I assure you, it was much less than a moment. But then he also asked why Ezekiel’s comments about Sodom are routinely ignored?”
R: “What comments?”
W: “You know, the place where Ezekiel identifies Sodom’s sin as being lack of hospitality. The scholar put great emphasis on this point.”
R: “Well, there’s no conflict with orthodoxy here. The Sodomites could very well have been both perverted and inhospitable, couldn’t they?”
W: “Of course you are right, although the scholar thought it important that Ezekiel does not mention their homosexuality.”
R: “He was obviously reading something into the biblical text that was not there. Typical of liberal scholars. What else did he have to say?”
W: “Oh, there was a long rant about Evangelical hypocrisy.”
R: “What did he mean?”
W: “It was about the way we focus on certain biblical texts but then ignore others. Why are we obsessed with a few passages about homosexuality while ignoring explicit commands in the New Testament?”
R: “And which are they?”
W: “Foot-washing, the holy kiss, compelling women to have a head covering when they pray, forbidding the braiding of hair.”
R: “Doesn’t the dolt know that these commands are dependent on the particulars of ancient cultures? That they don’t apply to us today in a different culture?”
W: “In fact, he brought that up, wondering if perhaps the Bible’s view of homosexuality is itself an example of a culturally-conditioned belief.”
R: “Heresy! Any fool can plainly see the difference between condemning homosexuality on one hand and commanding foot-washing on the other. Culture’s got nothing to do with the first and everything to do with the second.”
W: “If only you had been there to set the man straight. At any rate, the last set of questions pertained to science. He mentioned studies in neurology and genetics suggesting that homosexuality may be a natural phenomenon.”
R: “Natural? Impossible! The Bible states clearly that it is unnatural.”
W: “That’s just the point I wanted to make in the Q&A. But he went on to ask why Evangelicals accept the authority of science until it challenges their beliefs. I think he was accusing us once again of hypocrisy—selectively using the results of science when it supports us and rejecting science when it contradicts us.”
R: “But it’s not us that science contradicts, it’s God. Are we going to let scientists teach us about nature? When we have God’s own word to teach us?”
W: “That’s a good point. Still, even Evangelicals have begun to accept that science may help us get rid of false interpretations of Genesis 1. The presenter obviously thought that science may have something to say about homosexuality.”
R: “Well it doesn’t. Science can help with facts but not with values.”
W: “Homosexuality isn’t a fact?”
R: “Of course it’s a fact, but…but, it’s a different sort of fact, it’s… Now you’re getting me confused like that scholar made you confused.”
W: “I guess I am a little confused. Of course, my orthodoxy’s intact, but I’m no longer sure that its biblical basis is as strong as I once thought.”
R: “That’s very disappointing, especially for someone in your position. You know that the church requires us to have clear views on important matters.”
W: “Maybe you can help me and others like me. Write a book that refutes this scholar, point by point—the biblical arguments, psychology, neurology, genetics, everything.”
R: “Yes—I will. But first, you know, I’ve got to respond to an article just published that insists that entire sanctification is about extirpation, not eradication. Can you imagine? This sort of error cannot go unchallenged.”
W: “That’s a worthy task, but when you can help me? I can’t stay in this state of confusion forever. Can I at least send you the book this scholar wrote on homosexuality and the Bible?”
R: “I’m afraid I won’t have time to read it. There’s a new book about carnality that demands my attention.”
R: “Sorry, but I must run—Oh, look, I’m late for a meeting.”
With that R left the room and rushed past me. W left a few seconds later.
R never published that refutation of the liberal scholar, although he did, in his remaining years, churn out 17 books on the subtleties of eradication. To the end of his life, W was a model of orthodoxy and of faithful submission to the church. I never had a chance to talk with him, so I do not know whether he ever emerged from his confusion. But I always wondered.
Samuel M. Powell taught philosophy and religion for many years in Nazarene institutions and is an ordained deacon in the Church of the Nazarene.