At its annual “Ministers Week” lectures last year, the theological school of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas provided a revealing window into the contemporary debate within mainline church circles over homosexuality. Taking a pro-homosexuality approach was Victor Furnish, a professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. Defending the traditional Christian stance was Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. Both seminaries are Methodist institutions, but they train ministers for nearly all major mainline Protestant churches.

Over 500 clergy and laity attended the Perkins event. Furnish and Hays were both frank about their beliefs. For Furnish, the Scriptures are not the final authority but an incomplete record that points to a higher authority. For Hays, the Bible is God’s revealed will.

Furnish warned against accepting the “words of the Bible as collectively the Word of God.” He seeks guidance from the “kergymatic core” of the Bible, which affirms the love and faithfulness of God. This “core” apparently excludes what the Bible says about the physical world, political institutions, domestic and social relationships, and sex. The Bible’s attitudes toward these areas are “time-bound and culturally conditioned”; therefore, they are not reliable guides for today, according to Furnish.

“This means we must resist speaking ponderously of Scriptures as providing norms that are valid for all times and places,” Furnish argued. “Specific moral norms are always derived from one truly absolute norm, which is the grace and faithfulness of God.” He did not describe how God’s grace can be fully defined without reliance on the biblical text.

“We do the Bible no honor by regarding it as an inert static body of teachings boxed up and tied tight by the creeds and church laws,” Furnish said. The Bible must “remain open to critique and correction like all of our creeds and statements of faith.”

The Bible’s sexual morality was created by “patriarchalism,” “stereotyping of gender roles,” and “total ignorance concerning the complexities of sexual identity,” according to Furnish. For the Church to establish which parts of the Bible carry “authority,” Scripture must conform to what we know about God as disclosed in Christ and to what we know about “Creation.”

Specific Scriptures that condemn homosexual behavior are “simply no longer credible,” Furnish claimed. “None can stand unchallenged given what modern research is teaching us about human sexuality,” he said. The Apostle Paul had “no knowledge of sexual orientation.”

The Bible’s expectation of sexual monogamy, according to Furnish, passes the twofold test of conforming to what we know of God’s love and to our modem knowledge of the world. But the prohibitions against homosexual behavior and divorce fail.

Responding to Furnish, Hays declared that the biblical texts about homosexuality speak with one voice, and “there is no serious doubt about their meaning.” The argument that Jesus never addressed homosexuality shows a “lack of historical perspective,” Hays insisted. Jesus was a first-century Jew who agreed with Jewish teaching that homosexual conduct was a “gentile vice.” If he had taught anything else, it would have been the “basis for controversy and slander by his enemies.”

Although all scriptural texts agree in their disapproval of homosexuality. Hays argued that a theological position should not be based exclusively on such passages. Instead, his own views, and those of the historic Church, are based on a constant message throughout both the Old and New Testaments that man and woman are created for each other.

Hays said that a homosexual orientation, even if involuntary, is not morally neutral. All of us live in the flesh within a fallen Creation and are prone to sins that are not freely chosen. “The Bible undercuts our obsession with sexual fulfillment,” Hays argued. “Lives of freedom, joy, and service are possible without sexual relations.” The Bible does not make sexuality the “basis for defining a person’s identity or for finding meaning and fulfillment in life.”

Although the Bible does speak of sexual practices, it never acknowledges classes of persons based on sexual practice. And the Bible “never considers sexuality merely a private matter between consenting adults.”

“The Bible tells a story with which we find our identity,” Hays said. “The Bible doesn’t always tell us what we should do. But when it does, we should listen long and hard . . . ” He argued against modern studies that are “influenced by understandings of humanity that are at odds with the New Testament.”

“We cannot decide what it means to live in holiness before God by doing empirical studies taking polls about contemporary sexual practices,” Hays insisted. “Contemporary culture . . . has produced enormous confusion, anxiety and debasement in our sexual lives.”

Victor Furnish proposes to judge biblical material on what is “credible” for “modern people,” Hays noted. He called Furnish’s proposal ironic, since modern people have produced an unprecedented epidemic of divorce, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and abortion.

“In view of our propensity for self-deception, I think it is prudent and necessary to let Scripture and Christian tradition order the life of the Church on this painfully controversial matter,” Hays concluded.

Other speakers besides Furnish espoused pro-homosexuality arguments, Charles Curran, a Catholic priest who lost his teaching position at The Catholic University of America because of his open disagreement with Roman Catholic teachings on sexuality, now teaches at SMU. He urged “freedom” on “doubtful” issues that are “peripheral” to the faith, such as homosexuality.

“What we have today is an understanding of the homosexual orientation that we did not have before,” Curran said. “I don’t see how you can demand celibacy of people with a homosexual orientation.” He argued that a truly catholic and universal Church tries to embrace vastly different Christian perspectives.

Joerg Rieger, who teaches systematic theology at Perkins, sounded a similar theme. “The presence of gays and lesbians in the Church might provide us with a unique opportunity to think through the question of what really matters in the Church and in theology today,” he said. “We need to rethink also what it means to live in committed partnerships. And we will find that we need to rethink not only our attitude towards homosexual relationships, but our attitude towards heterosexual relationships as well.”

Asbury Theological Seminary president Maxie Dunnam argued that it is not simply homosexuality but the understanding of scriptural authority that is dividing the Church. Asbury, an evangelical Wesleyan school near Lexington, Kentucky, trains ministers in the Methodist, Nazarene, and Salvation Army denominations.

“Is it any wonder that our Church is in turmoil when men and women preparing for the ministry are being mentored in the faith by persons who disregard our founding and primary source documents so as to diminish the Bible as God’s Word?” Dunnam asked. Dunnam claimed that those who have represented this “revisionist stance” have not been “direct and honest” about their disagreements with the Church’s historic beliefs. “We are deeply divided over what has become a fundamental fault line: the authority of Scripture and the person and work of Jesus Christ.”

Dunnam focused on the dangers of doctrinal pluralism, which claims that “all roads lead to Cod,” contradicting both Scripture and the “central understanding of the church” for 2,000 years. “Doctrinal pluralism is an untenable principle to guide us. It will divide or render impotent the Church as a saving force.”

Much of mainline Protestantism has indeed been rendered impotent, culturally and spiritually. The debate over homosexuality is just one example of the theological turmoil. But not every knee has bent toward Baal. The battle is far from over, and those who resist modern sexual fashion within the churches may not only prevail; their witness for classical Christian beliefs regarding sexual morality may reinvigorate appreciation for all of Christian orthodoxy.