It is the issue that most threatens to create new schisms in the world of Quakers.
I’m talking about homosexuality, of course. It is provoking painful rifts in many monthly and yearly meetings and in many Friends organizations. Yet it could be the controversy that will draw us all more closely together, if we find honest ways to worship together about the issue. And that will require reading the Bible together.
Over the past three decades, I’ve been a member of monthly meetings in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, North Pacific Yearly Meeting, New York Yearly Meeting, and now Indiana Yearly Meeting. As Earlham’s president, I worshipped in Friends meetings across the geographic and theological terrain of Friends. Never once have I encountered an honest, searching discussion on homosexuality. Yes, it comes up often, but in some coded form. Occasionally someone interjects a candid sentence into a discussion about something else, and, like a shark’s fin, the question of homosexuality surfaces, induces shudders throughout the room, and then disappears from view for several more months.
It is time we had the courage to undertake an honest discussion that seeks God’s will about whether we should view homosexuality as a sin or should view same-sex partnership as one form of loving relationship that can give a glimpse of divine love. It is not an issue we can afford to duck or sidestep, not if we are serious in saying “Thy will be done.”
Some Friends General Conference Friends will find themselves objecting: “Oh no, I’ve been in discussions of homosexuality” or “my meeting has decided to celebrate marriages of same-sex couples.” Yet once we reach a local solution, don’t we let the issue slip from view? Don’t we feel released from any further need for discussion, any further obligation to engage with Friends beyond our meeting? Don’t we flee the conflict that continues in the wider Society of Friends? If asked where Quakers are with regard to homosexuality, wouldn’t our most honest answers be “We don’t want to talk about it” or “we’ve settled into separate camps, so we don’t have to talk about it.”
Settling into separate camps is certainly what is happening in Indiana Yearly Meeting. Following a long and deliberate process in 2008, West Richmond Friends approved a minute that says:
We affirm and welcome all persons whatever their race, religious affiliation, age, socio-economic status, nationality, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, or mental/physical ability. We offer all individuals and families, with or without children, our spiritual and practical support.
The inclusion of “sexual orientation” upset some in Indiana Yearly Meeting. West Richmond made it clear that the welcome and affirmation extended to “apply[ing] for and serv[ing] in positions of paid, public ministry, or other positions of leadership in our meeting.”
This past October, after months of controversy, IYM’s Representative Council approved a minute calling on IYM Quakers to commit themselves “to a year-long process of seeking a future that honors each other’s consciences and understandings of scriptural guidance, and that is life-giving for all our monthly meetings.” A second task force is now at work devising a plan for accomplishing the separation, a process of “deliberative/collaborative reconfiguration.”
There is grief throughout the yearly meeting and also a good deal of resignation that this schism was inevitable. This is a story in one yearly meeting, but many other yearly meetings have parallel stories of conflict and schism. Indiana Yearly Meeting invited Western and Wilmington Yearly Meetings to join them in the process. Both declined, but the same conflict grips them, too. The more immersed I am in the matter, the more convinced I become that the question of homosexuality has the potential to draw Friends together if we will have the courage to talk with one another, putting the Bible at the center of the conversation.
The main issue now being discussed in Indiana Yearly Meeting is the question of the authority of the yearly meeting. Last summer’s separation minute puts it in this way:
We ask Friends to discern whether they want to be part of a yearly meeting that, as our current Faith and Practice provides, has the power to set bounds and exercise authority over subordinate monthly meetings; or whether they wish to be part of a yearly meeting that is a collaborative association, with monthly meetings maintaining considerable autonomy and allowing great freedom in matters of doctrine.
Though homosexuality is the deeper issue, IYM is focused on the issue of locus of authority. Were we in unity about homosexuality, the question of authority would never arise. (Of course one could also ask, since IYM is visibly in disunity about homosexuality, by what authority does IYM’s leadership insist upon the 1982 minute, which held that homosexual practices were “contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind”?) Homosexuality, however, is an issue we do not want to discuss and will avoid discussing at all costs, even the cost of separation.
There is a yet deeper issue than homosexuality, however, one that has vexed Friends before and divided us on many occasions. It is the question of the Bible: How do we read it? What other sources of spiritual knowledge do we recognize? And how do those sources relate to the Bible?
For some Friends, homosexuality is a sin because the Bible says it is; they point to several passages as evidence. The 1982 Indiana Yearly Meeting minute puts it this way:
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 (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:21–32, I Corinthians 6:9–10, I Timothy 1:9–10).
Those who believe homosexuality is a sin rankle at any suggestion that they do not welcome homosexuals, but they want homosexuals to confess their sinful behavior, seek God’s forgiveness, and begin a new life. They want to be welcoming but NOT affirming. Thus the 1982 IYM minute adds, “We further believe that, whatever our condition of sinfulness, forgiveness, redemption, and wholeness are freely available through our Lord Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 1:7).”
In the face of this, what can be said—what should be said—by those who believe homosexuality is not a sin? We generally say that homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice but rather a deep, given, and fundamental aspect of one’s being that cannot and should not be denied. We say that God loves everyone and would not want to deny committed, faithful love between two human beings. We say that it is slanderous to attribute to homosexuality the terrible consequences that are often portrayed. We say that opposition to homosexuality is a prejudice. We say that each of us has a right to living and loving as we choose.
Yes, but we are much too reluctant to challenge the reading of the Bible passages—the erroneous reading—that sees them as declaring homosexuality a sin. We are too given to turning our back on the Bible. And that leads Friends who DO revere it to feel dismay and even disgust, thinking they can never find spiritual unity on any matter with those who reject the Bible.
The rupture over the Bible is the deepest schism of all among Friends. We will not find our way to unity about homosexuality (or about a great many other matters) if we are not willing to talk seriously about the Bible together. We need to value the Bible together as a font of spiritual authority, to be prepared to listen to one another’s leadings, and to be tender to different readings of what is a deep and complex revelation of God’s work among humankind.
The most important of the “clobber texts” taken to declare homosexuality a sin is the passage in Romans 1:
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Rom. 1:21–27 New International Version)
The principal sin that Paul is discussing in this passage is idolatry: failing to love and worship God. Paul talks about the possible consequences of idolatry: note the “therefore” in verse 24 and the “because” in verse 26. That is “their error.” Among those consequences are “shameful lusts,” which includes same-sex sexual relations. This is no condemnation of all homosexuality; it is rather a warning that idolatry will lead you to do things that are against your nature. It says nothing about those whose nature (sexual orientation) leads them to be attracted to those of the same sex.
We need fresh, thoughtful attention to a few other “clobber texts.” An excellent place to begin is with the chapter “The Bible and Homosexuality: The Last Prejudice” in Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: William Morrow, 1996). Another is “Homosexuality and the Bible” in Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches, edited by Walter Wink (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999).
During its first thousand years, Christianity did not view homosexuality as a sin. In 1980, a young, gifted historian at Yale named John Boswell published Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), which excavated this critical turn in history. One scholar summarized the turn: “it was only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that Christian writers formulated a significant hostility towards homosexuality, and then read the hostility back into their scriptures and early tradition.” Mark those words: “and then read the hostility back into their scriptures.” We need to read the Bible anew, together, to find our way back from that latter-day, even if long-standing, hostility.
We also need to remember how Friends have read the Bible. In the midst of the Indiana Yearly Meeting controversy, one Friend wrote:
Those who hold the Bible to be authoritative, as Friends have since the first generation, will be free to practice their religion, and those who hold other factors to be overriding authorities over the Bible will be free to practice their religion, and in a few years we will be able to look at the fruits of the two trees.
This simply isn’t an adequate understanding of Quakers and the Bible.
The following is contained within 1887 Richmond Declaration:
It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ.
But the Richmond Declaration was controversial (and schism-inducing) even at the time it was written. Compare this excerpt with what Robert Barclay, the greatest of Quaker theologians, had to say about the Bible in 1678:
[B]ecause the scriptures are only a declaration of the source, and not the source itself, they are not to be considered the principal foundation of all truth and knowledge. They are not even to be considered as the adequate primary rule of all faith and practice. Yet, because they give a true and faithful testimony of the source itself, they are and may be regarded as a secondary rule that is subordinate to the Spirit, from which they obtain all their excellence and certainty. (Apology for the True Christian Divinity)
They are regarded as a rule “subordinate to the Spirit.” When George Fox was seeking for spiritual truth and finally came to his epiphany, he found that only Jesus Christ could speak to his condition, not that “the Bible is unambiguous, and all you need.” Early Friends knew the Bible well. They recognized it as a source of great truth, and yet also recognized that we need the light of the Holy Spirit to understand it. Such an understanding led Margaret Fell to exclaim, “And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves.’”
Accepting the homosexuality-is-a-sin reading of the five famous clobber texts empties the Bible of its central message, which the Spirit can illuminate. That reading focuses erroneously on five snippets, snippets that make no sense in the context of the two Great Commandments Jesus gives us in Matthew 22:36–37:
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:36–40 NIV)
Unity among Friends is not our most important challenge; the most important challenge is always knowing and doing what God asks of us. I believe God’s will asks us to reject the harmful idea that homosexuality is a sin. But I also believe that God asks us to bring others along into the Light. Do we think we can do this by turning our backs on the Bible?
We have been in this situation before: facing a major social issue and trying to see clearly what God asks of us. Many American Friends were comfortable with slavery in the eighteenth century when John Woolman began his ministry. Friends and other Christians could point to dozens (dozens!) of Bible passages that show comfort with slavery and none (none!) that declare it sinful. Read Woolman’s “Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.“ He draws frequently on the Bible but dwells on none of those passages where slavery is presented as acceptable. Instead, he seeks to understand the deeper teaching of Jesus, trying to understand where loving God with all your might and loving your neighbor as yourself may lead. Eventually Quakers came to substantial unity that slavery was a sin.
We can find our way in unity to a loving understanding of homosexuality, but only if we will read the Bible together.
If some Friends insist that the Bible is simple, clear, and all-sufficient and other Friends turn their backs on the Bible, then there will continue to be a deep rupture within Quakerism. That rupture will express itself as a disagreement about homosexuality as well as about many other issues, but its deep and fundamental source is differing views of the Bible.
The way to unity among Friends is to talk about the Bible together, to value it together as a font of spiritual guidance, to be prepared to listen to one another’s leadings, and to be tender to different readings of what is a deep and complex revelation of God’s work among humankind. We will find together that homosexuality is no sin: sinning is failing to love.
Video Followup Interview of Bennett: