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Commentary


Langford’s Shallow Accommodationalism

by James Gibson


NOTE:  UMNS #583 is included at the end of this article for your information.

The Council of Bishops invited the retired dean of Duke Divinity School, Thomas A. Langford, to offer them counsel on the supposedly controversial subject of same sex "marriages." Judging from Langford’s remarks, it is probably best that he remain retired.

Langford’s presentation to the persons charged with guarding and defending the faith in United Methodism is further evidence that our episcopal leaders have no interest in doctrinal clarity and theological soundness. Instead, they seem content with the present confusion and shallowness which have brought their denomination to the brink of dissolution.

United Methodism is not without gifted theologians who can articulate a biblically grounded, doctrinally sound vision for the church. Thomas Oden, William Abraham and Robert Tuttle come immediately to mind. However, such persons never seem to be invited to address the Council of Bishops. Instead, the bishops are regularly treated to a cadre of moderate to liberal "thinkers" who offer more questions than answers. It is embarrassing when such persons are presented as the best United Methodism has to offer.

Langford deconstructs the biblical view of human sexuality, concluding that the traditional contexts for sexual expression, "In singleness, celibacy; in marriage, fidelity; marriage once and for all; and marriage between a man and a woman," are mere "ideals" which, in the context of "contemporary North American society," are often unacceptable. As reported by United Methodist News Service [#583]:

Langford noted that in contemporary North American society prescriptions of celibacy and fidelity are violated, singleness and celibacy are not held together, marriage "once for all" ends half of the time in divorce, and marriage between a man and a woman is no longer predicated on procreation or a "protection against lust." Given these actual conditions, he called for a fresh Christian understanding of marriage.

Such a "fresh Christian understanding of marriage," according to Langford may include the acceptance of "the marriage of homosexuals," an act "once taken to be a perversion" which can "now arguably be seen as fulfilling the actual conditions of most marriages." The question which needs to be asked, according to Langford, is, "Can homosexual marriage be an expression of God’s grace?"

There is a simple, two-letter word which will suffice to answer Langford’s question. However, it is of primary importance to point out the underlying implications of Langford’s call "for a fresh Christian understanding of marriage."

The biblical understanding of marriage is not all that complicated. God, having created man, saw that it was "not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). With no "suitable helper" (v. 20) found amongst the rest of God’s creatures, God created woman from a rib taken out of the man.

The man said,
"This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called `woman,'
for she was taken out of man."

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:23-24)

From the beginning, God has ordained marriage to be the union of one man and one woman. Throughout the Old Testament, however, there are stories of the human failure to understand God’s intention. Some of the most notable biblical characters, including Jacob, David and Solomon, were polygamists. Moses permitted divorce as a concession to the hard-hearted, stiff-necked Israelites. Yet, God’s definition of marriage never changed. Jesus reminds us of this:

"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator `made them male and female,' and said, `For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh' ? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." (Matthew 19:4-6)

Langford seems to ignore the plain words of Scripture in his call for "a fresh Christian understanding of marriage." If "contemporary North American society" has clouded the issue with its perverted understanding of human sexuality, then the only way to develop "a fresh Christian understanding of marriage" is to rediscover what the Word of God has said all along. Langford, however, does not appear to believe Scripture is an adequate guide for the present day situation. He is not calling for "a fresh Christian understanding of marriage" but, rather, a redefinition of marriage based on the "actual conditions" of contemporary society. This is precisely what the advocates of "homosexual marriage" have been pushing for all along. What Langford has given us is merely another code phrase which will likely be used ad nauseam by the pro-homosexual movement.

It appears the Council of Bishops, and their surrogate Langford, have once again missed an opportunity to call the people of God to faithfulness in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. What is needed from the Church today is not "a fresh Christian understanding of marriage" which subordinates biblical truth to the prevailing norms of "contemporary North American society" but, rather, a fresh application of what God has ordained, and Scripture has taught, from the beginning. If "contemporary North American society" views celibacy and chastity to be impossible burdens for single persons, the Church ought to celebrate the witness and testimony of those who, by the grace of God, live lives of sexual purity. If "contemporary North American society" views lifelong commitment in marriage to be an antiquated ideal, the Church ought to celebrate the witness and testimony of those who, by the grace of God, keep their marriage undefiled because it is the most sacred of all human relationships. If "contemporary North American society" views homosexual relationships as normal and acceptable, the Church ought to celebrate the witness and testimony of those who, by the grace of God, have been delivered out of the darkness of such relationships and into the light of a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.

If the Church would be true to its calling to be a counter-cultural community, the question posed by Langford’s presentation would never be asked. Homosexual "marriage" can never be an expression of God’s grace. It can only be an expression of conformity to a culture at odds with the radical claims of the Gospel. God’s grace challenges us to move beyond such shallow accommodationalism.


Theologian urges humility for both sides in homosexuality debate

Nov. 3, 1999 News media contact: Thomas S. McAnally· (615)742-5470· Nashville, Tenn.   {583}

LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS) -- Be open, take time, and ask the fundamental question: "Can this be an expression of God's grace?"

That's the counsel that the bishops of the United Methodist Church received Nov. 2 regarding the controversial issue of same-sex marriages.

In a major presentation to the Council of Bishops, the Rev. Thomas A. Langford, retired dean of Duke University Divinity School, Durham, N.C., explored the theological understanding of grace espoused by Methodism's founders, John and Charles Wesley. In conclusion, he moved from the abstract to the concrete by asking how that understanding of grace helps United Methodists today deal with the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

He chose to address the controversial topic because grace is perceived today as "softness, tolerance and understanding," he said. In contrast, he said grace calls for self-criticism, honesty in relating to others, possible suffering, and -- above all -- seeking God's will.

"We are all sinners, and, as sinners, none of us stands as final judge of other sinners," he said. "Consequently, we begin with humility.

"I emphasize this because both sides in this homosexual debate often claim the moral high ground," he said. " ... Let us for a moment, then, quiet down, recognize the awesomeness of God's grace, and be humble."

Langford was dean at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity from 1971 to 1981 and then served as provost until his retirement in 1998. He resides at Lake Junaluska and Durham, N.C.

Instead of the reasons for homosexuality, his presentation focused on human relationships as expressed in marriage. "Morality has to do not so much with what is but with what ought to be; not with what we are by nature but what we are by the goals we seek and serve," he said.

Traditionally there have developed within Christianity several understandings of human sexuality and marriage, Langford noted. Among those described in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, he cited the fact that human sexuality is part of the good creation to be celebrated but in particular contexts: "In singleness, celibacy; in marriage, fidelity; marriage once and for all; and marriage between a man and a woman."

Regarding these ideals, Langford said he always understood himself to be a traditionalist. "But, as a realist, I recognize that all of these ideals are known as much in failure as in observance; and this knowledge cuts not so much between Christians and others as it cuts through Christian hearts. Here grace has a special significance."

The issue of homosexuality has been a difficult one for the United Methodist Church since the General Conference of 1972, when a statement was adopted declaring that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." That position remains in the church's Book of Discipline.

Only the General Conference, which meets every four years, can speak officially for the denomination, which has 8.4 million members in the United States and more than 1 million in other countries. At each legislative gathering since 1972, the issue of homosexuality has been debated and is certain to occupy the attention of delegates to the next conference in Cleveland May 2-12. Bishops attend the General Conference but do not vote.

Langford noted that in contemporary North American society prescriptions of celibacy and fidelity are violated, singleness and celibacy are not held together, marriage "once for all" ends half of the time in divorce, and marriage between a man and woman is no longer predicated on procreation or a "protection against lust." Given these actual conditions, he called for a fresh Christian understanding of marriage.

"Since singleness can be offered as an appropriate response to God, marriage is not necessary," he said. "Marriage is a gift. Reception of that gift is affirmed as the couple stands before God and with the witness of the people of God. The couple and the community take vows together."

Marriage is not principally a bond between two people or simply a good in itself or a fulfillment of two individuals, Langford said. "Marriage is the bond of two persons with God and within a community of faith. Marriage is an expression of embodied grace."

As a Christian act, marriage is "embodied spirituality, a joint offering to God," he said. "The gift of our bodies in marriage is a spiritual act." Such claims, he added, are seen as almost ludicrous, if not impossible, by the contemporary world.

"An implication of this is that the marriage of homosexuals, once taken to be a perversion, now can arguably be seen as fulfilling the actual conditions of most marriages," he said. "The issue of homosexual marriage, then, is the issue of all marriages: can this relationship be an expression of grace? These are the questions the Christian community must ask and answer."

Acknowledging that the issues are "enormous" and the church's decisions "crucial," Langford asked how the church might move forward in an effort to understand homosexuality and marriage.

"It is unacceptable for Christians to form sides with each side attempting to beat the other into submission," he declared. "Perhaps, however, it is possible to plead for some humility. Both sides must restrain their claim to moral superiority and seek the most adequate, most compassionate and most faithful understanding. We must begin not with our own rightness or righteousness but with an humble and persistent desire to know the will of God in this situation." Both homosexuals and heterosexuals must seek to know God's will, he added

Is it possible for the United Methodist Church to allow space for differences or to allow more than one practice to be recognized? "The answers to these questions are only to be found through discourse within Christian community," he said. "Our discussion must be among people who are in the Body of Christ and who seek authentic life in Christ as they honor God with their bodies."

This approach, he acknowledged, takes time. "The issue is so complex that it cannot be quickly resolved. Perhaps United Methodism can become the exception and await the guidance of God. It may be that in the end we shall not reach consensus. It may be that we shall not be held together in the Body of Christ by agreement but by love. It may be that we shall only find unity in diversity. But through it all we must, by grace and with grace, seek to be faithful disciples."

Such a position, he added, has many precedents. "On a number of moral issues there is division in the Body of Christ. Pacifists and militarists live within the same Christian community. We have different positions on divorce. People who accept and reject the death penalty share faithful commitment. Different convictions regarding abortion coexist.

"We must not allow disagreement over the nature and implications of homosexuality to separate the Body of Christ. If we can stay together, it may be only with tension and disagreement, but until we know more about and understand the will of God better, we may by grace have to learn to live with fellow Christians who disagree with us."

The morning after Langford's presentation, the council took another hour to discuss his paper. Afterward, Bishop James K. Mathews of Washington told his colleagues, "The spirit of grace is moving in our midst. There is a sense of relaxation I haven't seen in ages."

The Council of Bishops meets twice a year. It includes 50 active bishops in the United States, 17 active bishops in Europe, Africa and Asia, and more than 50 retired bishops. Serving a one-year term as president is Bishop Robert Morgan of Louisville, Ky. The weeklong meeting will adjourn Friday, Nov. 5.

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