The 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is coming up this weekend. It is a time of great hope and anxiety as we wait to see what the decided future of the United Methodist Church will be, if there is any decision that is made. While the legislation, strictly speaking, is primarily about ecclesial structures, the options pertain to what degree of flexibility will be allowed pertaining to the matter of same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate lesbian and gay persons.
And while I support the traditional understanding of sex and marriage in the Scriptures, I have long felt that many (but not all of the struggles the United Methodist denomination faces over the matters of sex and marriage stem from a problematic view about marriage and ordination that conservatives, traditionalists, and evangelicals all seem to share. For years, I have felt there was something deeply inconsistent with the logic that emerges the common understandings about sex, marriage, and even ordination, even if their views are to some degree consistent with what the Scripture speaks to these matters. While I for a long time had a hard time trying to clarify what exactly the source of this inconsistency was, something didn’t seem right to me.
But then, something dawned on me. I recall my experience of people who were going through the ordination process with me (I am still not fully ordained due to my own choices). While confidentiality forbids me from sharing specific things that were said by specific people, I can provide the general gist that I have heard, which I have also heard elsewhere: people want to get to the ordained status. There was a feeling that the process were hoops to jump through to obtain a specific status as ordained. Then, you get to do what ordained pastors do. Ordination was a status that bestowed specific privileges.
Let’s take marriage from the idealized, traditional Christian view of marriage. Two people meet and they date, but they abstain from sex until the marriage ceremony. Then, once that has occurred and the minister pronounces them “Husband and Wife,” then the couple has obtained the status of marriage and then they have the privilege of having sex and children.
Want to know why marriage and ordinate are considered statuses with privileges? If I were to tell my bishop of my annual conference that I performed a wedding that I am not authorized to do since I am not fully ordained, I imagine that I would be seen as transgressing some boundary. But if I were to tell him I had been preaching on occasion somewhere else, that would probably not bother him even though that too is included in the task of an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. Some statuses are seen as unequally gating off some activities from others. Other people could perform some of the duties that an ordained elder does, but not other duties. That is privilege and status.
Consider marriage for another example. Imagine an engaged couple told their conservative minister that they were having sex before marriage. While the responses from the ministry may vary from mildly encouraging abstinence to trying to force them to stop having sex through various means, almost every conservative minister would think “you shouldn’t do that.” But imagine instead they told their ministry “we have a shared bank account.” Some might think that is a wise step, some might think it premature and smirk a bit, etc., but there would be little to no sense that they had violated some boundary. Even though married life commonly entails sharing financial resources, a shared bank account would be seen as different from have sex before the wedding. Once again, marriage is seen as a status walling off certain types of activities as for those who have obtained a certain status.
Now, the inconsistency I am pointing out is not, per se, the walling off of certain activities. There are good reasons to wait for sex until one has firmly secured the relationship into the future. There are good reasons to not try to get spiritually involved in a person’s marriage until you yourself are capable of providing healthy spiritual direction. Limitations are not the problem.
Rather, the inconsistency is this: marriage and ordination are routinely seen as a status that bestows special privileges to one group over another. If I get to be ordained, I get to perform marriages. If I get married, I get to have sex. It is okay if you do some of the other stuff that ordained people do, like preach, or that married people do, like share a bank account, but you don’t get to do this until you join the club. And all too readily, people seek marriage and ordination precisely for these purposes.
For me, there is a distinction between behaviors being limited based upon reasoned action and based upon privilege. While it can look same on the surface, there is a world of difference. Sex in a (opposite-sex) marriage entails a whole host of realities that have implications for people’s physical health, the status of their relationship, the possibility of bringing a new life into this world, etc., etc. One should be able to take on the responsibility that comes with engaging in a sexual relationship. Likewise ordination. Getting involved in a person’s marriage can have lifelong relational and spiritual implications; one should be able to take healthily take on the responsibility that comes with performing weddings. Thus, marriage and ordination are seen closer to “credentials” that one can take the responsibility to live life in a specific way. In this case, one is “credentialed” in that one is recognized as being able to do what the way of life of an ordained or married person entails: the responsibility you have to another person.
This leads me to my point. Rather than seeing marriage and ordination as about some status that conveys privilege, rather, it is about a commitment to a specific way of life one has been recognized that one is ready for.
I mean something specific about “way of life” though. Pierre Hadot describes the “way of life” in books Philosophy as a Way of Life. In referring to the philosophy of the Hellenistic and Roman eras as being concerned about a specific way of life based upon a passage in Philo of Alexandria, he describes it as “[the way of life] means that philosophy was a mode of existing-in-the-world, which had to be practiced at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life.” Philosophers as lovers of wisdom were engaged in a specific way in which they directed their lives in order to accomplish the goal of being wise. What they did in the world around them, moment to moment, was critical for what it means to be in pursuit of wisdom.
If the concept of a “way of life” is applicable outside of the pursuit of wisdom, then I would offer the following: a way of life is a specific way in which one intentionally engages in the events and circumstances of one’s life in order to achieve a specific purpose one has set out for oneself. A “way of life” is not simply a set of habits and routines we have but it is a way of engaging one’s life based upon the purposes one is set out for that would not otherwise be obtainable except the way one is formed through one’s actions. A way of life is an intentional engagement that is necessary in order to live in such a way as to attain specific purposes. Thus, ways of life are defined by three primary characteristics: intentional action, committed purpose, and personal transformation.
What is important in ways of life is that the accomplishment of the purpose is tied to HOW intentional action leads to personal transformation. It isn’t simply a utilitarian type thinking of “if I do X, I accomplish my goal Y.” Rather, it works more along the lines of “if I do X, A, B…, I will be transformed in such a way that I can then accomplish my purpose Y.” There is a goal that mediates one’s actions and the accomplishment of one’s purposes. My actions can not accomplish the purpose itself, but it can form who I am in such a way that I am capable of achieving a purpose. Simply being goal-oriented action isn’t a way of life. Rather, a way of life is goal-oriented towards a specific type of personal change that will then accomplish a wider array of purposes one has committed themselves to.
Furthermore, it is important to recognize that the way in which our actions change us is not reducible to solely our intention to change. We are changed based upon the entirety of our experience, not just the intentions we have in the moment. As a result, not all intentional actions will accomplish the type of transformation we want to receive, but intentional actions must occur in the necessary contexts. For instance, if I want to be able to be strong enough so as to easily carry something that weighs 300 pounds, my intention to be physically changed through lift 10 pounds dumbbells every day isn’t going to get me there. The existence of a specific intention is not enough, but that what I am doing must impact me in such a way as to create a change. Intention alone does not determine the nature of the change and transformation, but rather intention directs us towards certain experiences, some of which are able to change us in the ways we are seeking to then accomplish our purposes.
This is important because intentional actions are not readily transferable to any context. You can not live a certain way of life in whatever manner you wish to accomplish your purpose. Rather, there are specific things and ways one must participate in life that determine the way you are changed to accomplish your purpose. I can’t be able to bench press 300 pounds if I simply lift weights with my legs. I won’t be a Biblical scholar if I only read philosophy. Having an intention, transformation goal, and purpose is not enough. When, where, and how one’s intentional action is directed is a fourth part of the way of life. It is the one part of the way of life that we have no real control over; we can control to some degree when and how we act, but we don’t control if the time and place we act is going to accomplish the transformational goal.
This provides a basis upon which the traditional view of marriage and ordination can be coherent with the wider sweep of Scriptures without being deeply inconsistent: marriage and ordination are about ways of life in which people intentionally act in specific ways to be transformed in such a way that they accomplish certain purposes that they commit themselves to in their life. While one can choose to commit one’s life to a person of the same sex and have sex with them, it will have not the same impact on the person as it will if it was with a member of the opposite sex. While one can choose to preach, perform weddings, etc., it will have a different impact depending on the type of person you are when you do those things.
At stake here in the idea of the “way of life” isn’t the idea of a restriction from an exclusive privilege. One can choose to act in a different manner from the traditional views on sex and ordination. But that doesn’t mean the impact will be the same. Who you have sex with impacts what type of person you will become. What type of person you are will impact the way in which you will fill in the role of ordained minister. Within a specific community, it may be deemed important that for a person to be considered married or ordained, one must be living a such a way that one will be changed in such a way as to accomplish the specific purposes that marriage and ordination are seen to have.
Biblically speaking, there is such precedent. Regarding marriage: in Genesis 1, the fertility of humanity is connected to the divinely bestow purpose for humanity to manage and tend life. Also, speaking to whether people should get married or not, Paul’s direction can be summarized by what he says in 1 Corinthians 7.17: “let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you.” Then soon afterward in 1 Corinthians 7.32-35, Paul highlights the way of life that married people have, suggesting there is a good reason to go unmarried if one can live that sort of life because one can be focused on what God wants. However, he is clear that marriage is not a sin, but rather that it is a way of life that is not as flexible (although, one can surmise that Paul would agree that the focus on the interests of one’s spouse is *part* of what God wants from someone who is married).
Regarding ordination: while there isn’t the concept of ordination as we have it today in the Bible, there are passages that talk about commitment to service to God. One of the salient concepts is the idea of being a servant of God. In 1 Corinthians 4.1, Paul tells the Corinthians to consider him a “servant of Christ.” He then precedes to describe the experiences of his life in vs. 9-13:
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.
Notice specifically that Paul as a servant/apostle speaks about the type of behavior they engage in under certain circumstances. They engage in the behavior that is the opposite of the intentions of their enemies. Enemies seek to tear down, Paul engages in an action to build up. Enemies seek to put an end to Paul, Paul seeks to continue to move onward. Paul’s role as an apostle and a servant of Christ means he engages in a specific way of living. So, he can say in 2 Corinthians 4.8-12:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
Here, we see that Paul’s engaged in specific contexts (although, he doesn’t mention his intentional actions in response) of trial has a specific goal: through these struggles, the life of Jesus will be visible in him. This came right after he spoke of the transformation into the image of Jesus Christ that in 3.12-4.6. Having the life of Jesus visible in him is the transformation that Paul’s way of life as a servant of Christ creates. But the transformation isn’t Paul’s purpose as a servant, but rather, it is outlined in 2 Corinthians 5.16-21:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;b even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,c we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,d not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Paul’s purpose as a servant is to serve as an ambassador of God’s reconciliation. The transformation of Paul’s life into the image of Christ, which he speaks of here in “becom[ing] the righteousness of God,” is the basis upon which (“for”) Paul can appeal to the Corinthians to be reconciled. Because the life of Christ has been formed into Paul, Paul’s own speech reflects that of God so that he can adequately speak on God’s behalf as a representative/ambassador.
So, from principally looking at the Pauline literature (with a bit of Genesis), I hope to have shown that as the concept of a “way of life” is suitable for a Christian understanding of both of marriage and of ordination, if understood as a specific type of service to the Lord. Since the “way of life” that Hadot mentions was characteristic of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, it is reasonable to think that Paul construes the Christian life and journey through the understanding of specific ways of life.
Although to be clear, Paul and the other writers of the New Testament do not designate a single way of life. Singleness is considered a legitimate way of life. Paul does not expect everyone to become apostles. But to explore the possibility of plural ways of life and what that looks like is beyond the scope of this post. My hope is that you can see that there is a different way we can look at marriage and ordination that remains true to the Scriptures but does not work according to the standard line of thinking that ultimately sees marriage and ordination as privileged statuses.
But, to be clear, if all you do were to throw the label “way of life” onto marriage and ordination and then leave it at that, your labeling wouldn’t change the reality that we treat them as status with privileges that people would then see excluding specific people from. The way we as Christians seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures need to change how we talk and think about marriage and ordination, in how we instruct others about it, and so on. Taking on a “way of life” view will entail a change of behavior and other forms of speech and instruction in discipleship.
This will means that we have to become very conscious about why we are different from the culture in how we understanding certain matters and to own that difference honestly, but without aggression towards and compulsion upon others. Because, in the end, the Church will effectively witness to the world as we ourselves engage in the way of life such that Jesus is exhibited in us so that we can bring a godly appeal to others. We don’t compel, we don’t force, we don’t cast away; we show by the transformation in Jesus Christ that the Spirit brings in us through our way of life.