A Review of “Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality”

by Rod Groom

Dr. Bill T. Arnold is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, and author of twelve books. Dr. Arnold is an elder in the United Methodist Church, and has been a delegate to two General Conferences.

He admits to having somewhat narrow research interests. However, on his way to the last General Conference in Tampa, he decided to read something a little more directly related to the questions facing our denomination. He chose Adam Hamilton’s Seeing Gray in A World of Black and White (Nashville, Tn.: Abingdon Press 2008). He knows Hamilton and respects his great work as a pastoral leader in the United Methodist Church. He also knew that he and Hamilton disagreed on the issues of human sexuality facing the church.

He admires Hamilton’s seeking a “third way” through many of the controversies confronting the church, but was surprised and disappointed “by the number of unsupported assumptions, errors of reasoning, and flawed arguments running throughout the book” (Kindle Locations 137-139). His goal in this book is not to just pick apart Hamilton’s work, but to examine similar arguments made by others in the current debates. As Dr. Arnold’s subtitle tells us, he is advocating for clear, theological reasoning in these issues. These controversies are not easy ones to resolve, and we must look at all the pros and cons in a clear fashion. The stakes are very high.

Dr. Arnold gives us much food for thought, and impressed me with concise and compassionate analysis throughout. So much so, that this book has become for me a practical handbook for reviewing many of the salient points about which many of us disagree today.

As a rough summary of some of his points: We sometimes seek to see gray that is really not there. The options given of either being a Jerry Falwell or a Bishop Spong are extreme and unhelpful, when so many other options are available. In some cases, options are being presented which are of different orders of things, and really not relevant except to manipulate the conclusion. The suggestion that we are approaching a fork in the road may not be true, a middle way may not be possible, and would not necessarily represent progress for the church. Arnold has much more to say, and his analyses show there are many unwarranted assumptions continually relied upon to swerve opinions that are not helpful in supporting or reforming the church, let alone in making disciples for Jesus Christ.

The one overriding observation Dr. Arnold makes that sticks with me very strongly is that the United Methodist Church in its history, doctrine, debates and in its Book of Discipline as presently constituted IS “the third way” in most of the controversies. We have already found the compromise as much as we possibly can in human sexuality, in our stances on abortion, as well, perhaps, in other areas. I already knew this, but forgot. As Arnold reminded me, if you have two points in opposition, and you find a middle road between the two of them, it doesn’t mean the opposition will end. For example, in my thinking, if your position is represented by the number 0, and mine by the number 10, we can compromise on the middle ground of 5. You can then protest and argue and try to demonstrate that 5 is still unfair. So then we agree on a middle ground of 2.5. And then 1.25? 0.625? Perhaps 0.3125? Oh, the heck with it—just make it a 0 already! Okay. Okay? Sooner or later, we have to agree to disagree and be done with it. However, we cannot enshrine that in our official policy or we are throwing out the baby with the bath water. My opinion, anyway.

In the final analysis, we must return to theological reasoning. As Dr. Arnold says in his last chapter,

The church doesn’t exist to find more gray, but rather to study and understand more profoundly the black-and-white truths of God’s revelation… [It’s not that there is] too much black and white, but not enough. What we really need is less gray, not more. (Kindle locations 1816-1817 and 1874-1875.)

Read this book. Every time you are confronted with a discussion or argument to change the Scripturally-based, time-honored, and clearly developed principles of our Discipline, think of Dr. Arnold, think theologically, and ask yourself if this will indeed help to spread the Good News and to win souls for Jesus.

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