NEW YORK (AP)--The 992 delegates in Cleveland for the United Methodist Church's most important gathering brought with them 1,900 legislative proposals in their bulging briefcases. But only one agenda topic has potential to split their denomination: homosexuality.

Conflicting views of the Bible were at the root of the dispute that came to a head Thursday the 10-day UMC General Conference. And that is equally true in the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose assemblies will revisit the debate in early summer; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is just entering the fray; and the United Church of Christ, which has moved to a liberal policy.

Christianity from its earliest days preserved Judaism's sexual ethic, including an aversion to same-sex practices. In March, Reform Judaism severed its last ties to that tradition when movement rabbis voted to allow colleagues to officiate at same-sex unions. America's relatively liberal group of mainline Protestant denominations has faced repeated proposals for change over the past three decades, backed by growing numbers of seminary professors.

In the intense biblical debate, two passages are crucial:

  • "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22, repeated in Leviticus 20:13 with the death penalty added).

  • "God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men...." (Romans 1:26-27).
  • The Leviticus passage is part of what scholars call the Old Testament "Holiness Code."

    Phyllis Bird of the Methodists' Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary says the passage expresses ancient concepts of male honor, ritual purity, and Jewish exclusivity that don't apply to modern America.

    Writing in the new anthology "Homosexuality, Science, and the 'Plain Sense' of Scripture" (Eerdmans), she also contends the text has no implications for lesbians. In February, Bird testified at a Methodist hearing that acquitted 68 California clergy who jointly led nuptials for a lesbian couple.

    Yet the same Leviticus passage forbids practices--adultery, incest, sex with animals--that Christians still want to oppose, notes Richard B. Hays of Methodist-related Duke University Divinity School.

    Nonetheless, he agrees in "The Moral Vision of the New Testament" (HarperSanFrancisco) that the Leviticus texts don't necessarily settle matters because the church has always disregarded Old Testament laws on, for instance, maintaining a kosher diet and circumcision.

    So the Romans text, part of Paul's sweeping analysis of sin and salvation, becomes central.

    Victor Paul Furnish of Southern Methodist University provides a modern reinterpretation in another new anthology, "The Loyal Opposition" (Abingdon), which was mailed to all Methodist delegates.

    Furnish thinks Paul simply followed Jewish attitudes in a time when Gentiles often practiced pederasty and gay prostitution, and people held ideas about sexual "nature" that modern research disputes.

    Liberals argue that Paul in Romans opposed only same-sex activity by those who were naturally heterosexual. Hays finds that simply untenable. Paul "treats all homosexual activity as prima facie evidence of humanity's tragic confusion and alienation from God the Creator," he asserts.

    What about Sodom, the famously sinful Old Testament city that gave its name to "sodomy"? Liberals say the sordid story (Genesis 19:1-29) described attempted gang rape, not consensual sex, and note that Ezekiel 16:49 identified Sodom's sins as pride and hardheartedness toward the poor.

    But the following verse in Ezekiel denounces Sodom's "abominable things." Thomas Schmidt of California's Westmont College writes in "Straight & Narrow?" (InterVarsity) that it is a term given a sexual connotation elsewhere in the same chapter of Ezekiel. He also points to the New Testament's Jude 7, which condemns Sodom's "unnatural lust."

    Liberal and conserative scholars disagree on how to interpret two Greek terms used in New Testament lists of sins (1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10). The ecumenical New Revised Standard Version translates the terms as "male prostitutes" and "sodomites" while the Catholic New American Bible uses "boy prostitutes" and "practicing homosexuals."

    Yet another liberal argument is that Jesus said nothing against homosexuality. But in "Same-Sex Partnerships?" (Revell), which conservatives sent to Methodist delegates, Anglican John Stott argues that Jesus (Matthew 19:4-6, Mark 10:6-9) endorsed the Bible's broader teaching, beginning with Genesis 2, that man-woman monogamy is God's only design for sexual expression.

    The Bible advocates compassion, inclusiveness, and justice, and this wider context must figure in analysis of the issue, says Jeanne Knepper, a leader of Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Concerns.

    "Scripture passages are not going to settle this issue for the contemporary church," says Paul Jersild of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., in a current denominational study guide. He thinks the church must accept "new realities" instead of being "bound in literal fashion to the text."

    Bird is more sweeping, contending that "we cannot get a ready-made sexual ethic or even an adequate foundation for it from the Bible." She thinks the culturally bound thinking of ancient Jewish writers must give way to "the ongoing revelation of science" and modern experience.

    That approach alarms traditionalists. Robert Gagnon of the Presbyterians' Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, author of the forthcoming "The Bible and Homosexual Practice" (Abingdon), believes acceptance of gay practice "would have an enormously detrimental effect" because the Bible's stance is absolute, pervasive, and strongly held. "At stake," he says, "is the credibility of the biblical witness on any moral issue."

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