Longtime United Methodist Church (UMC) bishop and prominent author Richard Wilke recently urged members of his denomination—currently divided about homosexuality—to “create a loving and inclusive community of faith.” In a 16-minute video posted online, Wilke speaks about his own family’s experiences and then reveals conclusions reached after his “in-depth examination of the Scriptures” on homosexuality.
Wilke, 89, served as bishop of the UMC’s Arkansas Area from 1986 until 1994, when he retired. With his late wife, Julia, he created the popular four-part Disciple Bible Study series, used by more than 3 million people worldwide during the past 35 years. The couple also founded The Richard and Julia Wilke Institute for Discipleship at Southwestern College, a Methodist-affiliated institution in Winfield, Kansas.
During Wilke’s 70 years in ministry, his position on homosexuality and the church gradually shifted. Initially, he says, he stood by the office United Methodist Church position on homosexuality, set forth in the denomination’s Book of Discipline. But after his daughter Sarah came out as a lesbian 30 years ago, he began scrutinizing Bible passages about homosexuality, something he admits he “hadn’t fully done my homework” on. “I needed to reconcile my commitment to scriptural authority with loving and accepting my daughter,” Wilke says.
Wilke Is Heartbroken Over UMC Divide
“The current divide in our United Methodist Church over homosexuality breaks my heart,” says the former bishop. “Allowing this issue to separate us seems incomprehensible.” In February, after decades of ambiguity, the denomination voted to maintain a “traditional plan” approach to homosexuality, not allowing gay clergy or same-sex weddings. Since then, upheaval has been occurring within the UMC.
In his video, posted August 19, Wilke says the UMC shouldn’t divide over what he calls a “few misunderstood passages of Scripture.” Instead, he appeals to fellow Christians to help “find a way forward to heal” and to “create a loving and inclusive community of faith.”
The bishop also expresses pride in his lesbian daughter, who has “experienced the joy of a 30-year marriage” and whose relationship has “blessed” his family. When Sarah Wilke came out to her parents at age 27, Richard Wilke says, they “were immediately at peace with knowing that her homosexuality was not a result of her upbringing.” Sarah, a lifelong church member, wasn’t a “troubled, tortured soul,” says her father. Instead, “She was happy and whole, and Julie and I believed that her sexual orientation was how God had made her.”
In his video, Wilke admits to a “lifelong ignorance about homosexuality,” saying he’d spent his ministry “dealing mostly with the uses, misuses, and abuses of sex among heterosexuals.” He hadn’t considered the “private lives” of certain church members “or even the pain that their secrets must have inflicted.”
Wilke’s Conclusions About Scripture on Homosexuality
After consulting with other families who were dealing with homosexuality, Wilke began diving into what the Bible says about the topic. Due to his “big-picture grasp of the Bible,” the bishop concludes “just how insignificant these few passages are.”
As if preparing for the inevitable criticism, Wilke adds: “How can I say anything in the Bible is insignificant? Because not all passages in the Bible were created equal. For example, the books of the Minor Prophets, such as Malachi and Obadiah, can’t be compared to the power and significance of Genesis and Exodus. There is a reason many Bibles use red letters to set Jesus’ words apart: The color highlights their importance relative to the surrounding text.”
Insisting that “context is everything,” Wilke then works his way through the Old and New Testament passages used to condemn homosexuality and gay marriage. For example, he says Sodom’s sin wasn’t homosexuality “but rather the townspeople’s violent inhospitality to strangers.”
Next, he argues that the Holiness Code set forth in Leviticus and Deuteronomy “was not intended as a universal morality” but “was peculiar to the Hebrews—and to the times.” He points out that “neither Jews nor Christians obey the Holiness Code today.”
Turning to the New Testament, Wilke maintains his emphasis on context. The Apostle Paul, he says, “was simply trying to list every sin he could think of” to show that “we are all sinners” who need God’s grace. “Paul was familiar with only two kinds of homosexual activity: when wealthy Greeks would buy young boys as slaves and sexually exploit them, and when part of the Greek-Roman world would go to male and female prostitute-priests as a form of fertility or mystery cult worship,” says Wilke. “Neither of these ancient practices, of course, has any resemblance to the loving, faithful [same-sex] relationships that I witness in my family and among our family friends.”