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by Jim Brownson
Brian Keepers is off today. We welcome guest-blogger, Jim Brownson. Jim teaches New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and is a General Synod Professor of Theology of the Reformed Church in America. Thanks, Jim!
I want to invite my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, to think carefully about some of the proposals it adopted at its recent General Synod. It adopted and sent to the church for ratification two different efforts to exclude from its fellowship those who believe that same-sex marriage can be a legitimate Christian practice.
Their concern was, I believe, twofold. First, they were probably worried about the recent decision of the United States Supreme court, legalizing gay marriage. In this context, they may have been concerned that, if the church doesn’t go on record officially opposing gay marriage, they wouldn’t have a legal defense if they were challenged in court for refusing to marry gay or lesbian couples. (I have serious doubts about whether this worry is legitimate, but that’s another discussion.) Secondly, they clearly felt that faithfulness to their position on this issue should define the boundaries of the true church, and that one cannot be a faithful member of the Reformed Church in America if one disagrees with their conclusions.
There are lots of different issues at stake here, but I want to explore only one of them in this reflection. It has to do, not with the church solemnizing weddings for gay or lesbian people; rather it concerns how the church will respond to married gay or lesbian couples who want to be, or are already part of a local congregation of the Reformed Church in America. Even if our denomination is going to refuse to perform gay weddings, we still must wrestle with how we will respond to married gay people whom we encounter, who are interested in our life as a church. So let’s consider a congregation in the Reformed Church in America with which I am familiar. A gay couple, together 25 years, and married a couple of years ago, are long-term contributing members of this church. What does faithfulness to the Reformed Church in America mean for this couple and this congregation?
I suspect that the folks who advocated for the changes in church order that were recently proposed would say that this is not a legitimate marriage (since marriage is defined as between one man and one woman). Therefore, their “marital” relationship is in reality a fraud, and they are simply living in sin, regardless of any expressions of mutual care and fruit of the Spirit they might exhibit in their lives. The path to holiness requires abandonment of this relationship of 25 years, or at least the sexual dimension of that relationship. The only possible resolution of this tension is that they may live together, it would be argued, only if they both commit themselves to no form of intimacy together.
All this is eerily reminiscent of an article written by an evangelical and Reformed theologian by the name of Lewis Smedes, published in Perspectives back in 1999, called “Like the Wideness of the Sea.” In that article, Smedes talks about his own experience in the Christian Reformed Church in the 1950’s. At that time, this denomination was wrestling with its policy of excommunicating heterosexual couples who had been divorced and remarried, based on Jesus’ words in Mark 10:11: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another she [also] commits adultery.” At that time in that denomination, the only way that a divorced-and-remarried person could be readmitted to the Lord’s Table was if he or she divorced their second spouse, and either remarried the first spouse, or lived in celibacy. This approach was understood to be the only way to be faithful to the explicit teaching of Jesus against divorce.
Later, of course, the Christian Reformed Church modified this policy, convinced that it was too legalistic and lacking in grace. The Christian Reformed Church continues to believe that divorce is not God’s intention for marriage, but the church also came to recognize that those who fell short of that divine intention needed to be treated with grace, and that their faithful love could find a place in the church. Of course, in such cases, one might still have reservations about such persons being nominated to leadership offices in the church, but the agreement was that they should be allowed to become members in full communion, based on the judgment of the local consistory, while also leaving the leadership question up to local churches.
Smedes suggests that this might be a model for those concerned about gay and lesbian relationships. He argues that one might not even need to say that God originally intended for these LGBT relationships to exist. He declares, “I have not found quite the right word for it, but it seems to me that homosexuality is a burden that some of God’s children are called on to bear, an anomaly, nature gone awry.” (p. 12) He does not challenge here a divine heterosexual purpose for marriage between one man and one woman. Yet in the name of grace and mercy, he argues that the church should recognize and affirm committed and covenantal LGBT relationships, as expressions of the accommodating grace of God. They may not be ideal, but they should be allowed, particularly where such relationships show other signs of God’s grace and presence.
I am not saying that Smedes offers us the last word on this topic. But I am inviting those who may favor the recent actions of the General Synod of the RCA to think about what it means to be a church that proclaims not only God’s law, but also God’s grace. What does that mean, with respect to working with people where they are, even if that location is not where you believe God ideally wants them to be, particularly in a context like ours in North America, where the culture is in a very different place from the stated position of the church? Have we learned anything from previous deliberations about heterosexual divorce and remarriage that might help us here?