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By June 27, 2016 10 Comments

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.

smedesAll 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?


  • art jongsma says:

    This is certainly a step in the Godly direction of grace.

  • Amory Jewett says:

    Thank you for this, Jim Brownson. I know in my heart that God’s grace and love is bigger and more encompassing than any of us can think or imagine. Why else would he send us his blessed Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?

  • Tim says:

    2 Timothy 4:3

    “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

    Yes, divorce is a sin, except in cases of spousal infidelity. There is a difference between having committed one sexual sin and celebrating a lifestyle predicated on sexual sin. It is possible to repent of sin, of course, but the gay lifestyle by necessity does not acknowledge it as such.

    Generally speaking, if you have to write long articles explaining why the thing you want to do or approve isn’t a sin, despite clear teachings and historical understandings to the contrary, you are engaged in self-deception. God equipped us with a simple, elegant understanding of right and wrong. Sophisticated reasoning isn’t required to know right from wrong.

    My gut on this is that many Christians want to appease the world by affirming homosexuality. But remember that friendship with the world is enmity with God, and Jesus promised that Christians would be hated of the whole world for his name.

    Think about the position you are taking and why you are taking it. I will never be your judge, but God’s criteria in the Bible are clear and this, I believe, is a step towards false doctrine.

    • We are dealing with a plethora of complicated issues here. So I appreciate the thoughts of those such as Jim who take the time to think more deeply. There is a simplicity here too, as you point out. But that simplicity is this: love.

      Love first, figure out all the complexities later.

      Consider the first century debates about circumcision. The church did not settle for your attitudes. They did not say “Well, Scripture is clear, you must be circumcised to be a Christian”. No, they wrestled with the many issues. They respected the conscience of those who demanded circumcision to be Chrisitain.

      Why are some like Mr. Brownson taking the time to think so carefully? It is because they love people like you, Tim. We who affirm same sex marriage do so with a clean conscience because we are standing on grace. And we are taking so much time to explain these things, not for the sake of our gender and sexual minority friends and family so much, but for your sake. So that perhaps you might find an ounce of grace to love those we love.

  • Amory Jewett says:

    Dear Tim, Sir you are proof-texting by picking out one verse (2 Tim 4:3) to prove your argument. This is unacceptable to authentic biblical scholarship today. Therefore, your argument has no foundation.Things are not as simple as you propose. The context of the verse in the chapter and book or letter must be considered. I Timothy, taken with II Timothy, is addressing gnosticism or false teaching in that time and place. The false teachers of Timothy’s time…”seem to have gnostcizing tendencies (I Tim 6:20) that are reflected in their belief in a spiritual, and therefore already accomplished, resurrection. (2 Tim 2:18) and in their rejection of marriage (I Tim 4:3). Source: The Harper Collins Study Bible, Fully Revised and Updated, NRSV, General Editor, Revised Edition Harold W. Attridge, Harper Collins Publishers, copyright 2006, p. 2016 under section entitled “Occasion.”

    I am also disturbed by the lack of respect toward Professor Jim Brownson that you demonstrate in your comment. Jim Brownson is a very accomplished scholar and Professor of New Testament Greek at Western Theological Seminary. Do you presume to know more than he does?

  • Sue says:

    Thank you, Jim, for such a respectful and loving entry. It is a topic which, no matter what one’s thoughts/opinions/conclusions are on the topic, it often evokes strong emotions. You shared your thoughts and questions with dignity and grace.

  • David Vandervelde says:

    Jim, with respect, I am troubled by one of your opening statements: “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.”

    There is so much us vs. them rhetoric being thrown around; your statement can lead to fuel that further. And, its simply not true. GS did not adopt and send for ratification “efforts to exclude form its fellowship.” It adopted and sent for ratification efforts to /define/ its fellowship (through conditional change). One may question the relative wisdom of seeking conditional change in this way, but to argue it as a wholesale effort toward exclusion from its fellowship is unhelpful.


    David Vandervelde

    • Amory Jewett says:

      David, Sir, let’s be honest about exactly what the RCA General Synod has sent to the classes for ratification. A definition of marriage that states that marriage is between one man and one woman absolutely excludes the possibility that, in our Lord God’s sight and in his grace, there is the possibility that our God would permit and bless a marriage between two members of the same sex. The action by the General Synod, if ratified by the classes, would become part of the RCA Book of Church Order. I would much rather err on the side of God’s overwhelming grace and incredibly great love expressed in his Son, our blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, than to grievously err on the side of the law.

    • jimbrownson says:

      Fair enough, David. I was trying to summarize for those who don’t know the BCO, but I admittedly lost some nuances in the process. I’ll grant you that it was not the intent of all who supported these measures to exclude folks on the other side from membership (though that will almost certainly be the result for some on the other side at least). I agree we don’t need more polarizing than we already have!

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