Listen To Article
Next month at its annual meeting, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church will receive an interim report from a study committee whose very name is nearly as large as its mandate: “The Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality.” The committee is submitting an interim report in part due to the fact that they were given an unusually long window in which to write their full report. Appointed in 2016, the committee is mandated to report fully in 2021.
For now they have submitted a 35-page initial report that includes first a preamble that details the church’s past (but not always compassionate) way of dealing with these issues and that apologizes to those whom the church has hurt. The church, the preamble notes, has failed sometimes by shouting too loudly and sometimes by staying too silent; through singling out certain sins and through failing to live out a vibrant witness to God’s joyful creation intention in sexual matters. This preamble is then followed by a longer section dealing with relevant biblical passages about sexuality, marriage, divorce, homosexuality, etc.
There may be much to discuss already in these first 35 pages. Indeed, Calvin Seminary hosted a Town Hall discussion on this document a couple of weeks ago and the conversation included the three Faculty members from the Seminary who are serving on the larger committee. It was a good conversation, and one hopes that this Town Hall presages more such interactions in the coming two years as the committee continues and completes its work.
What I want to focus on in this blog for the moment is the last thing mentioned in the interim report: viz., that the final section of the finished report will ponder whether or not the church’s stance on these matters should be declared a status confessionis. That is, will the church elevate its position on these matters to the level of a defense of the very core or essence of the Gospel itself? Will where one stands on various aspects of sexual practice be tantamount to fidelity to Christ such that deviations from whatever gets declared as the denomination’s stance will be reason for discipline and possibly expulsion from the community?
The committee’s consideration of this was mandated to them in response to some overtures that came to the Synod of 2016 and that asked for this matter to be declared confessional at a very basic level of Gospel fidelity. One such overture said that doing this has precedent as when the church took a stand against Arius and his views on the divinity of Christ, against Pelagius and his views on original sin, against Hitler and the Nazism he espoused, against South Africans and the Apartheid they embraced. Heretics, Nazis, Racists, and now . . .
For obvious reasons this ought to be vigorously debated on the study committee but others need to weigh in too. Personally I worry that making this a status confessionis will further fracture the church and alienate some of the very people to whom historical apologies are proffered in the interim report’s preamble. “Meanwhile, the wider community has sinned against the few. Out of fear, discomfort or self-righteousness, we have grossly mistreated persons among us who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender with mockery, derision, or harsh denunciation. These attitudes and actions have driven many brothers and sisters out of the church.”
Indeed, one of the things the church has tried to say—sincerely albeit at many junctures also rather hypocritically—is that we do not finally deem sexual sins as worse than all others. The New Testament itself not infrequently lists various sexual sins on a par with things like greed, swearing, gossip, gluttony, lying, swindling, stealing, pride, envy, and the like. Yes, there are some sexual sins that are deeply egregious and heinous, such as the sexual abuse of children and minors. And yes, adultery typically wreaks havoc in the lives of many people from the families involved, and few crimes are as horrid as rape. But physical abuse of women, drunkenness, out of control gambling, large-scale patterns of lying and deceit, a deep-seated greed, wanton gossiping: these also fracture shalom and hurt many, many people who get caught up in it all. Indeed, not a few of these actions sometimes contribute to the breakdowns of marriages and families.
In church tradition there has long been a list of the Seven Deadly Sins, one of which is Lust but it’s right up there with Anger and Avarice, Pride and Envy, Sloth and Gluttony. They can all be deadly in their own ways (and in their frequent interconnectedness). Even where sexual matters and marital matters are concerned, the church has wrestled with dealing at once seriously with the sin but also dealing compassionately with the sinners and those caught up in the larger effects of various moral breakdowns.
The Christian Reformed Church in 1980 issued a report on marriage and divorce. The current committee’s interim report quotes quite a lot from that report. There the church made it very clear that biblically speaking, there is no denying that an iron-clad case can be made for the biblical and creational ideal of marriage between a man and a woman as being permanent. Jesus’ own views on divorce and re-marriage are not that difficult to suss out. Yet that same report in the end recognized that in a broken world, divorces happen that you cannot neatly locate within the exceedingly narrow exception Jesus may have allowed for a re-marriage to take place that does not constitute abiding adultery.
In any event, despite taking a very strong stance on the intended permanence of marriage and against a culture that was/is getting altogether too lax about divorce, no one suggested that some narrow legal or moral yardstick of a status confessionis be applied to every difficult pastoral case of any given marriage, divorce, or re-marriage or to any given congregation’s handling of such situations. Yet now the possibility of doing this very thing is on the agenda for the denomination via this current study committee.
There is no doubt in my mind that this committee is taking its work with deep seriousness and that they are bathing this work in much prayer. Neither they nor the larger denomination is likely to undertake anything lightly in these areas. But on this confessional angle, I would advocate for some vigorous debate and conversation lest an already fraught and divisive matter be elevated to something even more explosive.