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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.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

13 Comments

  • Sharon A Etheridge says:

    Good topics for many to weigh in on. I am among the people that have committed some of these sins.

  • David E Timmer says:

    Traditionalists on the issue of same-sex relationships often compare this issue to the crisis within German Protestantism in 1933-34 that produced the Barmen Declaration and the Confessing Church. The present situation is accordingly called a “Bonhoeffer moment” (see Stephen Haynes’s THE BATTLE FOR BONHOEFFER for documentation). But this identification with Bonhoeffer and Barmen conceals an ironic fact. For Bonhoeffer, the issue that created a status confessionis was the church’s acceptance of the “Aryan Clause,” which excluded Christians of Jewish ancestry from the church’s ministry (and even, in an extreme version, from church membership). But today a state of confession is invoked to JUSTIFY a policy of excluding same-sex couples from full membership, including eligibility for office and the benefit of Christian marriage.

    I don’t think it is useful to speculate about what Bonhoeffer would have said or done in circumstances he never faced, But I think it is fair to point out that his own “Bonhoeffer moment” was in the cause of inclusion, not exclusion.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks for the heads up, Scott. Will there be a discussion on this interim report at Synod this year?

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Grace: I assume so as this is a submitted report and will be processed in an Advisory Committee and in some way brought to the floor for some level of discussion. But this being an interim report, it does not request anyone from the committee to be given the privilege of the floor nor are there any motions for Synod to act upon so it could be this would just be received for information without a discussion. That would seem a mistake but I am not sure what the plan will be. I am fairly certain there will be some movement to dedicate a bit of time for the committee to hear some feedback.

  • Jack Kooreman says:

    Scott, thank you for this thoughtful essay. As a Church, we are far from consensus on matters of human sexuality. I pray we stay in discussion and continue to focus on all that unites us. I share your concerns that elevating this difficult and divisive issue to 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.” It will push us away from our shared mission and I fear that it will be seen and understood as an invitation to leave the denomination.

    • Eric Nykamp says:

      I also believe that elevating this to confessional status will hasten the demise of the CRC, an imperfect denomination which I happen to love. As I see it, a denomination which cannot tolerate dissent is bound to die. As things stand from my vantage point, more and more Christians – particularly those who are younger and those who themselves are or are close to people who identify as LGBTQ do not find the traditional theological arguments to be compelling. I believe it would be in the best interests of a denomination whose very inception came from a new reading of scripture which brought about the Reformation, to be very cautious of making the error of throwing reformers out of the church.

  • Brian Kornelis says:

    Prof. Hozee you seem (rightly) to want to make the case for the parity of various sins – abuse, deceit, drunkeness along with various sexual sins. But, you are not clear, perhaps intentionally, as to whether you think homosexual sexual activity is on par with such sins. Would you please honestly answer? Do you think same sex sexual activity is condemned in Scripture along with greed, theft and idolatry? This is the unstated premise for the mere possibility of the debate you are suggesting. If you answer that homosexual sex is not clearly in the biblical list of forbidden acts then the question of “status confessionis” is a valid one. If you answer that such activity is sinful then it seems the precedent already establishes it as a “status confessionis” under a violation of the 7th commandment. Look at the Catechism’s exposition of the 10 commandments. We ought to forbid and discipline greed as a matter of confessional fidelity. You need to clarify how you think Scripture actually regards the issue of homosexual sex in relation to others sins in order raise the question of it’s confessional status. Are you willing to do so?

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Brian: Well, I am definitely not someone who goes along with the idea that same-sex attraction is a created variation on a theme, or that God “made” someone that way and so it is as much a creation norm as opposite-attracted sexuality. I know people who want me to affirm that but biblically I cannot. Same goes for divorce: if anyone wants to say it’s no big deal or that there is no biblical expectation that every marriage is supposed to be permanent, I cannot say that. The 1980 report gets that right and frankly it’s not that difficult a case to make biblically (any more than–as I say in the blog–figuring out what Jesus’ stance on divorce and remarriage is). The questions then become pastoral, as ultimately the 1980 report says as well and thus provides advice on (advice that goes well beyond a strict application of “the Bible says most every remarriage is adulterous and therefore it can never happen in the church”). But as I think was clear, my primary point in the blog yesterday was that we do not make the church’s opposition to gambling or any number of other sins a confessional matter–unless you want to say that opposition to any and every and all sin is de facto a status confessionis–so singling out one set of sins seems arbitrary and inflammatory and would send the signal (intentional or not) that THESE matters are in fact worse than all other sins present in the church at any given time and/or the way pastorally we deal with such sins and breakdowns in our communities.

  • Nick Loenen says:

    Thank you for a fine contribution, Scott. I wish both sides to the Bible’s position on same-sex relations would heed these words of Marilynne Robinson, “In the whole conversation of the Bible, there is a way of talking about things that asserts the drastic-ness of violating the will of God, and at the same time, over and over again, you find that there is a well of graciousness that overrides the prohibition.” If we fail to cling to that ‘well of graciousness’ there is no hope for any of us.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    This is so discouraging. I wonder why both the CRC and RCA are so obsessed with this issue. We share a theological tradition rooted in grace and yet we want to make the faith all about earning God’s approval by our piety, purity, and excellent behavior.

    I wonder why it has been so difficult to acknowledge what psychiatrists and psychologists have been saying for decades. Same sex attraction is a matter of people being wired differently. (I know … addiction and pedophilia, etc. can also be said to result from different wiring, but they are not the same as a mutual relationship between consenting adults). Are the scientists and helping professionals not to be trusted? Are they lying? Are the gay and lesbian people lying when they say they did not choose their orientation, but came to recognize it? (often reluctantly). It seems to me that we could resolve this “issue” relatively quickly if we saw it as a matter of difference rather than sin.

    As for making this a confessional matter … the Bible has so much more to say about money! Scripture condemns greed, abuse of the poor, inequitable distribution of resources, and multiple other sins that we see before us every day in the corporate and political realms. John Calvin and others in the Reformed tradition had quite a bit to say about these social problems, and yet the RCA and CRC are largely silent. Perhaps it is easier to go after the gay and lesbian people, who aren’t exactly flocking to our churches, than it is to risk biting the wealthy hands that feed us.

    In 10-15 years, I doubt this issue is going to matter all that much any more. The trend over the last twenty years has been to greater acceptance of same sex marriage and ordination. The RCA and CRC can continue their hard line, purist approach, but in the end, I doubt it is going to draw many new members. Certainly not many people under 30.

    As Reformed Christians, we have such powerful and meaningful theological heritage. Why not bear witness to God’s welcoming grace, the way that Scripture does?

  • Msrk says:

    As an “outsider” to the Reformed church, I can say that, at least from that position, this looks very much *not* like a preservation of the Gospel, but rather a radical departure from two millennia of Christian history and orthodoxy. There is no historical creed or confession that says anything about marriage or sexuality one way or the other. No historical confession places matters of sexuality in a level with things like the Resurrection. I’m not saying that a denomination can’t have strongly-held views on sexuality. But trying to *artificially legislate an absolutely novel addition to what we understand as the Gospel of Jesus Christ* registers to me as flat-out heresy by any definition. The reformed church can do this if it likes, of course. But at that point other denominations will need to say “nice little religion you’ve got there, but you really need to start calling it something else and cease identifying it with any historically meaningful definition of Christianity.”

  • The CRC can fight over a hundred different issues. In fact a few of us could probably sit down and with high accuracy predict what many of the new issues will be over the next decade. It’s not hard. There would be more agreement between CRC Conservatives and Progressives on THAT list than there will on any of those issues. What will happen?

    1. Conflict itself will continue to cost the church body weight it can no longer afford to lose. See David Snapper’s series http://www.christiancourier.ca/news/entry/the-ties-that-bind

    2. Both sides will be discouraged and demoralized by the status quo. Traditionalists feel they are fighting an ever losing battle. Progressives are perpetually frustrated that “their” church remains a decade behind the really right mainline churches whose script they are following. Both sides sing the “faithful not fruitful” song as both sides continue to age and shrink at the same time.

    3. The underlying issues are not the presenting ones (women-in-office, same-sex-marriage, race, polyamory, infant baptism, marriage, Donald Trump…) but competing and conflicting visions of a whole range of truly confessional issues. What the church is for? What does it mean to be a church member and what does it require of you? What is the Bible and how does it work in the world?

    Our battles may not be “confessional issues” if we imagine such things are items discussed in the 3 forms of unity of the CRC or even the new class of “contemporary testimonies”. We are indeed divided by confessional issues but we are avoiding actually dealing with them at that level because we have so little confidence that we can do so productively.

    Thriving churches thrive because they are driven by what they truly believe in and are willing to sacrifice for. Absent of this all the CRC will do is make each other miserable fighting over who gets the stuff in the divorce and who’s fault the breakup of the marriage REALLY was.

    It’s time for confessional conversations. https://paulvanderklay.me/2019/05/20/confessional-conversation-again/

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