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In May of 2019—pre-pandemic and so what seems like a whole world ago—I wrote a blog here on The Twelve about a key issue that was in front of the Christian Reformed synodical study committee on human sexuality: should a stance/teaching on same-sex activity (and related matters) be elevated to a confessional issue (sometimes referred to as a status confessionis)? At that time the study committee had just issued an interim report for the Christian Reformed Synod 2019 but the interim report clearly indicated that they had not yet made any conclusions on this matter of confessional status.*
After the full report came out in the Fall of 2020, however, the committee obviously had gotten around to that sticky wicket. But their conclusion seemed oddly startling to some. In a sense the study committee ducked making a determination. They concluded they did not need to offer a new “Yes” that teaching on sexual matters now had confessional status nor did they need to say “No” that they had determined this did not rise to that level. Instead the report states, “As a committee, we conclude, therefore, that the church’s teaching on premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status. As such, there is no need for a new declaration” (emphasis in original).
What led to this conclusion? According to the report it is in large part because in its explication of the seventh commandment against adultery, The Heidelberg Catechism specifically mentions “unchastity” and this surely includes homosexuality and all the other items covered in the report. The committee also indicates it is sure one of the Catechism’s authors, Ursinus, had same-sex activity in mind because in his commentary on the Catechism, he says as much. (Ursinus’s commentary does not have confessional status but I will let historians ponder how much heft Ursinus should get on this point.)
Near as I can tell, this is the primary point of the study committee’s rationale as related to the Confessions (though they bring in several biblical texts as well). “Unchastity” is mentioned in the Catechism as a violation of God’s Law and therefore needs to elicit stern warnings and formal church discipline because this area of sin clearly endangers a person’s very salvation and their membership in the kingdom of God. In fact, failure to warn people about these matters would reveal that a given congregation or denomination is “a false church.” (Any questions?)
But, of course, Q&A 108 on the seventh commandment is in the third part of the Catechism where all of the Ten Commandments are explicated. So what do we see if we look at how the Catechism deals with some of the other commandments? One thing we see is that the Catechism’s language on certain other sins is actually more extreme than for matters of unchastity.
Q&A 112 on the ninth commandment says that the injunction not to bear false witness includes gossip, slander, and twisting someone’s words and then says that these actions can “call down on me God’s intense wrath” because this is borders on being demonic-like activity. Instead we must do all we can to guard and advance the good name of our neighbors. This is the starkest language in the Catechism save for Q&A 100 on blasphemy where we are told that “no sin is greater” and that God’s wrath will get poured onto us if we engage in it.
The Catechism’s explication of other commandments reveals that the law against murder includes insulting someone, belittling someone, having envy and a spirit of vindictiveness. We are instead to protect our neighbor from all harm as much as we can. The eighth commandment on not stealing includes charging excessive interest, fraud, greed, and a pointless squandering of gifts.
By the logic of the study committee, don’t we have to say that these matters also already have confessional status? Especially a commandment whose violation brings down God’s intense wrath ought to get our confessional attention and become a cause for serious church discipline, dire spiritual warnings, and possibly a banning of those guilty of such activity from the church’s fellowship and sacraments.
Yet no one in the history of the CRCNA has ever asked that we elevate to confessional status these matters. Only sexual matters. And if sexual matters bring down upon a person the full weight of the church’s confessions and all its authority to warn and discipline and possibly excommunicate, why don’t these other matters? From my observation, there are not a few Christian folks on social media who may be in serious danger of God’s wrath for insulting, belittling, twisting people’s words, re-posting outright lies and a whole lot of other ugly things (and I confess to having made my own mistakes in this regard). Should church councils start to monitor the social media feeds of its members (and then take action accordingly)?
Or what about protecting our neighbors from harm as much as we can? Some Christians have been among those leading the way in protesting the wearing of masks anywhere but most especially in worship. An argument can be made that masking is an act of neighbor love. But as I wrote here a couple months ago, pastors have had the stuffing kicked out of them by church members for the pastor’s wearing a mask at church. Could we not suggest these anti-maskers are liable to the wrath of God and formal discipline for this wanton endangerment of their neighbors instead of protecting them from harm as best they can?
I am posing all this rhetorically. We know the answers. Few churches are going to crack down on greed. Few are going to commission someone to define what the Catechism means by a “pointless squandering of gifts” and then start to apply that calculus to the spending habits of its members. Few are going to fret injurious and unkind and brutal and untrue posts on social media by churchgoers.
All these matters apparently have confessional status and lots of biblical backing by the logic of the study committee. And, of course, we should take all such matters seriously. But we should also ask how we deal with our mutual entanglement in many sins and sinful patterns of living and then wonder why we think we need to treat a same-sex attracted person or a same-sex couple in a committed relationship as somehow a whole lot closer to the wrath of God than others whose violations of these “confessional” matters are no less real but largely unnoticed and unaddressed if not outright excused.
* Church order experts note that there is a distinction between status confessionis and its apparent English translation as “confessional status.” The two terms have been used interchangeably but there is a technical distinction. If a church’s teaching is found to be at variance with the confessions—as when South African churches affirmed apartheid—then a status confessionis is declared and the church is called to bring itself into alignment with the confessions. The term “confessional status” appears to mean that a certain issue (or teaching on that issue) is on the same level as adherence to the Confessions and so must be treated as bearing that kind of weight. It is possible that both terms could apply to the same situation: a church whose teaching is at variance with the Confessions would be in a status confessionis and that may be the case because the teaching at hand has itself been declared to have a similar heft to all Confessional teachings. But these nuances are not dealt with in the Study Committee report, and in this blog I am mainly talking about “confessional status” in terms of what we deem to have the heft of a confessional teaching. My thanks to colleague Kathy Smith for showing me this distinction.