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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.

Scott Hoezee

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

23 Comments

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Exactly! Thank you, Scott, for stating something that should be quite obvious if we only look in the mirror.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Very helpful, Scott.

  • Jean Scott says:

    It seems to me that the CRC has often been more concerned with sexual ‘sins’ than with other sins – look at how pregnant girls had to stand up in church to confess, while other sins were dealt with quietly.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thanks Scott, the matter always seemed quite simple to me, and you hint at it without saying it in simple terms (thought it was obvious enough). The “sins” “we” commit are not brought up or are dealt with with kid gloves. The “sins” “they” commit are brought up often and come with the hammer of hell. I afraid I do this too. We all do. I wonder if it would do us ministers well to preach at least once a year with a simple question, “What ‘sins’ have we not covered in a while?”

  • Jeff Brower says:

    I wonder if “rising to the level of” confessional status is the best way to characterize it, as its not quite a hierarchical thing. Synod had previously declared that this interpretation was settled and binding with a specific application towards pastoral care. The HSC is essentially asking Synod to expand that application to include confessional status.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, and I welcome it if I am, but in our denomination something has confessional status because Synod declares that it does. It is within Synod’s authority to do so. Whether or not that will take place in 2022 is another question.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Thanks, Jeff. But I think it’s all a bit stickier than just that. Synodical decisions may be “settled and binding” but are not formally something to which officebearers must subscribe. Synodical decisions are not on the level of the Confessions (nor is Church Order). The HSR report appears to think that Synod in the past has made Confessions-level pronouncements on a particular interpretation of Q&A 108, for instance, but there is no clear evidence Synod ever did so or what standing such a decision might have if it had. Even 1973 was largely on the level of pastoral advice, not some authorizing of one (and one only) exegesis of the Catechism on any given point. If Synod’s making a decision always means it is so important as to rise to the level of the Confessions, then (as a colleague points out) that would mean EVERYTHING Synod ever did is that important and weighty vis-a-vis the Confessions. But that’s obviously not the case. Sometimes we talk about things that are “consistent” with the Confessions (and Scripture one hopes) and sometimes we talk about “issues” that have some tie-in with the Confessions (even if not specifically addressed by any Confession, like online pornography or transgenderism) but that also is a far cry from saying that a certain view on such things simply must bear the full weight of “confessional status” whether Synod ever commented on it or not. So . . . kinda complicated. The HSR on this particular point appears to be building on a foundation that does not exist.

  • Gordon says:

    While teaching a course to my 6th grade class some years ago called “ Skills for Adolescence “ we would use the illustration that if you point your finger at someone who you believe offended you look at your hand and notice that three fingers are pointing back at you. Perhaps this illustration might apply to all finger pointers out there- just sayin

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Sexual “misbehavior” is so easy to condemn in the other, and makes those who do the damning feel so wonderfully, malignantly, superior, thus helping the damnation-crowd to avoid the more embarrassing sins of greed, lying, and self-promoting prayer. When it comes to sin, “sex” it is. Thanks for this note.

  • Shoot. I was hoping for better than the old complaint: “Since Christians don’t treat X sin as seriously as they should be, we should get to treat Y sin less seriously too!”

    “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.”
    ^ Yes! Those matters already have confessional status too! And if a person is a perennial, unrepentant gossip, they should be placed under church discipline potentially all the way to excommunication.

    It is no rhetorical flourish when God declares that those who practice homosexuality shall not inherit the Kingdom of God! Yet neither is is when He declares that those who are greedy shall not inherit the Kingdom of God!

    We don’t need less accountability from our fellow pilgrims and shepherds, BUT MORE! We should be spurring each other on toward holiness in literally every area of our lives!

    All that the HC teaches on the 10 Commandments is confessional in the CRCNA. Let’s not lower those standards, but instead raise ourselves up to them!

    This will require a LOT of grace-giving as we will persistently fail at it! But when we do, we don’t throw in the towel but we repent and continue to work at living holy lives.

    The Bible forbids homosexual acts. Let’s all move past this. Recognize the clear teaching of Scripture and the Heidelberg, and begin the work of focusing on how we can discipline greed (etc.) out of the church!

    How about instead we press each other, and most importantly ourselves,

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Trevor, I don’t think my point was to treat sexual matters “less seriously” on account of doing that with other sins. My point is to look at precisely what you say: in what gracious, pastoral ways do we deal with the many layers of sinful behaviors and outlooks and so on and can we apply those approaches as equally to matters of sexuality as we do to so many other matters. You say the Bible condemns homosexual acts so that’s it and let’s move on. It’s pretty clear the Bible (and here you can quote Jesus himself) condemns getting remarried after a divorce that happened for some reason other than adultery. But the CRCNA has for over 40 years found pastoral ways–on a case by case basis–to allow this and not declare an abiding state of adultery nor the need to kick such remarried people out of the church. We don’t usually say to a divorced person, “Sorry, but you had your chance to be married and in a relationship. But your marriage ended for non-biblical reasons so you now must make peace with remaining alone and celibate because that is what God is clearly calling you to after your divorce.” Or maybe you think we should say that and if so, you do have biblical backing and dominical words at that. But if we don’t apply that standard to every occasion of brokenness or sin in our congregations, then we are being inconsistent and grace-less to bring the hammer down selectively.

      • Scott,

        Being pastoral and contextual is hard work; I can only imagine!

        But this does not give us license to ignore sin. It sounds to me like you agree that homosexual activity is a sin. I’ll admit that I’m uncertain on how you, Steve, would have pastors and elders admonish (or not?) their LGBT+ parishioners…

        Can you see, though, that even this reply is simply more of the “whataboutism” tactic?

        Homosexual activity is outside God’s intention for marriage, it is explicitly condemns, and violates the 7th Commandment. Can we not treat it as such? We must declare that firmly, because ONLY THEN can pastors begin the hard work of encouraging and guiding their LGBT+ members contextually and appropriately.

        (And if you were actually curious about divorce and not merely rhetorical… We must always strive to be as consistently Biblical as we can possibly be. If Jesus says that remarriage after an unBiblical divorce is committing adultery, then so must we, regardless of what our modern culture or the kind-hearted woman sitting in the 3rd pew would WANT to hear.)

        • Scott Hoezee says:

          If the kind-hearted woman in the third pew left her husband because he abused her and threatened also their children, then if she later found a wonderful man to marry, I am not writing her off as an adultress. And long before I got to that 3rd pew, Jesus would already be there speaking words of grace and renewal. Not because that’s what she WANTS to hear but because that’s the Gospel.

          • Scott,

            Most pastors and theologians would recognize abuse as potential grounds for Biblical divorce. John Calvin himself has the strongest words against husbands who abuse their wives and demands divorce!

            This article explains such a conclusion very well: https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/what-the-bible-teaches-about-divorce-and-remarriage/

            But here’s the point: a person’s personal opinion on this topic (whether they personally would or would not write her off as an adulteress) does nothing to change the Law of God. That’s the whole point…

            God decides.

            We submit to his decisions.

            The gospel saves sinners. The gospel saves greedy people, homosexuals, and adulteresses. But that same gospel also changes our hearts. It changes our hearts so that we want to submit to God’s commandments.

            No Christian is allowed to remain in unrepentant sin. In fact, if our right hand causes us to sin, what should we do?!

            The life that God calls his children to is a difficult life and often sounds outrageous to the old self within us! But this life, lived in harmony with God’s laws and intentions for humankind, will bring us even closer to our merciful savior!

  • Dean Van Farowe says:

    Scott, I appreciate how you level the playing field of sin, especially in regards to the Catechism. But you didn’t engage the following New Testament texts that seem to teach that sexual sins are of a different sort:

    In 1st Corinthians 6:18, Paul writes, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.”

    At the first “council” in Acts 15, James encourages the apostles to focus on just three instructions to the new Gentile converts. One of them is sexual immorality. “It is my opinion that we should not trouble the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write a letter telling them not to eat any food that is ritually unclean because it has been offered to idols; to keep themselves from sexual immorality; and not to eat any animal that has been strangled, or any blood.”

    And in 1 Thessalonians, Paul again makes sexual immorality his major focus of moral teaching, giving it more ink than any other sin. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Thanks, Dean. I suppose every sin has its own angularities but I am not sure that makes sexual sins unique. But given what we know about sexual practices in the Greco-Roman world, it is no surprise Paul and others mention it often. Then again, I was looking at Eph. 5 earlier and saw something else Paul does routinely: he yokes sexual practices to other areas of morality and makes them equally dangerous. “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” I guess my main point is that the church is inconsistent at best and though sexual sins may be of a different “sort” as you point out, I don’t know that it makes them more or less likely to rule a person out of the kingdom. These things need to be dealt with on a case by case basis.

  • Judie Zoerhof says:

    Pastor Hoezee, I am eternally grateful to you. Thank you for your knowledge and insight. And your willingness to risk the displeasure of other believers.

  • Anthony Sytsma says:

    Thanks for writing and letting people comment.

    You said – “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.”

    Wouldn’t we all say yes? If a church had a pastor that started teaching that there is nothing sinful about greed or lying, or if a church had a person who started living in a very greedy way or lying all the time, and openly told people that that is who they are and there is nothing wrong with greed or with lying, that those are outdated church teachings, what church would not give that preacher or that person dire warnings and church discipline?

    I confess I don’t fully understand the intricacies about the confessional status debate. But I think these types of sins mentioned above are so obvious that they don’t have to be explicitly spelled out in the confessions, they are obvious in our view of sin and Scripture. I have never heard of any CRC, or any church, allowing someone to be openly sinning without repentance in these ways, and openly affirming that there is nothing wrong with these sins. Maybe only some prosperity gospel churches, and we do issue dire warnings to such false churches all the time and accuse them of having a false gospel.

    Of course some sins are more complicated to detect in ourselves and others. Some sins therefore are harder to respond to with loving church discipline. Greed is harder to pin down than the clear reality of committing adultery. But it would become a very clear case if someone was living a greedy life and was openly saying that to be greedy is not sinful. We have such clear cases with regards to sexual immorality taking place right now in CRC churches.

    My view, which I’m continually learning from the African Church about, is that the CRC needs a whole lot more church discipline, not less. Church discipline is a scary sounding phrase but it is really all about us together as Christians working together to become more Christlike, to be more holy, and holding each other accountable to do so. And at times calling people back to repentance who have decided to live in unrepentant sin rather than follow Christ. Church discipline is one of the most loving things to do, and it is sacrificial love, because it potentially makes people uncomfortable or deeply offended. Do we love people enough to call them out of sin? Or will we take the easy path? If we want healthy churches, we must get back to church discipline. Before the Reformation, it was lack of church discipline that was one key reason that the churches were so unhealthy. Priests had mistresses even in the open, and they weren’t being disciplined. There was simony, and all kinds of other sins being committed with no discipline. Don’t we want to advocate for a new reformation today rather than saying that it’s hard to do church discipline consistently, so let’s just stop doing it?

  • I tried to discipline my 7 year old for lying to me last night. But he was like, “You can’t discipline me, because you haven’t disciplined my brothers and me for EVERY innstance of disobedience. It’s all or nothing, Dad. So there!”

    And I was like, “Man, he’s so right.” And then one second later I realized that his argument makes no sense.

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