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For some of us it is the proverbial Yogi Berra “Déjà vu all over again” moment. As the Christian Reformed Church approaches the COVID-delayed discussion on the Human Sexuality Report (HSR) this coming June at Synod, those of us with slight or significant reservations about the report are hearing an old familiar accusation: “You have no respect for the authority of Scripture.”
A colleague involved with the report recently said at a public event that those in disagreement with the HSR seem to have “little interest” in discussing the Bible, that they seem to “not care” about the Bible, and that although they may still try to claim the Reformation position of sola scriptura, they obviously don’t really mean it. Meanwhile on Facebook a ministry colleague recently posted that in these matters the very future of the CRCNA is at stake but that the real issue finally has nothing to do with human sexuality so much as whether we believe that the Bible is “authoritative, clear, and sufficient.” (This colleague and I had a subsequent exchange that I think was fruitful for both of us, and some of what follows are reflections this sparked in me.)
By way of a few caveats let me say that there can be no doubting there are issues that involve the central authority of Scripture. It is shooting fish in a barrel to come up with a list of beliefs and doctrines that clearly stem from the Bible alone such that disagreeing with such matters would require a repudiation of Scripture by way of doubting whether the Bible really gets it right a lot of the time. I am not denying for a moment that boundaries exist and that in terms of the Bible, some ideas all but require putting a lot of daylight between a given notion and the teachings of Scripture in ways that toss out biblical authority.
Let me also stipulate that it is possible that some or all of the issues addressed in the HSR rise to this level. It goes without saying that I would not be writing this blog were it not for the fact that many are already saying this (as reflected in the comments by two colleagues summarized above). A key question with which to wrestle, therefore, is whether or not that is the case, and I have no delusions that I can definitively answer that question at this moment in time. Neither would I for one moment even hint at the idea that those who may have contrary or somewhat different ideas on these issues from my own thoughts are themselves not taking the Bible seriously and with due respect for its authority.
But this is a generous extension of trust that is not being proffered in the other direction, at least not by some.* But here is where the “déjà vu all over again” part comes in for me. Many of us have been here before. In the mid-1980s when I concluded that women could serve in all the offices of the church, many assured me I was violating Scripture and thereby demonstrating my lack of respect for Scriptural authority. Endorse women in office today and tomorrow you doubt the divinity of Christ.
Over the years this has also happened to me and to others in the area of faith and science. A decade ago when Calvin Seminary had a Templeton grant to develop and curate resources in the area of faith and science, not a few people noticed we provided materials that supported an old earth view and theistic evolution. Those who embrace a Young Earth Creationist standpoint that includes a belief of an earth of not more than 6,000-10,000 years of age started sending us emails and letters. And the leitmotif of all of them was the same: you are no longer respecting the clear teachings of the Bible and demonstrate thereby that you have abandoned the authority of Scripture. Endorse an ancient earth today and tomorrow you will deny Christ’s resurrection.
Of course it is possible to arrive at positions supporting women in church office or theistic evolution in a manner that does backhand Scripture on these matters. And I am sure there are some advocating for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church that do the same: forget what the Bible says, we will do what we believe is right in our hearts.
One can find an example of almost anything out there in the wider church. But that by no means signals that this approach is the only way to arrive at positions some find disagreeable or are certain cannot possibly be the true teaching of the Bible. People with equal ardor for the Bible and its authority can and do arrive at opposing positions sometimes.
Naturally some claim that the issues in the HSR are different than these other matters I have raised. This is not the same as women in church office or how old the universe is or what the Bible has to say about either of those matters. That’s probably true. Any given issue involves different aspects of hermeneutics as well as both how certain texts are interpreted and how those same texts get applied to the actual practice of the church. Issues involved in the HSR are different than women in office, and women in church office in turn is a different kettle of biblical fish than discerning what the Bible does or does not say about the age of the universe or the manner of its creation. Fair enough.
But what is similar across all of these is the method of impugning the character and spirit of opponents through recourse to the old accusation, “You think that way because you disrespect the clear authority of the Bible.” But it’s not true and so is not “fair enough” to allege. As I wrote recently in The Reformed Journal, the CRCNA did not arrive at a new position on divorce and remarriage in 1980 by disrespecting the authority of Scripture. What the Bible said clearly and consistently and compellingly on such matters was dealt with very seriously. The precise application of all that pastorally and in a broken world led to some new ideas but not because the Bible was tossed onto the dustbin of history.
Accusing someone of abandoning the authority of the Bible strikes me as a grave accusation in a confessional tradition like the CRCNA. I plead with my sisters and brothers in Christ: do not lodge that accusation lightly.
*= Let me say that I also do not care for the ungenerous accusation that those in support of the HSR are failing to love others as Christ said we must. That is also an unfair accusation too often made in the abstract.