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Podcasters recycle others’ podcasts as often as preachers recycle others’ sermons, but sometimes they are more honest about it. Recently Roman Mars closed his 99 Percent Invisible program with a plug for a bank-supported podcast (!) called Real Good, whose theme is creativity in business.
Featured in this segment was a Black entrepreneur in north Minneapolis, Houston White. His barbershop, says White, is the country club of his community. Customers sit side by side and discuss everything that matters to them: politics, religion, the pandemic, the police, what to do when their kids misbehave. And when his corporate board convenes – here’s the bank connection, because bank officers had recently joined them to discuss a loan application – they sit around a big table right in the middle of the barbershop. Customers can listen in, or add their thoughts, while getting a haircut.
As I listened I thought of the dramatic contrast between the way decisions are made in a Minnesota barbershop and the way the delegates to the annual Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America conducted their discussion of the long-postponed Human Sexuality Report on June 14 and 15. They met behind closed doors, a measure never adopted before for plenary sessions. No reporters or concerned church members or observers of any sort were allowed to observe. (A video recording was made available for later viewing.)
The content of the report has been discussed extensively – and lamented – in this blog. You may recall that in 1973 Synod declared all homosexual activity sinful, yet it called on the churches to welcome gay and lesbian members who promise lifelong abstinence. In 2016 a new study committee was asked to formulate a Reformed theology of sexuality in order to guide congregations and pastors in ministry to LGBTQ parishioners, single or married.
In a report of extraordinary length (but lacking commensurate depth) the committee looked back over a half century of scholarship and research in Biblical hermeneutics, sociology, biology, and psychology, and at far-reaching changes in politics and society, and it concluded that, essentially, nothing important has changed.
Homosexual behavior is condemned by God as sinful. Homosexual orientation is a tragic disability that causes many to languish in depression and self-loathing. This outcome was not much of a surprise, since only supporters of the 1973 recommendations were eligible for appointment to the committee. Study committees are normally expected to consider a difficult matter and then offer their independent assessment, but this one was assigned a conclusion and asked to fill in supporting arguments.
The study committee found, however, that the 1973 report was woefully inadequate in another way: it was far too soft, not on sin but on heresy, because it left the door open for continued discussion and debate over its interpretation of Scripture and creed. There is no need today, says the new report, to question or discuss the church’s condemnation of all homosexual relationships. Current research on gender and identity – discussed in detail but very selectively in the report – confirms that nature, like God, favors heterosexuality. But it’s time to stand firm against any suggestion that some questions remain unanswered and that minds should remain open. That’s heresy, says this report. Sex is for married heterosexual couples, and that’s that.
The deliberative context should have been reversed. The details of Mr. White’s business – his income and expenses and outstanding debts – might better have been shielded from the public eye and discussed in a closed boardroom. And a momentous and historic debate concerning a denomination’s response to new challenges and new insights concerning gender, marriage, and church leadership should have been conducted in the sunlight, so that Synod’s decisions would be better understood and more thoughtfully discussed in the churches. And the barbershops.
But no. The delegates locked the doors, listened to one another’s arguments pro and con, and cast their votes. On June 14 a large majority affirmed that the body of the report is “a useful summary of Biblical teaching.” The next day, a slightly smaller majority (69% compared to 74%) declared that, because the term “unchastity” in the Heidelberg Catechism refers to all homosexual practices including same-sex marriage, this is a confessional matter. Disagreement with the report adopted a day earlier, in other words, is heretical.
The doors were closed for this discussion and vote. Synod’s action opens wide, however, another door: an exit door from the Christian Reformed Church. Delegates’ statements on the floor (I listened a few days later to portions of both days’ debates) spoke eloquently of the hostility that many same-sex couples have faced in their congregations and of the depth of their commitment to a church that has been hesitant to welcome them. We hesitate no longer, says the recent decision: it’s time for you to leave. Stay around, gay sibling, if you are and will always be abstinent. But if you are in a same-sex marriage or other relationship, or if you fail to condemn your friends and family members who are, then get out. The church has no place for you.
As a philosopher and the son of a theologian, I am horrified by the sloppy and slanted analysis of Scripture and science in the report. The Creation story is about God’s love for humankind, not about sex. Marriage is about so much more than sex. Human beings are created in a glorious diversity of kinds, not reducible to the babies in blue onesies and the babies in pink onesies.
And as a child of the CRCNA – a preacher’s kid, a preacher’s kid’s kid, the husband of a preacher’s kid’s kid, as well as an administrator and faculty member at the denominational college – the Synod’s readiness to embrace the report and close down the discussion makes me both very angry and very sad.
But the sadness was relieved a bit –before we knew the outcome — by a joyful crowd of two hundred or more in the parking lot outside Synod’s meeting hall during the first day’s debate. Invited to gather by All One Body and the Hesed Project, ranging from grade-school children to octogenarians, we represented a cross-section of Reformed Christians who love the church and want it to embrace and affirm all of its members, whatever their gender identity and marital status.
We waved our rainbow flags and shared our stories of some CRCNA congregations that are fostering thoughtful and reflective dialogue on the difficult theological questions that the report claims to have answered for all time. And we heard about how LGBTQ+ members are being welcomed, their gifts put to use to advance the Kingdom, despite all the obstacles placed in their way.
When the delegates at last adjourned and came across to the dining hall, some of them avoided looking at us while others waved a cheerful greeting. Perhaps they had never seen a crowd of hundreds of demonstrators singing the Doxology. Many of the singers may soon be heading out the exit door from the Christian Reformed Church. Closing the doors during the discussion and vote had the unfortunate effect of opening that door much wider.