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I’d bet there is hardly a pastor out there who hasn’t at some point winced at a funeral, during family members’ comments and eulogies. It isn’t because their words can sometimes be maudlin. It’s because their “theology” is sometimes a little less than fully Christian. Often they’re infused with popular, American folk-religion — St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, angels getting wings, and whatnot. More talk about “deserving” than about grace.

I love the story a colleague shared about the eulogist who was certain that “the entire family is now gathered around Uncle Bill, singing along as he plays those old favorites on his accordion.”

Preparing to follow that eulogy with a funeral sermon, my colleague thought to himself, “Perhaps it is a bit more astounding, appropriate, and accurate to think of Uncle Bill now joining the vast choir of saints and angels gathered around the Living God.” Those were my colleague’s thoughts. He did not, however, feel a need to share them out loud.

In other words, context matters in theological discussions. What is the situation? Who are your conversation partners? What brought you to this topic?

We do well to remember that the Apostle Paul didn’t sit down and say, “I think I’ll expound on some Christian doctrine today.” He wasn’t writing into a vacuum. He wrote letters to churches and people, often in response to letters he had received from them. Similarly, we know that there are times when we have “guest preachers” in worship who might be preaching the same sermon they’ve preached six times before. But preaching is best when it speaks into a context — when it is addressed to a specific congregation, and when the preacher knows the congregation and lives among them.

A funeral sermon isn’t the time for a finely honed theological discourse on Christian beliefs about the afterlife. That’s not to say anything goes. But the tone might be gentler, more guiding than definitive, more bringing of comfort than imparting information. My colleague shared his story among a group of pastors discussing Christian views on life after death, funerals and the like. The conversation was rather free-wheeling, sometimes a little contentious, sometimes a little coarse.

General Synod, June 2022

Questions like this about context, audience, and purpose come to mind as I think back to a debate at last June’s General Synod of the Reformed Church in America.

A proposal was brought to recognize the basic humanity of LGBTQ people and to acknowledge that throughout the centuries the Church has often been less than kind to these people. It seemed like a pretty low bar.

The proposed statement acknowledged that people in the RCA disagree in their understandings of LGBTQ people. It was not calling for everyone to be open and affirming. Basically it was saying that we all agree that they are human beings, worthy of dignity and respect.

“Children of God” — that’s what the proposed statement called LGBTQ people in a couple of places. I would contend that “children of God” wasn’t meant as a profound theological statement or radical claim. Well, of course, it is always pretty radical to claim that all people have inherent worth, bear the image of God, and are the same species as the God-human, Jesus Christ. But the “children of God” terminology in this context, wasn’t a ploy, a theological Trojan-horse that would furtively say something about LGBTQ people that many at General Synod could not affirm.

Nonetheless, some synod delegates seemed to think this was the time to debate what “children of God” means and who that label properly describes. They contended that “children of God” applies only to those adopted by God in Christ Jesus, only professed and practicing Christians.

Actually, I have some sympathies with those who wanted to debate what “children of God” means. I relish rich theological conversations, sometimes even sparring. Sometimes my theologically-accurate-inclination is stronger than my pastoral inclination.

Their narrower understanding of “children of God” has some merit in my estimation. I may not agree with them entirely, but I can see their point. It is a conversation worth having — at some place and time. Maybe in the Reformed Journal. Maybe with a group of pastors and a wee bit of bourbon.

I get curious, even excited, starting to compile some biblical passages we might want to explore. Someone would point us to the Apostle Paul’s use of the metaphor “adoption” to describe the inclusion of gentiles into God’s family. Simultaneously, we probably would need to understand that Paul doesn’t seem to talk of individual persons being adopted, but rather the adoption of a group of people. No doubt others would remind us of the frequent use of the phrase, “children of God” in 1 John. We could also look at Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount that the peacemakers will be called “Children of God.” I wonder about the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, where he talks of “children” and “dogs.” That the Gospel of Luke’s genealogy of Jesus concludes by calling Adam a “son of God” could also be significant. What else might you include in this hypothetical conversation? Scripture, and otherwise.

My point today is not to try to change anyone’s understanding of LGBTQ people. And it is only secondarily to point to the interesting and not insignificant conversation about who the term “children of God” describes.

Maybe those who resisted the “children of God” label weren’t so much malicious as they were tone-deaf. They almost claimed as much. They insisted their reluctance to accept the statement wasn’t anti-LGBTQ. It was only about clarity and precision. Still, I doubt that if we had been discussing disabled military veterans or mentally challenged children, perhaps even Afghan refugees, many delegates would have resisted the “children of God” label.

A General Synod trying to say a few kind and contrite words to LGBTQ people isn’t the time to prove your theological acumen. I’d say they were behaving as if my pastoral colleague had decided that his funeral sermon was the appropriate time to correct the eulogist who envisioned his family singing with his accordion-playing uncle.

When we think that theology can be done in the abstract, a neutral vacuum, our theology often becomes cold, detached, sometimes cruel. What if theoretical discussions, when the topic is held at arm’s-length, don’t lead to more accurate or uncontaminated theological conclusions? What if even the idea that we can have neutral and purely theoretical discussions is itself an illusion?

Maybe our abstract theological conversations and debates are actually more like practice, there to prepare us to do real theology, theology in specific contexts with real people — to recognize our own place and investment in the conversation, knowing when to speak, and when to be silent.

Header image photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.
Child with colorful hands photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

5 Comments

  • Amen, Steve. Thank you. As someone for whom often feels God’s presence through old family stories, that image of Uncle Bill and the accordion does feel like a nudge toward heaven. Sometimes, I don’t think our heads and hearts can handle the enormity of God’s love and grace and so we grapple to place in inside our own familiar images. I think again of my grandma rollerskating in heaven, which I’d readily admit is much more comforting than biblical, and yet, reflective of my understanding of God’s goodness and redemption. Thank you for this piece.

  • Nate DeWard says:

    Rodney Haveman also made the point that the language of “Children of God” is used in the RCA baptismal liturgy. This was a deep and context-rich statement, given the RCA’s professed beliefs about baptism, God’s covenants, and the family of God.

    It reminds me that when it comes to the mysteries of God’s love, we are all like the “little ones” who “know nothing of it as yet.”

    I rest here: “We love because God first loved us.”

  • James Smith says:

    Perhaps “imago dei” would have been more accurate and less contentious than “children of God” under these circumstances.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Some sort of compromise was eventually reached. It might have actually been “imago dei.” Honestly, I don’t recall. I was more intrigued by the conversation than the outcome.

  • I agree that who are children of God is an interesting conversation. And it’s the sort of conversation that is likely to be remembered longer and have possibly much greater impact than comments about Uncle Bill and his accordion.
    I know nothing about what happened at General Synod except what I have read here, so I don’t know anything about the tone or spirit in which things were said. But my immediate reaction, reading this, was to remember the church I grew up in (UCC). They had no interest in theological correctness and little in theology period, other than for people who happen to have an interest in such things. My impression was that they considered pretty much everyone children of God, and therefore they felt no need to teach what it means to become a Christian.
    As a teenager I did not have faith in God but wanted to, and couldn’t find any answers at that church where it didn’t seem to matter what you believed if anything. I ended up coming to faith at a fundamentalist church where a great deal of emphasis was placed on how to become a child of God. As a young adult I became disenchanted about much in fundamentalism, and joined the PCUSA (at my husband’s church), which seemed to be somewhere between the two extremes.
    There are certainly times and places where acting pastorally is more important than getting the right theological answers (my husband is a pastor so he deals with this kind of stuff). But statements by synods will be used long afterward, and what they say about being a child of God needs to be well-considered.

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