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Just one word, one schismatic word, as venerable Scott Hoezee pointed out in these pages.

This time it’s not circumcision, as in Galatia, but “chastity” (or really, unchastity), a term that covers a lot of territory. As usual, predictably, to put it bluntly, it’s something to do with relentless eternal tangles over gender, sex, and power—the last meaning who gets to set the rules and why.

It’s nothing new in the Reformed tradition, or hereabouts, infused as it is with a certain ethnic cussedness (Scotch and Dutch). And, to repeat, always it’s about gender and sex. Not long ago, the great issues flaying the church were about headship and submission, divorce, ladies’ hats, and more recently, ordination of women, some clergy refusing still to so much as hear a woman preach. And now, like, here we go all over again.

Gender and sex are difficult to comprehend and always have been. The late novelist-poet John Updike (1932-2009) identified “sex,” broadly speaking, as one of life’s three great mysteries, the other two being art and God.

And the Bible does not offer the clarity that is often asserted that it does. After all, the first thing Eve and Adam did after tasting that special apple is run for cover and cover up, in more ways than one. And then there’s scoundrel Abraham, who regularly pawned off wife Sarah for self-protection and profit (nor is his treatment of Hagar and son Ishmael any better, casting them away as convenient). Princely holy super-hero David has hell to pay after his rooftop meditation on moonlit Bathsheba bathing. Any doubt about that, just ask Absalom. Dave slew the giant but lost the inner contest–and also his son, as did, it seems, old Abraham after his hike up the mountain. Nor does much change, as instanced in the starkly gruesome toll of clerical abuse of women and men and, yea, countless children, for God’s sake.

And so it goes. Still. The question more often than not seems to be: who can we beat up because of a sexual this or that on behalf of God? Even if, God seems to have more tolerance than God’s self-proclaimed followers; witness Jesus’ care for conspicuously “fallen” women (like who ain’t?).

Then, glaringly, there’s Paul’s admonition to the Galatians, who have apparently revived circumcision as a requirement for salvation. At this the weary Paul is “astonished” and as mad as he ever gets (1:6 NEB). It is, says he, a flat-out “stupid” move to exalt one incidental, arbitrary, and extraneous surgical procedure into a pre-condition for divine acceptance and eternal blessing (3:1).

Dumbstruck by this theological perversity, Paul delivers a singularly scathing indictment of the Galatians: in short, he asks, how did you ever come up with such a crackpot idea, one that violates everything I’ve have been trying to tell you about the radical inclusion of all? For Paul, the one who recruited the Galatians to the Jesus-cause in the first place, this add-on to faith flat-out skews, if not parodies everything Paul has urged upon them. It suggests a mandatory non-negotiable meaning the non-compliant are not only not saved, but not welcome either.

And here we are in Galatia again.

From the recent Synods of the Christian Reformed Church, we now have some sexual something or another as the linchpin for salvation, a tidy override of the lavishness and sufficiency of divine love and welcome. But if the past is any guide, it certainly seems the same rigor will not be applied to heterosexual transgressors and especially to the clergy among them?

But it’s more than that. The assertion of an inerrant doctrinal catechism instead of an all-too-human contrivance is dangerous—when, in fact, human-wrought creeds and catechisms are more like an explorer’s map than dicta from Sinai. Like every human institution, they are tentative, and those who venture to address divine intent and mystery with them should be amply wary of exalting them in the process. At their best, they were meant for clarification, guidance, and nurture, rather than weaponization.

Whenever humans presume to have complete clarity about divine intent, despite ample biblical caution against such, vast and bloody rendings of Christendom have followed. Instead, better to acknowledge the dark glass through which we see but faintly, and especially so given everyone’s own deep-down propensity for doing bloody harm.

In Galatians, perhaps recognizing the futility of argument, and after indulging in fairly brutal snark (including suggesting that maybe those who insist upon circumcision should just go the whole nine yards to eunuchhood), Paul abruptly drops his protracted effort to convince the Galatians of their wrong-headedness, and he instead shifts to simple observation of the futility of such disputes.

The problems: first, practically speaking, “fighting…tooth and nail” leads to “mutual destruction” (5:15). Second, ego too often overruns sense (6:14). Most of all, though, this sort of thing inverts a pivotal spiritual demand of the Gospels–loving the neighbor as much as one’s own self (5:14).

To be sure, Paul acknowledges, destruction lies in improper sexual indulgence, but no less so than in “quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies” (5:20). These all display the absence of divine presence, no matter how soaked in piety and righteousness they might be, and such have nothing to do with the work of the Spirit of God. Instead, Paul lays out a better way through nine “postures of being” that preeminently manifest the character and presence of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, devotion, gentleness, and self-control (5:22).

In short, charity, deep and wide.

Confessionalize that.

Roy Anker

Roy Anker is retired from Calvin University where he taught writing, literature, and film.  


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It has always struck me as remarkable that our Church Order never assigns “love” as the first responsibility of our synods and classes, that the first job of a synod is to love its classes and their churches.

    • Steve vB says:

      Well said, Daniel. And to that point, a quick search through the Heidelberg Catechism for the word “love” shows precious few examples encouraging us to follow the second greatest commandment.

  • Bruce Buursma says:

    When the “greatest of these” becomes clarity, one might be off the Maker’s mark by more than a single letter.

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    Thanks, Roy. When squabbles over the meaning of “unchastity” in a Heidelberg Catechism footnote take all the oxygen out of the room, love is an afterthought.

  • Al Mulder says:

    Thank you, Roy. Given Paul’s vehement objection to circumcision (Gal 5:2), perhaps the CRC synodical majority could be persuaded to add circumcision to its list of unchaste behaviors. Then again, that could cramp their own choices. So perhaps not.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Amen. One does wonder just how much hubris has been present, veiled by “piety and righteousness”.

  • Carol Kramer says:

    Thank you, Roy, for this excellent discussion.

  • Caryn Rivadeneira says:

    Gorgeous piece. Thank you.

  • Jeff Brower says:

    To be sure, Paul acknowledges, destruction lies in improper sexual indulgence, but no less so than in “quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies”

    Very true.

    So why are you being quarrelsome and contentious about this?

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Is he though?
      “Judge not lest thee be judged”
      Does that mean we can never name anything sinful or that we do not belong in the chair of judgment for someone’s eternal soul? Or is it something else? I wonder.
      Some synonyms for quarrelsome and contentious include: combative, pugnacious, argumentative, bickering, and more.
      I’m just not sure that’s what I read here.

      Of course, in general I agree with Dr Anker so I’m prone to read it with more sympathy, but I wonder if I’m wrong … maybe.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thank you for this: “But if the past is any guide, it certainly seems the same rigor will not be applied to heterosexual transgressors and especially to the clergy among them?” A truth which I have experienced.

  • Jack says:

    I thought you were being assertive, Roy. Could we not apply dramatic irony for good to Paul? How about paradox. It’s too easy to point out what snares us all. It’s just too damn difficult to be a human being.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    This is brilliant. Thank you.

  • Harvey says:

    It is brilliant. It is blunt. I’m wondering: Is it charitable?

  • Dan Winiarski says:

    One more word: Kinism
    Where was the Revisionists’ vaunted charity with Kinists?

    It seems you fight hard for the sins you enjoy!

  • William Harris says:

    The difficulty with “chastity” is how the development of the concept occurs later in the Church’s history; it is part of Tradition. For the Tradition-skeptical side of the Reformation, it is a harder concept to wrap one’s thoughts around. Thus the certain oddness of the synodical decision re: HC 108. Yet to speak a word on its behalf, chastity seems to belong to the realm of mindfulness, in this case about how we live and move through time as sexual beings: our choices, our words, our performance in this social-media age. in the light of the Church’s thinking about chastity, sex is anything but natural, but of course, as Anker points out, always a matter of charity.

    • Herb Kraker says:

      Hello, Bill. The study of how “chastity” developed in the church’s history could take on an extensive study. Isn’t I Cor. 6:9-10 quite clear? Is it possible to understand these words in some way that allows for the acceptance of same-sex marriage? If so, how is that? Thanks.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    “In short, charity, deep and wide. Confessionalize that.” Make a movie about it. Call it Hardcore. Or, Barbie.

  • David Feddes says:

    The point at issue is sexual immorality, so let’s focus on what Galatians says about sexual immorality, not what it says about circumcision. Roy Anker concedes that according to Galatians, “destruction lies in improper sexual indulgence.” To quote Galatians directly, “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God… Whoever sows to please his own flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction” (5:21; 6:8). Before attacking synodical strawmen, Anker should first explain what sort of “improper sexual indulgence” leads to destruction and exclusion from God’s kingdom.

    Anker lists the fruit of the Spirit and says, “Confessionalize that.” Gladly! Heidelberg Catechism 107 says, “God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them.” This is immediately followed by HC 108: “God condemns all unchastity.” Warning against unchastity is not a violation of love but an expression of love.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks for such a comprehensive and cogent rationale for the inclusion side, Roy!
    All of the examples you use are worthy of thoughtful discussion by both sides of the issue.
    Perhaps central to such discussions should be serious thoughts and feelings on how two same-sex followers of Christ taking vows of faithful love for each other should be regarded and condemned as unchaste.

  • David Bosma says:

    “Go and sin no more” was the message Christ proclaimed to those he encountered in sexual sin. You would have him crucified yet again for not validating their “truth”

  • roger and lee bruggink says:

    thank you!

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    I grew up in a congregation where quaking young men and tearful young women were forced to stand in the middle of the congregation to answer for their sins of fornication. They were, of course, the ones who got “caught” by an untimely pregnancy and who lived forever with that stamp of shame on them and their offspring.

    Even as a child and young teen, I wondered why the businessman in the congregation who went to prison for tax evasion and the woman sitting in front of me who spread vicious rumors about another congregant weren’t keel-hauled the same way. On asking my mother why this was, she answered with tongue in cheek, “Sex sins are a lot more fun to condemn.”

    There is nothing new under the sun.

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