Dialogue within the ‘bond of peace’
Review of 'Four (and a Half) Dialogues' by Donald Zeyl.
Since Synod 2016 the Christian Reformed Church has been studying, discussing and agonizing over same-sex relationships. That year, Synod created a committee which produced what is now called the Human Sexuality Report (HSR). Among other issues, the HSR recommended that homosexual activity breaks the seventh Commandment and is thus prohibited.
Synod 2022 took the report further by interpreting “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q and A 108 as encompassing homosexual sex and violating the seventh Commandment. After hours of intense debate a large majority of delegates approved that interpretation, thus declaring its confessionally binding for office bearers in the CRC.
If delegates had read Donald Zeyl’s Four (and a Half) Dialogues before Synod 2022, I wonder if the decision would have been different. Zeyl, University of Rhode Island emeritus professor of philosophy, was raised in the CRC in Canada. Though never mentioning HSR in the book, Zeyl was obviously familiar with its conclusions and recommendations. Dialogues stands as his personal response to Paul’s plea in Ephesians 4 for Christians to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In this brief book Zeyl imagines far-ranging conversations among four close Christian university friends about how the Bible addresses homosexuality.
Each person articulates their own differing views of sexuality and marriage, framing the issues within their own story of following Jesus. They all examine the same Bible passages historically used to condemn homosexual activity. Stephanie, a scholar of Hebrew and Greek, exegetes the passages, arguing that God now accepts covenantal same-sex relationships. Philip is a gay man planning soon to marry James, also a Christian. After he came out to his parents and pastor, the pastor removed him from his church’s fellowship. Philip articulates his views by leaning heavily on differing cultural contexts between Bible times and now.
Amanda, a same-sex attracted woman, advocates consistently for the traditional view of marriage and has remained celibate after eschewing earlier lesbian relationships. She is open to marrying a man in order to obey God’s will. Philosopher David challenges all his companions’ positions with clear and detailed logic, while also defending the historic view of marriage.
The sections discussing Romans 1 are the most thorough and interesting. Philip interprets Paul’s use of “nature” as referring to either homosexual or heterosexual orientations. Thus heterosexual people, who “exchange their nature for unnatural sexual lives,” make deliberate choices to engage in pederasty or homosexual promiscuity that were hallmark behaviour of powerful Roman men. Philip views same-sex attraction as his and other homosexuals’ “nature,” arguing that living in heterosexual relationships would be an “unnatural exchange” for them.
The friends do not reach agreement on Biblical permissibility of same-sex relationships. Yet throughout they pledge to listen before speaking and to respect their companions’ opinions and positions. When temperatures rise during the dialogues, one calls for all to chill and abide by their covenant. At the end of the book their friendships are intact; they decided relationships were more important than insisting one’s own view as the only biblical position.
I highly recommend Zeyl’s creative, irenic book on this long-volatile topic. At the end of Synod 2022 one officer declared that the decision on confessionality marked the “beginning of a conversation,” not the end. Many doubt that possibility. Can conversations begin – or resume – when many Christian Reformed LGBTQ+ members and allies interpret Synod’s decisions to have ended the conversation?
Regardless, Donald Zeyl invites all involved in this wearying, contentious discussion to absorb the spirit of his book, to agree with one character’s view, to disagree with others’. He pleas that all pledge to listen long, to respect each other, to look for common theological ground and live together as Jesus’ sisters, brothers and friends. I pray we in the CRC find a way to do that and not make an already tiny denomination smaller and more insignificant by dividing and disciplining those who do not agree with Synod’s decisions.