“I can’t get two people alone in a room together, let alone worry about what they’re going to be doing with each other.”
This tongue-in-cheek remark kicked off an online conversation between five Christian Reformed (CRC) pastors from across the U.S. and Canada this summer, all feeling stuck between revisionist and traditional voices in the CRCNA and alienated by some aspects of the denomination’s “Report Articulating a Theological Foundation of Human Sexuality” (HSR). I’ve taken it upon myself to gather together some of our comments.
Full disclosure: I hold the theological position that God’s best for Christian marriage is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman, with Christ as their head. However, I also believe that every marriage which meets that definition simultaneously falls short of that mark. Further, I believe that God’s best for his people is not Christian marriage, but union with Christ. As a result, my criticism of the HSR below falls (generally in order) along theological, pastoral and practical lines.
Mistaking the Biological Family as the Biblical Ideal
It seems to me that the HSR holds up straight families (mom, dad, kids) as an ideal which single people, couples and same-sex attracted people benefit from and alternately try or refuse to live up to. (Additionally: divorced people, infertile couples, those who have chosen not to have children, intersex individuals and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community). However, if the proliferation of the biological family is our ideal, then Christ, a single man, is not. God’s best for humanity cannot be that we get married to someone from the opposite gender and have children together. At best, the HSR omits any extended focus on socially acceptable sin within heterosexual marriage and at worse it confuses heterosexual marriage with sanctification. In either case, it neglects covenantal theology which places Christ as the head of each home. Along the way, it minimizes single people only as hurting; it ignores what families with heterosexual parents might learn from those struggling with same-sex attraction; and assumes the primary end of marriage is childbirth. In sum, the HSR falls far short of a compelling “Foundation-Laying Theology of Human Sexuality.” Instead, the report seems to function more as a reaction against revisionist theology.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that this report is being viewed as a referendum on same-sex marriage. Such a referendum might well be needed, but the CRCNA ought not to deceive ourselves into thinking we are discussing the whole of human sexuality when we are, in fact, doing something very different.
Our online group noted high levels of fear and anxiety present across our denomination: “Right now, the diversity of opinion might be uncomfortable, but I don’t understand why we can’t stay there,” said one among us. Could it be that the desire to name the contents of the report as “already having confessional status” is an anxious response simply to be done with an uncomfortable conversation? “I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of this conversation as pastors in the work that we do with people every day. I’m upset that people want to end the conversation because we haven’t even had it particularly well yet.” Furthermore, we dishonour those in our communities to whom the theological conclusions of the report are not as “clear” as the report claims; we multiply sin and grief by our unwillingness to sit a while longer with them in their discomfort, missing a godly opportunity to be formed by the Spirit in shared suffering.
Our Covenantal and Communal Identity
Reformed theology is covenant and communal theology. The HSR, however, takes a strongly individualistic approach, framing human sexuality as an individual affair rather than a communal value. This has done little to positively shape conversations across the country, which seem to follow a similar path: “Here is what I believe; how are you going to flex to make room for me?” But such interactions do not work in community. More importantly, this is not how God interacts with us. He incarnates his presence and love among us – even calling us to love our enemies. Simply put, if we are in covenant relationship with one another; we are all covenant breakers in one way or another. Moreover, Reformed Christians don’t celebrate our repentance (or return to God); we celebrate God’s perennial return to us: God’s preservation of his saints. This tone is missing in the HSR, which goes so far as to conclude with a list of sexual sins which “threaten a person’s salvation” (148); but in its entirety omits any reference to the grave responsibility of teachers (cf. Mt. 18:6), ignoring clergy abuse; and neglects any self-reflection on the “plank in [our] own eye” (Mt. 7:3). The HSR fails to include theological exploration of total depravity’s effects on gender roles or on all people’s sexual desires. We would be better equipped with tools to engage people in and outside of our communities who have already made life-altering decisions about their sexuality; we would be wiser to create space to discuss how we might do our best to walk alongside all kinds of people, modeling for them life in God’s diverse family and pointing ourselves and others to God’s redemptive work partnering with broken people in our broken world.
The group that gathered online also felt uncomfortable with the simplistic and sometimes dismissive tone of the report: “One of the things I lament about the HSR is how often it uses the words ‘clear’ and ‘clearly.’ We seem to have departed drastically from the work we did in 1973, which left room for disagreement and further study. How is it, 40 years later, we are (and scripture is) so clear about all of this?”
It makes sense, in the age of Christendom, that denominations busy themselves with creating increasingly fine theological distinctives; but in our secular world, I wish that the CRC would focus more on celebrating the breadth of God’s kingdom and defining our role as catalysts for disciple-making. The energy and time we put into deciding what is “clear” and how high to raise the bar for office-bearers is energy and time we cannot spend inviting people humbly to join us on the journey of discipleship. “When I look at the people in the CRC who I respect for being wise, Spirit-filled and on mission; they are saying, ‘let’s get out and love people and help them to know Jesus and help them to be transformed by the Spirit and the Gospel.’” We would be better served inviting others to the journey of discipleship alongside us, rather than adding to our list of certainties.
The CRC’s Reformed Heritage
The CRC has historically avoided interdenominational labels: we are not fully fundamentalist, evangelical or mainline. Historically, we are a denomination of slow plodders and prophetic in our critique of and example to other denominations. We still need to do a better job of cultivating space to hold things in tension, because it’s going to take a while to walk through this topic together and get to the other side. From a historical perspective, we do not all have to agree 100 percent on every single topic: “I hear some people saying, ‘If we really believe it, we have to make it confessional!’ But we are not fundamentalists! We do not have to believe everything we believe at the same level. How poorly catechised have we become that we don’t understand it’s okay to believe different things at different levels?” Perhaps, while we hold the tension, keeping this in the pastoral guidance category of 1973 makes sense.
Four other pastors, participants in the zoom call and quoted in this article, have asked to remain anonymous.