Is the church changing its mind on same-sex relationships?

Editor’s note
Last month, Julia Stronks’ column – the first in a three-part series on growing up Reformed and thinking about homosexuality – was read by more people online than 90 percent of our regular material. It also prompted emails that ranged from supportive to frustrated.
But whatever side of the same-sex debate you are on, you cannot deny that the discussion is important. We need each other’s help navigating the questions that arise from it. And articles in Christian Courier reflect the wide spectrum of beliefs on this issue within the Christian community.
CC is an independent newspaper. Our goal is to cover the news from a Reformed Christian perspective, and to inspire each of you to join in the ongoing task of renewing God’s creation.
On some topics, maybe we’ll never agree on what our “task” should be.
But can we listen in good faith to committed Christians with whom we disagree?
– Angela Reitsma Bick

Whitworth University, where I teach, is affiliated with a mainline denomination in the Reformed tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA). The Reformed roots of the Presbyterian Church began with John Calvin and developed under the leadership of John Knox. Twenty years ago, my husband and I worshipped with the Presbyterians because at that time the local Christian Reformed Church (CRC) did not allow women in office, and this issue was very important to us. Over the years, that controversy has been a challenging one for the CRC, but by now we have determined that women in office is not an issue critical to salvation. Well-meaning Calvinists can disagree with each other about what Scriptural passages mean, and we allow space on this issue for people to follow God in the way that they believe they are called. The question today is this: are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues similar to the women in office debate, or are they something so critical to salvation that we cannot allow different perspectives to exist among Christians?

I was interested to learn that the PCUSA had addressed the women in office issue almost a century ago. With the PCUSA I found a community as committed as I was to the principles of the Reformed tradition, but – having been in the U.S. for centuries – the PCUSA has changed as American culture has changed. While many in my own tradition were disdainful of what they saw as “accommodation” by the Presbyterians, I have come to admire much of what Presbyterians have done as they have learned from people different from themselves. It is possible that starting this summer PCUSA pastors may perform same-sex marriages (see related article on page 7).

Years ago I would have been strongly against such a move. I believed the practice of homosexuality was sinful. But the work of three Reformed theologians, among others, has changed my mind about the nature of sin and sexuality. In this column and the next I will highlight the arguments that were new to me – not to change anyone’s mind but to encourage those of you challenged by LGBT issues to study further.

Church and culture
Last year Presbyterian pastor and scholar Jack Rogers was the moderator of the 213th General Assembly of the PCUSA (like Synod in the CRC). In 2009 he wrote a book called Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality in which he argued that historically the church has misused and misunderstood Scripture relating to race, slavery and gender. Homosexuality, he says, is another one of the categories in which the church has relied on cultural judgment rather than actual Scripture for its condemnation.

James Brownson, a theologian at Western Theological Seminary (affiliated with the Reformed Church of America) wrote Bible, Gender, Sexuality, which outlines different understandings of Scriptural verses about same-sex behaviour. He points out that the Bible never uses the word homosexuality and says that in the directives about men with men, the Bible is not necessarily condemning all same-sex relationships.

William Stacy Johnson is a Reformed theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. His book, A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law and Politics, outlines affirming and non-affirming viewpoints that the Christian church has taken on same-gender relationships. Non-affirming perspectives frame homosexuality as either perversion or as a sad burden resulting from the Fall. Some within this group say gay people must repent of their identity; others say gay people must repent only of the choice to act on the identity. Some try to retrain gay people using conversion therapy to restore opposite sex attraction; others say gay people must be abstinent.

Affirming perspectives, Johnson explains, argue that being gay is one way that God created people. Biblical passages condemning same-sex behaviour are condemning the violence and domination rampant at the time. Sin impacts gay relationships in the same way that sin impacts heterosexual relationships. Therefore the church should bless exclusive, committed same gender covenants in the same way that heterosexual covenants, though broken, are blessed.

Together these scholars encourage us to re-examine Scripture when we are thinking about issues facing the Church regarding faith and homosexuality. They do not believe that Scripture condemns all homosexuality. Rather, they say that in following God it is possible to accept gay and lesbian love while also arguing that these relationships must follow Biblical norms of exclusivity, commitment and permanence.

How did these authors reach  these perspectives? Their scholarly emphasis has been on understanding the meaning of the six passages in the Old and New Testaments that focus our attention on same-gender sexual activity.

\Next month I will write about these six passages.

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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