Theology and sexuality
The work of theology, the church and culture.
The report submitted by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) synodical committee mandated to articulate a “Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality” is generating robust and critical discussion. In context of this, particularly in relation to the LGBTQ community, I have heard two faults against the church. One, that the church consistently appears to be out of step with the rest of society. And second, that the church has historically lagged behind in addressing social issues. Arguably, the “culprit” responsible for these faults is bad theology, since theology generates synodical reports and informs the church’s attitudes and actions. What are we to make of these two critiques of the church? In the spirit of further dialogue, let’s explore this matter by asking: What is the nature and function of good theology as it seeks to aid the church’s engagement in society? And does the Human Sexuality Report reflect the work of good theology and thus help the church as it considers same sex attraction and sexual practice?
A Counter-Cultural Gospel
Let’s first address the question of being “out of step” with society, that the report does not comply with justice and equity as determined by current cultural values. Any synodical report should seek to exemplify what is right and just, a trait consistent with the Biblical message. Likewise, any good theological endeavor, focused on the (just) Gospel, would do the same. The task of theology, however, entails more than seeking justice. Theology is a comprehensive endeavor to interpret the full scope of biblical revelation in relation to contemporary intellectual, social and cultural contexts. Thus gospel-grounded theological presentations may not necessarily align with humanly-formed cultural norms; in fact they often do not. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) conveys practices antithetical to human nature. We are to be “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:15-19). Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world (John 18.36). Jesus’ disciples are explicitly told not to love the world, which may involve resisting human values that do not conform to God’s liberating will (I John 2.15). Not being proud; blessing those who do not like you or worse; associating with people of low position; sharing in the loss of some and the joys of others – these are also otherworldly traits (Rom. 12.14-17). Theological analysis of a countercultural Gospel may produce a synodical report that is, not unexpectedly, out of step with society; often the Gospel calls the church to march to a different drum.
The Role of Theology in History
In an ironic twist that befits the paradoxical Gospel message (receiving by giving away; gaining life through dying), the church has often actually been an active agent of change in society. With an eye on current social issues, theology has been a prophetic voice and has in many cases been part of the vanguard that has prompted advancement and improvements in the world. At times these initiatives were led by clergy and at other times lay leaders, and often both. History is replete with examples – here are a few of them:
St. Augustine (354-430): While the once mighty Roman Empire fell under the invading “barbarians,” Augustine’s City of God cast a worldview that would dominate Europe for 1,000 years and beyond.
Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274): The medieval theologian introduced the use of reason to explore the reality of God and humanity’s relationship with him. Reason would become foundational in the early modern and modern movements in broader society.
The 16th Century Protestant Reformation was a religious movement that initiated key elements that make up our western world today: it fostered freedom of thought, increased literacy, promoted individualism, sowed the seeds of democracy and (some argue) was one harbinger of free markets and capitalism.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the English parliamentarian, fought for the emancipation of slaves across the colonies, informed by his interpretation of the Bible and motivated by his Christian convictions.
The 18th Century Great Awakenings in America: Numerous historians identify and interpret these religious movements as precursors to the American Revolution and the establishment of democracy in the new world.
Suffrage in America (mid-19th- early 20th century): Roman Catholics, Methodists, Black Baptists and Quakers made up a large portion of those who fought for the right for women to vote. The National American Woman Suffrage Association, instrumental in winning the battle with an amendment to the Constitution in 1920, was led by a pastor, Anna Howard Shaw, from 1905-1915.
Gustavo Gutierrez (b.1928), a Peruvian theologian and priest, spawned Liberation Theology in response to the injustices and systematized poverty and inequity in South America in the 20th century. One of his follower priests, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, so threatened the corrupt political powers of his country with progressive calls for justice that he was martyred – gunned down in 1980 while serving mass, no less.
Much theological work has not only served the church as an agent for change, it has done so in close affinity to trends and movements on the ground, and indeed engaged with the sweat and tears of people in the pew.
The Report on Human Sexuality
This brings us to the 2021 synodical report on human sexuality. Does the report, prepared over five years, exemplify the hard work of theology? The Committee members have applied Reformed hermeneutical principles and goals that avoided literalistic interpretations. It presents exegetical analysis of the relevant texts, addresses revisionist interpretations, has researched and explored latest scientific and psychological findings on the pertinent areas, regularly couches the presentation in context of “real life” examples and offers pastoral guidance. The report is meant to serve all members of the church as we all seek to understand and navigate a complex issue of our present times. It has sought to express ways in which we can talk and walk together in and towards justice, motivated by love.
This article does not seek to argue against or endorse the “positions” or conclusions presented in the Synodical report in the area of same sex identity and practice, or any other area covered. Rather, it posits that the work of good theology in general has been and is today engaged in presenting an interpretation of biblical revelation to the issues the church faces in society. As mandated, the synodical report does dialogue precisely in the contemporary and complex matter of gender and sexual norms and practices. Even as it surely has numerous shortcomings, it does represent a valuable attempt to do beneficial theological work in service of the Christian Reformed Church at large. May it serve as one working document that can contribute to our ongoing discussion in the call to be counter-cultural followers of and leaders for Jesus in the unfolding, progressive work of God’s redemption among us today.
I am encouraged and thankful for Rev. Tony Maan’s article amid the naysayers first out of the gate in the wake of the report becoming public. As a non theologian, I have read the report and studied it in a five week (virtual) discussion group at my church. Rev. Maan and “the colleagues he talked to” have put into words what I could only sense about the report.
Clearly, it ought to be taken seriously by the denomination that asked for it, and not be dismissed out of hand as I hear many church members are doing.
Tony, thank you for this view from 30,000 feet. In the ongoing discussion of the Report’s weaknesses, e.g. not saying enough about what being confessional means, and the pastoral implications of that, you have rightly pointed to its value. I particularly appreciate your saying that “it does represent a valuable attempt to do beneficial theological work in service of the Christian Reformed Church at large.” And I too pray: “May it serve as one working document that can contribute to our ongoing discussion in the call to be counter-cultural followers of and leaders for Jesus in the unfolding, progressive work of God’s redemption among us today.”