LGBTQ-Incompatible Means Gracious Separation is the Church’s Best Option

Seeing the Unseen

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

By now you have heard many arguments on LGBTQ matters. You have likely been present in some discussions and heated debates surrounding civil same-sex marriages as well as LGBTQ inclusion in church life. Society has made up its mind. The church is still responding.

This will not be another argument for LGBTQ rights (the “inclusive” position) or biblical marriage (the “traditional” position). The truth of the matter is that the two positions are fundamentally incompatible. The conversation needs to shift from trying to convince each other to a pragmatic discussion of where we go from here.

The Christian Reformed Church currently holds what is sometimes called the traditional position or biblical marriage. A group called All One Body is advocating for the CRC to adopt an inclusive position. A study committee is due to produce a comprehensive report on sexuality in 2021.

A fellow CRC minister once asked me why I would make such a big deal about this topic, because, no matter what, my congregation is not going to change their mind. Why can’t we just let local congregations decide and agree to disagree? The CRC took the agree-to-disagree route on ordaining women to the offices of minister and elder in the 1990s. After a long showdown over many synods, Synod 1995 decided there were two valid biblical positions on the topic and that we can agree to disagree.

But LGBTQ sexuality is not women in office. I’ve heard many people say the two issues are connected, but they are in different categories. The Free Methodist Church and Wesleyan Church have ordained women for 150 years, yet my minister friends in those denominations tell me they have no calls for changes in sexual boundaries. The same Calvin Seminary professor who wrote a book on the two valid biblical positions on women in office says same-sex relations are not alike. “The issues are very different,” said Professor John Cooper in Calvin Seminary’s Forum (Fall 2015). “One is about the church order, the other about the moral order.”

The inclusive position and the traditional position come from two very different theological systems. Listening to each position is like listening not to two different ball games but two different sports. The inspiration of Scripture has very different meanings. “Love” seems to have two different definitions. But one of the most critical differences seems to be the concept of identity in Christ.

One view says LGBTQ is a basic human identity to be embraced in Christ and celebrate the sexuality that God gave them. The other view says LGBTQ is a case of mistaken identity to be yielded in Christ and celebrate the new identity in Christ that God gave them.

One side says LGBTQ is an identity of the good created order that God has made. The other says LGBTQ is an identity of the fallen (dis)order, not the way it’s supposed to be. This difference on identity seems to be the most pivotal control belief. Whether you attribute LGBTQ to the good creation or sinful brokenness makes all the difference for scriptural interpretation and understanding of God’s will. From this starting point, each view is inherently offensive to the other that precludes harmonious fellowship. 

For example, if it is the case that LGBTQ is a basic identity, while I as a pastor preach and counsel that LGBTQ people cannot act according to who they are in Christ, then I am not simply being insensitive. I am tying up heavy loads for the shoulders of others. I am shutting the kingdom of heaven in the faces of others. I am a Pharisee. I am one of those to whom the Bible says, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33)

Perhaps we are all Pharisees to some extent, acting contrary to our stated beliefs or adding unnecessary rules. But there is a difference between someone who is a humble Pharisee who wants to change and a confident Pharisee who stands on his or her own truth and claims it’s God’s.

On the other side, if it is the case that LGBTQ is mistaken identity to be surrendered in Christ, while I as a pastor preach and counsel those who identify as LGBTQ to embrace what they ought to surrender, then I am not simply mistaken. I am like the false teachers who “entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error” (2 Peter 2:18), for whom “the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved” (2 Peter 2:17).

The beliefs and values of each side render the other side under severe condemnation. This is not simply theoretical. LGBTQ inclusion has led to splits in three major denominations already: The Anglican Church in North America formed Dec. 3, 2008, splitting from The Episcopal Church (U.S.A.). The North American Lutheran Church organized Aug. 27, 2010, after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in 2009 to allow gays and lesbians in same-sex relationships to be ordained. In May 2011, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) allowed those in same-sex partnerships to be ordained ministers. The following January, a new denomination organized, now called ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. When denominations attempt to minimize the differences over same-sex partnerships and attempt to stay unified, the result is vicious division. Case in point is the United Methodist Church.

The official UMC position from their Book of Discipline is that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” They have debated homosexuality at every General Conference since 1972. Protests are becoming a regular part of their assemblies. At one recent General Conference, over 160 demonstrators lining the sidewalk outside in a silent protest, some with signs saying, “It’s time” and “Why exclude us?” and in open defiance of church policy, “Self-avowed practicing queer clergy.” In another protest, several people writhed on the convention floor hog-tied to illustrate their captivity to church disapproval. Demonstrations have sometimes shut down General Conference proceedings.

Frank Shaefer, a United Methodist minister defrocked for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding, compared the church’s stance to bloody times in history: “I have to tell you it was a very painful process that sort of reminds of the inquisition, medieval tactics of the Church, of the witch burnings in our country here.”

A psychiatric social worker who works with LGBTQ teens and adults who’ve attempted suicide because of opposition in their communities said, “I’m calling out the United Methodist bishops and saying it’s no longer suicide; it’s homicide. I ask them, ‘How do you sleep at night knowing you are killing our children?’”

If preaching same-sex sex acts are sinful is comparable to forced confessions of heresy under torture or outright homicide, then what shred of unity exists?

Perhaps the Liberian Rev. Jerry Kulah said it best: "You cannot be performing Christianity differently in America and Africa and suggest that we are one church."

If the inclusive and traditional people simply live out their convictions, they will be constantly calling one another to repent and believe the gospel. In other words, they each treat the other as people in need of conversion.

To the extent that we are principled people and not wishy-washy in our convictions on these matters, we will be ineffective and divisive. Our churches will turn into two-headed monsters that bite and devour one another with arguments and shaming tactics. We will constantly be hurting and offending one another until we can acknowledge that regardless of who is right or wrong, we are not of the same mind.

The UMC is starting to realize that unity between the two positions is unrealistic. On Jan. 3, after 48 years of attempting to stay united, UMC leaders from around the world released a plan for separation. “I never thought we would reach this point,” said New York Bishop Thomas Bickerton. “The differences are irreconcilable. This is inevitable.”

The CRC and other denominations wrestling with the culture’s new shift on sexuality would do well to learn from the UMC. Instead of spinning our wheels trying to convince one another or attempting to keep all sides under the same organizational umbrella, we need to simply discuss amicable separation. Staying together will only lead to tense gatherings, virtue signaling campaigns and angry outbursts of calling one another to repentance. Some members will serve their congregations best by departing peacefully instead of trying to change the majority. Divided congregations will need to decide how to divide the property respectfully instead of dragging a bitter fight into the courts. Perhaps one half of the congregation will graciously join a nearby congregation that shares their values. Perhaps a classis will decide to affiliate with another denomination instead of prolonging a bitter fight.

The longer we assume the others can be persuaded or that we can agree to disagree, the more strife and the less ministry will result. Though they have significant differences on their expressions, both sides proclaim the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Certainly we can love the other side enough to call a truce and negotiate the most gracious way for both sides to stay true to their convictions.

Editor's Note: In publishing this article, The Banner is not necessarily endorsing the suggestion to graciously separate the denomination. We are publishing this to further the discussion on the topic that is already happening in our churches. Readers should note that Synod 2016 appointed a study committee to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality that pays particular attention to biblical conceptions of gender and sexuality (Acts of Synod 2016, pp. 917-19). The committee presented an interim report to Synod 2019 (Acts of Synod 2019, pp. 716-17, 753-54). It is scheduled to present a final report to Synod 2021 (Acts 2016, p. 927).

About the Author

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is pastor of North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.

See comments (8)

Comments

      Thanks. Aaron, for a thought provoking article on the LGBTQ issue, as it relates to the practical matter of how our denomination is going act toward this cultural shift.  I think you are over reacting, especially if your suggestion is for the denomination to start contemplating a split.  I think our denomination would be better discussing ways both sides of this issue can live in harmony with each other, perhaps similar to the way the women in office was resolved.
       There are more similarities between the women in office issue and the LGBTQ issue than Aaron acknowledges.  The women in office issue was more than a church order issue.  Churches left our denomination and a separate seminary was formed because in their eyes allowing women to have authority over men (as elders and pastors) was an act of disobedience to God, a moral issue.  Many churches in our denomination still hold that position. 
       The thing is, as a denomination, we survived by deciding to stay together.  Sure, churches left the denomination. But by allowing both positions the denomination, for the most part, has remained healthy, as a whole.   And this is likely to happen over the LGBTQ issue.  As a denomination, we have survived many sticky issues in our history, such as  women voting in the church, marital divorce, dancing, Christian education, abortion, and there are others.  No doubt, this will be a sore wound for a while.  But with time, the wound will heal, as with these other issues.  We will come to realize this is not the central issue of the Christian faith.
      But if we push this issue to the center of what identifies us as Christians then there will be a spirit of divisiveness, and a broken denomination.  If we let the LGBTQ issue divide us or break our denomination into parts then we have no right to call ourselves the body of Christ.  With the hundreds of Christian church denominations, it is not a particular contemporary tenet that makes it Christian.  Nor should it for us.  We need to learn how to live in harmony with our differences and celebrate what makes us the one true church.

Thanks for the thought article Aaron.  I don't think you are at all overreacting, but rather responsibly discussing a critical and fundamental issue that is in front if the denomination (and the broader church) now.

You are quite correct to assert that this issue is unlike WICO.  And in fact, I couldn't find a proponent of WICO who didn't disclaim the two questions were similar back in 1992 when I served in Synod on the committee assigned overtures re whether to ratify a prior synod's decision to allow WICO.

Aaron and others who read this – this is definitely a long reply.  I pray that it is helpful in this conversation.

Thanks, Aaron, for your work in putting this online article together.  There is much referenced here, and these stories from other denominations are good for us to chew on as we as a denomination wrestle with what God calls us into.  And I appreciate the balanced and measured tone you have used. Thanks for keeping the conversation a hospitable one. It was also thought-provoking, and so I’ve been trying to sit with the questions it raises in me.

Here are a couple responses/questions that it shaped in me.  I will try to stay close to the language used in the article (traditional; inclusive; identity; etc).  I will also use the acronym WICO for Women in Church Office. There’s likely a lot more to keep thinking about. Thanks again, Aaron, for the work you’ve put in. 

First, you write, “one of the most critical differences seems to be the concept of identity in Christ.”  Is it possible that our ‘identity in Christ’ is actually one of the most critical similarities, one that holds us together amidst our differences? 

Let me explore one particular example: a person who identifies as gay, as living with same-sex attraction.  I agree that those holding the traditional position and those holding the inclusive position have a different view of how to live out a gay-identity (same-sex attraction) in Christ.  The traditional position says that the only faithfully Christian ways forward are celibacy, God-given attractional change or a heterosexual marriage while living with same-sex attraction.  The inclusive position accepts those three possibilities and adds that gay marriage is also a faithful way to live in Christ. Clearly those are different ways forward with how to live out a gay-identity.  

But I think those holding both positions might recognize that a person’s gay-identity is a sub-identity under our identity in Christ, an identity to be surrendered to our new identity in Christ (just as I hold that my straight-identity, opposite-sex attraction, needs to be surrendered to my new identity in Christ).  

I trust that all Christians are wrestling with how to surrender to our new identity “in Christ”, how to die and rise on our way with Jesus.  This is one place where it is similar to the WICO conversation: I imagine that both ‘sides’ in the CRC trust deeply that those on the other ‘side’ are authentically “working out their salvation with fear and trembling” in community, submitting to Christ.  Could it be that we still need to spend some time leaning into that common identity, and the posture of trust and curiosity that it calls us to?

Secondly, you quote Dr. John Cooper as saying, “The issues are very different.  One is about the church order, the other about the moral order.” I understand that what he is getting at is the difference in the ‘weight’ of the decisions around these conversations, and how much dissonance is tolerable within a unified community.  But what I’ve heard from those who have left over the WICO decision is that the CRC decision wasn’t a tolerable difference; it was too ‘weighty.’ To them, the CRC’s decision to hold both positions as valid was about obedience to God’s Word. Both the WICO conversation and the LGBTQ conversation have that in common: both are about interpreting God’s Word to His people.  And in that way, I think that biblical ‘moral order’ and biblical ‘church order’ both are subsumed under a bigger order, “God’s order”, God’s will – and both are seen in the lens of obedienceIf so, doesn’t the fact that the CRC has people on both sides of the WICO conversation mean that there are people in the CRC who hold to their WICO position in such a way (not holding it as central/decisive) that they are ok to make room for the other position, while still believing their own position to be most obedient to God?  Can we imagine the same might be true with the LGBTQ conversation?  

Maybe it helps to think of four groups in that WICO conversation:

Group A believes that women should not hold office, and so Group A left the CRC because the CRC decision to validate both views was of such significant weight that they could not compromise.

Group B believes that women should not hold office, but Group B stayed in the CRC because the decision around WICO was deemed not to be weighty enough to separate.  There was a deeper unity in Christ; WICO differences could be subsumed to that deeper obedience, God’s call to unity.

Group C believes that women should be able to hold office, but Group C stayed in the CRC because the decision around WICO was deemed not to be weighty enough to separate.  There was a deeper unity in Christ; WICO differences could be subsumed to that deeper obedience, God’s call to unity.

Group D believes that women should be able to hold office everywhere, and so Group D left the CRC because the decision to validate both views was of such significant weight that they could not compromise.

It seems to me that the current CRC is made up of (primarily) groups B and C. And I see something beautiful in that.  I see what at times is a painful unity, a ‘carrying the cross’ sort of togetherness, but in that unity, I see a witness to the world of the glory of God, an answer to Jesus prayer in John 17.

Here’s my concern with your call towards gracious separation: I think it assumes that we can land only in Group A or Group D.  I wonder instead whether what the CRC needs is a longer gracious conversation.  Could we spend time talking together, working through this conversation in a good way?  Over time, I imagine people will find themselves in Group A, B, C or D. Maybe in the end, there will be so few in B or C that a unity amidst this difference cannot hold, it is indeed seen as too weighty a decision, and your article will prove true.  But if we start with separation, we eliminate the possibility of discerning a deeper call to unity. 

Just to paint the picture a bit, I imagine tasking a group of people in the CRC (from as wide a spectrum as are willing to help) to author together a new piece: A Cause for Division?  LGBTQ Inclusion and Unity in the CRC.  Could the CRC officially task a group to attempt to mirror the work of Dr. John Cooper’s work on WICO (1991) for this current LGBTQ conversation, graciously encouraging the work and generously supporting it with patience?  And then use that new written work as one way (maybe not the only way) to have a good conversation within the denomination? Could we trust to God’s Spirit that we as CRC people would find ourselves learning together both about others and ourselves, and perhaps landing in the places where God has called us (maybe that looks like A, B, C and D above).  And then ask, “Given where we are, now what?”

Maybe after that, we will find ourselves almost exclusively in A and D.  And then go separate ways. But maybe, just maybe we will find that there are a whole lot of people in the CRC that hold to their traditional or inclusive position in such a way that they are ok to make room for the other position.  Maybe we will find a whole lot of people who feel the ‘moral order’ question of same-sex marriage can actually be subsumed under a larger obedience to God’s order, His call to visible and tangible unity in Christ through His Spirit.  Can we imagine that?

Thanks Rev. Vriesman for the pragmatic insight. I think Aaron's look at church history should be given great weight in this conversation as we go forward. I made a similar argument years ago in council that the WICO issue will naturally lead to the LGBTQ issue because already twenty-plus years ago we saw other denominations that went down the WICO hermeneutical path also went down the LGBTQ hermeneutical path. It didn't end with WICO and hence there is a logical progression. If you can wipe away Bible passages here and there, the dragon of relativism gets stronger and stronger.  And while the current problem is probably best resolved by his recommendations, there are other demons on the horizon, namely, abortion and euthanisa. In other words, I don't see smooth seas ahead for the inclusionsists even if the CRC splits. 

The old adage of "personnel is policy" his very pertinent to this discussion. Much of the ballyhoo over this issue can be attributed to the academics and leadership within the CRC steering the ship to the left(I make no apologies).  And just like the North American Lutheran church, the traditionalists would be holding the short end of the stick when is comes down to property and resources, which, over time, has come under control of the inclusionists. My hunch is that under Vriesman's proposal, the traditionalists would be forming the new church and their departure will greatly felt in the budget.  But circling back to Aaron's observation on history, the ELCA had a 23% reduction in membership and lost 50% of revenues within 14 years of its 1987 conception and conversely the conservative Lutheran branches have seen remarkable growth. This is history and an omen of the inclusionists future.

Thanks for clearly defining the disagreements and the cause of disagreements, your reflections are very helpful.

I do have a concern about the conclusion however.  The way I read Scripture, always subject to the disagreements you point out, Jesus was very clear about his desire for His Church as recorded in John 17.  Jesus stressed the unity of the church for the sake of the Gospel.  The first church addressed by Jesus in the book we call Revelation was Ephesus, they were chastised for lack of love for each other, they cared more about getting it right than loving each other.  In Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth he decries the division between those choosing for Paul, Apollos, Cephas/Peter, or Christ.  To me it is clear Paul believed dividing the church is a very serious sin.  And yet, we have churches with little museums celebrating being the first to commit the sin of division with the RCA.  We have churches who put on a big production year after year celebrating the division of 1517.  For decades our Christian schools taught doctrine with the fomula, "the Lutherans believe x, the Methodist believe Y, the Baptist believe Z, and we have the truth because we believe what the Bible teaches."  Maybe its time we stop commiting the sin of division over what we think about things, and start living the Gospel message about first loving God and also loving each other. 

One more thought, maybe if the CRC spent as much time worrying about heterosexual relationships as they do about the 3% of the population we would be a light to the world showing it does make a difference when one finds his/her identy in Christ.

I am very distressed with Rev. Vriesman’s call for “amicable separation” for a number of reasons.

First, the positions he outlines are just two possible (polar) opposites and do not take into account that there are any number of mediating positions that might allow us to move forward as we prayerfully wait however long it takes for the Holy Spirit to lead us together into all the truth of what Jesus taught us.

Second, I believe Paul Verhoef is entirely correct in stating that, biblically speaking, our identity is not in our sexuality but in Christ—and so should be our unity.

Third, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy because they refused to shepherd those whom they considered lawbreakers (the “am ha-aretz”). Rev. Vrieman’s argumentation would have been stronger if it reflected a humble, loving, very long walk with those who are same-sex attracted. If he has indeed done that, perhaps he could have made that clear in his article.

Fourth, calling for “amicable separation” while we are still actively addressing this issue within the context of our widest assembly painfully undercuts our agreed-upon way of seeking to be the Body of Christ together. We should exhaust all means of finding each other before we seek such a divorce.

Fifth, our denomination did find a way forward on a similar issue: divorce and remarriage. While historically it was held that remarriage is, in fact, living in perpetual idolatry, when we re-examined the matter, we allowed each church to decide how it should proceed in providing pastoral care to its members in this regard. That was a humble, wise, and loving decision that showed deep integrity by celebrating our deeper unity in Christ. It could work equally well today if we stopped insisting on our own interpretation, understanding, and way in such controversial matters.

 In what possible sense could Rev. Vriesman imagine such a separation as being "amicable"?

 

It's troubling to hear of CRC members calling for the acceptance of different Scriptural interpretations of the Bible reflecting today's secular world. No wonder our denomination's membership is dwindling. We would do well to diligently consider Paul's warning in Romans 10:3 saying "Since they did not know th righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." 

Speculation as to whether the Christian Reformed Church should separate over the issue of same sex relationships is probably premature, since, as The Banner pointed out, we have not yet received the committee's final report and we do not know what their recommendations will be.  Then, of course, Synod must decide what to do with those recommendations.  Would those who are saying that we must remain one denomination still say that if Synod stated that pastors who participate in same sex marriages must be deposed, and that churches who do not depose them will be expelled from the denomination?  Will they say that if the church actually begins deposing ministers and expelling churches?  Conversely, if synod decides to deal with this issue as it did with issue of women in ecclesiastical office, would those who hold to our present position agree that we should remain together?

In my opinion this is not a matter of dividing the one church of Christ.  That church, traditionally called "the invisible church" is made up true Christians from all denominations.  The visible church or organizational church is already divided.  In fact, sometimes in our zeal to remain one, we have divided even more.  And I am not so sure that this is a bad thing.  Churches I have served have joined with churches from other denominations for combined lenten and Good Friday services.  That included Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Assemblies of God, and other demominations, including ones that have different views on homosexuality.  I still am in prayer meetings with pastors and members of other churches.  As we pray, some are speaking in tongues, some are nice and quiet like me, others say an occasional "Amen."  We all enjoy fellowship in prayer.  And we don't talk about those things divide us.  We already know that we don't agree on them.  And if I managed to convince the Baptist minister to baptize children of believers, he would be deposed and no longer be a blessing to his Baptist church.  And as much as I might disagree with the Roman Catholic priest on prayers to Mary and the saints, if I convinced him of our church's position, he might not able to be a blessing to his church.  So, if the Christian Reformed church were to divide on the issue of same sex relationships, it would not bother me.  Keep a balance between truth and unity is not easy.  Perhaps the fact that Christian are worshipping together across denominiational lines and not opposing and even killing each other in bitter power struggles is really evidence of the work of God's Spirit among us.

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