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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).