I was proud of our congregation. For four consecutive Sundays about a year and a half ago we looked at the issue of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. And it didn’t blow up the church. In fact, I think it made us healthier.
We planned for it carefully. For our general consideration of the subject, I preached in the morning on sex as a gift, sex as an idol, and sex and the life of discipleship. In the evening we examined first the biblical underpinnings of the Christian Reformed Church’s position on homosexual orientation and practice, then the scientific evidence regarding sexual identity, and then finally heard a panel discussion regarding the experience of homosexual Christians in the church. After each presentation we held facilitated discussions in small groups. As a result of those meetings, our elders felt led to add a final session to evaluate the series as a whole and to talk about next steps.
Nearly 100 people attended each evening. Even though they held diverse convictions, especially regarding homosexuality, they learned together and listened to one another with respect and without nastiness. As a pastor, that made me proud.
To be honest, I had dreaded the conversation. Civil discussion has become almost a lost art in a culture that loves to rant. Homosexuality is certainly one of those “hot-button” issues in the church and society that can encourage such ranting. And unlike other controversial matters—taxes, for example—sexuality lies very close to our personal identity. It is inevitably an intimate subject. The potential for someone to be deeply, personally hurt in such a discussion is enormous. I had always considered an open conversation on homosexuality in the church too dangerous.
Our church learned, however, that not talking about the issue carries its own set of risks and that silence on the subject also inflicts pain. When at a council meeting we became aware that the denomination’s stance regarding homosexual orientation and practice was not well understood by many of our elders and deacons, we resolved to do something about the ignorance that our silence had produced. As a council we resolved to read the 1973 and 2002 study reports on the issue. We also formed a task force to come up with a plan to help our congregation consider the subject. Our four-week series was the result of their planning.
In their evaluation afterward, the elders judged the series a success. Some good learning happened. People were challenged to think deeply and Christianly about sexuality. They discovered that we can and should talk together in the church about such matters.
The elders noted something else, however, about our conversation—particularly in the small group sessions but also in our questions and comments after the presentations: we were weakest in speaking about homosexuality biblically.
To some extent we could appreciate the scientific complexities surrounding sexual orientation. And we were certainly able to tell stories, many extremely sad and heartbreaking, of the experiences of homosexual men and women in the church and in families. But when we turned to what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, we were all over the map.
It wasn’t so much that participants were ill-informed, although in some cases that may have been true. It was more that they had heard all sorts of biblical interpretations across the whole theological and ideological spectrum. Also, as a group we lacked the Reformed interpretive skills necessary to evaluate those interpretations critically and confessionally.
Familiarity with more recent interpretations also led some to regard the CRC’s “middle-aged” position as automatically obsolete or superceded by the newer models. Even middle-aged study reports, however, deserve to be evaluated according to their merits rather than dismissed primarily because they are old.
Do we even want to bother with interpreting Scripture? I sometimes detect hints of a kind of postmodern cynicism that says people can make the Bible say pretty much what they want it to say—making biblical interpretation largely irrelevant. I certainly believe that our long, painful consideration of women in church office has made us extremely skittish about entering into such biblical conversations about controversial matters.
While understandable, that fear is also lamentable because central to the work and calling of church is to speak biblically to the issues of our times.
After our experience in considering one of those issues, our church council decided that our congregation as well as the wider church needs help in interpreting what the Bible has to say in regard to homosexuality. We noted that our denomination’s most recent biblical work on the issue stems from 1973’s report. Since that time a multitude of books and articles and study reports have commented on the subject, and other churches have been discussing it at great length. How can we expect our 38-year-old report to respond adequately to all the biblical and theological discussions of nearly four decades?
In addition, our cultural landscape is vastly different today. Although the 1973 report uncannily anticipates committed homosexual unions (p. 600), we now live in an age in which Canadian law and the laws of a growing number of U.S. states regard it a right for homosexual persons to marry. In 1973 commercial TV regarded homosexuality largely as a taboo subject for its viewers; it’s now a major theme in many sitcoms. Since 1973 the American Psychiatric Association has removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), now regarding it as a sexual variant. Regardless of how we view these changes, no one can doubt they represent an enormous cultural shift. The point is simply this: if there was ever a time for up-to-date biblical teaching on the subject, it is now.
This need was already recognized about a decade ago. A CRC study committee on Pastoral Care for Homosexual Members suggested in its report to Synod 2002 that the church could benefit from more current biblical and theological work on this matter.
Even though the committee judged it outside of its mandate “to re-examine Scriptural texts that deal explicitly or implicitly with homosexuality,” the committee did say “there may be wisdom, both pastorally and theologically, for the church to address these concerns at some time in the future” (Agenda for Synod 2002, p. 315). Synod 2002 agreed, saying that “there may be wisdom in developing a current response to the many recent treatments of the biblical passages pertaining to this issue” (Acts of Synod 2002, p.483). That was basically an open invitation for an overture from some church or classis (regional group of churches),â”€an invitation that has sat on the church’s desk for nearly a decade.
After our series, the elders asked what God was calling us to do in light of what we’d learned, observed, and experienced. We solicited feedback from the congregation. We found great consensus that we need to promote better biblical understanding of this issue. We also decided that this is an area of concern for all the churches, not simply our congregation. So we did something that seems so stereotypically Christian Reformed: we wrote an overture. In it, we asked our classis to request synod “to appoint a study committee to review the biblical teachings regarding homosexual orientation and practice in light of current biblical and theological study of these issues.”
Classis Grand Rapids East approved the overture in its meeting last May. Because it was too late for Synod 2010’s printed agenda, it’s included in the business for this year’s synod.
As overtures go, it’s extremely modest. It does not ask for a re-examination of the denomination’s position on homosexual orientation and practice, although some may suspect that is its goal. What the overture asks for is a review of our biblical teachings with an eye to the biblical and theological work that has been done on this issue in the past 38 years. We didn’t even want to use the word “reexamine” because we thought it sounded prejudicial, assuming in advance that there’s something wrong with the denomination’s biblical teachings on homosexuality. Some may of course think so, but that was certainly not the consensus of our council or classis.
Our goal is to begin talking again about the issue biblically. For that purpose, we ask for this review.
Talking biblically is not necessarily easy or safe. It can be painful and unsettling. To be honest, I’m still scared of the conversation. It will hurt. But talking biblically is the work of the church, and not doing that work is even more dangerous—perhaps deadly.
Doing that work, on the other hand, is ultimately life-giving and life-changing for the church. After all, it is by listening to God’s Word and following God’s Spirit that we are reformed.
In Official Language
The council of Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church overtures Classis Grand Rapids East to overture Synod  to appoint a study committee to review the biblical teachings regarding homosexual orientation and practice in light of current biblical and theological study of these issues.
1. Our latest official statement regarding biblical teachings on this issue is  years old. 2. There has been significant biblical and theological consideration of these issues since then, both in the Reformed tradition and in the wider Christian church. 3. Both the 2002 Study Committee report on Pastoral Care for Homosexual Members and the advisory committee assigned the report at Synod 2002 recognized the possible usefulness of such a review: a) After discussing the responses of churches and individuals to the 1973 report, the 2002 Study Committee stated that “ . . . given the thoughtful challenges posed by individuals and churches within the denomination, there may be wisdom, both pastorally and theologically, for the church to address these concerns at some time in the future” (Agenda for Synod 2002, p. 315). b) Noting this statement from the report, the advisory committee observed “ . . . there may be wisdom in developing a current response to the many recent treatments of the biblical passages pertaining to this issue” (Acts of Synod 2002, p.483) 4. In this time of social, legal, and cultural change in regard to homosexuality, our congregations need such a study in order to address pastorally and theologically individuals and the wider culture in a biblically informed manner.