Wolterstorff: Biblical Justice and Same-Sex Marriage

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Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff spoke about same-sex marriage for the first time publicly last week, laying out how he came to his conclusion that biblical justice requires that people of homosexual orientation be granted “the great good of civil and ecclesial marriage.”

Approximately 300 people came to Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., on October 13 to hear Wolterstorff speak at an event sponsored by All One Body, an organization that advocates full inclusion in the church of people who are LGBT, including those living in monogamous, committed relationships. Wolterstorff is well-known in CRC circles, having taught philosophy at Calvin College for 30 years before moving on to teach philosophy at Yale Divinity School.

Wolterstorff started his speech with a caveat that he is not an authority on the topic of same-sex marriage and that his presentation would be more about how he, over many years, came to his current conclusion. He noted that part of his change in views is a result of listening to people who are gay, that he has followed studies of sexuality published over the years, and that he has studied Scripture passages related to the topic at hand. 

Being on the homosexual end of the sexual orientation continuum, he said, doesn’t seem to him a disorder, a mark of the fallenness of creation, but rather a creational variance. “When those with homosexual orientation act on their desires in a loving, committed relationship, [they] are not, as far as I can see, violating the love command,” he said. “If homosexual orientation is not morally blameable or a disorder, and if members of the church are to accept people as they are, then why is it wrong for people with [homosexual] orientation [to act] on their desires in a loving and covenantal relationship?”

Turning to Scripture, he noted that one of the features of the Reformed tradition is that its leaders have always opposed proof texts.

He went through passages in Leviticus and said that in a wide-ranging set of behaviors being condemned, it is arbitrary to pluck out condemnation of male homosexuality and universalize that condemnation while ignoring almost everything else. “I don’t see how these two passages, when interpreted in context, can be used to say that homosexual activity in a loving and covenantal relationship is wrong.”

He said that Romans 1 depicts a truly appallingly wicked people. “Can we generalize from this passage and say that Paul is saying that God says homosexual activity is always wrong? There is a night-and-day difference between what Paul describes and the same-sex couples I know,” he said.

Wolterstorff noted that the Scripture references homosexual behavior seven times. Scripture does speak repetitively about justice, he said, suggesting that God loves justice and that we are to do justice. A striking feature of justice, he said, is its connection to those who are  most vulnerable. In our in our society, he noted, those who are homosexual are the most vulnerable to being wronged. 

Wolterstorff’s speech met with mixed reactions.

Rev. Tyler Wagenmaker, 42, the pastor of Beaverdam CRC in Hudsonville, Mich., was less than impressed. “It was interesting to hear how Dr. Wolterstorff had slowly evolved in his thinking on the matter of same-sex intimate relationships and marriage,” he said, “although I was a bit surprised that most of the scholarship he quoted was old scholarship and not up-to-date.”

Wagenmaker also found Wolterstorff’s exegesis of Scripture lacking. “I was thinking he would have spent more time on his strength, which is bringing to bear a philosophical perspective; instead he spent most of his time exegeting Scripture, which is not one of his strengths.”

Wagenmaker cited the need for further study and listening. “I believe our denomination will benefit greatly by the study committee’s work on human sexuality that Synod 2016 commissioned,” he said. “Many of our members are searching for a thoughtful Reformed approach toward this issue, and even many of our thoughtful academics (young and old) could stand to benefit from the good scholarship that this study committee will produce over the next five years.”

He remains hopeful that All One Body will be open to further learning and reflection on the future work of that study committee and that the group would join with the rest of the denomination in a thoughtful and humble listening process.

Steven Tuit, 45, an elder at Neland Avenue CRC, said he attended because his church is having a conversation about this issue, and that Wolterstorff is someone he has admired for many years. “I was impressed by Dr. Wolterstorff’s clear, logical argument and by how thoughtfully and consistently he dealt with the scriptural texts that are often cited,” he said. “I have heard pieces of this argument before, but the thoughtful way they were put together gave them greater weight.”

He said he left convinced that the CRC needs to look at the issue far more intentionally, including looking at the basis of the 1973 decision.

Jeff Bouman, 51, is also a member of Neland. He said that Wolterstorff spoke with care and with reverence for tradition and for Scripture, walking the audience through the relevant biblical passages. “I thought his conclusions were weighty, and they took courage to speak in this place.”

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About the Author

Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.

See comments (20)


While I applaud the sincerity of Dr. Wolterstorff, I must disagree with his method and his conclusions.

Unwilling to call homosexual behavior sin Dr. Wolterstorff creates a new category called “creational variance.” One wonders why he places only homosexuality in this new category. Why not include lust, or murder, or theft, or envy? Why is only homosexuality to be considered “creational variances?” He gives no reason for arbitrary division.

He then claims, “When those with homosexual orientation act on their desires in a loving, committed relationship, [they] are not, as far as I can see, violating the love command.” His standard for what constitutes sin seems to be the intention of the sinner rather than God’s command. This position is continued through his troubling handling of the passages in Romans 1.

His conclusion that if a homosexual just commits his sin in a loving and committed fashion it negates God’s condemnation of it. Is he really claiming that the standard for sin is the behavior of the sinner? If I murder my friend with great care and concern does it excuse my sin?

The double standard granted to this particular sin is not going to solve anything. It is not showing compassion or love to the homosexual community. It does not honor the justice or grace of God.

A clear presentation of the Gospel is showing true love. Homosexuality is a sin, and just like any other sin its only remedy is true repentance and re-birth. Atonement can only be found in Christ’s death. It cannot be found in our committing our sin in a loving way.

I agree with Steve Walker's comments. Dr. Wolterstorff has created a new standard for sin. This is cotrary to scripture.

Thanks for starting this conversation in the CRC.  I hope that soon we will be able to celebrate the anniversary of when same sex couples were totally accepted in our denomination without reservation.  Dr. Waltersdorph's conclusion evolved over time, I'm sure.  We are evolving in our ideas, too, and may or may not come to the same cconclusion.

To publish such and article telling CRC members of the heresy exhorted by Dr. Nicholas Wolterstoreff, bangs yet another nail in the coffin awaiting the passing of the Christian Reformed Church.  If Wolterstoreff's lecture must be pubished the Banner's responsibilty is to include a side bar item clearly stating the Reformed teaching on practicing homosexulal relationships. 

Dr. Wolterstorff says that “When those with homosexual orientation act on their desires in a loving, committed relationship, [they] are not, as far as I can see, violating the love command ....”

I suspect the same would be said by husbands and wives who both agree to "swinging," or an "open marriage." Those spouses typcially declare their open marriages are done "in love," so that they can have a "stronger marriage."  In fact, having practiced law for a goodly number of years, I've witnessed spouses who commit adultery who are convinced they didn't violate but rather obeyed the "love command" (they were "in love" with the other person), and men who have had sex with children who were convinced -- as were the children -- they didn't violate the "love command" either.

I'm reading a book right now, called Oneida (yes the name is that of the silverware company), a Christian community begun in the early/mid 1800's that practiced "open marriage" within the community, saying that was the only way to "truly show love and obedience" to God.  Sexual exclusivity was effectively considered by this Christian community to be a violation of the "love command."

This is the problem of course with reducing scripture to one of its more ambiguous expressions of its message, while at the same time ignoring the more specific expressions.  It reduces the analysis of pretty much everything to "hey, those are nice people, just like me even as far as I can tell, so who are we to suggest there is anything wrong with what they are doing or promoting?"  

I'm not sure there is much of anything that scripture would prohibit if the test is what Dr. Wolterstoff's proffers in this presentation.  Indeed, Dr. Wolterstorff offered nothing in this presentation that represented a grappling with the difficult scriptural texts that need to be grappled with on this subject.  Indeed, my broader concern is that the thinking presented here promotes the idea that all such difficult texts disappear in importance, and be replaced by the "love command," which when cut off from the more specific scriptural texts ends up proscribing little if anything when whoever wants to do whatever decides he/she is in fact obeying the "love command."

I'm sorry to see some people respond to Dr. Wolterstorff's perspective with nothing more than fearmongering and ridicule.  I'm grateful that The Banner had the courage to cover his presentation. I hope it will carry the discussion forward. For too long gay people in the church have seen themselves portrayed as disordered, broken and shame filled, simply because that is how the official stance, Synod 73, portrays them. They have also  seen their relationships discussed as nothing more than sexual self-indulgence, a lack of sexual self-control, or the sexualization of their mental disorder, since this is the only context discussed in the official stance. I hope Dr. Wolterstorff, and others who share his perspective can offer an antidote to this.

I too, listend to W.'s video with great appreciation. Steve Walker asks why the catergory  "creational variance" would not include murder etc. and concludes it is arbitary. I seem to remember W. carefully explained that his criteria is the love command. He used the example of kleptomania. Since stealing is not an act of love it cannot be justified even if it could be deemed to come natural to some people.

Doug Vandegriend suggests that under W.'s criteria any behavior can be justified as long as the person does it from the right motives or thinks he/she is acting out of love. He warns that the love command is ambiguous and must not be divorced from the more specific commands.

Is that what W. actually calls for? Does W. ignore all specific commands? No! W. relied on many specific commands such as doing justice in the Bible is almost always related to those who are vulnerable. What W. wants to discern is whether the few biblical specific commands related to same-sex behavior when viewed as explications of the central love command are applied correctly by us, today.

Nick.  I realize BE talks about specific scriptural texts when talking about "justice" (have read his several books on that as well), but he barely touches, if touches as all, specific texts about homosexuality.  Indeed, he begins his presentation by summarizing his evolution in position on the question by noting that people he has known turned out to be gay.

So I'm curious.  How do you think, based on how you hear DW, is it possible for the church to say "no, that is sinful," to a married couple who by all appearances live and support their children, even their neighbors, but decide to have a sexually "open marriage" where each spouse has sex with others?  Or should the church say yhat the "love command" is not violated and so open marriages done (with love of course) are not sinful.

Sorry, Nick.  That first BE should be DW.  Auto correct thought otherwise. :-)


W. talks about committed same-sex relationships, not promisicuity. He also unpacks a Biblical view of marriage which precludes the kind of open marriage you propose.

Nick.  First, I'm not proposing anything.  

Second, giving a label to something rejected, here the label "promiscuity," does nothing to meaningfully advance an argument.  Open marriage fans would likely reject the label of "promiscuous" and, if they listened to DW's presentation, they may well appeal to his "love command" as a defense, together with his lack of grappling with specific texts that to most theological scholars of the Reformed bent seems to stand squarely in the way of how DW develops his "love command" argument.

And if DW's "unpacking" of the "love command" wasn't to their liking, I suspect they would unpack it otherwise, but like DW also avoid grappling with the more specific texts that might be seen as standing squarely in the way of their own "unpacking."

Doug: Why do you say W. does not deal with the specific commands that prohibit same-sex acts? There are 7 such texts in the Bible and W. deals with everyone of them. What I find particularly compelling is that W. takes the specific texts and seeks to understand them not as proof texts, but in relation to the whole of scripture. Is that not entirely defensible?

You are right, peole might, and will, make claims that their actions pass the love command test but such claims are hollow unless supported by the rest of scripture.

I like Wolterstorff’s perspective.  It involves a reasonable perspective on Scripture, as well as making reasonable sense concerning the issue of same sex marriage in our cultural context today.  What sets us apart from the animal kingdom is the human ability to use reason.  That is how we are image bearers of God.  And using such god-given reason (as Wolterstorff does), the logical conclusion is that same sex marriage in the context of love and commitment, is as honorable as marriage between two people of the opposite sex.  Sexual activity between two same sex marriage partners is no more harmful than between two opposite sex partners.  Sin typically results in harm inflicted on oneself or others.  That is not the case when it comes to same sex marriage.  So to typify same sex marriage or same sex activity in the marital state as sin seems arbitrary.  It leaves you asking, why is this considered sin?  I think this plays largely into Wolterstorff’s perspective.

This issue on same sex marriage has similarities to the issue of allowing women in the church and family to hold positions of authority over men.  There are plenty of Scripture passages to indicate that women should not hold such authority, but also other passages that would cause one to question the reasonableness of such a position.  And of course, there is the argument of Scripture being written in a cultural context that forbid women from normally holding such authority.  Human reason seems to dictate that in our cultural context there is no good reason to forbid women from holding office in the church or from having authority in the family and in society.  It just doesn’t make sense.  So taking the high road, we decided, as churches (synod), to allow women to hold church office, provided individual churches agree with such decision, which, today, most churches in our denomination do agree.  The decision to allow women authority in the church made more common sense than to forbid it, even though one could point to specific Scripture passages forbidding such authority.  The overall intent of Scripture was able to subvert Paul’s specific teachings, or to at least see those Scriptures from within a perverted culture of his day.  A person can make an argument for just about anything by proof texting.  Hence the multitude of Christian denominations.  And hence,  the argument that women should not have authority over men.  But by using common sense and by considering Scripture’s intent without proof texting, it makes logical Christian sense to allow women to hold all offices in the church.

The situation regarding same sex marriage in the CRC sounds similar (if not the same to me) to that of women holding office in the church.  I think that our society up until recently and especially the church today has been driven by a prejudice against homosexuals that has come as the result of a Christian bias against homosexuals (just as there was a bias against women holding equal authority).  That bias has come as a result of misunderstanding Scripture’s intent, whether it be allowing women authority in the church or allowing same sex marriage as a God honoring institution.   In due time I hope we come to such a perspective regarding same sex marriage, even as Walterstorff seems to have presently.  Let’s use our god-given reason as we seek to understand Scripture and this important issue.

Nick.  Your saying that DW ""deals with" the biblical texts is enoigh, but what I specifically said was that DW does not "grapple" with those texts.  

There is nothing that DW says that is new about those texts.  Those "alternative" interpretations have been around for a long time, but never accepted in the Reformed community.  But more important to my own assessment ig DW as not "grappling" comes from assessments I've heard from theologians/biblical scholars I respect, who are not knee-jerk scholars for or against one or the other side of this question.  Their assessment is that DW deals with these texts by dismissing them, not by grappling with them.  It seems he comes to a conclusion of the question via his overriding commitment to his idea of the "love command" but then realizes he needs to say something about those texts and so repeats what some others have said.

To me, DW is like first Affirmative team speaker in a high school or college debate tournament.  After he is done  most of the audience says "well, that must be so; who could possibly argue with that?"

Of course, in this "debate," the first Negative team speaker never gets up to talk.  

One small point to illustrate a bit.  I'll bet many in the audience assume, as DW presents, that the phrase "spare the rod and spoil the child" is from scripture, even if it's is not (it's from a British fellow I recall who was mocking Proverbs by linguistically recharacterizing it).  I think DW dismisses the difficult  texts (for his side of the argument) because he has reached another conclusion in his mind for reasons other than those texts and he needs now to dispense with them for the sake of persuading the audience that has come to see what they want to be their champion in their political battle in both political and ecclesiastical forums.

"I think DW dismisses the difficult  texts (for his side of the argument) because he has reached another conclusion in his mind for reasons other than those texts and he needs now to dispense with them for the sake of persuading the audience that has come to see what they want to be their champion in their political battle in both political and ecclesiastical forums."

This key point, made by Doug Vande Griend, is used by all those who want to "promote" any behavoir that fits their personal opinion.

Like some others have written, I fail to see the need to have articles like this in the Banner. What is the purpose? Is there an objective in place?

I'm grateful for the article and the mention of Dr. Wolterstorff.

He noted some passages in Leviticus too and aboce all I liked that he made an accent on the peculiarity of this topic for him. As he's not a specialist in same sex marriages. He made his opinion public and thank you The Banner for the post and the presentation. I was about to share it on Pimion this week on the blog.

Oh my goodness, who made Nicholas Wolterstorff the expert on biblical interpretation? Jesus made the apostle Paul an inspired author of scripture and when Paul describes practicing homosexual behaviour he is describing it as the very lowest form of human depravity. He states in Ephesians 5:3, "But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people." Jesus is my Saviour. He died on a cross to save me from hell and He states that He did not come to change one letter or even one stoke of the pen from the Law. (Matt. 5: 17-18) The standard for Christian living has been set very high. Already a few years ago, 6.4% of young adults ages 18 to 29 declared themselves either gay, lesbian, or transgender, and that's not okay. Just the other day I heard the testimony of a man who struggled for 27 years with a practicing homosexual lifestyle, and finally confessed before God his horrible sin, and God, by His Holy Spirit, freed him from this demon. That's the only answer to the epidemic we now face as a culture. After the fall overcoming temptation has been a constant source of pain but we, with the love of fellow believers, will overcome and some day. It will be over and we will glorify Jesus forever and ever. But giving in to temptation and then just telling God to 'suck it up' and put up with our willful sin will have eternal consequences.

"Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same-sex activity but is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same-sex orientation."

Almost in every religion, some people condemn this act or some of them are positive. We need to figure out how this can be impacted by us.

First off, I am in agreement with Steve and Arie. Second, Wolterstorff had been at Calvin for 30 years and he changed his views over time. Why didn't Calvin know this?! It is like a slow growing cancer. Think of all the students he infected with this view. He planted a seed in their minds...