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.”