My Change of Heart and Mind On Same-sex Attraction and Marriage, Rev. Al Mulder
MY LEARNING JOURNEY
Born in 1936 and having grown up in a Christian Reformed Church, I do not recall ever deciding that same sex attraction was wrong. It was just assumed! As uncritically as we may have been reading the Bible, the message was that God condemns homosexuality. As for the concept of same-sex marriage, it was not even imagined.
My first serious encounter with the subject was in 1973 when Synod decided that same-sex attraction was not sinful but that same-sex sex was. Mostly, I filed it away and preferred not to think about it. But homosexuality came up again in the timeless conversation about ordaining women to church office. Conservative voices warned: If we ordain women, next thing we’ll be ordaining homosexual persons. I was supportive of the former but could not imagine the latter.
My next major encounter was in 2006. I had turned 70, my kid sister 50, and we spent a week together on the west coast. That week, she confided to me that she was gay and in a same-sex relationship (“I fell in love, and it just happened to be a woman”). After an awkward pause, I told her I loved her, and God loved her, but that I wasn’t sure what to think. I did pledge to give it further thought and prayer, which I did sporadically.
In 2013, I dived in with James Brownson’s BIBLE, GENDER, SEXUALITY (Eerdmans, 2013). And other affirming authors. I found their arguments plausible but still had many questions.
Two years later, as clerk of Classis Grand Rapids East, it was my task to do a final edit of its 2016 study report on “The Biblical and Theological Support Currently Offered by Christian Proponents of Same-Sex Marriage.” I was relieved I didn’t have to sign it, but I was moved to begin valuing love over knowledge (1 Cor. 13). All the while, God also began bringing more LGBTQ+ Christians into my life, to the second and third generation.
Fifteen years after my kid sister came out to me, I had my own “coming out” in support of same sex marriage. Below I summarize what I have come to believe is a faithful interpretation of what the Bible does and does not say about same sex attraction and marriage.
Reformed and Always Reforming. The Christian life is a life of learning and growing; in prayer, in faith, in fruitfulness, and in better understanding what the Bible says and the context in which it says it. Peter challenges us to grow in our faith and knowledge in Christ (2 Peter 3:18), and this has been my consistent Christian experience—in my education and active ministry as well as in my retirement years. I pray that God will continue to reform us all in our posture toward same sex attraction and marriage.
Sexual Prohibitions in Scripture. .The Bible’s prohibition of same sex behavior refers primarily if not exclusively to prostitution, promiscuity, and other exploitive sexual abuses such as men molesting boys. Of course, the Bible condemns such sexual behavior. At the same time, the Bible gives no indication of condemning or even recognizing same sex attraction as an orientation, or of having any awareness of mutually committed and exclusive same sex relationships.
Creational Diversity. The Belgic Confession teaches that God makes himself known in two ways: by his holy and divine Word and through the beautiful book of the universe (cf. Article 2). A common interpretation of the Genesis story is that God’s good creation is limited to male and female. A contrasting interpretation, also informed by scientific study of that beautiful book of the universe, is that same sex orientations are not birth defects or disorders resulting from the Fall but are normal creational differences. God’s creating of male and female has developed over time into a range of diversity on the human gender and sexual orientation spectrum.
The Image of God in Everyone. Whatever our sexual orientation, all human beings are created in God’s image. May God forgive us if we regard same sex attracted persons as inferior image bearers and think of them as problems or projects undeserving of human intimacy. It is only natural for LGBTQ+ persons, as true image bearers of God, to desire physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational intimacy with another human being, and to flourish within the gifts and responsibilities of marriage as a loving, exclusive, life-long relationship.
Love Supersedes Knowledge. When Christians interpret scripture differently on disputable matters, we are cautioned by Paul’s instruction in 1st Corinthians 13, the famous chapter on love and knowledge. As important as knowledge may be, knowledge without love is a big zero (vs. 2). What’s more, knowledge is temporary (vs. 8), knowledge is partial and incomplete (vss. 9-10). What we know now is only a dull reflection of what is to come (vs.12). By contrast, love is the one ingredient that adds value to everything else (vss. 1-3). Love is patient and kind, love rejoices in truth. Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (vss. 4, 6-7). Paul concludes: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (vs. 13). Bottom line: “Love never fails” (vs. 8).
What Christian Love Looks Like
THE NEW COMMANDMENT
Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” —John 13:34-35
A Father's Response, Dr. John Hare
An Introductory Letter
This is a letter in response to the CRC report on gender and sexuality, and in particular to the recommendations of the report about gender transition. I write as a former member of the Calvin Philosophy Department (from 1989-2003) and formerly an office bearer at Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids. I am now Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale. I value my time with the CRC very highly, and I want to be as helpful as I can. My son Thomas and I did testify to the committee, but we do not find that their report shows any meaningful acknowledgement of that testimony.
My relevant experience is that my eldest child was assigned female at birth and had a gender transition at the age of 30. He is now Thomas Hare. During our time in Grand Rapids he was acutely uncomfortable with his assigned gender. This discomfort became more pronounced. There were several years when we were afraid he would kill himself. After transition he has become much more at peace with himself, and has started to be able to care for other people and to love the beauty of the outside world in ways that are new to him. I am very grateful to God for the technologies that have made this possible. I am also grateful for the support group that my wife and I found in New Haven, where parents of transitioning children could talk to each other. The position and some of the language of the current CRC report (denying the value of his transitioned life) are deeply harmful to our son and to us, and his perception that this is the position of the Christian church has led him away from the church and towards other non-Christian forms of religious expression.
As a philosophical theologian (someone who tries to use the discipline of philosophy to understand the basic commitments of the Christian faith), I need to say that I find nothing in Scripture or those basic commitments of the Christian faith that is inconsistent with saying that gender transition is for some people a blessing from God. Scripture does not address the topic directly, and could not do so because the technologies in question were not available. My own view, which I do not hold to be mandatory for Christians, is that being male or female or something else on the gender spectrum is not an eschatological status. This is why there is no marriage or being given in marriage in heaven, and why we will be in that respect like the angels. There may be something analogous in the new heavens and the new earth, but we do not know what it is. We do know that these statuses as currently practiced in society are full of sin, and are disordered by power relations. I think this is why we are told that in Christ there is not ‘male and female’, which I take to be a direct reference to the beginning of Genesis. We should allow individual conscience to find the right re-ordering. This is not the right place for a long disquisition. Suffice it to say that I think the CRC should not try to prescribe where Scripture does not. The current report is deeply harmful to our family and to all those who are in the same situation as we are.
A Detailed Summary on Gender Identity
My son, Thomas, has asked me to write a short summary of my views on gender transition for the purpose of helping the discussion of the recent CRC Report on this (and other) topics. I write this as someone who was an elder at Eastern Avenue CRC and taught at Calvin in the philosophy department for about 15 years. I am a Christian with a generally conservative theological position, at least by the standards of where I now am in New Haven, Connecticut. I have found that what count as liberal and conservative positions vary widely in different contexts. My son was assigned female at birth, and made a gender transition at about the age of 30. His video about his experience is available with the other materials on this site, and I strongly recommend looking at it. It is far better to approach the set of questions about gender transition after getting to know the inside story of those who have gone through it.
My idea is to see gender identity as a three-term relation, metaphysically speaking. Because I am thinking primarily of my son I will use male pronouns. There is something he found inside, a set of preferences for secondary sexual characteristics and for living a certain way, and he matched this at least roughly with something outside, with a social picture of what a man is like. The third term in the relation is the agent, the person himself, his heart or his will, which endorsed this match.
What does gender transition have to do with theology? Suppose we think of an individual essence, named on the white stone that God gives us in heaven as described in Revelation 2:17. What is the relation of gender identity to this individual essence? One way to ask this is eschatologically: in the next life are we going to be men or women or any of the other gender identities in between or different from these? I suggest that the analysis of gender identity as a relation is helpful in thinking about this. The social picture which is one term in the relation constituted by gender identity is itself likely to be a mixture of what is good and what is corrupt. Christian theology has the concept of sin. The prevailing social categories of virtue in the first century and now entrench power relations that are full of sin, though they are also not purely rotten; they are morally a mixture.
Does this mean that gender identity is, for Christian theology, unimportant? Not at all. Gender identity is like the pervasive character of racial identity in the American context: it affects almost everything else. We have been coming to see how much of our lives, including our intellectual scholarly lives, is bound up in both race and gender. We have to go, so to speak, through this, and how we go through it may well have a decisive effect on what we finally become. But this kind of importance is not essentialist in the sense that it says we are essentially man or woman or white or black or brown. I think it is possible to imagine a world in which we exist but we are not bound up in this way with race and not bound up in this way with gender. This is one reading of one strange feature of Galatians 3:28, which says that in Christ there is not Jew or Greek, not slave or free, not male and female. Why the change to ‘and’? I think this text is quoting Genesis 1:27, and modifying it. The text recognizes a difference between the three dichotomies mentioned: in all three cases there is a wrongful social division to be overcome, but in the case of male and female we are called to modify what seems like a natural classification because we seem to have been created that way. I think that we do not know that we are gendered in our final destination, and we do not know that we are not gendered. But I think we might take gender transition in this life to be part of the path to our eventual entering into the love between the members of the Trinity which is our destination.
Sometimes people say that ‘sex’ is a biological term and ‘gender’ a term of culture or social construction. But this distinction has been made problematic by the realization that the biology (in the sense of what the biologists study) has itself been influenced by social conceptions. We do not have one term (‘sex’) securely anchored in natural science, and the other term (‘gender’) wandering about with the vagaries of social fashion. I am not myself a biologist, and I have to take this claim from others. But I am told that the three main ways of dividing people into sexes (by functioning genitalia, chromosomes, and hormonal levels) do not in fact cohere.¹ People may fit into one of these divisions and not the other two, and then choices are made in accordance with prevailing social norms. Also sections of the brain may be, though this is not yet clear, sexually dimorphic. Moreover, the biology in a different sense (the bodies we actually live with) has been influenced by social conceptions, because newborns with ambiguous sex characteristics have routinely been altered so as to fit the prevailing norms.²
Does all of this mean that we have construction, so to speak, all the way down? This would not be consistent with the important point that a transgender male may insist that being a man is something he discovered, not simply something he made. He discovers a set of preferences, some of which are for what is ‘biological’ in a broad sense, but are not directly concerned with reproduction. They include preferences for what are sometimes called ‘secondary sexual characteristics’ such as hair in certain places on the body, a voice at certain registers, a certain musculature, etc. We now have the technology for altering these features of a person with hormones and surgery and they are not the same as that person’s reproductive capacity. The set can also include preferences for reproductive capacity, but when we are thinking about gender transition these are not the key preferences in play. The set of preferences is not confined to biology in this broad sense, however, but extends to characteristics that have a large socially-defined content, such as the preference for being able to help elderly parents with heavy suitcases. This example has a physical basis, namely a certain musculature, but in other examples the preferences can be for items that do not have such a basis in the person’s own body, as for example a preference for smoking cigars. As the centrality of the person’s own body to the preference decreases, the amount of social construction increases. By the term ‘gender’ I am going to mean the first two of the terms of the relation I mentioned in the first paragraph, and with the term ‘gender identity’ I am going to add the third. In other words, gender is the set of these preferences together with the social pictures which these preferences either do or do not match. The gender identity is then the endorsement (the third term) added to these two, since I am taking ‘identity’ to imply ‘identification’. This analysis implies that both gender and gender identity have both biological and socially-constructed elements.
My central constructive suggestion is that we see the set of preferences that a trans male discovers and endorses as described in a life-narrative about a normative (value-based) trajectory that relates where he is now, how this has developed over time, and where his life is headed. This picture has the advantage of allowing that the preferences can change, and then making these changes intelligible within a structure. A story, for example about my son’s life, that he had unthematized gender preferences that were at odds with his assignment as female at birth, can make sense of all sorts of apparently anomalous events of his childhood and adolescence. This story-fragment can bring unity retrospectively to his experience even though it is only part of the story of his life as a whole. The connection between narrative and identity has been a large theme in recent analytic philosophy.³ As a theologian, I am proposing that the original story-teller is in fact not the person herself, but the Holy Spirit, and the person herself has the task of receiving and retelling this story as best she can. It is a comfort that God can see the whole picture all at once, even though our recapitulation of the story has to be temporally sequential.
A desire (or preference) is central in a desire-profile if it has large unifying power over the normative trajectory of the profile as a whole over time. To unify is at least to give an explanation with a relatively simple set of terms. The kind of explanatory power I have in mind is that the explanation should make what is explained more intelligible. The narrative is, I have said, value-based, and so the intelligibility is going to be in terms of what is good. Gender is pervasive, but that does not show that it is central, in the sense of making large sections of what we do normatively intelligible. To answer the question about centrality we need to make another distinction. Intelligibility in terms of what is good needs to be divided into centrality for a destination and centrality for a path. I want to suggest that it is reasonable to think that gender and gender identity are central in this sort of way to the path, both negatively and positively, but we have no knowledge about whether they are central to the destination. One reason for saying they are not central to the destination is that as we get older we start to be able to see our earthly lives as a whole, since there is not much more or new that we are likely to accomplish. One side effect is that we start to see what has shaped these lives by external influence, and recognize the contingency of this; it could have been otherwise, and it changes from one generation to another. Since, as I have construed it, gender identity is a three-term relation, and one of these terms is a social picture, the contingency of the social picture makes the gender identity itself seem more fluid or labile.
In what way might gender identity be central to the path? This centrality is supported, in my son’s case, by the fact that a large number of the decisions he made for several years took their rationale from his hope for and then his accomplishment of gender transition. Romans 8:26 says that we do not know what we ought to pray for. In the context, this should mean that we do not know how to pray towards our destination, since we do not see this yet. We long for it, and for movement towards it, but we can only express this in groans that go beyond speech. But, I suggest tentatively, the Spirit sees it. The Spirit has the story about how, by what path, we can get to our inheritance as children of God, and this is the ‘mind of the Spirit’ which God knows, because this story is in accordance with God’s will. Our task is to retell this story, to recapitulate it. But we will not be able to do this completely until the hope becomes sight. This progress is what I have been calling a ‘trajectory’, and there are a number of questions that the reader is likely to have about this idea. We can ask whether gender is central in God’s loving will to the path and to the destination. I have discussed the destination, but what about the path? Genesis 1.27 tells us, ‘God created humankind (in Hebrew, adam) in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”’ This passage has centrally to do with what I have called ‘the path’, how we are to live on this earth in regard to reproducing and ruling (or stewarding). It suggests a created order which is a kind of polarity within the human species. This follows similar polarities earlier in the chapter between light and dark and dry and wet. God divides the day from the night and the land from the waters. In the same way within the human species, God divides male and female and links this division to procreation. It is important to see that these divisions do not, in the earlier cases, mark out exclusive areas, as one might divide a cake. There are day and night, but there are also dawn and dusk. There is dry land and water, but there is also marsh and there are areas that are seasonally dry and wet. So it might be very important, even central, on a human path to discern where on this polarity of male and female one belongs. But it would not follow that there were only two places one could be.⁴ On the other hand ‘male and female’ is not like ‘dark and light’ or ‘dry and wet’. Genesis is emphasizing that in this polarity male and female come together for procreation and God blesses this in the very next verse. This does not mean that the division into male and female is only for procreation, but it is at least for this. There can be all sorts of differences on the spectrum of what I have been calling ‘gender’, and some of them are not reducible to reproductive capacity. Thus it is wrong to say that a man or woman who is not fertile has thereby lost all point in being gendered.⁵ Also, I do not mean to imply by the language of ‘polarity’ that there is a single clear line with ‘real men’ on one end and ‘real women’ on the other. I just mean to point out that with all three distinctions (light/dark, dry/wet and male/female) there are grey areas, but with the third there is also a purpose which includes at least reproduction but should not be confined to this.
I want to end, then, by saying that my wife and I have observed in the trans male I have been thinking about what we take to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is not that he is always loving or joyful or self-controlled. But nonetheless there is a new character after his transition, an ability to care for other people in a new way, and to pay attention to the beauty of the world around him. His own expression of this change is more Buddhist than it is Christian. But it is noticeable. It is the kind of change we associate with effects of God’s Spirit. My wife and I have been blessed by his care for us.
Walking Well Together Within Our Differences About Human Sexuality and Gender Expression
Several decades of study and dialogue make clear that significant differences of perspective exist among members of CRC congregations - including lay people, theology and seminary professors, and ordained leaders - about sexual orientation, same-sex relationships, gender fluidity, and related matters. Some believe that God-given sexuality is binary, and marriage can only be between those who are of opposite gender, identity, and orientation. Their perception of God’s creational intent sets the boundaries of what may or may not be allowed for marriage and sexual expression. As a result, some believe deeply that sexual expression between persons of the same sex is very wrong, maybe even enough to put one’s personal salvation at risk. Others have a different perception of God’s creational intent. They believe God created a spectrum of sexuality, and that marriage, therefore, ought not be reserved only for some on the spectrum. They believe the error of denying marital belonging to such persons is multiplied by denying church fellowship to them and robbing the church of their Holy Spirit gifts.
Fears among us are also significantly different. Some fear that we are losing our respect for the final authority of clear commands in Scripture. Some suggest that dangerous trends in our society are driving our actions rather than obedience to the Bible.
A disquieting fear for LGBTQ+ persons is that some members of their congregations will no longer walk with them if they “come out,” or if they choose not to remain single, or if they transition to a gender different than the one aligned with their biological sex at birth. Additionally devastating for some is the fear that because they are LGBTQ+ they will not be able to respond fully to God’s call on their lives to minister to others through things like leadership roles in worship, church school teaching, and holding ordained offices.
Rejection, fear, and hindrances to following God’s call are not what we desire for any of us. How, then, are we to walk together on this journey in the middle of our longstanding differences on these matters? How are LGBTQ+ individuals who desire to covenant their love in marriage before God and their church family to live well with those who think that is an offense to God? How are those who are traditional in their understandings of gender, sexuality, and marriage to walk well with those who accept evidence that human sexual identity and gender expression are diverse?
Places to Begin
Seek to Understand One Another
In the Agenda for Synod 2016, the Majority Report of the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance on Same-sex Marriage recommends that members of the CRC “...listen to one another to seek better understanding of the other’s position, recognizing the potential of better understanding of the matter itself.” (p.426) We still have a lot of listening to do.
Ask Hard Questions
We need to open ourselves to facing hard questions such as these: Are we distancing rather than enfolding? Are we spreading fear and suspicion rather than showing love? Are we tearing apart or building community? Is diversity in sexuality and gender broken or beautiful? Dare we think about God’s creativity more expansively in light of what the biological and social sciences teach us?
Abandon “Us vs. Them” Thinking
If someone is gay or lesbian, or transgendered, or anywhere within the kaleidoscope of gender identity and sexual orientation, they should not consider themselves, or be considered by others to be, outsiders. Nor should they consider themselves to be the “enlightened ones” while considering those who disagree as primitive in their thinking. If someone is straight or cisgender, they should not consider themselves automatically to be morally superior in sexual ethics to those who identify as LGBTQ+ and desire to live in faithful marriage. Together, we are in this business of being human and of trying to understand how God wants us to live. All of us clay pots have cracks, yet we are simultaneously glorious bearers of various facets of God’s image. Each of us with our different experiences of life, and the different ways of seeing that result, can bring new revelations of God and the life of Love to others.
Recommit to Living Together in Community
In 2002, a synodical Committee to Give Direction about and for Pastoral Care for Homosexual Members encourages this, “It is important that members of our churches who experience same-sex attraction can belong to, openly participate in, and be ministered to within the fellowship of the church.” (Agenda for Synod 2002, p. 315)
Henri Nouwen teaches us that community need not be comprised of people who think alike or are similar in every understanding of Scripture. We don’t even have to be attractive to each other. Being in community means living joyfully with each other in generous places of shalom where God can work creatively to renew us all. Community is not about complete compatibility, but it is where we can experience God-With-Us. “The mystery of community,” asserts Nouwen, “is precisely that it embraces all people whatever our individual differences may be, and allows us to live together as brothers and sisters of Christ and sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.” (from You are the Beloved)
Engage in Acts of Solidarity
Living as a community fiercely loved by God with no “us vs. them” also means engaging in acts of solidarity. To be in solidarity means to accept each other as fully human, both with gifts and with struggles. The work of solidarity means being committed to relationship, by choosing to walk together as an act of love. It means risking all, as did our Lord and Savior, in a choice to love. All of us—those who are open to change and those who are committed to traditional views—can humbly and gently say to each other, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” This is not some sentimental act, nor is it moral relativism. It is a decision to live out of the extravagant Grace we have already received from the greatest Giver.
Walk Together as a Mutual Choice
People who identify as LGBTQ+ who remain in the CRC or choose to join it are choosing to walk alongside fellow members who are not LGBTQ+ and who may even be hiddenly hostile. Why might they do that? For the same reasons as anyone else who wants to be part of a denomination and faith tradition that gets so many things right. They also may recognize that they have opportunity to influence a denomination that wants to find more ways to get itself right. They may feel led to offer their experience of God’s tender mercies and creational imagination to those who are trapped in feeling broken or unforgiven or misunderstood. They may hope to share theological insights and fresh ways of understanding God’s Word that are uniquely grown in the soil of their life situations. They may hope that their witness may shape the church’s understanding of God and of what faith calls the church to be and do.
Straight and cisgender people may want to walk alongside people who are sexual or gender minorities because they are discovering new heights and depths in God’s expansive Grace. They are not consumed with a need to identify every alleged flaw others may have. They are compelled by Christ’s invitation to lay down our burdens and find rest in the bosom of God. They are filled with the expansive joy of welcoming and being welcomed, despite everything, into the company of the Divine.
Remember What It Means to Be Reformed
Strong, Reformed voices now and always have recognized that interpretations of Scripture are culturally shaped. We trust that the Holy Spirit is leading us into truth—truth that sometimes feels rather new and even risky. Recently, for example, Reformed Christians have affirmed new understandings about what the Bible says about the Lord’s Supper, the exercise of church authority, and human origins. As a church we have worked hard to graciously walk with each other within diverse understandings of what our life together should look like. Let’s commit ourselves to continuing that precious tradition.
It’s time for us to season our allegiance to doctrinal precision with a commitment to unconditional, grace-filled, Jesus-imitating love and mercy for those who identify as LGBTQ+. To do anything else may risk blaspheming God’s love and mercy for each of us. Walking alongside someone is an act of mutuality where each one disciples but also is willing to be discipled by the other. Applying rules for whom we may or may not walk alongside is not an option. Looking for those who have not been included, for whatever reason, and bringing them into the wide flow of God’s imitable love is perhaps the paramount task for the church today.
How are we to walk together? By showing each other in our words and tones that we share the human condition in all its complexity and perplexity. When we walk side-by-side, listen attentively and empathically, and seek to understand rather than to be understood, it is then that we can give, and receive, the compassionate care already extended to us by God, who walks with all of us.
Copyright © 2020 Thomas Hoeksema and Donald Huizinga. All rights reserved.
About the Authors: Tom Hoeksema and Don Huizinga are members of the board of All One Body. Tom, a retired Professor of Education at Calvin University, is a long advocate for the inclusion of children with varied abilities in Christian schools and for the complete participation of people with disabilities, women, and persons of color in the church. Don is a retired teacher of the Old Testament and Reformed Theology at Calvin Christian High School in Grandville, Michigan and loves the blessing that the racial and ethnic diversity of Madison Square Church has brought him for 51 years.
This is the fourteenth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
The Christian Mystics over the centuries have taught that our purpose in life is not to describe God or to create elaborate thought systems identified as our doctrines of God. Our purpose is to be unified with God. It is to have our hearts beat with God’s heart. It is to vibrate in tune with the love song we hear God singing.
Henri Nouwen, our more contemporary mystic, avoided dualistic either/or thinking about mind and heart. Our hearts are informed by our minds, and our minds are shaped by our hearts. Listen: “…when we learn to descend with our mind into our heart, then all those who have become part of our lives are led into the healing presence of God and touched by him in the center of our being. There is mystery here for which words are inadequate. It is the mystery that the heart, which is the center of our being, is transformed by God into his own heart, a heart large enough to embrace the entire universe.” (from You Are the Beloved)
That’s pretty hard to take in—our hearts transformed into God’s heart. According to Carl McColman in his book Christian Mystics, “Our goal is to learn… the curriculum of a truly spiritual life… grounded in love, mercy, tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, hope, trust, simplicity, silence, peace, and joy. To embody union with God is to discover these beautiful characteristics emerging from within and slowly transfiguring us….”
The church today, as it faces internal conflict over matters like gender expression and same-sex marriage has choices to make. How will the church present God and our relationship to God to the world? If our chief aim is, as the Westminster Confessions puts it, “…to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” then a posture of moralistic judgmentalism seems disfigured. If instead we choose to follow the exhortation of St. Paul to “let love be our greatest aim,” then a face that expresses gentleness, care, and embrace, will prevail.
This is the thirteenth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
As a delegate to the Christian Reformed Church’s Synod twice during the years of debate over opening the offices of the Church to women, I heard lament over what was perceived to be a lack of unity. I recall arguing as a member of a Synodical Advisory Committee that was responsible for the “Women in Office” reports and overtures that unity was not the same as uniformity. This concern for unity is being revisited in the current context of discussions about the place of LGBTQ+ Christians in our fellowship.
The desire for unity seems to be deep in our beings. We want it in our families, our friendships, and in our churches. When we are unreconciled, we are troubled and long for peace and a sense of oneness, of being on the same page. When we experience unity, we feel blessed.
Our differences over same-sex relationships and marriages and over the participation of LGBTQ+ individuals in our congregations stir our fear of disunity. But unity does not have to mean thinking alike on every point of doctrine or on every ethical choice we individually make. Are we disunified because we discuss how universal grace is? Are we disunified because we differ over whether women may be ordained? Are we disunified because of differences over who someone may love or marry? If so, I submit it is because we are looking for unity in the wrong places.
Seeking agreement that marriage is between one man and one woman is not the place to find unity. Seeking agreement on exactly what qualifies as sin is not the place to find unity. Seeking agreement on the interpretation of vexingly complex passages in scripture is not the place to find unity.
Unity is a gift. It is not achieved simply as a result of human effort by applying a formula. It is a gift of the Divine. Despite this, we busy ourselves trying to make unity happen among us by trying to find ideas about which we can agree.
The Belhar Confession talks about unity in this way:
We believe in one, holy universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family. And we believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice, and pursue community with one another; that we… give ourselves willfully and joyfully… to one another; …that we have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup; that we confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope, and together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; …together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, [and] together serve God in this world….”
When Jesus prayed, “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21), he was saying that we can find our unity in the kind of unity shared by the different parts of God. Just as Creator God, Christ, and Holy Spirit are in communion, we find unity when we are in communion with God. When we discover that we can live in closer union with God, then we also discover that in belonging to God we belong to each other. Those are powerful and true sources of unity.
This is the twelfth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
The church is polarized over how to respond to realities like gender fluidity, same sex unions, and notable differences in the interpretation of important passages of scripture among careful biblical scholars.
Fueling the polarity, serious numbers of people are anything but tepid in calling out what they believe to be sin. These brothers and sisters of ours believe it is their job to protect themselves and their churches from sin. As defenders of the faith, they vehemently call out sin and want to discipline sinners, maybe even shut them out of opportunities to serve their congregations and their Lord because of it.
Is that who we truly want to be? Is that how we want to be known by a disbelieving world? Is that the core of the Christian faith? Is that a holistic way of viewing the entire testimony of scripture?
I think a primary calling of Christians is to draw near to others and to share their joys and burdens. In order to do that, we must approach each other with an awareness of mutuality and with willingness to be vulnerable. We need to be ready to say to each other, “I am human just like you. I struggle with ethical decisions and agonize over my mistakes. I’m not afraid of our differences, including our different pain and struggles.” When we see others as human, like ourselves, it makes room for compassionate, kinder responses.
The person whom we think is misguided or worse gives us an opportunity to look at ourselves. We cannot respond with kindness to what we perceive to be brokenness in another if we are not in touch with our own brokenness and if we are not gentle with ourselves. If we haven’t seen or reacted to our own need for change, how can we allow ourselves to be impatient with another’s lack of change? How can we be as loving as God is if we ourselves have not fully absorbed God’s generosity with us?
Recognition that the other is just like myself is necessary for unity in the church. The way for us to live together is to say, “I am yours, and you are mine. I am human and fragile just like you. Let’s hang on to each other.”
This is the eleventh installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
In the 1980s, early in my involvement in the lives of persons with disabilities, I began to move beyond compassion and kindness, and way beyond pity, as primary responses to people who are often misjudged, labeled, and marginalized. My shift was prompted and amplified by the voices of Wolf Wolfensberger, Jean Vanier, and Henri Nouwen. (Read anything you can get your hands on by these men.) My shift, more specifically, was recognizing that the people I thought needed to be served were in fact serving me. I began to see mutuality and reciprocity where before I had seen only need and opportunity for doing good to someone else. Previously for me it was “us,” the so-called able-bodied, and “them,” those with impairments. Slowly I began the journey of discovering how profoundly we all are “us.” We are all imperfect, yet we all contribute and make the body better, more whole.
Something similar happens with responses of straight folk to those who are sometimes called “queer” or “gender dysphoric” or “morally suspect.” These lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transgender/ queer/ questioning sisters and brothers of ours are viewed by some as wounded, broken, and in need of healing. Some straight folk think that they owe believers who identify as LGBTQ+ straight talk about sin. Just as was said about people with disabilities, who many believed to be victims of the Fall, these gender minorities are seen by some as broken individuals who need healing. Some go so far as to fearfully claim that churches need to be protected from them.
People who are questioning their sexuality, or who live in bodies that don’t fit with their identity, or who are attracted to both genders, or who enter same-sex relationships want the same things as anyone else. They want opportunities to have intimacy with other humans, to pledge faithfulness to another, to support and be supported in long-term, committed unions. They want to feel as blessed in loving who they love as anyone else feels when they find a partner who fits. They want to love their Maker and enjoy worshipping God as much as anyone else who is in love with God. They want to serve the world and serve in their congregations with the same grateful response to being loved by God as any other Christian. Many model for the world the kind of love the Creator has for us.
When the church understands all this, there is no longer Us and Them. We are all Us.
No Longer Aliens
This is the tenth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
Deep in our hearts we crave being loved. We can see this same craving in the eyes of others; and, whether it’s a child or adult, from where we live or from somewhere else, when we see that craving, we are moved to compassion. Compassion for ourselves in our own neediness helps us have it for others too.
We all hope to see compassion and forgiveness in our friends’ eyes. When other people act cruelly, condescendingly, dismissively, or in other atrocious ways, we know that we probably have done the same. When someone gives us life, we know that we can do that too. For the honest person, nothing humans do is foreign to us.
In Ephesians 2, Paul reminds us that Christ has broken down the dividing walls of hostility. In Christ the barriers that have divided people are breached. We are no longer alienated from God and no longer strangers to each other but are members together of God’s household. Paul’s imagery is beautiful here. We are part of one house with Christ as the cornerstone, all of us fitted together and growing into a “holy temple,” with God in the Spirit living in us. No longer strangers; no longer aliens; but together at home in the heart of God.
This is the ninth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
Some students worry so much about meeting the expectations of their teachers that they miss the point of learning activities. Questions like “How many words must be in this essay?” and “Do we need to know this for the test?” and “May I skip class without hurting my grade?” can reveal a preoccupation with following rules. The worry, of course, is that not following the rules will lead to punishing consequences.
Some people approach the LGBTQ conversation with the same mindset. “What are the rules about same-sex behavior?” they want to know. “Are there clear ethical guidelines in scripture about who people may marry?” “Can we allow known rule-breakers to be ordained as elders, deacons, or preachers?” they ask, conveniently ignoring that every ordained person, and every non-ordained church member, is a rule-breaker of one kind or another.
A rule-bound orientation reveals, dare I say it, distrust in God. People too focused on rule-breaking mostly see God as the almighty authority whose primary concern is with punishment for violations of Divine standards. They fail to see that what God wants most is to give us what we most want: Love. Can you trust that this is what God really wants most of all?
Henri Nouwen teaches in his book Here and Now that the word obedience comes from a Latin word, ob-audire, which means “to listen with great attentiveness.” When we are not attentive to God’s voice of love, persistently spoken throughout the Bible, we become too focused on how we can earn God’s love by perfectly following the rules. In failing to let love be our greatest aim, we are disobedient. We fail to hear that God-With-Us wants to give us what our hearts most desire. God is our Lover who wants nothing more than for us to live in, and never impede, the flow of that love. Listen with great attentiveness.
This is the eighth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
Proponents of a gentler, more hospitable approach to fellow Christians who are LGBTQ are sometimes criticized for having a soft kind of love and maybe even of offering “cheap grace” to unrepentant sinners. The critics claim that truly loving someone is to show them the error of their ways so as to save them from perdition.
I detest the moral arrogance that leads to things like scarlet letters, burning at the stake, disapprobation for those choosing divorce, and shunning of anyone who persists in sin. In a current instance, some of the righteous seem to harbor particular distaste for anyone committing sexual sin, of which there are many varieties, of course, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
A few decades ago, a friend was made to stand in front of her consistory and confess the sexual sin that resulted in her pregnancy before marriage. This precocious eighteen-year-old had the temerity not only to repent of that sin, but she confessed to the assembled leaders her violation of several other commandments as well. I wonder if anyone recalled Jesus’ instruction about casting stones. I recall a poem by Sietze Bunning about the pious elder Marius who, when his unmarried daughter was discovered to be carrying a child, described his own precious child as “having loved too well.” How different things are when we know them from the inside. How different things look when we admit our own struggles with sin.
Rather than arguing, using acute exegesis, about whether same sex behavior is sinful, would it not be better to love each other too well, not to condone what might be an offense, but to walk with charity, good will and kindness in the world instead of with retributive harshness? The LGBTQ community invites sisters and brothers in Christ to be hospitable to themselves, and to the beauty and complexity in people they meet.
Purity codes do not seem to be called for in a New Testament world where God says to us all, “I’ve got you covered!” What a relief to take off cloaks of self-righteousness and find compassion for each other in our own imperfection. What a blessing we could be if we emptied ourselves of our indignation over the alleged Ten Commandment violations of others in order to embrace our siblings with humble awareness of our own broken ways, and of God’s broad mercy.
From time to time a member of All One Body will post to this blog. We will also have guest commentary. Stay tuned!