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.
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.
This is the seventh installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
One facet of the conversation about welcoming persons described as LGBTQ into congregations is the matter of sin. Concisely stated, some think that a sexually active same-sex lifestyle is sin; and others do not. For those who think it is sin, even within long-term, committed relationships, a failure to be repentant is a further moral shortcoming that disqualifies one from complete acceptance and participation in the total life of the church.
Much has been said by sincere, thoughtful people in defense of both ways of viewing same-sex behavior. Strong arguments for both positions are not likely at this point in the conversation to be persuasive. A middle way needs to be found that allows people of integrity to live with the position of the other.
Perhaps a way can be found by thinking deeply about sin. Here are some key thoughts that may help us live with what we perceive to be the sinfulness of the other, and to live with ourselves despite our own sinfulness.
First, sin corrupts our best human capacities—kindness, generosity, patience—and instead the perceived flaws of others become targets of attack, and those persons become the objects of our defection or neglect. As Neal Plantinga points out in his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to be - A Breviary of Sin, “When we put others on a tight moral budget while making plenty of allowances for ourselves…we exhibit a corruption of emotion, intention, speech and disposition. By such abuse of our highest powers, we who are fearfully and wonderfully made, we creatures of special dignity and responsibility, evoke not only grief and consternation but also blame.” (p.3)
Sin can be thought of as that which corrupts and disrupts what is good. Long-term, monogamous same-sex relationships can display the beauty of commitment and mutual support that Christians have long seen as the intent for heterosexual marriage. Rather than corrupting the good, same-sex unions can be as much a force for good in our fractured world as successful traditional marriages.
To speak of sin without grace is to ignore the magnanimity of God; but it is also a distortion to speak of grace without sin. The truth of God’s grace is cheapened by trivializing sin just as making sin central reduces grace to a place of lesser importance than the offense that necessitates it. Since none of us are without sin, it may be better—a third way—to concentrate on one’s own penitence and need for grace, and to be less insistent and impatient about another’s.
This is the sixth installment in a series of reflections on LGBTQ+ matters.
In my childhood our minister used to read the Ten Commandments every Sunday in dramatic fashion. Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai couldn’t have done it more effectively. I wondered watchfully whether thunder and lightning might show up.
Rarely do I have that kind of fear in church these days. No longer do we sternly warn unrepentant people about “eating and drinking judgment unto themselves” during communion. Our current, kinder invitations to the table are more likely to refer to “those who are truly sorry for their sins.” Similarly, our funeral services are no longer filled with dire warnings about how those of us still here should be living our lives. It appears that fire and brimstone are no longer in our seminary curricula. It’s been boxed up along with “What a worm am I” theology, opened for inspection now and again, but no longer the driving force it was to earlier Calvinists.
Nonetheless, remnants remain of past preoccupations. Some congregations hesitate to nominate divorced persons for church office. If a young couple is “living in sin”, neither one is very welcome in the church choir. If someone’s child expresses a desire to identify as something other than the gender assigned to them at birth, we have trouble getting past “male and female created He them.” Women with wives aren’t often pictured together in the church directory.
Is it possible, and maybe even true to scripture, for us to worry a little less about sin—not abandon it, mind you, but find a proper emphasis for it? Neal Plantinga wrote a book-length exposition of the nature of our sin, somewhat amusingly subtitled A Breviary of Sin. I recommend this book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, if you are interested in a deeper understanding of what sin can look like. But seriously, how about some balance? We need it all, don’t we? We need the Law and the Gospel. We need to know how we’ve messed up and also how God takes care of it. Arguably, we may need assurance of forgiveness before we can totally own up to our brokenness. My former pastor, Roger Van Harn, argued that we need assurance before confession.
So how are we to live with our own messes as well as our neighbor’s? With kindness, not condemnation. Call it “messy solidarity.”
Think of those people who have helped you the most. Is it the moralists who are quick to warn and give advice? I think more often it is those who give us hope by showing us in their words and manner that they too experience the human condition in all its complexity and perplexity. They bring us healing and strength because they do not run away in the face of our imperfections, or their own. Paradoxically, we help each other heal our wounds when we are in solidarity with each other in the middle of our struggles. When we walk side by side and listen rather than speak, and seek to understand rather than judge, it is then that we can give—and receive—the compassion mediated for us by Jesus Christ.
From time to time a member of All One Body will post to this blog. We will also have guest commentary. Stay tuned!