Just a quick note on the issue that classes are being asked to ratify this year: allowing a simple majority, rather than a 2/3 majority of classes, to ratify issues coming out of the 2020 Vision Team report. Here’s a little background: conservatives are frustrated, because they can get a simple majority at some synods, as well as a simple majority of classes to ratify changes to the BCO, but they can’t get 2/3 of the classes to ratify. This is a transparent move by these conservatives to push their agenda through the 2020 vision team report. I truly hope that 2/3 of the classes do not vote to hand over their power by ratifying this change to the BCO! (I realize that lots of folks may object to this, but here it is, FWIW.)
The 2017 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America passed a resolution this week on the interpretation of “sexual immorality” or “unchastity” in questions #108 and #109 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The statement that was passed reads as follows:
To affirm that the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 and 109 categorically states that God condemns “all unchastity,” which includes same-sex sexual activity, and that faithful adherence to the RCA’s Standards, therefore, entails the affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman.
I want to address specifically the words in this statement that “all unchastity” “includes same-sex sexual activity.” I would note, first of all that the statement does not say that “all unchastity” includes all same-sex sexual activity. This is the first problem with this statement. It doesn’t consider LGBTQ people who desire to sanctify their sexual activity by incorporating it into a marriage covenant, raising questions, of course, about the final clause in the General Synod’s statement. Given the absence of legalized same-sex marriage, both during the period when the New Testament was written, and during the period when the Heidelberg Catechism was written, I would not dispute that the writers of the catechism would have included the same-sex behaviors with which they might have been familiar within the general category of sexual immorality. Yet this hardly is a conclusive argument that same-sex marriages of today would have been automatically included. That is a case that needs to be argued, not merely asserted.
But this, of course, raises the deeper question about what sort of moral logic governs the concept of unchastity or sexual immorality in the Bible. The Greek word used in the New Testament for this concept is porneia. Certainly, some uses of this word are clear and unmistakable. It is used for various kinds of sexual acts that everyone would agree are morally wrong. It is linked to prostitution in 1 Cor 6:13-18. It is linked with adultery in Matt 15:19, and the same moral logic appears to be reflected in the use of the word in Matthew 19:9 (cf. Sirach 23:23). 1 Corinthians 5:1 speaks of incest using this word. So it seems clear that forbidden sexual acts are envisioned by this word. At this level there is no dispute. Any form of sex outside of marriage, any form of sex that creates conflicting roles within families, or any form of sex which violates a marriage bond that is already in place is always considered sexual immorality, and Christians are always to resist such behaviors or inclinations. We see this “objective” approach in other New Testament texts, such as Revelation 9:21.
But the New Testament is not only concerned about behaviors, it is even more centrally concerned with the motives and desires that lead to immoral behaviors. Mark 7:21-23 is a classic and important text here:
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication (Greek porneia), theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
This concern about motives and desires appears commonly in the teaching of Jesus. The most common problem Jesus addresses is not about actions that are wrong; it is about the motives and desires that lead to our actions. He speaks often about hypocrisy, and confronts those whose lives are “whitewashed tombs,” whose behavior is technically acceptable, but which springs from corrupt motives. We see these thoughts reflected in Matthew 15:19 “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication (Greek porneia), theft, false witness, slander,” and in the words of Colossians 3:5 “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication (Greek porneia), impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” Note that all the words in Colossians address motives and desires.
This concern with motives and desires is evident, even in the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly Q&A 109, which states in part, that “God forbids all unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires, and whatever may incite someone to them.” So clearly the Heidelberg Catechism is not only concerned with the “objective” side of unchastity, but also with the “subjective” side.
This focus on motives and desires is also reflected in the link between sexual immorality and impurity in the New Testament. Note, for example, the way in which 2 Corinthians 12:21 links together “impurity, sexual immorality (Greek porneia), and licentiousness.” We see the same linkage in Galatians 5:19. Ephesians 5:3 links together fornication (Greek porneia) and impurity, together with greed. Of course, many things that the Old Covenant regarded as “impure” (e.g. dietary restrictions, exposure to blood, etc.) are treated differently in the New Testament. But what the New Testament continues to affirm is the motivational side of the category of “impurity.” If behavior of any sort springs from impure motives or desires, then that behavior is still considered “impure” by the New Testament, and is to be resisted. In the New Testament, what makes behaviors “impure” is not some objective moral standard, but rather that these behaviors spring from wrong desires or motives.
So here we come to two dimensions to the biblical concept of “sexual immorality,” both of which need to be included in order to fully understand this concept. On the one hand, there is the “objective” side of unchastity or sexual immorality. Certain behaviors like prostitution, sex outside of marriage, adultery, or incest are always morally wrong, and the New Testament treats them consistently in this way. However, the New Testament itself provides another “lens” through which to construct a sexual ethic as well, and that lens focuses on motives and desires. This is important for two reasons.
First, there may well be sexual acts which are permitted by “objective” standards (like sex within marriage), but which are still problematic because of problems with motives and desires (such as excessive lust in marriage, or the failure to treat one’s spouse appropriately during sex). The New Testament is rarely content to look merely at objective behaviors; it always probes to motives as well.
This leads to the second reason why the New Testament focuses on motives and desires. The church often encounters marginal cases in its construction of sexual ethics, which require the exploration of motives and desires, beyond merely a focus on objective actions. I think that the clearest case of this has to do with divorce and remarriage. Mark 10:11-12 clearly forbids all divorce and remarriage: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Matthew 19:3ff. qualifies this case, allowing for divorce and remarriage in the case of “sexual immorality” (Greek porneia). But most Christians today call for an examination of the circumstances and motives leading to divorce and remarriage, and are generally open to a consideration of motives and desires, as a way of discerning which sorts of divorce and remarriage cases should be accepted by the church. In other words, a consideration of motives and desires helps to solve sexual ethics cases which are at the margins, and for which more “objective” criteria seem problematic for one reason or another.
And so we return, finally, to the question of whether “unchastity” or “sexual immorality” as applied to same-sex marriages should fall under the “objective” category of those behaviors that area always forbidden by Scripture, or whether specific cases should be evaluated according to the motives and desires which drive them. This strikes me as an important question worth pursuing, and a conversation worth having in the church in general, and in the RCA in particular. I hope we can have such a conversation, even after the General Synod’s vote.
In the April, 2016 edition of the Calvin Theological Journal (41:1), Branson Parler writes a lengthy article entitled “Hair Length and Human Sexuality.” The article is devoted to critiquing a number of recent studies (including my own) regarding the appeal to “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14. In the article, Parler argues that scholars have too quickly assumed that the appeal to “nature” in this verse is essentially an appeal to social custom or convention. He believes that this is incorrect, and that even though the ancients were not completely correct in their assumptions about the relationship between hair length and physiology, Paul nonetheless was appealing, not to custom, but to physiology when he stated in 1 Cor 11:14f., “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”
Parler goes on to cite a number of ancient sources which speculated on the relationship between hair and the male production of “seed” for procreation. He argues, in a complex fashion, that ancients viewed human reproductive seed as being produced in the head, and that this seed was attracted to hair. If a man wore his hair too long, the long hair would draw the seed to itself, keeping the seed in the head and impairing reproduction. Instead, short hair on males would allow the seed to descend to the testicles, from which it could be passed to the woman, whose long hair would then draw the seed up to her uterus, where a child could be conceived and born.
Hence, Paul’s appeal to “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14 is not an appeal to social custom or convention, but rather to physiological sorts of considerations. He writes “Paul’s underlying moral logic is an appeal to nature, understood as what is prior to and apart from human influence and not merely an appeal to custom.” Parler goes on to argue that even though the specifics of Paul’s argument no longer bind us (since we know that reproductive processes work differently than the ancients thought), the root of Paul’s argument should still be conceived biologically: the physiological differences between male and female should be respected and honored, and practices which obscure these differences (like gay marriage) must be resisted as contrary to the will of God. Furthermore, he argues that when Paul characterizes same-sex eroticism in Romans 1 as “contrary to nature,” that language must be understood to focus on biological considerations, rather than on social convention or custom. By this reading, what makes same-sex eroticism “contrary to nature” and thus wrong, in Paul’s view, is essentially not that it violates social standards of decency and propriety, but that it violates the will of God as revealed in the physiological differences between men and women.
So is it wrong to suggest that Paul is appealing to social custom, and not to biology in 1 Cor 11:14? Well, the first thing to note is that the standard Greek Lexicon for New Testament studies lists, as its third definition of the Greek word phusis, “the regular or established order of things, nature.” So it is not immediately evident that all allusions to “custom” must necessarily be eliminated from Paul’s usage. “Custom” can be another way of speaking of “the regular and established order of things.” This exclusion of “custom” becomes even more problematic when we read only two verses later, in 1 Cor 11:16, that Paul states “But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom (Greek sunētheia), nor do the churches of God.” How is one to eliminate the notion of “custom” from “nature” when Paul explicitly speaks of custom in this same passage?
Secondly, Parler doesn’t say much about the overall intent of this chapter in 1 Corinthians, particularly about the sort of problem that Paul is seeking to address here. These are complex questions, and I understand why he might regard them as peripheral to his more focused set of questions. But I think a little more context will be helpful to this conversation. Scholars have two different ways of reading the problem Paul is addressing here, and the solution he therefore proposes. Some interpreters suggest that the problem was that women were not wearing veils, some sort of cloth covering over their heads, and Paul was trying to get them to wear veils. Others see the problem somewhat differently. They think that women in Corinth were wearing their hair loosely, rather than bundled up atop their heads, and that Paul was opposing this practice of loose hair for women. In either case, it seems likely that the underlying issue had to do with sexual signals. Whether their hair was uncovered or hanging loosely, the dress of women in the assembly was sending messages which were interpreted in that context in terms of sexual availability, and this, of course, was distracting (or worse) to the male members of the worship service, and bringing the focus away from the worship of God. Thus Paul hoped to reduce this “distraction” so that the community could stay focused on what is central.
If there is any truth to this scenario, then Paul is not primarily concerned with upholding divinely intended gender roles in this passage (which he may well be addressing in some secondary sense); he is also deeply concerned with sexual desire. And sexual desire, of course, is deeply shaped by cultural context (or custom). What men find enticing or distracting about women in one context may be very different from what takes place in another context.
My third complaint about the elimination of “custom” from the notion of “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14 has to do with Parler’s own acknowledgement that we in the modern world regard the physiology of male-female differences in very different ways from the views we find embodied in this passage. He writes, “In other words, we may continue to use Paul’s underlying moral logic even as we question some details of the first-century physiological paradigms he may have accepted.” In other words, Parler acknowledges that there are aspects of the ancient understanding of “nature” that we may rightly regard as incorrect (and culturally particular), but we must still retain something of Paul’s underlying moral logic. And for Parler, of course, that underlying moral logic is the divinely intended difference between male and female evident in the biological differences between men and women. We may disagree with the ancients about what those biological differences are, and thus disagree about hair length as central to male-female difference, but where such biological differences remain evident to us, we must respect them as revelatory of the will of God for male-female difference. Hence the appeal to “nature” is an appeal to biology, even though that appeal is couched in cultural assumptions that may change over time.
This hardly seems like the elimination of “custom” from the category of “nature.” Rather, it would seem like what we find here is an inextricable interweaving of “custom” and “physiology” in Paul’s use of “nature” in this passage. This is, in fact, what I try to argue in my book, that “nature” in the Stoic vision represents the convergence of the personal, social, and physical worlds.” I welcome Parler’s further explication of the physiological side of “nature” that is implicit in this text, but I do not accept his argument that there are no elements of custom or convention here. Such a position is not warranted, even in the way that he frames his argument.
But that leads us to a deeper question of how we are to apply Parler’s interpretation of this passage to contemporary life. He insists, on the one hand, that “Paul’s appeal to nature does not necessarily imply that his first-century application—hair length—is in force today.” But he goes on to say that “our acts of culture-making—including cutting of hair—should respond to that foundational diversity [i.e. of male and female] in a way that affirms rather than negates the male-female difference.” I can’t help but wonder, however, how such an argument would have sounded in 1920, however, when the United States was debating the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. It seems to me far more likely that it would have been used by those opposing the right of women to vote, rather than supporting such a change, since Parler’s view insists that innate physiological differences between men and women must be reflected in cultural practices. One what basis, then, could one say that the cultural practice of male-only voting should be replaced by a practice that ignores the male-female distinction? On a more personal level, I remember, as a young child, when my mother first stopped wearing a hat to church in the early 1960’s. She was criticized extensively for her failure to uphold male-female distinctions, but within a few years, this became a non-issue everywhere in North America. In other words, the advice to keep the principle, but be flexible about its cultural embodiment probably doesn’t give us sufficient guidance, in particular cases, for determining more precisely which cultural expressions or understandings of male-female identity or physiology should support universally binding practices, and which should not be understood in that way. Why should physiological differences between men and women not apply to voting rights, when they do apply to marriage rights?
And this, of course, leads to the basic issue of the moral logic that undergirds Paul’s rejection of same-sex relationships in Romans 1. I have tried to argue in my book that Paul’s own language suggests that he regarded such relationships as driven by excessive lust, a thirst for the exotic, and a shameful abandonment of customary gender roles, and that this (in addition to the fact that these relationships were non-procreative) was the basis for his rejection of these relationship as “contrary to nature,” where “nature” is conceived as the convergence of individual disposition, social consensus, and the biological world. I tried to invite further discussion about how such a convergence between individual disposition, social consensus, and the biological world would look in our context today, given the changes in our experience and knowledge of all of these things.
Parler and others, however, take a very different reading, which focuses almost exclusively on biology. Same-sex intimate relationships are wrong (“contrary to nature”) because they violate the biological complementarity of men and women intended by God in the creation of men and women. My response has two sides. On the one hand, this perspective fails to recognize the dispositional and customary dimensions to the category of “nature” in the ancient world, and thus does not engage all the relevant data. On the other hand, this perspective fails to provide an adequate approach to male and female identity that can work across multiple times and places. Parler acknowledges cultural variability and the possibility of growth in knowledge about men and women, but he doesn’t give us clear criteria for distinguishing between those male-female differences that are culturally particular (and thus negotiable) and those that are transcendent, requiring Christian obedience to them as equivalent to obedience to God.
This gap may, of course, be a sign that simply calls for more work. But it may also be a sign that this entire line of argument moves in the wrong direction. Or, to put it differently, Parler succeeds in his suggestion that there may be a component of the discussion of hair length in 1 Cor 11 that is biological (within the context of ancient understandings of biology), as well as customary. But he has not succeeded in eliminating customary elements from the discussion of nature in this passage. And once these remaining customary elements are acknowledged, the task of determining the moral logic of the text and its applicability to contemporary contexts becomes far more complex than Parler allows in his discussion. It is completely inadequate to assert, on the one hand, that biological distinctions between male and female must be recognized and normatively applied to the social roles of men and women in society, while at the same time failing to identify those particular biological distinctions which deserve this normative status.
So let’s consider the most obvious biological issue in male-female distinctiveness: procreation. You need a male and a female to unite in order to produce children. So, one might argue, only men and women should be allowed to marry. But we don’t apply this principle with consistency in our society, even in the church. We don’t refuse to allow a woman who has had a hysterectomy to be married, even though she will never have children. We don’t refuse to marry older couples who are far beyond the age at which they could bear children. In other words, we recognize that there are goods in marriage which justify marriage, even when procreation is not possible. Or to put it more technically, while procreation may be part of the blessing of marriage, it is not essential to marriage. The one thing that sets the biblical treatment of marriage apart from its ancient cultural context is the refusal to allow divorce on the basis of childlessness. This was the primary reason, in the ancient world, why people would want to get divorced, but Scripture calls to a different path, focusing on covenant and faithfulness, rather than on procreation. So if we acknowledge that procreation is not essential to marriage for heterosexual couples, on what basis then can we appeal to the absence of procreative capacity as a rationale for denying to gay or lesbian couple the right to marry? This sounds fundamentally inconsistent.
So in conclusion, my response to Parler’s essay has two sides. On the one hand, Parler is probably correct in suggesting that the appeal to hair length in 1 Cor 11 may have assumed certain biological presuppositions as part of the rationale for this particular message. On the other hand, I do not believe that Parler’s analysis excludes the more common interpretation of this passage in terms of custom. Once we recognize that appeals to “nature” in the ancient world include assumptions about custom, as well as assumptions about biology, it becomes much more difficult to separate the biological elements as trans-culturally relevant. What seems “natural” to us represents the convergence of assumptions involving social custom, individual disposition, and the biological world. Unless we recognize all three of these elements, we won’t do justice to the usage of the term “nature” in the ancient world.
 Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).
 P. 133.
 Frederick William Danker, rev. and ed., Walter Bauer original author, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1070.
 P. 134.
 Ibid., p. 255.
 P. 133.
 P. 134.
I continue with another posting about denominational issues for the Reformed Church in America, which faces a range of complex issues this coming summer at its General Synod.
We now have the report from the “special council” that met in Chicago from April 15-18, 2016. The group was convened to propose a way forward for the RCA in dealing with difficult and contentious issues surrounding sexual ethics. In this reflection, however, I do not intend to speak to the question of the RCA’s position on sexual ethics (though I have published a book on that topic, and have many thoughts swirling in my head). Instead, I want to speak to another issue addressed in the report, the option of so-called “affinity classes.”
This is an option advocated in several places in the report. Group 2 includes it among their recommendations, as does group 4 and group 8. The “group of five” that organized the assembly includes it in their summary recommendations to the General Synod. They recommend “that Synod establish at least one affinity classis that includes people and congregations regardless of their perspective on human sexuality to ensure and allow relationship and mission together.” They note that this action “might provide a way for those with differing interpretations of Scripture to remain in the RCA.”
Of course, there are some significant church order issues that immediately arise here, particularly whether the General Synod has any authority to create any classes at all. Right now, our church order locates that responsibility exclusively within regional synods, the “mid-level” judicatory in the RCA. The General Synod may “transfer classes and churches from one regional synod to another,” but apart from that, there is no authority granted to the General Synod to create a new classis of any sort.
But quite apart from those difficulties, this recommendation concerning affinity classes comes in the midst of a variety of tendencies, in the last ten years or so, to call into question what had been assumed in the RCA up to that point: the geographic basis of the organization of the church into classes. The Regional Synod of the Far West was the first to begin to call into question the regional bases of classes. It created the City Classis, and defined the geographic boundaries of that classis to be the same as the boundaries of the Regional Synod. This is a classis devoted to churches in metropolitan centers containing populations of more than 500,000. Yet even this geographical boundary has not been entirely upheld. The City Classis now includes churches in Philadelphia, for example, which is located outside the boundary of the Regional Synod of the Far West, and is exploring other church plants outside the region of the far west as well.
Other regional synods are also exploring this. For example, the Regional Synod of the Great Lakes has made a number of moves which create ambiguity around geographic boundaries for classes.
So we stand at a crossroad of sorts. If we move toward a full adoption of “affinity classes,” this move away from geographically defined classes will have finally reached official culmination in the order of the RCA. It’s time for us to step back a bit from specific issues, to ask if this move away from a geographic understanding of classes is a good idea.
I understand why this is an attractive idea. It allows people to avoid conflict that would diminish the effectiveness of the church overall in its mission. It allows churches which are out of step with their surrounding churches in a classis to find a way to avoid discipline and other problems. It allows churches to focus on issues that they think are important, without having to devote so much time and attention to issues they think are a waste of time.
Despite all these positive things, I think that affinity classes are not a good idea. Let me offer a number of reasons for this conclusion. First of all, a simple reading of the New Testament suggests that this is not the way the New Testament envisions groups of churches. In the New Testament, multiple churches are very frequently envisioned and addressed in term of geography. We hear of the “churches of Galatia” (1 Cor 16:1, Gal 1:2), the “churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), the “churches of Macedonia” (2 Cor 8:1), the “churches of Judea” (Gal 1:22), and the “seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev 1:4). There are no references to “churches” in the plural that reference anything apart from their geography (except for some that speak of the “churches of God” or “churches in Christ,” which are clearly references to the church in its totality).
Secondly, the use of “affinity” as a basis for grouping churches together runs into serious problems with Paul’s image of the diverse parts of the body of Christ in 1 Cor 12:12ff. One might argue that Paul is speaking here of a local congregation, rather than clusters of churches, but do we really want to say that the diversity of the body of Christ is welcome at the local level, but unacceptable at the wider level of groups of churches? Do we really want to undermine, at the organizational level, the celebration of diversity which Paul emphasizes at the local level in 1 Cor 12:12ff.?
This leads to my third concern. If we are going to move toward “affinity classes,” we must decide what sorts of “affinities” constitute legitimate bases around which to organize clusters of churches, and which do not. Is the recognition of women in ministry, or the refusal to do so, a sufficient basis for an “affinity classis?” How about support of, or opposition to legalized abortion? Would the use of, or resistance to charismatic gifts be a sufficient basis for an affinity classis? What about worship styles? What about eagerness to plant new churches? Many of these have already been discussed in one context or another, and the explicit adoption of affinity classes would only encourage all these ways of dividing the body of Christ. There are precedents here that lead to a very murky future, and to a church which doesn’t appear very healthy for a variety of reasons. This looks like avoidance of conflict, rather than engagement of difference.
Finally, we have the problem of the interaction between classes that are more geographic in character and those that are structured in terms of affinity. Who decides which churches get to opt out of geographic definitions and move toward affinity classes? This becomes a complex problem for which easy solutions don’t seem evident.
In short, I recognize the extreme difficulty that questions of LGBT inclusion pose for the larger church, and the attractiveness of affinity classes as a strategy for diffusing to some extent this conflict. I also recognize that there may be good reasons for assisting churches which share a common vision on a particular topic to affiliate in some way with each other. I don’t believe that classis boundaries should be rigidly enforced, and there may be instances where a move of one church from its present classis to an adjacent classis may be well-advised. However, I believe that adopting “affinity classes” will bring far more problems than it solves, and I urge the Reformed Church in America to avoid this strategy.
[For those of you who may not know me in this context, I am a member of the Reformed Church in America, a small denomination that recently held a “Special Council” on how to deal with controversy over LGBT inclusion in the church. This post is a response to the report of that council.]
Although I was not a delegate to the RCA Special Council on Sexuality that met this past April in Chicago, I have heard from a variety of people who were part of that council, and an interesting thread has emerged in those reports. Although the council was clearly not an easy time, and deep differences emerged that were not resolved, many of those who attended the council also reported significant interaction with others, particularly those who disagreed with them. They left the council feeling closer to those people with whom they disagreed, even though their disagreements were not resolved, and were still a source of pain.
I have found similar sorts of dynamics in my own experience. I was a delegate to the 2012 General Synod, which was extremely contentious on this topic. Yet I was part of a small group that was extremely diverse, and we found ourselves bonding with each other, and established closer relationships, some of which have continued, despite our disagreements on sexual ethics.
I want to pause for a moment to reflect on those experiences. In particular, I want to ask the question: what is the Spirit saying to us in this? Of course, it’s certainly possible to “over-read” experiences like these. Whenever people allow themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of conflict, a natural response is to be drawn toward such a person, and certainly some of the dynamics of this council may have been shaped by such psychological processes.
But I’m not convinced that this is adequate as an exhaustive explanation. There are some objective reasons why this response of closeness in the face of this conflict ought not to be overly psychologized. The most significant of these is the fact that there is nothing in our confessions about this division over sexual ethics, and indeed, almost everything in our confessions is mutually embraced by people on both sides of this conflict. In other words, part of the reason why people who disagreed over sexual ethics still found themselves feeling closer to each other at the conference was that they discovered that they embraced the same faith, not only in vague, general terms but also with respect to deeper nuances of their faith. They found common ground, even in the midst of painful differences.
This is not so minimize the real, substantive, and painful aspects of this disagreement. Reading the report makes it clear that these differences remain without any final resolution. But it does raise a possibility that people on both sides of this conflict may not be looking for: perhaps the Spirit is saying that this disagreement should not ultimately divide us as Christians who belong to the RCA. Perhaps the deepened intimacy, along with the absence of identifiable aspects of our confessional life that divide us, should give us more patience as we work through this particular conflict.
This may also help to explain one of the recurring themes of the report that seems strange at first glance. I am thinking of the repeated references in the Special Council report to a “grace-filled and orderly departure from the denomination.” At one level, this seems like an exceedingly strange notion. How can the sort of division of fellow believers that is based on an inability to work together be spoken of as “grace-filled?” How can such a division be expressive of good order? Where is grace present in such a separation at all? (I suppose that people might choose to treat each other without animosity in the midst of such separation, but that represents a rather severe diminishment of what Christians mean by the word “grace” in an ecclesiological context.) But the fact that the Special Council felt compelled to speak this way suggests another reality beneath the division: the perception that both sides may well have a grasp of the gospel and the heart of Reformed faith, even though they cannot come to a common mind on this topic. It’s interesting, in this regard, that the Special Council speaks in these contexts of “grace-filled and orderly separation” rather than of discipline (an emphasis for which I am grateful).
So rather than moving too quickly to the language of “grace-filled and orderly separation,” I would like to invite the RCA to explore more deeply why it uses such language in the first place, and what it says about the status of our differences, as deep and painful as they may be. If those differences allow for us to recognize the presence of “grace” in the corporate lives of others with whom we disagree on this topic, can we really be that far apart?
I suspect that, even in the arena of sexual ethics, we may not be far apart on many issues–closer than we often imagine. I suspect that together we recognize that the gap between the sexual practice of our culture and the (rightful) teaching of the church is greater than it has been in a long time. Together we would agree that the proliferation of promiscuity is a serious problem. Together we may well lament the movement of many younger people away from the public commitment of marriage, and the way in which living together too easily replaces it. Together we would agree that the church needs a deeper vision of grace to deal with sexual experiences that are more “to the margins” than in the mainstream.
So yes, the differences are real, substantive, and painful. But if we have so much in common, not only in our shared confessional commitments, but also even in the arena of sexual ethics, might that not be an invitation to more work, and less focus on separation? I certainly hope so.
In a recent online article in First Things, Robert Gagnon wrote a piece entitled “WHY SAN FRANCISCO’S CITY CHURCH IS WRONG ABOUT SEX.” I write this response, not in order to defend City Church (I don’t know the details of their position, and they can defend themselves quite well without my help), but in order to shed some light on important aspects of the debate over LGBT inclusion that are obscured or unclear in Gagnon’s article. Gagnon sometimes writes with a tone of finality and clarity, when the facts are less clear or more multi-faceted than his writing may suggest.
For example, early in the piece, he writes, “In fact, adult-committed relationships in the ancient world were widely known, with early Christians and rabbis forbidding even adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex as abhorrent acts.” What Gagnon’s comment obscures is the fact that the dominant pattern of same-sex eroticism in the ancient world is pederasty—men with boys or men with slaves. There is a lively debate about whether this was the only form of same-sex eroticism that was known, but almost everyone will agree that, if “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex” existed at all, they were extremely rare, and did not constitute the most common form in which same-sex erotic relationships took place. Moreover, I find absolutely no evidence that first-century Christians or Jews ever spoke of “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex.” I would welcome Gagnon’s pointing to evidence to the contrary, but I know of none. Debates over LGBT inclusion are not assisted by distortions of the relevant facts.
Gagnon proceeds in the next paragraph of his article to argue his case in more detail. But note how the ground shifts. He now argues, not that Paul is directly condemning “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex,” but rather that Paul’s condemnation of “homosexual practice” is absolute and not subject to any sorts of restrictions. Therefore, by implication, even “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex” are forbidden. So now the ground has shifted. We are no longer talking about a direct prohibition, but rather a prohibition by implication of the nature of Paul’s argument. This leaves considerably more room for debate.
And in fact, there is room for debate on many fronts. Gagnon says nothing of the fact that three times in Rom 1:24-27, Paul characterizes the same-sex eroticism he speaks of as marked by excessive lust. In 1:24 he speaks of how God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity. Later, he speaks of how this activity is marked by “degrading passions” (1:26) and as “consumed with passion” (1:28). The intensity of Paul’s argument seems appropriate to promiscuous and abusive encounters, but it seems less relevant to those who want to live together in life-long bonds of committed love, “for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.”
Paul’s focus on lust and passion here is consistent with what we know about ancient Jewish and Christian attitudes toward same-sex eroticism generally. They viewed this behavior as arising, not from a relatively fixed same-sex sexual orientation, but rather from desire which was inflated to excess, not content with more “normal” means of gratification, and driven to increasingly bizarre and exotic forms of stimulation.
We see this perspective commonly in the ancient world, in both Roman and Jewish authors. The Roman orator Dio Chrysostom, for example, who wrote shortly after Paul’s time, speaks of same-sex eroticism as the manifestation of insatiable lust:
The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given—in fact, too utterly feminine—and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure. His state is like that of men who are addicted to drinking and wine-bibbing, who after long and steady drinking of unmixed wine, often lose their taste for it and create an artificial thirst by the stimulus of sweating, salted foods, and condiments.
The early Jewish philosopher/theologian Philo, writing a bit earlier than Paul, makes a similar equation between same-sex eroticism and self-centered lust which refuses any boundaries. He comments on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah:
The land of the Sodomites, a part of the land of Canaan afterwards called Palestinian Syria, was brimful of innumerable iniquities, particularly such as arise from gluttony and lewdness, and multiplied and enlarged every other possible pleasure with so formidable a menace that it had at last been condemned by the Judge of All. The inhabitants owed this extreme license to the never-failing lavishness of their sources of wealth, for, deep-soiled and well-watered as it was, the land had every year a prolific harvest of all manner of fruits, and the chief beginning of evils, as one has aptly said, is goods in excess. Incapable of bearing such satiety, plunging like cattle, they threw off from their necks the law of nature and applied themselves to deep drinking of strong liquor and dainty feeding and forbidden forms of intercourse.
It is particularly interesting how Philo, like Paul, equates this excess of lust with the abandonment of the “law of nature.” “Nature” here is not focused on creational design as much as it concerns the sort of moderation that is commonly assumed as “natural” in philosophical circles of the day.
When we confront this distance between the perspective of ancient writers on same-sex attraction, and the experience of LGBT folks today, we face some important questions. The vast majority of gay and lesbian persons do not experience sexual attraction to those of the opposite sex. Their interest in those of the same sex is not driven by a thirst for the exotic; it is simply the only form of sexual desire that they have ever known. It may be strong or weak, insistent or occasional, but though its intensity may vary, its orientation does not. In short, the experience of gay and lesbian persons today does not match the perspective that underlies the rhetoric of ancient Jews and Christians toward same-sex behavior.
As Christians, we can all agree that self-centered eroticism that is driven by a thirst for the exotic should not be embraced by any sort of Christian perspective. When we encounter erotic desire of the sort that Paul, or Chrysostom, or Philo speak of, we should also raise substantial moral questions about its propriety. But to equate all same-sex behavior to the lustful excesses that Paul and other ancient writers have in mind is to make equations where they do not exist, and to subject contemporary gay and lesbian Christians to unfair and inaccurate accusations. Paul is speaking about lust and excessive passion; he is not speaking about loving, self-sacrificing, committed, mutual relationships. To equate the two is to ignore the specifics of Paul’s language in its context, and the specifics of the experience of gay and lesbian persons today.
Of course, there are other dimensions of Paul’s argument that Gagnon speaks of, and which I address in my book on this topic, but space does not permit a complete response here. In general, one of the major disagreements between Gagnon and me in our interpretation of Romans 1 is the extent to which we believe that Paul is basing his argument explicitly on Genesis 1-2. Gagnon frames his argument in this manner, speaking of the “strong intertextual echoes to Genesis 1–2,” but I am more cautious. My caution arises from the fact that Paul is arguing in the first chapter of Romans for the reality of Gentile sinfulness, and the inescapability of their guilt. But the Gentiles have not received the book of Genesis as a revelation from God. If Paul’s argument is dependent on Genesis, then the Gentiles have an excuse—they have not received the revelation that Paul allegedly speaks of in Genesis. But Paul explicitly argues against such a position in Rom 1:20—the Gentiles are “without excuse.” Paul is not arguing from special revelation in Romans 1, but from general revelation, and his argument flows from an assumption that he shares with Greeks and Romans—that excessive passion is one of the clearest signs of human brokenness and weakness. So this problem of excessive lust is not peripheral, but is central to his argument.
And there are further issues to argue about as well. Gagnon writes, “The best biblical scholars who have studied extensively the issue of homosexual practice, including advocates for homosexual unions (such as William Loader and Bernadette Brooten), know that the scriptural indictment of homosexual practice includes a rejection of committed homosexual unions.” Of course Gagnon singles out these particular writers as “the best” because they agree with him. But if one surveys in general the biblical scholars who advocate for same-sex unions of one sort or another (including myself), the vast majority do not reflect the assumption that Gagnon associates with those that he terms “the best,” that “the scriptural indictment of homosexual practice includes a rejection of committed homosexual unions.” Such rhetoric is powerful, but deceptive.
Gagnon also critiques rather heavily Ken Wilson, whose book is commended by City Church, San Franciso. Wilson has formulated his own response to Gagnon’s critique, which you can review here. I will let him speak for himself.
Finally, I want to say a few words about Gagnon’s argument regarding the parallels between incest and same-sex relationships. In his article, he states, “The same scriptural justification City Church offers to treat as permissible homosexual sex in the context of what City Church deems a marriage could be used to say that incest is acceptable so long as it occurs in the context of a “marriage” between consenting adults.” One might observe, first of all, that the vast majority of cases of incest do not involve “consenting adults” but rather the abuse of children, and are thus both irrelevant to this discussion, and are clearly wrong on multiple grounds. But Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5, speaks to an issue of incest which was apparently consensual between adults, and roundly condemns it. I believe, with Gagnon, that Christians today should reject all incestuous relationships, even if they are mutually consenting relationships between adults. But I disagree with Gagnon about why such relationships are wrong. Gagnon believes that they are wrong because the participants are “too much alike.” But if one reads the incest prohibitions of Leviticus 18 & 20 carefully, it is clear that the issue is not “too much sameness” but rather the involvement of persons in incompatible roles: one can’t be both mother and wife, or father and husband, or brother and spouse, or son and husband. Such role conflicts create innumerable problems that have been recognized in all cultures and almost universally rejected. But it is hard to see how such role conflicts speak to committed same-sex unions that do not involve persons from the same original household. So yes, incest is always wrong, even between consenting adults, but this doesn’t really speak to the question of same-sex unions composed of those who are not from the same household.
In short, I agree with Gagnon that the church must stand against all forms of sexual immorality, and refuse to condone such behavior under any circumstances. However, when Gagnon insists that all same-sex relationships must necessarily be characterized as sexually immoral, he fails to recognize the context and underlying rationale regarding biblical sexual ethics, and obscures, rather than aids the current conversation.
 Dio Chrysostom, Dio Chrysostom, trans. J. W. Cohoon, Crosby, H. Lamar, The Loeb Classical Library. (London, New York: W. Heinemann. G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, 1932), 7:152, vol. 1, p. 373.
de Abr. 133-135. Cited from Philo, Philo, trans. F. H. Colson, 9 vols., vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, Heinemann, 1935), 69f.
 Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).
 A Letter to My Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender in the company of Jesus, (Crumm, 2014).
 Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 49.
I got a question a couple of days ago in the comment section on this blog about Jesus’ statement on marriage and divorce in the gospels. LCH writes,
Some of the “Side B” Christians I’ve read essays from have mentioned Jesus’ talking about marriage and divorce, and saying, “It was not so from the beginning,” and referencing humans being created male and female. Since this isn’t one of the so-called “clobber passages”, it wasn’t addressed in your book. I’m wondering if you could provide thoughts on what we’re to take from that, and why one might not have to read it as establishing marriage between persons of opposite gender.
This is one of the texts that I wish I had said more about in the book! I get a lot of questions on it. Here’s the text from Mark 10:2-9 from the NRSV:
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
First, as I note in my book, this whole text is centrally about whether divorce is permitted. Since divorce is the severing of kinship ties and obligations, Jesus’ citation of the “one flesh” text in conjunction with his prohibition of divorce makes it clear that he sees the language of “one flesh” as pointing to the permanence of this particular kinship bond.
But why does he also cite the reference to “God made them male and female?” I suspect that the reason is fairly simple. The marriage bond is not the only kinship bond, and people feel free to walk away from many kinship bonds, given their personal circumstances. We are not eternally obligated to live with our cousins. But Jesus wants to say that the bond of marriage is a special kinship bond, that one can’t simply walk away from. It is special because it is established by divine decree, rather than by simply being born into a family. So I suspect that he quotes from the rest of the Genesis text to do two things: First, he wants to return to original principles on which the law rests, rather than operate in a casuistic manner on the question of divorce. Secondly, he wants to single out the marriage bond as a unique kinship bond that cannot be walked away from like other kinship bonds can.
It is quite another question whether Jesus alludes to “male and female” not only descriptively, to point to the special character of the marriage bond, but rather than in a way that is exclusively normative. Given the fact that the subject in focus in Jesus’ discourse is not a definition of marriage, but a discussion of the legitimacy of divorce, I think it’s probably over-reading to attempt to derive an exclusively normative understanding of male-female marriage from this passage alone. Jesus alludes to the Gen. 2 text to make it clear that marriage is a particularly significant and distinct kinship bond. He assumes that the marriages he speaks of are between a man and a woman (there were no other marriages in his day), and thus he alludes to the Gen. 2 text to make it clear that he is speaking of a particular sort of “one flesh” constituted by marriage, and not by other kinship ties.The very fact that he makes such an allusion underscores that the language of “one flesh” might not be construed in Jesus’ day to refer exclusively to marriage, but could refer to a variety of kinship bonds (e.g. Gen 37:27, Lev 18:17, 25:49, Jdg. 9:2, 2 Sam 5:1, 19:12, 1 Chron 11:1)
So that’s the key question: does Jesus speak of “male and female” and allude to Gen. 2 because he intends to teach that this is the only form of marriage that is possible, or does he do so because he wants to clarify that he is speaking of the “one flesh” bond of marriage, rather than any other kinship bond? I think that the latter is actually the more plausible explanation. In other words, Jesus’ usage underscores my central argument that the language of “one flesh” in Genesis 2 is concerned with the origin of the kinship bond in marriage, not with the origin of gender complementarity.