The middle path can be the way of wisdom. Sometimes issues get polarized, positions get hardened, and straddling the fence is the better part of valor. Sometimes it’s best to look at both sides of a controversy and conclude that there is a third way in between them. Sometimes the middle of the road is where you want to be.
And sometimes the middle of the road is where you get flattened by a semi.
For several years the Reformed Church in America has approached the issue of homosexuality as an opportunity to have our cake and eat it too. On the one hand, we have numerous official statements which condemn homosexual behavior and affirm the normativity of heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman. And on the other hand, we can easily compile a growing number of incidents where our official statements are being disregarded with apparent immunity. We have a position that says one thing and a practice that allows for another.
A Kairos Moment
The time has come for the RCA to make up its mind on homosexuality. There are basically two different paths the denomination can take.
There is virtually no chance the RCA will change its official opinion in the near future. The General Synod has never come close to affirming the legitimacy of homosexuality in its official statements. So changing our position and coming out as an aggressively pro-gay denomination is, thankfully, not a realistic possibility.
But there are two other paths before us.
Option one is to do nothing. We can push aside the controversy and tell everyone to get back to the important work of “staying on mission.” In the meantime, we can allow each classis to handle the issue for itself, essentially saying, “If your classis doesn’t allow for homosexuality, that’s your business. But if our classis does, you have to respect our judgment.” This makes the issue someone else’s problem (at least for now). And if all else fails, we can dialogue the issue to death, talking a few more years about our experiences until we all learn by a hundred unspoken statements that we should just get along and not let this issue divide us.
The other option is to do something. We can dare to say that this issue is truly a gospel issue. We can realize that the church’s mission is never strengthened and blessed by God through doctrinal and ethical compromise. We can turn away from the easy “let’s all get along” option. We can turn from the convenient approach that says, “As long as I can do my ministry, why should I bother with all this controversy.” If we do something-be it church discipline or some kind of amicable separation-it will come with a cost. It will mean strained relationships. You will hear words like “witch hunt” and “homophobic.” People will think you are mean and narrow. People will not believe you if you say love gays and lesbians. They may consider you oppressive, repressive, and reactionary. But if the integrity of our denomination, the glory of the gospel, the truthfulness of the Bible, and the spiritual well-being of homosexual persons (and heterosexual for that matter) are at stake, then we cannot afford to take the easy path.
Why Can’t We Agree to Disagree?
In the past the controversy surrounding homosexuality has often been cast as an “agree to disagree” issue. The biblical command to unity has been held high, but it not always been clear that true unity can only be found in the truth. We have been told that “mission comes first,” but we have not stopped to think whether our mission is helped by undermining the gospel. Over and over it’s been suggested—usually implicitly, sometimes explicitly—that the problem is not with the existence of two positions on this issue; the problem with those who distract us from more important work by insisting that there is only one faithful position.
This was the message we frequently heard from our former General Secretary. Wes Granberg-Michaelson was an effective leader in many ways and helped encourage church planting and evangelism, for which we should be thankful. But on this issue, unfortunately, he pushed an agree-to-disagree middle path. Whether he was talking about the need for dialogue or the need to stay away from divisive disciplinary proceedings, his message was consistent. “Our challenge,” Granberg-Michaelson wrote in the Church Herald in the middle of the Kansfield gay marriage crisis, “is to keep our focus clearly on our mission. And then, if we renew our vows of fidelity, we can learn to argue while still holding hands” (Church Herald, February 2005, 14). Similarly, in his memoir Unexpected Destinations, Granberg-Michaelson concludes that the debate over homosexuality involves a minor issue that should not threaten our fellowship:
In the end, the church’s debate over homosexuality revolves around a very narrow question. If a couple of the same sex are committed publicly to a monogamous, lifelong relationship, should they, in the privacy of their bedroom, be celibate or sexually expressive? I understand that there are different convictions around that matter. But what I don’t understand is why those differences should rupture fellowship between brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
It seems completely mistaken that this narrow ethical difference become a church-dividing matter in the Anglican communion, or should alter how Rome has fellowship with historic Protestants, or should cause Lutherans to break their bonds of communion with one another, or should cause anyone to question whether they can maintain their vow to fellowship and unity in the Reformed Church in America. (223)
This is one way to view the controversy—same sex behavior is simply a small matter of personal consequence. But of course, it hardly would have been the conviction of Calvin or Luther or Ursinus or De Bres or virtually anyone else in Christendom before the twentieth century that two men or two women in a homoerotic relationship was only a “narrow ethical” matter concerning private expressions. More to the point, it’s hard to fathom (impossible really) that the Lord Jesus and his Apostles would have considered sexual immorality such a trivial matter. I know this will sound strange, even offensive perhaps, but imagine if Jesus discovered that two of his disciples were having sex together in a committed monogamous relationship, do we really think Jesus—the holy Son of God and a first century Jew who never broke the Law and never questioned the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures, would have tolerated, let alone celebrated, their actions?
I’m not trying to be inflammatory, but I do want to provoke you to think this through. Are we to suppose that if Peter started a church and ordained a gay couple as co-pastors that Paul would have thought, “Well, Jesus said we should be one. So no big deal.” Does anyone honestly think that if we could take a time machine back to A.D. 60 and we found (what we certainly would not find) that Timothy and Titus were joined in a civil ceremony and now were sleeping together that Paul would have told the other churches “Relax, it’s only an ethical issue”? We can do all the mental gymnastics we want with word studies and the dialectics of trajectory hermeneutics, but at the end of the day it takes an extraordinary degree of historical re-invention to imagine the Apostles or the Church Fathers or the Reformers or Domine Van Raalte or Samuel Zwemer marching in gay parades and promoting homosexuality. If we “agree to disagree” on homosexuality and consider same-sex behavior nothing more than a narrow ethical decision, we are agreeing to disagree with the near unanimous consensus of our church for almost 400 years and the Church for virtually all of its history.