Several Options, No Waffling
I believe the time for waffling is over. As a denomination we have a clear position. Some choose to disregard, disobey, and disrespect that position. This should not be. The PCUSA, the ELCA, and the Episcopal Church fought these same battles over many years. They often urged patience, insisted on unity, and encouraged their people to focus on mission. Now they all welcome gay clergy in one way or another. Those on the side of historic orthodoxy “trusted the process” and the process let them down. Now is the time for action. Later will be too late. There are many different steps many different churches and classes should take. The overture from our church is one of these possible—and we think necessary—steps.
I recognize that the common retort at this point is to ask, “Why single out homosexuality? Why are you picking on this one sin? Why don’t you people talk about all other sins in the church? Are we going to pass resolutions for every sin?” There are several good responses to these questions. For starters, we do talk about lots of other sins—at least we do in my church. This is certainly not the only sin out there, and not even the main sin in the vast majority of our churches. But it is one of the principal areas where the church is under pressure from the culture to compromise. Every generation faces difficult issues and theological controversies. They require the church to speak out and speak clearly. Sexuality just happens to be one of those issues for our day. And the fact that many of our churches fail to practice the necessary discipline in a whole host of areas (from heterosexual fornication to unbiblical divorce) does not mean we should further compromise in this area of homosexuality. We ought to exercise loving, restorative discipline in every church. But as long as people in the RCA are not marshaling forces to celebrate marital affairs and divorce, it is a smokescreen to suggest that caring about those issues precludes us speaking out on this one.
I want unity and believe Christ commands us to be one. But we cannot be one institutionally unless we are truly one spiritually. The differences over sexuality are serious enough, but the issue is only symptomatic of disagreements that go wider and deeper, disagreements that touch on the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the authority and interpretation of our Standards, the reality of eternal hell, the reality of divine wrath, that nature of the atonement, and the nature of the gospel itself. We cannot pretend forever that an ambiguous understanding of “shared mission” can cover over our profound theological, biblical, and ethical disagreements. Let the RCA decide once and for all whether homosexuality is acceptable in our fellowship and then peaceably allow congregations and pastors to figure out if the RCA is still right for them.
Truth and Grace
Believe it or not, I really have no desire to engage in a long, protracted fight over homosexuality. What pastor does? But I do want to be faithful. And compromising on something the Bible speaks to so clearly is not faithfulness. It is cowardice. Of course it would be nice to do nothing. I begrudge the time and effort involved in controversy. More than that, I do not enjoy making people upset. I do not relish being thought narrow, judgmental, intolerant, mean-spirited or whatever else opposition to homosexuality is now considered in our culture. But even more I loathe doing nothing when so much is at stake. If it is true that homosexual behavior is sinful—as the Law of Moses and the gospels and the letter of Paul and our Catechism and our General Synod pronouncements conclude—then we are helping no one by saying “peace, peace,” where there is no peace. We are not helping the RCA fulfill its mission of making disciples in the world. We are not helping persons with same-gender attraction who need love and the truth in equal measure. We are not helping the consistories and pastors and professors in the RCA who continue to promote sin at risk to their congregations, their students, and their own souls. Most importantly, we are not helping to magnify the glory of our holy God and his all-forgiving, all-transforming grace.
I too know of persons who struggle with homosexual desires. Some of them will reject the church if we do not affirm their lifestyle. That is true, just like the greedy and self-righteous may turn away if we preach against those sins. But others know they lack sexual wholeness and are looking for a church body to help them fight against sin. They are hungry to hear the truth of God’s word and eager to know the expulsive power of a new affection. We do not help them by soft-pedaling the truth or giving them a lie. We do not help them by celebrating what the Lord would have us tearfully correct. We do not help them by joining hands with those who would offer them a stone instead of a piece of bread. We help them by repenting of our hurtful attitudes, by speaking the truth in love, by folding them into our communities, and by walking together in faith and repentance, all to the end that we may live into the “such were some of you” gospel hope of 1 Corinthians 6.
I’ve been in the RCA my whole life. I’m convinced that the best and worst thing about our denomination is that we don’t like to draw lines in the sand. This is good in so far as it keep us from majoring on the minors and focusing on each other’s faults. This is bad in so far as it keeps us from acting decisively when faithfulness demands that we must. There are some denominations who can’t say yes to anything. Thankfully, that’s not us. And yet, sometimes we have a hard time saying no to anything. We are a small group, tight knit, held together by relationships that stretch back into seminary, college, and family reunions. We don’t like to make people waves. We don’t want to start a fight. That’s good. But the word of God calls us to a higher standard than niceness and warm relationships.
We are not called to be abrasive and arrogant, harsh and hateful. But we are called to be strong and courageous, willing to do the hard, uncomfortable, painful act of holding each other accountable and saying no to ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2:11). Do not be cowed into silence by those who claim all that’s at stake are two different interpretations of Scripture. There comes a time when we must rule certain interpretations—no matter how sincerely held—out of bounds with Christian orthodoxy, unfaithful to Scripture, and unacceptable in our churches. Do not be afraid of strong words and hard labels. Jesus himself commended the church at Ephesus because they did not “bear with those who are evil” and hated “the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Rev. 2:2, 6). Do not take the easy way out and allow what you know to be unbiblical under the guise of unity and mission. With hearts of love and theological backbones of steel we must not compromise on homosexuality.
A Call to Courage
How many in the RCA will put their reputations and their ease on the line that we might decisively confront this issue? If we fail to discipline such intransigent disobedience to the Scriptures and to our own pronouncements it will be fair to wonder whether we have lost the third mark of the church, and consequently, whether we as a denomination can still be recognized as a true church (Belgic Confession, Article 29).
The question is not whether we can have an entirely pristine church. The issue is whether we care to defend what is true and take courage to oppose what is false. In a recent blog post, Carl Trueman brings this point home with reference to a different denomination struggling with homosexuality:
It is, of course, not a question of whether the Church of Scotland is morally perfect in her membership or behaviour; no church ever has been and that is not the point at issue here. It is rather a matter of whether, as an institution, she will not merely tolerate but actively encourage, promote and defend the true preaching of the word of God, of the whole counsel of God, and oppose—and depose by due and decent process—those who do not do so yet who claim to minister in Christ’s name.
If we truly believe in “one, holy, universal, apostolic church” we should make every effort to be true to the apostle’s teaching (no matter how countercultural) and in step with the faith confessed around the world throughout the ages, no matter how strange it may seem to our Western sensibilities. We should also strive to have a holy church that reflects the character of our holy God. To hunker down in our own friendly confines and do nothing at this moment in the life of the RCA is to dishonor the history of the church, the witness of Scripture, and the character of God.
Now is the time for broken-hearted courage. Now is the time for doctrinal integrity. Now is the time to not only say the right thing but do the right thing. I can hear the voice of Elijah calling to us: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21).