What I want from my Conversation with Bryan and Others.

OK, I’m Game

I’ve been wanting to talk.  Today Bryan Berghoef on his blog Pub Theologian wrote a piece to discuss, well, lots of things. Let’s walk through it.

Some may say “shouldn’t you do this privately?” Bryan and I don’t know each other personally. We’re blogging about issues. I don’t intend to attack Bryan in any way and if he responds I don’t expect to take offense at what he says. I hope we can do some writing about these issues. I call this fun and I suspect he does to because he likes to blog, so here we go. I hope the open conversation is helpful for others to overhear and participate in the comments, on Twitter and on Facebook.

The CRC Position

Bryan starts out by quoting the CRC website. The language of the CRC website pretty faithfully reflects the conclusions of Synod over a string of reports listed on the page.

I wonder how many gay individuals had a chance to review that before it went to press. I’m guessing not too many.

Probably none. Likely not many straight people either. I’m not sure who writes up these position pieces for the CRC website. I assume someone is tasked with this summary and someone else has to sign off on it.

The principle of talking with people if you’re addressing a group I think is a good one. My impression is that whoever penned this (or distilled it from Synodical statements, which were probably penned by advisory committee delegates to be wordsmithed on the floor of Synod) was probably trying to be both faithful to the Synodical intent, generous and gentle. Failure in this is of course in the eye of the beholder. “Disordered” is certainly not the worst word that I’ve seen, maybe there is a better one. I’m sure whoever is in charge of wording on CRC position pages on the website might be open to suggestions.

Bryan continues,

That is a hurtful and embarrassing statement. I am ordained in the CRCNA. This statement does not represent me.

Hurtful

If by “hurtful” Google understands “causing distress to someone’s feelings” I’m sure it is. I’m not sure it can be any other way. The official position of the CRCNA is clear. The position is that the experience of same sex attraction is not God’s intent or desire for human sexuality and this is of course the first stop, and a crucial one in the debate.

If someone is caused emotional distress by the opinions held by another or a group pertaining to them then they will be hurt. I’m sorry, I don’t think we can avoid this.

I have wonderful atheist friends who believe that my Christian faith is a horrible delusion that has caused untold bloodshed and suffering in the world. Is their opinion “hurtful” to me? Sometimes. But I’ll need to go on learning to live with the idea that friends and family can disagree on things and still live together. I’ll need to learn that my sense of self ought not to be wholly imprisoned by the opinions of others on a great many topics. I think this is part of what it means to be mature, differentiated and a in possession of a rather solid self.

I’m afraid that the repeated imagining of gay persons debilitated by the opinions of other persons, religions and institutions can itself be casting them in an unflattering light. Many of my gay friends while having stories of hurt in their lives have grown quite accustomed to living in a world where people have ideas about them based on their orientation. The same is true of my African American friends, but as one friend who is very liberal on this subject often says, “but when I walk in a room there isn’t any question about the color of my skin…” This is a world of hurt. It’s never even or fairly distributed, this kind of hurt is not uncommon.

This “hurtful” situation is obviously magnified by the flow of Western culture and the broad agreement among religious and irreligious people in this culture that same sex orientation or attraction is either not the design of God if you believe in one or not the design of nature if design in nature can be discerned by ends of reproduction. For hundreds of years there was near consensus on this idea, religious or not and the force of western law and medicine was deployed to “relieve” the “sufferers” of this “disorder”. I can see where this has caused great “hurt” as described above.

In the last half century the secular consensus as changed partly due to our failure to “remedy” this “disorder”. The current secular consensus is that the professed well-being of many (but not all) individuals who experience same sex attraction is that it is better to embrace the desire and pursue a lifestyle in in keeping with the desire rather than one that resists or attempts to reverse it.

Given this history the choice of the word “disorder” is actually rather appropriate yet malleable. Are we supposed to hear it with natural law reverberations as perhaps in a Roman Catholic conversation or are we to hear it in a clinical sense. Whichever sense you hear it in will influence how you feel about the change of culture surrounding it.

There is no doubt that Christianity had a significant role of the traditional position in the West but it would be difficult to lay this all at the feet of Christianity. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism as well as Communism all held or continue to hold similar positions. In fact the Dalai Lama articulated a similar position as late as 1997

“We have to make a distinction between believers and unbelievers,” the exiled Tibetan leader said at a press conference yesterday in San Francisco. “From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct.

“From society’s viewpoint, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless.”

It’s unclear exactly what the Dalai Lama thinks today.

Embarrassing

Bryan is embarrassed by this statement because it doesn’t reflect how he sees the matter. I wish Bryan would be more clear and specific on exactly what he thinks. It would progress the conversation. This conversation suffers from posturing and being vague about things. I’d love for him to explore in more depth what he believes and have the courage to write it, warts and all.

I understand the “embarrassment” feeling and share it in certain ways perhaps like him and perhaps not.

In my last post I talked about the elephant and the rider.  A couple of months ago I was talking to a young woman who self-identified as a lesbian. She wanted to know what our church thought about LGBTQ issues. I don’t know if “embarrassed” would be the best word to describe my feelings. “Conflicted” would be better for me. Part of me would love to say “you’ll find this community and the broader CRC church to be a place where you can feel secure and at home and be free to explore the Christian faith and find this process to be fully enjoyable and fruitful.”

I can’t say that. If she more publicly would disclose her identity as a lesbian things in CRC circles it would be complicated in ways that would not be so if she would not. Some in my church would quietly cheer her because they aligned with the sweep of the broader culture especially here in California. Others would be quiet but concerned and would watch her carefully. I think there is no doubt that if she persisted in exploring the Christian faith in the CRC the position of the CRC may be an obstacle to her.

She might sit me down and say “tell me clearly and honestly what you think of same sex orientation or attraction” and I’d have to tell her that I don’t think it is God’s intent for sexuality and I think it is a painful example of brokenness in this world. It would hurt me to say such a thing because it would probably hurt her and likely cause her to break off the relationship with our community.

I don’t want to see that happen but what are my choices? I could lie to her. I could equivocate and try to be ambiguous enough to leave her thinking my ideas are just like hers, but how will that serve us going forward? I think respecting her and the possible relationship between her and the CRC requires that I tell the truth. This is what the CRC as expressed by Synod believes today. This honors her and allows here to make up her own mind how to relate to the CRC and to me. If she can handle it it affords a more honest, adult relationship.

For this reason I think the CRC website shouldn’t lie or equivocate. Let’s not play games. The conversation can’t go forward if we’re not telling the truth.

Do all or Should all CRC Ministers Agree on this? 

The conversation quickly goes here. Bryan seems to say (we’ll see if he clarifies his own position) that he does not. OK. He’s not alone. I know a few CRC pastors who disagree with the CRC’s position. Now what?

We can talk about whether the Covenant for Office Bearers requires all CRC office bearers to subscribe to all Synodical decisions. I don’t think it does. We don’t discipline those who lost the vote at Synod or send back a questionnaire to them a year later and say “OK, you’ve had time to think. Agree with the majority (no matter how slim) or we’re putting you out.”

The next debate will be whether signing the Heidelberg Catechism commits CRC office bearers to oppose same sex marriage. A former Calvin College president made that assertion but like many matters of subscription in the CRC these matters are as much case law as anything. The CRC commits you to something to the degree that its assemblies are willing to discipline you over it. While Synod required First Toronto to not go forward allowing gays and lesbians to serve in office to my knowledge no CRC minister has been disciplined merely for holding a position contrary to the CRC position on the matter. This may happen. We’ll have to see.

As I stated before I too think we must talk about this. I also think we need the freedom to talk honestly and publicly in proper settings. On this Bryan and I agree.

The “Young People” Argument

Bryan goes on in his post to talk both about the changing assumptions of “young people” surrounding this issue and the perceived exodus of “young people” from the church. Both arguments are commonly made. Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger has built a career on this and similar culture war conflicts. Are both of these points true? Absolutely. They are, however met by another culture war argument.

The other side also notes that churches that yield on this point, and go over to “the other side” also face institutional calamity. I don’t really believe that anyone imagines the recent decision by the PCUSA on same-sex marriage will arrest their dramatic denominational decline. The drift of the PCUSA has caused a hemorrhage of churches to leave the denomination which then of course reduces the numbers of conservative churches which further increases the ability of progressive churches to win votes and consolidate their position. In other words drifting accelerates, as does numerical, financial and institutional decline.

If the PCUSA imagines that embracing the current cultural trends will suddenly reverse their demographic fortunes they are clearly deceiving themselves. I would imagine that while many will cheer the PCUSA decision almost no one currently outside the PCUSA who cheers them on will seriously consider joining one simply because they’ve taken this vote. That’s not how and why many people join churches or become Christians.

In other words this issue appears to be a “lose-lose”. If you don’t switch you risk alienating your young people. If you do switch you alienate your conservatives, and often your most faithful financial and institutional loyalists.

I think both arguments are poor.

Let’s imagine that in a conversation with this young lesbian woman I decide I’m simply going to be a pastor that mostly mirrors what she thinks is right. Initially she’ll be thrilled and feel affirmed by my reflecting back her image of herself and her ideas. In time, however, I’ll be increasingly useless to her to help her process and work through the many areas of her thought that attempts to engage with reality. The most productive conversation partners are usually those who are able to understand and communicate but have enough difference and dissonance to actually help both parties discern truth together.

It is also true that both the “young people” argument and the “jettisoning the paying conservatives” arguments are crass. If we in the church are simply about agreeing with people who will either approve of us because we agree with them or pay us because we agree with them then our minds and hearts are simply for sale to the highest bidder and neither side can respect that.

Both of these arguments are classic culture war fodder designed to move the “elephants” beneath motivating them by fear of institutional calamity.

Welcoming and Early Relationship Negotiations

One of the reasons I love gatherings like Pub Theology is because this kind of thing is not even an issue. It is just plain obvious that everyone is welcome. There aren’t barriers, whether you’re gay, straight, a believer, a non-believer, a doubter, an atheist, a Baptist, WHATEVER. You’re a person, and we want to hear your voice, so pull up a chair. Genuine community should be more like that. I often hear comments like, “Man, I wish church was more like this.

I get this. This is behind my John Suk fantasy. I get to live this outside the church. I have an incredible diversity of friends, people who are passionate for this god or that god or no god and how many different facets of theism, anti-theism, deism, pantheism, etc. It’s great fun.

My fantasy produces some deep conflicts within it. Part of my fantasy is that all of this diversity would become less diverse as I draw my friends closer to what I believe is the truth about Yhwh and Jesus and the Reformed faith. An uglier side of this truth is that this reflects a little bit of Satan deep within myself.

To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself –creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him, but still distinct.

Screwtape letters, pg. 46

I want to increase at their expense. This is the dark motivation of an evangelist. It is something that must be continually challenged and mortified.

Another part of me wants the fun of the conversation to go on and on. If the diversity diminishes it all becomes less interesting. If everyone starts believing like me then too often the conversation degenerates into a lot of self-righteous talk like the prayer of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  “Oh isn’t it wonderful that we are smart and moral and cool together, unlike all those ___________________ ” (fill in your religious, moral or political sinners, idiots and losers here).

Romantic relationships are a subset of other relationships and the first stage in relationships is often the infatuation stage. In that stage we usually begin with borrowed selves. We are filled with the joy of mutual approval and mutual admiration because the other is mirroring the idealized self that we are projecting and it is so wonderful. There are usually other motivations to pursue the relationship at this stage. We may feel satisfaction that we have secured a position in a cool, fashionable, “diverse” relationship because diversity is so important right now in the cultural conversation. We’re getting something out if it.

Infatuation is wonderful, but you can’t live there. At some point infatuation ends and both sides stop mirroring the idealized self and you have to get down to the real work of community which involves seeing and being seen as who we really are, a lot of which isn’t always that pretty. In our culture at this point most people bail. We like the glow that we get from Facebook, casual and surface relationships. Real relationships demand much.

At this point we might say “well you all at church can cling together in your sexual bigotry” but I haven’t found much gravitational force created by the CRC stand on homosexuality.

Churches are places where there is often surface agreement about lots of things but at the same time bickering and pettiness about very personal and practical things that have nothing to do with theology and everything to do with ego and control. Are we surprised? Churches are made up of people. This is how we are.

The Mystery and Humanity of Evangelism

In my experience what draws and keeps people together in real community is often mysterious and individual. On a per capita basis I’d put my congregations against any as the most diverse congregation in the CRC. We’d have to look at race, class, education, income level and political and theological notions.

We are always picking up new people by ones and twos and they keep making us more diverse and not less. Everyone who comes and stays does so for their own reasons. The reasons may be very practical like we are close to their home or the highway. They may be very specific, they are attracted to a certain thing here that I couldn’t have anticipated. They are often highly relational. This person discovered in this group of people a new family where they could safely love and be loved. This church gets more diverse every year, not less.

In some ways I’m living Jesus’ desire that his house is a house for all nations/peoples. In other ways we are not. The church is always now and not yet. I want more, as I said above, for good reasons and bad.

My Hopes for the Conversation

I’m less interested in culture war gains than I am in exploring life together in the context of Jesus’ church.

If a piece is all about persuading the reader to one side or the other I am discouraged. I am not an outcome or a vote at Synod and so to approach me as that is a lessening of my being an image-bearer of God. Part of what sucks about this conversation is that when we toss around labels like “straight” or LGBTQ we do some of that. I don’t always know how to get around it. This is why we must talk as individuals, not culture warriors.

What I do want is for us to stop being culture war tools who are hell-bent on these outcomes. Can we express our anxieties about our positions as well as the reasons we embrace them? Can we be honest about the places our positions are weak as well as where they are strong? Can we realize that although we may be gay or straight, Christian or not-a-Christian we have layers to us where we can meet, enjoy one another, and in our differences learn about this world and even perhaps the God who made it (if you can go there with me). This is what I want from the conversation. pvk

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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7 Responses to What I want from my Conversation with Bryan and Others.

  1. karl J Westerhof says:

    There is something disordered about each one of us; we live in a sin-broken world. Some people are born with same-sex attraction. (There’s enough pain in that reality so that I think most LGBTQ folk wished fervently to have been born straight. They may not continue to wish it, thanks to grace, therapy, good friends, maturity and adjustment, or whatever. Is it by definition morally wrong to act out that reality of same-sex attraction? My denomination thinks so; I don’t. Is same-sex marriage by definition wrong? I don’t think so. Given the reality that some people are born with same sex attraction, I don’t believe God requires those people to live celibate lives. Seems to me that committed same-sex relationships of love can and do picture Christ’s relationship to his people, just as well as any other. And that for me is pretty much at the heart of what marriage should be – the big metaphor. Have I worked through all the questions my thinking raises? No. Am I ready to say I’ve now got the answer? Well, no. But that’s how it seems to me at this point in my journey. Do I respect my denomination’s position? I do. And I don’t agree with it. You wrote something about teaching the turtle to talk. I pray for that conversation to continue and to thrive. And together we’ll discern and keep discerning.

  2. Harris says:

    So while we’re beating up Bryan, how about that lesbian, what do you say to her? The way I understand it, that is the fundamental question. Well, at least it is for me. Is being gay really a boundary issue? (That is, do we conceive of the church as a bounded or centered set, oriented to the edge or to the center?) Must our lesbian (or our mutual friend PS) lay down her sexual identity before the Church can say, “here’s Jesus?”

    My own take is that God wants to do something with her life. That she’s listening is a sign of that. The ideology of today’s sexuality will want to push her away (see mutual friend) create a gap, a distance. Well what good is that? isn’t that what the battle is about, this bringing dead souls to life? Yes, maybe being a lesbian is the problem, my bet however would be that like others, it’s probably one of the more basic sins. Like Pride. Like Self.

  3. PaulVK says:

    And here we are, aren’t we. I really hate this. I want to be a turtle. I want to be a chameleon that when I’m with my friend John who left the CRC agree with him, and when I’m with my conservative friends agree with them. Both groups want me to agree with them. Some of both groups want me to hate the other. I want the groups to love each other.

    I want to be honest about how I feel. I may be wrong. I may chance my mind some day. I may harden in my present position. What is the judgment of one person? Maybe I’m just a product of a conservative subculture. Does it matter?

    I know I will always be at odds with people I love. I love my friends who are gay. I want to make them happy. A big part of that is being on their side. I love my friends who are conservative. They want me to stand with them against the tide of a changing world that feels evil. I’m with Rodney King. Can’t we all just get along.

    So I can decide to be two faced, play to each side. Then what am I?

    So I want to write, to share my thoughts and my feelings, and my conflict with this. My grandmother’s family was torn up by the PRC split. Grandmothers banned from seeing their grandchildren over Common Grace.

    Women in Office tore up the church. I was on the “pro” side of that one. Will we not fight over this? It’s inevitable.

    My non-religious friends will say “see, religion is divisive”. Sure, but so are people. My Republican friends who want to carry guns and my liberal friends who want to ban them. My friends who see abortion as murder, and my friends who see it as a form of birth control. My friends who think we should bomb Iran, and my friends who protested George Bush visiting Calvin College. I love them all and I cry for the divisions between us, religious or otherwise.

    Then there are the families split, over money, over ego, over what was said 10 years ago and they’ll never forgive or release that. On and on we go destroying each other. We are the trouble worse than any issue we can disagree on.

  4. Bill Vis says:

    Thanks, Paul, for your continued work and reflection on difficult matters. I didn’t hear you beating up on Bryan, and hear such accusation as a symptom of the culture wars you so much try to avoid. It’s a shame when everyone seeking to enter into reflective discussion on difficult subjects is immediately pigeon-holed into a for or against party. I don’t often reply to your blog posts, but read almost all of them. They help me in my own reflections. Keep up the good work.

  5. Paul Spyksma says:

    Coupla points: First of all, you say “I have wonderful atheist friends who believe that my Christian faith is a horrible delusion that has caused untold bloodshed and suffering in the world. Is their opinion “hurtful” to me? Sometimes.” The difference is, you CHOSE to be a Christian. You could make a different choice tomorrow. False equivalence. And in response to Karl Westerhof, MORE false equivalence. “We are all disordered.” Except, somehow, people who are born with a heterosexuality disorder aren’t treated as if they are disordered. If you really do think “most LGBTQ folk wished fervently to have been born straight,” you need to get out more. I am closing in on sixty, and have always thought of being gay as a marvelous gift. When I was younger it was really cool, but the older I get, the more I realize it is very much a gift. If I believed in God I would thank Her daily.

  6. I like this. Thanks Paul.

  7. Thanks for entering the conversation as you do so often.

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