Fearing for the Shire: My Initial Read of the Synod 2016 Report on Pastoral Guidance re Same Sex Couples

same sex marriage report header

The long anticipated report on Pastoral Care Guidance to Same-sex couples is now public. There isn’t a lot of time between now and Synod in June so we should make haste in figuring out how to talk about this as a community.

Form: A Work of Art in a Difficult Space

As I read the report again and again I was amazed at the wisdom and skill of this report. Again and again I thought “this puts our best foot forward in terms of exhibiting the spirit and capacity of the CRC to speak carefully, theologically and winsomely on the most divisive issue of our day.” There are some huge caveats to this that I will get into later but again and again I was struck by what an impressive achievement this report is given its mandate, its time and its context.

While I know the report is a committee effort whoever was the primary pen for this report exhibited incredible skill. It is pastorally, theologically, politically, and socially careful and yet clear. I cannot say enough at how impressed I was. I’ve read a lot of traditional and affirming material on the subject but I don’t know if I’ve read anything so beautifully and lovingly crafted. Again, this is an astounding achievement.

Finding All the Flex Possible

The mandate of this committee was strict. Stay within the confines of the 1973 and 2002 reports. The majority report found all the flex they could within the legal and practical climate of CRC practice today. If you are going to stay within the current church order and positional parameters of the CRC today I can’t imagine a more beautiful, pastoral, flexible word towards those who wish the CRC would become inclusive. Again, as we’ll see this incredible achievement finds its liability in its great strength.

The minority report seems to essentially say that some of this flex while staying within the letter of the CRC law violates some of its spirit. When I first saw there was a minority report I feared that the minority report would advocate for changing the CRC position which would lead to a very different (church) political debate at Synod. I was surprised when I found that the minority report comes from a traditionalist voice. It doesn’t reject most of the majority report but as I said worries that some of the flex found by the majority report violates the spirit of the CRC position and wants to pull back from advocating we push those boundaries.

The two reports I think pretty aptly reflect the spectrum of the CRC middle. With a polarizing issue like this we naturally reduce the conversation into “affirming” and “non-affirming” but the truth is (as the report also nicely articulates) that there are a variety of positions within the church. The CRC has at least three camps: affirming, those who never liked the “orientation vs. practice” position of the 73 report, and those who embrace it but hold a diversity of postures with respect to language and posture. The two reports express the diversity of views within that middle group.

I could imagine Synod adopting both the majority and the minority report given the fact that both are within the legal and practical parameters of the CRC’s current position, both articulating postures within that middle group. While adopting both might not seem to make much logical sense Synod by its nature doesn’t often seem to be bound by logic.

Choosing Who Will Listen

By the nature of this issue the report simply won’t be heard by those who are longing for the CRC to take the affirming position. The report also knows this and to a degree tries to addresses this. If the committee (or a minority within it) had decided break its mandate and offered a recommendation to change the 1973/2002 positions everything would have been different.

This issue has now become pre-cognitive for most in our culture meaning that in many cases any amount of rational or theological argument doesn’t move the needle. The committee did the survey work and knew that any report that came out recommending the CRC adopt an affirming posture would have gone down to flaming defeat at Synod and set up subsequent Synods for ugly, bloody battles. While a report recommending an affirming stance would have brought cheers from a minority, a majority in the CRC would not have been able to hear anything else the committee wanted to say. At this point in our culture we await for the word “shibboleth” in someone’s speech and then we slaughter them at the fords of the Jordan.

This will of course mean that for many who wish the CRC to affirm full inclusion of the LGBTQ community this report will not be read or valued. We pick our audience by our shibboleths and too often the other side has closed ears. The report addresses this too but I fear the dynamics are too strong for most. We lamentably can’t see, hear or appreciate the other side.

We need to address more than LG in our post-gender context

While the report wishes to address “LGBT issues” it sticks to issues involving same sex couples. There isn’t much of anything that addresses bisexuality, transgender or really the totally self-constructed/defining/unmapping wave that is currently in vogue. Our boundary-pushing-broader culture has moved on and its boundaries are “post-gender” and increasingly “post-marriage”. The report really is “traditional” just like the SCOTUS decision in imagining same-sex couples as functionally equivalent to heterosexual couples. While this might still be where the majority in our culture are at it is in some ways passe. Ozzie and Harriet are now Ozzie and Harold or Josie and Harriet.

We might argue that the present post-gender reality was beyond the mandate of the report but the nice conservative LG couples that want to be CRC are in many ways low hanging fruit. The pastoral challenges by our post-gender world are going to be more challenging and require more theological work than a report that offers pastoral guidance can muster. These issues are not merely theoretical for pastors today and the theological conversation for this new reality will be every bit as demanding as what we need to address LG couples. This report updates and rehashes an issue the cultural elite of our society “settled” in the 70s and 80s. We are still playing catch-up theologically.

Does it Lead?

Not much. While the majority report is certainly articulate and passionate about loving gay and lesbian Christians there seems to be a certain resignation to it. “This is all we can give you given our mandate.”

Ironically the more traditionalist minority report “leads” more. While many might not appreciate the direction in which it wishes to lead there is an attempt in the minority establish a vision for marriage and sexuality upon which a practice can be based. Practice without a vision or foundation crumbles because it lacks meaning and the minority report wishes to go there in a way that majority report, for all of its elegance and beauty seems to draw back from.

The Conservatives Were Right

While conservatives have stumbled on application their ability to prophesy has been pretty good. Conservatives declared that same-sex marriage would change marriage and I was one who doubted this. I doubt less now. Sure the lesbian led couple down the street doesn’t directly impact my hetero-marriage today but some of what comes up in the report marks not only how changes in hetero-marriage has enabled same-sex marriage in our culture but also how re-understanding marriage through the experience of same-sex marriages continues this process.

There are some passages of the majority report that are bracing and strange.

chart civil religious marriage

CS Lewis in Mere Christianity differentiates Christian from common marriage. The embrace of same sex marriage forces the divorce between “CRC-Religious” marriage and civil marriage. Marriage’s chief purposes becomes to “demarcate appropriate and inappropriate sexual relations”. This movement predates same-sex marriage but this debate codifies it.

This is a reduction of marriage and an enormous change from how marriage was understood throughout most of human history. Christianity had a major hand in forcing this definition upon men. This definition was applied to women in common marriage but in many cultures marriage didn’t limit men’s sexual range to a wife or one wife. There were slaves, concubines, consorts and others to service male sexual appetites. Some women had this freedom but not most and not in many cultures. The need to keep bloodlines and heredity publicly obvious was too great to afford women this kind of sexual license. Common marriage had much to do with property, heredity, status and clan. Yes there was love and companionship but marriage law was a subset of property law. It is for this reason that in the ancient world same-sex marriage would simply make little sense. Sure there was same sex commitment, love, romance, companionship and sexuality but these these things simply weren’t the primary public interest of marriage. Now that marriage has become a function of private self-expression the business side of things recedes.

Another irony in this is that “CRC-religious marriage” gets more counter cultural because the Christendom assertion that sex is only appropriate in marriage has also receded making this position a double anomaly. As the report noted the CRC isn’t doing much disciplinary enforcement on sex anymore. “Don’t ask don’t tell” isn’t just or even primarily for same-sex activity.

While all the focus is on sexual minorities the issues stalking this debate are ones that ask questions about the relationship between sex and property. Should the church marry divorced or widowed members who don’t wish to have a civil marriage because it would impact estate or retirement benefits? This is a question that is increasingly common in our churches. A church wedding then becomes a mechanism for wedding someone’s genitals but not their stock portfolio. The two may be come one in bed but they remain two for the tax man.

Sibling Marriage

Gay and lesbian couples rightly complain about the focus on sex but this debate strengthens that focus in other places. Note this strange segment of the report.

strange marriage arrangements

I remember (can’t find the link) a case in England where two elderly sisters filed for a marriage license. They were quite clear they had no interest in having a sexual relationship together but they had always lived together in the home of their mother and wished to take advantage of the tax benefits being married would offer. If two women can marry why not these two women? Their request was denied. Sisters aren’t allowed to marry.

The vision of marriage as a “one-flesh”, whole life permanent union where sex and at least the potential of procreation is part of the picture comes undone. When that is undone we wonder where we are at. Now of course the arguments about about infertile couples and elderly couples yet the vision and symbolic elements make up the foundation of the practice.

How Little It Can Do For Us

Even though in many ways the report is a triumph and as I said work of pastoral art, in the end I’m not sure how much it changes anything.

The RCA this coming spring will convene a “wise council” in the hope of finding a way through their impasse. While it’s a noble goal and effort expectations are low. This is one of those conflicts that has so far resisted easy, happy compromise.

While this report doesn’t pretend to do anything so ambitious as the RCA’s council in the end I’m not sure what the report does for us. It maps out with incredible language the parameters of the CRC position and their practical pastoral and polity implications but doesn’t really offer us a road forward. I think the minority report attempts to offer some leadership (in the traditional direction) the report as a whole doesn’t resolve or even distance us from the kind of RCA-like showdown so many in our denomination expect and fear.

Benedict or Wilberforce

Rod Dreher has been making waves with his “Benedict Option“. He imagines the church needs to make a sort of strategic cultural retreat to protect itself from ever increasing government enforced cultural imperialism. Michael Gerson and Peter Werner in CT proposed a “Wilberforce Option“. Dreher responded here.

While I prefer the spirit and zeal of the Wilberforce Option I am sobered by the realities that prompt Dreher’s Benedict option. Not embracing full inclusion labels Christians and churches on the culture landscape as and with bigots. While Christians and churches may have been regarded as unrealistic prudes and hypocrites our doctrines have generally not been regarded as evil. I agree with Dreher that this represents a sea change for churches that wish to maintain a traditional position on marriage and that there will be social, legal, political and economic consequences for churches and their other institutions. How this will all shake out none of us knows.

I wrote a piece for a “denominational derby” on a blog introducing the Christian Reformed Church. I likened us to tallish hobbits. I would love to imagine, together with Sam, Merry and Pippin that the troubles of the great war won’t devastate our shire.

We have known ecclesiastical war and many of us hate it. We, a splinter group have splintered still further and it seems difficult to imagine we’ll avoid splintering over this. I’m not sure how well this report helps us hold together.

I think of John Brown’s note.

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”

—John Brown’s last words, written on a note
handed to a guard just before his hanging

Both sides of this fight will of course interpret “guilt” through their own filter. Christianity asserts of course that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cleanse us from guilt. We will have to see how much other blood we wish to shed in our unbelief.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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15 Responses to Fearing for the Shire: My Initial Read of the Synod 2016 Report on Pastoral Guidance re Same Sex Couples

  1. Nathan B says:

    Paul, I appreciate your opening comments and I generally agree with them. As someone who leans to the affirming side I can agree with you that this is a well-crafted piece of work and represents about the best that can be said within the parameters it was given. I also agree it doesn’t suggest a clear or easy way forward, and lament with you our apparent inability to find wide patches of common ground.

    I’ve been catching up on some of your posts in the wake of SCOTUS and I hear you describing this cultural moment as sort of an existential crisis for the church (both the denomination, and, re Benedict, the North American church as a whole) that requires a fundamental change in strategy and location for the church in relation to culture. This is a claim I wonder about. First, while these two analogies are so predictable I wanted to withhold them, nonetheless I think opponents of women in office in the 90s saw the stakes as equally high, and the cultural moment just as threatening. The difference may have been that there was no bomb going off like SCOTUS. But I remember multiple delegates in the 90s alleging on the floor of synod that we were “capitulating to feminism” and if we were going to choose culture over the clear word of Scripture we should just close the denomination down then and there. Likewise, I imagine the same arguments being made (second predictable analogy alert) against rethinking remarriage in the 1940s and 50s. The bombs that did go off in culture–the sexual revolution of the 60s and the delay of the marrying age and corresponding rise in cohabitation and premarital sex–surely shook, or should have shaken us, every bit as much or more as this issue does in requiring us to stake out a theology of marriage and sexuality in a culture that didn’t want to hear it and wouldn’t follow it. Insert here all the differences between those cases and this one. But this feels less like the last straw and more like just another piece of hay in a sizable haystack. Or is your point about existential crisis your larger point about how the CRC doesn’t know what it is anymore–and wouldn’t know even if this issue had never come up or had been resolved–and this just brings that into focus? Historically, of course, those of us who lean affirming on this and leaned affirming on women in office (and would have on remarriage) also find that cultural practice helped reveal to the church some error or blind spot in its ethical application of Scripture. Again, insert all the faults of those analogies here. My interest is not in how the issues are different (they are at least in some ways; we’ll probably disagree about how different they are) but in how the MOMENT is allegedly different. Doesn’t history often find that we exaggerate the size of such perceived moments? And in our complicated cultural milieu, going back to the haystack metaphor, not all of the hay is bad hay. Some of it surely is and the burden of proof is high to articulate a theology of marriage. And I’m NOT trying to be polyannish and say everything’s probably fine, nothing to see here. But the atmosphere of sudden, unprecedented, existential threat doesn’t seem to set the stage for our best efforts to do that important theological work together.

    One other historical note I wanted to ask about: aren’t cultural norms regarding marriage and sexuality relatively resilient? Back to the sexual revolution: a good bet during that decade is that monogamy would soon be rendered as obsolete and prudish. Instead, a half century later, monogamy is still the expectation for the vast majority of romantic relationships in society, and every sitcom plot seems to presume that every character values it. Marriage before sex, different story. But monogamy beat out its death sentence. (I think it still will in the case of same-sex marriage, by the way. Some interesting early studies showed that lesbian partners were more faithful to their partners than heterosexual females. This suggests another peculiarity of the cultural moment: by many definitions same-sex marriage was a *conservative* development. Maybe you have to buy Jonathan Rauch to believe that.) Granted, same-sex marriage gained national approval much faster than anyone could have expected. But don’t we sometimes overestimate the pace of social change when it comes to marriage and sexuality?

    You sketch such interesting historical pictures of the CRC and society in your writing that I fear my questions are too simplistic. So let me just offer this as thinking out loud from someone who isn’t inclined to agree with you on all your points but is glad to share some dialogue with you.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks Nathan for your kind and thoughtful comment. Unfortunately I’ve got to dash off to lead a council retreat so I can’t engage too much now.

      I’m continuing to struggle to get a handle on what you put your finger on. Is this such a non-issue that we’ll all wake up 10 years from now and say “sheesh, what were we thinking?!” or is this the end of Western Civilization as we know it? There are clearly people in both camps right now and there are days that it looks one way to me and days when it looks the other. We’ve had other such issues such as white supremacy, whether it’s a good idea to own slaves, if thirteen years of age is a good time to get married and whether or not a god exists.

      It is clear that it has become a pre-cognitive idea for most, which means by virtue of sociology of knowledge and how many other influences we simply believe one way or the other. We are by far the most malleable creature on the planet. Unlike every other creature (that we know of) we live in a storied world and that story deeply impacts our behavior and communities. How do we know whether we’re living out of a true story or do the stories matter at all?

      While we may imagine that accommodating the practices of sexual minorities doesn’t require or won’t lead to much change in the rest of the familial ecosystem, I think history suggests otherwise. Will 95% of people live mostly hetero, (serial) monogamous lives while the other 5% does what works for them? Maybe, but I’ve got my doubts. The real questions are what kind of storied context leads to “life giving” and can we really know “life giving” apart from the stories the perception of which depends upon? Slavery “worked” for Thomas Jefferson and apparently also for the propagation of the genetic code of his slave/consort even if it came at her individual expense. Things get a little squirrelly through this looking glass.

      So talk we must, and pray, and respect, and listen.

      • Nathan Bierma says:

        Thanks Paul. FWIW I would take the bet on some longevity for the 95-5 and place (most) gay couples within the 95, and see this as an unexpected rebuke of the cultural logic of sexual libertinism. I also see the “life-giving” question as central to the reasoning of the affirming case, which sees that over-applying prohibitions that were (in its view) heavily influenced by cultural conditions to contemporary questions is life-stifling, the exact opposite of life-giving, while probing more deeply the deepest biblical purposes for marriage and who can faithfully fulfill them IS seeking what is life-giving. I really think that’s key here: if the traditional side had something beyond “prohibitions lead to flourishing” as a positive moral case (I realize Augustine made that case positively), I think it would get a better hearing. But yes, much of this is pre-cognitive by now.

        BTW I think you should go to the RCA’s wise council 🙂 Maybe they’ll have a table of advisors near the back. Or at least live-bloggers? Bloggers are the new advisors 🙂

        • PaulVK says:

          “life-giving” has become a mantra now. You can year it in the City Church SF statement. What is happening is that on one side the Reformed camp wants to say “we’re against ‘natural law’ arguments” but then they come in with “life-giving” which is essentially the cousin to a natural law argument residing on the “general revelation” side of the line. “Life-giving” like “natural law” is often in the eye of the beholder.

  2. Thanks for this fine analysis of the committee’s work. Perhaps it could be stated in three words: An elegant failure. With all the alarm about the death of marriage as we know it, I am reminded of Jesus words when confronted by a marriage question: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. (Matt. 22:30) It seems to me that Jesus at least means to say that marriage is not an ultimate, but a penultimate concern. Or think of Paul, when he says that marriage is not really about what we think it is: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:30-32) Which is to say, I think, that it’s not just about sex, but covenant commitment, embodied sacrificial love, and fidelity in the face of life’s changes and chances.

    We have the centuries-old habit of equating sin with sex. If anything, Jesus was notoriously forgiving on that front. What he could not stand was “righteous” people separating themselves from “sinners” without acknowledging their own sinful nature. And make no mistake, this argument is about sex more than about marriage. Why else would the committee be so bound in its parameters.

    Of course, homosexuality presents us with a hermeneutical conundrum that yields no satisfyingly easy solutions. But do we then decide together that we won’t talk about it? That’s what the Synodical constraint seems to say. It may be thought to be in the interest of unity, but, as you rightly point out, that’s not the likely outcome. The issue won’t go away, and the weather-beaten answer of love the sinner and hate the sin just doesn’t cut it any more when Christ-loving gays and lesbians and their friends and families ask us to listen to their story with grace and godly discernment.

    • Nathan Bierma says:

      Wow, is the editor of the Banner allowed to say that? 🙂 Thanks, Len. Good point that we are prone to reductive pictures of both marriage and sex. And prone to being insufficiently eschatological. (That’s actually a larger point that stuck with me from writing my book on heaven. We Calvinists are so earnest to get back to creation, we don’t always look ahead to new creation.)

      • PaulVK says:

        The INTERIM Banner Editor comes pre-fired. 🙂

        Len’s point was essentially mine on the “Conservatives were right” section. The effect of this debate is the reduction of sex and marriage for all sides. Both sides wind up simultaneously saying (depending on their locale on the entrenched battlefield) “sex is MORE important” AND “you’re focusing too much on sex”. The impact of this you can see on the senior citizen religious-only marriage movement. Marriage is reduced to a license to have church-approved sex. That is an enormous departure from the ancient common institution where marriage conveyed status even if the male had no limitations on his sexual range and the Christian Ephesians 5 view where the male “gives himself up” for his bride. This debate IS changing marriage for everyone, and signals how it has changed in the last 200 years in ways we didn’t notice or wanted to fess up to.

  3. Paul Spyksma says:

    The nicest thing you can say about this situation is that fortunately, the number of people who care what the CRC thinks about gay people, or anything else, is shrinking rapidly. It’s nice that the report put as much lipstick as would fit on the pig. But they can’t bring themselves to accept their gay friends and family members as equals. The idea that sticks in heterosexual Christian minds is that they are simply BETTER, somehow. Well, okay. Much good may it do them. The gay people in the CRC figured out long ago that there was nothing for them there, and they would be far better off somewhere else. If the CRC survives, it will be because a small number of rich fundamentists will somehow make up for what is lost by the demise of Dutch ethnic identity. But they will be less and less relevant to the real world, and that’s a shame. That particular Square Inch (to invoke Calvin’s president’s newsletter) will become a square half inch, and then quarter inch, and then….well, it doesn’t matter.

  4. Jeff Brower says:

    The majority report seems to state that the best interpretation of Article 69c regarding solemnization of marriage is left up to the local consistory. While I understand the pastoral reasons for this stance it also has the potential of simply bypassing the denomination’s stance and framing things as a de-facto local option.

    The controversy last year concerning the Minnkota overture leads me to think that this is not the wisest course of action and will lead to conflicts between churches within a classis, and between classes.

  5. Mark Hofman says:

    Two links for you Paul:

    1) Another worthy response to the CT “Wilberforce Option” article was from Shirley Hoogstra, former VP of Student Life at Calvin: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/november/faithfulness-and-bridge-building-go-together.html?share=e%2bE%2fiX8DAe8NlVUu6BPgiRo%2fd9w3Adir

    2) The YALT decided to give us the “Millennial” viewpoint before the paint dried (as usual): http://weareyalt.org/the-young-adults-guide-to-the-crcs-new-same-sex-marriage-report/#.VkO25dYhm6M

  6. Pingback: A few thoughts for today on the CRC and the Same Sex Marriage Conversation | Leadingchurch.com

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