Why A Confessional Conversation about Same Sex Marriage is the best way forward keeping both Traditionalists and Liberationists from Using Power to Oppress the Other

DSC03537Why Church Fights over LGBTQ Issues and Same Sex Marriage Gets So Nasty So Fast

I wrote before why we need to have a confessional conversation rather than a fight over church polity.

Part of the difficulty we are having, and other churches also, is that without a differentiation of layers, a consciousness of the broad themes, the focus quickly turns to the motivation of the parties and their background experiences. Notice the two big attacks by liberationists in general.

1. “Those who don’t wish to evolve are bigots.” Republicans have long noted this is the one note Democrats will nearly always play at opposition. The second like it is “they don’t care about the weak, the poor, the needy.”

This gets into CS Lewis’ invention of “Bulverism“.”Because bigot hate gays, therefore anyone who resists a change that we believe benefits gays are bigots.”

The motivation explains the cause. Now an appeal to pride. “you don’t want to be a bigot do you? Join the movement!”

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

Lewis, C. S. (1994). God in the Dock. (W. Hooper, Ed.) (pp. 301–302). HarperOne.

This is working powerfully on people right now. People love to talk about silencing. Many many people are now being silent on anything that touches this because they are afraid of being labeled a bigot. The fact that only some of the most shrill voices remain just goes to prove their point. The masses are cowed and they follow sheepishly along reasonably anticipating the assault on their motives.

The traditionalists sometimes succumb to the same temptation and impugn the motives of the liberationists. This of course results in an impasse because the defects of your opposition are terminal making conversation pointless. You don’t convert demons from hell. You exorcise them and drown them with pigs.

2. Not all is lost for the progressivist. The liberationist anticipates the conversion of the traditionalist because that is the salvation narrative they have passed through. “You haven’t yet had the personal experience that validates the change. What would you say if your son were gay or you were gay?”

This is a wise tactic. How can you dismiss what you have not already discovered? “Your time will come and once you meet that nice same sex couple or feel the frustration of the transgendered individual you too will see.”

This is what makes the stories of same sex attracted individuals who revert to the traditional position so unnerving and why at that point in the conversation it turns to demographics. We now decide the truth by voting.

There is another problematic aspect to this. Surely ignorance is a problem in addressing a situation, but so is personal bias. A judge who would let his son out of jail because he knows how much his son has suffered would be called biased and removed from the bench.

As has been noted many many of us have experience with sexual minorities yet our opinions on the matter continue to differ. Why would this be if mere experience illuminates the situation and then resolves it for all? The only recourse then is to return to the Bulverism of point 1. The unconverted have hard hearts or too much conservative indoctrination or don’t want to break ranks from their bigoted or regressive tribe.

If you look at the communication from Grand Rapids East their big argument is simply experience. It doesn’t answer the question of why for generations previous to this one many many people have lived with the situation and not adopted an affirming position. The forthcoming answer to that is usually “societal pressure” but doesn’t the societal pressure cut both ways? We are again trying to answer “why” before “that”.

Those who have responsibility for churches and communities then resort to political and procedural tactics to resolve the impasse. When these issues are reduced to pure politics there will certainly be winners and losers. This will be a function then of power, which ironically is the protest of the liberationist. The real contribution of the liberationist has always been that institutional and political power victimize the weak. The great irony, one that revolutions of ever kind all over the world manifest regularly, is that when the weak become strong they succumb to the temptations and evils of the strong. This means that when the liberationist wins a vote they lose their moral high ground and become the oppressor.

We Re-discover what Confessions are For When We Need Them

The CRC, although it has prized confessionality seems to have forgotten what it is for and how useful it can be in the midst of a conflict. This is a forgivable defect because the Christian Reformed Church is young and inherited its confessions. It’s never quite made one. “Our World Belongs to God” is the closest we’ve come and I think we did quite a good job with it. Perhaps its time we think about what it would take to make another contribution.

Confessions usually arise out of questions we bring to the Scriptures. A classic one is of course “do we choose God or does God choose us?”

One facile approach to resolving such a question is of course to try to line up all of the Bible verses that seem to answer the question on one side or the other. In this case you get two considerable lists. What then do you do?

You can resort to Bulverism or you can let the two sides do their work and present their arguments and their statements of belief with the best the community can muster. What this results in are confessions. Now people have something substantial to talk about, to refer to, to work through and even to decide between. It doesn’t have to be immediately personal (Bulverism) or political.

Now of course individuals growing up in their separate tribes will be biased towards one or the other depending on whether their pastors and parents were good and kind and trustworthy, but as life does it thing and as people grow and explore they might find that the world is filled with good and smart people with different takes on the Bible and nearly everything else. Confessions help us grow up, and speak with civility, and establish communities and institutions that flow out of scholarship and faithfulness. People are allowed to change sides even when changing sides is difficult. Over time we begin to see the consequences of ideas and their working out that first generations couldn’t have imagined. We all learn together and through time.

Why do I say that our present conflict should be seen as a confessional conflict?

Christianity is a progressivist religion. Christians believe that in the revelation of Jesus Christ God clarified the previous revelation. In a sense the New Testament works as a confession for the Old. Jesus and the New Testament interpret the Old.

Progressive liberationist arguments (Kirk, Brownson and others) note the setting aside of circumcision and other aspects of the Old Covenant in the new Christian church. This is a strong argument. The weakness of the argument is knowing where it stops.

In reading Paul you see both sides of this argument. He talks about the old covenant and the letter that brings death and condemnation and the new covenant of the Spirit that brings freedom and life and glory in 2 Corinthians. This is the same Paul that in 1 Corinthians wanted the immoral brother disciplined, didn’t want men visiting prostitutes, didn’t give the clear answer to the celebration of feasts in pagan temples some in Corinth probably wished to hear, and went into the whole head-coverings, hairstyle argument we still don’t quite understand.

So where are the lines? This kind of dispute is a terrific candidate for a confessional conversation, not unlike the question of “do we pick God or does he pick us?”

Locating this as a confessional conversation allows both sides to work out their positions theologically and hopefully hold back the political necessities. This is a better way to proceed than the present, mostly political or polity process that we’ve been stumbling towards.

Why the Traditionalists Need to Work on Their Own New Confession

Progressive liberationists have already gotten a head start on their homework because they’ve been the ones pushing for changes in polity and practice. Those who are unconvinced have some catching up to do. They might imagine “why do we need to write a confession, we don’t see the need for change!” but I think that position itself assumes a rather implicit progressivist stance.

The Progressive Liberationist ethos has become the ascending moral assumption beyond the church. A study of this on its own would be more than worthwhile.

While I think the roots of progressive liberationism are in fact Christian. The movement has secular versions, Jewish versions, Islamic versions, Buddhist versions, even atheist versions. Those who wish to maintain a traditional posture with respect to the changes being demanded and enforced in the civil sphere need to work on articulating why they believe what they believe and do so in a way that resists common Bulverism. The church can’t just sit back and say “no”. While what’s in the Bible might be the reason many say “no” we can’t just leave it at that.

This is why we need to approach this conflict in a confessional way and that by using confessions, or relearning to use confessions, we will begin to step back from the kind of nasty political debates this issue has generated in many places where everything is reduced to first votes then fights over property and institutions.

Next Steps

I think figuring out how to have a confessional conversation is our next step. The weight of this ironically falls more on the traditional side. I think we need to articulate in an imaginative way the progressivism that has been working in the West since the enlightenment and come to a better understanding of what it gets right and where it goes wrong.

I think we need to have a better grasp of how progress and Scripture work together. While change is a constant “progress” is always a judgment. You cannot decide that a change is progress unless you have some implicit or explicit assumption of the goal. This is why eschatology is always in play even when people aren’t owning it as eschatology.

If we are natural born idol makers we are also natural born eschatology assumers.

Christianity is embraced when its vision is found to be compelling. This means that each new generation of Christians must re-articulate and winsomely propagate their vision complete with an eschatology that keeps the narrative thread and invites new generations to do this same work.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in CRC and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Why A Confessional Conversation about Same Sex Marriage is the best way forward keeping both Traditionalists and Liberationists from Using Power to Oppress the Other

  1. Jeff Brower says:

    Paul, a confessional conversation would likely assume a confession as an end product. So let’s call this hypothetical confession the Sacramento Declaration :). What do you think would be the main heads of doctrine or practice that it would contain?

  2. Nathan Bierma says:

    Paul, I was surprised to see you characterize the “big argument” of our classis study committee report as “simply experience.” Here’s a direct quote from the introduction to our report:

    “When arguments in favor of same-sex marriage focus exclusively on the life experiences of
    individuals with same-sex attraction, as powerful as those stories might be, they often fail to
    convince Christians who hold traditional views because those with traditional views believe that
    the Bible clearly teaches against same-sex marriage. When the debate is framed this way, it can
    seem like Christians face an over-simplified choice between obedience to God’s law versus
    compassion for individuals with same-sex attraction. This is a false choice. Individuals on each
    side can be compassionate. Individuals on each side believe that their position is biblically sound
    and obedient to God’s will.”

    We go on to outline multiple “strands” of affirming arguments (not just experience, and not just liberation). Your readers might be especially interested in our summaries of current (competing) biblical scholarly arguments on pages 46-49 and 56-58 (see pdf at bit.ly.com/cgressm2016 ). Again, I think one significant claim of our report is to find the exegesis of the 1973 report to be inadequate from BOTH traditional and affirming perspectives.

    We don’t want to undervalue the role of experience–it’s hugely significant, as it was when the CRC reconsidered (you guessed it) remarriage after divorce and women in office (not that those cases were equivalent to this one). But we tried hard to paint a more complex picture.

    As for your call for a confessional conversation, I’m intrigued and want to hear more. It’s hard for me to imagine that such a conversion wouldn’t be politicized every bit as much as a polity conversation would be. But I’m very interested in whatever is the best way forward.

    • Nathan Bierma says:

      I botched the bitly link: it’s bit.ly/cgressm2016

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks for your correction Nathan. I am indebted to you for your faithful commenting here especially when you push back. We need MORE good conversation, dialogue and debate not less. It’s not that we don’t have much, it’s that there isn’t enough productive debate.

      I think framing this debate as a confessional conversation is in fact the only way forward because confessions give us a framework to have it where we can respectfully disagree. I know in the CRC confessions are often seen as the ultimate standard, but that too is a distortion. This distortion is hurting the CRC on multiple levels.

      Conflicting confessions reveal conflicting ways of reading the Bible. Confessions are an epigenetic layer that means that two organisms working from the same genetic code manifest that code in different ways. If I say “you’re not Biblical” (an evangelical approach) it’s hard to get beyond it. If I say “your pattern of Bible reading is defective in these way” we have space to talk.

      Anyway, I’ll write more on this later. Thanks again for your faithful pushback. Keep it coming.

      • Nathan Bierma says:

        Thanks Paul. Your interesting code/layer metaphor is something like what we were attempting in pages 43-45 (bit.ly/cgressm2016 ) . That’s the “same code” hermeneutically that everyone should be on board with, and yes it will manifest itself in different ways (as we go on to show).

        At some point I’ll want to hear more from you about historical parallels. No, historical cases are not equivalent and do not reduce the burden of proof for change. But what did we learn as a church/denomination from rethinking interracial marriage & apartheid, or (still Two Views on these, I know) male headship & female ordination? Why did history sustain those social & biblical norms for so long, and how is history’s sustenance of heterosexual marriage similar or different? (not asking rhetorically; there ARE similarities and differences) In those cases would a confessional conversation have clarified matters or helped the church have better conversations? What went right and what went wrong when we navigated those? And do we know any better now which historical norms should be reconsidered and which ones are being sustained for sound reasons?

        • PaulVK says:

          I’ve just got a moment now so I can’t dive too deep but apartheid is a good example. Apartheid probably couldn’t have been defeated until it became a confession. Apartheid once it became a confession was then available to be explored, debated, embodied, etc. This is part of the difficulty of dealing with racism even in our present context. Haven’t you noticed that no one is a racist and everyone is a racist? Once Apartheid became a confession, and that confession became embodied in a confessional church it could actually be addressed, evaluated and eventually defeated.

          Now certainly those who embrace apartheid were hoping that apartheid would be victorious, that churches around the world would see its light and come to it and that a hierarchical approach to race would be adopted all over the world. This was of course a manifestation both of the colonial justification for slavery and early Darwinian thought about race and evolution. Not until apartheid came full flower in its confessional expression could it really be denounced and defeated.

          The CRC needs to grapple with what I call progressive liberationism. Maybe it will triumph as it is in its secular expression. Maybe it will be defeated. You can’t really talk about it, instead of fighting about expressions, until you have an “it” to talk about so my point is “let’s get on with it” rather than tinkering with polity and procedure.

  3. Rob Braun says:

    So I guess I’m confused. How does “compassion” override sexual holiness? Does the Bible teach such a thing as “Sexual Holiness”? And how does the Scripture’s teaching on sexual holiness play into SSM? Or doesn’t holiness matter? Matthew 5:27-30, Romans 6 & Galatians 5

    • PaulVK says:

      If you start with the OT you get the baseline. Holiness consumes sin and its host as the fire of the altar consumes the sacrifice.

      Consider Jesus and the “sinful woman” of Luke 7. The woman and her host (the Pharisees) were all sinners. Jesus negotiates the relationships. He doesn’t say the woman isn’t a sinner, but he calls out the self-righteousness of the Pharisees in their failure at hospitality and their failure to love.

      The holiness baseline is well established in the old covenant, the mode of mission is clarified in the new. The mission is the same. The goal is the same, the redemption of sinners.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s