I sometimes do go on a bit. Okay, more than a bit. Some of you recently listened to me along with John Van Donk and Paul VanderKlay on Paul’s YouTube channel (here’s the link for those of you still interested: https://youtu.be/wJZjAcACsks). And we did go on, nearly two hours’ worth. Since then, I’ve had several of you say to me that you listened to the whole thing and that you couldn’t really make out what I was saying.
Fair enough. I promised some who asked that I would try to get at what I was talking about in a more accessible, user-friendly way. And so I began writing. And writing. I think what I have written does clarify the points I have been trying to make, but it’s far from what I promised: something shorter and easier to navigate. So, while I do hope that you will read the longer pieces and respond to them, I thought I would give you a short—well, not so short after all—introduction and summary of what I have written.
What I have been writing and what I talked about in the interview on Paul’s YouTube channel began as a response a study committee report. The study committee was appointed by Synod 2016 of the Christian Reformed Church, my denomination. The committee was asked to study and prepare a report on what the Bible has to say about human sexuality. You can access the report here: https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/human_sexuality_report_2021.pdf.
You can guess, and you would be partly right, that what prompted the appointment of the study committee by synod in 2016 was the decision by the US Supreme Court to give legal statusl to same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges, June 26, 2015). That’s partly right, but it’s more complicated than that. Same-sex marriage had already been approved in Canada years before, and the denomination, about one-third Canadian, had in 2013 appointed a study committee with a quite different mandate to give pastoral advice about how to navigate the challenges that same-sex marriage present to its clergy and members. That earlier committee reported in 2016, and the discussion did not go well. I was there. What the synod ended up adopting seemed even at the time to be less than satisfactory. The sentiment in the synod was, as I recall, a desire to get back to basic principles. Not just what does the Bible say about same-sex marriage, but what does the Bible have to say about human sexuality in general. And so, they did what synods do: they appointed a new committee with a new mandate: “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.”
They gave the new committee five years to finish its task. Five years would have meant 2021, but with the border between Canada and the US still closed, synod did not meet in 2021, and so the discussion of the report has been postponed until next year. It promises to be a bruising, possibly denomination-dividing discussion. We will have to see if the denomination can hold together through the process of discussing and deciding the recommendations of the report.
When the study committee report first arrived in November 2020, I did a quick read-through and wrote up a short response for an online group in which I occasionally participate. My response was not to what the committee actually decided but to how they decided it, to the way they approached and interpreted the Bible. And it wasn’t just this report that I had in mind but the way that the method of biblical interpretation used by this committee has been used over the years to debate and decide key theological issues in my denomination and others like it. My basic point throughout my comments is that there seems to be something deeply wrong with the method. Not only does it fail to create consensus, but it misrepresents the Bible.
In what I wrote months ago to the online group, I made four points about the study committee (and other committees like it) interpret the Bible. I plan to post five longer pieces that expand those points (and add one), but for now let me restate those four points as briefly as I can.
First, I asked whether, even given the assumptions made by the committee (and the synod that appointed them) about the Bible, did the study committee do a good job of reading the texts? The answer, in short, is that, in my opinion, they did not.
This is disappointing because the committee was stocked with Bible scholars and others with training in biblical interpretation. I will not go into detail here about what I think they get wrong. If you are interested in how exactly I think their work fails to properly handle the biblical materials, you can check a piece I plan to post shortly with the boring title, “How the Study Committee on Human Sexuality Handled the Basic Texts.” I promise you that the piece itself will be better than the title.
The second point in my missive to the online group got at not just the execution of the project but the design of it, starting with the question, does it make sense to go looking in the Bible for “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality?” My short answer is that it does not. The sort of thing that the committee was looking for is not what the Bible characteristically does. What the committee in fact discovers—what they propose as a “foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality”—doesn’t actually come from the Bible. It’s comes from a theology at least one step removed from the Bible.
Where the committee finds their theology of human sexuality is in “creation order.” Creation order, in this way of thinking, is what God had in mind at the beginning of time. The plan of creation. The design, not just of atoms and molecules and the like but of the family and government and educational institutions. So how, apart from looking at what we actually find in creation (and culture), do we know what God had in mind for all those things? To answer that question, the study committee is forced to engage in a fancy theological jujitsu move that uses what Jesus says about marriage in Matthew 19 and what’s found in two creation texts, Genesis 1 and 2 to argue that what God had in mind for human beings is exclusively marriage between one man and one woman, this despite the fact that other sorts of marriage are exampled in the Bible itself and the meaning of marriage has changed dramatically over the centuries since the Bible was written.
But perhaps you agree that their conclusion about marriage is the right conclusion, Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and all that, the question remains: Is that really what the Bible is teaching in the passages highlighted by the committee? The way the committee develops its answer to that question begins with the idea that the biblical message can be expressed in terms of a plotline: creation, fall, redemption, consummation. When push comes to exegesis this, in the opinion of the study committee, is what the Bible is about. In the second of my follow up posts, I ask the question whether this is right. The post is entitled, “Does the Bible Have a Plot?” The answer is more complex that you might think.
My third point expanded the second. The question underlying this point is what kind of book the Bible actually is. If the Bible is not the kind of book that has hidden within it “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality,” what kind of book in fact is it? One of the answers to that question—my answer—is that the Bible is a conversation, a long, complex conversation. And the conversation doesn’t stop at the edges of the Bible with the book of Revelation. It goes on. We are part of it. The Bible exists in Spirit-filled dialogue with the church.
If you accept that the Bible is complex, more a conversation than a systematic theology, you can through your reading try to reduce its complexity or you can embrace it. If you want a single “foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality,” you are going to have to try to reduce the complexity of the Bible in regard to human sexuality (and to much else); if you embrace the historical complexity of the Bible with regard to marriage and human sexuality, among other things, you must embrace a view of the Bible that allows its various parts to speak in their own voices.
It’s this last that I would like us—all of us who love the Bible and who believe that it is the Word of God—to do. I would like us to listen to the complex conversation contained in the Bible. When the Bible says one thing in one place and something different in another place, we should not try to figure out a way to make both places say the same thing, or as is more often done, declare that one text trumps another. We should listen to the dialogue. Good interpretation means listening to a conversation that begins in the Bible and then joining it. Take the question, do we choose God or does God choose us? You can find texts on both sides of the issue. Maybe, instead of trying to dissolve the conundrum, we should embrace it. Sometimes the Bible doesn’t give us just one thought about something but several thoughts and invites us to join the discussion. If you are interested in this aspect of how the Bible works, check out my post called, “What Kind of Book Is the Bible After All?”
The fourth point I make in this series of blog posts takes up the question: who decides? Who decides what the Bible says? The study committee is pretty sure that they do—if, that is, the synod approves their report. In fact, if the synod approves their report, they believe that their findings would have confessional status. Confessional status means that anyone holding church office who publicly disagrees with their findings could be subject to discipline by the church. This goes far beyond what most study committees claim for their findings, but it highlights a basic question: does this way of approaching complex social questions end up, ironically, creating a new priesthood, the priesthood of Bible scholars?
Or, at least of the priesthood of synodical committees. In the long debate in the 1980s and 90s in my denomination about whether women should be permitted to serve as pastors and elders, we assumed, I along with the rest, that it was about the Bible. Committee after committee was appointed by one synod after another to study whether the Bible permitted or proscribed women to hold church office. All very biblical. Sola scriptura, as the Reformation slogan has it. But was it?
I once heard a church leader describe a discussion he had had with another church leader about whether women should be permitted to serve in all the church offices. In a way, their discussion represents to me the whole long argument between those who favored women in office and those who opposed it. As happened in the denomination as a whole, the two church leaders failed to reach agreement. They couldn’t reach agreement on the meaning of one Greek preposition in one biblical text.
Step back from that story for a moment. Does it make theological or any other kind of sense to say that the Spirit reveals the truth to the person whose grasp of ancient Greek grammar is better than another person’s? Does God give us the Bible so that we can debate prepositions? Does God reward the better linguist with the truth? If that sounds wrong to you, I think you are on the right track. There is something missing. It’s not the text in isolation that decides but the church in long, patient, loving discussion, interacting with the text of the Bible but also with each other. That single preposition was not, is not, the key.
And that’s how the church, not just my denomination but the church of Jesus Christ in the world, will finally decide these issues of human sexuality. The debate will be long, often insalubrious and divisive. But the Spirit will prevail. So I believe. If you are interested in more regarding this point, check out the post on the blog entitled, “The Priesthood of Bible Scholars.”
That’s pretty much it, but I couldn’t resist adding a fifth post. In this one I did what I said at the beginning I was not going to do: I delved into the texts themselves. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? I decided to take a look at the biblical texts—the ones that the committee and others claim to be about homosexuality. Actually, some are about homosexuality; some aren’t. There are seven of these texts, four from the Old Testament and three from the New Testament. What do these texts have to say to us today? If you are interested in looking at these texts, go to post I’ve called, “The Biblical Texts on Homosexuality.”
See what you think. And write me.