A brief introduction
In June the synod of the Christian Reformed Church, my denomination, will take up a long (175 pages) report of a study committee charged five years ago (Synod 2016) “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.” In an earlier series of posts, I asked whether there is such a thing—“a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality”—and whether, if there is such a thing, the study committee indeed found it in the pages of the Bible. To both of these questions, I answered emphatically no. What committee produced, as is typical for these study committees, is a theology based a pre-existing theology, in this case the idea of a creation order, that they imposed on the Bible. My posts on the biblical basis for the study report are now collected on my blog website here: https://peripateticpastor.com/the-quest-for-a-foundation-laying-theology-of-human-sexuality-posts/.
In those posts I focus on the study committee’s use of the Bible. What I did not address because it did not have to do directly with the Bible was the most controversial of the recommendations of the report: the recommendation that the conclusions of the report be recognized as having confessional status (status confessionis, in ecclesiastical Latin). In this post and one to follow, I turn belatedly to that recommendation and its far-reaching and dire implications for the Christian Reformed Church.
Is this a hill to die on?
The study committee, appointed by Synod 2016 “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality” (Agenda and Acts of Synod 2016, 919-21, 26-27), was asked in addition to its main mandate to consider “whether or not, with respect to same-sex behavior and other issues identified in the study, it will be advisable for future synods to consider . . . declaring a status confessionis” (Report, 144). With all the convoluted language, this may sound like nothing but one more bureaucratic chore for the committee. It’s not. It’s much more than that.
Let me be clear about what declaring something status confessionis means. It’s not about what one does; it’s about what one thinks and says. The central issue in this case is homosexuality and, in particular, same sex marriage. I’ll focus on that (rather than some of the other aspects of sexual expression covered in the report). The synod is asking whether opposition to same sex marriage is, to use a popular cliché, a hill to die on. Or, better, for the denomination to die on. Or, more accurately, a reason to split the church.
Approached in another way, the question is whether, provided Synod 2022 approves the findings of the study committee, the argument is over in the denomination. No more dissent allowed. Will same sex marriage and other topics related to human sexuality still be matters of discussion and debate in the church, matters on which Christians in good standing can differ, or are they so integral to the gospel that Christians who differ on them cannot remain in the same church? It’s this staggering question that the study committee was asked to address. Is this a hill to die on? As I said before, for the denomination to die on?
The study committee’s conclusions
So, what does the committee decide? It comes to the status confessionis question at the conclusion of the report (pp. 144-48). Their answer to the question is both surprising and a little confusing. They claim, first, that synod does not need to declare the church’s condemnation of same sex practice as having confessional status; it is already has such status: “As a committee, we conclude, therefore, that the church’s teaching on premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status [italics in the original]. As such, there is no need for a new declaration.” But then they confuse the issue by recommending just such a declaration: “That synod declare that the church’s teaching on premarital sex, extra- marital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status” (p. 149). To say that it already has such a status is still a declaration.
So, what’s going on here? The study committee wants the synod to believe that nothing has changed. It’s saying, “Move on, nothing to see here.” No need to declare the stance of the church against same sex marriage as a confessional matter; it’s always been that. But things have changed. The study was appointed in 2016 because the church’s position on homosexuality has been brought into question by the events of our time. The official recognition of same sex marriage in the two countries in which the Christian Reformed Church resides, Canada and the US, is new. This is now the second study committee appointed to respond to it. A majority of the people of our two countries, including many Christians, approve of same sex marriage. The church suddenly is faced with the question of whether what’s always been said about homosexuality is in fact true—gospel true. And in the light of that question, a second question arises: is this a matter on which Christians can differ? Or is it a matter so central to all that the church is and should be that it should be declared to be a casus confessionis? A matter that separates true church from false.
What status confessionis means
It’s important that we understand what declaring an issue a status confessionis means. Take the phrase itself. The committee says that the Latin just means “confessional status,” as if it’s a just a part of the confessions like, say, the Belgic Confession’s implicit attribution of Lamentations to Jeremiah, but this is disingenuous. What the committee is not telling you is that the phrase has a history.
Status confessionis was first used in a Lutheran controversy in the 16th century. It had to do with how fiercely Lutherans should hold on to their worship reforms. Asked for the interim to return to elements of the old Catholic liturgy, reformer Philipp Melanchthon said that they could do so. These matters were adiaphora, not of crucial importance, discussible. But others believed that indeed they were crucial, that on these matters no compromise could be brooked. They had confessional status, status confessionis.
To have confessional status meant then and means now that the matters so designated divide between true and false church. If you are a member of the true church, you cannot enter into church fellowship with a person who in these status confessionis matters holds the contrary belief. To do so would be to consort with evil. It’s a declaration that these matters are not adiaphora, indifferent matters on which members of the church can disagree.
The phrase status confessionis gained new prominence in the twentieth century, first with regard to Nazi Germany. Dietrich Bonhoffer, among others, declared that support for the claims of the Nazi regime was a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The opposition between the established church in Germany and the Confessing Church was over what the gospel is. It had confessional status, status confessionis. Later in the century, status confessionis language was employed again in the controversy over apartheid. The idea that the races should be separated was declared by some Reformed denominations to have status confessionis, a matter separating true from false church. In its 20th century form, the language of status confessionisdescribes the moment when the church has become so compromised by association with racism and genocide that Christians must step away from it and declare that, that is not our faith.
We may in fact be in such a time today, a time when Christians must step away from many who claim Christ to declare that what they believe is not our faith. I think about what many people in our two countries now think when they hear the word “Christian.” What they hear are not the tones of the gospel, nor the voice of one who calls to us from the pages of the gospel who taught us to love our enemies, but the loud voices of the crowd chanting, “Barabbas, Barabbas,” where Barabbas names the one who counts himself a modern messiah. Is this a status confessionis moment? I wonder. It’s a serious question.
I have thought from time to time that even the name by which we go forth in the world has been so tainted that we cannot longer use it. Can we call ourselves “Christian” any longer? Or should we find a new name to go by, say, “Christers,” or, going back to the church in Acts, “people of the way.” Questions for which I have no ready answers but, indeed, status confessionis questions.
Is a condemnation of homosexuality already in the confessions?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We should look at why the study committee believes that their findings should have, in fact already have, confessional status. They claim that the confessional status of the church’s stance against same sex marriage is established by both scripture (I’ll take up this part of their argument in the next post) and the confessions. By the confessions, they have in mind specifically questions and answers 108 and 109 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Let’s go there for a moment.
Do the confessions condemn same sex whether married or not? Not really. They say nothing about it. What they do condemn is “unchastity.” Q&A 108 and 109 are in the Ten Commandments section of the catechism. They deal with the Seventh Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” In its characteristic way, the catechism asks, “What does the seventh commandment teach us?” It answers (in the 2011 translation adopted jointly by the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America): “That God condemns all unchastity, and that therefore we should thoroughly detest it and live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage.” Q&A 109 adds, in the same vein, that “God forbids all unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires, and whatever may incite someone to them.” Fine. We all agree: Christians should live chaste lives. But can they do so in a same sex marriage. That’s the question that the committee’s conclusion begs. The study committee believes that any sex outside of heterosexual marriage is “unchaste.”
Further, they believe that this is the underlying intent of the catechism answer. By “unchastity” the catechism means to include homosexual sex. Why do they believe this? Because Zacharias Ursinus, the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism, says so in a commentary on the catechism. But this hardly clinches the case for two reasons. First, when churches adopt a confession like the Heidelberg Catechism, they adopt the words of the document, not later commentary on it, even if that commentary is from one of the authors. Second, the issue before the synod—same sex marriage—did not exist in the 16th century when the catechism was written. Ursinus could only address homosexuality in the terms of his own time. He could not address the issue in the form it now takes.
The claim that questions and answers Q&A 108 and 109 of the Heidelberg Catechism support the conclusion that the findings of the study committee already have confession status quickly falls apart. The confessions do not address the issues. They do not address these issues because these are new issues. They require new thought, new consideration. It won’t do to say the confessions have already spoken.
The claim that one’s stance on these issues of human sexuality has confessional status is, in the end, an blunt attempt to end the debate prematurely, before the church has ended it. For a teaching to be confessional in the truest sense, it must not only be in the documents—the confessions—but it must be owned by the church. When the Belgic Confession implicitly attributes Lamentations to Jeremiah, no one feels compelled to follow the letter of the confession on that matter. It is, truly, adiaphora, not a crucial matter. It doesn’t separate true church from false. In a word, who cares? Not everything in the confessions is confessional, has the status of a confessional matter.
Deciding what does have status confessionis is a matter of deciding what belongs to the gospel and what doesn’t. No, stronger than this. Not just what is not gospel but what opposes the gospel. To decide that the sexual matters raised in the study report have such status, that on the basis of one’s view of these things true church is separated from false church, is a serious matter and will inflict serious pain on the church. It should not be decided by flippantly saying that the confessional status of these matters has already been decided. It has not been. Nor should it be.
But we are not done. In the study report, the committee turns from the Heidelberg Catechism to a scripture, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. It’s to that scripture I’ll turn in the next post.