Let’s go back to where we were (for more introduction, see the previous post: “Is the church’s stance on human sexuality a confessional matter? The status confessionis question”). The study committee on human sexuality (a committee charged by the Christian Reformed synod of 2016 “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality”) was asked whether the church’s position on these issues—centrally homosexuality but inclusive of other sexual issues—constitutes a status confessionis (confessional status). Declaring them such would mean that the church—in this case, the Christian Reformed Church—cannot live with more than one opinion in these matters. To do so would be to deny the gospel. To hold office in the church would require that one supports the teachings in question. The debate would be over. The question of whether the findings of the study committee have confessional status is very important, not least for those who do not agree that the findings of the study committee are in fact true. Or biblical. Like me.
So, what lends confessional status to a given teaching? The committee discusses this in the last part of their report (pp. 144-48, the report is available on the crcna.org website). They begin their discussion by listing two considerations in judging whether a given teaching should have confessional status, quoting here: “First, one might ask whether the teaching in question violates a clear teaching of Scripture. Second, one could consider whether the issue involves the heart of the message of the gospel.” (144)
These are important questions, the sort of questions that any pastor should ask before mounting the pulpit or any blogger should ask before she or he pushes the Publish button. But they are not the full measure of confessional status.
Start with the first of these considerations: the clarity of scripture. It’s often the case that clarity in confessional matters is not at first apparent in scripture. Clarity is frequently something that must be discovered by the church over time. Sometimes a long time.
Take the doctrine of the Trinity or of the two natures of Christ. The church struggled for centuries to find clarity in these matters. The formulations that ultimately were given to these doctrines at Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon—bare and hard-won as they are—are not so much “clear teaching of scripture” as instructions for how to read scripture. They constitute a hermeneutics of scripture. We are alerted to Trinity in the Bible because our eye has been trained to see it by the long discussion of the church. This fundamental confession does not begin with clarity; it ends with it. As Jesus promised, the Spirit leads the church into truth.
The notion common among evangelicals that the Bible possesses a self-standing clarity is often a species of self-deception. People believe the Bible is clear about what they have always thought and read in it, even when on closer examination the reading cannot withstand scrutiny. It was assumed, for example, in the not so distant past, that the Bible was clear about the inferiority of some races when in fact the concept of race in its modern form doesn’t appear in the Bible at all. Clarity was assumed where it didn’t exist. As the church has since struggled towards clarity in the area of racial equality, it has come to read the Bible quite differently. Once again, clarity is found not at the beginning but at the end of the discussion.
The assumption of the study committee that the Bible is clear in its condemnation of sex between partners of the same biological sex has now been questioned for good reasons. I examined many of those reasons in an earlier post that reviewed all the so-called condemnations of homosexual practice. As it turns out, there is not much to go on. It’s fair to say that the Bible never directly addresses sex between consenting adults of the same sex, let alone in a married relationship. The modern questions about same sex marriage are just that, modern questions. If we are to answer them biblically, we will have to find our way to clarity. This struggle takes the form of a conversation between scripture and the voices of our own time. We should welcome this conversation, no matter which side of the issues we are on.
Confessional status comes on the other side of such conversations—but only at the right time. Premature declarations of clarity about a teaching that has yet been settled will soon seem to be just that: premature. In the early 1990s, a move was made to declare the position that only men can be elders and pastors to confessional in nature. The declaration lasted all of a year until the next synod, and only a few years later, the Christian Reformed Church decided that both opinions, for and against women in church office, were acceptable.
The church risks making the same mistake in this case, deciding before it has been decided. What the committee leaves out of their discussion of confessional status is the role of the church. Not just the church as it exists in councils and synods or among clergy, but the church as a confessing and worshiping body of believers. Confessional status requires not only scripture but a broader recognition that a particular reading of scripture aligns with the gospel. At this time, it would seem best for all not to assume that the reading given to scripture by the study committee or, say, the majority of delegates at a synod are the only legitimate readings.
In other words, we have not yet found in the broader church clarity about how to read scripture with regard to human sexuality. It won’t do for the study committee to say: well, we are clear about it. The clarity that the study committee claims is not confessional clarity. Nor, for that matter, scriptural clarity. Much still needs to be done. Of the two considerations listed by the study committee at the beginning of their examination of the question of whether the teaching of the church on sexual ethics should be declared a status confessionis, their findings fail the first test: clarity. But what of the second test: that “the issue involves the heart of the message of the gospel?” I’ll look at that and at a key biblical text, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, is the following post.