Tuesday, July 02, 2013

We Love You But...

by Ron Kuipers
In the summer of 1992, the ICS hosted a conference on the theme of creation order entitled “An Ethos of Compassion and the Integrity of Creation” (the conference proceedings are still available in a book that bears the same title). This conference is infamous in the annals of ICS history, because during the proceedings two ICS professors, James Olthuis and Hendrik Hart, directly challenged the Christian Reformed Church’s official position on the morality of homosexuality and same sex relationships. Hart argued that the Christian Reformed emphasis on creation order had come to underwrite a doctrinal rigidity that prevented the church from responding compassionately to society’s marginalized groups, and he used the dominant Christian attitude toward the LGBTQ community as a primary example of such insufficient compassion. Olthuis engaged with the theological position of Richard Hays, and suggested alternative ways of reading Romans 1 in light of the rest of scripture, suggesting that one could thereby achieve a biblically-funded position that did not condemn, but rather affirmed, committed same-sex relationships.

Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but it was enough in 1992 to land Hart and Olthuis in serious hot water. Many observers predicted that Hart and Olthuis’ comments guaranteed the imminent demise of ICS, and indeed ICS lost some donor support due to the controversy these papers generated. More than this, the institution itself, traumatized by the controversy, became a timid shell of its former self, focusing on engaging the academy at a high level, but more or less ceasing to engage directly with people in the church, as it had once so vigorously done. The church thus lost an important voice in its ethical deliberations, and ICS lost a good chunk of its ability to have cultural impact.

Fast-forward 21 years later and, to what should come as little surprise to anyone, the debate over what Christians should think about the morality of homosexuality has not gone away, but has in fact intensified. In June we heard the surprising news that Exodus International, a Christian ministry committed to the idea of ‘reparative therapy’ for homosexuals (understanding homosexuality as a mental disorder for which one could seek a cure), is shutting its doors. Executive Director Alan Chambers’ stated reason for doing so is emphatic: “Please allow me to be clear: I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.” He adds: “For quite some time we've been imprisoned in a worldview that's neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.”

Chambers’ dramatic move follows fast on the heels of the recent Synodical decision of the Christian Reformed Church in North America to appoint “a study committee to provide guidance on applying the denomination’s policy on homosexuality to a rapidly changing culture.” That policy, which itself is not being opened for review, was published in 1973, a short time before homosexuality was de-listed from the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of mental disorders. The gist of the report takes a “hate the sin but love the sinner” approach to the issue, although it does contain strong language about ministering to homosexual Christians in love and without condemnation, refusing to approach one sin as more egregious or qualitatively different in kind than another.

Pleas from the floor of Synod to reopen the findings of the CRCNA’s 1973 report on homosexuality, in the light of 40 subsequent years worth of new psychological, sociological, and biblical scholarship, were ultimately rejected by Synod, however, as the pressure to preserve the status quo ultimately triumphed over calls from young adults and others for the CRC to revisit its stand from the ground up. One pastor went so far as to suggest that any reconsideration of the 1973 report would force him out of the church, and he thus implored his fellow delegates with the words “Don’t kick me out, please.” In what the CRCNA website reports as “the debate’s most dramatic moment,” however, elder delegate Joseph Bowman of Classis Toronto told the assembled gathering that he spent 20 years in therapy in a futile attempt to change his orientation: “I stand before you as a 40-year-old, single, celibate and chaste yet openly gay man … no longer willing to be silent.” His words were received with a standing ovation.

It took incredible bravery for Bowman to come out in such dramatic fashion, and the crowd of delegates are to be commended for embracing him and making him feel safe. At the same time, I and many others in the Christian Reformed Church still eagerly await the day when my Christian brothers and sisters in non-celibate, committed same-sex relationships will receive the same affirmation and acceptance. For them, the church’s message continues to be, “we love you, but….”

Ron Kuipers is the Director of the CPRSE and Associate Professor in the Philosophy of Religion at ICS.

14 comments:

  1. hi ron, where can we find the basis on which we should accept same-sex intimate relationships?

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  2. A broad question, but the basis I begin with is Jesus' love command in John 13 and elsewhere. I believe that showing love to our homosexual neighbors means accepting them for who they are, and that their lives and relationships can thereby become a blessing to the larger community.

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    1. Hi Ron. Your short answer to the even shorter question reminds me of former ICS prof. Sylvia Keesmaat's "Welcoming in the Gentiles: A Biblical Model for Decision Making" which used to be available at the Anglican.ca website but which I see is now available in the website for the Indiana-Kentucky synod of the Evangelical Lutheran church. I don't know what you'd make of it but it's probably worth a read for anyone who hasn't seen it already. Here is a shortened link to a PDF of it:
      http://tinyurl.com/p2rd5cs

      -dz

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    2. Thanks! I'll check it out.

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    3. I read this piece last night. It's excellent. Sylvia's hermeneutic reminds me a lot of the way Henk Hart reads the scriptures. I especially appreciate her point about how the New Testament itself models an active reading of the text, in which the text both informs the way we understand our experiences, but those experiences themselves are allowed to influence the way we read the text. The key is learning the proper sort of recognition. If we apprentice ourselves to the biblical narrative, we can trust our instincts when we see the Spirit working in unexpected places. Kevin Hector talks about this in a more technical theological book called "Theology without Metaphysics: God, Language, and the Spirit of Recognition." Anyway, thanks for sharing Sylvia's piece. It's hard to imagine a better resource for this discussion.

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  3. Yes, it's a shame that the CRC was unwilling recently to revisit its stance on homosexuality. And yes, I agree with Sylvia that there are countless wonderful stories of how homosexual Christians (and non-Christians) have contributed positively to our communities and to the church. And, yes, same-sex marriage is a meaningful, committed lifestyle for those among us who have had to deal with an orientation that they cannot and should not try to change. As Christians, regrettably, we have certainly not dealt with persons with homosexual orientations according to the fruit of the Spirit. But for me, it still is difficult to harmonize what I believe to be "right" if we are to truly love our homosexual neighbours as ourselves with Romans 1:24-27. When I read these verses (and their various exegeses), I say to God, "Help! The pieces of the puzzle just don't seem to fit together."

    HVB

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    1. I don't know, it seems to me that you have all the pieces of the puzzle you need in order for you to discontinue placing undue emphasis on Romans 1:24-27 when discussing this issue, as if that were the kind of text that completely closes down the discussion. What is the necessity of reading the text that way? Keesmaat thinks that in this passage Paul is drawing attention to practices related to idolatry, injustice, and decadence, and we can easily distingush the type of same-sex relationship we might wish to defend from such practices.

      Note that I am not suggesting that we pick and choose our texts arbitrarily, or simply ignore scripture altogether and not let it challenge us. To the contrary, it was because I let the Biblical narrative into my heart and allowed it to challenge my settled assumptions that I was eventually able to overcome the anti-gay stance in which I was raised.

      I think perhaps the most liberating point of Keesmaat's piece is the way she points to the fact that scripture itself bears witness to the enactment of a courageous and liberating hermeneutic, one that allows contemporary experience to shape our reading of scripture, just as much as scripture illuminates our contemporary situation. In the various NT debates she points to, she shows how various people's struggle to discern the leading of the Spirit in light of the scriptural norms they have internalized frees them to emphasize certain aspects of traditional textual interpretation and to ignore and challenge others. Why can we not embrace the same hermeneutical freedom and responsibility to which the scripture itself bears witness and seems to recommend?

      Reading scripture and allowing it to enter our imaginations and animate our lives must surely demand much more from us than simply the passive acceptance of received interpretations, especially when the Spirit seems to be leading us in another direction. Sometimes all the pieces of the puzzle won't fit together, and in those moments we indeed require God's help in coming to some faithful spiritual discernment. The temptation here, to my mind, is to fall back into the safety of received and settled interpretations. As the examples that Keesmaat uses demonstrate, the Bible itself urges us not to do that.

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    2. Thanks, Ron. I know what Keesmaat suggests how we approach Scripture hermeneutically--and generally agree with her approach. The Spirit does lead us and as a Christian community we have been blessed to be able to further and deepen our understanding of the path that the Bible sets out on such issues as the role of women, the importance of the coming of the new earth and our future role in it (vis-à-vis "heaven"), and so on. In those cases, however, you can see that Paul either was misinterpreted (often over many centuries), is open to different and more broader interpretations, or started to steer us in different directions from those generally accepted by his surrounding culture. In the case of homosexuality, however, these verses do, as Keesmaat suggests, deal with decadence. However,Paul, unless we use some hermeneutic pyrotechnics, makes quite clear that here he considers homosexual activity itself to be decadent. What does give me a certain amount of peace is that the Bible speaks very little about homosexuality, so in that sense it was not as big an issue as our culture and church has made it out to be. And I also understand that Paul was addressing especially the pagan temple idolatry that was closely intertwined with promiscuous homosexual practices. But I have not yet seen any exegesis of the Romans texts that comes to conclusions with which I am comfortable unless I feel that it is trying to "explain them away."

      HVB

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  4. Ancient discourse about sex concentrates upon acts and not upon personal orientation. The ancient Greeks who famously idealized homoerotic relations between adult patron/teachers and their near adult client/pupils knew about the fact of homosexual orientation (some men were only attracted to men) but they rarely made this fact the subject of ethical analysis (that was not a form of homoerotic relation they wanted to think about). Rather, it was the sex act itself that was subject to ethical analysis. Who had sex with whom and under what conditions, to what effects? Biblical analysis seems very similar; it seems act oriented not orientation oriented. Paul does not specify context in Romans 1 so it seems on the surface to be a universal statement about sex acts between men. In other passages, Paul often places porneia or sexual immorality as it is often translated in a triad that includes idolatry and eating meat dedicated to idols. These passages are often associated by professional exegetes with mystery cults and their orgiastic cultic practices. As I understand the temple practice of the Great Mother, for example, of Phrygia the sexual acts that make up a part of the orgiastic climax of her worship is not homosexual at all (as we understand the term today). Rather, in our terms, it involves heterosexuals having sex with priest-eunichs for cultic-mimetic purposes. In that respect, the sex we are speaking of has more in common with prison sex or the sex that is so widespread in the British "public" schools than what we today call homosexual sex. Of course cultic sex of this type is not identical to prison or elite schoolboy sex in as much as the exercise of power in this most graphic and invasive way is largely absent. Still what cult, prison and elite schoolboy sex share is the phenomenon of heterosexual males having sex with other males. If that is what Paul is referring to by porneia in the triad idolatry, eating meet dedicated to idols and sexual immorality, is it possible that this same context is a silent subtext in Romans 1? After all idolatry is hardly a subtext of Romans 1; it is front and centre. The point is that there are exegetically plausible ways of interpreting Romans 1 that do change the conversation around biblical intent and homosexuality, that would in fact help certain conundrums "go away". But, rethinking what we have long thought we knew is always difficult and traumatic (at least it is for me), and plausibility is not per se enough to bring all conversants to a new and different understanding. And still, when challenges to what we have long though we knew refuse to go away, surely, plausibility is enough to contribute positively to the resultant conversation, going forward?

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    1. i recommend robert gagnon's scholarly book on the bible and homosexuality. i really think we, reformed christians, don't have enough ground to accept homosexual practice, let alone same sex marriage. that's, according to the bible, an abomination. we want to love gays-lesbians, but it doesn't mean we tolerate the sin.

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  5. I only have two things to add at this point:

    1) Jesus and Paul are, to my eye, two highly pyrotechnical hermeneuts when it comes to their interpretation and appropriation of the traditional scriptures they inherited. Following Hart and Keesmaat, I understand this example as sanctioning similar hermeneutic practice today. Reading the Bible boldly is part of what it means to "go on in the same way" as they did. HVB, you do not sound comfortable with that take, and so here we must agree to disagree.

    2) What makes an act an act? Or an act of a particular sort? Bob introduces a useful distinction between homosexual acts and homosexual orientation, submitting that Paul in Romans is restricting his focus to a homosexual act in a particular cultic context, and is therefore silent about homosexual orientation. I would go further and say that he is also thereby silent about a particular class of homosexual acts. I say this because one cannot peal the context away from the act and be left with a pure uninterpreted act, which then can be taken to form a common denominator between say, prison same sex acts, private boarding school same sex acts, cultic same sex acts, and sex between loving homosexual couples. These are all different acts, and they do not share a common denominator such that Paul should be read as condemning them all. So not only might we argue that Paul does not have homosexual orientation in view, along the same lines we could say that neither does he have in view the act of homosexual lovemaking in the context of a mutually supportive relationship.

    Paul is definitely condemning something, and it is very important that we get that something right. How can we be so sure that the traditional interpretation--according to which Paul is offering a blanket condemnation covering a wide variety of (perhaps) physically similar yet ontologically very distinct acts--gets that something right? Just because we've repeated it to ourselves for hundreds of years? Some of our deepest errors persist that way.

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    1. Thanks for your responses, Bob and Ron. I fully agree that Paul is speaking about (certain?) homosexual acts, and not about homosexual orientation. And I am proud of the fact that my denomination (CRC) knowingly appointed a gay theologian to its faculty already in the 1950s or early 1960s, when it was risky to do so.

      I will continue to love my homosexual neighbour as myself, and also support loving long-term same-sex relationships, including same-sex marriage. For me, the Great Commandment trumps what Paul says in Romans 1 and 1 Timothy 1. I feel comfortable with that, especially since Jesus, by withholding mention, obviously did not seem to consider this issue to be all that important compared to how we treat the poor and the oppressed, or become legalistic about the way we practice our faith, or how we handle our money. But I still do feel some tension between my stance and what Paul says about homosexual acts. I'll likely have to live with that during my earthly life, and that's OK.

      I'm going to end this discussion with thanks for your input.

      HVB

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  6. Given that I am quoted in this article (I just found it for the first time today), I thought I would chime in.

    I'm Joseph Bowman... the guy who outed himself on the floor of Synod 2013.

    Yes, I am single, celibate, chaste, and plan to be so, for life. I continue to hold the traditional view of Scripture that homosexual expression (i.e., sex) is contrary to Scripture. I don't hide that. That *is* my journey and my conviction.

    I agree that all churches in all denominations have done a very poor job of showing people they are loved by God. I just haven't quite figured out (like the author ends his article with)... how do we SHOW and MANIFEST that love while still holding traditional, conservative views of Scripture. There must be a way to do both.

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  7. Thank you, thank you all for modeling a useful, kind, thoughtful dialog of caring disagreement. I've been disheartened by recent events and dialog, and this conversation gives me hope.

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