In this article I intend to (1) document from the pages of the Calvin Theological Journal that there are some in the church today who contend that the Biblical condemnation of homosexual activity is not clear and unquestionable, (2) show that the grounds which Synod 1995 used to justify women in office are very similar to the grounds used to justify the reconsideration of the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, (3) show that these matters involve heresy in the fullest sense of the word, and (4) show why the strong step called for in the Classis Wisconsin overture is necessary.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GROUNDS
Dr. James De Jong, President of Calvin Theological Seminary, rightly claims that the grounds for women in office are extremely important. He writes,
There are those who are convinced that the Bible speaks so clearly and compellingly against the ordination of women to all church offices others, only to the so-called ruling offices—that for the church to sanction the ordination of women is to disobey God…How traumatic, how wrenching, how undercutting when dedicated, loyal members of the church believe that the church which has nurtured them in the faith and given them their Christian identity has turned from God’s revealed will. The church has a solemn obligation to such fellow members to demonstrate convincingly why such a change is warranted, why the Bible does notsay what the church for 1900 years thought it said.1
Synod 1995’s decision to allow women in all the offices is the only decision of its kind that has not been invalidated by a subsequent synod.2 It alone serves to meet the obligation mentioned by Dr. De Jong.
How well does it fulfill this obligation? Shocking as it may seem, the decision of Synod 1995 makes no appeal to specIfic Scriptural teachings that would allow women in office. However, immediately prior to the decision to allow women in office, Synod 1995 made a decision which attempts to justify this omission. Since this decision is so monumentally important, I quote it in full.
That synod recognize that there are two different perspectives and convictions, both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God, on the Issue of whether women are allowed to serve in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist.
Grounds: a. The numerous overtures to this synod on this issue, as well as decisions and reports of previous synods, adduce good Biblical grounds for both positions. b. The Scriptures (e.g., Rom. 14) and previous synodical decisions advocate a position of tolerance on nonconfessional issues.3
A DISPUTED STANDARD FOR “GOOD” GROUNDS
If we compare ground “a” to what Dr. De Jong has written in his little booklet, we see that Dr. De Jong significantly disagrees with Synod 1995. While Synod 1995 say both sides have given “good” grounds, he himself contends that the BIblical grounds offered by both sides up to this point have been incomplete and faulty.4 Obviously Dr. De Jong’s standard for good grounds is much higher than Synod 1995 s standard.
So what is the standard? There seem to be many different answers to that question. Those opposed to women in office have contended that the grounds in favor of women in office are not good. Likewise, those in favor of women in office have contended that the grounds against are not good. It has often seemed that each side has an entirely different conception of what constitutes “good Biblical grounds.” It is very unlikely that the delegates Synod 1994 who characterized the grounds against women in office as “wicked” will now characterize these as “good.”
AN ELABORATION OF SYNOD 1995’S STANDARD
Dr. Hendrik Hart, in his “Reply to Wolters” in the April 1993 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal, says a number of things that shed some light on the standard use by Synod 1995. Hart is responding to an article by Dalbert Wolters in the same issue of Calvin Theological Journal entitled, “Hart’s Exegetical Proposal on Romans 1.”
I will quote extensively from Wolters’ article in order to show the reader the context of the discussion.
In a recent issue of The Other Side (28.4 [July-August], 56–62), Dr. Hendrik Hart of the institute for Christian Studies (Toronto) proposes a provocative new exegesis of Romans 1:18–32. His article is entitled, “Romans Revisited,” and is especially concerned with the issue of homosexuality…Hart’s basic suggestion is that Rom. 1:18–32, with its picture of God’s wrath against all manner of human sinfulness, does not represent Paul’s own view but rather a traditional Jewish position with which Paul himself disagrees. It is as though this whole passage had been printed between quotation marks, with the heading: The Jewish View, and were followed by a section headed “Paul’s Own View.” The consequence of such an interpretation would be that verses 18–32, specifically the ones dealing with homosexuality, cannot be read as having Biblical authority, since the apostle himself disagrees with the sentiments they express.7 Hart’s chief concern is with the verses dealing with homosexuality (26–27), which on his proposal would be deprived of their traditional status as apostolic teaching…8
Hart has challenged others to consider seriously the possibility that Romans 1 does not, after all, teach us that homosexual activity is sinful. I would challenge him to seriously consider the possibility that this chapter, and indeed every other passage of Scripture that deals with homosexuality, declares that such activity is wrong.9
Hart does not take issue with these characterizations of his position. He freely admits that “…my reading presents a possible undermining of our confidence that all same-sex behavior is unconditionally condemned…”10 The main issue in their discussion is Hart’s method of understanding and applying the Bible. Wolters’ first criticism of Hart’s method is summarized in the following quotation from Wolters’ article.
What indications do we find in the text of Romans 1 that verses 18–32 do not represent the apostle’s own voice, and (if they indeed do not) what evidence is there that Paul himself disagrees with this voice? What is striking about Hart’s article is that he does not raise these questions at all, let alone try to answer them. He never asks the question, even implicitly: “What criteria must be met for my proposal to be plausible?”—and he consequently never actually argues that the text, in fact, does satisfy those criteria. In my judgment, this is a fundamental methodological flaw in his entire argument.11
Hart’s answer to this criticism is summarized by the following quotation from Hart’s “Reply to Wolters”:
Wolters twice mentions I have failed to “prove, or even suggest” the possible distance indicate between Paul and the argument of Romans 1:18–32. I think this matter of proof indicates a hermeneutical gap between us. I am not concerned to point out that a traditional reading is wrong. Nor that a possible reading that occurs to me is right or that we must use this reading. I rarely believe that in significant instances the right reading of a text is a matter of proof. Rather, in the article Wolters refers to, I explore possibilities. Various possible readings could plausibly exist side by side for some time, possibly even incompatible ones. Reading Romans is a complex task. In this case I noted that there may be some distance between a passage and what its author seems, on the whole, to be saying in the rest of the text. And, although without treating my findings strictly as evidence that could serve as definite proof, I nevertheless presented amply documented material to support [my] possible reading..12
Wolters’ second criticism of Hart’s method is summarized in the following quotation from Wolters’ article.
It is clear from the whole tenor of Hart’s article that he wants very badly to find an interpretation of Romans 1 that does not stand in the way of what he calls “this attitude of my heart, which I experienced as very Biblical” (p. 58). The norm here appears to be Hart’s own attitude, which he frankly concedes to be rooted in certain pivotal events of his personal experience. He seems not to want to consider the possibility that his attitude should be modified in the light of this passage.13
Hart’s answer to this criticism is as follows:
Obviously, in any given instance, what I regard as norm is norm for me. But I realize I must sometimes review my position.
Let me explain. God in the Old Testament repeatedly speaks of wanting to have the Law written on our heart. So when I write that my heart instructs me, and I also write that my heart is “molded by God-fearing parents and a Christian-Reformed-Church upbringing, educated at Christian schools from nursery school through my Ph.D., nurtured by Bible study and employment at the Institute for Christian Studies,” I am trying to prevent someone from reading me as a subjectivist or an individualist. That’s what I have in mind with the phrase quoted by Wolters when I refer to “this attitude of my heart, which I experienced as very Biblical.” Furthermore, this all occurs in a passage in which I tell what “brought me again to the Scriptures” and which made me openly ask myself how my position “related to my reading of the Bible on homosexuality.” I do not, quite frankly, know what else to make of nonnative and Biblical living. I think, in fact, that I confess here what in Reformed thought since Calvin has been accepted as the testimony of the Holy Spirit.14
When one reads everything that Hart says in his “Reply to Wolters,” it is obvious that he seeks legitimacy for his views on the basis of his claims that:
(1) he is led by the Holy Spirit to reassess the traditional reading of Romans 1, (2) he is motivated by “this attitude of my heart, which I experienced as very Biblical,” and (3) he has presented “amply documented material” which supports (but does not prove, or even need to prove) his new understanding.
Likewise, the proponents of women in office believe that they are led by the Holy Spirit to reconsider the traditional understanding of what the Bible says on the subject of women in office. Most of them would claim that “the attitude of their heart” which motivates them is one which is shaped by the Bible. And of course, they have presented “amply documented material” over the past 25 years to support their new understanding.
No doubt Hart would also claim that his perspective and convictions about same-sex behavior “honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God,” and no doubt he would claim that the Scriptural grounds for his views are “good.”
Synod’s rationale for allowing women in office and Hart’s rationale for condoning same-sex behavior are separated by a very thin line. That line consists merely in the fact that there is nothing in the Acts of Synod or in any Agenda for Synod which argues for the acceptance of same-sex behavior. One wonders how soon that thin line will be erased.
THE SEED OF HERESY
Ground “a” which was used by Synod 1995 to justify its opening of all offices to women, neglects to make any attempt to sort out the good and bad grounds from among the many arguments presented by either side. The decision as a whole gives the impression that as long as people are trying to “honor the Scriptures.” it is not terribly important to make these kinds of distinctions.
As long as Satan knows how to quote Scripture, these distinctions are utterly necessary. I believe that ground “a” contains the seed of heresy in that it models and encourages carelessness in the church toward the command and to “test the spirits, to see if they are of God” (cf. Belgic Confession Article 7).
ACTUAL HERESY IN GROUND “B”
While ground “a” contains the seed of heresy, ground “b” is heretical in and of itself. Look at it again:
b. The Scriptures (e.g., Romans 14) and previous synodical decisions advocate a position of tolerance on non-confessional issues.15
Like any heresy, ground “b” distorts the truth of Scripture. Neither Romans 14 nor any other Scripture “advocate a position of tolerance on non-confessional issues.” The church didn’t have creeds and confessions when the Scriptures were first written. How could Romans 14 speak about “non-confessional issues” when at that time there was no way to distinguish between “confessional” and “non-confessional” issues?
Romans 14 does indeed advocate tolerance in “disputable matters,” but ground “b” seriously distorts its message by substituting “non-confessional issues” for “disputable matters.” The two terms are hardly synonymous. Consider the following guideline as to what it means to sign the Form of Subscription:
The subscriber does not by his subscription declare that…every teaching of the Scriptures is set forth in our confessions, or that every heresy is rejected and refuted by them (Supplement to Church Order Article 5, A., 2., italics mine).
According to this Church Order supplement, some “non-confessional issues” involve heresy. Issues that fall in this category, of course, would not be “disputable.” But the result of ground “b” is that all “non-confessional issues” become “disputable matters”—including those that involve heresy.
According to ground “b,” some heretical denials of the teachings of Scripture can be tolerated as long as the teachings of the confessions aren’t violated. Ground “b” makes the confessions more authoritative in the life of the church than Scripture itself. This contradicts the teaching in Belgic Confession Article 7, which says…
…Therefore we must not consider human writings no matter how holy their writers may have been equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official positions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else…(italics mine)
Ground “b” implicitly contradicts the confessions, and on that account it is obviously heretical. Ground “b” is also heretical by Dr. De Jong’s definition of heresy. Dr. De Jong defines heresy when he writes:
Reformed theology does not technically have something called “the doctrine of heresy”…But in fact Reformed theologians have long realized and stated that a departure from an orthodox position on one point entails an unraveling of other doctrines.16
Ground “b” will inevitably lead to the unraveling of other doctrines. For example, it seriously compromises the church’s understanding of church discipline. Taken at face value, ground “b” leads to the prohibition of church discipline when someone seeks a divorce on the simple grounds of “incompatibility” or “irreconcilable differences” (a matter not explicitly addressed in the confessions). It would prohibit official admonition and discipline of any person who acts on the belief that abortion is a perfectly satisfactory means of birth control (another matter not explicitly addressed in the confessions). Ground “b” says, in effect, that any position, no matter how unbiblical and immoral it actually is, is acceptable as long as the confessions don’t explicitly contradict it. If heresy is defined as that which leads to the unraveling of other doctrines, ground “b” is definitely heretical.
Could Synod 1996 use this same ground to justify a decision not to accede to Classis Wisconsin’s overture? It seems conceivable.
Synod 1973 declared that “Homosexualism—as explicit homosexual practice—must be condemned as incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Holy Scripture.” However, the fact that this teaching is not explicitly stated in the confessions means that it is a “non-confessional issue.” Therefore, when members are convinced that it isn’t always necessary to condemn homosexual practice as sinful, ground “b” calls for tolerance, not admonition and discipline. Ground “b” could be used just as it is to justify a decision not to accede to Classis Wisconsin’s overture.
THE NEED FOR CLASSIS WISCONSIN’S OVERTURE
Hart concludes his article with these words.
I hope that in the discussion of homosexuality we shall not have to learn all over again two things we finally did learn in the debate about the role of women in the church: (1) that this is not simply a matter of those who are and those who are not faithful to the Bible and (2) that we need to listen respectfully to the sincere testimony of God-fearing homosexuals about their faithful efforts at understanding the Bible obediently in relation to their attempt at leading moral lives.17
Hart’s hope is almost sure to be realized unless future synods are more concerned with Biblical fidelity and less concerned with trying to please everybody with muddy compromises. Classis Wisconsin’s overture is a good place to begin.
There are those who contend that Classis Wisconsin’s approach (or one like it) is too harsh—that the problem is not that serious. I beg to differ.
I believe that Christians are called to love fellow Christians who struggle to overcome homosexual desires. I believe Christians are called to love their enemies, including militant gay rights advocates who attack Christian principles. I furthermore believe that the church has in many ways failed to live up to God’s call to love sinners who struggle with this particular sin. I believe that the church ought to commit itself to do better in these areas with God’s help.
However, teaching that homosexual behavior may be consistent with a moral life is not in accord with love toward homosexuals. To use an analogy, when we minister to drug addicts we try to give them as much grace and unconditional acceptance as we possibly can. But no one who understands their problem and genuinely wants to help them would ever say, “Well, we just love you as you are, and we will talk together about whether or not these drugs are really good for you, or whether it is really necessary to give them up. We’ll listen to what you have to say about that with an open mind.” Any drug addict who received that kind of treatment could easily get a lawyer and sue the treatment center for malpractice.
The teaching that homosexual behavior may be consistent with a moral life is heresy in the fullest sense of the word. It calls into question the salvation of those who live by it, and of those who teach it. This is abundantly clear from Scripture:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9–10).
Jesus said to His disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:1–2)
The seed of heresy has already been planted in ground “a,” it has taken root in ground “b,” and it will surely bear much deadly fruit if no corrective action is taken. The poisonous bud is already on the vine in OassisGrand Rapids East, and it is no doubt emerging in other parts of the church as well. Unless the heresy is uprooted, it will bloom and spread its seeds throughout the church. It must be uprooted, or it will eventually strangle the church in its deadly, clinging grip.
1. “Freeing the Conscience,” by James A. De long, pp. 6–7. (This is a little booklet which was sent out to the churches, in which Dr. De long elaborates and amplifies the comments he made on the floor of synod last summer during the debate on women in office.)
2. Acts of Synod 1994, p. 518
3. Acts of Synod 1995, pp. 731–732.
4. DeJong. pp. 14–17.
5. “Reply to Wolters,” by Hendrik Hart, Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1. April 1993, pp. 170–174.
6. “Hart’s Exegetical Proposal on Romans 1,” by Albert Wolters, Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28, No.1, April 1993, pp. 166–170.
7. Wolters, pp. 166–167.
8. Wolters, pp. 168.
9. Wolters, pp. 169.
10. Hart, p. 173.
11. Wolters, p. 167.
12. Hart, p. 170.
13. Wolters, p. 169.
14. Hart, pp. 172–173.
15. Acts of Synod 1995, p. 732.
16. De Jong, pp. 22–23.
17 Hart, p. 174.
Rev. Brouwer is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Waupun, WI.
CLASSIS WISCONSIN TO OVERTURE SYNOD 1996 TO: Declare that confessing members who deny that the Bible’s teaching without exception condemns homosexual activity have become delinquent in doctrine, and are on that account subject to the church’s admonition and discipline. Grounds: 1. There are some in the church today who seriously propose the possibility that when the Bible condemns homosexual activity, this condemnation does not include the homosexual activity of a couple that seek to live in a loving, monogamous relationship. 2. Although the Christian Reformed Church officially teaches that, “Homosexualism—as explicit homosexual practice—must be condemned as incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Holy Scripture,” (Acts of Synod, 1973, p. 52) there are currently no provisions in the Church Order or in any synodical decisions which clearly authorize official admonition and discipline of those who openly challenge this teaching. 3. Confessing members have promised to submit to the admonition and discipline of the church if they should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life. 4. If church members are free to deny the Biblical condemnation of all homosexual behavior, the result is likely to be that eventually the church will fail to exhibit the marks of a true church (d. Belgic Confession Article 29). 5. The history of the GKN gives evidence that this particular heresy can be deadly in the life of the church.