In May, 1999, Lewis B. Smedes published an essay in Perspectives titled “Like the Wideness of the Sea?” The article made quite a splash in that Smedes methodically detailed his argument that the Christian Reformed Church’s stance on divorce and remarriage—and how the denomination arrived at that stance—was an apt analogy for dealing with gay people living in committed relationships.
Within a year of its publication, Perspectives (now The Reformed Journal) used this article promotionally in a subscription drive that included a quote from me urging people to subscribe to our little enterprise. Not long after, I received some rebuking emails from fellow pastors for my association with Smedes’s article, including from one brother who reminded me that as a pastor, I was a watchman on the ramparts of Jerusalem and this article was precisely the kind of invading force I was supposed to be keeping out of the church’s citadel.
Regular readers of this journal know that even though Smedes died in 2002, his article continued to have some influence. On the tenth anniversary of its publication, David Myers wrote a reflection on it in Perspectives. On the fifteenth anniversary Perspectives/The Reformed Journal reprinted the article and invited four people to respond to it and reflect on it a decade-and-a-half later.
This article is not going to summarize or re-enter any debates about that original Smedes piece or subsequent reflections on it. Rather, I begin by highlighting all of this as a way to indicate that clearly and for a lot of people, the upshot of Smedes’s analogy between the church’s stance on divorce/remarriage and how it might now view gay people in committed relationships remains relevant and, for some at least, compelling.
Given the prominence of this analogical argument, one would think that taking it on in some fashion—even if for the sake of overtly trying to dispute it—would have been on the radar of the Christian Reformed Synod’s Study Committee on Human Sexuality (hereafter HSR). But near as I can see having searched the report, Smedes’s article and any subsequent debates or conversations about it (or about similar analogies) are not included.
What is included, however, is something that is very germane to Smedes’s article: the 1980 CRCNA Synodical Study Committee report on marriage and in particular its treatment of the questions surrounding divorce and remarriage (1980 Acts of Synod. Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1980, pp.467-485). It is my contention that whether consciously or not, the current study report on human sexuality attempts to cut the nerve of the Smedes analogy by focusing only on some pretty selective parts of the 1980 report, leaving out material that shows both nuance and a pastoral wisdom that could complicate things.
In what follows I will first summarize the 1980 report on marriage. Second, I will examine where and how that report is dealt with in the current Human Sexuality Study Committee report. Finally, I will try to make some summary observations for what this might imply for the Synod’s consideration of this report in June of 2022.
The 1980 Report on Marriage
Every significant decision on any issue in the Christian Reformed Church has had something of a long history behind it. The most well-known such issue concerned the role of women in church office. Initial moves to ponder this issue began in the early 1970s and then raged on through a long series of study committees and synods. For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, synod resembled a long-term badminton match with one synod approving a change in the church order to ordain women and the next synod batting the shuttlecock back by failing to adopt that change. Only in 1995, after about a quarter century of this back-and-forth debate, did the synod cut the gordian knot and approve a local option compromise.
Matters related to marriage and particularly to the church’s view of divorced persons also had a long history dating back to the 1950s. But it was across the decade of the 1970s that there was the most activity. At least two synodical reports were prepared but ultimately rejected—or the advisory committee of synod that processed the reports for the floor debate ended up at odds with the study committee and so synod felt reluctant to act. In short, by the time the landmark 1980 report hit the floor of synod, it had a somewhat turbulent decade’s worth of history behind it.
The upshot of the 1980 report is easy to state: God ordained marriage as a lifelong covenant that was not to be broken until the proverbial “death do us part.” This is a creation ordinance and was affirmed overtly by Jesus in the gospels and by the Apostle Paul, especially in places like 1 Corinthians. The report also stated that it could find only two possible concessions to marriage’s binding and lifelong nature, although both are the subject of exegetical debates. The first and more famous are Jesus’s words in Matthew 19:9 that indicated that porneia or “unchastity” could be a reason a marriage might be dissolved. And from Paul’s side of things there are the words in 1 Corinthians 7 that a Christian person might no longer be bound to a marriage in case the other spouse was a nonbeliever who then also abandoned the marriage.
But again, the 1980 report was clear: marriage is for life. The church needs to encourage married people to stay married, to reconcile when difficulties arise, to repent of and forgive the inevitable failings that will occur inside all marriage relationships, and to deal pastorally but, if need be, via church discipline, with those who take a casual or high-handed view of marriage in a clear disregard of God’s mandate.
That was the general statement of 1980, but more air time was given to the possible exceptions to all this. As is true of any study that deals with Jesus’s words in Matthew 19, the Greek word porneia received extensive attention. In addition to saying that such marriage-busting unchastity would surely include incest/pederasty and homosexual activity, the 1980 report suggested that such porneia would ordinarily even so have to constitute something that was persistent and ongoing and not merely some one-off event. And it also made clear that even when there was a clear instance of the sin of porneia on the part of one marriage partner, that alone did not justify a divorce, much less a divorce that would then free up the offended partner to remarry without the stigma of adultery attached to the new union.
That all sounds pretty straightforward. But what is perhaps the most striking feature to the 1980 report—and perhaps the most germane for the larger point I am trying to make in this article—is how careful, thoughtful, and nuanced it was. There can be no doubting that Jesus clearly said marriage is for life, and that divorce for reasons other than unchastity would require lifelong celibacy for both of the divorced persons, lest via a new marriage they enter what in God’s sight would be essentially an adulterous affair. It is not difficult to read Jesus this way, especially in the parallels to Matthew 19 in Mark and Luke. Even so, the report stated that in truth it is not at all clear that the Bible provides firm guidelines for questions in the area of divorce and remarriage. “[I]t is not unambiguously clear whether Jesus and Paul teach, or imply, that certain actions of the marriage partners can also dissolve the marriage covenant” (Acts of Synod 1980, p. 473).
Even in a context where the threat to the marriage is a clear instance of porneia we should not say one way or the other that this should or should not lead to a divorce. There is no single biblical ground for divorce, according to the report. In short, when it comes to determining the legitimacy of any given divorce, the church’s answer may need to be “It depends.” The exceptive clause is not a one-size fits all answer but it reflects that Jesus “does acknowledge the effect of sin breaking norms established by God” (ibid, p. 477).
The final pages of the 1980 report provide multiple examples of what in the context of Christian Reformed thinking at the time surely constituted new and even somewhat radical perspectives. The committee asserted, for instance, that we should not demand of Scripture more than it was designed to provide. The Bible does not give us firm guidelines by which to evaluate any given instance of marital dysfunction or demise. “[Scripture] does not adjudicate in advance every case of marital difficulty that the church will encounter . . . it is neither possible nor wise for the church to attempt to construct a legal code which would cover all cases or circumstances that would apply” (ibid p. 480). Yes, the report states, the church is hardly without guidance and yes, we need to call people to try to align themselves with God’s will but matters are more complex in some (many?) instances than a simple application of a Bible passage can fully address. Real people are involved in all this and we need to see them at eye level.
Finally, although not for a moment abandoning the core conviction that marriage is for life and the church must do all it can to encourage this for all its married members, in the end the report basically gives what could be called a local option for dealing with any given case. “[R]ecognizing the limits of human ability to discern the subtlety and intricacy of human motivation, the church must recognize the limits of its ability to assess guilt and blame in the intimate and private turmoil of marital distress” (ibid p. 483). “The church must exercise its pastoral ministry in the midst of this tension which exists between God’s will for marriage and the multiplicity of personal factors which surround particular cases of divorce and remarriage.” “The major part of the burden [in all this] rests on the local consistory, for it has the most intimate and accurate knowledge of the situation of divorce and contemplated remarriage” (ibid, p. 484).
There are those who will say that since 1980 and the adoption of this report by the CRCNA, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Whereas once the divorced and remarried were always barred from the Lord’s Supper, now the church too readily accepts any and all divorces/remarriages without due counsel or discernment even on the local level. No doubt there is some truth to that. In a similar vein some years ago, Dr. Calvin VanReken noted that although the CRCNA was right in 1966 to lift its total ban on theater attendance and watching movies, the anything-goes nature of most people’s DVD and Blu-Ray collections—much less what they stream on Netflix—may also be a pendulum swung too far.
Still, the deeply pastoral tone of the 1980 report and its wise discernment that our own ability to peer into the human heart is limited must have come as a great relief to many in the church. Although the 1980 report mostly focused on porneia in the most overt sexual sense, it clearly recognized (as a friend of mine once put it) that porneia covers a great many sins. We now know that psychological and verbal abuse in a marriage can be so fierce as to lead to a breaking of the marriage covenant even as it can quite literally become a life-threatening situation for the abused partner (psychological abuse and all forms of bullying have now a well-documented connection to suicide).
Obviously child sexual abuse is a clear extension of porneia but so is physical abuse of any kind, whether or not it is even remotely sexual in nature. Battered spouses and children are right to flee such a marriage, and not a few churches now sponsor safe houses for them. It would be cruel for any church leader to insist that such abuse, on account of not fitting neatly under the heading of porneia, is not grounds for divorce. Crueler yet would be a pastor who would tell the abused woman five years later that the wonderful man she is now dating cannot become her husband lest she become guilty of lifelong adultery by way of a second marriage. But making these kinds of discernments—despite what some would regard as the clear words of Jesus on the matter—is precisely what the 1980 report encouraged and authorized.
In 1980 I was a high school sophomore and so was not paying a lot of attention to the peregrinations of the CRCNA’s Synod. But I suspect the 1980 report—following a decade of anguished discernment in this area—was somewhat seismic in its effect and the change it then made possible in congregations everywhere. It is no surprise, then, that the current report on human sexuality included references to this report.
The 2022 Report on Human Sexuality
The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the CRCNA’s meeting of Synod for two years running and so the study committee report that was published in the fall of 2019 for consideration at the June 2020 Synod has now been pushed to the hoped-for regular meeting of Synod in 2022. Both the volume and varied nature of the many overtures that have come to Synod in response to the report promise a difficult, fierce, and possibly troubling debate. Here I am not making any overall assessment of the larger report (that encompasses a variety of sexuality-related topics) but only on how the 1980 report on marriage is treated. (I have, however, written two blog posts—with very similar titles!—for The Twelve on the issue of the confessional status question that the committee was asked to deal with: “Confessional?” and “Already Confessional?”)
In the 2022 report, Matthew 19 is a key New Testament passage that the committee used to set up its treatment of pornography, homosexuality, transgenderism, polyamory, and all other sections of the report. No doubt much will be made of whether or to what extent others agree with the exegesis of that chapter. As noted above, this is the same chapter that was a focus of the 1980 report, mainly because unlike Jesus’s words on marriage and divorce in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, Matthew 19 alone includes the exceptive clause about porneia.
The current report refers to the 1980 Study Committee about a dozen times and on about six out of the report’s 149 pages. Since questions of marriage, divorce, and remarriage were not central to the committee’s mandate, it is in one sense not surprising that the 1980 report does not crop up more often or more extensively. But because that report remains an important one in this overall subject area, the current committee did have to include it in some fashion. How did they do so?
The main point that comes across clearly in the 2022 report is what was stated above: the 1980 report endorsed the view that as a creation ordinance of the Creator God and as affirmed by Jesus and the Apostle Paul, marriage is a lifelong commitment. By way of a summary comment early in the current report we read this:
“The 1980 report concludes that the word porneia refers to sexual infidelity, including adultery, incest, homosexual intercourse, and similar forms of unchastity. However, it emphasizes that ‘the accent appears to fall on persistent and unrepentant unchastity rather than on the single act itself.’ In other words, while divorce is permissible in some cases of sexual immorality, that is only the case when such immorality is persistent and unrepentant. The report helpfully situates the Christian marital ethic in the context of the gospel of reconciliation, reminding Christians that reconciliation is always the goal when spouses have become estranged through sexual immorality or other causes” (HSR, p. 28).
In this early part of the 2022 report, readers are also reminded that in 1980 there was a rejection of the idea that the Bible contains the singular ground for justified divorce. Indeed, any concessions to the permanence of marriage must take a back seat to the binding nature of marriage as clearly taught in Scripture. The 2022 report also summarizes the 1980 report’s work on how the union of husband and wife constitutes a profound “mystery” as well as material from the Apostle Paul on matters related to the non-essential nature of marriage—Christians do not have to get married—and how marriage is not an end unto itself but is part of our lifelong pursuit of living to God’s glory in case we are married.
Near the end of the 2022 report there is one final look at the 1980 report.
“Synod 1980 of the Christian Reformed Church received a study report on divorce and remarriage. The authors of that report provided a thorough study of scriptural teaching on the topic. They concluded by calling the church to ‘reaffirm the general biblical principle that divorce and remarriage constitute adultery’” (ibid, p. 139).
If the 2022 report on Human Sexuality were the only thing a person had to go on to get a sense for what was contained in the 1980 report on marriage, the clear impression would be that in 1980 the CRCNA took a hard line against divorce and most certainly against remarriage after a divorce. Of course, the 2022 committee had a plateful of work due to a dauntingly huge mandate. The committee was under no obligation to provide thorough summaries of any past reports or synodical decisions. Yet given the persistence of what many regard as a strong analogy between the CRCNA’s stance on divorce and remarriage and how on a local level a congregation might deal with gay persons in committed relationships or marriages, it is striking that the pastoral nuances, the practical limitations, and the wise discernment of the 1980 document are wholly left to the side in the current report.
In the Spring of 2019, after an interim report was released by the Human Sexuality committee, the Calvin Seminary faculty members on the committee held a public Town Hall event at the Seminary. Already then, based on just the first portion of the draft report that the church had seen, a few of us noted the highly selective quotes and summaries from the 1980 report. I directly asked about what looked like some degree of cherry picking going on, but the answers provided did not really quite get at the point I was trying to make.
Lewis Smedes made an important argument in his 1999 article. It is an argument that has been made by many others before and since. As a preacher who traffics constantly in the arena of analogies, I know full well that no analogy is perfect. There are always areas of pretty good correspondence and areas of disconnect in any analogy. But by way of a pretty good analogy, we have found wise and pastoral and loving ways to deal gently with divorced persons and have blessed many remarriages without calling them a case of ongoing adultery despite clear, consistent, and compelling words from the lips of Jesus himself that this could be the case. (The 2022 report makes much of things that are “clear, consistent, and compelling.”)
Even those of us utterly convinced of the creation mandate that marriage is for life recognize how the deep brokenness of human life in a fallen world forces us much of the time to make what my ethics professor Ted Minnema called “cruciform choices,” in which we recognize when we fall short of creation norms but do our best to muddle through by grace alone. Those who suggest this has more than a little bearing on how the church counsels with gay persons are not making an analogy with no merit. It deserves to be grappled with.
It is not fully clear to me why the 2022 committee did not engage the Smedes analogy nor why they characterized the 1980 report as hard and rigid and legalistic when in fact that report finally argued against being hard and rigid and above all legalistic in matters of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. The curious omission of this engagement is noteworthy and is something deserving of reflection by all who will have anything to do with the reception of this significant synodical report. Could the committee’s selectivity in dealing with the church’s stance on divorce and remarriage stem from a desire to not let anything interfere with a set of foregone conclusions? And are there other areas of the Human Sexuality report that reflect a similar modus operandi?