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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. 

Lewis B. Smedes

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?

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church and the author of several books including The Riddle of Grace (1996), Flourishing in the Land (1996), Remember Creation (1998), Speaking as One: A Look at the Ecumenical Creeds (1997), Speaking of Comfort: A Look at the Heidelberg Catechism (1998), and Proclaim the Wonder: Preaching Science on Sunday (2003). He is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.


  • Mary D says:

    Thank you!

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Why does the HSR “omit” the pastoral thrust of the 1980 Divorce and Remarriage report and in so doing fundamentally misrepresent the CRC’s position on divorce and remarriage? A full and honest understanding of the CRC’s position on divorce and remarriage would force the HSR and the CRC to ask, If the CRC, on divorce and remarriage, things Jesus spoke so strongly about, is deeply humble and pastorally accommodating at the synodical level and leaves the hard work of pastoral discernment and application of Scripture to local elders, how can the CRC justify an approach to same sex marriage, a reality Jesus never even explicitly addressed, that is strikingly sure of itself and void of pastoral accommodation at the synodical level, and leaves no room for pastoral discernment and application of Scripture by local elders?

    The first tragedy of the HSR’s distortion of the CRC’s position on divorce and remarriage is that the CRC isn’t forced, by the report at least, to ponder this inconsistency in its deliberations on same sex marriage. The second tragedy is that some divorced and remarried people who assume the accuracy the HSR’s characterization of the 1980 report are now deeply hurt and wondering whether they really belong in the CRC. We just keep wounding people.

    And to your other question as to whether this modus operandi is used in other areas of the report, people with scientific and medical expertise (there are many of those in the CRC!) are submitting carefully documented overtures that reveal how, indeed, the study committee does this same cherry-picking in its use of scientific data (esp. the part of the report dealing with trans people). Confusing ideological blog posts and scientific studies? Failing to note that cited studies have been thoroughly debunked, and sometimes even retracted by the people who wrote them? Come on, Christian Reformed Church, we can do better.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    The 1999 Smedes’ article, “Like the Wideness of the Sea?” is the second line [without the question mark] of a song with the title, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” as its first line.

    The third verse of that song is:

    “But we make God’s love too narrow
    by false limits of our own,
    and we magnify its strictness
    with a zeal God will not own.”

    We can err on both sides.

  • Joyce says:

    Thank you Scott from a parent of a homosexual who is in a committed marital relationship. It’s been a long painful journey for both of us. I thank God for grace on both sides. I am a Christian but she is not. Partly because of the church’s (and formerly my)stance on homosexuality. Lewis Smedes expresses well in his essay you refer to, how I now feel about her sexuality.

  • Anthony Sytsma says:

    Thank you for the article Scott. You raise some good points. But I have a few questions for you. Challenging questions, but also curious questions. I want help thinking these things through. Thank you for being patient with me as you always are. You have taught me so much over my life, but a good student is also willing to challenge his teacher. 🙂

    Let me look at a couple of your statements – “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.”

    Why is it cruel? It seems to me the answer depends on what God’s Word says. It’s either – a. God’s Word says that remarriage for one such as her is sin. b. God’s Word says that remarriage for one such as her is not sin. If a. then it cannot possibly be cruel for us to point her to do what God says she should do. Then we would have put ourselves as judges of God, determining what is loving and good for ourselves, rather than based on what God says.

    I have not studied the passages about remarriage. It’s on my to do list. But I can still point out what I see in your article. I feel like you are muddying the waters by not hitting the direct issue. Do you think the passages about remarriage and divorce are clear or not clear? If they are clear then isn’t it time we had a reformation and time of repentance in the CRC for how we have gone against the clear words of Jesus regarding divorce and remarriage? If the Bible is not clear on remarriage, that would be another story, but if it is clear, why are we afraid to point people to what the Bible says, even if it is hard to accept? The issue is really whether the teachings of Jesus on divorce and remarriage are clear or not. And even if we established that they are unclear, then we would have to establish that the biblical teachings on homosexuality are unclear to make the analogy work (which I would emphatically say that they are not).

    You also say – “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.”

    So are the biblical teachings on remarriage clear or are they not clear? You don’t say what you think very directly. In another article and discussion I had with you, you said something like that we as pastors have found ways to bless and solemnize marriages that are wrong and against Jesus’ commands. That would lead me to think that you think Jesus’ words are clear but not really able to be obeyed in this broken world (something I take issue with strongly). But in this article you seem to maybe be implying that while some church leaders think Jesus’ teachings on remarriage and divorce are clear, you in contrast maybe do not think they are so clear. Which is it?

    Why is it cruel to tell the woman she can’t get married again, if that is indeed what God’s Word says. You could just as easily say it is cruel to tell someone not to give in to corruption when it will mean he gets fired from the job and live in poverty after saying “no” to the corrupt demands. Should we tell him it’s okay to give in to corruption to avoid that suffering? Should we tell the woman she can get remarried because we don’t want her to have that suffering of staying single? (Even though Jesus and Paul said it’s far better to be single). Why are we afraid to point people to God’s commands? This doesn’t make us cruel pastors. We don’t have to be ashamed of what God teaches in his Word. Being pastoral and compassionate doesn’t mean shaving off the rough edges of God’s difficult commands. Rather, the Bible teaches that as we go through suffering, God is growing us in holiness, patience, and character, and that he is working for our good in all things, even in our suffering.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Anthony: Thank you for raising good questions and for always being willing to engage.
      On the main question you ask here I would say this: Jesus’s words on divorce and remarriage—especially in the Mark and Luke versions—are clear on the surface of them. Matthew’s more complicated formulation allowing for porneia to be a consideration is also clear on the face of it. But things can be clear without being simple. Bible passages can look clear in isolation but less clear in context and within the context of the whole Bible, which is always our ultimate context for interpreting anything. Scripture interprets Scripture. If Jesus’s words on this subject in Matthew 19 were both clear and simple, there would not be the long and ongoing exegetical debates that surround the precise meaning of that verse. A welter of other considerations come into the mix.
      The 1980 report helpfully and accurately says that the Bible is not a legal guide to adjudicate every conceivable scenario of marital difficulties and dysfunction in advance. We need to understand that porneia may have a very narrow interpretation but may also be broadened to include a welter of sins. If you want only to take Jesus at his word in an isolated verse and make that the be-all and end-all because it is “clear,” you can do so but that hardly shows the best of Reformed hermeneutics at work.
      There are other examples of words of Jesus that are “clear” but not simple, at least not in how the church has both understood such words or applied them in the real lives of Christian believers. Jesus said we should not worry about our father’s funeral because it’s not important in the context of the kingdom. Jesus said we must hate our parents and siblings and if we don’t, we cannot love him. Clear? Seems so. Simple and straightforward to interpret and apply? Not so much.
      So yes, I would say Jesus’s words on divorce and remarriage are clear on the face of them and when taken in isolation. You could also say that the Book of Ecclesiastes makes it “clear” on multiple occasions that wisdom is worthless and the best advice is to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. So who cares? Not many pastors preach that lifestyle, however. But you could justify a whole lot of partying by transferring an individual verse from Ecclesiastes and making it counted-cross-stitch wall hanging in your man cave.
      The main point I was making, of course, is that if pastorally and in a wider context of grace and mercy we have found ways to deal with the divorced and remarried that go beyond a flat-footed interpretation of a single verse (however seemingly “clear”), we surely could ponder that in the area of gay people when, in fact, you cannot find from Jesus any words on that subject much less words that are “clear.”
      Finally on your question about why it would be cruel to tell an abused woman she could not get remarried: it would be cruel and ungracious and unmerciful and unkind, and I do not believe the application of any of Jesus’s words should lead us in that direction. When someone is the victim of sin, we do not blame them for that or make it the last word on any aspect of their subsequent lives. To tell an abused woman she may not remarry because the cause of her divorce does not fit some narrow definition of porneia would be like a pastor refusing to conduct the marriage of a woman who had been raped by her uncle on account of the fact that she is no longer a virgin. Victims of gross sin and evil need the love and the grace of Christ. You wrote that if refusing to bless a marriage is clearly God’s will for this person, we have no choice. OK, but unless we are exceedingly sure of this in a given case, such people do not to be told that it is now their lot in life to suffer loneliness because that will somehow build character in them and contribute to their Christ-likeness and so this is clearly the iron-clad will of God for their lives.
      That’s cruel, and Jesus was never cruel.
      Yesterday’s Stob Lecturer at the January Series was Dr. Sujin Pak. She was very good. In a conversation with her after the lecture with a dozen or so folks, she noted that in the history of biblical interpretation, there has too often been a drive to find THEE right answer on any given topic. And this is usually fueled in eras of some fear where there is a large quest for utter certainty. But Dr. Pak also noted that those eras when certainty was prized above all else were also the same eras that saw the church lapse into violent behavior of one kind or another.
      Cruelty would, I think, count as its own form of violence.

      • Anthony Sytsma says:

        Thank you for the reply Scott. I think your explanations make sense. Thank you again for your patience and for taking time to thoroughly explain to me. I think maybe I didn’t write so clearly, but I was more asking what you think the Bible’s teaching is on remarriage and divorce, rather than just Jesus’ one statement. For example, I think the Bible teaches very clearly how we should relate to our parents, even if one of Jesus’ statements, (about hating your parents), isolated by itself would make the issue not clear. From your comment here, it seems that you think Jesus’ statement by itself is not clear (in the way the command to hate parents is not clear and hard to fit with the rest of Scripture if taken literally), but that the general teaching from the Bible, taking into account grace and mercy, is quite clear about remarriage and divorce.

        I can of course see why it would be painful, or you said cruel, to tell a woman she can’t get married again. My point was that if the Bible was clear on something, then it could not logically be cruel for us to point people to that biblical truth in a loving way. I hope that makes sense? I was saying if the Bible is clear that remarriage for such a person is wrong, then it could absolutely not be cruel for us to teach that. But if the Bible’s teaching on remarriage either does not prohibit her from remarriage, or is not a clear teaching, than that makes things very different. Of course it is cruel to put a burden on someone that the Scriptures do not teach! I was only trying to test the logic of the scenario you were laying out. I haven’t studied divorce and remarriage enough, and I’m open to your view in this area. I certainly for example, for now, see no reason not to have a broader definition of the word porneia in these cases of divorce.

        But I still have a problem with your main point. You said – “The main point I was making, of course, is that if pastorally and in a wider context of grace and mercy we have found ways to deal with the divorced and remarried that go beyond a flat-footed interpretation of a single verse (however seemingly “clear”), we surely could ponder that in the area of gay people when, in fact, you cannot find from Jesus any words on that subject much less words that are “clear.”” I think the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is both consistent and clear and repetitive. And I wonder why you say we don’t have any words from Jesus on that subject? Does it matter whether or not the Gospels specifically record Jesus talking about homosexuality when the rest of the Bible talks about homosexuality? (Aside from the point that could be made about what Jesus says about marriage).

        I’ll stop there. I think talking this through was helpful for me to better understand what point you were making, and what points you were not making. I still disagree with you quite strongly on your main point, but I have a better understanding and appreciation for what you are trying to say compared to before.

        • Lynn says:

          Are you aware that the word “homosexual” was not in the Bible till the late 1940s? Might Paul have been referring to sex orgies or to heterosexual men having sex with other men as a show of their masculinity? What papers of the culture might Paol have been referring to.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    As long as the CRC has this foundational theology of “creation norms” and “creation ordinances” I doubt that it will ever be able to get out of this muddle ( or bondage). Creation is important in the Bible, but in the OT it does not stand on its own, but is for the Exodus. In the NT neither does it stand on its own, but it is for the resurrection. The resurrection is what determines the value and meaning of creation. In both Testaments, salvation is not for creation, but creation serves salvation. I suggest that the pastoral sensitivity of the 1980 report is not just pastoral, but maybe an unacknowledged sensitivity to the pull of the Resurrection.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank-you Scott. What you write is thoughtful, deep, and kind.

  • Andy Sytsma says:

    Hi Scott,

    I wanted to respond to your article. I appreciate your pastoral questions. I think it goes without saying that with both issues of divorce/remarriage and with homosexuality we want to be as loving, patient and kind as we can. The CRC has said this many times. As you point out, the 1980 Report on Marriage did this with lots of nuance. With the HSR, I hear this as well. I appreciate the compassion I hear in the HSR for people struggling in different areas with sexuality and gender, and also has an important tone of humility, calling us to repentance so we can care better for people struggling in these areas. In your article, I hear a similar tone and an encouragement for us to love well. The point of your article, if I am hearing you correctly, is to ask the question whether Smedes’ article might be something to consider as we deal pastorally with people struggling with with issues of sexuality. Is there an analogy between how we deal pastorally with people struggling with divorce and remarriage and how we deal pastorally with people struggling with homosexuality.

    While I appreciate the question, and the tone of your question, I don’t think the analogy holds. I also want to say up front that I have respect for Smedes. I really enjoyed reading his biography “My God and I” and his books “Forgive and Forget” and “Shame and Grace” were very helpful to me when I was in seminary. That said, I don’t think the analogy holds.

    Here’s why I say this. And let me frame the issues first. As I reflect on your article, I see two issues at play and three parts to each of those issues:

    1. Divorce & Remarriage
    a) Cherry picking one verse
    b) Biblical teaching with whole bible
    c) Pastoral application of this issue

    2. Homosexual Practice
    a) Cherry picking one verse
    b) Biblical teaching with whole bible
    c) Pastoral application of this issue

    That is the set up (or framing) of the issues. And the question is whether we need to consider divorce and remarriage to be an analogy for homosexual activity.

    Scott, you rightly warns against (1a). We don’t want to cherry pick one verse even if it appears “clear.” Its not good enough to say, “Jesus said X” re divorce. There is a lot to consider reading through scripture. But we also have to say the same thing with regard to homosexuality. It’s not enough to just say Jesus never said anything against gay marriage (2a). That would be cherry picking one verse (or lack of a verse). There is much more to consider with both issues of divorce/remarriage and homosexual practice. You are correct. Neither of those statements are “clear” if we just cherry pick one verse (or lack of a verse).

    So then we move to the second part. You rightly say we need to look at what the Bible says (as a whole) about the issue of divorce/remarriage (1b). And as you point out, the 1980 report is very nuanced. It warns against divorce (marriage is the norm) but also rightly says there are exceptions. Moses, Jesus and Paul all addressed exceptions to this, even though God’s will was for marriage. So far so good. But to carry this line of reasoning forward, we also have to let all of scripture speak to the issue of homosexual practice (2b). The HSR does this and concludes there aren’t exceptions to this. In fact, the opposite is true. As we read through all of scripture, the message is clear, consistent and compelling that God’s will does not allow for homosexual activity. It isn’t not cherry picking to say that (2a).

    So this gets us to the question of pastoral care. Again, we need to be loving, kind and patient with people who are struggling. Whether that is with divorce/remarriage or with homosexuality, we need to shepherd people well. Jesus is our good shepherd. He is gentle. “A bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3). Yet, what we point people towards, needs to be guided by scripture. Jesus came with grace, but he also came with truth (John 1:14). In a similar way, we are called to be compassionate, but not compromise on scripture.

    Why is this relevant to your article? You rightly point out there are nuances and cases of exception with divorce/remarriage (2b). Smedes and the 1980 report say the same. The bible has different examples of this. But the same is not true of homosexual practice. (1b) is not the same as (2b). As we look at the Bible in its entirety, there are different nuances with divorce. Thus the need for pastoral care and wise application (1c). However, when we ask re the issue of homosexual activity, the Bible in its entirety is clear that it is forbidden (2b). There aren’t any nuances or examples of exceptions. So we can’t say gay marriage is a valid pastoral option (2c). The Bible hasn’t opened that door for us so we can’t go there.

    For me, I am more conservative on this issue. But what is important to me isn’t so much this issue. It’s what scripture says or doesn’t say. IF the Bible said there were nuances to homosexual activity and gave examples of where this was OK (2b). Then yes, we could have a talk about gay marriage being a pastoral and local option to consider (2c). But it’s hasn’t done this, so we need to trust God and work within the boundaries of scripture. Can we still love well, be pastoral, and shepherd people well? We have more work to do, but I believe we can. Will it be hard? Yes. But God will lead us through his Word and Spirit.

    Thank you again for your article. I hope my comments are helpful.

    In Him,


  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Andy: Thanks for your alarmingly thoughtful comment. 😉 Let me respond just briefly.
    First, you did the kind of work in thinking through this issue on this particular front that the study committee could have / should have done but did not.
    Second, as I stated in my article, I was not trying to re-present Smedes’s analogy nor in particular judge where it succeeds or fails or to what extent it succeeds or fails. By the nature of the beast, an analogy is always apt on some points but less so on other points. That is why it is analogical thinking and not some 1:1 correspondence or air-tight form of argumentation. (Obviously, however, I think the analogy is worthy of consideration.)
    Third, but since you have invited me to enter the Smedes point: for me the nub of the analogy is not that the Bible shows exceptions to marriage (you can get divorced and remarry without sin) and does the same for gay relationships. It is true that there appears to be some level of exception to the covenant of marriage, but in truth that is only in a couple passages. In the NIV the word “divorce” crops up 33 times, almost evenly divided (16/17) between the OT and NT. But almost half of the OT words are from the prophets and God’s symbolic “divorce” of Israel. There are only a couple places in the Bible that even address any kind of exception to the idea that to divorce and remarry is to enter an abiding state of sin/adultery. So it is not as though we have reams of biblical texts that speak to this. That is why the 1980 report flatly admitted we cannot derive a legal code from the Bible to deal with every instance of marital dysfunction. There is just not enough material in the Bible to do so. The fact that we cannot find any exceptive clauses or verses where gay relationships are concerned is an important point but, again, given the relative paucity of biblical material dealing with this at all, it is not overly shocking. And, in fact, I would argue you cannot find a single instance in the Bible that deals with the prospect of gay relationships at all. Homosexual behavior yes, and if the verses that speak against this extrapolate to relationships and thus makes the very prospect of relationships among gays a moot point, OK. But it is not compellingly clear to me that is so. Does the Bible ever speak to the prospect of two people who love God/Jesus forming a commitment to each other? No, I judge it does not. That we would also, therefore, not find exceptive verses for such a relationship merely follows.
    Finally, then, what might be the nub of the Smedes analogy? It is in the area of what counts as creation norms and what counts as sin and how we deal with failures to live up to the fullness of all God intended. Throughout most of church history there was only one true way to repent of a divorce: to get married again to the divorced spouse. Short of that, the person involved in a divorce was consigned to celibacy because otherwise an abiding situation of sin would ensue in the form of a new marriage that was adulterous. Indeed, the sin of getting divorced would itself persist (unless the original marriage is reinstated) and this sinful state would only be further compounded by marrying someone else. Sin squared. And since the church cannot abide people living in unrepentant sin, the divorced and remarried were shunned, kept from the sacrament, etc. But suppose we want to say that being gay and entering into some kind of monogamous relationship with another gay person is also not a creation ordinance—not the way it’s supposed to be. And therefore if the church allows for people in committed gay relationships, we would again be sanctioning an abiding unrepentant sin same as divorced people who marry again. But if we have found ways to regard many remarriages post-divorce not to constitute abiding adultery despite some fairly clear words from Jesus that this would be the situation, might there be a similar way to look at gay people in a relationship?
    Again, I was not arguing pro or con for how effective the Smedes analogy was or is. It may work on one level and fail on another level and then we have to judge how significant the failure is and whether the analogy can survive at all. But the main level of analogy is not that the Bible gives some kind of exception to divorce and also the same with a gay relationship. It is rather how the church deals pastorally and graciously with individual cases of broken people unable to live up to the full standard of creation ordinances or other measures of righteousness but who are doing the best they can in making cruciform choices in a deeply fractured world.

  • Andy Sytsma says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for your response. I probably don’t see eye to eye with you on everything you said, but that’s OK. I think one thing we all feel deeply is how to have a compassionate, loving and Christ-like response. I resonate with what you said at the end: “It is rather how the church deals pastorally and graciously with individual cases of broken people unable to live up to the full standard of creation ordinances or other measures of righteousness but who are doing the best they can in making cruciform choices in a deeply fractured world.” We have lifted up the fruit of the Spirit of self-control. There are also other ways we can walk together, speak the truth in love to one another, show grace, and do this in the context of authentic community, recognizing we all wrestle with sin or brokenness in different ways.

    Thank you again for your article. I sense this is your motivation as well. How do we love well? How do we have compassion in our pastoral application of Biblical truth? How can we walk with people who are struggling, and struggle together to live into Christ’s image, both personally as individuals, but also collectively as God’s church. Blessings.

    In Him,


  • Rowland Van Es. Jr says:

    Why struggle with an analogy when Smedes was very clear about what he thought in the 1994 afterward to his 1976 book Sex for Christians: The Limits and Liberties of Sexual Living? There he noted 6 things the bible does not say about homosexuality (and the biblical writers did not really know about the human condition called homosexuality). Then he said clearly what he did believe: that homosexual people are not responsible for their sexual orientation; that it is a genetic lapse; that they merit the same rights and bear the same responsibilities as anyone else; and that if celibacy is not possible, it is better to live together in a committed monogamous relationship. That was 1994, imagine what he would say today! What Smedes believed is what at least half of the RCA and half of the CRC members also believe and that is the crux of the issue for both denominations. Such issues are sensitive and should be handled locally and lovingly. That I think is your main point and should be the main conclusion of any report on issues open to debate.