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My wife and I live in Maryville, Tennessee, where she retired from Maryville College, a venerable Presbyterian institution (founded 1819). When people ask where Maryville is, I playfully reply: “halfway between The Tennessee Vols and Dolly Parton,” (i.e., Knoxville and Pigeon Forge). People smile and say they get it; we live in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, near the national park. Our county is Blount County, with a population of about 150, 000. We have one small Episcopal church, my denomination of birth and choice, though I was (mostly) happy in the CRC during my 35 years at Calvin College, thanks to the existence of the Church of the Servant. Our little parish of St. Andrew’s is the only Episcopal witness in the county (we do have lots of Baptists!). With about 100 regulars, we chug along on Sunday mornings, giving thanks and doing our best to be Gospel people in the community.

Not only is St. Andrew’s the only Episcopal church in Blount County, it is also the least Episcopal-looking church one has seen. It was built by Quakers, who founded their congregation in the mid-19th century. They disbanded in the 1920s and were looking to sell their building to another Christian group. There were a few Episcopalians in a nearby town who worked at the big plant of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa, now the name of that town). The Episcopalians bought the building in 1923. They decided to keep the Quaker style of the building. So, no stained-glass windows and such. Even today we worship in a building with white walls and large glass windows that allow in a lot of sunlight. The only non-Quaker things are at the front: a lectern to the left where the Word can be read; a pulpit to the right where the Word can be preached; in the middle, a table, where the Word can be given in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

The last Sunday in May, 2023, was Pentecost Sunday. It was also the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the congregation. That called for a celebration. The word went out, and many visitors came, also former members, and some pastors, who now live elsewhere. We were packed into the pews in an unaccustomed way. The preacher that day was not our rector, Amy Bradley, but a man who had grown up in the congregation and is now moderately famous in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Zach Nyein, who ministers at the well-known St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City.  We didn’t know Zach well when he was growing up, but were aware of him over the years, as he graduated from high school and then went on to college at the University of Tennessee, and then Berkeley College, the Episcopal Theological School embedded in Yale Divinity School. When Zach was ordained in the clergy the folks back in Maryville were proud of the only child of the parish who had ever gone that far.

Zach Nyein is a great preacher. Anyone who has heard him would agree that he has the gift. It was an inspiring Pentecost message, in which we saw again the story of empowerment and inclusion, back then on what is called “the birthday of the church,” and in relation to our time. He ended with what was as close as Episcopalians come to an altar call, reciting the last verse of “Amazing Grace.” We also sang heartily together, received the sacrament of holy communion, and then celebrated the centennial afterwards in the parish hall. What could be better?

But there is something else to say. The Rev. Zach Nyein is a gay man who was married in a church. He now lives with his husband in New York. We in Maryville on the day had no problem with that. But there are some who think that however gifted and called Zach may be, just being who he is would be enough to disqualify him from serving in the way he does.

I thought of that later in the day, as I recalled some Christian peacemakers from Northern Ireland I had met along my own journey as a scholar; some of the folks I wrote about in People Behind the Peace (Eerdmans, 1997). I am thinking of heroic people who later become friends: Fr. Gerry Reynolds, of Clonard Monastery in Belfast, and Dr. Ken Newell, the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Because they both said it was hard to keep going in the face of distrust and violence, I asked them how they did it. They replied that what kept them going was “the kingdom vision,” that is, what we all pray for in the Lord’s Prayer: “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” In that kingdom there will be the shalom of God, and all will be welcome at the banquet feasts.

Conservative critics in our time say that it is all very well to think of what the kingdom will look like after the trumpet blows and the general resurrection of the dead happens. Meanwhile, we in the churches must try to live faithfully, as we are guided by the Bible. And the Bible, they insist, clearly states that same-sex romantic relationships are unacceptable, and that Christian marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Over my career I have been associated with two church-related liberal arts colleges. They both had required courses in the religion department. In Religion 101, one of the first questions is: what kind of book is the Bible?  The answer is multifaceted. The Bible is a historical book, thus requiring historical tools of analysis, the most basic of which is establishing the context for what is going on in the text. The Bible is also a literary book, thus requiring literary tools of analysis, like asking the genre of a text: a chronicle is not a poem, nor a first-person account, nor a letter of a specific church, nor an apocalypse. There is, in fact, no such thing as “quoting Scripture” with integrity without an awareness of context and genre. The whole discussion stops when someone confronts me with “What do you with the verse that says?” Every time I am presented with that question, my answer begins, “Sure, I believe the Bible is our guide for faithful living, but what kind of book is the Bible?”.

I know we have gone over all this in these pages and elsewhere. But let me review a bit of what’s been written, just in the past year, here in the online RJ. I encourage readers to retrieve the following good pieces: first and foremost is the wonderful article by Ryan Struyk, “A Reformed Theological Case for Same Sex Marriage,” and David Hoekema’s excellent piece, “Biblical Marriage: Do We Know It When We See It?”

For this historian, a remarkably helpful and thorough piece was by Kent Fry, “Slavery and the Difficulty of Interpreting the Bible.” Drawing on the seminal work of Mark Noll, Fry shows that the slave holders were the Bible people. They had the Bible on their side as they defended slavery. One the other hand, the abolitionists invoked the spirit of the Bible, with its liberationist emphasis as the story shifts from God’s exclusive covenant with the Israelites to God’s welcome of all people by the end of the Bible.

Alongside these fine RJ pieces, I would add another, by Neal Plantinga, one of the most gifted people that the Reformed community has produced. About fifty years ago, while a seminary student, Neal was wrestling with the biblical and theological problems that went along with what was then called “the women in office” question. Neal went over the same ground that Kent Fry has recently done. Like Fry, Neal writes that the slaveholders had the better argument when it came to citing specific texts. But Neal agreed with the abolitionists, who went beyond a direct and immediate reading of scripture to a reliance on the whole sweep of scripture. Listen to Neal in an essay he wrote for a book edited by Alan Johnson, How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership (Zondervan, 2011): “It is remarkably hard to dismiss what Paul said to slaves. You need a high, subtle hermeneutic to do it. You need to be able to tell time theologically. You need to see the big movement in the history of redemption that rises above the small print for local times and place.”

I ask if Synods and others might do the same when it comes to same sex marriage in the church. Can they rise above what Plantinga calls “the small print” and look to the grand sweep of scripture?

In conclusion, let me paraphrase David Hoekema and ask if we would know a Pentecost moment when we see it? Would know the Shalom of God when we see it? Would we know amazing grace when we see it?

Last May, I participated in a Pentecost moment in Maryville, Tennessee. It was led by a truly gifted clergy person who happened to be a married gay man. And, I believe, God thought it was good.

Can I get an “Amen” on that?

Ronald Wells

Ronald Wells is Professor of History, Emeritus at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Of his books, one of interest to RJ readers is The Best of the Reformed Journal (Eerdmans, 2011), co-edited with James Bratt. He is a cradle Episcopalian who spent thirty-five good years as a member of The Church of the Servant, CRC, in Grand Rapids. In retirement in Tennessee and Florida, he has returned to his Episcopalian roots.


  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Amen! Thank you for this, Ron.

  • Edward Wierenga says:


  • Jean Scott says:

    As I see it, the CRC has been preoccupied with sex. Remember when young girls who were pregnant and unmarried had to stand up in church and confess their sin of sex before marriage? Thankfully, we’ve gotten beyond that, but now we have to work at including all, in love and gracious welcoming, to come into the fold of the church. We cannot condemn a person because of how God made them!

    • Ann Mary Dykstra says:

      Amen, Jean.

    • Lena says:

      “Wr can not condemn a person because of how God made them.” Agreed. But we do not want CRC leaders/ministers to teach and promote things that the Bible says is wrong. The church has to protect what is taught. How people respond to Biblical instruction is up to them.

  • Leonard Vander Zee says:

    Thank you Ron, for this gentle reminder from the foothills of the Smokies.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Amen. (sung)

  • Pat says:

    Amen! From a former student who appreciated your insights then and still does. Thank you.

  • Keith Vander Pol says:


  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    A seven-fold Amen!

  • Dave Tanis says:


  • Robert and Janice DeVries says:

    Yes, you can get an amen for this. Well done, Ron!

  • Susan B Grefe says:


  • Thomas B Hoeksema Sr says:

    Thanks, to one of my favorite Episcopalians!

  • Jeanne Engelhard says:

    A hearty AMEN, Ron! Thank you!

  • Susan C DeYoung says:


  • Pam Adams says:

    Amen, Ron.

  • Steve Van Rees says:


  • Jenny Reece says:

    Amen from another pastor and Bible reader, formerly Reformed (RCA), now Episcopalian. Your article is one of the many that make me glad I subscribe to this journal, which seems to take seriously the old tag “always being reformed.” Thank you!

  • Alicia Mannes says:


  • David Hoekema says:

    I am honored that someone who helped guide both my wife and me on our spiritual journey, as a faculty member and a colleague (and who was the angel sent to summon me back to my alma mater and to the denomination of my youth after twenty years away), has voiced his appreciation for my recent musings on the wrong turn the CRC has taken. It is good to hear the voices of faithful Reformed folk now abiding in other denominational families (as do I today). But sad to know that so many who hold firmly to the Reformed confessions have been directed to leave the denomination unless they affirm a novel and implausible reading of a few phrases therein.

  • Deb LaRoy says:

    Absolutely AMEN! Jesus didn’t “use” the small print to condemn anyone. Instead He loved us so much He shared the Bold Print that is woven through the Scriptures: LOVE GOD ABOVE ALL AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF; in order to save all the “ whosoever” who believe in Him. It is definitely not as hard as we make it.