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I am writing in response to David Timmer’s article in the January 2005 issue of Perspectives, “Same-Sex Marriage: Crisis in Society, Summons to the Church.”
I take exception to this article for a number of reasons. First, I believe it is unwise editorial policy for Perspectives to publish an article by one of its own editors that amounts to a polemic for one point of view at the very time the Reformed Church in America is facing a crisis on the issue of homosexual practice. To contribute to an honest debate in the church, it would be most helpful if a companion piece, written by someone who opposes same-sex “marriage,” could be published.
Second, Timmer puts the cart before the horse. The seminal issue is whether or not the church should legitimate the practice of homosexuality, not whether or not it should bless same-sex “marriages.” He accepts that the Scripture is authoritative for the church on issues regarding homosexuality, but then goes on to argue that it needs to be reassessed in the light of what we have come to know from historical experience and careful investigation. However, he fails to point out that this is precisely what the Reformed Church in America has been doing! In a series of General Synod decisions from 1978 to 2002, the RCA has explicitly, clearly, and consistently held that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Scripture and that the practice of heterosexuality is normative. (Incidentally, the Synod as late as 2004 explicitly stated that “marriage is properly defined as the union of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.”) The Jew/Gentile analogy (Acts 15) that Timmer cites, along with all other biblical teachings and analogies concerning the prohibition of the practice of homosexuality on the one hand and the promotion of heterosexual marriage on the other, were painstakingly researched. Readers should be clear that Timmer is advocating a point of view that not only contradicts the RCA’s long-held and recently re-affirmed position, undergirded by first class biblical, theological, and sociological scholarship, but that also flies in the face of over 3,000 years of Judeo- Christian teaching. He does not offer his reinterpretation of the “uncomfortable passages of Scripture” dealing with this subject that he alludes to, but enough others have done so to convince me that their work is based on eisegesis, not exegesis.
Third, Timmer calls on Christians to obey the rule of charity toward those who disagree with them. The implication in this context is that we should amicably agree to disagree, and to live and let live, when it comes to the homosexual issue. That is a laudable summons, but it must be subservient to adherence to the authority of the Scriptures as interpreted by the church of which we are a part through its Standards and the Constitution. To my mind, authority, not tolerance, should be the foundational concern underlying this whole discussion. “Speaking the truth in love” does not mean allowing some to circumvent the clear teaching of Scripture, or to flout carefully agreed-upon Standards or positions of the church on this or any other substantive issue, in order to accommodate erroneous cultural pressures. The church should always be reforming within a constantly changing cultural context, but reforming together. If we dodge the issue of authority now, what would we fall back on if, for example, the cultural goal posts were to be moved yet again to the point where any extra-marital relationship would be held up as “a basic building block for emotional intimacy and commitment?” (Incidentally, Timmer does not lessen recrimination and rancor in this discussion when he indulges in an imperious put-down that puts the beliefs of “many Christians” about homosexual orientation “on a par with Flat Earth theories,” in essence calling them ignoramuses. They may be wrong, but they deserve better.)
Fourth, Timmer bases at least part of his argument on “scientific incontrovertible fact,” but fails to provide us with those facts.
- He believes that in virtually all cases, individuals do not choose a homosexual lifestyle and that they “cannot help being who they are.” The facts are that evidence from brain studies, gene studies, identical twin studies, hormonal studies, childhood socialization studies, cross-cultural studies, environmental studies, and sexual behavior studies all show that genetic influence on homosexuality is, if existent at all, relatively weak in comparison with family, societal, and other environmental influences. Cultural norms, not some form of genetic determinism, play the dominant role in manipulating how and whether homosexuality will come to expression. Identical twins studies, for example, show that twins raised in identical environments can develop different sexual orientations, leading to the conclusion that choice does play at least some part in their development. See Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).
- He believes that therapeutic intervention to alter a homosexual’s orientation does not work for a significant number of gay and lesbian people who attempt it. One wonders how he defines “significant.” The facts are that studies of homosexual recovery therapy programs (like the 1997 NARTH survey) show that they have slightly better recovery statistics than Alcoholics Anonymous (28.8% vs. 25-30%). Other studies, like the Kinsey spectrum data, show that significant shifts in sexual orientation often occur apart from any therapeutic treatment (Gagnon). I assume that Timmer would not want to argue that we should close down AA programs and promote alcoholism because the recovery success rate is not high enough.
- He believes that a basic building block for emotional intimacy and commitment is available to gay and lesbian people only in the context of a same-sex relationship. The facts are that the practice of homosexuality is a personally and socially destructive lifestyle. Contrary to what Timmer would have us believe, studies like the 1992 NHSLS survey, the 1994 The Advocate survey and a 1997 Australian survey show that there is a dearth of lifelong, monogamous homosexual relationships. The vast majority of males had multiple sexual partners, some of them as many as 100 in their lifetime. The average female had fewer partners (average ten), but their relationships tended to be of even shorter duration than those of males were (Gagnon).
- He believes that celibacy can be a burden for some who have not succeeded in finding an intimate partner to share their life with, and that therefore it is not a state of life that can be imposed on a Christian by the law of the church. The facts are that there are thousands of single Christians who do not have the gift of celibacy and who would like to be married, but who nevertheless live their lives in singleness without engaging in promiscuity in obedience to the Scripture. Would Timmer also then argue that the church should not “impose” this kind of morality on single Christians?
I agree with Timmer, and with the forthright statements of the RCA, that we have been remiss in our attitudes towards homosexuals, in our acceptance of them as fellow fallen human beings, in our lack of sensitive ministry to meet their particular needs, and in our efforts to help them find a renewed way of life. Nevertheless, our shortcomings in one direction should not lead us to err in another. In the end, that would be to do yet another disservice to our homosexual friends.