CRC Synod 2019 meets June 14 through 20.  One topic which is likely to command a great deal of attention is that Synod will discuss the Interim Report of the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality (page 403 of the Agenda for Synod).[1]  The Committee was tasked in 2016 to provide a foundational Biblical/theological framework for gender and sexuality, to engage with rapidly proliferating interpretations of Scripture which support same-sex marriage, and to advise on whether future synods should raise the denomination’s current perspective on gender and sexuality to confessional status.

Historically, Reformed churches only declare status confessionis when they believe “the integrity of the gospel is at stake” and are willing to accept a schism over the issue, declaring those who disagree to be the “false church” such that schism is warranted, if necessary.  If Synod were to elevate the denomination’s position on same-sex marriage to the level of status confessionis, the result would be to exclude from ordination, leadership, or membership anyone who believes same-sex marriage should be allowed in the church or anyone who thinks there is a reasonable Biblical case on both sides.  (For context, 21% of CRC members, 14% of CRC ministers, and 35% of CRC students surveyed in 2014 believed that the church should allow same-sex marriage.[2]  Based on the national trend among Christians in the United States, those numbers are likely to have risen by as much as 50% between 2014 and 2019.)[3]

The Committee published the Interim Report for review and discussion at Synod 2019.  It includes a tentative preamble and summary of the Committee’s draft of a Biblical theology of human sexuality. The tentative Biblical theology of human sexuality is praiseworthy in numerous respects, most importantly in its approach.  Recognizing the CRC’s “living tradition of a deep love for the Scriptures coupled with a willingness to engage courageously with the ideas of our time,” it begins by acknowledging that a good Reformed Biblical theology follows the creation-fall-redemption-consummation paradigm of redemptive history.[4]  Based on my own experience engaging Christians from non-Reformed traditions and nonbelievers on the topic of homosexuality, I think the present national (if not worldwide) dialogue stands to benefit greatly from Reformed Biblical theology and covenant theology.  Too often, lay Christians do not have the tools to engage with the subject beyond simplistic prooftexting.  Even when Christians engage the topic more carefully, they often begin the discussion with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  But as Reformed Christians, our commitment to sola scriptura means that Biblical hermeneutics and Biblical theology ought to be prior to this more systematic approach.  And, indeed, that approach is crucial in this case because Scripture has much to teach us about sexuality.

A Reformed Framework

The Interim Report engages Scripture beautifully through a creation-fall-redemption-consummation lens.  Too often, Christians’ discussions of homosexuality and Scripture devolve into pedantic and poorly-reasoned recitations of the so-called “clobber passages,” which most scholars on both the traditionalist and revisionist sides agree do not add up to a complete Biblical analysis of homosexuality and must be considered within a broader Biblical framework.  Rather than starting from Romans 1 or Leviticus 18, the Interim Report begins, rightly, with Genesis 1 and 2: that in the beginning God created humans as male and female.  The Report acknowledges that God created sexuality as a good thing:  it makes us feel good; it creates a bond, creates trust, and draws a couple into intimacy; it heals shame; it rebuilds broken relationships; it brings relaxation and renewed energy for work; it creates an exclusive bond that God analogizes to His relationship with Israel.  The Interim Report emphasizes that good sex is exclusive sex.  It also reminds us that, along with everything else in creation, everyone’s sexuality has been broken and distorted and is in need of redemption.  It also emphasizes that our physical bodies are real and important.  As Christ’s resurrection was a physical resurrection of the body, so too will our bodies be physically resurrected, and that has weighty implications for how we use them in the present not only in our sexuality but also in our physical presence with each other in the church and how we comfort, feed, house, and embrace one another.[5]

The Interim Report is also praiseworthy for its recognition of the church’s failures.  It recognizes that the church’s response to the brokenness of our sexuality has “tragically” been silence.  Christians have too often failed to be a witness in light of the Roman Catholic Church’s abuses, reports of sexual abuse within the CRC and other denominations, the #MeToo movement and #ChurchToo response, and the explosion of the sex industry, sex trafficking, and online porn.  The Interim Report admits that many in the church loudly denounce less-common sexual sins and have “grossly mistreated” LGBT people while overlooking common sexual sins. It recognizes that the church has too often privileged sex and marriage, advancing the “unbiblical notion” that marriages and families are the “core of the church.” It also recognizes that the church has often failed to support, encourage, or offer models of Kingdom life for single and celibate people.[6]

A Series of Missteps

After building a beautiful structure for a Reformed Biblical theology of sexuality and a call for the church to improve its witness, the Interim Report makes a series of missteps when it approaches the subject of homosexuality.  Synod directed the Committee to provide a study of “how a Reformed hermeneutic does or does not comport with [revisionist readings of Scripture]” and offer “potential critique” thereof.  Instead the Interim Report sets out to refute each argument raised by revisionists with no regard for the potential of valid disagreement, recognition of ambiguity, or acknowledgement of common errors made by some traditionalists.  It assumes that there is no possibility of any legitimate revisionist insight into any of the relevant portions of Scripture, and it takes on the task of proving that position. To get there, instead of engaging carefully with the many hermeneutical studies by Christians who believe same-sex marriage can be God-honoring (commonly called “revisionists”), the Interim Report engages in a series of straw man arguments, mistranslation of Hebrew, and conflicting interpretations of Paul.

“A Suitable Partner”

The Interim Report rightly places great emphasis on the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2.  It places great weight on the significance of the text “It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.”  (NIV)  However, the Committee mistranslates the Hebrew word meaning “suitable.”[7]  The Hebrew word kenegdo is a compound word of the Hebrew words ke and neged.  The committee states that the prefix ke means “like” and the word neged means “opposite,” such that together kenegdo means “like and opposite.”[8]  This is an error in translation.

Basic Hebrew grammar dictates that the prefix modifies the word to which it is attached.[9]  Ke, properly translated, means “like” or “as if” neged, not “like and” neged.  Thus, assuming neged means “opposite,” kenegdo means “like or as if opposite.”  There can be no reasonable disagreement on this grammatical issue; the Committee simply got it wrong.

However, the Committee’s translation of neged is also faulty.  The word does not mean “opposite of.”  Instead, it means “across from,” “correlating to,” or “face-to-face with.”[10]  Thus, the better translation is that God created woman to be “as if face-to-face with” or “opposite from” the man.  The NIV translators captured the meaning of the Hebrew by translating it as “suitable helper.”  As did other translations like the KJV (“helper meet for him”), ESV (“helper fit for him”), NKJV (“helper comparable to him”), and NRSV (“helper as his partner”).  Adam and Eve’s complementarity is rightly inferred from this verse not because Adam and Eve were “like and opposite,” but simply because they were suitable for each other.

The Committee likely made this error because Genesis 2 is the only place in Scripture where kenegdo appears.  However, its meaning is confirmed in rabbinic texts, where it is used thousands of times.  In every instance, it means “similar to,” “correlating to,” or “in front of” [the object].[11]  It is never once used to mean “opposite” or “like and opposite.”  This is why no translation of the Bible interprets the word as “like and opposite.”

The meaning and implication of “suitable partner” is one of the key areas of scholarly disagreement on same-sex marriage.  The traditionalist perspective typically holds that the phrase, in connection with the rest of Genesis 2, is prescriptive and defines marriage as only between two opposite-sex partners.  Revisionists argue that, for people who are exclusively attracted to the same sex, a same-sex partner is “suitable” according to the meaning of Genesis 2.  The context of Genesis 2:18 lends credence to this argument.  After God determined that the man’s aloneness was not good, before He created Eve, He first created the animals and paraded them before him to find a suitable partner.  (Genesis 2:19-20.)  Among the animals none was to be found.  The text does not explain why the animals were not suitable, but it clearly was not because they were “too similar.”  Therefore God created another human – made from Adam himself to be similar to Adam, unlike the animals.  Given this broader context, it cannot be summarily concluded that woman’s difference from the man is emphasized in the text.  Their similarity is obviously implied, if not emphasized, in the text.

Another argument brought by the revisionists has to do with the “creational” nature of gender.  The Majority and Minority Reports of the 2016 Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same-sex Marriage, as well as the Interim Report, state that marriage is a “creational good,” not an eschatological one.[12]  Paul confirms this in Romans 7, when he tells the Roman church that marriage is part of a world that is passing away.  Marriage certainly has eschatological meaning (see, e.g., Isaiah 54, Ephesians 5, Revelation 19) but will not exist in the new Kingdom (Matthew 22).  The Bible does not say that mankind will be genderless in the New Kingdom, but Paul does say in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is neither “male nor female.”  The New Kingdom will not be ordered by the same categories by which society distinguishes people today.  Revisionists ask:  if we are living in an eschatological framework where the old distinctions are passing away, and if marriage between humans will not last in the new Kingdom, but the creational good of marriage is still available to us, why must marriage be defined by the distinction between male and female?  Put differently:  if we, as Kingdom people whose identity “transcends all other identities,”[13] are no longer bound to the creational institution of marriage, why if we elect to enjoy the blessings of that creational good must we be bound to a the prescriptive norm of strictly opposite-gender access to that institution?  The Interim Report does not address this question.

While these revisionist arguments are not conclusive and must be evaluated in light of the rest of Scripture, they raise important questions that cannot be dismissed out of hand and must, instead, be rigorously evaluated if the church is to consider taking a status confessionis position on the matter.

Not Good to Be Alone

Dr. James Brownson, Professor of New Testament Western Seminary, authored Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans 2013), which is currently the most important book on the revisionist argument from a Reformed perspective.  The Interim Report cites Dr. Brownson in an effort to fulfill its mandate to present “dialogue with, and potential critique of, untraditional conclusions” about same-sex marriage.[14]  It does not appear that the Committee sought to speak with Dr. Brownson, or to communicate at all with any of the revisionist scholars whose conclusions are challenged in the Interim Report.   Unfortunately, it instead grossly misrepresents Dr. Brownson’s arguments on multiple occasions.  In the most glaring example, on the subject of what God meant in Genesis 2:18 when He said “It is not good for the man to be alone,” the Interim Report claims Dr. Brownson argues that “all that the man really lacked was essentially a friend.  He needed companionship.”  Dr. Brownson does not make this argument; it is a straw man.  Instead, Dr. Brownson argues that God really meant what He said when He stated “it is not good for the man to be alone.”  Humans were not created to be alone.  By nature, we need a “suitable partner.”

Robert Gagnon, the leading traditionalist scholar, interprets Genesis 2:21-22 to mean that until verse 21, Adam was actually one sexually undifferentiated human whom God split into two beings, male and female, and that marriage brings those sexually complementary halves back into one human whole.[15]  This reading, which is not uncommon among traditionalist Christians, is much more influenced by Plato’s Symposium than by Scripture.[16]  This narrative, which was presented by Plato as an unserious fantasy offered in the mouth of the comic playwright Aristophanes, also completely ignores the Genesis 1 creation account, which recounts God creating both “male and female,” not first creating a human and then splitting the human in half.  The platonic argument is not only contrary to Scripture; it also creates tremendous problems for our understanding of the Imago Dei.  To claim that God ‘s image was split in two, only to be complete once the two opposite halves reunite, implies that single people do not bear the image of God unless they marry.  As the Interim Report elsewhere suggests (e.g., p. 408), this is a grievous error that directly contradicts Genesis 1.  It would also mean that Jesus did not fully bear the Image of God.  However, the Report does not engage with this common traditionalist error.

One of the arguments for same-sex marriage that is more common in Reformed circles than other traditions is the “accomodationist” argument.[17]  Accomodationism is a postlapsarian argument that, like the official CRC position, assumes that the existence of homosexual orientation in the world is a result of the Fall.  Accomodationists hold that, even though homosexual orientation is a result of the Fall, Paul’s directive in I Corinthians 7 to marry if a believer cannot remain single without burning with passion applies to same-sex marriage as an “accommodation” in the here-and-now, already-not-yet.   Paul gives this advice in the context of telling the Corinthians that marriage is part of a world that is passing away.  He advises that it is better for those with the gift of self-control not to marry so that they may devote their efforts to the Kingdom.  In other words, Paul is giving pragmatic advice to anyone who cannot avoid sin without the creational good of a suitable partner to find a suitable partner.

The Interim Report acknowledges that this is a matter of “utmost urgency” for people who are exclusively attracted to the same sex and not given a special gift of self control.  However, its solution to this “urgent” subject is perfunctory.  It dismisses the accomodationist argument, saying that every Christian has access to the fruit of the Spirit of self-control and can rely on it even without the special gift of celibacy/self control, though it may be difficult.[18]  This directive runs against the words of Jesus when he confirms in Matthew 19:11 that celibacy is a specially assigned gift and calling (“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given”) which are echoed by Paul in I Corinthians 7:17 (“Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you.”)  Paul does not advise the Corinthian Christians to stay single, even if they burn with passion and it will be very difficult, because the Spirit will give them some measure of self-control.  Instead, he identifies celibacy as a specific gift available only to some.  The fruits of the Spirit, on the other hand, were designated by Paul himself in his letter to the Galatians.  If he had intended to say that everyone had access to a sufficient measure that particular fruit of the Spirit, he would have done so.

As the Interim Report recognizes, all Christians are called to seek and practice the gift of self control.  It is not a superpower instantly granted in full the moment someone becomes a Christian.  Revisionists argue that the lifelong covenantal union with a spouse is a means facilitating and growing self control, regardless of whether the marriage is heterosexual or homosexual.  Enforced celibacy, on the other hand, is correlated to not merely “burning with lust” but also increased rates of depression and suicidal ideation.  Marriage is not a “shortcut” or an easy way out – all married Christians will agree that even within marriage, they must actively work out this fruit by practicing fidelity, monogamy, and self-denying love for their spouse.

Procreation

The Interim Report offers only one reason why Adam’s “aloneness” could only be satisfied with an opposite sex partner:  procreation.  (“He cannot fulfill the creation mandate.  Unlike the animals, he cannot procreate.”)[19]  But this reason alone, without more context, is not sufficient to support a prescriptive rule that marriage must be between a man and a woman.  The CRC in 2019 does not take the position that procreation is a required component of marriage.  No one is denied marriage for inability or unwillingness to have children.  Nor does the CRC teach, as many Christian traditions do, that Christians must avoid non-abortifacient contraceptives.  This position makes sense in view of Paul’s pragmatic directive to those with the gift of self control not to marry (which also means not having children).[20]  However, the Interim Report does not discuss the importance of procreation in heterosexual marriage, which is a crucial element of this topic.

The Committee is certainly right that the man needed more than friendship – he needed a suitable partner.  Certainly, procreation was necessary for Adam and Eve to fulfill the creation mandate.  However, given that neither procreation nor the biological potential for procreation is a necessary component of the institution of marriage today, the definition of a “suitable partner” cannot be limited to a partner with whom one can procreate.

One Flesh

The Interim Report, reading Genesis 2:24, highlights that a husband and wife become a “new one-flesh union” in which they find a “new identity and new purpose.”  It rightly acknowledges that this union has a greater meaning, illustrating God’s plan for human beings, gathered in the church, to be united in communion with Christ.  However, it fails to engage with traditionalist or revisionist scholarship on the term “one-flesh union.”

Contemporary traditionalist scholarship on the meaning of “one-flesh union” tends to focus on the concept of anatomical “fittedness” – often simplified (crassly) to “this part goes there and not there.”  The Interim Report does not comment on this extremely sexualized interpretation of the word, which is common in traditionalist scholarship.

On the revisionist side, Dr. Brownson argues that “one-flesh union” refers at least in significant measure to a new “family” or “kinship bond” that is formed when a man leaves his family and marries a woman.  He supports this claim by carefully observing the Hebrew.[21]  He also observes that Christians in same-sex marriages identify as “one flesh” and report the same lessons learned about humanity’s relationship with Christ as heterosexual couples do.  The Interim Report, strangely, insinuates that Dr. Brownson argues that “the woman will leave her father and mother and be joined to her husband as part of his clan.”[22]  Dr. Brownson makes no such argument.

He argues that the man and woman become a new family unit – a new “kinship bond” – and cling to each other.  The Interim Report claims that this is a “novel interpretation [which] seems to be based on a misreading of the lexicographical and exegetical evidence,” but the authors do not support that claim with lexicographical or exegetical evidence.  In fact, Dr. Brownson cites renowned Old Testament scholar Dr. Gordon Wenham on this subject, who has been lauded as one of the world’s best evangelical commentators.

Further, it is true that, in ancient Near Eastern practice, a man did not “leave his father and mother”; the woman did.  This patriarchic structure is evident from various stories in Genesis.  This raises the serious question:  if the Israelites did not understand Genesis 2 to mean that a man should leave his clan entirely and start a new clan, what did it mean?  The text suggests that there is a parallelism between what the man gives up when he leaves his parents and what he gains in marriage.  Obviously, the man is not leaving an anatomical sexual bond with his parents to form a new sexual bond.  The natural reading of the text is that when a man marries, his primary familial identity is untied from his parents and tied to his spouse.  The Interim Report does not explain why that new familial identity can only be created between opposite-sex partners.

Presumably, the Committee will say more on this argument in its final report, although it is limited by Synod’s mandate to be “concise” in its handling of these complex issues.  In the meantime, the Committee has provided no reason to believe that the revisionists are wrong on this subject or that the case is closed, much less reason that the traditionalist reading should be given status confessionis.

Exegesis Before Exclusion

We need a strong Reformed framework for sexuality.  A well-drafted and well-reasoned Biblical theology stands to shape the conversation for decades to come – not just for the CRC, but for the broader Church and the world.  That goal will not be accomplished by mistranslating key passages and creating straw men of revisionist viewpoints. Argument designed to reach a predetermined conclusion instead of studying Scripture honestly and in humility will not do.  Unfortunately, the Interim Report approaches each revisionist argument with something to prove.  After starting strong, it reads as an exercise in “getting to no.”  Rather than offering “dialogue with and potential critique” of revisionist conclusions, it takes on the goal of refuting them entirely without proper engagement, discussion, or due diligence.

A Biblical theology of sexuality that engages courageously and comprehensively with the “ideas of our time” may well warrant a contemporary testimony.  But granting status confessionis to the conclusions reached in the Interim Report would serve only to divide the church and boot upwards of 21% of CRC members, 14% of CRC ministers, and 35% of CRC students on insufficiently argued grounds.  And, crucially, the conclusions endorsed by Synod in 2021 will not only have immediate implications for people who are gay or lesbian or otherwise find themselves outside of the heterosexual, cisgender majority.  The church’s stance on the meaning of Biblical concepts like “suitable partner” will have real effects on how members view heterosexual marriage, look for a spouse, and decide whether to have children.

This discussion is not intended to refute all of the traditionalist arguments raised in the Interim Report.  Instead, it ought to raise important conversations about what the CRC really wants to do in 2021.  Does it want to censure a significant portion of the denomination by creating a confessional barrier to full participation in the church by advancing a flawed case for the traditionalist view?  Or does it want to take the harder road of engaging honestly and thoroughly with complex issues raised by revisionists?  Synod 2019 has an opportunity to address those questions and direct the Committee to engage more carefully and produce a study that lives up to our Reformed tradition. 


[1] Bouma, M.-L., C. Kim, J. Rayas, P. Seales, M. Tuininga, M.S. Van Leeuwen, M. Vanden Berg, J. Vanderwoerd, R. Van Manen, J. Weima, and A. Wolters, “Committee to Articulate a Foundation-Laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality”, in Agenda for Synod (Grand Rapids: CRNCA.org 2019), 403–444.

[2] Driesenga, J., and J.M. Rottman, “Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same-Sex Marriage” (Grand Rapids: CRNCA.org 2016), 47–9.  The survey of CRC members had a relatively small sample size; additional research is needed to meet the level of a quantitative study.

[3] Pew Research Center, “Attitudes on Same-Sex Marriage”, https://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/ (May 14, 2019).

[4] Bouma et al. (n. 1), passim but esp. 415–16.

[5] Ibid. passim but esp. 415–16.

[6] Ibid. 407–10.

[7] Sincere thanks to Dr. S.A. Klavan, (Magdalen College, Oxford) for identifying this lexicographical error, as well as to the members of the faculty at Oxford who provided additional insight into the Hebrew.

[8] Bouma et al. (n. 1), 417.  Technically, the lexical form of the word in question is k’neged – the o is an added pronominal suffix meaning “him.” But since the Interim Report treats kenegdo as one word, I have maintained that practice here for the sake of clarity and consistency. 

[9] “Inseparable prepositions” such as ke- are invariably prefixed to their object.  See Practico, G.D. and M.V. Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 6a, 6c-d (= 50–59).

[10] See Strong’s (= J. Strong [ed.], Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible [Nashville: Thomas Nelson 200]) H5048 with e.g. Gen. 21:16, 33:12, Ex. 19:2, Num. 25:4, Deut. 31:11.

[11] See, e.g., Mishnah Peah 1:1, Pirkei Avot 2:1, Shemot Rabbah 41:6, etc.

[12] Driesenga and Rottman (n. 2), 9–10, 63–70.

[13] Bouma et al. (n. 1), 427.

[14] Bouma et al. (n. 1), 417–8.

[15] Gagnon, R. The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press 2002), 58–61. Cf. Stott, J. Same-Sex Partnerships? (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell 1998), 33; Schmidt, T.E. Straight and Narrow? (Illinois: IVP Academic 1995), 44; Gagnon, R. and D.O. Via, Homosexuality and the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2009), 61.

[16] Plato, Symposium 189c2–93d6. On Plato’s mockery and rejection of Aristophanes’ perspective see e.g. Dover, K. “Aristophanes’ Speech in Plato’s Symposium”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 86 (1966), 41–50; ibid. Plato: Symposium(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1980), 112–14; Salman, C.E. “The Wisdom of Plato’s Aristophanes”, Interpretation 18 (1991), 233–50. On the rabbinic adaptations of Plato whereby the notion probably made it into modern Biblical hermeneutics, see Daube, D. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London: Athlone Press 1956) 72–3; Dover (1966), 42 n. 8.

[17] One of the better-known articulations of this view is Smedes, L. Sex for Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1994), 48-59, 238-43. See also ibid. “Like the Wideness of the Sea?”, http://www.jmm.org.au/articles/28623.htm (December 7, 2011).

[18] Bouma et al. (n. 1), 426–7.

[19] Bouma et al. (n. 1), 417–18.

[20] Cf. Brownson, J. Bible, Gender, Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2013) 89, 112–24.

[21] Brownson (n. 20), 85–109, esp. 87–8 with nn. 1–2. Brownson’s argument hinges on Biblical usage of the roots “DBQ” and “BŠR” (Strong’s [n. 10] H1692 and H1320, respectively). On this latter, its association with kinship, and the attendant Near Eastern practices, see further Dearman, J.A. Reading Hebrew Narratives (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2019), 152–5.

[22] Bouma et al. (n. 1), 418.

Joshua Herr

Joshua Herr is an attorney in Los Angeles and alumnus of Calvin College and Pepperdine University School of Law.