In the middle of March 2015, the Elders Board of City Church San Francisco announced in a letter to its congregation (and published on its website) that the elders would no longer require their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members to commit to a life of celibacy. This was big news and the occasion of much public castigation, because, while City Church is a congregation of the Reformed Church in America, it is more widely known as San Francisco’s largest evangelical megachurch. The common evangelical stance has been to admit LGBT people into membership only if they do not practice their sexual orientation. The letter reveals that City Church no longer regards LGBT sexual practice as necessarily sinful if it is practiced in the context of marriage.
Here’s the second point in the Board of Elders’ letter: “Our pastoral practice of demanding life-long ‘celibacy,’ by which we meant that for the rest of your life you not engage your sexual orientation in any way, was causing obvious harm and has not led to human flourishing.”
It’s not enough to just hand over the tradition.
I want to call attention to this “human flourishing” language. It has earned some criticism. To argue for a change in Christian discipline by appealing to human flourishing is not typically evangelical or Reformed. Such language seems more humanistic than biblical. It might even be considered irrelevant, as all Christians are expected to go against the natural claims of human flourishing by accepting and practicing certain disciplines of self-denial and dying-to-self. And where is the biblical citation for human flourishing?
A BIBLICAL ARGUMENT
Allow me to contend that the human-flourishing argument actually does have biblical warrant. St. Peter made the argument himself, according to Acts 15:10. We read that St. Paul had returned from his first missionary journey and the news was out that he was not requiring circumcision of his Gentile converts. This caused great consternation and even division in the church, so a council was held in Jerusalem to decide the matter. There was much debate. The Apostle Peter appealed to their earlier experience with Cornelius the Centurion and his household, and then he said, “Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
This, I believe, is the human-flourishing argument, although in different terms and in reverse. Peter dared to speak against the minimal requirement of the Torah, not by citing a proof text but by appealing to the experience of life under the Torah and how burdensome this yoke had been all along. I can imagine that if Peter were not one of the original 12 and regarded by all as one of the chief apostles, his argument might have been shouted down.
It’s important to understand how critical circumcision was to Judaism and Jewish Christianity. N. T. Wright calls it a “worldview marker.” To dispense with it was to threaten the whole Messianic world. And yet Peter did, and then James and all the apostles and elders agreed with him, and on no better grounds than that the Torah had always been a yoke they could not bear. It seems to me that the Board of Elders of City Church is appealing to the same kind of argument.
I can imagine two objections. The first is from conservative Dutch Reformed theology, which discounts “exemplarisch” exegesis. Just as we should not preach about Abraham in order to present Abraham as an exemplary character for us to emulate (nor Jacob nor David nor anyone), so the methods of exegesis or argument used by biblical characters are not exemplars for us to emulate in the church. That Paul does allegorical exegesis gives us no license to. And thus, that Peter appeals to something like human flourishing gives us no warrant to.
The second objection would be that the authority given to Peter is not given to the Elders Board of City Church. Fair enough. Yet, actually, in one sense, it is. While it is not for the City Church Elders Board to make a ruling for the whole church catholic, yet within its own congregation it certainly does have the same practical authority as given to the Peter (while also being accountable to the broader assembly of the classis).
In the Nicene Creed, we say that we believe in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” None of these four words is an absolute, but all four words function in quadrilateral dynamic tension with each other to shape the church. We in North America have not given as much thought to apostolicity and the apostolate as have our sister churches in The Netherlands, so we haven’t got much to say about how a local congregation is properly apostolic. (I am ruling out the recent idea that the personal apostolic office has been restored to some of our pastors.) We are used to saying that a church is apostolic when it stands within the apostolic faith. But are there not other ways, less objective and more subjective? When an elders board, exercising the historic “office of keys,” publishes a ruling on behavioral standards, admittance and acceptance, is it not fulfilling its apostolic duty? And then, in answer to both objections, how shall it not use the original apostles as exemplars?
Apostolic activity, it seems to me, is always interpretive and never simply repetitive. It’s not enough to just hand over the tradition. The apostolic tradition must always be maintained, yes, in faithful continuity and succession, but the apostle is more than a judicial officer – the apostle also is always a missionary, which means translating, interpreting, applying and even adjusting. Thus human experience must always be taken into account, even if we Reformed do not raise experience to the same level of authority as Wesleyans do. I never cease to repeat that sola scriptura is in the ablative case, not the nominative: It means “by scripture alone” instead of “only scripture.” Scripture is not our only source, but our only rule by which to measure all other sources.
At the Council of Jerusalem both Peter and Paul told of their experiences, which weighed heavily on the ultimate decision. The elders board in San Francisco reported in its letter that “our pastoral conversations and social science research indicate skyrocketing rates of depression, suicide, and addiction among those who identify as LGBT. The generally unintended consequence has been to leave many people feeling deeply damaged, distorted, unlovable, unacceptable, and perverted.”
Then the letter goes on to discuss how the elders board went to Scripture to measure all this and then made their decision. Quite apart from what the decision was, it seems to me that the method and standards of City Church was properly apostolic and biblical, even in its appeal to human flourishing.
Daniel Meeter pastors Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Pargon/Flickr under CC BY 2.0 license.