The Human Sexuality Report (HSR) coming to the Christian Reformed Church Synod this June recommends that the church condemn “homosexual sex” (among other things) as a violation of our Reformed confessional understanding of Christian living, and worthy of formal church discipline. This has prompted me to reflect on the question of which human behaviors we condemn and which we condone.
The dividing line between condemned and condoned behaviors doesn’t stay in the same place for very long. On any given issue in the church, some arrive at a “condone” position earlier than others, while others cling longer to a “condemn” position. The progression from sharp differences to polarization to mutual condemnation to a church split is too common. Ironically, the group whose strenuous objections caused the church split in the first place usually ends up within a few short generations condoning the very practice that it had formerly condemned so vehemently. That should give us pause. The different positions are based on scripture, yet when we appeal to the Bible to discern the dividing line on divisive issues, I wonder if we are making the wrong assumption about how the Bible speaks to those issues.
The Reformation re-affirmed the primacy of Scripture in determining faithful Christian belief and conduct. All elders and deacons in the CRC, upon their installation to office, sign what is called a “Covenant for Officebearers,” in which they acknowledge their submission to the Bible “in all matters of life and faith.” “Faith” here refers to what we believe and “life” to how we live. What do we mean when we say that Scripture is the final authority “in all matters of life”? The answer to that bears directly on the HSR’s recommendation of condemnation.
Christians often find themselves searching the Bible for a word from God on matters about which the Bible is either silent or not authoritative at all. That’s equally true in cosmology, geography, and morality. A few examples from the realm of morality illustrate what I mean:
- Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:5 and in Colossians 3:22, “slaves, obey your masters in everything,” have been quoted as biblical support for the practice of slavery.
- Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 on women’s dress in church have been used as proof that God wants women to keep their heads covered in church.
- Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32 on grounds for divorce have frequently been interpreted as God’s prohibition on divorce in all cases except for adultery.
Note what all these examples have in common.
First, although there are still those who agree with these conclusions, most Christians do not. If we know people who do agree with them, we regard them at best as misguided, or at worst, as Jesus regarded the Pharisees, whose slavish devotion to rule following resulted in his condemnation, “You neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11 and Matthew 26).
Second, these conclusions result from a misuse of the Bible, as if mining it for rules of virtuous behavior is the right way to learn how God wants us to live. The Bible is not that kind of rulebook.
What do we really mean then, when we say that the Bible is authoritative in “all matters of life”?
I suggest that we mean this: the ethical directive for human life embedded in the entire Scriptures is summed up in the words “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind … and love your neighbor as yourself.” As Jesus said, the law and the prophets hang on this twin commandment (Matthew 22). Even the Ten Commandments derive from it. Prohibitions against killing, stealing, adultery, and all other commandments do not precede the central love command, nor even stand alongside it as additional rules, but derive from it.
Consider two examples:
- Imagine a crowded public place where a mass shooting has just begun. The police tactical unit arrives swiftly, and a police sniper trains a rifle on the gunman who is still in the act of slaying random people. What word do you think God whispers into that police officer’s ear? Do you think he says “Thou shalt not kill! You know that killing is a sin”? Or does he say “Shoot! Stop him! Don’t miss!” What do you think?
- Many Christians in occupied Europe during the Second World War sheltered Jews from the Nazi genocide. They did so at great risk to themselves and their families. If confronted by a Gestapo officer demanding to know whether there were any Jews hiding in the house, what word do you think God whispered in their ears? Do you think he said, “Thou shalt not bear false witness! You know lying is a sin”? Or would he say, “Keep a straight face, and tell him ‘Of course not’”? What do you think?
Admittedly, it might seem strange to consider the shooting of a mass murderer as an act of neighborly love, but very few will consider love for the people being murdered to be nullified by the love we owe the murderer. Context clearly matters in how we interpret the application of the love command. As odd as condoning killing sounds, this is exactly the reasoning that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to participate in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Admittedly too, these are examples of rather extreme and unusual situations, but they are real. While we all agree that killing and lying are almost always violations of the love command, we also recognize that such rules are not universally true. Whenever the love command appears to contradict another cherished rule, the former always overrules the latter. Every biblical command is subordinate to the central command to love our neighbors as ourselves. There are no exceptions. That includes Paul’s commands to women to keep their heads covered, commands regarding Sabbath observance or prohibitions on eating food offered to idols, or any other command found in Scripture. And that must hold equally for biblical prohibitions on LGBTQ behavior.
When we confess that scripture is the ultimate authority in life, we are saying that the central love command must always be the star by which we navigate our lives. Anything else would elevate some other command to equality with the central love command.
We often hear that breaking one or another rule is “sin.” Theft is a sin. Lying is a sin. Killing is a sin. And so on. But the moment we start cataloguing human behaviors under categories of “sin” and “not sin,” we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that sin is only our repeated failure to live by the love command, a failure to which we are all congenitally prone, a failure which wrung from the apostle Paul the famous cry “O wretched man that I am . . .” (Romans 7), a failure from which we are impotent to save ourselves.
Obviously, the love command requires application in all the myriad situations of our lives. We can, and do, err in our applications, sometimes by honest mistake, sometimes by failure to imagine the consequences of an action, and sometimes by deluding ourselves that our motives are pure when they actually are warped by self-interest. We create good social customs and rules – written and unwritten – as guardrails within which the exercise of love can flourish. Although some of these rules appear to have an enduring validity, they are always temporal and imperfect human expressions. At their best they point beyond themselves to the unchanging central love command. Over time we have found that rules we once thought consistent with the love command aren’t really, or perhaps, aren’t anymore. I remember our pastor in a catechism class in 1968 bringing his knuckles down hard on my 13-year-old head when he perceived that I was being inattentive. Few would object then, thinking corporal punishment was a divinely approved way of disciplining children in love. Now we don’t think so anymore. That’s an improvement in the rules we live by, isn’t it?
I am not suggesting that we can simply disregard all rules, biblical or otherwise, that we don’t like. We must attempt to understand how they were meant to function as guardrails in their times and if they still work that way. In truth, we are always reconsidering, revising, and even rescinding former rules, which is the observation with which this essay began. That’s a good thing.
There are so many passages in Scripture that clearly teach the primacy of the love command. Paul gives a succinct version of it in the middle of his magnificent passage on Christian living in the letter to the Romans, concluding it with these words:
“The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:9-10).
Paul’s final words in this passage are revealing. One essential proof of our love for our neighbors is in the lack of harm it inflicts on them.
Exactly what is the harm being done to anyone’s neighbor by the relationship of an LGBTQ couple? On the contrary, the harm we do to these brothers and sisters when we ostracize and condemn them is obvious. The HSR advises that the church declare that these brothers and sisters have no place in the church or the Kingdom of heaven. Shame on us if we make such a proclamation.