In a recent article for this very Network, Syd Hielema wrote:
Like many preachers I know, I often have stomach cramps on Sunday morning while going through a final sermon review before taking the pulpit. The calling to declare the Word of the Lord to a community is overwhelming, and it puts me trembling on my knees.
Discerning the biblical word concerning homosexuality puts me in that place too.
“That’s silly,” you may say. “The Bible is crystal clear!”
I suspect that the elders who excommunicated Angelina Grimke from the Third Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1829 because she pursued the abolition of slavery considered the Bible to be crystal clear too. I suspect this because she belonged to a congregation in the Reformed tradition, and our tradition (thankfully) takes Scripture very seriously.
Hielema then goes on to argue that this historical event invites us to take up a posture of what he calls holy uncertainty (meaning that we could be wrong about homosexuality the way the elders were wrong about slavery, so it’s best not to do or say anything with any certainty). While I understand fully the attractiveness of Hielema’s uncertain posture and appreciate the concern for individual experience that lies behind it, the full historical context of the story actually compels us to assume not a posture of uncertainty, but rather a posture of humble, holy certainty.
While Hielema focuses entirely on the elders of Third Presbyterian, opting for uncertainty because he fears we all might be wrong like them, he fails to note the compelling fact that Angelina Grimke, presumably a Reformed woman who took scripture very seriously, also found the Bible to be crystal clear on the subject of slavery. She was not alone. Other Reformed folks who took scripture very seriously like Jonathan Blanchard, abolitionist and pastor of Sixth Presbyterian Church in Cincinatti and later founder and president of Wheaton College, found the Bible to be unambiguous on the topic. Just like the elders at Third Presbyterian, Grimke was filled with holy certainty - so much holy certainty that she was willing to go through the process of discipline all the way to excommunication. No one in this historical example is filled with uncertainty.
I am thankful for the holy certainty of Angelina Grimke. I am grateful for the holy certainty of Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and the rest of the Clapham Sect and the movement of Evangelical abolitionists they led. I am grateful for the holy certainty of Jonathan Blanchard and his Presbyterian congregation in Cincinnati. I am grateful for the holy certainty of my own Quaker ancestors who refused to own slaves in South Carolina and who, therefore, could not economically survive there. Their holy certainty prompted them to immigrate to Indiana and then empowered them to risk their own safety to participate in the underground railroad that ran through the Richmond, Indiana area. I am grateful that, in that moment of external cultural pressure when it would have been much easier and less costly for Grimke, Clarkson, Wilberforce, Blanchard, and the Evangelical and Quaker abolitionists to sit in uncertainty, they opted for a posture of holy certainty instead.
The reality was this: along with slave ships, a cultural tidal wave was flowing back and forth over the North Atlantic. There was societal pressure, economic pressure, and political pressure to justify and approve of the slave trade and slavery itself with whatever means available. The elders of Third Presbyterian Church, along with many others, yielded to that pressure. The fact that Third Presbyterian (or any other Presbyterian or Reformed church) was Reformed offered no guarantee that they could not be swayed by these powerful cultural pressures to abandon their Reformed hermeneutics and exegesis, performing all manner of hermeneutical and exegetical acrobatics to justify their position in the process. Nor was their being Reformed any guarantee that they could not be swayed by those forces to reject the historic teachings of the universal church. After all, the same words of Paul that convinced Grimke and others that the walls between slave and free were meant to be broken down were available to Christians on both sides of the issue. Likewise, the teachings of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century that quickly solidified the Western Church’s teaching into a uniformly anti-slavery edifice (routinely enforced by papal pronouncements from the early 1400s on – prior to and during both the North Atlantic slave trade and the Reformation) were available to all. The simple fact is, the elders of Third Presbyterian of Charleston and many others (Reformed and otherwise) refused to follow Jesus into the costly discipleship he demanded of them and instead capitulated to the cultural forces sweeping around them, rejecting the teaching of the historic Church in the process.
On the other hand, even though scripture is more ambiguous on slavery than homosexuality, and the church's witness has not be as unified on slavery as on homosexuality, and even though the tidal wave of cultural pressure inviting justification was just as strong as that which presses against us, Grimke, Clarkson, Wilberforce, Blanchard, other Evangelicals, and the Quakers followed Jesus in costly discipleship and assumed a posture of holy certainty. They were able to find holy certainty for the sake of their fellow image bearers. In that holy certainty they went head-to-head with the cultural forces to which many Christians had capitulated, and they worked tirelessly to bring the North Atlantic slave trade, and eventually slavery itself to an end.
Our duty to love and submit to God (and his sovereign authority exercised through his Word), and our duty to love our neighbors (opposite sex attracted, same sex attracted, and those living with gender dysphoria alike) demands holy certainty in this moment no less than it demanded holy certainty of Grimke, Clarkson, Wilberforce, Blanchard, and all the abolitionists in the moment of the North Atlantic slave trade. True, our holy certainty must be firmly built on humility which recognizes our own falleness and our absolute dependence on the Holy Spirit as we seek to discern how to best love all of our neighbors. This is not to split hairs; there is a difference. Uncertainty invites waffling. It invites avoiding the hard work of thinking clearly and carefully. It finally invites avoiding the frightening necessity of taking a stand. On the other hand, true humility demands clear and careful thought and, finally, the frightening necessity of taking a stand.
Humble, holy certainty calls us to the deepest, costliest kind of love and compassion for all: a love that announces both the need and the opportunity for whole-life repentance to all; a love that proclaims the costly, redeeming, reconciling, transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit to all. Holy certainty calls us to lament and certainly to weep with those who weep. Holy certainty calls us to be broken in, with, and for the brokenness of our neighbors near and far. Holy certainty calls us to share also in their repentance and in their salvation. Holy certainty calls us to form communities of shalom that care for and love both single and married: those content in marriage, those struggling in marriage, those content in singleness, those struggling in singleness.
But if we waffle in uncertainty now, we leave our neighbors, our children, our friends, our cities, our culture without the good news of the redemptive, transformative love of Jesus Christ. We leave them enslaved to having to create their own identities (LGBTQ+ or heterosexual) rather than offering them the possibility to die wholly to self and be found alive in Christ’s resurrection life. We leave them captive to a narrative and moral imagination that tells them that they are their sexuality. We leave them captive to a story that tells them the greatest fulfillment is sexual fulfillment and that without marriage they are less than human (as Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergfell so clearly communicated, in stark opposition to the centuries-old Christian monastic tradition of celibacy and in opposition to scripture's eschatological vision). In uncertainty, we leave our neighbors slaves - slaves to sin, slaves to self. Hielema invites us to leave our lamps darkened under our bushel baskets while the slave trade picks up pace all around us, packing our neighbors, our children, our culture into its holds, carrying them off into greater darkness and slavery yet. If there is a time for humble, holy certainty, it is now.