Homosexuality and Our Missional Calling
January 18, 2021
Updated January 19, 2021
16 comments 1225 views Posted by Andrew Beunk
This is posted with permission from the author. I (Rev. Andrew Beunk) served with Dr. Goheen for six years in a pastoral staff team at New Westminster CRC. Dr. Goheen has taught at Dordt College, Redeemer University College, and Calvin Theological Seminary.
The gospel is about God’s purpose for humanity and for the world that is the goal of universal history now breaking into the middle in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is about the healing of humanity, and the restoration of the true humanity where Adamic humanity failed in rebellion. And the vocation of the people of God in the biblical story is to be a preview of that true humanity for the sake of the world. Paul’s letters, for example, offer a way of being human that he saw as the true way that had been lost in Adam. It was an answer to paganism where God’s purpose for humanity was thwarted by serving idols.
One way the church manifests its true humanity is in its unity. The disunity of the church is a scandal; it is not merely an unfortunate state of affairs.
Lesslie Newbigin illustrates the difference between a scandal and an unfortunate situation by reference to the old cultural movement of temperance unions. Temperance unions, of course, were organized to oppose the consumption of alcohol. Newbigin says that if there is more than one temperance union in a town and its members are fighting, that is unfortunate, but it is not scandalous.
However, if the members of the temperance union are walking around town habitually drunk, that is scandalous. It is a scandal because their lifestyle contradicts their message. For the church disunity is not unfortunate but a scandal because disunity is a contradiction of the message that God is uniting and reconciling all things including the life of humanity (Eph 1.9-10; Col 1.19-20; cf. Jn 17.21-23).
One of the most moving statements on the unity of the church that I have seen is found in Our World Belongs to God: The Contemporary Testimony.
We grieve that the church,
which shares one Spirit, one faith, one hope,
and spans all time, place, race, and language
has become a broken communion in a broken world.
When we struggle for the purity of the church
and for the righteousness God demands,
we pray for saintly courage.
When our pride or blindness
blocks the unity of God's household,
we seek forgiveness.
We marvel that the Lord gathers the broken pieces
to do his work,
and that he blesses us still
with joy, new members, and surprising evidences of unity.
We commit ourselves
to seeking and expressing the oneness
of all who follow Jesus.
I have reproduced here the original 1987 version of the Testimony because in the original text presented to synod the words about the purity of the church, the righteousness that God demands, and saintly courage were not found. They were added because it was recognized that there are times when the Christian faith is threatened in such a way that unity is not the priority but saintly courage to protect the purity of the church and the righteousness God demands.
While I am aware that this kind of statement can be misused and applied to issues that do not rise to this level of importance—and sadly has often been used in this way—I believe that the issue of homosexuality is one such issue. Embracing homosexuality as a normative expression of human sexuality must be resisted, I believe, with saintly courage.
I am aware that there is a growing literature that is attempting to rework the traditional biblical texts that oppose homosexuality to show that, in fact, they do not stand against faithful expressions of lifelong commitment. I remember one of my professors at Westminster Seminary saying four decades ago that it is possible to use our hermeneutical method to nullify the Word of God and make it say the opposite of what it actually says. That danger is always with us; there is no such thing as neutral exegesis. Our methods do not function as a bridge that allows us to leave our subjectivities behind and cross over to a neutral space where we can objectively embrace the reality we seek to understand, as Rene Descartes believed.
That is why we need the testimony of brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and in other times in history who do not share the idolatrous spirits of our culture. This is the only thing that can save us from our parochial interpretations. There is a Chinese proverb that says: “If you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish.”
That is, of course, because the fish is always swimming in the water and it is its native environment. The fish won’t know that the water is polluted. And I submit, as has been evidenced, for example, in the Anglican church that there is near unanimity in the thriving churches of the non-Western world that homosexuality is not compatible with Scripture. And this is also true of the church through history. It may be true, of course, that the Western church in the late 20th and early 21st century finally got it right. But it could also be, as one mother commented when she observed her son as part of a marching band: “Everyone is out of step except my son Johnny.”
It is important to stress this. This issue is often presented as if there are two positions that can be defended equally from Scripture. But to present this in such a way is a position itself I would reject. Rather there is an orthodox position that carries the weight of centuries of church history and also the global church that is being challenged in certain quarters by the shrinking Western church. To choose the position that affirms homosexual practice is to depart from the history of the church and to stand against the majority of the church in the non-Western world.
It is also well known that it is in the non-Western parts of the world where the church is healthiest today. And it is equally well known that the Western church is “an advanced state of syncretism” to use the words of Lesslie Newbigin. So, this is not a matter of weighing two equally defensible positions. This is a matter of standing with, or departing from, the majority of the church globally and historically.
This issue is serious not simply because it counters a ‘sexual ethic.’ It is not simply that in creation God has established heterosexuality as the norm for human sexuality. That is true and the creational foundation of the remainder of the biblical story.
But the problem touches on the very vocation of the church. We are called to be the true humanity that the Adamic humanity failed to be. The deepest problem of the rebellion of Adamic humanity is that as religious creatures, as God’s image, they turned to serve other gods. Idolatry, in other words, is the deepest expression of human rebellion. Humanity was created as God’s image, made to serve him in the entirety of their vocation. As they did, they would then reflect God’s image. But as they turned to serve other gods the very image of God would be distorted as they reflected their idols.
N.T. Wright makes this point in his reflection on Romans 1.18-32. Here he sees Paul as drawing on a typical Jewish way of describing the problem of pagan humanity. They turn from serving God and instead begin to serve idols (Rom 1.21-23, 25). God gives them over to their idolatry (1.24, 26, 28). And it finally reaps the bad fruit of injustice and immorality (1.29-32).
Note that reference to homosexuality is not found in these last verses amidst the description of rampant pagan immorality. Rather it is found in verses 26-27. Why? Wright argues that this is because idolatry always means the distortion of the image of God as they serve idols. Homosexuality is an expression of the unraveling of God’s image in pagan, idolatrous culture. As God’s image humanity was made male and female but this is compromised deeply in homosexual practice. Let me quote Wright at length:
The underlying logic seems to be as follows. Those who worship the true God are, as Paul says elsewhere, renewed according to the divine image (Col 3.10). When this worship is exchanged for the worship of other gods, the result will be that this humanness, this image-bearing quality, is correspondingly distorted. … his point is that homosexual behavior is a distortion of the creator’s design and that such practices are evidence … of the tendency within an entire society for humanness to fracture when gods other than the true one are being worshiped. The point is this: Exchange your God for an idol, and you will exchange your genuine humanness for a distorted version, which will do you no good.
This is why the affirmation of homosexual practice is not simply getting our sexual ethic wrong. It is abandoning our vocation to embody the Creator’s intention and design for true humanity for the sake of the world. Allowing homosexual practice a place among God’s people today is to take on the idolatry of our culture rather than to be a display people that embodies another way of being human. It is precisely to abandon our mission.
To take this stand is going to require that the church double its efforts to love, welcome, and embrace our gay neighbours. The church has not been very good at this. It seems that there are conservative churches which stand fast against homosexuality but find it hard to really love their gay neighbours. And progressive churches spurred by the loveless and self-righteous attitudes of their conservative brothers and sisters adopt a welcoming stance that includes the affirmation of their homosexual practice.
In my judgement neither of these options are faithful to the Scriptures and what the church is called to be. Both must repent. God made humanity male and female, and heterosexual practice is the way of creational blessing, and it is this blessing we long for all. But Christ welcomes the broken sinner, all of us, and we must embody this welcome.
We need to be humble: all of us are deeply broken in our sexual lives. We need to be compassionate and sympathetic: all of us struggle at deep levels and in different ways with sin in our lives. It will be vital, moreover, to recognize that all of us are both sinners and sinned-against. Our gay friends are not just sinners who need to repent but many have been deeply hurt and sinned against. To acknowledge this will stir us to lovingly and carefully listen to their stories. Humility, compassion, and sympathy do not need to be expressions of humanistic tolerance; they can be expressed without abandoning God’s creational norms for sexuality.
I conclude: to affirm homosexuality is to abandon our calling to embody God’s creational purpose for the sake of the world and to call all people into the true humanity that will one day fill the earth. It seems to me that this is a time for saintly and compassionate courage for the missional righteousness God demands.
Dr. Michael Goheen
Director of Theological Education, Missional Training Center, Pheonix, AZ.
Professor of Missional Theology, Covenant Theological Seminary
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Good post. Yes, we are all broken people who need our Lord's redemption. We can not affirm the gay lifestyle or marriage. According to God's word, we can not allow gays and lesbians to serve in leadership positions within the Church, but we must love them, disciple them. They, like us, need to repent of our sins and experience our Lord's cleansing and forgiveness. For Paul wrote, "...for such were some of you." Thank God that by His word and Spirit we can change.
Did Dr. Goheen specifically write this for the Network? If not I would be curious to find it in it's original context....
Dr. Goheen wrote this with an eye to CRC pastors, and the broader CRC community. It's first publication is in The Network.
I personally find Dr. Goheen's post to be a straw-man argument. He sets up a weak "affirmational" case and then knocks it down as if that settled the matter. The truth is--regardless of my personal views--there are many affirmational arguments that are much stronger than what Dr. Goheen suggests here.
Perhaps the clearest example of this "straw-man" setup is this quote: "I am aware that there is a growing literature that is attempting to rework the traditional biblical texts that oppose homosexuality to show that, in fact, they do not stand against faithful expressions of lifelong commitment."
In this quote, Dr. Goheen totally biases his readers by saying that people who are looking at the scriptures and interpreting them affirmationally are "reworking" the biblical texts. Of course, this would be very contrary to our hermeneutic and contrary to the clear prescriptions of Scripture themselves. My experience, however, is that while, yes, there are some people who seem to try selectively rework scriptures to their own ends (in both traditionalist and affirmational camps), the best arguments come from those with a very high view of scripture who are not at all trying to "rework" scripture, but are, instead, honestly, prayerfully and in an academically rigorous and hermeneutically sound way trying to wrestle with what the scriptures actually mean -- both in their original setting and for us today as well.
In short this article, with all due respect, is, IMHO, logically flawed and disappointing in its lack of depth and nuance.
"Now I take a very low view of 'climates of opinion'. In [their] own subject every [person] knows that all discoveries are made and all errors corrected by those who ignore the 'climate of opinion'."
~ The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis
What do you mean by, the "climate of opinion"? Does that mean by what is politically correct or by what is biblical?
As I read the article by Dr. Goheen, one of his key points is that, since the "global church" holds to the "traditional" interpretation of bible passages supposedly about homosexuality, we ought to stick with that same view. However, my understanding is that the reformers (Calvin, etc.), and C.S. Lewis, and logic itself all argue against going with the "majority" simply because it's the majority.
1. The Reformers said that, contrary to the habit of the Roman Catholic Church at the time, we should NOT give particular weight to the "tradition" of the church, but that ONLY scripture mattered.
2. Lewis, as pointed out in this quote, recognizes that correcting old and incorrect beliefs ONLY happens when people don't worry too much about what "the majority" thinks.
3. The rules of logic tell us that an argument based on what "the majority" thinks is no argument at all. It is akin to the old illustration, "If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?" No? Well maybe that's because what "the majority" believes has no relevance whatsoever to what is actually right/correct.
It seems to me that Goheen made a much more nuanced argument about the historical and worldwide church than you are attributing to him. I find it hard to read Goheen saying "That is why we need the testimony of brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and in other times in history who do not share the idolatrous spirits of our culture" and to believe your implication that he is saying we should go " with the 'majority' simply because it's the majority." Goheen goes on to say "It may be true, of course, that the Western church in the late 20th and early 21st century finally got it right." Is it not more fair to read Goheen not as simply bowing to precedent but rather noting that the 21st century Western church may have cultural blinders and a hubris that is unhealthy? It has been said before: Scripture alone, but not alone with Scripture. It seems to me that Goheen is not arguing against Sola Scriptura but is rather arguing against cultural and chronological snobbery. It is also worth noting that the Reformers were arguing for a return to historic understandings before they were perverted over time by the Roman Catholic Church. They did not seek to promote an entirely new invention, but they were binding themselves to a historic understanding insomuch as that understanding comported with Scripture.
Interestingly, your warning against the "culture of opinion" is equally applicable to those who seek to change the historical understanding of Scripture (and it's not just surrounding the ethics of sexuality, but biblical anthropology as well). There is a modern popular "culture of opinion" that undeniably influences that effort. As a matter of fact, proponents of revision openly embrace and reference the modern "culture of opinion" in their effort to reverse historical understandings of scripture. It's part of their appeal to "new understandings" and "new discoveries in social science" and their appeal that the church is loosing the acceptance of and appeal to the popular culture because of its insistence on the sinfulness of homosexual practice.
As several folks have been engaging with Goheen's point that we need to pay attention to the global church, let me offer this related observation.
I cannot think of any doctrine / ethic / interpretation that the global AND historic church has been more unified on than the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Across traditions, denominations, cultures, Eastern church, Western church, charismatic, mainline, the church has agreed on the definition of marriage. Not so for other matters--eschatology, sacraments, doctrine of God, doctrine of Christ, pneumatology, to list a few. These have all brokered division, debate, and disagreement throughout church history. But not marriage (please correct me if I'm wrong--yes, some debates revolved around polygamy but it was always challenged and eventually, remarkably in fact, given the plain reading of the OT, condemned). I'm not aware of any time in the history of the church when people were reading the Bible and arguing for an affirmation of same-sex marriage. A strong argument can be made that the issue of male-female marriage has been one of churches most commonly held beliefs.
Because some will link the church's changing position on slavery and woman in leadership with a changing position on marriage, let me add this observation. The church was not historically unified on these issues like it has been on marriage. Tom Holland, in his book Dominion, makes this point very clearly. Going back well into the early centuries of church history, church leaders were arguing for the emancipation of slaves and the inclusion of women in church leadership. Unlike the redefinition of marriage, these issues have had a long history of debate.
It is only in the last 50 years or so, shortly after what many have called the sexual revolution, that a very small minority of today's global church has even entertained the idea of affirming marriage between two men or two women.
The voice of the global church AND the historic church is weighty and should not be dismissed with the phrase "climate of opinion."
I find the 'global church' and 'history of tradition' conversation to need to be more nuanced. I find a few complicating factors quickly rise to the surface upon my first-blush consideration.
One of those complications is that many of us have experienced a dissonance regarding our traditional theological views BECAUSE we have encountered faithful same-sex married Christian couples who have been together for over a significant time and seem to be flourishing on all fronts. NOTE: this doesn't mean we have abandoned Scripture; rather the dissonance has driven us to return to Scripture to re-examine our traditional perspective with renewed attention (one example of the helpfulness of re-examining traditional conclusions more thoroughly is seen in the work of the 1973 report regarding 'Sodom and Gomorrah' and 'sodomy').
Here's the complication - same-sex marriage isn't legal in sooooooo many countries - so how can this dissonance be experienced, and without the dissonance, one must at least ask if there is a curiosity to re-examine a traditional perspective and its biblical hermeneutics? Here is a PEW article that gives a glimpse (https://www.pewresearch.org/.../global-snapshot-same-sex.../) - but also note that in MOST of these countries with same-sex marriage, the legalization is recent (so again, how much dissonance will Christians be experiencing)?
So one possible conclusion would be that the history of tradition AND the global church are in (general, not universal) agreement because, for most of human history and in most places today globally, same sex marriage is simply not legal.
Thoughts about that?
One does not need a legalization of marriage to observe committed homosexual relationships, though I will agree that legalization does proliferate their visibility. Many scholars have shown (contra modern critical scholarship) that committed homosexual relationships were actually known and not particularly rare in Paul's time.
Also, the word "flourishing" in your plea needs some sussing. Frankly, I can make a very compelling argument that I am flourishing when I engage in all sorts of sin, depending on how one defines (or perhaps more accurately who defines) flourishing. In the end, to begin by positing that homosexual couples are flourishing is begging the question if one defines flourishing as living within God's will and not some notion of living the good life.
Hey Paul! Nice to see you chime in.
Your argument reminds me of the argument for allowing younger and younger children to transition. If more children are freely allowed to change their gender identity and are universally accepted in society, then their suicide rates will drop, their mental health issues will decrease and, presumably, they can "faithfully" live their lives.
But more to your point, extending the logic you lay out, what about those who are polyamorous? Should polyamorous (three or more adults living in a life-long, deeply committed, (Christ-centered?) union) "marriages" be accepted, presumably they too could be examples of "faithful" polyamorous Christian family units. If removing the male-female binary from marriage is ok, why not the two-ness?
As I see it Paul, your experience of "faithful same-sex couples" drives you to reinterpret (revise) Scripture, placing the authority of human experience at the same level as (or higher than) Biblical authority. I am sure I will be able to show you those who experience gender transitioning and those who experience polyamorous love who truly believe they are faithful to Christ and his inclusive love. Will we then be compelled to go back and reinterpret (revise) Scripture on this too? If you can interpret the Bible to affirm same-sex marriage, you can employ that same (new) hermeneutic to affirm transgenderism, polyamory, and much more.
Eric - thanks for the reply. It is precisely your concern around the need to 'discern' flourishing that caused me to put in the word 'seem.' I do not know the inner life and know I am not the final judge of these things. On the other hand, it seems that in many stories of Scripture, we are drawn in to places where faith is flourishing in places where the community was not expecting it - so I also would not want to assume that 'faith could never flourish there' and have that assumption close off the community from discerning what may be the work of the Spirit.
Andrew - I think if the CRCNA is going to engage in dialogue around this very controversial topic, it will be helpful for us to be careful with our words. In marriage counselling, in controversial conversations at my work, and also notably in the facilitation training for the "Challenging Conversations Toolkit" - in all those places, it seems helpful to speak from the position of 'I' and not speak in generalizations or accusatory ways about others.
In your reply to me, you say: "As I see it Paul, your experience...drives you to reintepret (revise) Scripture, placing the authority of human experience at the same level (or higher than) Biblical authority." That single statement seems to be accusing me of both revising Scripture and elevating human experience at least parallel to, but perhaps higher than Scripture. As a minister in the CRCNA and a steward of God's Word, I consider these serious statements, indeed serious accusations. I am sure I have made mistakes along the way in how I've interpreted Scripture - indeed, I got a really poor grade on a sermon at Calvin Seminary that exposed to me what biases I brought to that text. And I believe that 'we are in this together' - so I was thankful when Dr. Greidanus and Rev. Roeda served me well by gently and honestly 'calling me into a conversation' about how I had mis-handled God's Word. I invite you to do the same.
But here, it seems that you are making accusations that, as far as I can tell, have no basis in my post itself. My sense is that I was clear that experience can be a cause to return to Scripture to 're-examine it with renewed attention.' I imagine, if you listen to your own life, you can find experiences of your own that have driven you back to Scripture, to re-examine with renewed attention. For me, something as basic as sensing a call to be a minister was one of those experiences - it called me to re-examine Scripture with renewed attention.
I also get concerned about the way you put side-by-side the words reintepret and revise. Twice you wrote 'reinterpret (revise) Scripture.' I think we are called to question our interpretations of Scripture, and re-evaluate them. I appreciated that the 1973 report 42 on Homosexuality did this fairly clearly around the Sodom and Gomorrah story; it challenged what in many places of Christianity was the 'traditional' interpretation of that story, and wondered if the story was not so much directly about homosexual acts (dubbed 'sodomy' in history) and more widely about sexual violence. So...yes, I believe we are called to continually return to Scripture and evaluate our human interpretations of this revelation of God. But putting the word 'revise' as a parallel to 'reinterpret' seems to me to be a problem, especially when the direct object of the verb is Scripture. I have not seen people 'revise Scripture' in this conversation. All those I have read (DeYoung, Sprinkle, Webb, Hays, Vines, Gushee, Achtemeier, etc) have been exceptionally clear that they are working with Scripture as we have received it. None of them have 'revised Scripture' (at least in how I understand that word to mean: alter, amend, modify; there may be a more 'British' use that I think I encountered in Harry Potter that comes closer to re-examine or study carefully). But in our CRCNA climate, it feels to me that saying people are 'revising Scripture' is most commonly heard as 'altering Scripture.' I haven't seen this by any listed above, though some have clearly 'reinterpreted Scripture.' I simply do not think that using those words as synonyms in this particular situation is helpful (maybe in Britain, if I'm interpreting Harry Potter correctly).
And I think the connecting or paralleling of the two words in our context could lead us to something that concerns me: we could forget that our interpretations are fallible. To me, this is one of the concerns in the 'science' area of the Human Sexuality Report. It rightly notes that science is a fallible tool that we use to 'interpret' God's revelation in creation. Creation is the revelation - but our interpretations may be wrong. But I wish a parallel statement was made about 'hermeneutics and exegesis.' I wish the report would have followed up by noting that our hermeneutics and exegesis are fallible tools that we use to interpret God's revelation in Scripture. Scripture is the revelation - but our interpretations may be wrong. To use the image from the report, we may sometimes need to check the prescription of our glasses - we may not be seeing as clearly as we think.
Paul - you and I are having this conversation in two different threads. Because I replied to this comment, at least in part, on that other thread, I'll include part of what I wrote there, here:
"Forgive me, Paul, if I came off as accusatory. That wasn't my intent. I did say, "as I see it", meaning it looks to me like the authority of human experience is being raised to a place that is causing certain texts to be reinterpreted, re-examined, though I think revised is a better word. The definition of marriage being the most obvious. You seem to be re-examining Genesis and Jesus' own words on marriage in the light of human experience. I believe the Bible's definition of marriage is clear. And the global, historical church has believed that for a very long time. In my opinion, the Bible itself leaves no room for us to say marriage can be between two men or two women. So, as I see it, in order to change that definition, you have to elevate human experience to a equal or higher authority than Scripture. That's what I'm suggesting....in an "iron-sharpens-iron sort of way." :) "
Paul I heartily concur with the importance of words and 'I' language. Your friendly admonishment has been received.
I agree that on many issues over the course of church history the church as reinterpreted/revisited various texts of the Bible and come to different conclusions. Semper Reformanda. Amen. But as I see it, this has always taken place, especially on ethical matters, only when the Bible itself opens that door for a reinterpretation.
That was certainly true for the issue of holding slaves and women in leadership. These issues have a long history of debate in the church, and in both cases, the Bible itself opened the door for reinterpretation. I would argue that this was true for a new understanding of Genesis 1 & 2--but I won't go into that here. This imho is a vital point: the Bible itself opened the door for reinterpretation.
Now to the Scripture's understanding of / definition of marriage. I cannot see anywhere in Scripture where a door is opened to redefining marriage or expanding marriage to include same-sex marriages. The institution of marriage is most clearly taught in Gen. 2 and in Mk 10 and Matt.19, though of course Paul explains it (Eph.5), and it runs as a basic theme throughout the Bible. In what text / passage, Paul, do you see the idea of marriage including two men or two women being opened up or affirmed?
This is why, perhaps mistakenly, I used the word revised. It feels to me like Scripture's teaching on marriage is being revised. I'm fine with using the word 'reinterpreted'. My question is where does the Bible itself invite that reinterpretation?
Because, and I say this respectfully, from my perch it seems that if the Bible doesn't at least open the door to that reinterpretation, then it must be human experience or 'psychology' (general revelation) that is being elevated to require Scripture's reinterpretation.
And one more thing, Paul, I do look forward to your response to my claim that this emphasis on human experience will also have a direct impact on how some people interpret the Bible to affirm transgenderism and/or polyamory.
It is disheartening that we are so afraid of homosexuality in the church. I find that many of these articles are one sided. The fact of the matter is that many people who are homosexual do not choose this lifestyle/identity. By calling it part of the the sexual revolution is extremely misguided. People coming out and saying they are homosexual is them saying that that is part of their life and it is part of who they are. They do not come upon this decision lightly. Using polygamy is a horrible comparison. The church often chooses ministries that they are comfortable with. The church has no problem setting up ministries for people who have committed crimes and have been imprisoned. Because it is a lot easier to point out what they did was wrong and that they hurt people. (Don’t get me wrong these ministries are essential.)
People who are homosexual are often afraid to come into a church because the know that they are going to be judged and don’t want to hurt people. Young people struggle hiding this part of their life because they know that they can’t be accepted into the community that they grew up in. People who try to change the way they are often have higher rates of depression and can become suicidal. I have people in my circles who want nothing to with the church because they know they are not going to be accepted.
How many people that support this article have people in their circles who are homosexual and can truthfully say that they have been truly welcomed as children of God into the Church?
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