There is a growing trend in the CRC to call for unity. Those on opposite sides of the LGBTQ opinion spectrum are often seen as doctrinaire blowhards, while the soi-disant moderates occupy “common ground,” and they often call out to everyone around them: “Quit bickering. Unity isn’t unanimity. Love is the greatest commandment. The Bible calls us to be unified!” But this is a crucial mistake. The question that needs to be asked is, “What kind of unity does the Bible call for?”
The unity the Bible demands in our situation is not the unity of these moderates. There are two kinds of biblical unity. 1. Sacrificial unity that gives up what I want for what you want. 2. Doctrinal unity that makes no sacrifice. While the Bible calls for both, only the second applies to the LGBTQ question. Before I try to explain this, let’s look at the two types of unity:
- Sacrificial unity: When the Bible tells people to be sacrificially unified, the context is always in terms of getting along in day-to-day life (not doctrine). The climax of Paul’s call to unity might be Ephesians 4:32, a verse at the end of a call to unity in a book all about unity. It says to, rather than be bitter or angry, “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, graciously forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has graciously forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). Sacrificial unity, in the Bible, is about forgiving wrongs, not doctrine (for a caveat, see three paragraphs below).
- Doctrinal unity: When the Bible tells people to be doctrinally unified, the context is always in terms of believing the same things. While sacrificial unity is about forgiving another so that we can all get along, doctrinal unity is about convincing one another so that we all behave in the same way (or to use the biblical phrase, “live in one accord”). Closely following the verse above about forgiving one another, Paul says, “For this you know with certainty, that no one sexually immoral or impure or greedy, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them” (Eph. 5:5-7). When it comes to doctrine, the command is the opposite of No. 1 above. That is, don’t sacrifice to be unified but double down and divide.
The CRC must pay attention to both of these types of unity. We must distinguish between them in the life of the church. Is the unity we seek sacrificial day-to-day unity, which is usually in the life of a local church? Or is it doctrinal unity we seek, which is often hammered out by synods? Remember, there was no thought that Jacobus Arminius could exercise a local option in the name of unity at the Synod of Dort! If we seek sacrificial unity where the Bible tells us “not to teach a different doctrine,” we’re in trouble (1 Tim. 1:3).
People often point to the issue of meat sacrificed to idols as an example of different doctrine under the same roof or the use of a local option, but that is not the case. In such situations, the biblical command is to assume the stricter stance so that all are in accordance: “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again—ever, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13). When it comes to doctrine (e.g. which dietary laws we should follow) the biblical impetus is not to exercise a local option where idol-meat eaters eat here and non-idol-meat eaters eat there. This would be sacrificial unity on the part of those whose conscience bothers them. Paul does not command them “to get over it”—even though they’re wrong! Rather, Paul says we should all eat the same meat. In other words, if the doctrine is non-essential (such as meat sacrificed to idols) the biblical call is to opt for the stricter position and to be unified in practice—not to exercise a local or “third option.” How much more is this the case with an essential doctrine, the aberration of which is said to be a sin in the New Testament, like that of human sexuality?
As the CRC prepares for Synod 2024, we should look to Synod 0001. Paul recounts the story of disagreement in the early church in Galatians 2. He says that Peter was enacting a local option. He thought it was OK for Jews to eat with Gentiles, but when the Jews came to town, he would capitulate to their doctrine that it was not OK. He would eat with the Jews and let the Gentiles eat alone. If Paul were like so many in the CRC, he would allow for Peter’s position, or the Jewish position, and say “Let’s have a conversation about it.” He would be afraid of hurting the feelings of Peter and company. But Paul wasn’t like that: “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11). Paul strongly opposed Peter’s local option because the Jews and the Greeks must be unified—they need to eat at the same table. They should be so unified that individuals should be willing to restrict their diets, without theological necessity, so that they can all sit together. There was no “local option” because local options divide. Paul commanded that all Christians should believe the same thing. If they don’t and enact a “local option,” First CRC will not be truly unified with Second CRC.
As all in the CRC are aware, the CRC has the “local option” in its DNA—namely, women in office. While this was seen by some as a necessity after decades of debate, I think it has left the door ajar for much of the “third way” thinking we see today. That is, in the name of unity many people today are saying we should allow for a local option such that First CRC can ordain active LGBTQ people and Second CRC is free to not do so. This is parallel with our current practice regarding women in office. The elephant in the room is the question, “If it’s working so well with this, why not with that?”
The point I am trying to make is that the unity that “third way” thinking has produced isn’t biblical unity. Eric Van Dyken has pointed out that the CRC’s dual position on women in office isn’t as balanced as it might seem. For example, if a delegate who believes it is a sin to ordain a woman (yes, such strange people do exist in the CRC—I am one of them) is delegated to synod, he will likely experience the following: women delegates, women pastors leading worship, women pastors serving communion, and women in office celebrations. Van Dyken says that for those who believe women in office is wrong, “convictions are violated, even provocatively, over the course of a whole week of synod.”
On the other hand, I recently spoke with a female associate pastor in the CRC who said members of her congregation leave when she preaches because they don’t believe in women in office. She said, “It’s a strange kind of unity.” I’ve also heard female pastors recount the experience of having male officers in the church record protest the woman’s presence in the meeting. The women I’ve talked to have usually said these things don’t bother them. They’re tougher than I am. This is a strange unity indeed.
Why is it so strange? Because it’s not biblical. The Bible knows nothing about a unity that says, “You worship here, and I’ll worship there. Let’s keep disagreeing and not fully fellowship.” The unity that the Bible calls us to is to believe the same things. If we can’t believe the same things about LGBTQ inclusion, the biblical impetus is not to allow for a diversity of opinion. Rather, the call is to do what denominations have been doing since the Reformation—make a decision! And, might I add, live by it.
In closing, some might ask whether there are any doctrines we can disagree on while still worshiping together. Of course there are. How do we determine what these doctrines are? It is simple: they must be doctrines that can be “under one roof” without violating anyone’s conscience. This is clearly Paul’s point.
For example, I cannot, at this time, sit under the preaching of a woman in good conscience, without feeling like I am violating (or at least being complicit in the violation of) 1 Timothy 2:12 and other passages. On the other hand, I can sit under the preaching of a premillennialist (I’m an amillennialist) without violating my conscience because in doing so, I am not doing anything in violation of God’s Word. The Bible does not say “I do not permit a premillennialist to teach or exercise authority over a man” or, “do not be partakers with premillennialists.” But as I read the Bible and try to follow it with God’s gracious help, it does say that I shouldn’t be a partaker (meaning fellow church member, but I can still be a friend!) with those who live in open sin and that preaching is to be done by ordained men. That is the conscience that I and many others have. The CRC should strive to either change our conscience or the denomination’s ecclesiology so that none have to live the Christian life with a burdened conscience. To fail to do so is to “sin against Christ” (1 Cor. 8:12).