We live in the present, look to the future, and learn from the past. However, we can only learn from the past if we know the past. We can only remember that Santa was not always dressed in red and white if we know Santa's history (see part one). While knowing Santa's colors is not all that important, knowing our history as a community is essential.
Studying the movement of history brings opportunities for robust and thoughtful conversation in our present moment. Indeed, that is true when looking at the shift in the CRC's understanding of contraception between 1906 and 2003. To track that history, read part one, part two, and part three in this series.
So, what kind of robust conversations might we have? Here are a few places to jump in:
- Synod 2003 explicitly states that there is no biblical warrant against birth control. This declaration, while in line with the general evangelical movement of the later half of the 20th century (See Chapter 4 of the book Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control), is contra church fathers, reformation theologians, and almost all biblical interpretation up to 1930.
- What happened to make it possible to shift from Calvin and Luther's strong words of a double horror and a Sodomitic sin?
- Dr. Marshall raises another text around the idea of pharmacology that can also be seen as a biblical warrant against birth control—why is this not seen as a hindrance? What exegetical work did the CRC do to reject this text?
- Note the comment on Evangelical exegesis concerning birth control from Godly Seed, "…this episode exposed the limitations of Evangelical biblical exegesis. Using strained arguments, the new exegetes simply turned upside down long-settled understandings of Genesis 1.28, 38.8-10, Exodus 21.22-25, Psalm 51.5, Malachi 2.15, 4.5-6, Luke 1.44, and Timothy 2.15."
- The argument against birth control is historically rooted in the creation account, namely, the call to be fruitful and multiply (see Synod 1936 report). The idea is that marriage's central (only?) calling is to produce godly offspring. Newer Evangelical exegesis argues that Ephesians 5 (with undertones of Song of Songs) is the new creation understanding of marriage. In this understanding, marriage is to be a picture of Christ and his church; therefore procreation, while desirable, is not essential to a marriage being faithful to God. This means that sex can be enjoyed as a bodily good inside of marriage, even if procreation is not the end. What brought about the rise of Ephesians 5 as the standard while Genesis 1 was deemphasized after 1900 years?
- The move of the CRCNA from 1906 to 2003 regarding contraception may also inform a conversation the CRC has today. A couple of those questions are embedded in these quotes from the book Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church
- "…my point is to consider the contradiction. Why is it that, in barely a paragraph above, I can so casually say that these types of heterosexual questions are complex, but it takes an entire book to say the same exact thing about LGBTQ issues? Why am I unlikely to be called a heretic for giving straight Christians permission to essentially ignore two millennia of near-unanimous church teaching on sexual ethics (Note: birth control and sex without procreation as an end), but if I do the same thing for gay people, I'm likely to be tarred and feathered?
- The response goes something like this: You can't compare contraceptive sex to gay sex. The Bible is clear on homosexuality. No such clarity exists for things like contraception. Contraception is obviously a disputable matter whereas homosexuality is clearly condemned. However, "biblical clarity" doesn't always mean what many Christians think it does. More often than not, clarity tells us more about our own cultural biases and presuppositions than it does about God's Word. Indeed, this whole debate about contraceptive sex was not even disputable for most theologians historically. The procreative restrictions of the creation mandate were "clear," and the punishment for subverting this mandate was equally explicit. How is it that heterosexual Christians today legitimately believe they've somehow discovered a groundbreaking new heterosexual truth that was otherwise unknown to the Christian church prior to the twentieth century?
- In the decisions around contraception, the CRCNA shifted its understanding of what was good or central. In the birth control debate, we moved from a place of birth control being sinful to a place of it being a couple's decision. Behind both of these moves was a different understanding of what was the good the CRC was aiming for. This move raises the question in our debates, "How do we determine the central good we desire and be humbly aware that the good can shift?"
- In the contraception conversations in CRC history, at least two sides emerged. Both held that they were exegeting passages with integrity and carefully seeking God's will. Given how our positions in some areas do shift over time, how do we treat one another with kindness and our position with humility?
What other questions would you add to this list? Where are the spaces where you can have robust, gracious, and wise conversations?
Very thought-provoking! I'll be looking for spaces to discuss.
Couple of comments: first I don’t think stirring up the sinful quagmire of ecclesiastical struggles of the past is helpful in arguing a similarity to the current discussion. It seems an attempt obfuscate the clear teaching of scripture by making this comparison only helps in potentially splitting the already fragile conditions of the CRCNA.
Second, whether or not you or I, or the church decides a matter, will have no effect on my salvation. Let’s instead, have discussions the may effect our salvation, unifying instead of disunity.
Respectfully, Alex Krikke.
Thanks Larry for good reminders of how we need to be aware of how our culture and world view impacts how read Scripture. But I do not think the history of changed views on contraceptives is not even close to be a parallel to same sex. The church as it expanded in the Greco-Roman world was deeply influenced by the Greek philosophers and especially a Platonic devaluation of the body and actions related to that. That world view guided a view contrary to Scripture that sexual activity needed a justification for lesser Christians. Hence, only for procreation. Strong Christians would take a vow of celibacy for the priesthood or monastery. It also impacted what we confess in the "resurrection of the Body." Rarely did eschatology include the new earth in the promised new heavens and new earth. Platonism has been falling away thankfully in many areas of theology. Once that world view was taken away on the questions of contraceptives, the "Biblical case" against contraceptives was seen as a flimsy house of cards.
The Scriptures are quite clear on the fact God gave the give of sex for a marriage between a man and woman. It is also clear that same sex is condemned as sin and is part of porneia.
We do need to be alert on how our society has becomes hedonistic and attempt to redefine many things.
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