Over at my Reformed Church in America blog things have once again been abuzz over homosexuality. After much talk about the need for more dialogue and appeals that this issue should not divide us, I felt compelled to post a response. Here it is.
The phrase status confessionis if often bandied about in the RCA. It’s Latin for “confessional status.” Although it came out of specific Lutheran doctrinal debates in the 16th century, the term carries a broader connotation. It means that a particular doctrine is essential to who we are as a church. If something is status confessionis it means this is a make or break issue. It means that the church will not tolerate others views on this matter. It means that this is not an indifferent matter or one on which we can agree to disagree. It means that if we are to be faithful in confessing the gospel we must confess this.
Homosexuality is a status confessionis issue. If we tolerate the doctrine that says homosexual behavior is a gift from God, we have tolerated too much. We must confess, always with love and graciousness, that homosexual behavior is a sin and we must not allow our churches, our ministers, our schools, or our professors to say otherwise.
The quick reply to this last paragraph will be, “Hold on just a minute. Why are we singling out one sin and making it a litmus test for our denomination? This is an important issue, but not as weighty as the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the resurrection. Those are the kinds of issues that are status confessionis, not acts that some people claim are sinful.” This line of reasoning sounds plausible, but it’s not exactly true. In adopting the Belhar Confession (which we will almost certainly do by June), the RCA is saying that the specific sin of racism is a status confessionis issue. I disagree with some elements of the Belhar (and have spoken in opposition to its adoption), but I certainly agree with its strong rejection of racism. In the 1980s, the RCA broke off ecumenical relations with the Dutch church in South Africa because of apartheid, effectively communicating “No matter how great your sermons may be and how wonderful your doctrines of grace, if you are a racist, you have not understood the gospel.” The same is true of homosexuality. No matter how many other things we may hold in common, if you affirm homosexual behavior, you have not understood the gospel. This is one issue on which we must not compromise. We cannot agree to disagree. We cannot hold hands together in mission.
Those last few sentences may sound too strong. A bit over the top. Maybe we should allow for different interpretations on this issue, you think to yourself. Maybe we are making too big a deal out of this. Maybe this isn’t a make or break status confessionis kind of issue. But consider:
• Homosexual behavior is repeatedly and clearly forbidden in Scripture. The order of creation informs us that God’s plan for sexuality is one woman and one man (Genesis 2). This order is reaffirmed by Jesus (Matthew 19) and Paul (Ephesians 5). The Old Testament law forbade homosexual behavior (Leviticus 18, 20). Paul reiterates this prohibition by using the same Greek construction in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1. Paul condemns same sex behavior (among many other sins) in Romans 1. Jude in his epistle links sexual immorality and the “unnatural desire” present in Sodom and Gomorrah.
• Our confessions speak against the sin of homosexuality. “We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul, and God wants both to be kept clean and Holy,” Heidelberg Catechism Answer 109 states. “That is why [God] forbids everything which incites unchastity, whether it be actions, looks, talk, thoughts or desires.” 1 Cor. 6:18-20, where homosexual behavior is listed as a sin, is cited as a Scripture proof. Likewise, Q/A 87 quotes from 1 Cor. 6 to the effect that no unrepentant sinner is going to inherit the kingdom of God. Unrepentant sin is no light thing. Moreover, Belgic Confession Article 29 says in connection with the marks of the true church, “As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or the left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.” Christians are not expected to be perfect. But as the Spirit works in us, we will be marked by fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, including sexual sin and ethical righteousness.
• If 1 Corinthians 6 is true, unrepentant homosexuals (along with unrepentant thieves, drunkards, idolaters, adulterers, revilers, swindlers, and those who are unrepentantly greedy) will not inherit the kingdom of God. Heaven and hell literally hang in the balance. Of course, homosexuality isn’t the only sin out there. But no one else that I know of in our denomination is advocating idolatry, drunkenness, or stealing. Yet, many are advocating homosexuality. It is not an overstatement to say that such advocacy is in danger of leading people to hell. This isn’t because homosexuals are worse sinners than all the rest, but because unless we turn from our sin and fight against it in faith–with victories and defeats to be sure–we will face God’s wrath. By tolerating the doctrine which affirms homosexual behavior, we are tolerating a doctrine which leads people farther from God, not closer. This is not the mission Jesus gave us when he told us to teach the nations all that he has commanded.
• For 99% of church history, Christians have said unequivocally that homosexual behavior is immoral. No one had to write a confession about it, because it was an implied status confessionis. No church would have tolerated a difference of opinion, let alone practice, on this issue.
• The overwhelming majority of our brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world understand that homosexuality is a sin. Further, they understand, as African leaders in the Anglican church could testify, that this is not an agree to disagree kind of issue. We can love those who disagree. But we do not hold hands in mission and dialogue ad nauseum. We call homosexual advocates to repent much like we call perpetrators of racism to repent.
• If we tolerate homosexual behavior and advocacy in our denomination, we undercut the efforts of men and women in our congregations who struggle–in faith and repentance–to overcome same gender attraction. Affirming homosexuality denies the grace of God to change sinners and our most entrenched and confusing desires (1 Cor. 6:11).
As I’ve tried to point out over and over again, the position that says, “let’s stay in dialogue; let’s not make such a big deal about this; let’s move on from this distraction; we have bigger fish to fry” is asking someone like me to give up everything on this issue. You are asking me to act like this is not a big deal. You are asking me to affirm that this is a small ethical issue that does not strike at the core of anything. Agree to disagree sounds like a humble third rail, but it is a subtle way of telling conservatives that homosexuality is not a status confessionis issue and we are wrong to think that it is.
There’s a reason these blogs [the RCA blogs] heat up with the debate over homosexuality. The reason is twofold. One, we can’t seem to agree on this important issue. The history of the church is full of instances of raging controversy. Some of them have proved to be silly. Some of them have proved to be essential. In this post I have tried to argue why this debate is not silly, but eternally serious. Two, the RCA refuses to speak and act consistently on this issue. As long as the RCA continues to push dialogue, as long as the RCA tolerates groups like Room for All which work contrary to the stated beliefs of the General Synod, and as long as the RCA holds hands with denominations like the UCC and the ELCA this controversy will continue. It is the never ending dialogue and equivocation of the RCA that prolongs this controversy. The two sides–passionately for the legimitization of homosexual behavior and passionately against–are mutually exclusive in this debate. And to argue that they are not is, de facto, to side with one camp over the other.