Some argue that that is simply against the rules God clearly laid down in the Bible—and, let’s face it, those rules do seem pretty clear. Others respond that the biblical writers never envisioned such a possibility as same-sex marriage, nor did their pagan neighbors. The Bible stands against destructive, dehumanizing sexuality, and we now envision a new possibility in the God-given gift of marriage.
With these differences, one group believes it is imperative that the Christian Reformed Church uphold the 1973 decision that same-sex activity is sinful. The other group wants to revisit that decision in the light of a fuller understanding of same-sex attraction and a different way of understanding the biblical texts that seem to prohibit it.
On a practical level, at least from the numerous overtures I’ve seen, it seems to me that that CRC is not ready to change the “rules” laid down in 1973. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the movement toward more acceptance of LGBT members and recognizing their marriage is going to fizzle anytime soon.
It is interesting to see how Pope Francis recently dealt with the matter of divorce and remarriage in the Roman Catholic Church. While he did not change the rules or doctrines behind them, he called upon local churches to deal with divorced members with pastoral sensitivity. In other words, rather than setting up a bruising battle over long-standing doctrine and ethics, he chose to recognize the differences of approach within the church, with an emphasis on the exercise of theological and pastoral judgment and mercy at the local level.
It may not be possible or wise to change the “rules” (1973) at this time, nor to pursue discipline against groups or congregations that find the rule onerous. This requires both sides to give up the desire to “win” or insist that others agree with their position. Instead it requires everyone to take route of forbearance for the sake of the unity and health of the CRC.
The fact is that the CRC has allowed for a wide array of local practices over the years and has generally shown a distaste for disciplining congregations that stray from the denominational norms. I believe it is possible, at least until there is broader agreement, to affirm basic principles while allowing for some differences in local practice—but only when all sides are careful not to offend the others by insisting on a universal agreement in local practice.
This model has some biblical precedence. In Romans 14, Paul describes a serious dispute over food sacrificed to idols that threatened to split the church. His solution was for forbearance on both sides. I am not arguing that the issue is necessarily equivalent to ours, though there are some striking similarities, but that the solution was centered in Christian love and unity and demanded self-sacrifice on both sides.
Let’s say a congregation ordains a deacon who is in a committed same-sex relationship. There could be an uproar in the classis if that congregation would then insist on delegating the deacon to a classis meeting. Forbearance means they would not insist on that “right.” On the other hand, some, hearing of this ordination, could insist that synod discipline the offending congregation. Forbearance means they would not pursue that “right.”
This whole issue is not, first of all, about rights, but about the responsibilities of maintaining the Christian community in love and unity—the practice of forbearance.