The report of the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance Regarding Same-Sex Marriage is among the most pastorally sensitive, theologically sure-footed, and analytically acute Christian Reformed Church synodical reports ever written. The committee has thought for itself and thought deeply, mining the resources of Scripture and the Reformed tradition, at no point mimicking what others have said.
A Daunting Mandate
The mandate given to the committee by Synod 2013 was daunting. In 2005, same-sex marriage became the law of the land in Canada; in 2015 it became the law of the land in the United States. The task assigned the committee was to give pastoral guidance to the members and clergy of the CRC on how to deal with this new situation. The committee was instructed to frame the guidance it offered within the context of the synodical report of 1973 on homosexuality and the synodical report of 2002 on pastoral care to homosexual members.
The 1973 report declared that whereas homosexual orientation is not sinful, and persons of such orientation are to be welcomed within the church, sexual relations between persons of the same sex are sinful. The newly formed 2013 committee was not to discuss the pros and cons of those declarations. Taking them as a given, it was to offer guidance on how to “apply the biblical teachings reflected in the Acts of Synod of 1973” in light of the legality of same-sex marriage and also to provide guidance on “how to communicate these teachings in a truthful and gracious way within North America.”
Synod 2013 further instructed the committee to follow the “shepherding model” pioneered by the Faith Formation Committee, a synodical committee established in 2007. It was “to consult extensively with pastors in Canada and the United States, members of different ethnic minorities, and others who have a broad range of experience and expertise . . . to both inform and provide feedback regarding the work of the committee.” The committee carried out these instructions by convening dozens of listening sessions in Canada and the U.S. and by commissioning the Calvin College Center for Social Research to conduct surveys. Information gleaned from these surveys is included in the committee’s report.
Among the many striking things one learns from the surveys is that only 65 percent of CRC ministers, only 44 percent of CRC students, and only 41 percent of CRC members generally embrace the official CRC position that “gay Christians are called to lifelong celibacy” (Report, p. 52). There is a serious disconnect between the official position of the CRC on homosexual relations and the convictions of the majority of its members. It is my view that this situation makes it imperative that the denomination revisit the argumentation and conclusions of the 1973 report.
Establishing a Framework
The committee does an admirable job of establishing a framework for the pastoral guidance it offers. I judge that that framework, that way of thinking about the issues, is at least as important for members of the church as the detailed advice the committee offers; accordingly, I will devote most of my response to presenting that framework.
The committee emphasizes that marriage is both a civil and an ecclesial institution, and that these two are distinctly different. Civil marriage is a legal status conferred on a couple by a duly authorized civil official. Ecclesial or Christian marriage is a covenantal relationship sealed by a minister. Typically both members of the couple declare themselves as Christians. Two atheists can be joined together in a civil marriage; they cannot be joined together in an ecclesial or Christian marriage.
What makes things complicated and confusing is that we use the term “marriage” for both the civil and the ecclesial institution, and that, in North America, a minister when marrying a couple typically acts both as an ecclesiastical official and as a civil official; he or she performs both a “church wedding” and a civil marriage.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada and the U.S. means that the state in both of these countries has removed one of the conditions traditionally required for a civil marriage to be performed, namely, that members of the couple be of opposite gender. The committee emphasizes that this change in the criteria for a civil marriage does not imply that denominations have to change their criteria for performing an ecclesial marriage.
At this point many of us want to ask whether, from a Christian perspective, it was right for Canada and the U.S. to legalize same-sex civil marriage. Though it was not part of the committee’s mandate to address this question, and though it refrains from offering an answer, it does give some helpful suggestions for those who locate themselves within the Reformed tradition to think about the matter.
Think in terms of the Kuyperian concept of principled pluralism, the committee suggests. In our society there are distinct authority structures operating in different spheres of society, each possessing distinct God-given rights, tasks, and authority within its sphere. Church, state, and family are three such spheres. In the case before us, the state has the authority to establish the criteria for a civil marriage; the church has the authority to establish the criteria for a Christian or ecclesial marriage.
So how should those who are Reformed Christians think about whether or not it was right for the state in Canada and the U.S. to change the traditional criteria for civil marriage by legalizing same-sex marriage? The committee suggests that we think in terms of justice. Nobody today disputes that justice requires that the state marry two atheists. Does justice also require that the state marry persons of the same gender who want to be married? There will be differences of opinion among us as to how that question should be answered, but that’s how the issue should be framed.
I have spent my time up to this point explaining the framework that the committee establishes for the pastoral advice it gives on how to deal with the many issues that the legalization of same-sex marriage raises for members of the CRC, and for members of a good many other denominations as well. What about attending a same-sex wedding? What about participating in a same-sex wedding? What about providing services for a same-sex wedding?
Those issues are important. But given the 1973 report on homosexuality, the most difficult issue posed to members of the CRC by the legalizing of same-sex marriage is this: what does a CRC congregation say to a same-sex couple who have been married in a civil ceremony and who want to participate in the life of the congregation?
The 1973 report requires that the church say to them that to be members in “good standing” they must be celibate. I personally doubt that there will be many same-sex couples who accept this condition. But if there are some who do, they are in good standing and are to be treated as anyone else in good standing.
What about those who do not accept the condition but still want to participate in the life of the congregation? The committee wisely resists propounding hard-and-fast rules at this point, or at any other; instead it offers pastorally sensitive advice on how to exercise the love of Christ in this complex and painful situation.
Those who want to know the committee’s advice on the sizable number of issues it considers can access the report in the Agenda for Synod 2016; it is also posted at crcna.org/sites/defautl/files/same-sex_marriage.pdf.
Those who want a summary of the committee’s advice can find it in the News story “Pastoral Guidance for Churches Regarding Same-Sex Marriage” by Gayla R. Postma.