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Body, Mind and Soul – Study Guide on Human Sexuality

The much anticipated report of the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) charged by the 141st General Assembly to “prepare a joint study guide on the topics of human sexuality, sexual orientation and other related matters raised in the overtures to be posted on the church’s website by the end of October, 2015 and that congregations, sessions, presbyteries and synods be invited to share the result of their conversation with both the Committee on Church Doctrine and Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) prior to March 31, 2016.”

  1. The Presbyterian Church in Canada Re-examines Its Theology of Sexuality

After spending most of the month drafting, editing, illustrating and critiquing the report, we now have the result of their labours. Emily Bisset of Calvin, Toronto, was the writer and her husband Alex prepared the glossary. Of the six on the design team three were female, three male. Two came from Nova Scotia, Two were Korean but neither was in the Han Ca orbit. There was a single ruling elder. And finally Ian Shaw Convener of Church Doctrine, who spent the first month of his retirement on the project served as convener of the Church Doctrine Committee. There was obviously a huge amount of work done to prepare the report and no expense was spared on editing, lay-out and art work. For a small denomination the report appears professional and attractive though one wonders at the appropriateness, given unfortunate stereotypes, of pink as the predominant colour.

For the next half year the life and ministry of the denomination will be focussed on sex. With a denomination that, according to 2014 statistics, lost 3076 members this past year, bringing the total to an all-time low of 91,343. One wonders if this is good stewardship of limited resources and energies. The response has been that only as the Presbyterian Church in Canada settles once and for all the issue of homosexuality (as though it had not done so repeatedly in the last two decades) can we see real growth and have respect from the culture. That remains to be seen. Or if, given the fragility of the precarious theological and ethnic balance of our church, there could be a catastrophic collapse of the denomination. No matter what happens, the Presbyterian Church in Canada will never be the same.

  1. Sister Churches Have Also Re-examined Their Theology of Sexuality

The Study Guide needs to be placed in the context of the three denominations that have the closest links with Presbyterian Church in Canada: the Church of Scotland, the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church USA

On 20 May 2013 the Church of Scotland General Assembly approved a majority recommendation from its Theological Commission on Same Sex Relationships and the Ministry that “An individual who is of homosexual orientation and living in a Civil Partnership would be eligible to be ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament or to the Diaconate and be inducted or introduced to a pastoral charge or appointment, on the same terms and with the same status as any other minster of Word and Sacrament or member of the Diaconate.” That recommendation has gone down under the Barrier Act and at this 2015 General Assembly it was announced it was now the law of the Kirk. Several of the largest congregations in the denomination, such as St George’s Tron in downtown Glasgow, as well as my family’s rural congregation (Kinloch on the Isle of Lewis) have since left. The Russian Orthodox Church has severed all links saying that the Church of Scotland has “rejected Christianity and is preparing their followers to accept the Anti-Christ.”

The position of the United Church of Canada was articulated by their 32nd General Council in 1988 affirming “that God’s intention for all human relationships is that they be faithful, responsible, just, loving, health-giving, healing, and sustaining of community and self. The implication is that these standards apply to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.” That decision accelerated the decline of the denomination, as chronicled in Phyllis Airhart’s recent perceptive The Church with the Soul of the Nation, from a peak of over a million in 1964 to today’s less than 450,000.with a United Church closing every Sunday of the year. In Trenton the historic King St. Methodist Church has been sold to be a mosque and Islamic Centre, all three United congregations in the city merged into one. And one gay Moderator in 2013, Gary Paterson, was succeeded by another, American-born Jordan Cantwell in 2015. She was elected this summer on the fifth ballot over Professor John Young of Queen’s who in a sharply contested vote was the second highest both years, Estimates vary as to what percentage of LGBTQ are in the United Church theological colleges, some claiming that they now constitute a majority in several centres.

Since the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted so-called “marriage equality” and officially opened its leadership to homosexuals in a relationship there has been a dramatic haemorrhaging of its membership which, if anything, is accelerating as the implications of such a revolutionary step become apparent. Since 2012, when the Pittsburgh General Assembly set the church on a so-called “progressive” course the church has had an loss of 5% of its membership per annum, almost 200,000 in total the last three years. It now numbers less than half what it was in 1983 when the “Southern” and “Northern” churches joined. And the losses have been largely among the dynamic congregations characterized by demographics that the rest of the denomination would die for. And many of the churches founded by the once dynamic missionary vision of the church – such as Brazil and Mexico, both larger today than their parent – have severed their links with the denomination that birthed them.

What is keeping the machinery financially viable is the hefty ransom sums paid out to presbyteries as congregations head for the door with their properties. In the last three years more congregations have joined the “million dollar club” – churches that have paid for their often heritage buildings at least a million dollars. The list starts with 8.98 million for Menlo Park Church in Silicon Valley paid to San Francisco Presbytery and spirals on down to rural congregations buying back historic buildings, some with the graves of their ancestors in the churchyard. The pain is incalculable. It is all reminiscent of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 which I researched in my A Kirk Disrupted, the biography of Charles Cowan, the businessman who helped create the Free Church of Scotland. Cowan established (with others) a clergy Sustentation Fund as the new denomination built 700 churches and 400 manses. The real cost, however, was incalculable: Scottish religious life was never the same after 1843,

  1. How The Presbyterian Church in Canada Was Led To Re-examine Its Theology of Sexuality

In 1996 in Charlottetown, in response to a situation in Montreal Presbytery, the 121st General Assembly approved a statement on the church’s view of homosexuality which was at the time thought to be the definitive response to the issue. But those who had gone on record in opposition would not be silenced. Indeed many were aware that both at Knox College and at 50 Wynford Drive there was a desire to identify with the United Church of Canada on the issue. As a commissioner to the 2002 General Assembly I was aware of the groundswell of opposition to the 1996 statement..

During the summer of 2014 there was obviously a great deal of caucusing going on so that in the month of September presbyteries such as East Toronto, Waterloo-Wellington and Calgary- Macleod were confronted by items on their agenda with proposed overtures all written and ready for passage. Almost on cue, the September 2014 Presbyterian Record featured editorials from Publisher and Editor David Harris and Senior Editor Andrew Faiz informing Presbyterians that gay ordination was ”The Will of God.” As in 1925, editors of the Record became significant players in the future of a denomination of which the Publisher/Editor is not a member.

By the time the General Assembly met in June in Vancouver there were no less than 41 overtures coming from across the church about human sexuality that later took up 41 pages in the current Acts and Proceedings. These overtures came from presbyteries and congregations across the country. Body, Mind and Soul – Study Guide on Human Sexuality is the response mandated by the 141st General Assembly, surely one of the most dramatic and emotional gatherings of its kind in the history of the PCC.. How the Study Guide was compiled and prepared in such a professional manner, speaks volumes for their dedication and commitment. The deadline of the end of October was met.

The Report is an impressive document almost overwhelming in its complexity and size. One wonders how many Presbyterians in the pew will follow its contents, and reflect on its presentation and rise to the challenges it presents. There seems reluctance for many congregations to get on board and take the Report seriously. There is a desire, it would appear, to let the whole matter go through, get what the so-called inclusivists want, and get on with the survival of the local congregation. Because we are an aging denomination few have the energy to turn aside and spend the weeks and months required to analyse, interact, and respond to its contents. Besides, with the drift of the culture, there is little heart for a confrontation with what is seen as an inescapable reality. Add to that the pain families feel with gay members wanting acceptance and love, and the church’s record of rejection and ostracism, there is no desire to open old wounds. But there is an urgent need to study the report, listen to what it is saying, and respond responsibly.

As events have unfolded some unsettling questions arise. The third question at an induction in the PCC asks whether the inducted minister will “follow no divisive course, but to maintain according to your power, the unity and peace of the Church?” The Presbyterian Church in Canada, no matter what the final outcome, has been (some would say irreparably) divided and sundered. The caucusing, the politicking, the mustering of support for one side or another, has come perilously close to divisiveness and has done our denomination no good. Add to that the almost total lack of discipline or moral accountability – the third mark of the church according to the Reformation – and you have a seriously dysfunctional body. For many who have loved and served the Presbyterian Church in Canada it is a sad day. There needs to be on every side repentance and prayer not as a manipulative device but coming into the presence of a just and holy God who grieves over the state of the church that He sent His Son to die for. In short, the PCC desperately needs to have a Spiritual revival.

  1. Is changing our sexual standard for leadership a threshold issue?

So how important is the church’s view on human sexuality? Is it an issue on which the church rises or falls, as Luther is reputed to have said about the doctrine of justification? Is there a reason why denominations are so adversely affected when they go “the gay route”? Or do other factors (such as rising secularism in the West) come into play? Can we learn from the past? Many of us have watched as the denomination has fudged on so many issues – even the bodily resurrection of our Lord was denied at an Easter service in one of our churches as reported on the front page of the Kingston Whig Standard (13 April 2004). It was never denied nor and the preacher was never called to account. “What’s the big deal about human sexuality – I know what I believe and that’s what matters” some say. An implicit congregationalism is common today throughout the PCC, especially one realizes among evangelicals. And today denominational labels are increasingly meaningless.

Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville Kentucky (the fourth largest in North America), provides a wakeup call: “Advocates of the new sexuality demand a complete rewriting of Scripture’s metanarrative, a complete reordering of theology, and a fundamental change to how we think about the church’s ministry.” [3] His answer to the question of how important the Biblical view of sexuality is to cite John Calvin[4] and say that there is no aspect of Christian truth that is not impacted by a nonbiblical view of human sexuality. So many other doctrines hinge on it: our anthropology, our Christology, our own humanity, our eschatology. Sexuality is the hub of a great wheel of Christian truth with so much radiating out from it. One could apply the lines from W. B. Yeats “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,”[5] And as always we think of the next generation, our legacy. Is sexual confusion a gift we wish to bequeath to those who come after us?

  1. How Objective Is The Study Guide?

The Study Guide claims total objectivity in its presentation of the argument: “This study guide is not designed to state a position on the issues before us, nor is it supposed to support one particular position or another.” (p 7) That claim however is questionable as there is a definite bias in its selectivity of the facts and the way in which the case is presented. The reading list provided is shockingly one-sided, Professor Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics is generally conceded to be the definitive book on the subject but it absence from the book list shouts out of bias and prejudice. Gagnon is a respected professor at Pittsburgh Seminary of the PC(USA) and his arguments against the so-called “gay agenda” are premised on unassailable Biblical grounds. On a more approachable level there is Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? DeYoung deals with the question both from a Biblical and pastoral point of view, as minister of a large formerly Reformed Church in America in Flint, Michigan now PCA. Both books should be required reading for any thoughtful person wanting to make up their minds on this vital issue. What is also missing from the list are the increasing number of books advocating celibacy for homosexual Christians who wish to live an obedient life, such as the deeply moving 2010 Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill.

While certain books are excluded from the bibliography two books are included. Wendy Gritter’s A Generous Spaciousness (to which we will return) is cited three times. But there are no less than twenty-six references to Professor James V, Brownson of Western Seminary, Holland, Michigan, of the Reformed Church in America. Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationship, has been variously described as a game-changer, a “go-to text” on human sexuality. Brian McLaren of Emerging Church is fulsome in his praise on the book’s jacket,

Brownson was forced (as so many who change their views) to re-examine his conservative approach to homosexuality when his son came out as gay: “The traditionalist treatment of sexual orientation seemed shallow and unhelpful to my wife and me when we looked at our son,” he wrote.[6] While the anguish of parents under such circumstances is understandable, it hardly makes for a balanced and objective examination of the evidence. One fears that others may have embraced his approach because what is he writes is what they want to hear. The publication of the book in 2013 has had a dramatic (and divisive) impact on mid-western American Reformed circles. Brownson once taught for a year at Calvin College.

Other scholars have been less fulsome in their praise. After almost a year of study and a 71 page irenic but negative review Andrew Goddard of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Cambridge England states (among many other objections) that “In his discussion of the classic texts, Brownson simply reproduces a number of standard but dubious ‘revisionist’ arguments and provides no new exegetical insights.”[7] Professor Preston Sprinkle says in his review in the Bulletin for Biblical Research that Brownson’s arguments “rest on shaky historical and exegetical grounds.”[8] Brownson has imposed a twenty-first century feminist “complementarity” view and applied it to the first century. As Sprinkle demonstrates convincingly Brownson’s knowledge of classic homosexuality is faulty. The Study Guide’s reliance on Professor Brownson to rest its case raises many questions and make it suspect when it rejects two thousand years of the church’s Scriptural interpretation

  1. The Methodology of the Study Guide

“The Study Guide,” we are told, “is based loosely on a historical method of theological reflection credited to the Methodist Reformer, John Wesley. As such it has been called the Wesley Quadrilateral and invites Christians to examine issues of theological significance through the lens of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. The Report on Human Sexuality used this framework as well.” (p. 85) The Wesley Quadrilateral is a familiar instrument in the toolbox of sexual revisionists. It was at the heart of the legal argument as Grace Methodist Church of Hamilton, Bermuda, was sued for its property by the United Church of Canada, which had jurisdiction over the Wesleyan Methodist churches on the island. The congregation had left the denomination because of its perceived departure from its statement of faith in regards to gay ordination. The use (or abuse) of the Quadrilateral became a key issue as the case proceeded

Wesleyan scholar Dr Victor Shepherd, now my colleague at Tyndale Seminary, was called in as an expert witness at the trial and stated his case: that the “Quadrilateral” was not a word used by Wesley but was actually crafted in the 1960s by Professor Albert Outler of Dallas. Outler, a friend of Shepherd’s, later regretted its misuse to advance his denomination’s sexual agenda. He countered that, according to Wesley, Scripture is one of the four ‘sides’ in the Quadrilateral and has the authority to ‘outvote’ the other three (tradition, reason and experience) taken together.  For Wesley, Scripture and tradition (always in this order) were sources, reason and experience are tools. On the basis of Shepard’s testimony on 1 June 1998 Bermuda Supreme Court Judge Norma Wade-Miller ruled that “current doctrinal standards of the United Church of Canada [are] at variance with the doctrines of the 25 Articles of Faith of John Wesley” The congregation kept its $2 million property. Shepherd, then a United Church minister, joined the PCC and, like so many others who changed denominations at that time, now feels betrayed.

There are several other puzzling bifurcations in the Report. “Traditional” and “progressive” are placed alongside of each other as alternative (and equally acceptable, one assumes) readings of selected (and selective) Biblical texts. Each word has unfortunate connotations: “Traditional” suggest dull, stodgy, stuck in the past. If you have to use a word to describe the interpretation of the church over the past two millennia why not use “orthodox” or even, less felicitously, “historic.” For “progressive” with its sense of hubris and advanced thinking try “innovative” or “experimental” – though perhaps “creative” might be most appropriate. Certainly creativity is the only description for the creative interpretation of Genesis 3. “ God created the first human being out of the earth, not as a person specifically of the male gender, but as a creature of the earth.” (p. 41) The heavens weep.

  1. Sexting the Scriptures

“For Presbyterians, as we consider the issues of human sexuality before us at this time, the most important question is how we read the Bible.”(p. 15) That’s a strange, but unfortunately all too common, way of stating the dilemma now facing the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Rather, the issue should be rephrased to ask whether we are prepared to accept the Bible as “the only infallible rule of faith and practice,” to submit to its commands and obey its instructions. Basic to our Reformed view of Scripture and the meaning of worship, is the centrality of the Law of God. For centuries the reading of the Ten Commandments was a part of every Reformed liturgy, following John Calvin’s counsel. The church I pastored in Boston for a decade was started in 1730 as the “Church of the Presbyterian Strangers.” It had, in its original location on Federal St., two large wooden boards, one with the Apostles’ Creed, the other the Ten Commandments. They were read in every service. Now they lie, dusty and unused, in the back balcony of the gay Arlington St. Unitarian Church, a successor of my original congregation. We eliminate God’s law from our worship and rigor mortis sets in.

“There are seven specific texts that reference same-gender sexual activity” (p. 23) we are told. Proof-texting has often been used by those who think they are honouring Scripture (an decried by fundamentalist by those who disagree with them) as they make a case for Biblical standards of morality. The so-called concordance method always leaves the defenders of historic Christianity at a disadvantage. The case for marriage as between a man and a woman does not initially or ultimately rest on selected Bible verses. To limit it to that means ultimately the case is lost as people chip away at verses and question traditional interpretations. No, the case for Biblical sexuality rests on the whole sweep of Biblical truth, all of redemptive history.

That is why the comment (frequently stated elsewhere and repeated here) that “It is important to note that Jesus never mentions homosexuality nor makes reference to same-sex sexual activity” (p. 26) is so fatuous. In response to the Pharisee ‘gotcha’ question about divorce Jesus puts all sexual activity in the total context of redemptive history, going back to creation and the Creator’s original purpose. “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mt 19:4-6) Once we start arguing about the possible interpretation of a single verse we have lost the divine plot.

If the Bible is indeed focussed on the grand theme of human redemption, my sexuality has been redeemed in the coming of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God who took our “frail flesh” and dwelt among us as the virgin-born Son of God. As John tells the Christmas story: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (1:14) This means, according to the Council of Chalcedon that, as J. I. Packer explains, “First in Mary’s womb, and then in this world, and now forever in heaven, the Son lives life through the mind-body complex that constitutes humanity—bypassing none of it, even when drawing directly on divine power or intuiting directly the Father’s mind and will. Without diminishing his divinity, he added to it all that is involved in being human”[9]

Dr Packer, one of the Twentieth Century’s great Reformed theologians, was suspended in 2008 from the Anglican Church of Canada by the Bishop of New Westminster, He had walked out of Synod in 2002 when permission was given clergy to bless same sex marriages. “Why did I walk out with the others?” he was asked subsequently. He replied: “Because this decision, taken in its context, falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth.”[10]

Indeed Biblical sexuality affirms and confirms our Christology. The incarnate Son of God hung naked on a cruel cross, to redeem every aspect of our humanity and anatomy. As Paul says in Romans 8, the whole creation longs for release, groaning as a woman undergoing the pangs of childbirth, And believers are not exempt from this travail, for we also await the redemption of our bodies, (Rom. 8:23) Our bodies are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” as Paul describes them (I Cor. 6:18). That is why in that same passage he speaks of all sexual sins “committed in the body” as grievous denials of our claim to be Christ’s women and men, a denial of His sanctifying power and a flagrant contradiction of the redeeming grace of our incarnate Lord. “

Our concept of human sexuality also impacts our ecclesiology, our doctrine of the church. A watching world needs believable evidence of the credibility of the gospel’s redemptive power in the expression of our sexuality. “Do you not know,” Paul asks the Corinthians, “that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.” That is why “porneia,” sexual sin of any and all kinds, is so roundly condemned by Jesus and all the writers of the New Testament. The very integrity of the gospel narrative, and the redemptive power of the cross they see as being at stake.

  1. Sex and Schism

“Drawing attention to different ways of interpreting the scripture and understanding our theology is not intended to contribute to our polarization on this topic, but rather to bring us into conversation with each other. (p 7) “Conversation” is the key word, and there are many practical suggestions as to how the conversation can proceed, based on experiences at the 2015 General Assembly. “Indaba” was first used in African tribal disputes – a time for hearing what your enemy is thinking and seeking understanding and respect in spite of differences. It was used by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to bring together North and South Anglicans and heal the divisions within worldwide Anglicanism. Unfortunately the African churches found it manipulative and imperialistic, an attempt to bring people into line without resolving basic issues of Biblical faithfulness and submission to Scripture. Instead of easing the pain of disagreement it exacerbated it and today, as Justin Welby (Williams’ successor) may discover at Lambeth in January the breaches may well be insurmountable. The tragedy is that anger and vengeance take over, as witness the emptying of St. John’s Shaughnessy in Vancouver, a twenty million dollar property which has now reverted to the diocese.

We are marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Disruption of 1925 and the bitterness that lasted for generations among Presbyterians who felt a majority imposed their will. The cost to the credibility of the gospel in Canada was incalculable. No one is asking the question raised by Grace Church, Orleans Ottawa: can we have gracious dismissal of churches that no amount of “conversation” can convince that gay ordination and gay marriage is God’s will for the church? The shout of Charles William Gordon (a.k.a. Ralph Connor) at the 1923 General Assembly at Port Arthur still rings through the years: “We will force you rebels in by an act of parliament whether you like it or not.”[11] Make no mistake about it: coercive measures will be taken as they have been in Scotland and the United States as denominational loyalists see their power challenged and their secure future jeopardised.

The intolerance of those arguing for inclusion was never more forcefully shown in our church. My wife and I have no choice but to attend the only local Reformed church because – as in so many small towns in Ontario – the local Presbyterian witness died just at the time of our retirement. The Council of our Fellowship Christian Reformed invited Wendy Gritter, head of New Directions, to come and speak to our young people on the subject of homosexuality. Her theme for our teenagers was “gracious hospitality” – her code word for sharing the real pain that gay young people brought up in the church experience when told that homosexuality is a sin. In the course of her presentation she asked if anyone knew the relevant Scripture passages. After no one replied an older elder, a godly founder of the church back in 1989 and the spiritual heart of the congregation, gave the answer. Her response was to mimic in a cruel way his Dutch accent, mocking him as an old moss-back. Her attitude said it all – so much for graciousness and empathy for those with whom one disagrees.

  1. A Generous Spaciousness?

Gritter is cited three times in the Report, each quotation being from her Generous Spaciousness: “Despite those differences, generous spaciousness makes room for us to join in conversations together in a shared quest for a deeper and more robust relationship with Christ.” (p. 36) “In her book Generous Spaciousness, Wendy VanderWal-Gritter invites Christians to resist the notion that a person’s gender or sexuality (heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual) can be reduced to how we experience physical stimulation and pleasure. We ought to start with the understanding that we are relational beings and our sexuality is a part of how we experience relationality.” (p. 57) “As Christians, we acknowledge that faithful discipleship includes examining our expressions of sexuality and all our relationships. VanderWal-Gritter says it this way: ‘no matter the direction of the attractions you experience, you have the capacity and are called to embody the love, faithfulness, fruitfulness, and justice of God’s character in how you build relationships.” (p. 57) and again in the take-out sheets: “VanderWal-Gritter says that sexuality shapes or impacts how we experience the world through things like music, art, friendship and family relationships. Reflect on how that has been part of your life experience.” (p 57)

I quote her at length because Gritter, a member of the Community Christian Reformed Church of Meadowvale, Mississauga, Ontario, is an influential force, particularly within the Canadian Christian Reformed Church. which, as a recent immigrant church, is more influenced by trends in the Netherlands where in 1984 the mother church, Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, affirmed gay rights and homosexual practice. The immediate reaction in North America was a proscription of any contact between the two denominations but that has eased and it is likely, based on reports in the denomination’s magazine The Banner following Synod in June and an editorial by the retiring editor Bob DeMoor titled “Don’t Walk Away!” DeMoor states: “For Jesus’ sake, let’s have the humility and grace to affirm that we may have to re-examine our own certainties in light of what we communally discover in God’s Word.”[12] The response in the November magazine[13] was generally positive. Again, an editor trumps ecclesiastical discipline. At the same time Calvin Theological Seminary’s Fall 2015 Forum appeared, making a strong case for traditional orthodox Christian views of sexuality. Titled “Biblical and Hermeneutical Reflections on Same-Sex Relationships,” three Calvin Seminary professors weighed in with a stout defence of the CRC’s creedal position on the subject. Synod 2016 appears to be a watershed with division ahead?

  1. Culture and its effect on our understanding of Biblical sexuality

There is a key quotation on page 37, one that bears close reflection. The question is raised: “Perhaps it is time for us to recognize that both traditionalists and progressives in The Presbyterian Church in Canada recognize the authority of the Bible and are seeking to be faithful to God’s will for humanity across centuries of time, culture and language. In a spirit of generous spaciousness, we need not fear that our Presbyterian brothers and sisters in faith are either ‘sticking with the Bible’ or ‘rejecting the Bible.’ We are all wrestling with how to read the Bible faithfully, even if we come to different conclusions.”

That word “culture” appears 91 times in the Study Guide and is basic to the way the Bible is interpreted there. “Mind the gap” becomes a sort of mantra. Because there is such a cultural gap between Biblical times and our own, Scriptural interpretation is elastic and flexibility is the interpretive rule. The all-important principle of gracious hospitality means that you can have your point of view and I can have mine. The Study Guide gets mired in Leviticus without placing it in the whole context of Old and New Covenant and the wider sweep of Biblical theology. The approach leads to relativism and indecisiveness so that in the end no one really knows what to believe and no one eventually will care as everyone heads for the door.

Culture works in another way. Critics of the “progressive” approach have said that if Christians recognize the validity of same sex relationships and approve the ordination of those in a same sex relationship are we not giving into the culture? A surprising supporter of the elasticity of culture is cited from, of all people, Professor Donald Carson, the well-known and highly respected New Testament scholar, a Canadian “in exile” at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago. Carson’s award-winning Christ and Culture is cited as supporting the Guide’s thesis that all culture is relative so that giving in to the culture, an objection by conservatives, is not all that big a deal[14]. I contacted Carson and he replied with some surprise at the way his name had been used and how he was cited: :“Transparently, they have quoted me out of context: my relativizing remarks apply to one domain, and they apply it to another domain where I most definitely would not draw the same conclusion, precisely because Scripture is specific and consistent in its stance toward homosexual union.” [15]

  1. What of the future?

                Many who would describe themselves as “conservative evangelicals” are wondering where the Study Guide and the probable recommendation for the full inclusion of gays in relationship in a leadership role in the church, the blessing of same sex marriage in our churches and what some would regard as capitulation to the prevailing culture, where does all this leave us? Will there be any room for us in the very different Presbyterian Church in Canada where such “progress” would lead us? Already we have people declaring, even in front of the General Assembly, their sexual practice. A recent in camera session of the Presbytery of Edmonton approved a call to a minister whose homosexuality was openly touted as a qualification for committee membership at Assembly.

We are being reassured that there is still a place for us. Soothing words are being spoken as we wrestle with what is ultimately a question of principle. And we look back to the promises made after the ordination of women was approved in 1966. Liberty of conscience was soon forgotten, conformity was demanded and vengeance on those who differed was exacted. Some of us have experienced ecclesiastical rejection and ostracism and can very much identify with the LGBTQ community in that regard. Society does not regard with much sufferance any traditional view of marriage and limiting the expression of human sexuality in a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman. We are the butt of all kinds of invective of which the word “homophobic” is both the most tame and the most customary. So we are faced with increasing intolerance of our point of view at every level of society and even the church, which should be a place of diversity and love (much touted in the Study Guide), will soon, we anticipate, insist on uniformity and conformity.

The irony of it all is that, when true to our theology, no one has been more pastoral and identified more freely with gays and lesbians than conservative evangelicals. Because our faith is cantered in the cross and the atonement we preach a gospel of God’s redemptive love and mercy and grace. But we also wish to emphasize the cost of obedient discipleship and the way of the Crucified. That is why we have so much empathy and love for celibate gays who are often walking a long and lonely path. As one whom I was counselling said to me “By saying my homosexual practice is OK with God they’ve taken the rug out from under me.” Ironically some of us clergy have found ourselves supporting the homosexuals in our congregations while being criticised and even censured for our compassion. While on staff in a major downtown church in our denomination I lost the call to the senior position at least partially because I was deemed to be “soft on gays.”

But our God is faithful. Our church’s creedal convictions, honed by John Calvin, focus on the sovereign grace of God, the perseverance of the saints, and the importance of the church as the community of faith in the divine drama. Contending earnestly for the faith once delivered (Jude 3) does not mean we are contentious. The Disruption of 1843 demonstrated that separation is not a panacea. But the empty churches once crowded with dedicated parishioners along Granville St in Vancouver and Buchanan St in downtown Glasgow remind one of the cost of faithfulness and obedience. And in the end, love triumphs.


[3] In his “Biblical Theology and the Sexuality Crisis” http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/09/16/biblical-theology-and-the-sexuality-crisis/ accessed 27 November 2015.

[4] Institutes, I.6.1.

[5] “The Second Coming”

[6] Brownson, J. V. Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids:Eerdmans. 2013. 11.

[7] Andrew Goddard James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: A Critical Engagement, 71. Goddard is the Associate Director, Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Tyndale House, Cambridge, UK. lice.co.uk/uploads/Goddard%20KLICE%20review%20of%20Brownson.pdf. accessed 28 November 2015

[8] Sprinkle “Romans 1 and Homosexuality: A Critical Review of James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality” BBL 24.4 (2014) 315. Sprinkle’s review is highly commended by Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

[9] (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/march/25.72.html)

[10] Justin Taylor blog, 11 March 2008 ( http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2008/03/11/j-i-packer-to-be-suspended-from/ accessed 1 Decenber 2015).

[11] MacLeod, A. Donald W Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy. Montreal & Kingstone: McGill-Queens University Press. 36.

[12] The Banner, vol. 150, 07 (July/August) 2015, 9.

[13] The Banner, vol 150, 09 (November) 2015, 9. Of the 7 respondents 6 were from Canada and all revisionists.

[14] “…these models have been re-examined and understood not as mutually exclusive paradigms but as ways Christians interact with culture at different times and in various contexts.” (p 55) “Perhaps we cannot conclude that God only works in one way, or one direction, when it comes to the interaction between church and culture. If that is the case, then it is always the task of the Christian community to discern where the Holy Spirit is at work and to be open and humble in assessing the relationships between church and culture at any given time.” (p 55)

[15] In an email to me dated 16 November 2015 and quoted by permission.

3 comments to Body, Mind and Soul – Study Guide on Human Sexuality

  • Jim Gordon

    Thanks Don, this response is very much needed!

    I loved the way that you presented it!

  • Bill Barry


    I am very impressed with this well written document. I will need to read it a few times to let it sink in but I believe it is what I would support. We must follow scripture and show love, no matter what the topic.

    Blessings, Bill Barry

  • don

    Thanks Bill for the encouragement. We need to be in prayer for our PCC these days.