A Redemptive Approach to Human Sexuality Disagreements within Christian Churches

Numerous Christian churches, and their denominations, are being torn apart by an inability to orchestrate respectful conversations among members who strongly disagree regarding human sexuality issues. This is especially true for the issue of same-sex marriage, where the major disagreement is between those who hold to a “traditional” view of marriage (God intends for marriage to be reserved for a man and a woman) and a “non-traditional” view (God will bless a same-sex marriage where the partners make a covenant commitment to love each other for a lifetime).

I will now point my readers to a splendid example of how one church, Covenant Christian Reformed Church (CCRC) in Sioux Center, Iowa, under the leadership of their Senior Pastor, Joel Kok, has modeled a redemptive path in the midst of this current vitriol. My hope and prayer is that this story will inspire many other Christian churches, and their denominations, to replicate the redemptive approach exemplified at CCRC.

First, a few facts about CCRC and Joel Kok. Joel has made clear to his congregation that he personally embraces the “traditional” view of marriage; which is the view that has been adopted by the Christian Reformed Church denomination.

In a way that is faithful to the teachings in the Christian Reformed Human Sexuality report, the church that Joel pastors emphasizes the pastoral love teachings in that report; and, as a result both “traditionalists” and “non-traditionalists” are welcome to join his church. The congregation encourages members to wrestle with the Word of God and, like Jacob wrestling with God, say to the Scriptures, “I will not let you go until you bless me” (Genesis2:26). This practice helps members in both camps to continue to worship the one true God.

And Joel has achieved remarkable “success” in orchestrating respectful conversations among those in these two camps. Using the Colossian Way curriculum designed and offered by Rob Barrett, a former employee of The Colossian Forum, CCRC members participated in three conversations on human sexuality and two conversations on politics. Joel’s testimony as to the amazing results of these respectful conversations is that “We experienced our differences not as reasons to divide but, instead, as ways to deepen our discipleship.” What brought about this “success?” In my estimation, there were two primary reasons.

The first reason for Joel’s success in navigating these disagreements in a redemptive manner was his appeal to the teachings of the Apostle Paul, as recorded in Romans 14 & 15, which he has clearly shared with his congregation; presenting his belief that the question of whether an individual Christian or a church or a denomination should “affirm” or “not-affirm” same sex-marriage is a DISPUTABLE issue. What does Joel mean by “disputable?”

Regarding the word “disputable,” Joel draws primarily on Paul’s teachings in Romans, in which Paul clearly holds to one view regarding whether new male Gentile converts to the Christian faith should be circumcised and all Gentile converts should obey strict dietary laws that were handed down from the Old Testament, while also refusing to view believers holding the other view with either contempt or judgmentalism (See Romans 14:3). Furthermore, Joel also draws on his studies of church history, in which we learn about Christians dividing and then, sometime later, recognizing that while they still hold different views, they need not divide. For example, Roman Catholics and Lutherans still hold different views about some details regarding justification, and still recognize that they need not curse each other. Instead, they can love each other and seek the unity for which Jesus prays. Similar perspectives apply to baptism and many other teachings and practices.

In the history of the Christian church, some disputable issues have persisted for long periods of time, while others have disappeared. Historical examples of where a once hotly disputed matter has disappeared, or has come close to disappearing, include slavery and women in Church leadership, to which I would add remarriage after divorce. These issues were once hotly disputed and have now either disappeared or become less divisive.

As a personal aside, I believe that we need to avoid easy comparisons between these three issues, since they vary greatly as to the time at which they were disputed (or remain disputed) and their impact. The most egregious issue was that of slavery, with many Christians in the late nineteenth century appealing to overly simplistic “proof texts” that they believed supported slavery. Their error, common to all “proof-texting, was that they did not adequately take into account the context for the biblical passages being appealed to or the purpose of the biblical author.

Returning to Kok’s perspective, he concludes that a church or denomination can uphold the traditional view of marriage, while not rejecting people who believe or practice the non-traditional view. Rather than separating, a church or denomination can engage in what can be called “healthy confessional conversations.” The idea here is that, when a view comes from our Lord, it will persevere in God’s timing and way, as we speak our understanding of the truth in love. To call again on Paul’s teachings in Romans, even while we do not affirm every view or practice that others hold to, we can “accept one another, just as Christ accepted us in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7, NIV). It is worth noting that this perspective overlaps with the view of the late biblical scholar James Dunn, who teaches that we can accept people who disagree with us because they are “received as [people] who are beloved by God.”

Therefore, rather than focusing on “disputable” matters, Joel encourages his congregants to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:18), orchestrating a series of “edifying engagements” carried out with “mutual respect.” His goal, as already noted, was for his congregants to “experience our differences not as reasons to divide but as ways to deepen our discipleship.”

The second reason for Joel’s success in navigating in a redemptive manner disagreements between “affirming” and “non-affirming” congregants is his making clear to members of CCRC that he does not succumb to the common error of “equating having a ‘weak’ argument with being a ‘weak’ Christian.”

I can bear witness from my experience that rejecting this error can be redemptive by reporting on the result of a local face-to-face conversation I hosted wherein I brought together four local residents who self-designated as Trump-supporters and four residents who were non-Trump supporters, all of whom professed commitment to be followers of Jesus.

I believe it is fair to say that at the beginning of this conversation, the participants believed that those “in the other camp” were inferior “weak” Christians. But a remarkable change in that perspective took place as a result of this conversation that was beautifully captured in the following reflection from Steve Mahr, one of the non-Trump supporters.

One thing that I feel has emerged from this [conversation] … is that I think we all see each other as part of the same “Christian family.” … I think some of us feel like really distantly related cousins, but I think we see in one another a genuine love of Christ and an authentic desire to follow Jesus. And really, I’m not sure I could want more than that from a conversation. To be able to see one another as co-citizens of the kingdom of God is a great conclusion to any conversation if you ask me.

This reflection bears eloquent testimony to the fact that, while differing views about the Trump presidency did not significantly change as a result of this conversation, the perception of those “in the other camp” changed radically, which was an enormous accomplishment. Those “others” were no longer viewed as “inferior” or “weak Christians. Rather, they came to be viewed as “equally strong” Christians because they also aspired to be faithful followers of Jesus, even if the participants came away from the conversation believing that those “in the other camp” had “weak arguments” for their views about the Trump presidency.

Of course, this raises the question as what characterizes a “strong” Christian. I find no biblical support for the view that the tell-tale sign is taking an “affirming” or “non-affirming” perspective on same-sex marriage. Rather, Romans 8: 29 defines being a “strong” Christian as being “conformed to the image of God’s son [Jesus Christ].”

By now, my reader has accurately surmised that I am enamored by the above story of the “success” at CCRC in implementing redemptive respectful conversations among members who have some strong disagreements. This has led to my decision to design an initiative or two (possibly in collaboration with my good friend Rob Barrett) to promote the replication of this redemptive model in Christian churches and denominations. My purpose will not be to “impose” this model on anyone. Rather, I present this model as worthy of serious consideration. Please stay tuned for a future Musing or two that will reveal my future plans for such promotional initiatives.

Staying together in the midst of strong disagreements

A strength of Protestantism is that each of its branches make an important contribution to a full-orbed understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. (I demonstrate this strength in my recent book Following Jesus: Perspectives From Twelve Christian Traditions.) 

But the underside of that strength is the strong tendency, already alluded to above, for Protestants in any church or Protestant tradition to “pick up their marbles and go elsewhere” (so to speak) if they discover that their present church or Protestant denomination embraces beliefs with which they strongly disagree.

It has been reported to me that such “desertion” is not typically the case in the Roman Catholic Church, where those Catholics who disagree with the pronouncements of the Pope or bishops do not typically “flee” from Catholicism (although they may find another Catholic parish that is more to their liking). Rather, they “hang in there” at the same time that they (especially Catholics working in the Academy), feel comfortable expressing disagreement with the pronouncements of the Pope or bishops, without fear of ex-communication.

Here, then, are two closing recommendations for all leaders of Protestant denominations to consider. First, take a minimalist approach to denominational pronouncements, limiting yourself to those pronouncements that you judge to be absolutely essential to the integrity of your Protestant tradition.

Secondly, hold to denominational positions lightly. Be open to the possibility that the “dissidents” within your denominations may have insights that need to be heard, which may influence future pronouncements at the denominational level. If denominational leaders adopt these two practices, it may prevent, or at least lessen, the schisms that are, and always have been, so prevalent in Protestant circles.

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