Dusting Off Differences

Dropping the Art of Persuasion and Pursuing Unity

We live in polarized times. Bold statements made by authorities while those in power grapple with the weight of leadership in times of uncertainty often leads to deeper issues coming out of the woodwork. Take note of the frequency at which you hear the word “polarized” as a descriptor of today’s culture and one is reminded of just how many conversations have been opened up in recent years.

Take, for example, the Freedom Convoy this past winter, or the increasing volume of the dialogue surrounding race and diversity since June of 2020 and the recent Black Lives Matter protests. These conversations have been the cause for reconsideration of how we interact with one another and perceive the world around us, largely because they force us to drag our differences out from the far corners of our private lives and into the light. For some Christians, the topic of the Bible’s stance on sexuality is another, perhaps more recent, source of controversy – and one that hits close to home for Redeemer and its supporting community. 

The report following the general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church in 1973 (Synod 1973) stated that homosexual sex is not consistent with Biblical teaching. This stance, however, was presented as “pastoral advice”; opposition to this interpretation of Scripture has led to varying viewpoints within the denomination as well as each congregation, yet it had not  warranted divisions or discipline. 

Decades later, Synod 2016 appointed a new committee to “study human sexuality”. They were given five years to research and study Scripture with the goal of coming to a conclusion that would thereafter provide the foundation of the CRC’s stance on gender and sexuality, including whether or not it is a confessional issue to consider homosexual sex to be a form of unchastity. Should it be considered a confessional issue, members of CRC churches, especially those in positions of leadership, would be more bound to agree with the denomination’s stance. 

Nearly six years later, post-pandemic and much more culturally polarized, a copy of what has been nicknamed “The Human Sexuality Report” is now in our hands (the full title of the report is “The Report of the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality”). The report was released in 2021 and this past June, Synod officially affirmed the Report’s message. 

The CRC’s conclusion that “homosexual sex is not consistent with Biblical teaching” and is therefore a confessional issue was not one arrived at lightly or without any sense of lament. In fact, the 175-page report includes a lengthy preamble, including many comments on the hurt felt by members of the LGBTQ+ community at the fault of the church in the past, calling the church to, “publicly and privately admit the pain and the alienation that have resulted from these sinful actions and attitudes” (Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality, 9). 

Naturally, the topic of a Biblical view on sexuality is a divisive one. After all, unity is far more easily pursued when what divides us is kept in the shadows. As one student shared, “It is rather simple to love someone unconditionally when they meet all of your conditions.” 

Shiao Chong, Editor in Chief of The Banner (a magazine published by the Christian Reformed Church) wrote a pair of editorials after Synod 2022, urging readers to “beware loveless orthodoxy” and spiritual pride, two of the deeper issues at play here. I reached out to him with a few questions surrounding the report and the direction he would encourage Christians to be nudged towards. 

“My concern with the homosexuality issue in the church has always been pastoral,” Chong shared. “I believe we need to do better pastorally, regardless of our theological positions. I was a campus pastor for 15 years before becoming editor. In my experience, people who are LGBTQ+, especially Christians, struggle with a lot of pain, depression, low self-esteem, and fear. Almost all of them already know about the church’s theological position. What they need deeply is to experience God’s grace and love. Because for most of them, biblical truths have been weaponized against them, wrongly used to judge them and cause them harm, or to justify harm towards them. Therefore, we have to remember that they have experienced a lot of trauma.” 

We dig into this specific topic not because it is any more important to decide how we feel about it than other hot topics, but because the heart of a Christian’s questions about God’s view on sexuality and gender naturally uproots much of our apprehension to disagreement in general. I spoke with Dr. Doug Sikkema, Assistant Professor of the Core Program and English here at Redeemer. As the board chair of a Christian school, Dr. Sikkema found himself in the thick of polarized discussions surrounding COVID policy, needing to fully listen to both sides. 

“No matter your role, you have to learn to hold your convictions charitably. Being able to articulate a position and clearly know why you think the way you do matters. But, depending on your role or office, you also need to wisely discern the right platforms in which to address them. Today everyone wants to shout from the social media megaphone when, perhaps, a coffee and a face-to-face talk would be best. It also helps to remember that no one thinks they are wrong. So listen, and always be willing to acknowledge that you might be wrong about something, or need to take a moment to rethink your position,” Sikkema shared. 

Steps towards eradication of the sense of alienation that the report refers to can only be taken when we remain curious about the lived experiences of people on the other side of the fence, rather than focussing only on the art of persuasion and convincing the other why we are right. 

Sikkema continues, “It can be hard to actually talk to people with whom we strongly disagree. And I’m not naive in thinking ‘talking’ will solve polarization. But if it is going to help, we would do well to remember that we are all  embodied creatures. We each have lived experiences, sometimes deeply painful ones, that have shaped our ways of looking at the world. I think Paul, in 1 Corinthians, shows us that Christians who have no love might be ‘right’ in a certain sense, but also still deeply ‘wrong’ in how they talk about or to others without love.” 

Speaking specifically of the Human Sexuality Report, I have learned that as individuals we are quick to share whether or not we would have come to the same conclusion as the report did. We are slower, however, to speak to what we do at a standstill. When dust settles and we have not convinced the other side to cross the fence and join us, how do we take steps forward? 

Sikkema speaks to this as well: “There will always be a limit to what sitting down and listening to each other can do. But, people who willingly submit themselves to a community with known standards of belief and conduct, whether that’s churches or educational institutions, do so knowing the form of discipleship they presumably want in that community. This is a beautiful, challenging reality for all of us who enter into such communities.” 

“I think it is more about a “right heart,” first and foremost, and then followed by a right approach to interpreting Scripture,” Chong shared on the topic as well. “There’s no easy way for that but a long obedience in God’s ways to grow a heart that loves God and neighbor, a heart that loves and desires after what God loves and desires. Desire for orthodoxy is a good thing but if not tempered by genuine biblical love, it can be twisted for evil. Mastering Scripture without being, in turn, mastered by Scripture is a recipe for spiritual damage. We need less “bible tamers” who can quote verses off the tip of their tongues as if Scripture is simply a tool they can master and use for their own agendas. Even the Devil quoted Scripture to tempt Jesus. We need more “bible wrestlers” who engage Scripture deeply and, in the process, are transformed, even reluctantly, by God’s Word.”

Unity is far more easily pursued when our differences are neatly tucked away to collect dust, and we focus only on that which we have in common. The real challenge arises when we address that which threatens to divide us not with the goal of persuasion but of deeper understanding and acceptance. Leaning into spaces of contention may well be one of the first steps in the long obedience that shapes our desires and guides our life.