by Steve Bouma-Prediger
Lew Smedes was one of my esteemed teachers when I was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-1980s. I vividly recall his stimulating class titled “Calvin and the Christian Life.” I had read his popular book “Sex for Christians” (Eerdmans, 1976) for a religion class as a student at Hope College in 1978 and read everything he wrote in the old Reformed Journal in the 1970s and 1980s.
Lew was a larger-than-life person, with the rare ability as a writer to build bridges among people: clergy and laity, scholars and nonscholars, Christians and non-Christians. He was, above all, a pastoral theologian who melded a sharp mind and keen intellect with a kind soul and loving heart. He also combined a devout evangelical faith with robust Reformed theology.
Before commenting on Lew’s essay on homosexuality, let me first try to capture the essence of his argument. It goes something like this: The church once excluded divorced and remarried people, that is, it banished them from participating in the Lord’s Supper. But over time the church changed its policy of exclusion to a policy of embrace, for three main reasons: More children of the faithful were getting divorced and remarried, ministers and congregations revised their beliefs about the Lord’s Supper, and the church revised its understanding of Jesus’ prohibition against divorce.
Could the church’s embrace of people who were once divorced and are now living faithfully in second marriages be a precedent for embracing homosexuals who live faithfully in covenanted partnerships? The answer depends on how one responds to two further questions: Is the covenanted partnership of two homosexual persons morally similar to the marriage of two heterosexual people who were first divorced? And does the Bible’s word about homosexuals lay down a rule requiring the church to exclude Christian homosexuals who live in faithful partnership with one another? Lew argues that the two situations are in fact morally similar in relevant ways, for five different reasons, and he maintains that the Bible does not lay down a rule requiring the exclusion of Christian homosexuals living in a faithful partnership.
This latter claim Lew supports with an exegesis of Romans 1. He argues that the purpose of sex is more than procreation. God meant sex to express love within a committed partnership. Homosexual relations within committed love can therefore be as true to nature as are heterosexual relations within committed love. To single people in general the church says, “You must choose between celibacy and marriage,” while to all homosexuals the church says, “You have no choice; you may not marry, and you must be celibate.” But if Paul thought most heterosexuals lacked the gift of celibacy, would he not have thought that at least some homosexuals lack it? If so, marriage or something akin to it must be a live option for homosexuals. In short, the promiscuous and lust-driven people Paul is talking about in Romans 1 could not be Christian homosexuals who choose to live together in covenanted partnerships.
Thus the church’s move from exclusion to embrace with respect to divorced and remarried people is a proper precedent for an embrace of homosexual Christians who live together in a committed partnership. Lew says that, in his view, homosexuality is an anomaly, nature gone awry, not the way God intended human sexuality, and thus is a burden some of God’s children are called to bear. But its non-normative status does not imply that same-sex partners in a committed relationship should be excluded from the church. Lew’s final point is a call to remember that in all things, quoting the famous hymn, there is a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.
Such is Lew’s argument. What does one make of it? Some claim that his argument is now irrelevant, because many more people today are accepting of homosexuality and same-sex marriage (and/or civil unions). But moral rightness or wrongness should not be determined by a show of hands. Morality is not sociology. If popular acceptance of a position were the measure of its morality, then Nazism in 1930s Germany would have been morally acceptable, because most Germans favored it.
Others argue that Lew’s analogy doesn’t work. That the church changed its view on divorce and remarriage does not supply a valid precedent for changing its view of homosexuality. I believe the analogy does work, for all the reasons he outlines. There are significant similarities between the situations of divorced and remarried couples and homosexuals who live in faithful partnership with each other. Whether you agree will depend in large measure on whether you believe that homosexual partners are fulfilling their God-given human need in the only way available to them.
Yet others claim that Lew’s interpretation of Romans 1 is mistaken, because he misunderstands Paul’s claim about homosexuality being “against nature.” Homosexual relations are wrong, these critics argue, because they are contrary to the created order, which implies heterosexual relations are normative. Frankly, this is a contested issue. For example, Richard Hays and Allen Verhey (two highly regarded New Testament ethicists) reach different exegetical conclusions. I think Lew is right in his exegesis of Romans 1. Whatever Paul means with his use of the phrase “against nature” (para physin in Greek), the people Paul describes in Romans 1 do not resemble Christian homosexual persons who live out their lives in covenanted partnerships of love. In short, in my view, Lew presents a compelling argument.
As important as the substance of an argument is the tone of what is said. And here Lew speaks volumes. No slouch on affirming the reality of moral absolutes or the need for Christians to resist moral relativism, Lew nevertheless communicates an overarching tone of mercy.
Similarly to his Fuller Theological Seminary colleague Rich Mouw, Lew emphasizes self-critical honesty and the cultivation of empathy by putting a human face on this controversial issue.
As Lew reminds us, “we have begun to see ‘the homosexual problem’ in the faces of beloved homosexual persons who are our own or our friends’ sons and daughters.”
And so Lew ends with a question: “Is God’s mercy wide enough for people who, through no choice of their own, have no other way to fulfill one of the deepest of all human needs but the way that my wife and I fulfilled them for 50 years – in an abiding partnership of love?” How wide is God’s mercy?
No Room for Lukewarm
by Annie Reilly
Fifteen years later, is “Like the Wideness of the Sea?” still a helpful, relevant argument? What Smedes argued is extremely valuable as part of the canon that chronicles the changing of hearts and minds in the Reformed community. It does not, however, make much of an impact in our current conversations. This article, which had so much power and engendered so much controversy in 1999, is now outdated and too lukewarm to have the same effect for today’s audience.
I am of the millennial generation – those born between 1980 and 2000. For the most part, we would very much like to be done talking about the “gay issue.” My generation is more accepting of homosexuals in all facets of society than any generation that came before us. Of course everyone should be welcome: Didn’t Jesus love the outcasts most of all? We see the church as deeply hypocritical when our homosexual siblings aren’t welcome in the church or at Christ’s Table. It’s one of the reasons that, even if we’ve been raised in the church, so many of us no longer find it valuable in our adult lives.
Smedes recalled three things that triggered the change in the hearts and minds of Christians toward full inclusion for divorced and remarried heterosexuals. First, there was a growing sensitivity toward remarriage in our own families. Second, Holy Communion was seen and felt “more as a medicine for our spiritual illness than as evidence of our spiritual health.” Third, there was a move away from clobbering remarried heterosexuals with a handful of Bible quotes.
Smedes correctly addressed the changes that must be made to facilitate inclusion. The millennial generation has already made those moves. Homosexuals are our friends and siblings and ourselves. We’ve experienced deep spiritual turmoil when the church tells us that God’s love does not extend to our gay best friends. We come to the Table knowing that taking the loaf and the cup are not rewards for being perfect but rather are a public and communal act in recognizing and remembering that we still need a savior. As Millennials, we have developed a deep skepticism for anyone who loudly and without context quotes the Bible at us. Those of us in the church are reading the Bible and wrestling with faithful interpretation for ourselves. We’re trying to engage the Scriptures and our traditions to reconcile how an institution and family that should be reflecting God’s love can so often deny the love we feel from God.
There is no room for the church to take a lukewarm stance. Smedes said that homosexuality is an anomaly in the created order – that gay people are merely working with what they’ve been given and the church should support that faithful effort. Millennials say “yes” to being supportive but “no” to homosexuality being an anomaly. To Smedes’s credit, he did not say that homosexuality is a choice. For, indeed, who would choose such a hard path? But what Smedes failed to argue is that homosexuality is a part of the good created order. I believe in a wholly sovereign God who does not make mistakes nor allow for unintended “anomalies.” In God’s plan for humanity, homosexuals are equal to those created heterosexual. If God’s mercy could have “a wideness like the wideness of the sea,” then so, too, could God’s creativity and love. These attributes are wide and incomprehensible. Christians must be vocal about affirming our love for our homosexual siblings as part of the good created order, because there are too many loud voices to the contrary. It is the responsibility of the church to be a radical witness to love. It is literally a matter of life and death for both homosexual individuals and for the church.
When I preside at the Eucharist, I say, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” There is no asterisk, no small print. Everyone baptized into the Body of Christ and who confesses Jesus as Lord is welcome to the Table. It would be unthinkable for me to turn away someone because of gender, skin color, or marital status. It’s time for it to be equally unthinkable to exclude on the basis of sexual orientation.
The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken and shed for you. Period. It really could be that simple.
Can Girls Marry Girls?
by Elizabeth Vander Haagen
On the day I was invited to write this essay, we had an interesting conversation at the supper table. Out of the blue, my preschooler asked, “Can girls marry girls? Sarah says they can’t, but I say they can.” There was a pause while my husband and I looked at each other, and then I said, “Well sweetie, that’s something that people don’t agree about. Some people say they can, and others say they can’t.” My husband offered that in our state, girls aren’t allowed to marry girls, but in other places they are. My first-grader asked why, and I explained that some people think God doesn’t want girls to marry girls or boys to marry boys. The conversation then shifted, and I will admit that I was relieved when she didn’t ask the follow-up question, which was, “Mommy, do you think God doesn’t want girls to marry girls?”
I was relieved because I’m a minister of the Christian Reformed Church. I take the promises I made at my ordination, to submit to the government and discipline of the church, seriously. And the official position of the Christian Reformed Church when it comes to same-sex partnerships or marriage is that “God doesn’t want girls to marry girls or boys to marry boys.” I can’t agree. I’m with Smedes on this one. I believe that same-sex partnerships or marriages can be blessed by God and can be the best option for some gay Christians seeking to live faithfully before God.
Smedes’s article “Like the Wideness of the Sea?” is helpful in considering the question my daughter asked at supper. And it’s particularly helpful in a couple of ways. First, it’s helpful in stating clearly that the issue of whether the Bible permits same-sex partnerships or marriages is on the church’s agenda and it will not go away. There is a lot of fear surrounding this issue – many of us do not want to talk about it because we are afraid. We are afraid of hurting people. We are afraid of causing division in the church. We are afraid of what others will think of us. We are afraid of encouraging others to sin. But the issue will not go away, and the church needs to respond.
Smedes’s recommendations for how to respond are helpful: look at Scripture; keep real people in our minds and hearts as we consider what the Bible says; pay attention to how our understanding of what the Bible says affects believers who are attracted to people of the same sex. The last of these recommendations is critical, because the Christian Reformed Church’s current understanding of what the Bible says about homosexuality has caused not only pain but harm.
Smedes models his recommendations in his treatment of Romans 1:18-27. He takes what the Apostle Paul writes seriously, and he reads it with partnered Christian homosexual people in mind – people who love God, people who have been homosexual from the beginning of their sexual awareness and people who are not lusting but seeking enduring love, intimacy and companionship. Smedes doesn’t dismiss Paul’s words but carefully points out how they were not written about homosexual believers in committed relationships; instead, they were written about people who had rejected God and were promiscuous and lust-driven.
I find Smedes’s personal remarks at the end of his article both troubling and grace-filled. He writes that he cannot believe that homosexuality is part of how God intended us to live out our sexuality, even though he knows some homosexual people will feel devalued by what he says. I wonder about this. If we say that homosexuality is not part of the Creator’s intention, doesn’t that reinforce the idea that it is something we should try to prevent (like divorce) or heal (like trauma)? Smedes doesn’t say this. In fact, he talks about homosexuality as something that cannot be changed. But his words still trouble me, because the belief that homosexuality is not what God intends has been used to justify all sorts of hateful and harmful actions against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I can’t help but wonder if Smedes would say the same thing today.
Smedes goes on to talk about his own family’s experience with adoption. The trauma of separation experienced by his children and their birth mothers was not part of God’s original intention for families, and yet his family has experienced God’s supportive grace. His application of “not what the Creator originally intended” to his own family gives an integrity to his saying the same thing about homosexuality – he’s applying it not only to others but also to himself. This gives an added weight to his observation that God’s wide mercy and supportive grace can bring healing and beauty through same-sex partnerships or marriages just as they do through families created by adoption.
Finally, Smedes is respectful and gentle, even while stating his beliefs and opinions directly. There’s no name-calling or belittling. He mourns the brokenness of the church in addressing this issue and the fear surrounding it and yet also rests in the mercy of God. This seems to me to be the right space for this conversation. Not a place of fear, but of mourning our sin and the pain surrounding homosexuality, and resting in the mercy of God.
by David E. Timmer
Lew Smedes’s essay, “Like the Wideness of the Sea?” is a model of Christian ethical discernment. I do not call it that because I agree completely with his conclusions, because I am not sure that I do. However, I see in the essay virtues that transcend specific positions. It is a painfully honest chronicle of his engagement with an issue that many in our churches have sought to resolve by denial and silencing, yet Smedes does not proceed by shaming or disqualifying those who are likely to disagree with him. Instead, he patiently works out a perspective that draws from all the sources of moral wisdom that the church has available to it.
Christian ethicists often describe those sources in terms of four “sources of authority,” sometimes referred to as the Wesleyan quadrilateral because John Wesley, the 18th-century Methodist preacher and organizer, is thought to have articulated the idea. One formulation of the quadrilateral, attributed to Methodist theologian Albert Outler, names Scripture, tradition, experience and reason as the four sources that must be considered and balanced against each other in moral reflection. Within this array of sources, Scripture is assumed to have some sort of priority, although defining the nature of that priority is not a simple task.
This paradigm has its merits, but it is also risky, for at least two reasons: First, none of the four terms is unproblematic in meaning or scope. The Bible, for instance, is a rich and complex body of writings; where in that complexity does the moral authority of “Scripture” inhere? “Tradition,” of course, is always an ambivalent concept for Protestants, who owe their very origin to the repudiation of a millennium of medieval tradition. Appeal to “experience” seems to open the door to slippery subjectivity. And does “reason” include the findings of scientific inquiry or only rational reflection on the other sources?
Second, the relationships among the four sources are not specified; hence, the possibility exists that they can be isolated and played off against each other like hands in a card game: I see your Tradition and raise you two Experiences! My Scripture always trumps your Reason! In reality, none of the sources can be wholly disengaged from the others. This is especially true of Scripture, whose reading and interpretation never occurs in a vacuum. We read Scripture as situated beings, and our situation always includes, at the very least, fidelity to some greater tradition, relevance to more immediate affective and pastoral experience and credibility within a broader rational context.
One clear merit of Smedes’s essay is that he engages these elements in concert, not singly. His opening description of the debate in a long-ago Christian Reformed synod over the exclusion of divorced and remarried Christians recounts a formative experience for a young pastor-theologian; at the same time, it is an acknowledgment of how rational reflection on pastoral experience can lead to a rereading of the Scriptures and a change in traditional practice – a change which then becomes itself a part of the tradition. Although at times it must have seemed as though Mark 10:11 was looming over the debate like the proverbial “clobber text,” ultimately the bare text was not determinative. Instead, the text was interpreted within the reality of the church’s reasoned knowledge and its experienced mission; while the inner core of tradition was affirmed, the outward form was accommodated to new insight.
Such change does not – and perhaps should not – happen without struggle, and even conflict. The “revisionists” in Smedes’s story lost many debates before their views prevailed. The contemporary debate about same-sex relationships in our churches, for which this case serves as a precedent, might ultimately be even more extended and divisive. But we should remember during this arduous season of discernment that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8); yet we are in motion, in mission, “looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). As this essay attests, Lew Smedes was a wonderful companion on our common pilgrimage.