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The church ought to embrace “homosexual people who live faithfully in covenanted partnerships.”

This is the plea that Lewis Smedes addresses particularly to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).

Writing in the May, 1999 issue of Perspectives, Smedes urges the acceptance of practicing homosexuals in the CRC. He exhorts the CRC to “embrace,” that is, accept as members of the church in good and regular standing, “Christian homosexual people who have committed themselves to a monogamous partnership” (all quotations in this editorial are from the article by Lewis Smedes in the May, 1999 issue of Perspectives, pp. 8-12).

Perspectives is a religious periodical, “A Journal of Reformed Thought.” It is edited and largely written by theologians, teachers, and other prominent, influential persons in the Reformed Church in America and in the CRC.

Dr. Lewis Smedes is a minister of the gospel in the CRC.

Smedes’ Plea for Homosexual “Marriage”

It is not the purpose of this editorial to criticize Smedes’ plea for the approval of the practice of homosexuality in the CRC. Something might well be said in this regard. No doubt, reflecting on the plea by a renowned Reformed theologian for approving homosexual relations would be beneficial. Strong pressure is now being exerted by the evil one upon all churches, “conservative” as well as “liberal,” to cave in to the world here also.

Critique of the plea for approval of homosexual sex would note that the learned Dr. Smedes professes ignorance as to the meaning of the Holy Spirit in those passages of Holy Scripture that treat of homosexuality, particularly Romans 1:18-27. Smedes does not know who they are who are described in the passage: “Who were these people, the ones who were having sex with partners of their own gender? … Nobody knows for sure.” Nor does he know what is meant in the passage by “against nature”: “What he (the apostle—DJE) meant by ‘contrary to nature’ none of us knows for sure.”

The doubt of our unbelieving age that increasingly prevails in the churches has blinded Smedes’ mind to the clear testimony of the Word of God. The people spoken of in Romans 1:18ff. are men and women who perversely lust for people of the same gender and then perversely engage in sexual acts with them as best they can. The practice of homosexual sex is “against nature” in that it contradicts the will of God for sex as made known in creation itself. This will of God, writ large in nature in the physical characteristics that distinguish male and female by virtue of God’s creation of the human race, is sexual relations between a man and a woman in marriage.

One who is uncertain about these basic things of divine revelation and the Christian religion is disqualified to be a teacher of the church on sexual and marital ethics.

Comment on the plea for approval of homosexual relations would call attention to significant verbal slips, when Smedes is lamenting his church’s current prohibition of “monogamous partnership(s).” “To all homosexuals it says: You have no choice; you may not marry and you must be celibate” (the emphasis is Smedes’). The noteworthy words are “marry” and “may.” The use of “marry” shows that the “partnerships” which Smedes asks the CRC to approve are, in his thinking, marriages: homosexual marriages (the emphasis is mine). If Smedes has his way, there will be two kinds of marriages in the CRC, heterosexual and homosexual.

Closely related is his use of “may” in his wording of his church’s present forbidding of homosexual unions: “You may not marry.” But this a mistake. What the church says is, “You cannot marry (each other).” The thing is impossible, as impossible as it is for homosexual sex to be fruitful in children. By definition, definition grounded in the ordinance of God at creation, marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, a male and a female. Men can do many things with men, and women can do many things, apparently, with women. One thing that they cannot do is marry.

Analysis of Smedes’ plea for homosexual “marriages” in the CRC would also predict that this abomination is sure to come in that church. If ministers are permitted publicly to advocate homosexual “marriage,” it will come. If theologians of the stature of a Lewis Smedes are already bold to plead for homosexual “marriage,” it will come sooner rather than later.

The Argument for Homosexual “Marriage”

But my interest in Smedes’ article lies elsewhere. The interest of the readers of the Standard Bearer ought to lie elsewhere. Our interest is not the plea itself for homosexual relations, but the argument raised on behalf of the plea.

Smedes has an argument.

The argument is solid and compelling, indeed, irresistible, as far as the CRC is concerned.

The CRC may yet for a time forbid homosexual partnerships, but they will not do so by refuting Smedes’ argument. They will merely ignore it.

This argument is equally compelling for some of the readers of the Standard Bearer who are members of churches other than the CRC.

The argument fails completely as regards the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). But then it is important, even urgent, that members of the PRC carefully consider the argument, so that they strengthen their determination that this powerful argument for practicing homosexuals in the church never get a foothold among them.

Smedes’ argument is this: Just as the CRC came to approve the remarriage of divorced persons despite Jesus’ prohibition, so also the CRC can and should approve homosexual “marriage.”

For many years, the CRC forbade remarriage after divorce and excluded remarried persons from membership in the church as those living in adultery. In the 1950s, the CRC radically changed its stand and accepted remarried persons as members of the church. These are not only “innocent parties,” but also “guilty parties” and those who divorced for all kinds of unbiblical reasons.

Smedes readily acknowledges that the reason for the acceptance of remarried persons by his church was not the discovery of new material on divorce and remarriage in the Bible. The reason was not even a new interpretation of the words of Jesus and the apostles that the CRC had for many years appealed to in support of its condemnation of remarriage. But the reason was that the church found itself confronted by a dramatic increase of divorce and remarriage among its members. And those divorcing and remarrying were the sons and daughters of the members of the church, including the ministers and elders who made the synodical decision.

More sons and daughters of the faithful were getting divorced and were marrying again. Before World War II, the church could exclude such people on the assumption that they would very rarely be their own loved ones. After the war, however, local congregations discovered that persons whom they loved as brothers and sisters in Christ—and, yes, their own children—were doing it. And it was very hard to look their own sons and daughters in the eyes and say to them: “You will go to hell unless you leave your present spouse.”

In light of these hard realities, the CRC deliberately revised its understanding of Scripture’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Smedes puts it this way: “It (the CRC—DJE) factored human reality into its reading of the Lord’s words.”

With this new “reading” of biblical teaching, there was a much wider application of the mercy of God to adulterers. The wide mercy of God was extended to the professing Christian who unjustly divorced his own wife and remarried the wife of his neighbor. Proclaims Smedes, in his explanation and defense of the CRC’s change of position regarding remarriage, “The grace of Jesus Christ … could bless and support remarried people in their second marriage.”

This wideness of God’s mercy is an important aspect of the CRC’s acceptance of remarriage after divorce, as it is an important element in Smedes’ argument for the acceptance of homosexual “marriage.” It accounts for the title of Smedes’ article: “Like the Wideness of the Sea.” This is part of a line in a hymn that goes, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”

This acceptance of remarried persons at the Lord’s Table allows for, if it does not require, the similar acceptance of practicing homosexuals as members of the church.

Does the church’s dramatic move from the exclusion to the embrace of divorced and remarried Christians provide a precedent for an embrace of homosexual Christians who live together in a committed partnership?

My answer to my own question is, Yes, it does seem to me that our embrace of divorced and remarried Christian people did indeed set a precedent for embracing Christian homosexuals who live together.

If the church, with appeal to the wideness of mercy, can accept remarried persons because members are in fact divorcing and remarrying, including the dear children of the church, even though Scripture clearly teaches marriage as a lifelong bond, then the church can also accept practicing homosexuals for the same reasons, even though Scripture plainly teaches that God wills sex only in the marriage of a man and a woman.

This is the argument.

It is valid.

The church that accommodates the Word of God to the painful circumstances of its members in the matter of divorce and remarriage should do so also in the matter of homosexual desire. Fact is, as Smedes shrewdly observes, “The biblical ground for excluding them (homosexuals—DJE) from embrace within the church is actually weaker than was its ground for excluding divorced and remarried heterosexuals.”

How can ministers and elders say no to homosexual sons and daughters of the congregation, when they have not been able to say no to remarried sons and daughters? Much less, as is more and more the case, when these rulers in the church are themselves remarried.

If the mercy of God, in the thinking of the church, is wide to bless and save one who transgresses the seventh commandment in one gross way—adultery—why should that mercy strangely narrow so as to exclude another who transgresses the same commandment in another gross way—homosexual acts?

If sexual pleasure and the earthly comforts of life override Christ’s demand for costly, sacrificial discipleship in the greater matter of marriage, why should they not override His demand in the lesser matter of mere sex?

Approval of remarriage after divorce is not only an argument. As Smedes correctly points out, it is also a “precedent.” It has “paved the way” for the acceptance of homosexual “marriage.”

The church that has forsaken the biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage cannot consistently prohibit homosexual relations. The church that has caved in to the pressures of the lawlessness of these last days in the matter of remarriage will eventually do so also in the matter of homosexuality.

This is by no means only or even mainly the CRC.

Smedes naturally pitches his plea, with its argument, toward the CRC. For this reason, I must mention the CRC often in this editorial. But I will not have any reader suppose, or charge, that I like to point the finger at the CRC. Not here! Not whatsoever! This editorial is fundamentally uninterested in the CRC. It is interested in an argument.

For the overwhelming majority of Protestant churches approve the remarriage of divorced persons. The overwhelming majority of churches that like to be regarded as conservative—Presbyterian and Reformed churches—approve the remarriage of divorced persons and welcome them to the Lord’s Table. Their reasons are the same as those that moved the CRC to change its stand on remarriage. And their defense of this wickedness, when they are challenged, is also the same: the wideness of God’s mercy.

Smedes’ argument applies to them all.

When some of them waggle their finger at the CRC concerning an alleged “softness” toward homosexuality, they play the hypocrite.

The Argument Refuted

The argument for approving homosexual relations in the church is effectively answered by a church’s faithful, biblical stand on marriage, sex, divorce, and remarriage. The plain teaching of the Bible is the authoritative rule for the thankful life of the believer in marriage. The difficult marital circumstances of some are not allowed to compromise, much less negate, the Word of God. The true church refuses to “factor human reality into its reading of the Lord’s words.”

Members of the congregation, including ministers and elders, look their own children and grandchildren who find themselves in such circumstances in the eyes and call them to a life of self-denial: being a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. The grace of Christ is sufficient. By the Spirit of Christ, their brief earthly life will be God-glorifying and rich. And the glory that will be their reward is so great that the present suffering is not worthy to be compared with it. Christ will eternally make up to them their temporal loss.

As for the wideness of God’s mercy, who can sufficiently extol it?

Higher than heaven, deeper than hell, wider than the east is from the west!

Wide enough to forgive, bless, and save fornicators, adulterers, unbiblically divorced, remarried, and homosexuals! As it is wide enough to forgive, bless, and save those who are worse sinners than any of them: the proud!

In the way of our repentance!

Only in the way of our repentance.

The teaching that God’s mercy saves impenitent sinners who go on in their sin is a false gospel. It is the heresy of antinomism. It invents a “faire and easie way to heaven,” only to send the comfortable sinners to hell.

Wide is God’s mercy.

But narrow is the way.

Does anyone remember anymore at the end of the 20th century?

Narrow is the way.

— DJE