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Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.

“Bold Enough to God Against Scripture”

The Christian News, June 20, 1988, presents reports from several magazines and newspapers about a new book, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, by Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church. One report stated:

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong’s outspokenness on sexuality, particularly his call for the blessing of gay and lesbian unions, so vexed church conservatives earlier this year that they demanded his ouster from the House of Bishops. Now the controversial bishop from the Diocese of Newark has written a book that sets forth the theological underpinnings of his sexual ethic—a book that seems destined to rile church traditionalists even more. “‘Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality,” which is now being published by Harper & Row, after the United Methodist-related Abingdon Press abandoned it because it found the manuscript so potentially divisive, highlights what the bishop contends are some of the contradictions and prejudices in the Bible, focusing on sexuality. He suggests that the church “be bold enough” to go against the Scripture if it feels so led by the Holy Spirit, ” and argues that “the debate in the church about issues of human sexuality is a debate over the authority of Scripture and over the role of both Scripture and the church in sustaining the ignorance that is the basis of much prejudice. “

From this same paper comes another quote which elaborates on the above:

Much of the prejudice in contemporary Christianity, a New Jersey prelate maintains, can be blamed on literal interpretation of Scripture as practiced in the fundamentalist camp. 

Said the bishop, “I hate to see the Bible co-opted by mindless fundamentalist people who want to impose their view of the Bible on everybody else.” 

Particularly distressing to Bishop Spong are “‘Bible-believing Christians” who are “quite convinced that they correctly know what the Bible says on the issue of homosexuality . . . . Homosexuality is wrong. It is a crime against nature. It is the most heinous sin.” 

“If the Bible has nothing more than the letter of literalism to offer to our understanding of human sexuality today,” Bishop Spong writes, “then I must say that I stand ready to reject the Bible in favor of something that is more human, more humane, more lifegiving and, dare I say, more godlike.” 

Analyzing passages in Romans and I Corinthians, Bishop Spong concludes—while leaving room for debate on this point—that the Apostle Paul in all probability did not approve of homosexual activity.

But Paul’s position, the bishop suggests in his book, should not be viewed as any more absolute than other “antiquated, culturally conditioned ideas” of his—Paul’s anti-Semitism, for example, or his admonition for women to wear veils. 

So much has changed since the authors of the Old and New Testaments were written—the bishop cites growing scientific evidence that homosexuality is not a chosen orientation but a biologically determined trait—that a reassessment of biblical biases against homosexuality is warranted, the bishop argues. 

“I wonder why people think first century people (like Paul) had sufficient knowledge of homosexuality so that their views of it should continue?” Bishop Spong mused during an interview here. 

Despite his criticism of the biblical texts, the bishop said, “My crusade is to be able to save the Bible.”

Shocking it is when one who is a leader in the Episcopal Church would make some of the above claims. Imagine: one is supposedly led by the Spirit at times to deny parts of the Bible! Imagine: Paul must not be regarded as speaking authoritatively on some issues since his were “antiquated, culturally conditioned ideas.” One might ask, “Where is the guidance of the Spirit? What does this view do to the truth of the inspiration of Scripture?”

One can not help but wonder whether this must not, necessarily, be the conclusion to which the theories of Van Till (“The Fourth Day”) lead? Van Till would distinguish between the packaging and the content of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. But Spong, above, uses essentially the same argument with respect to Scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, pre-marital sex, or even its “anit-Semitism.” Spong too would reject what he would identify as “packaging” while maintaining certain of the moral teachings of Scripture. Error, like a sled going downhill in the snow, goes faster and faster until it reaches the very bottom. Spong appears to have reached that bottom.

The Synod of the Reformed Church in America

The Banner, September 5, 1988, reports on the Reformed Church of America’s Synodical meeting of 1988. The items of note are:

By a very close vote (139 to 132) the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, meeting in June, approved a motion “to include baptized children at the Lord’s Table.” 

The admission of children to the Lord’s Supper remains a local option . . . . 

After a heated debate the synod rejected (154 to 101) a proposal that the RCA become a full participant in the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). In COCU nine denominations in the United States are moving toward full recognition of each other’s functions . . . . 

The synodical delegates were willing to change the RCA church order so that each of the church’s six particular synods sends three elders or ministers—two of whom should be women—to the general synod. This new rule will have to be approved by two-thirds of the classes. 

The other synodical delegates (altogether an RCA general synod has 290 delegates) will be sent by the classes. The number of delegates is related to the number of church members within the classis. 

The RCA is going to make another study on the role and authority of women in church, which will include a summary of all previous RCA studies on this issue. The report should be ready for the General Synod of 1990. 

The assembly also passed motions on genetic engineering, acts of terrorism, and AIDS (I We reject the perception that AIDS. . . is in any discernible sense the judgment of God”). 

In 1973 the RCA stated that abortion for reasons of personal convenience is not permissible. This year it appointed a task force to study the effects of abortion “with equal emphases on both the mother and the developing child.” 

. . . RCA membership is still suffering a slow decline: the number of active communicants dropped from 211,890 at the 1987 general synod to 207,474 this year. Total RCA baptized membership stands at 344,836.

The above report indicates how far the RCA has drifted from its original mooring. Its statement that they “reject the perception that AIDS . . . is in any . . . discernible sense the judgment of God” reminds one of a blind person rejecting the perception that a sunset is of indescribable beauty. One might ask also if there is any relationship between the declining membership and the continuing drift of the RCA into more liberal channels. It is sad but true that there appears to be very little emphasis any more on anything that is truly Reformed.