Gay Folks and Dort
There’s nothing against gay folks in the Canons of Dort. There’s nothing against lesbian people in the Belgic Confession. There’s nothing against bisexual and transgendered people in the Heidelberg Catechism. There’s nothing against LGBTQ people in the Athanasian Creed, nor the Nicene Creed, nor the Apostles Creed. So if a church is truly conservative, and adheres to the Doctrinal Standards, its Board of Elders is free to welcome and affirm LGBTQ.
My wife was a delegate to General Synod this year, and she told me that some people were against the Belhar Confession on the grounds that it was an implicit affirmation of homosexuality. At first I couldn’t get my head around this. Then it struck that you could say the same about the Canons of Dort. Well, if that’s so, doesn’t that tell us what’s important here?
You could object that Johannes Bogermannus and the Synod of Dort would never have welcomed LGBTQ people in their congregations. You’d probably be right. For all we know, they might have executed them! After all, the same folks who supported the Synod executed Oldenbarnevelt, and he was just an Arminian! (More to the point, he opposed the House of Orange.)
That objection misses the point, because that’s not the way it works. They left us what they left us, and the Canons and Church Order have continuing value for us and guides us and even compel us. We are not guided and compelled by what they said and did on many other things. In fact, they would consider us more dangerous than Oldenbarnevelt for our separation of church and state, and our worship practices would horrify them.
You could object that the Doctrinal Standards are silent on homosexuality because they never anticipated it being an issue. Why address what no one disputes condemning? But to this objection one could answer that the doctrinal standards saw no need to address slavery, if only because everyone accepted it. This is partly why the Dutch Reformed churches have a shameful record on racism and apartheid, in both North America and South Africa. The remedy is to enrich the Standards by adding the Belhar Confession.
The real issue here is not what can be anticipated by the Doctrinal Standards, but what is suitable to be addressed. What issues are church-dividing issues? Which issues are of the first priority and which are secondary and therefore adiaphora — matters over which we are allowed to disagree? It would seem that for many in the RCA right now the issue of homosexuality is far more critical than predestination. This is a problem.
A Presbyterian friend once told me that the strict Calvinist theologian Charles Hodge used to drink one glass of wine a year, as a matter of principle. He was so opposed to the Abstinence Movement and its Methodistical connections.
Once I served on a committee of Classis Ontario which had the task of receiving pastors and churches who were leaving the United Church of Canada. One of our elders from Exeter said that he didn’t know about homosexuality but we shouldn’t let any of them in because none of them, even the conservatives, knew about the Lord’s Day. Because how much time I’d have to give the committee my consistory was hesitant to let me serve on it. Then they learned that some of the evangelical pastors who wanted to come in were also Masons, and they put me on it. They said that if they came in “we’d just end up like the United Church.” Yet our Synod Executive, who had been a Presbyterian, saw no problem with lodge membership, and argued, ironically, for “welcoming these poor people who have suffered discrimination and exclusion.”
The Reformed Church in America may be defined as that Dutch Reformed denomination which decided not to make lodge membership a church-dividing issue. This cost the RCA many thousands of members in the Midwest. Against the request of Classis Holland, the General Synod of 1880 maintained that because the Doctrinal Standards do not mention secret societies, lodge membership is a matter of local discipline. Local boards of elders have discretion on church membership, and local classes have equal discretion on admittance to the ministry. Our Classis Ontario committee abided by this decision.
The General Synod’s decision reflected both good theology and political pressure. So it was with the Council of Nicea. We are not Donatists, after all. The church’s decisions, even when godly and correct, are never exempted from Total Depravity. But the General Synod’s decision was both truly catholic and truly Reformed (the second implying the first, of course). It was Reformed in its estimation of the office of local elders in a truly presbyterian church order, and it was catholic its doctrinal priorities. As was Charles Hodge.
In the next few years we will see just how Reformed our denomination is. We will see if our priorities and interests are guided by our Doctrinal Standards. Wouldn’t it be great if the RCA were to have a Task Force to conduct a widely ranging consultation on the Holy Trinity, and a denominational dialogue on the Resurrection, and to set the Sovereignty of God as a ten-year-goal?
Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter is Pastor of the Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn NY.