Training the Church on Sexuality
In the midst of controversy, confusion, and competing claims of truth, what is the historical practice of the church? Historically the church seeks to rightly divide (2 Tim. 2: 15 KJV) the word of God, replace confusion with clarity, and offer statements of belief and understanding. The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has recently engaged in a form of this practice, commissioning study and reflection on matters on which there are competing claims of truth, ultimately recognizing the Human Sexuality Report (HSR) as a document that rightly divides the word of God and applies it helpfully to the life of the church. Controversy, confusion, and competing claims of truth resolve into concurrence, clarity, and concord of truth.
Not only was this the recent practice of the CRC, but the CRC has its entire history rooted in the practice of clarifying and naming our beliefs, hence our identity as a creedal and confessional church. Calls for clarity and conviction on matters of human sexuality fit squarely within our tradition and chosen identity.
But the CRC is not the only tradition to speak helpfully into the realm of doctrinal clarity. Though not officially adopted as confessions, we benefit from the statements of belief adopted in other traditions. The Westminster Standards come to mind, as well as the statements such as the Belhar Confession that can speak prophetically to us. Two recent and focused catechisms of sexuality also fit the bill of confessional-type documents that help us to positively understand what we believe in an era of controversy, confusion, and competing claims of truth. Those catechisms are the Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality by Dr. Branson Parler and The New Reformation Catechism on Human Sexuality by Rev. Christopher Gordon.
Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality
The Great Lakes Catechism is the shorter of the two catechisms, consisting of nineteen questions and answers. The catechism begins by rooting our understanding of sexuality in the goodness of God’s creation. Early on the catechism also does well to remind us of how we do and do not come to know truth relating to sexuality and marriage. In a day and age where the source of truth is so often located internally (even in the church at times), this is a healthy reminder or corrective that we need.
Question and Answer 3 helpfully corrects and guides our understanding in this area:
Q: May we then look to our bodies and sexual desires to learn what is right?
A: No. Our expressions of sexuality are distorted and twisted by sin. Sin warps us in many ways, including our desires, thoughts, and actions pertaining to our sexuality. Because our sexuality is affected by the fall, we should not act on our desires, inclinations, or thoughts without first testing them by what Scripture teaches is honorable, right, pure, and lovely.
As the title suggests, the catechism spends considerable time thinking about marriage/family. Seven out of nineteen questions have to do with marriage and family. One of the focuses of the catechism appears to be correction of imbalances in the church, not just erroneous teaching on sexuality. Marriage and family are both good, but at times are not held in proper balance in the life of the church. The catechism seeks to correct the errors of ultimate family loyalty or identity and undue idealization of and pressure to marry.
A topic that the CRC has maybe not done definitive work on to this point is the discussion of attraction, desire, and temptation. This catechism touches on the question of attraction in question eighteen, but does not delve into any differentiation of these closely related terms. This is an area where the church will do well to seek greater clarity, if for no other reason than to make sure that we are not speaking past each other.
The New Reformation Catechism on Human Sexuality
The New Reformation Catechism is purposely modelled after, or based on, the Heidelberg Catechism. As such, the catechism is distinctly intended to be pastoral in focus. True to form, the catechism begins by speaking to our comfort. I love that the catechism not only begins with comfort, but introduces the idea of identity as foundational. By asking us “Why is it comforting that we have a new identity in Jesus Christ?” in question number one, the catechism is speaking directly to the core issue at the heart of so much confusion today. Without a rooting in our identity in Christ, we will ultimately seek our identity in ourselves and our desires. Gordon counters this right off the bat and rightly sets the terms or the framework for the rest of the catechism.
Q: Why is it comforting that we have a new identity in Christ?
A: I am being remade into the image of Christ, to have a true identity – in body and soul, throughout the whole course of my life, to enjoy God and glorify him forever.
He redeemed my life with the precious blood of his Son, and has delivered me from the lie of Satan in the Garden. He also watches over me in such a way that he might free me from all sexual impurity as the temple of his indwelling; in fact, all things must work together to remake me into the image of his Son.
Because I have this new Identity, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, also assures me of God’s steadfast love, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to enjoy true freedom as a new creation.
Longer and more comprehensive than the Great Lakes Catechism, the New Reformation Catechism consists of forty-one questions and answers. After beginning with comfort and identity, the catechism again nods to the Heidelberg Catechism by framing question and answer two in the tripartite manner of the Heidelberg: Sin/Salvation/Service or Guilt/Grace/Gratitude.
The organization of the catechism into the categories of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration provides a helpful and familiar framework. A strength of this catechism is its pastoral focus. In particular we can see the pastoral emphasis reflecting in the restoration section. Questions and answers twenty-eight and twenty-nine speak with a gentleness, mercy, and assurance that is rightly reflective of scriptural assurances for those who are believers in Christ. Question twenty eight asks if God is angry with us when we struggle in striving against our sexual immorality and answers by reminding us that “God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness.” Question twenty nine addresses the idea of shame for same-sex attraction and reminds the reader that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and further admonishes the body of Christ not to shun “those who struggle against any sexual sin” but rather that we should “bear each other’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” These are healthy and needed reminders in the church.
Both of these catechisms are timely and helpful. The confusion and rebellion of the broader culture are creeping into the church. The church needs to articulate clearly how it understands God’s truth in order to apply it in these areas of life and to be able and willing to pass these truths along to future generations. Both of these catechisms can aid us in that endeavor. Both catechisms are heavily footnoted with scriptural references, allowing the reader, teacher, or student to exercise the Berean desire to examine these summarized truths in context. May God use these catechisms for his glory and for the edification of his church.