An EPC Pastor’s Review of the CRC Report on Human Sexuality

The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) and my Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) are fraternal, ecumenical partners and are both denominational members of the World Communion of Reformed Churches as well as the World Reformed Fellowship. The CRC in 2016 appointed a study committee to address questions of human sexuality, with that committee publishing its report this past weekend. The report can be found here and its executive summary here. The committee is soliciting feedback from CRC congregations and classes, and its 2021 synod may yet edit their report in light of that response. The EPC similarly dealt with these subjects through a revised position paper (2016) and extensive pastoral letter (2018). There is much to commend in the CRC’s report, and several areas that the EPC could stand to emulate or consider imitating in modifying our own position and pastoral papers on this subject. My areas of concern focus in particular on the report’s therapeutic approach, minimizing the necessity of repentance, sidestepping important confessional questions on transgenderism and preferred pronouns, and the intrinsic evil of pornography.

Areas of Appreciation

I want to begin my comments with the report’s strong conclusion, which addresses the CRC’s confessional position regarding human sexuality: It observes that Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108’s teaching that the 7th commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) condemns all “unchastity”, which includes premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex (pg. 146, 148). Citing Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 81-82 and Belgic Confession 29, the report affirms that the CRC’s confessions already teach that the church may never ignore or affirm these expressions of unchaste sexual immorality, and instead must warn that those who practice such sins and refuse to repent will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (pg. 146). The report concludes that the CRC’s confessional teaching is biblically warranted “because these sins threaten a person’s salvation. The Scriptures call the church to warn people to flee sexual immorality for the sake of their souls and to encourage them with God’s presence and power to equip them for holy living. A church that fails to call people to repentance and offer them the hope of God’s loving deliverance is acting like a false church (pg. 148).”

This is sober and hard language, but loving. The CRC ought to be commended for starkly stating the truth of scripture and not mincing words, and the pastoral criticisms I include should be interpreted in light of the very clear and orthodox way the report actually concludes. Before I raise my pastoral concerns, I want to comment on a number of additional areas that the report is very strong on and from which the EPC could learn.

The report begins with laying out a redemptive-historic framework (creation, fall, redemption, consummation; pg. 14ff), which is wielded well and used helpfully throughout the report to understand biblical ethics of sexuality. It addresses the relationship of science to the revelation of God (pg. 37-39), and while I am more sympathetic to G. C. Berkouwer than either this report or the CRC’s 1991 report on the subject, I am quite appreciative of the way the topic is addressed. In particular, I was impressed at the report’s willingness to criticize one of the CRC’s own classes for equating science and general revelation: “To thus equate science with God’s revelation, thereby giving it divine authority, is a serious error and makes a mockery of the Reformation teaching concerning sola Scriptura. Rather than investing science with divine authority, it is better to stress that science is provisional (pg. 38-39).” Well said!

The report’s handling of Matthew 19:11-12, on marriage and men made eunuchs for God’s kingdom, is excellent (pg. 23-24, 76-78). The passage is first considered within the report’s assessment of celibacy, which effectively demonstrates that the “gift” Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 7 is not singleness, but self-control in holiness (pg. 26-27). Being made a eunuch for God’s kingdom is about limiting sexual expression to the appropriate bounds of marriage and doing so in the exercise of the fruit of the Spirit. The EPC declined to even reference this passage in our report, and we could do well to examine the CRC’s fantastic exegesis and application of it to questions of human sexuality.

The CRC had previously issued a strong position paper on homosexuality in 1973, and this new report ably and helpfully reviews and reaffirms its content, including with updated arguments against revisionist positions (i.e. pro-homosexual sex; pg. 97-113). This report repeated the position from 1973 that homosexual sex is sin but homosexual orientation is not (e.g. pg. 93, 95). As I have previously written from the perspective of the Westminster Confession I think this latter category could be better nuanced, but generally affirm and appreciate it. This is another area where the EPC failed to make a definitive stand one way or the other, and we could learn from the CRC’s working through the issue

One of the strongest rhetorical sections of the report was when it equated transgenderism with gnosticism: “Biblically speaking, a person does not have a soul, but rather is a soul. Likewise, a person does not have a body, but is a body. This means we cannot treat a person’s subjectively experienced gender as a fact of their existence independent of their biological sex. We cannot claim that a person’s true identity resides in their subjective sense of self, as distinct from the body with which they were born (pg. 81).” This led to one of the best and most firm sections of the report:

As Christians, we believe that the body is a gift from God. Tragically, due to the fall, through no fault of their own, some people experience a disconnect between their gender identity and their sex. Nevertheless, there is no redemption in embracing this disconnect as a sign of God’s good intent. There is no redemption in trying to live as a male when God has given one the body of a female, or in trying to live as a female when God has given one the body of a male. We do not help people to flourish when we encourage them to transition from one sex to another. To transition is merely to intensify the problem. No matter how hard a person tries, or regardless of what invasive procedures they undergo, they cannot change the fact that God has made them male or female (pg. 81).

“There is no redemption in trying to live as something other what God created you to be.” The report provides this piece of pastoral advice for adults who are transgender, “Those who are transgendered or are experiencing gender dysphoria should be encouraged to be reconciled to their created self” (pg. 84). To my knowledge, this would be the first statement from a confessing Reformed church that post-op transgender people should be reconciled with their created self, i.e. revert back to their pre-op condition as best as possible. The report wisely advises pastors not to confuse themselves with doctors or psychiatrists in this process. This is a bold and courageous stand by the CRC. The EPC failed to provide guidance to pastors on how to encourage post-op transgender people in repentance, and the CRC’s clarity and straightforwardness here is refreshing.

Areas of Pastoral Critique

My criticisms of the report are (mostly) pastoral and tonal in nature, not theological, and should be understood in the view of my being appreciative of the report. That being said, I do not want to minimize my concerns, only contextualize them. While the report’s conclusion is blunt and unambiguous in saying sexual immorality is incompatible with salvation and demands repentance, the rest of the report is best characterized as therapeutic. Overwhelmingly, the report couches its teaching as designed to comfort those suffering, whether that be from pornography in using it or loving someone using it, being transgender or experiencing gender dysphoria, or desiring or practicing homosexual sex. My concern is not with comforts of the gospel being offered, but the comforts of the gospel necessitate acknowledging the horrendousness of sin in repentance, something the report does not meaningfully do outside its conclusion.

The number of times the report calls sexually sinful behavior sin is small, and the number of times it asserts that people practicing sexual sins (in particular transgenderism and homosexuality) is smaller. The section on pornography (pg. 39-58) does not address porn users repenting until page 54, and only then briefly addresses it as something that is possible by God’s grace and that it will lead to healing (therapeutic). Pornography itself is only expressly called “sin” in off-handed ways (pg. 45, 51, 53, 57). However, the church at large is condemned for being hypocritical on sexual sin, and needing to repent of its sin of objectifying women as part of church culture (pg. 50) in order to take pornography seriously. Obviously, sin should be repented of, and the church as a congregation of sinners needs to repent regularly. The report, however, tends to frame its argument this way: the church has done a terrible job on this issue by being unloving, belligerent, hypocritical, judgmental, and cannot truly reach people engaging in this sin until it shapes up, while the people who are committing the sin need to have hope that it will be better, and by the way, they need to repent, perhaps if we think to mention it.

This pattern holds for homosexuality: the church has failed and needs to repent (pg. 95, 114), while the homosexual person should not have their sinful desires/actions focused upon by the church, but reminded that church membership is “for the repentant” and that they will be supported in grace when they “fall” (pg. 121), as well as transgenderism: the church needs to repent of placing “unnecessary gender expectations” upon people (pg. 85), which is the only thing behavior actually called sinful in this section (pg. 81-82), and churches need to receive transgender people as persons in God’s image “without judgment” (pg. 88).

Perhaps, hidden from this EPC pastor, the CRC is overrun with hypocritical churches that tolerate adultery and pornography and objectify women, yet heedlessly condemn homosexuality and transgenderism. But I suspect the pattern here stems from trying to outweigh the heavy conclusion of the report with a sense of openness that being franker about damning sin would obscure. Of course, loving the sexually immoral is incumbent upon the church; but without the report’s three-page conclusion, the preceding 145 pages would give the impression that sexual immorality, while disappointing and lamentable, is not the real problem compared to the way sexually immoral sinners are being treated by Christ’s church.

And the report’s therapeutic ethos bleeds into its practical recommendations. Each section of the report concludes with recommendations for churches, pastors, and friends of the sexually immoral. Yet, for a denomination that believes the true church is known by the mark of exercising discipline in punishing sin (Belgic Confession 29), and a report that alludes to this in its conclusion, the report is absent of any recommendations on how to implement this disciplinary punishment. Well, with the exception of describing a CRC congregation’s decision to exercise discipline against the sin of transgenderism as “unfortunate” (pg. 74). The report states that “homosexuality is not something that Christians can simply ignore or tolerate” (pg. 108), but fails to describe what biblical intolerance could or should look like in the life of the church. Unhelpfully, since both those who practice homosexuality and who homosexually oriented are labelled “homosexual” in the report, the closest the report seems to come to this guidance is an affirmation of practicing homosexuals in church leadership, “Congregations…needs to repent when [their] attitudes and actions are sinful: treating homosexuals as if they are worse sinners than those caught up in pornography, premarital or extramarital sex; overlooking them for positions of leadership, including those of pastor, elder, and deacon instead of considering whether they are, like all officebearers need to be, living holy and godly lives (pg. 114).” The first clause is clearly describing homosexual activity, leading to the implication that practicing homosexuals should be considered eligible for church leadership, something which is not a hypothetical situation for the CRC, as the recent diaconal installation of a woman in a lesbian marriage shows. This is either a glaring, inexcusable oversight or a logical extension of the generally therapeutic demeanor of the report.

There is no greater example of the therapeutic impulse in the report than its treatment of preferred pronouns for transgender people. The report uses masculine pronouns for a FtM transgender person (pg. 4) and negatively assesses case studies where a transgender person’s preferred pronouns are not used by the church in favor of the pronouns corresponding to the person’s biological sex (pg. 59, 74). Its guidance on churches showing hospitality urges Christians to use the preferred pronouns of transgender persons, implies that to not do so encourages suicide, and suggests that to use these pronouns is an example of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:22 of “becoming all things to all men.” On the other hand, the report urges people who do not want to use transgender pronouns to “strive to avoid giving offense as much as possible” (pg. 86).

Well, with friends like these.

If, as the report argues, transgenderism is inconsistent with biblical teaching, sinfully pursues a design other than God’s, and those who identify as transgender remain their biological sex regardless of what efforts they make to the contrary, then how is using transgender pronouns appropriate? Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 112 on the 9th commandment (“You shall not bear false witness”) teaches that this command requires that, “I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are the very devices the devil uses, and …I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it.” Insofar as language means anything, addressing someone by pronouns that do not correspond to their biological sex is to participate in a lie. To call a man by female pronouns is hardly speaking the truth candidly or openly acknowledging it. Rather, it is participation in a kabuki theatre of love by speaking falsehood into our neighbor’s lives.

When CRC members are demanded by their employers (public school teachers come readily to mind) to use transgender pronouns, and decline to do so, will the CRC support the congregants who spoke the truth? Or will the church side with the institutions that demanded affirming a lie? The report, as it stands, provides no assistance to those who want to speak the truth. Like the Westminster Standards, faithful adherence to the Heidelberg Catechism requires that Christians do not use transgender pronouns. It is odd that the report does not include transgenderism in its conclusion on the confessional status of human sexuality. The subject is completely absent from the report’s conclusion and assessment of the Three Forms of Unity, but is well within the mission of the committee (e.g. the committee’s mandate includes, “Reflection and evaluation of whether or not, with respect to same-sex behavior and other issues identified in the study, it will be advisable for future synods to consider…declaring a status confessionis” pg. 3). The absence of the CRC’s confessional position on gender identity is unhelpful and a strange exclusion from the report’s conclusion.

Overall, the report’s handling of pornography was good, and did not soften the condemnation of pornography’s evil. However, the report made significant missteps in its approach to the subject, beginning with its definition of pornography. The report uses the Oxford dictionary (hardly a theological or technical source) to define pornography, which includes the intent to stimulate erotic feelings (pg. 39). This is definitionally questionable: does the erotic effect of printed or visual material not matter? Could something be objectively pornographic, regardless of the intent of its creators or its receptions from its viewers? The report does not bother to consider these questions, which are not important. The Barna Group published a report in 2016, The Porn Phenomenon, which I will reference in my engagement with the CRC’s report. The relationship of form and function of pornography (i.e. its definition) matters to determining what is pornography and what we ought to be addressing; the Barna report discusses how among pornography users there is division on this answer, but that most teenagers are more willing to call something pornography based on form than their adult counterparts (Barna, pg. 11ff).

This defitional ambiguity of the CRC’s report leads to another problem: the report is never able to say that pornography is wrong in and of itself. The report does a fine job detailing the ruinous effects of porn (in fact, an entire subsection is devoted to this topic, pg. 41ff), but if those effects were remediated, then what makes pornography wrong? If pornography no longer glorified violence, exploited the poor, encouraged racism, promoted adultery by incentivizing it from the participants, and was viewed openly without deceit, would it still be sinful? All of these things are terrible, and to its credit the report does say that pornography is designed to incite lust, and then spends two paragraphs on lust (pg. 47-48), but the majority of the report grounds the immorality of pornography in its effects. The report actually recommends taking a “30-day porn fast” as a way to stop using pornography (pg. 53). If “porn” is replaced with “sin” in that recommendation, the therapeutic and behavioral modification approach to the report, rather than an ethic of repentance, is made clear.

Figures like prominent Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber are now arguing that porn consumption is fine and good for the Christian as long as these effects are redressed. Virtual reality pornography is already widespread in Japan and is becoming more common place in the western world. If pornography is wrong primarily because of its terrible effects, all that it takes to approve of it is to address those effects. Rather, pornography should be recognized as sinful because it is inherently the pursuit of sexual activity outside of marriage; and it is intrinsically unloving, since the porn consumer places their own interests ahead of the interests of others (spouse, the people being viewed, and the people crafting and distributing pornography) by incentivizing them to sin rather than pursue holiness, and reduces the people viewed into objects for self-gratificatin. Pornography is the opposite of the imitation of Christ’s love (Eph. 5:25-28). It is disappointing that the report does not say this.

The report errs in two other crucial ways on pornography that are significant pastoral concern. First, it thankfully acknowledges that women consume pornography, but again focuses primarily on the effect viewing pornography has women (pg. 43, 50, 56; it makes them feel bad). Their shame of viewing it and the pressure exerted by men on women to have them view it are the overwhelming subjects addressed for women who view pornography. Yet, 32% of pornography users are women, and 57% view it primarily for personal arousal (Barna, pg. 143; for men it is 66%). The report spends a massive amount of space discussing the way pornography alters the way men see women, and reprimands men for the sin of demeaning women. The report appropriately castigates men for their usage of pornography, but never acknowledges that ~20% of pornography users are women who are viewing it for sexual pleasure and that these women are objectifying men and need to repent as much as their male counterparts. This is a gender imbalance of there ever was one, and removes the moral agency from women. Pastors need to be able to confront women, not only men, for the sin of pornography. Women who consume pornography are not only victims, but victimizers, and need to repent.

Second, the report argues that an effect of violence in pornography is growth in real-world sexual violence among men (pg. 43, 44, 46, 48, 50, 53, 58). There is no doubt that sexual violence is a great evil and that pornographic glorification of sexual violence is also a great evil. But the data does not support the claim that viewing more violent pornography makes men more sexually violent, and the report never cites any evidence that pornography has “primed men to be sexually violent” (pg. 50; see Barna, pg. 98-100).  Rather, pornography suppresses men’s ability to have real-world sexual relationships, something the report acknowledges in passing (pg. 44-45). Pornography does not prime men for sexual violence, but suffocates their ability to have pleasure in God’s design for human relationships. Ross Douthat’s discussion of this problem in The Decadent Society (particularly pgs. 119-136) is probably the best summary of this effect.

This matters because the reports makes it out that men consuming pornography are being condition into violent sexual predators. This is false, and will not help pastors in providing counsel to men struggling with pornography. The report presents this effect with a sense of inevitability, which is certainly not pastorally or spiritually helpful for the teenager or man struggling with pornography. The report promotes fear and hysteria and is out of touch with the reality of pornography’s effects on men.

The CRC’s report does an excellent job of laying out the confessional and biblical teaching on sexual morality, and its strong positions are taken are laudable. But its therapeutic tone in pastoral advice does a disservice to the church, and undermines its theological convictions.