Recently many concerns have been expressed about the direction of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Our sister churches were entertaining a proposal regarding women in office and this caused alarm and dismay with many of us. This proposal was only the most recent in a string of disturbing events, books, statements to media, and articles. Many fervent prayers have been offered up for our sister churches, praying that God would lead them in the right direction. My purpose in this article is not to comment on the Dutch situation as such. Rather, I want us to consider where we’re at. Sometimes our Dutch brothers and sisters can be heard saying things like, “You just wait 10 or 15 years. Then you’ll see things our way. The immigrant churches are always lagging behind, but they will catch up.” Could there be some truth to this? For example, could the seeds for something like women in office have already been planted and permitted to grow among us?
Back in the early 1990s, I was a student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The Gateway was the student newspaper and a prominent writer there was an up and coming law student named Ezra Levant. Perhaps partly through his influence, The Gateway was remarkably open to publishing a variety of perspectives, including openly Christian ones. Homosexuality was a hot topic for discussion already in those days and I wrote something for The Gateway presenting the biblical perspective. This was published and I was not dragged before a human rights commission.
However, what I wrote did stir up a response from a group on campus, the Student Christian Movement (SCM). The students involved with SCM were mostly affiliated with the United Church, though perhaps there were some Anglicans and others as well. SCM wrote something for The Gateway arguing that the perspective I expressed was not representative of all Christians. They affirmed that many Christians have no problem with homosexual behaviour and see it as a healthy form of human sexuality. They offered a pamphlet to interested readers that would explain their position further. I took them up on this offer. Let me share some quotes from that pamphlet:
While the Bible obviously is familiar with homosexual relations, it seems to know little about homosexuality as such; this may be one of the reasons why homosexual acts are condemned as wilful transgressions of God’s orders for God’s people.
At best, the story of Sodom is very slim evidence for the notion that homosexuality is considered a ‘sin’ in the Bible.
Today we know a great deal more about the motives behind people’s actions than did the biblical writers. Economics and psychology have given us insights into behaviour that Paul did not have.
…homosexuality is no ‘sin’ unless it becomes a false god…human sexuality is sinful only if it stands in the way of love and justice.
Essentially, the SCM pamphlet said, “Yes, we know what the Bible says, but we know more than the biblical writers and so we can readily accommodate homosexuality in our ethical beliefs.”
I wrote a response to this pamphlet. I argued that the Bible itself claims to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God, not merely the religious or ethical views of human biblical writers which you can take or leave. Therefore, the Bible has to be our starting point and we have to take the Bible seriously on its own terms. Scripture is quite clear about the sinful nature of homosexual practice. For instance, the SCM pamphlet argued that the great evil in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was the fact that they were so inhospitable. That position conveniently ignores the clear teaching of Scripture in Jude 7. That leaves readers with three options: you can accept that clear teaching, you can pervert it to fit your own agenda, or you can argue that the biblical writers were ignorant. SCM’s approach was a blend of the latter two options, depending on what was convenient. In the end, however, one can only say that this was a sort of unbelief when it came to the text of the Bible.
The university environment was often hostile to an acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God. That hostility was what led me to begin studying apologetics, the defense of the faith. Through some study of the Christian Reconstruction movement, I had come across the name of Cornelius Van Til as a teacher of Reformed apologetics. I read his book The Defense of the Faith and it blew me away. He argued that any defense of Christianity has to start with the Word of God. The inerrant Word must always be our foundation and starting place. Early in my academic career, then, I became convinced that our Reformed faith requires us to honour the Word of God by putting it first in every field of study, whether apologetics or anything else. To do otherwise is to betray our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of all wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3) – it would be a sort of unbelief.
This bit of biography illustrates where I’m coming from. I have long been convinced that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God that must be our starting place in any endeavour. As Proverbs 3:5,6 puts it, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” We acknowledge him by honouring his Word and giving it priority in everything! As Psalm 36:9 says, “…in your light do we see light.” It’s in the light of God’s Word that we find our way in any endeavour, including academic pursuits. That has been my conviction and I have also sought to apply that conviction to issues like homosexuality.
That conviction has been repeatedly challenged and it still is. The thing that has changed is that the challenges no longer come from outside, but from within. For example, I recently received an e-mail from a Dutch ministerial colleague. He chided me for simply wanting to accept the plain teaching of Scripture regarding origins. He expressed his surprise that a doctor of theology would simply urge people to believe what the Bible plainly teaches. He argued that I need to take into account the conclusions of science as well. After all, science has made it clear that the Bible cannot be taken at face value on questions pertaining to origins. Moreover, many young people will not accept that answer, he told me. They will turn away from the church if you tell them to just believe what the Bible says about this. When I introduced him to the idea of simply believing and starting with the Word of God (as taught by Cornelius Van Til), he indicated that he had never heard of that concept before. Sadly, he was not convinced.
Now we could say, “That’s not surprising, coming from the Netherlands.” However, this allergy to starting with the Word of God exists among us in Canada as well and this is no secret. We have those among us who are either open to theistic evolution or actually hold to some form of theistic evolution. Theistic evolution is the idea that God used evolutionary processes to create human beings and other creatures. This teaching exists among us. It can only exist among us for the exact same reasons that the Student Christian Movement could hold that homosexual behaviour is not an abomination before God. Either the text of Scripture is twisted to support the teaching, or the text of Scripture is dismissed as being ignorant of contemporary scientific knowledge. Either way, what we have again is a special form of unbelief when it comes to the Word of God. It’s a refusal to humbly come before the Word with faith and accept it at face value as the faithful and inerrant Word of our Father. Something else is put before his Word. This unbelief already exists among us in the Canadian Reformed Churches and it is the seed which, unless rooted up, will grow into other forms of heterodoxy.
This is my cri du coeur, my cry from the heart for the Canadian Reformed Churches. I do not believe that what some of our Dutch brothers and sisters are sayings is necessarily true. I do not believe that it is inevitable that we will be entertaining women in office in the next decade or two. It does not have to be that way. But there are two very important things that need to firmly in place for such a development to be stymied.
First, we need to shore up the wide-spread conviction in our churches that the Word of God is to be our starting place in everything. Members need to hold this conviction and grow in it. Ministers and elders need to reinforce it among their congregations through teaching and preaching. We need to maintain a high view of Scripture which includes a child-like faith in its plain and clear meaning, despite whatever unbelieving scholarship may introduce to shake our faith. We must not be deceived into accepting that we are somehow intellectually lacking because we simply take the Scriptures at face value.
Second, careful vigilance is required with respect to our seminary. At the moment, we have every reason to be confident in our seminary professors and their teaching. We can be thankful to God for these faithful men who do have a high view of Scripture and who teach accordingly. We need to pray that God would continue to keep them faithful. They are only men and they need strength from above to remain steadfast. Moreover, these particular men will not be there forever. The time will come when they need to be replaced and they will need to be replaced with equally faithful men. When you have a federational seminary, this is of the utmost importance. Virtually all of our ministers take their theological training in Hamilton. As a result, if that training is not sound, our churches will not be sound for long either.
Let me conclude with some words of Scripture my father-in-law would often quote. We would often discuss developments in the Christian Reformed Church, especially relating to women in office and theistic evolution. He would always say that we need to be humble and be on guard, because Scripture says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:17). There is no getting around the clear message of that text.