In a move that has been hailed as “historical”, the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church (“NG Kerk”) last week Friday gave the thumbs-up to same-sex relationships.
In 2007 already, the General Synod decided that membership of the Church should be open to all people, irrespective of their sexual orientation, on condition that they have been baptised (i.e. traditionally, sprinkled as infants) and confess faith in Jesus Christ. As such, the Church allows people who are openly homosexual, to “partake of all the benefits of the Church as a covenant community”, including practicing the sacraments and serving in positions of leadership of the Church. In terms of the 2007 decision further, while theology students who identify as gay may be admitted as ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church, their admission is conditional on them remaining celibate (i.e. not actively practicing homosexuality).
What makes Friday’s decision so “historical”, is that celibacy is no longer a condition for ministers of the Church. Also, while the Church stands by its earlier decision that “marriage” is reserved for the union of one man and one woman, ministers who are willing and authorised by the Department of Home Affairs to do so, may solemnize civil unions between persons of the same sex.
(In this regard, it is explained that in 2006, South Africa became the 5th nation in the world to allow same-sex marriage. The Civil Union Act, 2006 makes it possible for same-sex couples to get married, alternatively to conclude a civil partnership which have largely the same rights, responsibilities and legal consequences as a marriage.)
Recognising that there are diverse viewpoints regarding same-sex relationships in the Dutch Reformed Church, the General Synod confirms the right of individual church councils however to formulate their own standpoints and practices in this regard. (The General Synod’s decision can be viewed here – http://ngkerk.org.za/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/BESLUITE-SELFDEGESLAGVERHOUDINGE.1.pdf)
Free to choose
While the leaders of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) personally and according to their reading of Scriptures, hold to a different theological view on the practice of homosexuality, we acknowledge that from a religious freedom perspective, the Dutch Reformed Church is and should be free to choose what it believes, teaches and preaches, practices and how it governs its internal affairs.
This right is guaranteed to the Church (and indeed to every faith community) by the constitutional rights to equality (section 9 of the Constitution), freedom of religion, belief and opinion (section 15), freedom of expression (section 16), freedom of association (section 18) read with the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities (section 31).
As an organisation, FOR SA’s rallying point has always been that, while as churches we are free to disagree with each other on issues of theology, we can agree on this: that it is not for the State to tell us what we may and may not believe, teach and preach, practice or how we should govern our internal affairs. That right belongs to God alone, who is the Head of the church (Ephesians 5:23).
Accordingly, while FOR SA’s leaders strongly disagree with the theological standpoint and stance adopted by the Dutch Reformed Church, in a secular society where pluralism is celebrated, we would fight for everyone’s right to have the freedom to believe whatever they want to. By this we as an organisation stand, and for this we will fight before Parliament, the human rights commissions and the courts, and even by marching in the streets if we must – for the sake of freedom for us all!
Unfortunately however, the Dutch Reformed Church’s decision may have a chilling effect on the religious freedom of churches who hold to a different conviction on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Let me explain: as more and more churches (in the USA, the UK, Europe and also in South Africa) fold on the issue of same-sex marriage, increasingly churches who hold to a strict interpretation of Scriptures such as Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10, will be seen as “narrow-minded”, “fundamentalist”, “bigoted” or even “homophobic”. Increasingly, pressure will be applied on these churches to accept that times have changed and to follow the example of others (like the Dutch Reformed Church) who have moved with the times. In other words, to compromise on their religious beliefs.
Seen from this perspective, it will become more and more difficult for churches and indeed individual believers, to defend their Biblical convictions before government commissions and the courts. Already pastors who, on grounds of conscience, religion and belief, refuse to conduct same-sex ceremonies (as current legislation explicitly entitles them to do), are being accused of “unfairly discriminating” against people practicing homosexuality. We should not be surprised when this conscientious objection clause protecting pastors, is met with a legal challenge in the future. Likewise, we should expect further pressure to hire openly homosexual staff at churches and those who resist on grounds of conscience or belief, should expect to feel the punch.
While, with the way the world is going, it may seem like a losing battle to fight for Biblical convictions and beliefs, we dare not compromise or capitulate. This is a time to be strong and courageous. God does not expect us to be “politically correct”, but to be obedient to His Word – even if it costs us our churches, our relationships, our reputation, our very lives. In this, we would do well to remind ourselves of Jesus’s command to His disciples “[not to] be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Not free from the consequences of choice
Although the Dutch Reformed Church (as any other church) should be free to choose what they believe, Scripture tells us that we are not free from the consequences of our choices. The Bible makes it very clear that God will hold spiritual leaders accountable for the way in which they lead those under their care (Hebrews 13:17).
“Love wins” seems to be the mantra of the day, and one that many churches and believers have bought into. After all, doesn’t Jesus love all people? And didn’t He say that like Him, we should love all people including therefore those practicing homosexuality?
Yes, Jesus loves all people and yes, so should we! As any parent will quickly tell you however, there is a big difference between loving someone and approving of their actions. When a child disobeys his/her parent’s instruction not to play in the road for example, the parent does (or should) not love the child any less for doing so. That does not however mean that the parent approves of the child’s disobedience.
Now what would a loving parent do in that instance? For the sake of love and keeping the peace, not say anything and leave the child in the road, knowing full well that the consequences could be disastrous and even result in death? Or for the sake of love, pull the child out of the road and with urgency and tears, warn the child of the potential consequences of his/her disobedience? Surely, “love warns”!
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, the apostle Paul warns God’s church in Corinth as follows: “Don’t you realise that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people – none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”.
In this Scripture, Paul, knowing that God’s desire is not for anyone to perish but for everyone to have eternal life (John 3:16), is pleading with those indulging in sexual immorality and other sin, to get out of the road. His warning is not because he does not love, but because of love and to save them from eternal death! Surely, as followers of Jesus Christ, having His love in us, we ought to do the same?
The world does not understand this kind of love and will hate us for it, potentially even punish us for it. But Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
And so, as people who also once were sinners in need of a Saviour, we keep on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with all people and calling all to repentance, so that they too might inherit the awesome, wondrous, everlasting Kingdom of God. This is obedience to the Great Commission. This is love.
*FOR SA is a non-profit Christian organisation, working to protect and promote religious freedom and the autonomy of the Church in South Africa. For more information about FOR SA and/or to join the organisation at no cost, visit our webpage at www.forsa.org.za. Also follow us on Facebook at “Freedom of Religion SA” for regular updates on religious freedom locally and worldwide.