Homosexuality and family as an urgent concern for the Church and theology
Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer
In the early 1960s, Dutch pastors A. Klamer and A.J.R. Brussaard took the initiative for a new approach regarding the attitude of the church towards homosexuality. In their own praxis, they had experienced that homosexuals were not people only encountered in exclusive ballet companies or exotic shows, but that they could be members of one’s own parish, hiding their feelings, often leading double lives, being silent or having desperate conflicts with their spouses, infinitely conscious of their anxiety and loneliness. They could be young people doubting their future, honourable family men, or even preachers themselves. The pastors organized self-support groups in which homosexual men and women could exchange their hopes and fears with one another – some of these groups still exist today. They also tried to reflect on the issues they encountered in interdisciplinary groups with psychiatrists and others, and strived to generate a public debate in both the church and society on what they had found. Shortly after, as part of the social upheavals of the late 1960s, homosexuals themselves ‘came out’ in large numbers, sometimes in quite radical ways, as they struggled for liberation.
Today, half a century after the beginning of this movement, after many study groups established by synods, reports and exhaustive decision processes, the acceptance of homosexual men and women in the protestant churches seems to have increased (the development in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly among the higher levels, is a different story). There are approximately sixty homosexual ministers who are more or less known as such in the congregations of the Dutch protestant churches. It is possible to bless (though not consecrate) same-sex partnerships with special liturgy in the Christian Service Book of the Protestant Church (2004). And it seems that even in the more orthodox and evangelical wings of our churches the rejection of homosexuality is not generally as extensive as it has been for some decades.
In this short paper I will start with the condemnation of homosexual behaviour (although it is not mentioned in these terms) in the chapter on the family in Common Grace by Abraham Kuyper (2). I will then evaluate his judgement on the culture of the ancient Greeks as well as that of their biblical counterparts in the light of contemporary hermeneutical insights (3). Following this I will move on to the consequences for the issue of homosexuality when the family is situated in theology as an ‘order of Creation’ as described by Kuyper. But, in a complete reversal, a similar justification of their own experiences by many gay theologians will also be considered (4). And I will end with some thoughts on the relationship between Christology and procreation (5) and of Christology and identity politics respectively – again, by focusing on both sides of the debate (6).
2. Abraham Kuyper on some ‘horrible things’ in his argument on the family as an order of Creation
According to Kuyper, the ordinations of the State and the Church became necessary only after the Fall, and that therefore shows that these institutions, in a certain sense, have a more secondary, reactive character, whereas the ordination of Matrimony already existed in Paradise. Thus, Matrimony is genuinely an original order of Creation and is truly independent of both the State and the Church (Kuyper 1904, 291ff.). Of course, after the Fall, Sin thoroughly tries to subvert this ordination, by means of passions, prostitution, adultery, rape and so on. ‘It is enough to mention the name of the “secret disease” to see through this abomination’ (o.c. p. 294). ‘The Holy Apostle has sketched for us in Rom. 1:18-21 in a very compelling way, how in the end exactly by this passion the pagan life in the flourishing and mighty Roman Empire had been undermined’ (o.c., p. 294). And even an excellent thinker such as Plato promoted such a tendency of undermining family life indirectly, by pleading for an education by the State, i.e. a failure to estimate the relationship between divine ordination before and after the Fall (295). That had to do with the customs of the ancient Greeks, that indeed promoted monogamy, but only as a side issue, because with them the cult of the beauty of the body prevailed, ‘and the proper desire of the Greek went out to free love, without any bounds or rule, let alone the abomination of which Paul made mention in Romans 1, when the idolatry, that was committed with the beautiful body, did forget the difference between the sexes in the end’ (o.c., p. 331).
Strikingly, Kuyper carefully omits to mention the ‘abomination’, ‘disease’ or ‘idolatry’ mentioned in Romans 1 by name. The same is true for his emotional speech in the Dutch Parliament in 1902. He has observed terrible and horrible things (‘schrikkelijke en gruwbare dingen’). ‘The evil at which I aim – I am not able to discuss the question publicly here – is the sin, for which God once turned cities into a valley of salt.’ Napoleon’s Code Pénal, a fruit of the French Revolution, revoked the prohibition of fornication with a person of the same sex. In 1911, Kuyper, in a coalition with the Roman Catholic politician Regout, would again take up an article (art. 248-bis) in the penal code that that gave harsher punishments to homosexuals who had sex with under-age persons than heterosexuals who had committed the same offence. It was not until 1971 that this inequality was abolished, and so the Antithesis between a Christian Puritanism and a ‘heathen’ tolerance – ideologically constructed from both sides of the debate – would dominate a good deal of the 20th Century in the Netherlands.
3. Ancient Greek custom and its Biblical Counterpart
What can we say about Kuyper’s views on the customs of the ancient Greeks in the light of more recent insights? In his criticism of Plato, he presupposes the difference between the domain of the oikos (the family or household) and that of the polis (the city or state), whereby Matrimony belongs to the domain of the oikos, within the boundaries of which a woman should remain, while erotic relations between men belong to the social relationships in the domain of the polis. Michel Foucault has proved how difficult the situation was for younger male pupils in the school of Socrates. While it was a great honour for such a pupil, and good for his career, to be loved by his master (as the passive partner), if that would continue for too long he would be known as an effeminate man and that would hinder his attempts to become a distinguished person in the assembly of citizens(Foucault 1984, egg. 205-248). Kuyper’s assertion that such customs of a certain elite may have undermined political power is improbable, for the later antiquity has been shown to have an awareness of the socratic dilemma’s that have been recorded. For in that period matrimonial structures were strengthened and this would fit very well with Christian values.
It might have been in the struggle against the cultural domination of Hellenism, particularly in the second century B.C.E., that many Jewish movements felt the need to distinguish themselves from the Greek customs, especially regarding decency (Zuurmond). This could have been articulated by an aversion to nudity or the preference of same-sex relationships. Within this context, the ‘homosexual’ interpretation of the story of Sodom also came up. Such an interpretation is not the only possible exegesis of Gen. 19:5, for also in the canonical Scripture the violation of the right of hospitality seems to sometimes be viewed as the main sin of the city (Ezek. 16:49; Matt. 10:14.15). But now this homosexual interpretation may support a resistance movement against an oppressive global culture (Jub. 16:5f; Test Levi 14:6 etc), and it becomes part of rabbinic lists of the sins of the heathen. Romans 1 may be one of the first examples of such a list that has been handed down.
It does not make much sense to judge such cultural struggles in the past from the point of view of a supposed ‘essence of homosexuality’. I would not say that we ‘know more than Paul did’ (as G.Th. Rothuizen, and also the EKD). It is true that we know in other ways, and that we know other things. The whole idea that a person is the owner of a sexual identity, and one that, in addition to the concept of sexuality itself, stems from the western Enlightenment, is not so easy to transfer to other cultures or other times without further reflection. Traditionally, sodomy (a very broad concept, by the way), referred to an act that had to be punished, not to an inclination from which one has to be cured (as the old psychiatric schools prescribed) or that which has to be part of a process of self-acceptance (the more modern view). Also, there are cultures in which the friendship of two people of the same sex with some physical component is considered normal and they are not believed to be deviant or acting in a way that goes against heterosexual, matrimonial values (as is the case for David and Jonathan as well as many North African and South Asian cultures). For those of us who come from a western society it is very difficult to think in other terms than in those of (homo)sexual identity – and therefore I am also very distrusting of programmes that claim to be able to ‘heal’ that identity. But on the other side, it is also true that representatives of western culture in global – and ecumenical – encounters often show a terrible lack of awareness of the ways of socialisation and the customs of other cultures and are inclined to impose their own ‘struggle for gay rights’ and suchlike upon others in a rather narrow-minded way. Without a hermeneutical awareness of the relationship between Biblical Witness and the multitude of cultures, our theological discussion on this issue will also stagnate for a long time.
4. Hermeneutical and theological possibilities and problems in the ‘Order of Creation’
Abraham Kuyper’s theory of the family as an ‘Order of Creation’ is not free from the danger of omitting some forms of hermeneutical reflection or, moreover, of unintentionally suggesting that some cultural constructs should be outside the boundary of sin, by virtue of their having already been present in Paradise before the Fall, while in reality such constructs are only one way of shaping sex/gender relationships. One can understand the systematic and strategic reasons to protect this domain from the grip of the State and the Church. Nevertheless, from a methodological point of view it is hard to see how the processes of judgement and of liberation in this field can be valued when placed outside the reign of Redemption.
However, the same has to be said regarding the reasoning of some advocates of an acceptance of homosexuality by church and society nowadays. In the Netherlands, many people know the famous dictum of the late father Jan van Kilsdonk s.j., who helped many gay people with his (chiefly epistolary) pastorship: ‘Homosexuality is a surprising invention (‘een vondst’) of the Creator’. It connects with the feeling of gay men and women themselves: ‘For God, I may exist as I am.’ In no way do I want to object to these sentences as such; on the contrary, I accept the first one as a good sentence regarding preaching (‘Predigtsatz’), and the second one as a good sentence regarding faith (‘Glaubenssatz’). But for theological reasoning they are insufficient. They may strengthen the tendency, already present in the gay movement, to exhibit and to celebrate their own existence, or their own way of existing, as a good thing in itself and some may use that to deflect all self-critical questioning and all related dialogue with others. Then they make their own identity unquestionable, while forgetting that this is also only a certain historical construct, in some ways one that can indeed be a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven but at the same time, as is with all historical constructs, it is subject to divine judgement and needs divine justification.
With this in mind, one can also deceive oneself regarding the homosexual condition and neglect the negative side (the ‘shadow’) of this existence. Of course, human imperfection is not present in only a certain part of the human race, since human perfection does not exist in this age of the world. But we cannot deny that there is a specific homosexual experience regarding human weakness that can only be understood by the people who undergo this experience. There is the loneliness – every boy or girl has to discover for him or herself to ‘be’ gay. There is the lack of accessible social examples. For many, by living outside the traditional domestic circle, there is also the inability to have children, although in western culture people have found inventive solutions to this problem. Indeed, there are homosexual fathers that have a child with a woman but raise it with their own partner, homosexual women that ask a friend for a donation of sperm to have a child as well as many changes in the ways people think about cohabitation, parenthood and being a family. But these new mores cannot push aside the awareness of the tragic, or at least the negative aspect of creation (with its twofold character of day and night, dry land and water), and thus also of the life of a creature in its erotic disposition.
5. The order of Redemption (1): Christology and procreation
But this is not all that has to be said. Notwithstanding Kuyper, we have also to speak of kinship in the order of redemption. In classical Thomistic thought, the ultimate objective, the telos, of sexual difference in the human race (epitomized in the differing forms of male and female genitalia) is procreation, and the telos of matrimony is posterity (Nachkommenschaft). And the sacramental grace of the Church consequently presupposes and elevates this teleological philosophy. But is it possible to maintain these theses in a messianic reading of the Scriptures? Certainly: ‘male and female, He created them’ (Gen. 1:27). But then consider: ‘the Book of the generations of Adam, man’ (Gen. 5:1). And in all these toledoth, these generations (‘Zeugungen’) of humans that fill the earth, the literary telos in this book is the appearance of the firstborn son of Israel in the midst of many brothers and sisters (Breukelman). In the first canonical gospel then, the ‘Book of generation’ in Israel appears to have its literary telos in the appearance of the son (‘who is called Christ’ (Matt. 1:1.16)) in the midst of the brothers and (rather spicy) sisters. ‘So, for all the generations, the kinship relations that are told in the circumstantial stories of the Bible, have their centre in the generation of the Messiah that gives all those other generations both their meaning and at the same time their henceforth no longer redeeming meaning. This cannot be said for rabbinical Judaism, where the surviving of the Jewish people as such is a necessary way to redemption, but for the ekklesia that confesses the parousia of the Messiah, procreation no longer has any redemptive force. Therefore, in Christ both the traditional family as organised around a heterosexual centre, and other forms of community life or living alone have their – relative! – meaning (Cf. 1 Cor. 7). Nowadays, many homosexual men and women do prefer to shape their lives in the likeness and imitation of the dominant institution of marriage, and desire the acknowledgement of this by both the state and the church. For my part, I prefer a way of moving towards the messianic kingdom that is outside that form, a ‘caring for the things that belong to the Lord’ (1 Cor. 7:32) that is therefore also outside same-sex marriage.
6 The order of Redemption (2): Christology and identity politics on both sides
Consequently, rebirth (baptism) should be given priority over birth and the ekklesia over kinship relations. If the community has to be a training-school (Calvin) regarding companionship in the field of sexual diversity, learning mutual acceptance and distinguishing each other’s vulnerability –then that may also be advantageous in family life. In the Christian gay liberation movement, as in most emancipation movements, there is a predilection for Paul’s sentence ‘in Christ, there is neither male nor female’ (Gal. 3:28), mostly understood as a war cry for equal rights in gender relationships. Now it is certainly true, that the Apostle in a fundamental way relativized fixed images and a fixed behaviour in social relationships. But with that, in my view, he at the same time prevents the identification of any liberation struggle with the newness of Christ Himself. If I may paraphrase: ‘in Christ, there is neither gay nor straight’, and so you have to also realize that any possible ‘gay identity’ is questioned by Him. ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:18). When there is such a thing as a messianic vocation, it is not the affirmation of already existing vocations, but the contradiction of those. It is not the affirmation of rights, but their ‘making void’ (Rom. 3:31); not the strengthening of given identities, but their interruption (Cf. Agamben) – ‘the time is short; it remains, that both they that have wives be as though they possessed not’ (1 Cor. 7:29): that is not only said to honest family men, but also to their (perhaps ‘gay’) opposites! However, it is exactly this fundamental relativizing of given identities in the perspective of the eschatological parousia of the Messiah that could be the best starting point for a real conversation between the agents of those identities, both in the congregation and in theology.
– G. Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Stanford2005.
– The Councel of Churches in the Netherlands (werkgroep relaties van de Sektie Vrouw in Kerk en Samenleving), De akseptatie voorbij. Een nieuwe visie op de voortgaande bezinning over kerk en homoseksualiteit, Voorburg 1989 (Beyond Acceptation. A new vision on the ongoing Reflection about Church and Homosexuality, with an overview of the standpoints of all the churches in the Netherlands on homosexuality at that time).
– F.H. Breukelman, Bijbelse Theologie I/2, Het eerstelingschap van Israël. De theologie van het boek Genesis, Kampen 1992.
– Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, Orientierungshilfe ‘Mit Spannungen leben’, 1996
– M. Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité 2. L’usage des plaisirs, Parijs 1984.
– B. Hemelsoet, Marcus: verklaring van een bijbelgedeelte, Kampen 1977.
– G.G. de Kruijf, P. Schaafsma (red.), Meer dan een optelsom. Kanttekeningen bij de waarde van het gezin, Kampen 2008.
– A. Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie III. Het practische gedeelte, Amsterdam-Pretoria 1904.
– R.H. Reeling Brouwer, ‘De nuances van Paulus. Rom. 1:26-27’, Interpretatie 6(1998)8,14-16.
– R. Zuurmond, ‘De zonde van Sodom’, Wending 37(1982)5, 359-364.
 The verse quoted in support is Gen. 2:24. Kuyper neglects the fact that the movement which is described here is just the opposite of the practice of giving in marriage which takes place elsewhere in the book of Genesis (Chapters 24, 29-31 etc.) and therewith he neglects to ask for the reasons of this reversal.
 Because of confessional objections against the doctrine of the Church of Rome, Kuyper refuses to subject the Matrimony to the logic of Salvation. Reading the New Testament, it is questionable whether this view can be maintained. Cf. Hemelsoet, who proved that Jesus in Mark 10:1-10 starts to speak on the relationship between the Messiah and his bride (Jerusalem) and only afterwards, in the light of that, speaks about family relationships in the way of parables and similes.
 Breukelman shows, how the superscription elè toledoth structures the book of Genesis as a whole: Gen. 2:4a, 5:1, [6:9, 10:1, 11:10,] 11:27, [25:12,] 25:19, [36:1, 36:9,] 37:2.
 Also the theology of neocalvinism during the second half of the twentieth Century shows the tendency to think about phenomena such as family relations not only in terms of creation, but also in terms of eschatology. Cf. A. de Bruijne in De Kruijf and Schaafsma (2008), 125.