The 2018 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America commended the Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality to churches and classes for “reflection, study, and response … as a means of deepening our understanding of the biblical teaching on human sexuality and finding a pathway forward toward unity in mission and ministry.” (The Catechism itself and its background was highlighted on a post here.) In light of that commendation, I want to offer some reflections on its purpose and content.
While the Catechism does not have the status of a creed or confession and differs from some of them in that it was not written by a Synod (though the Executive Committee of the Regional Synod of the Great Lakes encouraged its development), the purpose of this document has similarity to the creeds and confessions. These documents often originate to offer clarity on a topic that is being discussed and debated. For example, the Nicene Creed was written because of disputes about the nature of Jesus, and the Canons of Dort are an attempt to confirm and clarify the Belgic Confession in light of the controversy caused by the teaching of the Remonstrants. Similarly, the Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality offers clarity on an issue about which there has been controversy in our time. Addressing such a topic does not mean this doctrine is the most important doctrine; the teaching is important (otherwise there would be no need to write it down!), but the focus on a particular doctrine is tied to contemporary disputes, not an attempt to elevate this teaching above other teachings found in the confessions. Since the Belgic Confession, unlike the Westminster Confession of Faith, does not offer teaching on marriage (see Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 24 for its teachings on the topic), it serves as a complement to this confession. In addition, writing a new document does not mean that the teaching of the church has changed. Rather, it reflects a practical need to write down what the church has believed and what Scripture teaches. In fact, the Great Lakes Catechism makes clear that it is rooted in Scripture and the tradition by citing Scripture as well as the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism — documents which root themselves in Scripture.
In terms of content, the Great Lakes Catechism does not offer a statement about marriage but rather couches it in the wider context of human sexuality and related topics in its 19 questions. It notes that sexuality is good and part of how humans are made (Q1), but that sin causes people to think, act, and desire out of accord with God’s Word (Q2-3). Therefore, we need to look to Scripture rather than our own experiences or the opinions of others (Q4). The Catechism then addresses the topic of family, noting that we are to honor our parents and love spouse and children (Q6) but must not let them become idols (Q6) or forget that our “primary family” is the Christian church (Q5). Marriage is a good thing, as it is “a sign of Christ and the church” that gives “mutual help for life’s journey” and serves as a place where Christians “are sanctified” (Q10), but Jesus’s example of a life of singleness shows that marriage is not necessary for fulfillment (Q7) and that singleness is a valid way of living as a Christian (Q8). In fact, singleness and marriage are both ways to serve God (Q9) and point to deeper truths; “the married person is a sign and reminder to single people that just as a husband or wife has obligations to their spouse and family, so we all have obligations to the family of God” (Q11) and the “single person’s life points us ahead to the life to come, when we will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Q9). Sex is not just a physical act but has a greater meaning and purpose (Q12-14), as “the one-flesh sexual union embodies the fact that these two persons are no longer two, but one flesh” (Q12) and “is part of the total giving of oneself….just as God in Christ gave himself completely to his bride, the Church” in a covenant (Q14). Since sexuality is in the context of covenant, this sexual union is to happen in the context of marriage, with “Scripture consistently teach[ing] that the difference between a woman and a man is essential to properly represent, symbolically, Christ and the church” (Q15).
Only after walking through these truths does the Catechism turn to the topic of same-sex sexual activity and does so with grace and truth. Q16 states that “Scripture consistently and categorically condemns all sexual activity between persons of the same sex as immoral.” This question is followed by questions whose answers point out that “Scripture never singles out same-sex sexual activity as a worse sin than others” (Q17) and that there is “a difference between being same-sex attracted, and acting sexually on that attraction” (Q18). Q18 further notes that Scripture condemns “all forms of mockery, degrading words and thoughts, economic oppression, abuse, threats, and violence against anyone based on their sexual identity or activity. Anyone involved in such behavior must repent and walk in obedience to Jesus’ command to love.” The Catechism ends by giving three key principles on how to view and interact with people who “fail to keep fully Scripture teaching on marriage and sexuality”: 1) recognize that we are all sinners; 2) do not expect people who do not profess faith in Christ to follow his teachings; and 3) lovingly teach, rebuke, correct, and discipline those who call themselves Christians who are out of accord with God’s teachings to follow his word.
Overall, this document is a helpful summary of key biblical teachings that are being debated and discussed in our time. It is grounded in Scripture, but also pastoral, speaking to the heart as well as to the head (like another catechism we know!). A document like this can enhance understanding on the topic, defining what Scripture says, but also exhorting a posture of grace in our world. While it can create division because people disagree with what it says, it offers a way of unity so people can stand together in its teachings or recognize the division that already exists about this topic. If you have not already done so, I would encourage you to read it.