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What I Heard (and Didn’t Hear)

By June 21, 2016 7 Comments

As I am leading a seminar out West this week, I am writing this blog before the CRC Synod is over. And there will be those who disagree with me, having heard very different things than I am about to suggest. That’s OK. But allow me to make the following observations:

When I first started tuning in to the CRCNA’s nearly 30-year-long synodical debate on the role of women in church office, that struggle was at about the midway point between the start of it all in the late 1960s and a compromise decision in 1995. In the early years of that debate, the men of synod (and they were all men without even women advisors, of course) spent hours making speeches pro and con about allowing women to become deacons, elders, pastors. As the years wore on, however, some of the language began to change.

In the earliest years when I listened in, those who were squarely against opening the church offices and yet who did not want to come across as being anti-women tried to soften their language only to say things that actually made matters worse. “Well, you know, we do want to consider the ladies, God love ’em!” “My ladies in my church have no interest in seeing other ladies being elders so we don’t understand why anything in our church needs to change.” “Some of my best friends are women but . . .”

In preaching class I always tell students to never broach some pastorally acute situation–having an abortion, struggling with drug abuse, living with schizophrenia–as though no one living with that condition was within 500 miles of the sanctuary. Always assume someone with that history or with that present-day condition is sitting out there and then see how that nuances the way you talk about the pastoral subject at hand.

At the CRC Synod in the years I first started listening, delegates talked as though no women were listening. But that started to change. Slowly on as the CRCNA moved closer to some level of accepting women serving in church offices, delegates (not always but much more than had previously been true) started talking as though they knew women were listening and so were more sensitive. Phrasings about “the ladies” got more rare and we started to hear talk about sisters, about fellow disciples, about fellow church members. That shift in tone hinted more and more that what finally happened in 1995 was getting more and more likely.

The last time I was at a synod that discussed matters related to homosexuality and gay relationships was 2010. A scant six years ago was well before the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and before even a lot of the wider societal acceptance of gay people began to take hold in the ways we see now. Just six years but a seismic shift has taken place. At that time there was a proposal for a new study committee to revisit the 1973 report. It was defeated, and most of us who observed that conversation leading to that defeat had the clear sense that fear was the main motivator. If we re-look this, maybe we won’t like what we will discover.

But it was the speeches against it that stuck with me. The rhetoric was at times harsh and most speeches against the study committee proposal were spoken on the assumption that no gay people were within earshot. References to “those gay people out there” were right up there with “the ladies, God love ’em!” There were also loud declarations that the Bible was crystal clear on this, we had heard it definitively in 1973, and there was nothing more to hear and so homosexuals had best understand that we cannot countenance their acting on their non-sinful orientation with sinful acts. Some tried to get the LGBT acronym correct but some stumbled over it and dismissed getting it right with a bit of eye-rolling.

But last week as I listened to the hours-long debate on the pastoral guidelines report, I detected a shift in tone. Now I know that my friends who were bitterly disappointed in synod’s decision to once again go in a conservative, traditional direction on this matter may not be much moved by this but I did not hear skin-crawling-inducing rhetoric on the level I had heard in 2010 and I also heard many speeches that evinced the sense that gay people were in the room and language was nuanced on account of that awareness. There was more of a sense, even from some who voted for the more conservative line, that gay people are folks we know, are related to, work with, worship with.

There may or may not be a trend there that hints at some coming compromise a la the women-in-office debate. But it might. Only time will tell. But it’s something I heard, and didn’t hear, and we will see what it portends for what is next.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Unfortunately, the skin-crawling rhetoric was alive and well at the RCA’s General Synod. But we ended with a nice paternalistic statement about how much we love “them.”

    • David Vandervelde says:

      I have to disagree. While there were some violent words spoken from some in all corners, the consistent tone was deeply gracious. To suggest otherwise is revisionist. As the OP has seen a chance in the CRC rhetoric over the years, this RCA Synod seemed also to be less angry and more soft.

      • P F Jones says:

        I agree with you, Dave. An effort to rewrite the actual RCA GS debate has been established. In fact, the language directed at traditional marriage folk was more vindictive and pointed. At the time I assumed it was the result of their disappointment and pain. I am now beginning to believe it is an orchestrated effort to influence Classes votes and the 2017 GS.

    • JVELL says:

      Lynn, you must have been at a different GS than I was.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    I was only at the two hour Wednesday evening deliberations and my reaction was similar to yours, Scott. That’s not to say I liked the outcome, but I took some comfort that the deliberations were not as excruciatingly painful as past deliberations.

  • Roger Gelwicks says:

    Interesting observation, Scott. Your assumption may be true, that our speech or presentation changes when the presence of such people, as we are talking about, are also present. That fact is also true in a variety of social settings. We either become less bold in the presence of such people or less sure of ourselves and our own positions. But, apart from using more genteel or less confrontational language, I noticed that Synod held firm when it came to its stand against opening any doors to the homosexual community, married or not.

    What I have noticed over the years of observing our annual Synodical meetings is that characteristically members of the church feel as though they have been railroaded over by the leadership of the church. The complaint is often heard that the leadership got their way again. But not so this year. It seemed as though this year the church ignored or repudiated the reports and recommendations of our study committees and leadership. They totally ignored the majority report on same sex marriage, they called the Doctrine of Discovery report heresy, they wouldn’t approve the recommended budget increase for denominational ministries, and would not approve LGBT advisors for future Synods.

    Genteel in speech (maybe) but not swayed by those who apparently are in the know. Ignorance is bliss.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    I’m glad some people had a better experience at Synod, but for many of us, that was not the case. Obviously, different people are grieved by different words. But when I hear lgbtqi+ people described as a “cancer,” or an issue, or sinful, or reduced to a “lifestyle,” I find it offensive, and very sad. And those words were used repeatedly on the floor of Synod and in the advisory committees. I recognize that people have their reasons for using that language, but those words cause enormous pain to many people in the body of Christ.

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