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Podcasters recycle others’ podcasts as often as preachers recycle others’ sermons, but sometimes they are more honest about it. Recently Roman Mars closed his 99 Percent Invisible program with a plug for a bank-supported podcast (!) called Real Good, whose theme is creativity in business.

Featured in this segment was a Black entrepreneur in north Minneapolis, Houston White. His barbershop, says White, is the country club of his community. Customers sit side by side and discuss everything that matters to them: politics, religion, the pandemic, the police, what to do when their kids misbehave. And when his corporate board convenes – here’s the bank connection, because bank officers had recently joined them to discuss a loan application – they sit around a big table right in the middle of the barbershop. Customers can listen in, or add their thoughts, while getting a haircut.

As I listened I thought of the dramatic contrast between the way decisions are made in a Minnesota barbershop and the way the delegates to the annual Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America conducted their discussion of the long-postponed Human Sexuality Report on June 14 and 15. They met behind closed doors, a measure never adopted before for plenary sessions. No reporters or concerned church members or observers of any sort were allowed to observe. (A video recording was made available for later viewing.)

The content of the report has been discussed extensively – and lamented – in this blog. You may recall that in 1973 Synod declared all homosexual activity sinful, yet it called on the churches to welcome gay and lesbian members who promise lifelong abstinence. In 2016 a new study committee was asked to formulate a Reformed theology of sexuality in order to guide congregations and pastors in ministry to LGBTQ parishioners, single or married.

In a report of extraordinary length (but lacking commensurate depth) the committee looked back over a half century of scholarship and research in Biblical hermeneutics, sociology, biology, and psychology, and at far-reaching changes in politics and society, and it concluded that, essentially, nothing important has changed.

Homosexual behavior is condemned by God as sinful. Homosexual orientation is a tragic disability that causes many to languish in depression and self-loathing. This outcome was not much of a surprise, since only supporters of the 1973 recommendations were eligible for appointment to the committee. Study committees are normally expected to consider a difficult matter and then offer their independent assessment, but this one was assigned a conclusion and asked to fill in supporting arguments.

The study committee found, however, that the 1973 report was woefully inadequate in another way: it was far too soft, not on sin but on heresy, because it left the door open for continued discussion and debate over its interpretation of Scripture and creed. There is no need today, says the new report, to question or discuss the church’s condemnation of all homosexual relationships. Current research on gender and identity – discussed in detail but very selectively in the report – confirms that nature, like God, favors heterosexuality. But it’s time to stand firm against any suggestion that some questions remain unanswered and that minds should remain open. That’s heresy, says this report. Sex is for married heterosexual couples, and that’s that.

The deliberative context should have been reversed. The details of Mr. White’s business – his income and expenses and outstanding debts – might better have been shielded from the public eye and discussed in a closed boardroom. And a momentous and historic debate concerning a denomination’s response to new challenges and new insights concerning gender, marriage, and church leadership should have been conducted in the sunlight, so that Synod’s decisions would be better understood and more thoughtfully discussed in the churches. And the barbershops.

But no. The delegates locked the doors, listened to one another’s arguments pro and con, and cast their votes. On June 14 a large majority affirmed that the body of the report is “a useful summary of Biblical teaching.” The next day, a slightly smaller majority (69% compared to 74%) declared that, because the term “unchastity” in the Heidelberg Catechism refers to all homosexual practices including same-sex marriage, this is a confessional matter. Disagreement with the report adopted a day earlier, in other words, is heretical.

The doors were closed for this discussion and vote. Synod’s action opens wide, however, another door: an exit door from the Christian Reformed Church. Delegates’ statements on the floor (I listened a few days later to portions of both days’ debates) spoke eloquently of the hostility that many same-sex couples have faced in their congregations and of the depth of their commitment to a church that has been hesitant to welcome them. We hesitate no longer, says the recent decision: it’s time for you to leave. Stay around, gay sibling, if you are and will always be abstinent. But if you are in a same-sex marriage or other relationship, or if you fail to condemn your friends and family members who are, then get out. The church has no place for you.

As a philosopher and the son of a theologian, I am horrified by the sloppy and slanted analysis of Scripture and science in the report. The Creation story is about God’s love for humankind, not about sex. Marriage is about so much more than sex. Human beings are created in a glorious diversity of kinds, not reducible to the babies in blue onesies and the babies in pink onesies.

And as a child of the CRCNA – a preacher’s kid, a preacher’s kid’s kid, the husband of a preacher’s kid’s kid, as well as an administrator and faculty member at the denominational college – the Synod’s readiness to embrace the report and close down the discussion makes me both very angry and very sad.

But the sadness was relieved a bit –before we knew the outcome — by a joyful crowd of two hundred or more in the parking lot outside Synod’s meeting hall during the first day’s debate. Invited to gather by All One Body and the Hesed Project, ranging from grade-school children to octogenarians, we represented a cross-section of Reformed Christians who love the church and want it to embrace and affirm all of its members, whatever their gender identity and marital status.

We waved our rainbow flags and shared our stories of some CRCNA congregations that are fostering thoughtful and reflective dialogue on the difficult theological questions that the report claims to have answered for all time. And we heard about how LGBTQ+ members are being welcomed, their gifts put to use to advance the Kingdom, despite all the obstacles placed in their way.

When the delegates at last adjourned and came across to the dining hall, some of them avoided looking at us while others waved a cheerful greeting. Perhaps they had never seen a crowd of hundreds of demonstrators singing the Doxology. Many of the singers may soon be heading out the exit door from the Christian Reformed Church. Closing the doors during the discussion and vote had the unfortunate effect of opening that door much wider.

David Hoekema

David A. Hoekema resides in West Olive, Michigan, and, in winter, in Green Valley, Arizona.  He retired in 2018 from Calvin College (that was still its name), having served as Academic Dean, Interim Vice President for Student Life, and Professor of Philosophy.  Previous positions were at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and the University of Delaware.  He worships at Second Christian Reformed Church of Grand Haven and at Southside Presbyterian Church of Tucson, two vibrant and supportive communities of followers of the Lamb.

24 Comments

  • Lisa DeYoung says:

    Thank you

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    You are a brave contrarian, David.
    Many of Christ’s congregations are moving forward toward a new day.
    It is sad to see how some of Christ’s churches are moving backward toward a time that is past.

  • Bill VandenBosch says:

    Thank you, David, for your thoughtful and insightful reflections on the process and results of this painful decision of Synod. I studied under your father at Calvin Seminary and believe he would agree with your insights. He was a wonderful and thoughtful theologian with a compassionate heart. Like others on the faculty of seminary at that time he had a strong commitment that the church’s message was to the world was clearly one of Good News for all. He also was never afraid of having a discussion about differences of interpretation out in the open.

    • David Hoekema says:

      Bill, I don’t know whether we have met, but I’m deeply moved by your words of appreciation for my father Anthony Hoekema. Perhaps you are right that, were he still with us today, he would have opposed the Synod report. He never came to see how women could be ordained, consistently with Paul’s counsel to the early church, but he did keep an open mind. On one occasion he made a dramatic about-face as advisor to Synod after listening to the floor discussion, declaring that the “headship principle” was a pile of poppycock. (He said it much more judiciously.) My late mother and I agreed that our Lord set him straight on women’s ordination as soon as he joined the heavenly chorus. Thanks for remembering him in this fraught time.

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    I still live in fading hope that the messages of Jesus can survive the church. These days, the prospects look increasingly doubtful. Thanks for this thoughtful message. The Journal has joined a select few morning reads that awaken my mind for a new day, and you did it exceptionally well today.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thank you, David. I join you in mourning the actions of Synod in response to the HSR and the closing of the galleries.

  • Ken Baker says:

    What does it mean for a “deliberative” assembly to pray for the Spirit’s leading for consideration of a report whose conclusions were predetermined 6 years earlier? One of the distinguishing marks of the Reformed tradition has been our willingness to subject our assumptions and interpretations to fresh and vigorous examination in the light of God’s revelation. The unwillingness of synod 2016 to do the same for this study was as surprisingly disheartening as this synod’s decisions were unsurprisingly disheartening.

  • Mary Rupke says:

    Thank you, David, for your thoughtful response to what happened at Synod. As a delegate to Synod, I am very sad about the outcome and I appreciate your articulating so well why this whole process was flawed. What is significant to me is that those who longed for a different outcome humbly showed the fruits of the Spirit as they responded to what happened.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Among the things that my friend–though I never had him as a teacher–Anthony Hoekema would oppose is the notion that we would ever declare a single interpretation or exegesis of a Bible text to be the only possible interpretation ever within a Reformed hermeneutic. Synod violated this just once in 1991 when it declared a once-for-all exegesis of Genesis 1 where Adam was concerned. My former teacher David Holwerda was apoplectic over this (and if you knew David, apoplexy was not his strong suit!). The CRCNA Synod repented of this and reversed that ruling a dozen or so years later. But we also have avoided a once-for-all “exegesis” of a confession but this is what Synod has done with Q&A 108–it means THIS and this only–and in retrospect Synod seems to have sanctioned the exegesis of something like Matthew 19 in the HSR too. There was not a whiff of exegetical or hermeneutical humility in any of this. Tony Hoekema would object! David Holwerda would object! I cannot think of a single Bible professor I had who would not object to this hubris. Thanks for the post, David. A week ago tomorrow you asked me what kind of a CRC we would have left by today–it’s hard to say but for sure we are more fractured than ever.

    • Ken Baker says:

      “There was not a whiff of exegetical or hermeneutical humility in any of this.” None. Whatsoever.

    • Lisa Vander Wal says:

      Yes, David Holwerda would have objected. He taught me Reformed hermeneutics, one principle of which was the analogy of Scripture: if one text seems to contradict the rest of the canon/Scripture, it is probably being misunderstood. Seems pertinent here.

    • Jeff Brower says:

      Love for you to tease this out a little more, Scott, especially the limits of what you’ve said. I mean, scripture isn’t a wax nose that we can infinitely fashion as we see fit. I still have PTSD from preaching class where Sid Greidanus would growl in his rich brogue, “That was a very nice sermon. But you DIDN’T PREACH THE TEXT.” His point, of course, was that this text meant certain things, and it didn’t mean certain other things, and even a freshman seminarian could figure this out and be used by God to edify his people. Else what’s a preacher for?

  • Arlyn Bossenbrook says:

    Closing the door to discussion is simply an admission of their insecurity, guilt and shame. They are on the wrong side of history – but it will take another 10 to 20 years for that to get worked out and leaves us in a quandary today.

  • David Stravers says:

    David, thanks for your references to your parents. As students (and friends) of both Tony and Ruth, my wife and I experienced their godly openness to whatever God might be teaching us, through the Scriptures and through our own experiences as we learned how to better to follow Jesus. I still love to remember your father’s deep and clear exposition of the image of God in man. But more importantly, your parents exhibited a loving attitude, a Holy Spirit inspired frame of mind that would be very uncomfortable with the legalism revealed by this synodical decision. I confess that at this stage of my life (like you worshipping in Arizona churches not connected to the CRC), I’m less concerned about resulting institutional fractures than I am about the causes and roots of such a decision. Does it reveal the lack of depth of thought that is reinforced by our addiction to digital interactions? Does it reveal the confirmation bias that now destroys our national and church conversations? If so, I fear that the negative effects will be long-term, generational, and destructive of the church’s witness far beyond this particular issue.

  • Al Schipper says:

    An old wisdom saying is that if you button the top button of your shirt in the wrong button hole, it’s going to be wrong all the way down. Clearly from the first button choice of a closed mindset, the decision of this Synod was locked in.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    “It’s a lie, any talk of God, that doesn’t comfort you. You are here.”
    Father Gregory Boyle

  • Andrew Beunk says:

    I’m not sure what Anthony Hoekema or David Holwerda would say about this recent decision. I’ve only read some Anthony’s books, but I did have several classes with David during my time at CTS. My impression is that David would have called same-sex sex a sin. But alas, they are now blessed memories; and I’m always cautious of putting words into the mouth of those who have passed on.
    But this committee did have two very capable CTS professors as well as a Redeemer University emeritus professor–eminently recognized Biblical scholars and philosophers. To write as you did, that you were “horrified by the sloppy and slanted analysis of Scripture and science in the report” is quite an assertion! To quote a friend, “there’s not a whiff of exegetical humility” in that remark!
    Clearly, you have no idea why the 2019 Synodical program committee made the decision to have these deliberations in closed session (though they were available for all to listen to with a 20 min. livestream delay). Perhaps you can take the time to assess their decision.
    You talk about an “exit door”. Has that door been opened a little bit wider? I agree with you. Our sisters and brothers in the RCA have invited us to wonder what gracious separation might look like. Perhaps a “realignment” of our members / churches with the RCA would provide an exit door in both directions. And I pray we could walk past each other with virtue and not vitriol.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Since my comment and not David’s post is the one that introduced David Holwerda into this, let me be clear that I am not saying I know which way Dr. Holwerda would think on this issue. I was commenting on the moves that appear to sanction in perpetuity one and only one “exegesis” of a passage or even of a portion of one of the Confessions. To that I know as a fact Dr. Holwerda would object because he did so definitively on another occasion when Synod made such a move. As to David Hoekema’s comments on the science in the report: I would refer you to the highly detailed overture on this very subject that had come from Classis GR East. I would also tell you that it is a fact that one study related to transgenderism that the HSR leaned on heavily was later withdrawn by its author due to its woeful inadequacy and unwarranted methods and conclusions even as at least one other study prominent in the report had never been peer reviewed (and credible scientists at places like Calvin who have reviewed it deemed it shoddy at best). So I don’t think D. Hoekema’s comments on science is “quite the assertion.” This has been asserted and proven by people far more knowledgeable about such matters than any of us here.

  • Wow! Words of strong HSR critique coming from faculty of the University and Seminary! I love it. I welcome it. I wish they were said a year ago rather than after the barn door was closed. But welcome to the club. I should also say, David, that Judy and I were close neighbors of your parents on Dunham in 1963 when I was a student at Calvin. They were extraordinarily hospitable to us and we have never forgotten it. After becoming a clinical psychologist, I quoted from his little book, A Christian Looks at Himself, many times in speeches and articles on self-esteem. We loved and respected them both when you were a young lad and beyond. Thanks to you and Scott for very incisive comments.

  • As an RCA member I appreciate your writing and my heart is sad for what your synod did and for the pain you feel. I can only pray that God is recreating in ways that we cannot see at this time and will turn our tears into joy.

  • Hunt Wheatley says:

    I wonder whether the author was also upset about the condemnation of polyamory in the document. This, after all, does have biblical precedent. If marriage can no longer be defined by the unique complement of male and female, what is so important about the number “2”? Shouldn’t we also be welcoming and affirming members who are in polyamorous unions? (I’m really not trying just to stir the pot. I am genuinely curious as to what the philosopher’s answer to this would be).

    • Steve says:

      Great question. Certainly one that requires more study and conversation. I hope no one would presume to have arrived at the final biblical exegesis of this issue. And while we study, converse and ponder various (perpetually?) preliminary positions, shouldn’t we lean in the direction of affirmation and welcome?

  • Sara says:

    “They met behind closed doors, a measure never adopted before for plenary sessions. No reporters or concerned church members or observers of any sort were allowed to observe. (A video recording was made available for later viewing.)”
    It’s worth noting here that parts of the video recording of the live session from Thursday morning were not, in fact, made available for later viewing. That video is being edited before being uploaded to YouTube.

  • Marchiene Rienstra says:

    Grateful for your perspective and words, David! They are needed. I remember a piece of advice given to me as a pastor: “No good decision can come from a bad process!” That seems to apply to the CRC Synod’s actions, doesn’t it? Marchiene Rienstra

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