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Dear friends in Grand Rapids, Calvin U., and CRC-land:

I am chagrined at the Christian Reformed Synod’s recent adoption of the report and recommendations of the task force on human sexuality. As others have discussed, there are a number of aspects of the report itself and the conditions and conversation around it that are troubling. One in particular stands out to me: its assertion — and the Synod’s declaration– that these matters carry confessional status.

One of the things that I admired about Calvin, the CRC, and a confessional approach and tradition is that it could make distinctions between what was a first-order concern (a hill to die on) and other important, but perhaps second- or third-order issues, which could be addressed with more patience and open dialogue.

It seemed to me that Calvinists in particular have had plenty of practice, via many bitter learning experiences, in making these distinctions. In fraught times, when churches and Christian colleges are being pressed to declare themselves on this or that hot social issue, the Reformed could point to their confessions and say that those matters are central, and while these other controverted issues are important, we can afford to differ on them while maintaining unity with each other.

I have served at evangelical colleges which had relatively brief and very generalized statements of faith, and they were extremely vulnerable to the shifting winds of the culture wars. The recent dustup at Wheaton that cost an African American political science professor her job when she said that Christians and Muslims prayed to the same God is a case in point. When I came to work at Wheaton in 1983, older faculty advised me that more than the written standards, they worried about the unwritten standards and the populist preachers out there who wanted to impose them.

So for me, what is most dismaying about this whole matter is the way that this wise and honored confessional tradition of making distinctions between first- and second-order questions seems to have been ditched by the CRC Synod’s current majority.

The denomination has experts who could give learned opinions on what is confessional and what is not, but evidently they were not consulted in this current round. They were consulted in the past, including during the controversy at Calvin University in 2009. At that time, the president bypassed proper college governance at the faculty and board levels. In executive session with only a few board officers involved, he issued a declaration that same sex marriage was a confessional matter and faculty could not argue with the current denominational position on it. Both the history and philosophy departments, then the Faculty Senate — and then the provost too — protested these actions. They cited both Synodical reports and Seminary church order experts to insist that these were important moral and pastoral concerns, but they did not rise to confessional status. Calvin’s president and board backed down.

Yes, fidelity in marriage and chastity outside of it are confessional matters, and no doubt everyone on faculty and staff at Calvin would affirm these standards. But the second-order question is how to understand and apply these standards to same-sex marriage in light of current scientific knowledge, biblical scholarship and today’s gospel-and-culture situation. To run this issue up the confessional flagpole seems fundamentally mistaken, if not peevish and vengeful. What then could not be escalated to confessional status?

One could say, for example, that because obedience to the government is a confessional item (e.g. the Belgic Confession, article 36), anyone who raided the US Capitol, or who believes that the raid was justified, is risking damnation. As of last month’s opinion polls, that might send at least a quarter of the Republican Party straight to hell.

Especially in times of social conflict, it is vitally important for the church to resist the culture wars mentality of turning everything into a matter of the highest stakes, on which all must take sides and fight one’s opponents. The church, and Christian institutions like Calvin U., need to point to a better way.

At Calvin and the other Reformed universities, professors are obliged to seek the truth: to engage in investigation, analysis and debate, and to advocate ways of thinking and acting based on these deliberations. It is only human to want to have matters settled, but professors are called to ask unsettling questions, arrive at differing answers, and argue for the truth of what they have discovered.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff put it, a Christian university “should be a place where the Christian community does its thinking about the major social formation of contemporary society — its normative and strategic thinking.” In order to perform that duty, college professors need to have the freedom to critique ideas, structures and actions, try out new approaches or revive old ones. Given the often contentious nature of public issues, this can be tension-filled work, but colleges and their professors need to embrace such tensions if they are to live up to their calling.

I have been listening in on the conversations at Calvin, and I am touched by professors’ and professional staff members’ expressions of commitment to each other, beyond their differences on these issues. They want to work in an ethos of being eager to listen and open to learning from each other. What we learn from the history of social and religious conflicts is that in troubled times these virtues seem to fly away, and polarization takes over. The vital center is lost, and the potential for constructive change while keeping the peace dies with it.

I hope and pray that Calvin University can stand firm in this regard, and that the CRC members and leaders can pause a bit, listen patiently to each other, and back off the temptation to silence debate by declaring these matters to be of confessional status. Such actions may do more to destroy confessional commitments than to uphold them.



Header photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash
Gavel photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA on Pexels

Joel Carpenter

Joel Carpenter is professor and provost emeritus of Calvin University, where he was also the founding director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. Joel’s latest book, which he edited for the late Paul Joshua, is Christianity Remade: The Rise of Indian-Initiated Churches (Baylor, 2022). Joel and Janis recently moved to Chicago to be near their children and grandchildren.

28 Comments

  • Sheryl says:

    Thank you. As a daughter of a professor emeritus, an attendee at Calvin, wife of a spouse that attended Calvin, and a mother of kids that attended Calvin; I have been deeply concerned about the way the last couple of presidents and key BOT members and large donors have continually worn away at the unique Christian college that was Calvin. Calvin was that unique Christian university that was able to hold in tension when its traditional understanding of Scripture and information gleaned from the sciences appeared on the face to conflict. One was not jettisoned for the other but both were considered God’s revelation to us and required time and further exploration without instant answers to help students and the denomination work through the issues.
    My son was the editor of The Chimes during the incident you mentioned in 2009 – 2010. I remember him beginning his senior year telling us he could not support what the president was doing (“memogate”) and would definitely be authoring editorials on the issue, because the faculty were being threatened if they spoke out. He did not know if it would result in his expulsion or censorship of The Chimes, but knew he had to speak out. After that particular president left, I had hoped for a return of the Calvin I knew and loved, but unfortunately there seems to be a minority group with power that has continued this downward spiral.
    The editorial my son wrote as one of his last for The Chimes was an honest reflection that because of the changes he was seeing at Calvin, he was not sure if he would have chosen it for his selected college if he had to at that point. He now has a son of his own and both of us have our doubts about whether we would want him to attend Calvin anymore. I hope and pray that the college may be able to still turnaround the trajectory and its leaders stand up for its incredible faculty and staff instead of firing and withholding tenure to those who express opinions on issues the BOT and donors do not like.

  • Michael Saville says:

    The issue that we voted on at Synod is a first order matter. For the Christian Reformed Church to approve or tolerate homosexual practice would be the apostasy of our denomination. We would lose the marks of the true church and become a false church. This was also rightly stated to be a confessional matter; if the word “unchastity” doesn’t include homosexual practice then words have no meaning and there is no point in even having a Confession.

    • Jim Day says:

      Please try listening. It’s too late for the body synod. It’s never too late to start listening as individuals.

    • James C Dekker says:

      I cannot agree with you. It seems to me that the HSR study committee, synod’s advisory committee and a majority of synodical delegates turned Christian Reformed theology on its head. All of those usually kind, thoughtful and gracious children of God lifted sexuality up as a defining characteristic of what it is to be human. That is a tiny reduction of God’s final product of the original creation. In so doing sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, became the very tiny pinhead on which CRC theology, heritage and contemporary life are now very unsteadily trying to balance.

      And then there’s the technical Church Order matter of the advisory committee misreading the decision of the 1975 synod that Clayton Libolt meticulously dissects in his recent blog in “Peripatetic Pastor”: https://peripateticpastor.com/2022/07/04/synod-2022-once-again-is-there-a-hole-in-the-center-of-the-decision-on-confessional-status/ It’s simply not as simple as those two painful, often discourteous days in Grand Rapids loudly and angrily declared. Unless the decisions are seriously reviewed and revised, the CRC will continue lurching and falling into the confessionally fatal trap of Fundamentalism not unlike Jerry Falwell and cohort. Take time to reflect, pray, love, not condemn and dismiss sisters and brothers in Christ.

    • Brad says:

      This is exactly what some have said about evolution (“to approve or tolerate evolution would be the apostasy of our denomination”) and women in office (“to approve or tolerate women in office would be the apostasy of our denomination”). Yet our denomination was able to navigate differences of opinion about those.

    • As the CRC continues to build purity of doctrine walls, we bleed members to other denominations or to the post church movement.
      June Huissen

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      The mere and sad fact that you poisoned the well by throwing in the term “apostasy” shows how shrill and out of control this whole debate has become. To apostasize means to reject an entire religious faith. For a Reformed church to do that, it would have to renounce the Apostles’ and Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the whole content of all three of the Reformed confessions, and any idea that the Bible is in any sense ever reliable as a source of revelation. At MOST in the debates surrounding the core issue in the HSR there is disagreement about a handful of Bible texts as well as disagreement on pastoral approaches. For you to say that this one issue–or one word among the thousands we all affirm in the three Reformed Confessions–is tantamount to wholesale apostasy is so over the top I almost feel bad dignifying this with a comment. Almost. Not to mention the hyper-judgmentalism this conveys that anyone who disagrees with you on this one issue is an apostate and not even a true child of God saved by grace and in union with Christ. Pretty sure Jesus recommended not going around in life and doing that to people who follow him.

      • Rodney Haveman says:

        Thank you

      • Juvenal Urbino says:

        Michael, doesn’t the Bible describe homosexuality as an abomination? So how is Michael “out of control,” “shrill,” etc., by using the word “apostasy”?

        • Paul says:

          The Bible also condemns the eating of shellfish, and contains instructions for how masters and slaves should interact. I think we can both agree that slavery is wrong and eating shellfish is not heresy.

          I’d invite you to read the positions of affirming Christians with an open mind. That kind of open wresting with scripture seems to a fading tradition in the CRC.

      • Ann Markus says:

        Thank you Scott… i am afraid that we have reached a level of toxicity that shuts down real conversations.. silences and marginalizes people and does not maintain unity within the big C church. God help us all.

  • Sharon Davis Payton says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and wise article.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Joel, thank you for your wisdom on this issue. It appears from my perspective that this was railroaded through. Never a good sign for a deliberative body.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Thank you, my Brother, and welcome to Chicago!

  • Henry Hess says:

    Well said, Joel. During almost two decades as synod’s Information Officer, I watched successive synods navigate divisive issues with wisdom and grace. I had confidence that this synod would do the same. I am disappointed, but I believe that the Spirit is still at work in the church and that, in the end, our Reformed DNA will prevail.

  • David E Timmer says:

    Invoking a state of confession in the church is serious business, which is why it is best not left to a majority vote of a single assembly at the conclusion of a flawed process and a closed debate. There have been instances in recent church history (the debate over the “Aryan paragraph” in the German Evangelical Church in 1933; the struggle over apartheid in South Africa) where we might think a status confessionis was justified. But interestingly, in both of these cases the “confessors” were arguing for broader inclusion, not exclusion.

  • Raymond Blacketer says:

    The real status confessionis is the blatant idolatry of Christian Nationalism, with all of its extremist hate. This is the real apostasy, not carefully rethinking homosexuality. The CRC I knew thought deeply about things at its best. But at its worst it hates and engages in witch hunts as intensely as any fundamentalist sect.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Raymond,
      You forgot. Christian Nationalism has nothing to do with sex, and sex is the most important thing we can ever discuss, think about, or control. I mean think about all the people who die and are suffering because of same sex attraction. No one is ever harmed or suffer because of Christian nationalism. Let’s keep our eyes on the real important things … unbelievable. I just can’t with our Reformed faith of the last 50 years. It feels like we’ve lost the thread.

      • Paul Graansma says:

        No one was ever harmed by Christian Nationalism? Seriously?

        Tell that to the LGBTQ+ church and former church members who have been ostracized, closeted, and driven to suicide because of hateful and homophobic attitudes in the Church.

        I agree that we have lost the thread, although the thread I care most about is God’s will that we love one another.

    • Kirk says:

      I would say that standing with the historic church vs mainstream U.S. and Canadian culture is the opposite of “Christian Nationalism” as typically defined.

  • Randy Buist says:

    You are, perhaps, the first voice that I have read that has been openly critical of a Calvin University president. One could quickly believe that the president of the university IS confessional status as he, whoever he is, is protected.

    Both of the previous presidents have failed the university miserably. I have written such things numerous times, but my concerns are ignored, left unpublished, and deleted. Under both leaders, the school either lost serious funds (aka really, really bad investing), or lost student population.

    While it is argued that this is the fate of many small private colleges at this time, both Hope & Kalamazoo have retained and/or grown the student body & found stable financial ground. Both of their presidents are people of deep integrity who are leading with incredible knowledge & wisdom. (I know one personally.)

    Given that the direction of Calvin & the CRC have been trending in a bad direction for two decades, how long before the ship sinks? Do not hear me wrongly: I loved Calvin. I have done much to promote Calvin.
    Yet, when do we need to seriously question its direction? Its leadership obviously does not grapple with serious theological issues.

    Last fall, a year after being called a ‘troll’ by a Calvin administrator, my son started his college life at Kalamazoo… no regrets.

    Thank you for this daring piece of writing.

    • Joel A Carpenter says:

      Randy, my posting is much less daring than one might think. Calvin has a tradition of robust faculty co-governance and of lively dialogue and debate between its executives and faculty. In my days as provost I became accustomed to this dynamic, and (at least in my more reflective moments) I came to appreciate it. The episode in 2009 that I cited was not an isolated incident. I must admit, however, that over the past 15 years, faculty buy-in has been short-circuited repeatedly in the names of efficiency and emergency. That is not a healthy trend for the university. It is encouraging to me that one of the first things the new president did was to meet with the vice-chair of the Senate (always a faculty member) and to discuss faculty co-governance.

      • Juvenal Urbino says:

        Joel,
        Thanks for the distinction you make between first order/confessional and secondary issues. Assuming for a moment that homosexuality is a third order issue in this context, are you arguing that it’s a biblical/ Christian value that Calvin should embrace and encourage? Just curious.

  • Nancy Pranger says:

    thank you Joel for your eloquence and love for Calvin. So many troubling thing
    about Synod.

  • Aaron De Boer says:

    Suggesting that a solution to the disagreements in the CRC is to “understand and apply these (confessional) standards (& therefore the Scriptures themselves) to same-sex marriage in light of current scientific knowledge, biblical scholarship and today’s gospel-and-culture situation” is fundamentally forbidden by the core content of the denomination’s unifying documents.
    From Belgic Confession Article VII;
    “For since it is forbidden
    to add to the Word of God,
    or take anything away from it,
    it is plainly demonstrated
    that the teaching is perfect
    and complete in all respects.

    Therefore we must not consider human writings—

    no matter how holy their authors may have been—

    equal to the divine writings;
    nor may we put custom,
    nor the majority,
    nor age,
    nor the passage of times or persons,
    nor councils, decrees, or official decisions
    above the truth of God,

    for truth is above everything else.

    For all human beings are liars by nature
    and more vain than vanity itself.”

    The reason the confession adopts this humble posture regarding the Word of God, is at it’s very essence an attempt to avoid establishing any doctrine, or polity upon “current scientific knowledge, biblical scholarship and today’s gospel-and-culture situation.”

    Further, the handling of Article 36 in the essay is also flawed. Of course disobedience to government is sinful in any case that the magistrates do not contradict the Word of God, but the confession does not call insurrection, or vandalism a uniquely damnable error any more than all sin is damnable if not repented of and credited to Christ’s obedient account by faith. The same goes for any unchaste thought, or deed. Each is certainly enough to damn, and so must be repented of, confessed with faith in Christ and then fled from.
    The Bible’s teaching on the abomination of homosexuality, it’s zero tolerance for any and all other forms of sexual immorality, as well as it’s other-worldly teaching on submission to authority are all perfect. We must not add to them, or take away from them. At the root of this controversy is the socio-anthropological academic effort to do just that. The danger of categorizing sin through the perception of a present enlightenment regarding human sexuality, is that the lens belongs to “this present evil age”, and not to the eternal decrees of God Most High, and this is precisely where the Reformed confession keeps us rightly oriented.

    • Paul Graansma says:

      Based on your understanding of the infallibility of scripture and how science should not impact our understanding of it, would you suggest we return to a model of heliocentrism? John Calvin himself likely thought anything else was heretical…
      https://biologos.org/articles/john-calvin-on-nicolaus-copernicus-and-heliocentrism/

      Based on the suicides and pain inflicted by the Church’s homophobia, I’m inclined to believe the bad fruit that has been born requires more discernment than the what the CRC has rushed to do with this confessional status.

  • Joel Carpenter says:

    Juvenal, my position is a bit different than that. I am arguing that Calvin should be a free and safe zone to do research, discuss, debate, and advise the church. It is telling that the synodical committee did not consult with those at Calvin who are equipped to speak to the biblical, biomedical, psychological, and sociological research addressing same-sex relationships, transgender conditions, etc. The report said, is effect, that whenever Scripture and science seem to conflict, Scripture trumps science. So basically the committee dismissed scientific investigations, saying that they are interpretive, while refusing to say that understanding the Bible is also an interpretive exercise. I am not foreclosing on a position on this issue, or advocating a particular position, or saying that Calvin should. I am asking that my former colleagues (I am now retired) be given the freedom to do their work, and the rest of the church be given the freedom to differ with each other on this issue. I don’t see it as a settled matter, and I think it is a fundamental (fundamentalist?) error for the church to not only foreclose on it, but also condemn any dissent.

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