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In the summer of 2022, the Christian Reformed Church’s Synod approved a report on human sexuality that went beyond stating a denominational position and offering pastoral counsel on the issue of same-sex relations and marriage. Synod 2022 stated that its rejection of such relations and marriages as sinful is now to be regarded as a confessional issue, empowering it to act against open dissenters who hold church office (e.g., ministers, elders, and deacons), or others who are required to indicate agreement with the church’s confessions as a condition of employment (e.g., professors at Calvin University).

However, same-sex relations and marriage are not explicitly mentioned in the confessional statements of the CRC – the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. So, in order to elevate its judgment to confessional status without going through a complex process of confessional revision, Synod interpreted the “unchastity” that is condemned in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 108, on the seventh commandment) as including all same-sex relations, and then argued that Synod’s interpretation carries the same authority as the text of the catechism itself.

This process of confessional revision-via-interpretation is not without precedent in the CRC. For example, in 1924, the denomination was in the midst of a dispute over the doctrine of grace, a dispute that had led to a significant split and the formation of the Protestant Reformed Church. The synod adopted Three Points that expressed its interpretation of the confessions on that issue, and then insisted that this interpretation was “the official interpretation” and as such was “binding for every officer and member of our denominational group.”

Of course, what one synod does without any process of ratification, another synod can undo, or simply ignore. In 1960, when the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches requested that the Three Points be set aside (a move which might have paved the way for a reunion of the denominations), the CRC declined to do so, but appeared to back away from insisting on their binding character. Instead, they told the potential re-joiners that “we recognize and bear with scruples which you may have, in the expectation that we together may come eventually to a better understanding of the truth . . .”

The message of Synod 2022 to advocates of LGBTQ inclusion is clear: We do not recognize and will not bear with scruples which you may have, in the certainty that we alone have come to a final understanding of the truth. That Synod is reading a prohibition of same-sex relations into the Heidelberg Catechism is an indication that its certainty does not derive from the confessions; instead, the catechism is being weaponized to attack dissenters from a view that has been arrived at on very different grounds, through a “study process” that was openly designed to reach one and only one conclusion.

The human sexuality report justifies the “confessionalization” of its condemnation of same-sex relations by citing a commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism by Zacharias Ursinus, one of the catechism’s authors, that offers an expansive list of behaviors constituting “unchastity,” including “the lusts of which the apostle Paul speaks in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans.” This originalist approach gives definitive weight to what was in the mind of the original author, even if the words in the text of the catechism are more general and subject to divergent interpretation.

But this originalist strategy risks proving too much. Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism weighs in at over six hundred pages. Does it now become the definitive confessional standard, rather than the Catechism itself? Does that imply that the CRC is bound by every opinion Ursinus expresses there that can plausibly be linked to a doctrinal or moral issue? For instance, in discussing the phrase “Maker of heaven and earth” in the Apostles’ Creed, Ursinus states clearly that he believes that creation occurred less than 6000 years ago. Some might be only too happy to regard that view as confessional!

The deeper problem of this type of originalism is not just that it is arbitrary and opportunistic in application, however. The issue of same-sex relations and marriage is one that calls on the church to engage in a difficult process of moral discernment in the face of rapid change, both in our social context and our understanding of the biological and psychological underpinnings of sexuality. To insist that Ursinus’s sixteenth-century discernment of the nature of chastity must now be binding on us in every detail is not responsible moral discernment. It is reprehensible moral bullying

David Timmer

David Timmer recently retired after a 40 year career of teaching religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

11 Comments

  • Julia Smith says:

    An excellent analysis, David. Thank you! I hope the points you make so well will come before Synod 2023 in many overtures.

  • Cheryl L Scherr says:

    Thank you David. You expressed what many of us were thinking but in a very reasoned and erudite manner. I so appreciate you.

  • Jim Payton says:

    Thank you for this piercingly insightful assessment. Indeed, what Synod 2022 has “decided” in this regard throws open the whole of Ursinus’s 600-page commentary as binding on the CRC in any doctrinal or moral question that might arise. (It’s worth noting that, as I presented in the video for “All One Body,” Ursinus’s commentary actually devotes more attention to problems of “unchastity” within the bonds of heterosexual marriage than it does to same-sex activity — but the HSR doesn’t even mention any of that.)

    • David E Timmer says:

      Yes, I think that Ursinus can offer much that would be helpful for our moral discernment, as long as we don’t simply substitute his discernment for our own.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It’s remarkable to me that that the CRCNA is doing what the Reformers criticized the Roman church for, that is, using church dogma to bind the responsible freedom of the Word.

  • James Leunk says:

    David Timmer’s argument is clear and logical, but I’m not sure the synod majority can be swayed by logic. It chooses its desired conclusion first and then manufactures a report to fit, weaponizing it to use against anyone who disagrees. The next synod will be telling: Was 2022 the work of a well-organized and committed faction that took advantage of a situation in which many others didn’t recognize the full extent of what that faction was up to, or does the 2022 majority represent the genuine consensus in the CRC, willing to accept an inquisition, schism and destruction of denominational institutions if that’s the cost of getting what it wants?

    • Al Schipper says:

      Thanks Jim and David,
      Logic, as in “decent and good order”, has indeed been sacrificed be a repetitive and well organized faction. Hopefully recent political events might be a harbinger of delusion fading and logic ascending.

    • Valerie Terpstra Van Kooten says:

      Unfortunately, James, I fear it is the latter. Anyone paying even halfway attention could have judged what was going to happen when you choose a committee that must adhere to the “done deal” conclusion the Synod wants you to come to. I was flabbergasted that there were so few objections–that I saw, at least–to this theological gerrymandering. We all knew what the conclusion was ahead of time, and CRC members, by and large, seemed okay with it.

  • Ruth Ann Kuhn says:

    Thank you David! Grateful you can put this explanation into words.

  • David Hoekema says:

    A clear and cogent analysis of how very contrary the Synod action was to our historic Reformed conception of Biblical, confessional, and ecclesiastical authority. (This from one David in today’s RJ postings to the other.) Even if Synod 2023 recants, great damage has been done to the unity and witness of the CRCNA.

  • Jaci Ray says:

    Thank you David for your explanation of the CRC’s rational.Your insight is appreciated.

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