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The Agenda for the 2023 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church came out recently. It weighs in at 629 pages, approximately half of which is taken up by the 76 overtures that were submitted by regional classes, congregations, or individuals. Two-thirds of these overtures deal with matters related to the actions of Synod 2022 and its recommending of the Human Sexuality Report (HSR) to the churches as well as the move to declare as “confessional” a certain interpretation of the lone word “unchastity” in the Heidelberg Catechism’s explication of the seventh commandment. About half of the overtures in this area call for some kind of rescinding or reversal of some of Synod 2022’s actions while the other half launch off last year’s synod to call for disciplinary actions of various kinds for those not showing compliance with—or just expressing difficulties with—those actions.
Overture 33 from Classis Southeast U.S. stands out from the others in that its primary focus is not talking so much about—much less seeking to revise—the work of Synod 2022 but rather a reversing of something that came out of Synod 1973. As many people know, one of the more striking features of the original committee mandated to study what was called “the problem of homosexuality” was a then somewhat novel stance that clearly declared people do not have same sex attractions through any blameworthy decision or choice of their own. The 1973 report makes clear it is “not a conscious choice” and that in fact being so sexually oriented has led to what it termed “the tragic plight” of gay people who have been made to suffer cruelly at the hands of societies and of also the church throughout history. That report said it was “cruel and unjust” to treat same-sex attracted people as had historically usually been the case.
Although crystal clear that acting on this orientation is sinful, the 1973 report laid no blame on the inborn orientation and pastorally called on the church to not single out gay people whose inner desires are no more disordered than anybody else’s desires across the entire range of human behavior. Nor should gay people feel defeated by either their ongoing struggles or even their occasional lapses and neither should those realities be any barrier to full communal acceptance of such sisters and brothers in the church. Yet even with this feature of the 1973 report, the CRCNA has had over and over again to apologize for its failure to be pastoral and loving to same-sex attracted people. Such penitence was also a major part of the preamble to the 2022 HSR.
But now Overture 33 claims that by having had this stance for 50 years, the CRCNA has treated gay people differently than everybody else. No, not in the sense that the church has made a bigger deal out of their sinfulness vis-à-vis all other forms of sinfulness but rather in the sense that we have sent the message that gays alone are exempt from what we teach to be true of everyone else: namely, we are born with disordered desires that are themselves a consequence of sin having come into the world.
Here is an assertion that widens the eyes. Because how many of our gay friends would tell us that they have been the beneficiaries of getting a pass where the condemnation of sinful desires is concerned in ways that the rest of us never get since everyone else has their sinfulness proclaimed to them all the time? The CRCNA has admitted to failures of love for gay people even with the 1973 proviso in place. What will happen if synod rolls it back?
To be fair, Overture 33 tries to say that despite our many disordered desires that go contrary to God’s will, all of us—gays and non-gays and everybody—are made righteous by the inner cleansing of Christ’s blood and this is wonderful news. In fact, by now proposing we declare same-sex orientation to be itself a culpable sin (in contradistinction to the 1973 report) we will be enhancing the happiness and blessing quotient for same-sex attracted individuals. Now they have even more to celebrate where their sexual orientation is concerned; namely, its getting forgiven.
And here I wish to demur. The net effect of this overture does precisely what the church has always done: single out one group as needing far more scrutiny and public condemnation than any others. While having the ostensibly laudable goal of wanting to regard same-sex attracted people the same way we regard anyone else who has varying types of disordered desires, the fact is the church seldom if ever tries to make sure it does not miss calling attention to the disordered desires of the greedy among us, the proud and arrogant among us, the gamblers and the gluttons among us, the selfish and the judgmental among us. It is difficult to see how the adoption of a proposal like this will accomplish anything other than providing one more chance for the church to tell gay people what a problem they are in ways others are seldom if ever told.
As one part of another overture (Overture 29) points out, in the time since Synod 2022, out of all the thousands of words contained in the three Ecumenical Creeds and the three Reformed Confessions—and no matter how rigorously and faithfully people may embrace basically all of that—the be-all and end-all of someone’s orthodoxy has now come down to precisely one word in all that and the interpretation now layered onto that single word. The only other time I can think of when one word meant so much was the homoousios vs. homoiousios debate at the Council of Nicaea. But at least that one word went to the central theological issue of the full divinity of Christ (the difference was whether Christ has the same essence as the Father or a similar essence). Otherwise having a one-word shibboleth to determine the sum total of one’s righteousness, orthodoxy, and standing in the church is rare.
Overture 33 frames its desire to overturn the 1973 stance as a matter of theological precision. The CRCNA has been imprecise for far too long. But as Jesus experienced in encounter after encounter with the highly precise religious leaders of his day, the desire for razor-sharp precision almost always comes at the expense of love for people whose lives look too imprecise for the comfort level of some.
Exactly. Why single out homosexuality as a sin, when there are so many real sins that bedevil humankind: greed, envy, lust, gluttony, pride, sloth, anger among them?
Hmmm. Pondering out loud here….Taking this one step further, I suspect that sexual attraction itself is on trial here via Overture 33. It has been somewhat “redeemed” for the purpose of childbirth, but the church has never handled sexuality reasonably. Scarlet letters, celibacy, stoning women, etc. Anything this good has apparently got to be a sin. Sexual attraction is universal and powerful but not inherently sinful. Were not Adam and Eve sexual creatures before the fall?
Perhaps a different framework is needed here. There are at least three physiological drives, or rhythms, that propel humans (and animals): hunger, sexual desire, and perhaps sleep. Each serves a creational purpose and there is somewhat of a behavioral or willful component to each. But each is also inherently biological. To remain constructively aligned with creational design, they must be managed, hence the adultery command within the Sinai Covenant and distinct family boundaries listed in Leviticus 18. But somehow we have singled out sexual attraction as especially suspect, even sinful, while hunger and sleep mismanagement are simply unwise but not immoral. We have subtly tied “nakedness” to the tree of temptation. ( See synod report.) This sexuality framework makes it permissable to expand the definition of chastity to the safest possible level and to do so forever. While sexual attraction itself remains unsettled, we will never settle same-sex attraction.
Thank you (kind of), Scott for this blog. I wish I had had a cup of coffee b4 reading it, but it wasn’t ready yet. This overture is so, so disheartening, beyond cruel. Why would any LGBTQ+ person ever want to belong to a denomination that should approve such a theological travesty? Yes, as RZ virtually says, our denom has become obsessed with sexuality. I would add–and has steadily been losing its primary mission of following Christ. When our daughter came out to us almost 18 years ago, she reminded us of two things we already knew: She is still the girl we raised; her sexuality is a part of her, not determinative, though essential. Whether or not this overture is approved, it seems that the CRC and other denoms gotten to the point of turning our theology so upside down that we are trying to balance it all on the pinhead of sexuality. I and others are saddened beyond words.
I remember being unable to move while lying in five psychiatric hospitals because God cared more about something called sin than any of us. Sleep, hunger, sexuality, and breath. Worshipping belief. Sigh.
Thank you Scott,
When I was at Calvin (then College), we looked at the second generation Calvinists with a bit of derision, highlighting that they spent all their time trying to figure out how many angels could be balanced on the head of a needle (almost certainly unfair). How is this different today, except you know the dehumanizing of a group of people who the church has dehumanized for centuries (millennia?). When I was at Western, I heard Smedes ask us, “Does humanity serve your theology, or does your theology serve humanity?” It’s a question worth struggling with for our Synods, frankly for the church as a whole. As a minister, I have met with any number of friends, who share their struggles with trauma at the hands of the church over rejection for who they are (shockingly none of them were heterosexual), including my daughter, who grew up in an affirming congregation and parents who always loved her no matter what. Somehow the “church” came between that love (both from her congregation and her parents), and she no longer believes or attends. I cannot tell you how much I despise the “church” for this fact, and yet here I am continuing to serve. My only hope (comfort) in life and in death is I (and she) belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
I suppose at this point, one word will be plucked out of that hope and twisted to tell me that my hope is unfounded, because you know, baptism isn’t something that reveals we are sealed by/in the grace of Christ before the foundations of the world at the cross, but in fact is a choice of a lifestyle we choose and then set aside and clearly reveal we are reprobate and condemned to an eternity of hell.
I don’t even know what else to say. “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
I wonder, Rodney, if your persistence in serving this “church,” even with your frustration and hurt, is because this is His bride, one He dearly loves.
I can’t imagine how this coming CRCNA Synod will be able to get through its agenda and walk away with any semblance of unity, purity, and peace. 76 overtures. The structure cannot hold it. “Things fall apart.”
We have seen that, haven’t we, Daniel.
Yep. Good to hear from you. It’s been a while!
After reading this update, Scott, I feel an incredible sadness for where this denomination is heading. Your final paragraph highlighted what I, too, have come to interpret as our denominations’ error: “But as Jesus experienced in encounter after encounter with the highly precise religious leaders of his day, the desire for razor-sharp precision almost always comes at the expense of love for people whose lives look too imprecise for the comfort level of some.”
Oh Lord, forgive us.
This is a well crafted blog on a very sad overture. Thanks, Scott!
Additionally, I think one can easily miss the main issue if all one sees in the discussion of SSM is a denominational obsession with SEX. SSM, I think, is simply the most culturally relevant issue to use to significantly reverse the theological trajectory of the CRC and its institutions. Over the past 6 months I have read and listened to a number of blogs and posts on SSM. Some suggest the that the last 50 years of history in CRC has been a huge disaster. GRusalem (a playful pejorative term to describe CRC elite and leaders)is out of touch with a huge section of the church. CRC clergy, like me, who went through Calvin Seminary in the late 60’s and early 70’s questioned everything, they say. My generation of leaders promoted WICO, a concern for racism and social justice, and the importance of seeing evil is structures and institutions as well as individuals. This has led to the CRC becoming very progressive. And, its because of these progressive emphasis, especially because of WICO, that there has been a huge membership loss in the CRC. Also, in recent decades, progressive elites have kept conservatives from leadership positions.
In short, which group will have control of the CRC: progressives (liberals) or conservatives? Can the progressive theological trajectory of the CRC of the past 50 to 75 years be reversed? If we become more conservative, can we stop the loss of church membership?
The heart of the discussion is about much more than SEX.
I wonder how big an impact the SWIM program was. The Peace Corp for CRC. (The RCA had something similar, earlier, The Caravaners, and, typically, ecumenical with the Presbyterians). I remember all those SWIM alumni in the Calvin dorms who had their eyes enlightened to the realities: Paterson, Garfield Park, LA, Roseland, you name it.
My understanding of a “progressive” church member is defined by enlightening experiences outside the bubble enclosing a local church congregation. My experience as a CRC preacher’s kid includes SWIM in Norfolk VA 1970 and Muskegon MI 1971 and Calvin College in 1970s. But my appreciation for the theological trajectory of the CRC was shaped as much by working and worshipping with churches in diverse locations: Tracy IA, Holland MI, Rehoboth NM, West Sayville NY, DeMotte IN, Edmonton AB, Paterson NJ. Then I consider the impact of CRC pastors who are not from Dutch ancestry, recently taking leadership positions in the denomination. Praise God for the diversity in His Church!
I agree with Mel. The vast majority of congregants ate conservatives. These conservatives put up with the liberalism of the denominational materials because their churches were conservative. But they will leave in droves if the CRC continues it’s leftward shift. The best scenario for our denomination is if the liberal churches join with the RCA out of good will to be the least disruptive to the CRC while aligning themselves with the denomination that most closely reflects their vision.
I think that’s accurate until you come to some of the more liberal churches or the liberal classis of Grand Rapids East, which is where the magisterium–as it often tends to sees itself–of the CRC is located. In the end, I think everyone will be better off going their separate ways, as much I find that regrettable.
The reality is that often those of us in that small enclave of liberalism in GR East and a scattered handful of other liberal churches do not well understand the broader denomination, nor they us. We are effectively two churches attempting to operate as one, and we no longer understand each other. This is likely not reconcilable. For example, I attended a church elsewhere in the denomination for an event, and in a single sermon there was mention of abortion, homosexual practices, and transgenderism–and not favorable ones. None of these topics have been directly mentioned even in passing in an unfavorable way in my church for well over a decade. Our pastor and I assume much or most of our church simply do not believe what they believe any longer on these subjects. Right to Life Sunday used to be a “thing”. It hasn’t been a “thing” in our church for ages. We don’t have a pride flag up at our church yet, but a nearby CRC does.
Scott downplays this somewhat as the interpretation of a single word, but there is more to it in a broader context. For the broader denomination, they see the Bible’s teaching on this issue as extremely clear, and for approximately 2000 years or so, there was no substantial disagreement. It is difficult to contest that the early church writings were in largely in accord, the Catholic church from which we Protestants broke largely was in accord, and our own denomination was and remains in accord, officially. They see this shift as something more significant than those on the left of this issue often comprehend: A denial of Scripture itself, and a celebration of sinfulness. Not some catechistic debate over a word. I have no doubt that I have heard sermons preached which the pastor of the friend’s church would have regarded as blasphemous.
And that, I believe, is the core of the issue. While the liberal wing has been dealt with gently until recently, the emergence of open and affirming congregations made this impossible to ignore. At the end of the day, it would seem virtually impossible to remain in communion with those who would regard you as blasphemers, and vice-versa. For the conservative wing, it’s not “one word”. It’s sola scriptura and the whole ball of wax on the table.
Leftward, conservative, liberal? I cannot begin to define these identities. Seems like it is so much about power, seizing control of the narrative, than about getting to truth.
But I still maintain that the church has mismanaged sexuality.
I’d like to think of Jesus being present at our June Synod gathering.
Maybe even delivering his Sermon on the Mount?
Or might he and his words not be welcome?