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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.