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Less than 72 hours after I came out, an office bearer in the Christian Reformed Church, standing in the church lobby after worship, compared me to a child rapist.
A friend compared a recent date to murder and hasn’t spoken to me again. Days before my 30th birthday, a family member reached out unsolicited to tell me to end my relationship. A former teacher abruptly messaged me years after graduation to accuse me of attacking the church because I’m gay. A church member messaged me on Facebook out of the blue to urge me to pursue conversion therapy. I’ve experienced depression on and off for the last decade, and as recently as this year.
After two decades of Christian education, I still spend some days trying to convince myself of the refrain, “Jesus loves me.” And I am still working to reverse the shame and self-hate that stems from the ultimate message from the institutions that raised me: “You don’t belong.”
I know this is uncomfortable to read. It’s uncomfortable to share. But I tell you this because I want you to hear a real, candid view—not sanitized—of my experience over the last decade as a gay son of the denomination into which I was baptized and raised.
The Christian Reformed Church is my home. My dad is a CRCNA pastor. Several of my closest friends and mentors are ordained in this denomination. I launched my journalism career at The Banner. I earned my bachelor’s degree from Calvin University, the denomination-owned college, and I won the school’s young alumni award in 2021. Now, I wouldn’t be allowed to teach there, and I might never sit on its board.
Last summer, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church elevated its opposition to same-sex marriage to confessional status—meaning all pastors, elders, deacons and even members must agree with it. This week, Synod 2023 will consider whether to reverse course or tighten the screws.
I never would have chosen to be attracted to men when I came out a decade ago. It took me a long time to accept it. But that deep desire for an intimate physical and emotional relationship with a man has always been part of who I am.
And I’m not alone: A recent Gallup poll finds that a remarkable 20 percent of Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ. That’s one in five. Put another way, in a group of just three Gen Z individuals—in your classroom, in your church, in your own immediate family—it’s more likely than not that at least one of them is LGBTQ.
Almost 40,000 Sunday school-aged children sit in our pews. That means there are thousands of children in our denomination who will one day come out. This is not a question “out there.” It’s us. In our churches. And in our families. It is only a matter of time before every congregation has a pastor or member with an LGBTQ child.
A friend recently told me that remaining in non-affirming places is like picking at a scab. We keep trying and trying to heal, but the wound stays open.
When I listen to the debate across our denomination, I’m angry that virtually all, if not all, of the voices I hear are straight. The actual, real lives of LGBTQ individuals in our denomination are often not even mentioned in conservative calls for clarity or moderate demands for good manners. Do you realize we have chased away most of the people who are actually affected by our church’s position? You have nearly chased me away, too. When is the last time you heard an LGBTQ voice in the CRCNA conversation on same-sex marriage?
Are you listening to what we are saying?
Four in 10 LGBTQ young people want to kill themselves. I have been there. When their lives hang in the balance—when my life hangs in the balance—what are you going to tell them? What will you tell me?
No questions. That’s confessional status.
A young person in your congregation might someday come to you, tears in their eyes, to reveal that they are LGBTQ—perhaps your own child. Are we really prepared to tell them that they aren’t allowed to go back to Scripture and wonder whether God might allow them the loving, monogamous relationship into which they feel so deeply called?
No questions. That’s confessional status.
What would you do if you personally were LGBTQ? I know it’s hard to imagine. If you found yourself attracted only to the same sex at 16 years old, would you read our synodical reports and make a once-and-for-all decision to stay single for the next six decades? Or would you consider leaving the church you love?
No questions. That’s confessional status.
We are so much better than this embarrassment that has unleashed procedural chaos in our denomination, forced hundreds of office bearers underground, sparked witch hunts among pastors and denominational employees, and, most importantly, driven LGBTQ individuals like me away from Christ’s love and toward despair and isolation.
We cannot let our LGBTQ children in CRCNA congregations become casualties in a culture war fought by church leaders for whom our same-sex relationship debate is little more than a fun hobby or a way to get subscribers on YouTube. It’s a disgrace that some ordained ministers in our denomination treat my belonging in my church like a football game that demands their color commentary. Our LGBTQ children will not have the luxury of traveling home from synodical summits and resuming day-to-day life with virtually no meaningful change.
That’s why it’s not enough to share empty platitudes about dialogue when the denomination has shown more interest in excommunicating me than listening to anything I have to say. It’s not enough to pat each other on the back for playing nice during conversations about whether to kick me out of the church. And it’s not enough to lament the spirit of our disagreement when LGBTQ people like me aren’t even allowed a seat at the table to try to make it better.
For decades, Synod has repeatedly passed resolutions repenting for its treatment of LGBTQ people. When I think about my own experience and our denomination today, I find it hard to believe they were anything but perfunctory. We can do better.
This year will mark 50 years since the Christian Reformed Church last opened itself to the possibility of any new biblical interpretations on same-sex marriage. But the legacy of our denomination is courageous, thoughtful engagement with culture—not dropping the ecclesial hammer on anyone who disagrees.
Our denomination has some of the most brilliant academic Christian minds in the world. Why are we so afraid to take another real look at this?
Martin Luther and John Calvin emphatically opposed forced celibacy for priests, not only on theological grounds, but because it realistically just doesn’t work. Luther called it “simply impossible” and said it “inevitably” results in “secret sin.” Calvin wrote that it “plunged many souls into the gulf of despair.” Is our position doing the same thing now?
I believe we can love God, love Scripture, and support same-sex marriage. Marriage is an overarching theme of Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation. I find it entirely insufficient to quote any of the seven so-called “clobber passages” and assert a “clear” traditional position. But I also find it insufficient to play whack-a-mole with those same passages and claim victory if we are able to find a way to sidestep all of them. We need a more robust hermeneutic.
In the old covenant, God’s family grew through procreation. Now, in the new covenant, God’s family grows through the Great Commission. So what significance does procreation have now in a world that has been redeemed through the incarnate birth of Jesus Christ? What is the importance of sexual difference when Christ’s death and resurrection have revealed to us the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the church? Can we wonder whether the work of Jesus Christ turns the page from the “fall” section of Romans 1 into the “redemption” section of Romans 3—and God’s promise of free justification through grace?
Our eschatological direction does not point us toward creation, but new creation. We are not headed back to Genesis. Can we take Christ’s creation-fall-redemption rubric from Matthew 19 and Paul’s inclusive, unitive vision in Galatians 3:28, and wonder whether sexual difference might no longer play an essential role in the already-but-not-yet of Christ’s redemptive work in the world? Could the power of Christ’s resurrection be enough to redeem all of creation—even loving, covenantal relationships that look different than Adam and Eve did?
On January 12, 1992, a CRCNA congregation made a promise to me: “Do you promise to love, encourage, and support Ryan by teaching the gospel of God’s love, by being an example of Christian faith and character, and by giving the strong support of God’s family in fellowship, prayer, and service?” “We do, God helping us.”
Even more importantly, with omniscient knowledge of my sexual orientation and the events of my life from birth to death, God sealed that promise to adopt me into God’s family, too. Nineteen years ago today, I accepted those promises in my own profession of faith.
Was there an asterisk?
The thousands of baptized LGBTQ children now in our pews will one day grow up and come out—and no denominational gag order or synodical intimidation is going to stop them.
I believe my partner makes me more like Jesus. The companionship, love and self-sacrifice I find in that covenantal relationship makes my life better. And I believe that God and Scripture bless that relationship. I know some CRCNA members who believe the same thing. I know some who don’t. And I know some CRCNA members whose own children or grandchildren are prompting them to begin to wonder about it.
The denomination must be willing to wonder with them.
Synod 2023 must reverse confessional status. And then, we must finally look again at Scripture and ask ourselves whether we can find room in our denomination for me and the LGBTQ children in our churches who are not far behind.