Last week’s discussion of inclusiveness and church order at the Christian Reformed Church’s (CRCNA) annual Synod evoked memories of an earlier debate that dragged on for decades.
Could women be ordained to church office? In the 1970s, CRCNA Synod formed several study committees in succession that question. Yes, said the first such committee in 1973: there are no biblical grounds against it. Yes, said the second committee in 1975. So did two more committees reporting in 1978 and 1982, with some qualifications (deacons only, for now). Rather than move forward with church order changes, however, Synod assigned yet another study committee to explain the “principle of headship” in church and family.
My father, retired seminary professor Anthony Hoekema, was asked to advise that committee. In our family we knew of his misgivings about women’s ordination. He had welcomed and encouraged female seminary students so long as they aspired to be teachers, not pastors. Now the committee was preparing to argue that Scripture not only assigns husbands headship over their wives and families but also requires women teaching Sunday School to serve under male supervision.
As the report was being written in spring 1984, my wife, Susan, and I were living just around the corner from my parents. My preschool children visited Grandma and Grandpa nearly every day, on foot or on a tricycle. The committee work made family dinners tense and difficult, even though my father seldom spoke about it.
At the 1984 Synod, my father surprised everyone – his family, even his committee – when he announced that, on further reflection and study, he could no longer endorse a general principle of gender hierarchy. Headship in biblical teachings, he concluded, is relevant to Christian marriage but not to other contexts.
Synod passed the report despite my father’s recantation. Ordaining women was therefore out of the question.
Susan and I had maintained our membership in, and close personal ties to, a Christian Reformed congregation that we had helped organize (Church of the Servant), even while living far from CRC churches. But we could no longer remain in a denomination unwilling to recognize that its rules for church office arose from patriarchal culture, not Scripture.
Participating in the life and ministry of Episcopal, Lutheran, and Congregational churches in New Jersey, Minnesota, and Delaware, Susan and I valued the ways in which each proclaimed the Gospel and advanced the Kingdom. When our daughter sought confirmation in our Episcopal church, we transferred our membership too. For the first time since our baptism we were former CRC members.
We moved back to Michigan in 1992 to pursue our careers in academic administration and in legal practice. To our dismay, the CRCNA was still barring women from the pulpit. I rejoined the church where my parents were longtime members and where I had spent my childhood (Neland Ave CRC). Susan followed suit only in 1996 when women called to ministry were at last permitted to serve in CRC churches – 23 years after theological objections had been debunked at Synod. We remained members there until, after another move, we joined Susan’s parents at their Grand Haven, Michigan church (Second CRC).
As administrator and faculty member at Calvin I was deeply grateful – and happily surprised – to see it becoming a welcoming home for LGBTQ students, even while the community wrestled with difficult questions of gender, sexuality, and marriage. In our ever more polarized society, respectful dialogue on matters of sexuality and marriage is a rare and precious achievement. We discerned a similar spirit in the life of our congregations from time to time.
As an attorney, Susan assisted the church with some legal matters, and later she was appointed to the Board of Trustees and then the Council of Delegates (COD) of the Christian Reformed Church. In her leadership role she gained greater admiration for the prophetic witness and wide-ranging programs of the denomination. But after six years of service she was deeply troubled by COD members’ efforts to circumscribe the work of the Mercy and Justice office and to elevate doctrinal purity over compassion.
Release of the Human Sexuality Report (HSR) deepened our fears for the future of the CRCNA. Rather than continue a process of inquiry and discernment, the report sought to close off debate. Rather than explore the meaning of faithful Christian marriage in a rapidly changing legal and social context, the report condemned loving and covenantal same-sex partnership as irremediably sinful. After the report was adopted in 2022, churches across the continent submitted overtures asking that its harsh and unqualified judgments be tempered by compassion and patience. Just last week, Synod 2023 rejected all these appeals.
Is this the beginning of another decades-long dispute that will cause deep pain to many faithful members, distract the church from every other aspect of its work in the world, and silence respectful dissent?
What can we say to parents whose children have forsaken the church – even their faith – because of the prejudice and hostility they have experienced there?
When we learn that yet another young adult, disowned by his CRC family because is gay, has sunk into despair and taken his own life, how can we comfort his friends?
The hurt and pain that Susan and I felt, listening to hateful and ignorant comments on the Synod floor, cannot be compared to the damage done to our LGBTQ Christian friends and their families.
Can we remain in a denomination whose deliberations and pronouncements are so devoid of humility and compassion?
It is difficult to say yes. Susan has already found the exit door. The HSR compounded her concerns about the church’s direction, and two years ago she transferred her membership to our winter church home (Southside Presbyterian in Tucson).
I have not yet followed her out. At Sunday worship, in conversations and in shared projects, my pastors and fellow parishioners in Grand Haven challenge me to search the Scripture and seek the Kingdom. In my writing and teaching I am motivated by the Reformed ideals of inquiry, reading God’s word in nature and Scripture and discerning its meaning through collaborative study. The HSR instead brings a simplistic preconception – rigid gender duality – to its exposition of both Scripture and science.
To walk away from a church and a tradition that have shaped me since childhood will not be easy. But two Synods have offered us doctrinaire pronouncements in place of dialogue. They have condemned as heretical followers of Jesus who come together – gay, straight, trans, and queer — in praise and prayer. Is the Great Healer now inviting us to the exit door from a broken denomination?