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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?

David Hoekema

David A. Hoekema is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and retired Academic Dean at Calvin University, and, in the winter, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Arizona.  His most recent book, We Are the Voice of the Grass (Oxford University Press), recounts the tireless work of Christians and Muslims who came together to strive for an end to a brutal civil war in Uganda. In light of recent developments in the Christian Reformed Church, he is now a member of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona and he also participates in the worship life of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Grand Haven, Michigan. Hiking, bicycling, choral music, old-timey string bands, and conversation with Christians whose minds and hearts are open to all are among the things that gladden his heart.  


  • Char Kubiak says:

    Thank you for articulating so eloquently my concerns. Since Wednesday I have been so anxious and mournful. I love my local church, but am so deeply disappointed in the way this was handled in the denomination. Someone said, though, that if everyone leaves who disagrees, how will anything ever change?

  • Kathy Davelaar VanRees says:

    David and Susan,
    I admire your thoughtfulness and the journey of your life. When I married in 1972, I along with my husband joined an RCA congregation in Holland, Michigan. And I can remember the little twinges of wondering about leaving the church of my birth and upbringing.
    Now, over 50 years later, after serving as an RCA minister for 20 plus years, and in happy retirement, I remember with bemusement those “little twinges of wondering” of long ago.
    Blessings to you both.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thank you for penning imperative insights and questions. There is much for me to consider in the days ahead.

  • Judy Ponstine says:

    Thank you David and Susan.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, David, for this (to us) well-known map of your denominational pilgrimage. As you know, I remember your dad with great affection and admiration. Yes, he was conservative, but–as I think I’ve told you–when I was writing a paper on Bultmann in my senior year at CTS, in one lecture he pulled Bultmann apart firmly, as gently as dismembering can occur. After class I had a long-ish conversation with him to let him know I was writing my paper for this course on Bultmann and wondered if I was pre-assigned to rejection (sort of like double predestination?). He got my concern–academically and personally–and assured me he would grade the paper on its academic merit, not on doctrinal correctness. When the class received the papers back (always carefully read and commented on–including spelling or punctuation blips–he’d assigned an A, with this final, among many comments: “This is fine work. I encourage you to keep writing…” I should have kept the paper, but I have gratefully since followed his encouragement, though I don’t know if Tony would have agreed with all I’ve written.

    In any case, I have a pleasant thought that he would have deplored the spirit of the last at least seven years of CRC synods and the shallowness of the last two years of synod decisions. It’s certain fair to thin that he, at least, would place compassion and respect on equal level to (impossible to achcieve) doctrinal purity and absolute certainty and maybe higher in spiritual ethical hierarchy. Thank God for him and for your almost haunting, but fitting memories. We’re in a congregation that largely knows how to fight fairly about demanding issues and find that more than OK for now, intending to stay till we’re not welcome in the congregation or denomination. (Well, the latter has kind of been decided two years in a row, but it takes three strikes and maybe a number of foul balls before we’re out.) Thanks much again.

  • Johannes Witte says:

    David, thank you for this well written history of your and Susan’s journey inside, outside, inside and finally outside again of the CRC. Lynda and I too are looking at the exit sign away from a church that has nurtured us in so
    many ways. I am sad seeing the CRC becoming a church I no longer recognize

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    We can not and will not leave the church (2nd CRC) that has nurtured us, fed us, and loved us our entire married life. Not yet. Although Abide has made it painfully clear that they don’t want those like us, we will wait, watch, and pray, hoping that change does not take twenty-some years to come.

  • Pete Tig says:

    Thank you, David for such a well-written and appropriate article. The greatest commandment is love, love for our God and for our our neighbor, not love for church order and creeds. Where the two clash, I know what side I am on. Also, I don’t know how Calvin can continue its mission to all its students with the recent synodical rulings.

    • Jan Heerspink says:

      Pete, I agree with you on both topics: love and the difficulty Calvin will have in serving students — for all sorts of reasons. One question is what will be left of the strong faculty when all of this shakes down? This was all so unnecessary. Abide made it happen.

  • Connie Kuiper VanDyke says:

    Thank you for the loving memory of your wonderful father. He was always SO encouraging to me, telling me I was created to do amazing things. I agree that he would be appalled by Synods 2022 and 2023, not only for their decisions but even more for the ways they were made.

  • Jon Pott says:

    Thanks, David. The deep personal hurt to the LGBTQ community and the betrayal also of the more capacious Reformed intellectual tradition that nurtured so many of us.

  • Douglas Daining says:

    Thank you David. We joined Neland Ave CRC 40 years ago. The welcoming hospitality of your parents was one of the prime reasons we joined Neland. I wonder how much of your father’s change of heart was because of your mother’s steady influence. Before women could serve as elders and deacons, I believe it was your mother Ruth along with Coby Hoffman that started the Pastoral Care Assistance program at Neland. This allowed women to do what was essentially elders work without being a church officer. Both of your parents were well ahead of their times in church leadership.

  • Steven Tryon says:

    Thank you, David.
    This year has kicked the stuffing out of me. Synod 2022 broke the denominational covenant; Synod 2023 shattered it. Agree, acquiesce, or leave. Do as you wish, but the CRCNA will remain pure and holy.

    Stay or leave? When does the pain of staying overwhelm the pain of leaving? My membership remains with Rochester (NY) CRC, where I have been a member for most of my 73 years, but I have been worshipping of late with the local United Church of Christ, which has welcomed me with open arms. They understand my situation. The pastor told me Sunday, “I’m glad to see you here; I’m sad to see you here.”


  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, David.
    At Neland we remember with deep affection and appreciation what your parents, Tony and Ruth, meant to our congregation. I was blessed by the privilege to serve Neland as a fellow elder with Tony and by the conversations we had on our rides home after the meetings.
    And the whole congregation was deeply blessed when Ruth became our first woman deacon.

    The questions Neland faces now along with many a CRC church family are extremely painful ones. As lifelong members, we are deeply rooted in the CRC. We love its Reformed witness, its commitment to follow the Great Commandment within our own borders and to the ends of the earth.
    Sadly, some deep divisions within the denomination are now threatening once again (remember the common grace and women in office issues) to unravel the fabric that once held us together.
    That leads to the questions we would prefer not to face:
    Can we stay?
    Not if in words and practice we disagree with the synodical decisions.
    Should we stay?
    Not if we can’t subscribe to what many of us see as a denominational flawed reading and inconsistent application of Scripture that leads to disqualification for church office of a practicing homosexual within a same-sex marriage.

    Jesus’ ministry, as God incarnate, touches us profoundly. Is it because it strikes us as more relational than theological?
    His last words to the disciples, and to all of us, when he was about to leave them must give us pause for prayer and spiritual introspection:
    “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

    • EMILY JANE STYLE says:

      Professor Baron, your concluding words bring a Richard Rohr aphorism to mind: God is not A Being; god is Being-In-Relationship. I am feeling grateful for all the ways that understanding has come my way – across the years – including via the CRC and Calvin College. So many infinite ways Grace Abides.


    Thank you, David and Susan, and to all who are reading and commenting. One of my responses comes as a Solstice Poem, grateful for this conversational platform.

    Imagine growing up
    Ignorant of solstice,
    That was me—

    So unheavenly
    The CRC cultural bubble
    Sometimes was (in my experience)

    Blocking rhythms
    Deep and wide—
    Certain knowledge deemed

    Yet—once again,
    Refreshing words
    Spring forth

    From a Reformed Journal article
    Articulating truth
    About a capacious heritage

    Committed to ever-Re-forming ideals
    Of democratic inquiry,
    Finding divine words in Nature
    as well as Scripture—and, most of all,
    Discerning meaning
    through conversational study

    Echoing the words of you-know-who— (or whom)
    Where two or three are gathered
    In good faith, there am I
    In the midst of collaboration—
    Once again, incarnational expression of Trinity

    © Emily Jane VandenBos Style, June 2023 Solstice


    With ongoing thanks – for this conversational platform, another response of mine comes as a Syllabus offering. Perhaps others too have Syllabus suggestions – as learning goes on, conversational as trinity.

    I am moved to offer here—one syllabus possibility for CRC learners—post-synod 2023 and pre-synod 2024.

    1. First Reformed, 2017 film directed by Paul Schaeder who was raised CRC. My suggestion: watch it 3 times—alone; with friends, and again alone. Note the feelings that narrative evokes in you. Study yourself as much as you study the film.

    2. Dickinson, 2019 – 2021 Apple+ TV (comedy-drama) series, created by Alena Smith, starring Hailee Steinfeld—watch all 3 seasons (30 episodes)—to honor the notion of the trinity; watch alone or with friends. Which 3 characters – besides the main one – do you find most historically compelling?

    3. Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence by Diana Butler Bass—read her 2021 book with a group of friends, chapter by chapter; if you wish, begin writing your own memoir theology – perhaps by discerning the theology imbibed from your favorite Sunday School songs; probe the feelings the lyrics evoked in you – then & now. If you have grandchildren, do you want them instructed by the texts of those same songs?

    4. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter Gomes – read this 1996 book alone or with friends – especially Chapters 1 – 8. What about conversing with this African-American author on the page do you find inviting and/or not?

    5. Whale Rider, 2002 film written and directed by Niki Caro – watch it 3 times: alone, with friends, then again alone. Perhaps ponder this question: how does your own journey with Authority compare with the journey with Authority undertaken by the main character.

  • Anthony J. Diekema says:

    Thanks for this, David…………I resonate soundly with the journey you and Susan have been on. But my gratuitous advice is simply this: stick around a bit longer. Why? Because you know that, if the Abide movement and voting block continues, one of its early offensives will be challenging the Christian academic freedom of the University and Seminary. Both will need all the help they can muster, including that which you and Susan can provide. Tony and Ruth would like that! 🙂

    • Jan Heerspink says:

      Tony, this topic brings me to tears. These Abide folks want to “get rid of the rot.” They have no idea what wonderful institutions they are referring to in this way. I don’t think they have enough Calvin experience to know, but many others of us know so well.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Tony, I value your wisdom. You have a wealth of experience fending off adherents of the “My way or the highway” principle that they claim is Reformed! And I can assure you I will do whatever I can to help Calvin uphold its commitment to studying both books of God’s revelation with a faithful heart and an open mind. I had some uplifting conversations when I was on the campus yesterday. Thanks for your comments ,(and many others — this has been a wonderful virtual coffee hour.)

  • Joel Slenk says:

    You are in a tough spot. To leave your good and rich heritage or stay … what a decision. In your article you state that the governing body of your denomination “Elevates doctrinal purity over salvation”, has embraced “harsh and unqualified judgments”, and whose pronouncements are “so devoid of human compassion”

    Who could belong to such an organization? What rationalizations and theological gymnastics are employed to keep you from the exit? Yet when I see all of the comments above, all the encouragement and hope freely given by others in your denominational family, I understand why it’s possible to stay, and keep going.

  • Ken Baker says:

    Your journey and dilemma is one that so many of us share. To stay and be a gracious and affirming resistance or leave for more affirming and gracious pastures? I plead for communal discernment.

  • Lois Roelofs says:

    Thank you. Thinking of your father, I wonder what my father, Rev. Dewey Hoitenga, would say now. When I, upset, called him after witnessing an upsetting Synod discussion on women in office, he tried to comfort me by saying he thought it would happen in my lifetime. I am 81, it has, but I’ve already left. I wonder if my dad would have his same optimism now.

  • David Feddes says:

    David Hoekema, Anthony Diekema, and other former CRC power brokers find themselves at odds with a supermajority of their denomination’s Synod. It must be Synod’s fault! It must be lack of love! It must be Abide’s maneuverings! Or maybe the CRC is holding fast to biblical truth and following God’s call to holiness, while progressives centered in Grand Rapids East fume because they seem to have failed in their decades-long effort to remake the CRC in their own image.

    • June Huissen says:

      Your remarks seem a tad edgy. Former CRC power brokers? Really? I/we might be at odds with the supermajority at Synod, but I dare say not in the denomination. Lack of love and Abide’s maneuverings were on display for all to see.

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    Having grown up, raised and nurtured in the CRC, my husband and I ended up in an RCA that appeared to be, on the surface, a truly welcoming congregation, despite the rather fuzzy affirming angle. Hey, the website had the correct verbiage, the pastor gave us the comforting answers. We thought we could be at peace there and work for full inclusion. We were duped by a bait-and-switch.

    After months of coming home on Sunday mornings with gritted teeth, sick stomachs, and other physical manifestations of stress, we decided we couldn’t do it. Couldn’t sit there and listen to thinly–and not so thinly–veiled references to “being on the right side” and “being the purest of the pure.” Couldn’t sit there and listen to pointed denigrations of the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, Couldn’t sit there and watch the raised eyebrows of the pastor when my gay son and his husband attended church with us and were treated as lepers. Not only couldn’t we do it–it was such an eating away of our total being–heart, soul, and mind–that we were compelled to leave. We’re now members of an affirming RCA church, one of the few left in our classis after last summer’s fear-filled flight out of the denomination. But never have I felt more alive in Christ. Just saying to those who think they need to stay. Maybe you do. But maybe you can’t.

  • Dan Winiarski says:

    It makes sense to join a denomination whose official teachings line up with your beliefs. That’s why I joined the CRC 12 years ago!

    I was proud to serve at my first Synod this year, and to be part of the faithful majority who is not seduced by Satan’s lies about marriage and sexuality.

  • Melissa Stek says:

    “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.” Yes.

    I used to work for the CRC Office of Social Justice. We were harassed and put under a microscope consistently by COD members, which was passively permitted by denominational leadership. I found the exit door, as you so aptly put it, in the spring of 2021, and I basically haven’t looked back.

    I believe God desires something entirely new, entirely unbridled by this institution. It’s time we let Her reveal it to us and move on.

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