I became an Elder in a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church at the tender age of 33, not quite the stern silverback archetype I knew growing up in a rural Michigan congregation. But it was a tiny campus church and the pool of gray Elder gravitas was very shallow.
One Sunday morning, I was there early to set up and a man in a white dress came in and sat down. The dress fit his squared frame badly, as did the wig. Make-up was applied clumsily over razor stubble. His demeanor was tentative.
I walked over to welcome and greet her (and I am switching pronouns deliberately here to honor what in my best estimation was a person coming to terms with her reality as a trans woman). I was uncomfortable.
She then asked, “What does this church believe about homosexuality?”
My mind raced. My first thoughts were about my Elder responsibilities, to be truthful about the church’s orthodoxy but also to be welcoming. I wanted to be welcoming apart from the Elder-role.
There was pain or anxiety or something similar on her face.
The rest of the congregants would soon show up and I was concerned about their reaction. Would she then sense her otherness among us and would that make her uncomfortable?
Exactly what I said, I don’t remember. But I do remember using the phrase about “hating the sin but loving the sinner.” I was clumsy and trite about it, probably terribly so.
After some rushed and awkward niceties, I excused myself to continue setting up, even though there was little more to do. When I returned, she was gone.
Watching the livestream of the Christian Reformed Church Synod last week piqued the shame I carry for failing the woman in the white dress and the damnable doctrinaire impulses behind it.
I am a CRC expat now, having grown up in the denomination and moving away during a time in our lives when there were no CRC churches where we lived. And, despite the distance and to my own surprise, I watched the Synod debate because, I suppose, I feel the familial/institutional/clannish pull that Ryan Struyk and James Schaap wrote about on the blog last week. It was hard to look away.
Gallup estimates that roughly 7% of adults in the US — including friends, family, colleagues, and students whom I know — claim one of the letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym.
North American culture has changed rapidly, but LGBTQ+ folks hear in a thousand little and not so little ways that they are outside the circle, resulting in pain and trauma, and rejection. Indeed, those intolerant voices are increasing in our politics. Some of synod’s livestream commentators adopted the political language of intolerance, using “woke” as a mocking pejorative descriptor for those who argued for inclusiveness or if not, at least some time for reflection and dialog on a hard topic.
In 25 years since my experience as a CRC Elder, discrete stories shared with me and observation of young people in my world have changed me. And the hardest, saddest story entrusted to me came from a young woman trapped (her words) in a conservative church. And the woman in the white dress haunts my memory, prompting me to be better.
I won’t re-cap Synod 2023 (see David Hoekema’s blog post from yesterday) but the controversy turned largely on the same-sex marriage of a Deacon at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church and Synod-wide judgement about that union in light of phrasing in the Heidelberg Catechism (published in 1563).
For all the pious speeches about loving LGBTQ+ people, the church of my formative years has added a pulsing scarlet asterisk to a deeply personal and integral part of whom LGBTQ+ people are, naming a special sin out of the expression of that part of a marriage covenant that the rest of us can take for granted. I can only imagine the pain that this is causing for LGBTQ+ people with deep connections to the CRC.
One commenter on the YouTube livestream asked: “So precedent is that Synod is going to be disciplining congregations for sins specifically. Can we pick greed next and have synod discipline congregations with office bearers who own vacation property?”
Fair point, I think. To that suggestion I would offer a friendly amendment to look at the specific manifestation of greed represented by profligate use of fossil fuels, given that the climate crisis is the moral issue of our time. Maybe the next synod study committee could examine Lord’s Days 40 and 42 from the Catechism in light of climate justice, given the way fossil fuel gluttony offends the great commandments (Matthew 22: 36-40). Even if you think that a covenantal same-sex marriage is sinful (I don’t), it doesn’t begin to compare to the harm of climate-change.
Still, North American culture sits comfortably with its culpability in injustice, and the church does too. All the rhetoric of the Synod about the Catechism as a bulwark against harmful cultural movements rings disingenuous here. Do we really think that a religious document from a moment in the 1500s (or a traditional church interpretation of it) is somehow pristinely free of its own cultural accretions?
I hope the woman in the white dress moved on to another church and found the support she needed and deserved.
Twenty five years later, I am again on my church’s council (ELCA Lutheran). I was there when a fellow council member, a family physician, tearfully recounted the struggle that she helped walk LGBTQ+ kids through. She moved that our congregation declare itself a “reconciling in Christ congregation,” an ELCA program that leans into LGBTQ+ inclusivity. I was proud to take that vote. It was unanimous.
To my LGBTQ+ siblings: seek us out. You are welcome here.