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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.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thanks for this. Your honesty and vulnerability about the lady in the white dress reminded me of my own stumbles along the way to love and welcome the LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters I encountered. Like you, it took me some time before I could quit thinking and acting as “the church” taught and simply follow God’s example in Jesus, who loved all unconditionally–especially the folks at the margins, those who were, like the woman you describe, outside our cozy expectations of what’s acceptable.

  • Daniel Alberts says:

    Tim, thanks for this. As a gay man who grew up in the CRC, you’re spot on. I left the US almost 20 years ago, but still found myself watching synod and still find myself writing and commenting about it. A friend from my first and only year at Calvin College and I were in touch about it–he’s moved away from the CRC too–and he described it as ‘like stalking an abusive ex on social media’. And he’s straight.

    Church leaders would be wise to remember that the theology of one’s youth is the shroud in which the Divine will always be clothed. Undoing an apprehension of a God who disapproves of something so essential to one’s identity can take an amount of time longer than the human lifespan.

    • EMILY JANE STYLE says:

      As a GLBT person who also grew up in the CRC and who graduated from Calvin in 1970 – I thank you for your words as part of this RJ conversation. And that image of the shroud – shrouding the Divine and the time it can take – to unwrap it – so Divine Love can shine through, luminous and true. There’s a poem there, in my view. Though probably not one the RJ is about to publish any time soon. Ah, the journey with it all. Sharing with respect, one of my own poems about the matter.

      Heavenly Conversation

      Six months after my mother died,
      I sat across from my father
      in their living room

      To say out loud
      that I was amiably
      divorcing my long-time husband
      to live with my long-time
      lesbian friend

      My father said
      Your mother would never
      have approved—
      and you’re going to hell

      I said—this is how I think about it, Dad

      If you get to heaven
      before I do—
      and I never show up—
      it will be okay
      it will be heaven

      And if I get to heaven
      before you do—
      I promise you
      when you show up
      I will not say
      I told you so

      And I wouldn’t anyway
      it will be heaven

      © Emily Jane VandenBos Style, 2000/2020

      —published in the Paterson Literary Review, Issue 49, 2021

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent. Thank you. I was already a pastor when I had a similar experience, and said a similar thing, but the LGBTQ+ person challenged me and said, “Well I wrestled about this in prayer for years, and Jesus has let me know that he loves me just the way I am, not the way you want me to be.” And I was convicted, that I had assumed that my pastoral job was to know more about a person’s experience of God than that person did, and to correct that person. Yup, I gave up the fight, I surrendered. And I knew that my pastoral colleagues would judge me as giving in to the liberal culture. But his challenge changed my ministry in general, to everyone, and I am grateful to him for his challenge and his witness to this day. And you are so right about the moral issue of climate. Which my General Synod said almost nothing about.

  • Pamela Spiertz Adams says:

    Tim, What a wonderful response. So genuine. I am CRC now but grew up Roman Catholic’ so it was the same preaching about homosexuality. I am glad for both churches but wonder if they are seeing the suffering they are putting many through.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Tim, your writing holds the wonder of truth and truths in so many welcoming ways. Including your acknowledgement of the time it takes to learn further how to keep on playing our very own parts in God’s ongoing love, expressed for us and through us. May listening, learning & giving voice keep redemptive company with folks who have sat and those who still sit in pews labeled CRC. What a threshold for relational testimony & theology we occupy. May we rise to the occasion and watch it be documented by CNN and others. Truth-telling matters. Thank you, Tim, for writing from both your heart & your head about the complexities of All One Body.

  • RZ says:

    ” All the rhetoric of the Synod about the catechism as a bulwark against harmful cultural movements rings disingenuous here.” The institutional church’s thinking error is that the culture of the present is more distorted and dangerous than the culture of the past. Somehow, apparently, the 1560’s were divinely free of cultural reactivity.
    But suppose Ursinus did hold very specific interpretive views about “chastity.” Would we similarly and permanently grant him the authority to weigh in on 21st- century global economics, artificial intelligence, climate science or genetic manipulation? Certain exegetical tools were simply not on his radar screen. Galileo and Copernicus come to mind.

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    Thx Tim. I’ve often thought people with a cold heart and closed mind to the LGBT community either have no family, or haven’t gotten to know them very well. It’s strange living into an age when so much of Christiandom has left the Sermon on the Mount on the back burner in order to deal with an obsession with gender and genitalia. WWJT. What Would Jesus Think? I think the answer lies clearly in your illustration. Either a full blown train wreck, or at least a significant derailment.

  • Thomas B Hoeksema Sr says:

    Your “transformative encounter”, as David Gushee calls them, illustrates a way of knowing that seems beyond the ken of many traditionalists who are trapped in propositional faith. Thank you for so beautifully tapping into hearts and minds and making love luminous.

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    Thanks, Tim, for the excellent good sense you make.

  • Twila Finkelstein says:

    When anyone uses the word “woke”, stop them right there and ask, “What, exactly, do you mean when you say “woke”? What is your understanding?” After they answer, tell them the history and true meaning.

  • Lena says:

    When people like the lady in the white dress come to our churches and ask the question she asked, we can just respond by saying “we teach and preach what the Bible teaches and that is that intimacy belongs in a committed married relationship between a man and a woman and that homosexuality is incompatanle with Christian teaching. However, we welcome everyone to our church”. Then actually welcome that person.
    If the Synod vote had gone the other way, will our grandchildren even know what the Bible teaches about this issue in 20 years? In these last few years, we have young children who would otherwise accept their gender now questioning it due to peer pressure. Even the secular world is starting to push back on the over exposure of LGBTQ+ issues. Surely the church can both stand firm in its teaching while also showing love. That’s what God calls us to do.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Showing love of our LGBT+ people starts with hewing to the facts of their reality. Young people don’t choose to become gay or trans because of peer pressure. They are either born that way or develop that way through an internal intrinsic process they have no control over. Indeed peer pressure often works in exactly the opposite direction – pressuring them to deny who they are and creating pain and trauma. Claiming that there is an “over exposure of LGBT+ issues” is nearly a textbook example of the sort of intolerance that make their lives so difficult. And the parts (parts not the totality as you imply) of the secular world pushing back? Homophobia.

  • Jack says:

    Thank you, Tim. As always with your columns, thank you. When I arrived here in 1971, I had no idea that there were stances other than kindness, compassion, and the recognition that, as my father would say over and over, “We don’t really know much so let’s be careful, and loving.” And don’t ya wish we could have a moratorium on “liberal,” “conservative,””progressive,” and all such? Poor Mr. Rogers. Poor Jesus.

  • Keith Vander Pol says:

    “We don’t really know much so let’s be careful and loving.” Wise words from your father. Thank you for sharing.

  • Randy Buist says:

    Deeply appreciated, Tim. As a former youth pastor, I know handfuls of younger adults who left the CRC, and often the church, when they could find no acceptance. I lament the decisions of Synod. (& sadly, fossil fuels & greed won’t be issues taken up during our lifetimes)

  • Sue Edema says:

    Decisions made by the CRC Synod and any other ‘Christian’ body of believers are giving the green light to RUN AWAY from the church! That is so sad . . . Jesus welcomed and loved everyone . . . only He gets to decide and judge what is sin! The Jesus I love and the church I attend welcomes everyone . . . our goal is to help others find and follow Jesus . . . not judge them and watch them flee!

  • Melissa Stek says:

    Thank you for this.

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