I did not attend or watch the CRC synod of 2023. I anticipated that I could not bear to do so.
I have been a devoted lifelong member of the Christian Reformed Church, nurtured in the faith and educated by it, especially by the Kuyperian neo-Calvinist strand within the CRC. I have spent my career as a philosopher articulating, expanding, and defending the neo-Calvinist vision of what it is to be a Christian in the world.
Slowly I have come to the conviction that love and justice, in the context of responsible biblical interpretation, requires that the church extend the offer of marriage to couples who find themselves with a same-sex orientation.
The Human Sexuality Report, issued a few years ago and adopted by the CRC synod, implies that I am either a knave or a fool. The report repetitively declares it to be the clear teaching of Scripture that same-sex relationships, no matter in what form, are forbidden by God. Thereby it implies that those who espouse alternative views are either perverse or obtuse. Perverse, if they discern that Scripture teaches what the report claims it clearly teaches but refuse to acknowledge in public that it does so. Obtuse, if they do not discern that that is what Scripture teaches.
I hold that Scripture does not teach what the report says it teaches. The implication is that I am obtuse.
The synods of 2022 and 2023 go further and declare that I am a heretic. They do not use the word “heretic.” But when they declare that same-sex marriage is forbidden by the confessions, they imply that I am not just mistaken but a heretic. I am part of what some call “the rot.”
After being declared a fool and a heretic by the denomination that nurtured me in the faith and of which I have been a devoted lifelong member, what am I now to do? I don’t know. What are I and my fellow congregants to do who share my views? We don’t know.
I had hoped that this past synod would back off from declaring the rejection of same-sex marriage to be a “confessional matter.” Sadly, this did not happen. I anticipate that it will never happen.
Around twenty years ago, the CRC changed dramatically in the character of its decisions, in how it arrives at those decisions, and in how it deals with ongoing disagreements. I remember well the remark of a friend from a mainline denomination who was a visitor at a CRC synod about thirty-five years ago. He was struck by the fact that genuine theological discussions took place on the floor of synod and that those who disagreed listened respectfully to each other and tried to find a way of continuing to live together. He said that nothing of the sort happened in the assemblies of his own denomination. Their discussions, he said, were entirely political, aimed at shutting down the other party and winning the vote. The CRC has now become as he described his denomination. A treasured culture and tradition of respectful theological and biblical inquiry has been lost.
I will to leave it to others to explain what accounts for this drastic change in the CRC – why it is that, a few decades ago, it became no longer the church in which I was reared and educated. I confine myself to remarking that it is impossible to overlook the similarity of the tactics of the conservatives in the CRC to the tactics of the Trump wing of the Republican party.
Those in the CRC who oppose same-sex marriage claim that they are thereby defending the tradition of the Christian church. Well, yes, they are defending one component of the tradition. But there is another, more fundamental, component of the tradition that they are repudiating: the tradition of reform.
As the Christian church, over the centuries, has slowly recognized more and more clearly the basic thrust of the gospel, and as new understandings of humanity have emerged, the church has repeatedly declared: “You have heard it said, but I/we say to you.”
The pattern was initiated by Jesus. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies’” (Matt 5:43-44).
Next there is Peter, interpreting his vision. “You have heard it said, ‘You are to avoid unclean animals.’ But I say to you, ‘Nothing God has created is unclean. Spread the gospel to the Gentiles’” (Acts 10-11).
Then there is the church’s rejection of slavery in the nineteenth century. “You have heard it said, ‘Slaves, honor your masters, and masters, treat your slaves justly’” (Colossians 3). But we say to you, ‘There should be no masters and slaves’.”
Move on to the decision of the CRC about women’s ordination. “You have heard it said, ‘Women should be silent in church.’ But we say to you, ‘In Christ, there is neither male nor female’.”
The CRC synods of 2022 and 2023 have resolved that, in the denomination’s treatment of those members who find themselves with a same-sex orientation, it will not carry forward this long Christian tradition of reform. It will not respond to the biblical call for love and justice, and to the emergence of new understandings of human sexuality, by declaring to such members, “You have heard it said, but we say to you.” Instead it tells them that, unlike those who find themselves with a heterosexual orientation, they must live out their lives without ever experiencing the committed intimacy of marriage. Too bad. This, says the CRC, is clearly the command of God. No disagreements allowed.
Editor’s Note: We invited several CRC members to respond to Synod 2023. Other responses may be found at Reformedjournal.com, with additional responses coming next Monday.