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Five years ago, our church didn’t know the difference between a gravamen and a grommet. Today, we’re facing remarkably difficult decisions about our place in the Christian Reformed Church in North America because of gravamen. How we arrived at this point seems like a story worth telling.

In the early 1960s, a new suburb rose up from the flat farmlands of southwest Chicago. One of the builders, a colorful crusty Dutchman, donated a corner lot and model home to the CRCNA for the planting of a new congregation. With that, Hope Christian Reformed Church took root in Oak Forest, Illinois.

For 63 years this little church on the corner has flourished. We’ve outgrown, rebuilt, and remodeled our building. We’ve known heartbreak, weathered conflict, and carved out a quirky little Reformed culture. As a home for misfits and mongrels, Christian school teachers, college professors, therapists, painters, and medical professionals, we’ve lived out our vocational callings with Hope as a gospel fueling station. We’ve known seasons of growth and seasons of decline. We’ve known the fruit of the Spirit as we’ve borne witness to God’s grace in Christ Jesus. We’ve known too much brokenness to ever feel too big for our britches. We’re a little church in a run-of-the-mill suburb in middle America.

We also embody a variety of understandings about how to faithfully love and serve those who are same-sex-oriented. That’s been true for Hope’s whole existence. Therefore, we’ve resisted the movement within the CRCNA to make an interpretation of Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 108 a matter of confession and salvation. We’ve studied, discussed, prayed, and written overtures. And we keep coming back to the same place: This is a matter of pastoral care and not confessional determination.   

Hope has never agreed on all matters of biblical or confessional interpretation. Living with questions, mystery, and a diversity of experience is part of our giftedness. We’ve found unity in baptism, eucharist, mission, and the gospel of grace. We’ve been shaped by biblical preaching and the teaching of the catechism, but there’s always been a vibrant conversation among fellow seekers and strugglers.  

Historically the CRCNA has made space for office bearers to continue serving even while having “difficulty” with confessional matters. Elders, deacons, and pastors are invited to file a gravamen – a statement detailing this confessional difficulty. This practice allows for faithful service while living with question and doubt. At Hope we opened up the gravamen process with the gravity, empathy, and attention required and we received gravamina (the plural of gravamen). The freedom to submit gravamina has made space, given time, and enabled us to unfold and enfold these varieties of interpretation. 

In Romans 15, Paul instructs the early church concerning differences of interpretation and practice to refrain from passing judgement, constructing stumbling blocks, and destroying the work of God. He encourages the church to make every effort that leads to peace and mutual edification. He calls on these early believers to, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

We understand the practice of submitting a gravamen to be in line with Paul’s counsel. We’ve experienced the gravamen process as an honest tool in service to the unity of the church.  

To change or restrict the submission of gravamina would gut Hope’s council. If confessional compliance is required, then in good conscience, Hope would not be able to fill a full slate of elders, deacons, and pastors. If compliance is required then Hope would no longer have a seat at Classis, Synod, denominational boards, or the Council of Delegates. Therefore, our hope is that the CRCNA Synod of 2024 will refrain from altering the current gravamen guidelines by imposing limitations, time frames, or reporting requirements.

Our prayer is that there will be room in the CRCNA for Hope. We believe that, while the broader cultural milieu is marked by division and rancor, to hold a variety of interpretations while still being united in Christ is a powerful witness. Continually being reformed by the Word of God calls for a willingness to listen to a diversity of experiences and interpretations. To change church order in such a way so as to jettison Hope, or other congregations with similar experiences, does not seem in keeping with our theological tradition.

This is a difficult space to hold. Hope’s best attempts have been flawed and we’ve hurt one another in the last few years. It’s been difficult for both those with traditional understandings of marriage and those who are “welcoming and affirming.” Both ends of the theological and cultural spectrum have struggled. But we’ve also heard a consistent refrain: “We don’t want to see our church split over this matter.”  While fragile, we’ve been able to bridge the chasm in our life together. Our hope is that Synod would encourage unity rather than make unity more difficult.

Hope has long been a home for those who struggle and those who don’t fit. We’re grateful that the CRCNA has made room for churches like Hope. And we want to remain. While we belong to our faithful savior, the CRCNA is endemic to our identity. Some of us were grafted in and others have belonged for generation upon generation. We love the institutions, ministries, and formative confessions. We’ve lived out our faith in the bosom of this binational community of faith. We pray that we can continue to do so.   

If denominational unity requires confessional uniformity about all matters, then a debate about the gravamen process was inevitable. And maybe this intramural skirmish will ultimately lead to one more denomination splintering into pieces. But something is clearly lost when churches are marginalized for differing interpretations about how to faithfully love God and neighbor. We’re not crusading for others to follow our lead, but neither can we neglect the gifts of people, understanding, and Spirit that God has given us. We will continue to pray for Synodical decisions and denominational policies that save space for this little church on the corner.

Roger Nelson

Roger Nelson has been the pastor of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, Illinois, for 22 years. He’s a husband, father, grandfather and the author of Listening for the Voice: Collected Sermons and Reflections on Preaching published by Broken Spoke Books.


  • RZ says:

    I have never had much trust in the graveman process. It serves to paint a target on one’s back. How many church officers do NOT have serious ( and silent) questions on a variety of doctrinal topics? Just war, baptism, universalism, atonement, election, inerrancy, prophecy, spirit gifts…… I envision two remaining pathways for Synod 2024 if it hopes to avoid a split:

    1. Roll back the confessional status based on an abrupt definition of “unchastity.” Synod must declare a mistrial upon itself . Both the outcome and the participants of the committee were prejudicially predetermined. But the confessional declaration was an enormous over-reach. This decision will go down in history as a dirty trick. If the interpretation was so compellingly clear, why did Synod have to use deception to reach the conclusion?

    2. Synod must institute a new Classis. Call it Classis Inclusion or Classis Affirming or whatever, but make it ideological rather than geographical. Churches in this classis may remain within the denomination, retain their assets, support denominational causes, but focus on ministry rather than constant overtures of exclusion. Membership in this classis will make such overtures out-of-order, at least for the time being. The RCA has tried something like this for their urban/ outreach churches, whose focus is much different from traditional churches. CRC Classis Minnkota has accepted at least one such Michigan church on ideological grounds, I have heard.
    No, this is not an ideal solution, but 50 years of increasingly sharp debate have produced nothing.
    All One Body, Abide, and now perhaps Better (kind of) Together.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thank you Roger. When someone in social media recently pleaded for a more tolerant posture toward those who differ on these matters and argued that we are witnessing the destruction of a denomination with our current approach, a defender of this new regime in the CRC retorted that we are witnessing no such thing. “Add all the churches together that have made noises like this, submitted gravamen, filed protests or overtures to synod,” he said, “and it totals 2.6% of the denomination.” We have been reduced to a number. And we are disposable. All to keep the church “pure” like the book of Jude. Lord have mercy.

    • Al Gelder says:

      Amen. brother! Lord have mercy indeed.

    • Mark S. Hiskes says:

      Reducing the issue to a number is indeed sad–especially since once such a process of exclusion begins, it inevitably continues with another issues someone finds intolerable, resulting in what Roger says, “one more denomination splintering into pieces.”

      Sadly, instead of welcoming a kingdom that just gets larger and larger as it gets more and more inclusive as over time we come to understand the boundlessness of God’s love, some Christians prefer the opposite: bringing the fences of exclusion in more and more.

    • Bly bylsma says:

      Thank you for your thoughts which echo mine

  • Rick Theule says:

    Roger- Thank you.

  • J C S says:

    Thank you Pastor Nelson for your thoughts and expression of loving one another as Christian brothers and sisters, as Jesus taught us. I sincerely pray that the CRC can come to agreement and acceptance in love of one another.

  • Carol Van Klompenburg says:

    Thank you for your gentle, clear and loving post.

  • Herb Kraker says:

    “This is a matter of pastoral care and not confessional determination.” Can we truly provide the pastoral care that is needed if we don’t first discern the biblical answer to the question are all same-sex acts against God’s will? Depending how one answers that question will provide very different results for how we care for those who are same-sex attracted.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Yes, you can

      • Herb Kraker says:

        How? If one holds that under certain circumstances same-sex marriage is acceptable to God, in providing pastoral care one might encourage a person to marry a member of the same sex. On the other hand, if one holds (as the church has for millennia) that same-sex marriage is always wrong, one will not encourage anyone to marry a person of the same sex. Please explain your response, Rodney. Thanks.

  • David Hoekema says:

    A heartfelt and eloquent voice from the heart of the CRC that shaped and nourished us, from baptism into adulthood, until a Synodical power play pulled the church away from its traditions of faithful obedience alongside mutual respect and thoughtful dialogue. I weep for the church I loved

  • Ken Baker says:

    Roger, thank you for this thoughtful, passionate plea! It surely represents the longing of many of our churches.

  • Ken Agema says:

    Thank you Roger. This is so very well articulated. Prayers for the CRC and for Hope Church.

  • Al Mulder says:

    Thank you Roger for this articulate and rspectful plea for sanity and Christlike love. Ultimately our choice may come down to following Christ or “church.” Or, the “church” may choose to all in its power to decide for those who cannot in good conscience “align” with its confessional regulations. I grieve the likely direction of the synodical majority.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    “Jesus wept”

  • Henry Baron says:

    I too grieve facing once again leaving the church I love, as I grieved as a young boy when the Gereformeerde Synod decided to make a questionable, abstruse interpretation of infant baptism confessional and our church family was split in two.

  • Any CRC congregation, or classes who feels that the decisions by the recent CRC synods are in error your congregations or classes can always petition to join the RCA. The RCA is living in what our General Secretary, Eddie Aleman calls “living in the muddy middle” where these questions have not been declared mandatory denomination wide. The RCA currently lets the individual congregations decide how they want to deal with the questions about human sexuality and other issues.

    The RCA has had a long tradition of allowing the individual congregations to make decisions about controversial issues; be it singing hymns in church, individual membership in the lodge, ordination of women, and now human sexuality.

    I am a 1966 Graduate of Calvin (College) University who feels at home in my local RCA congregation.

    • Herb Kraker says:

      The RCA has allowed differences of opinion on this matter and it lost half of its members in about a two year period. The UMC and a number of others are seeing the same thing. People will vote with their feet.

      • Dominic palacios says:

        If the CRC expels GR East and other churches like it, the CRC will lose a significant amount of people. Also, much of the CRC has been in decline for decades. Including most of the conservative classes. Is decline proof of error or not?

  • Ronald Mulder says:

    Thank you Roger for a thoughtful and restrained discussion. This fits our church situation exactly.
    We’ve built our witness on the rock of Christ’s teaching so I hope we’d be able to weather exclusion from our mother denomination but it won’t be easy and it will be wasteful of Kingdom resources.
    With narrow reading of scripture we’ve burned those at the stake who believed the Earth revolved around the Sun. We’ve actively denied females with spiritual gifts of leadership for 40 years. Weve denied baptism to adopted children because they weren’t real descendents. Even the early church debated the role of circumcision and worthiness of gentiles to enter Christ’s kingdom.
    True to our origins as “constantly reforming according to the word of God” we need to adapt to the reality of new information revealed to us by God. When standing before my savior, I would not be proud to admit I persecuted 10% percent of God’s children whose sexualiy was given to them by God.

  • Jan Heerspink says:

    I do, too, David. I’m truly sorry about it. The Abide folks knew what they were doing from the beginning. All we have to do is hear their online “post-game show” about “getting rid of the rot” in the CRC to be sure of their plan. And they are giddy about it. Sad.

  • Sheryl Smalligan says:

    Thank you for this piece—and for the tone of humility. We could use more of that.

  • Dot Graham (nee Hoekema) says:

    Thank you Roger. I watch from a distance and am very sad. What would my parents have made of this?

    • John Breuker, Jr. says:

      Hi Dot! Your high school magister joins you in watching from a distance and grieving. Your professorial papa would, based on my semesters as his discipulus, grieve with us. I pray that you continue to flourish in every way there in the UK!

  • Arthur E Jongsma says:

    Our pastors have been more than carefully respectful of the traditional believers in our congregation when they have preached the gospel of grace and justice. They have never, in my experience as an elder, taken a bold, outspoken stand for inclusion in Council meetings, even though I am aware that inclusion is their belief. The document of affirmation that our congregation passed by a greater than 66% majority went out of its way to affirm those among us who hold a traditional view and to plead for unity based in a common ground of confessing Christ as our Lord and Savior. In spite of these three attempts to preserve unity, we are in the process of losing virtually all of the members (30 to 40) who have identified as traditional interpreters of Scripture and the Heidelberg. As was the case with other denominations (Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, RCA) schism seems inevitable on this divisive issue. Synod making the condemning position confessional, and overtures expressing an eagerness for Synod 24 to remove the gravamen process as an avenue of resistance, has created an insurmountable chasm. Unity seems sadly out of reach.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    “This is a difficult space to hold.” Amen to that! But like you, I believe we are called to dwell in this difficult space – together. All I can say right now, is (in the words of Matthew West’s new song) – Don’t stop praying! Don’t stop calling on Jesus’ name, keep on pounding on heaven’s door, let your knees wear out the floor, don’t stop believing…

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, Roger Nelson. On my time “home” in Oak Forest I went to Hope all the time. Henry Vellinga and I talked a lot about conscientious objector status for me. Eventually I couldn’t complete the forms because I’m not a pacifist. I was drafted, but Henry was a significant gift from God over those times and conversations. I have always held a warm spot in my hard for Hope and know quite a few members there–CCHS classmates and more. Your essay is eloquent, compassionate and pastoral for the CRC, but the tide seems to have changed irrevocably w/ the futile yearning for doctrinal purity carrying the day in synods that were decided long before the meetings actually started. Blessings and greetings to Hope.

  • CB says:

    Thank you Roger, great insight and advice, hopefully the crcna hears you.

  • Lisa Vander Wal says:

    As someone raised in the CRC, pastorally trained at Calvin (although a member of the RCA) in the years when the CRC went back and forth on the ordination of women, having close relatives as office bearers in the CRCNA, I have genuinely felt pain with you (and the RCA) in the midst of this struggle. I have been delegated to the CRC Synod several times and heard so many of the arguments and felt the pain in the room. It grieves me and, I believe, it grieves the heart of God. Thank you for your pastoral and clear articulation of the visceral pain and struggle that so many feel. My prayers continue for Synod 2024 and for all for whom this isn’t simply an “issue”.

  • Kirk Vanhouten says:

    Well, the church has always had one basic teaching on homosexuality until the past couple of decades. If Hope is of the conviction that the historical Christian perspective is wrong, it would seem they should be free to leave.

    • Ronald Mulder says:

      Everyone used to believe the Sun revolved around the Earth and killed those who believed differently. Everybody (except Jesus) felt women were not acceptable vessels for the Holy Spirit. Having slaves was seen as an acceptable practice. God, and our relationship with him, are not static and we keep learning from God’s revelation. We now know that sexual identity is not chosen by the individual and attempts to modify it are fruitless. There’s no way Jesus would condemn a covental love same sex marriage. As before, the CRC will drag its heels on this for 20 years before changing. Meanwhile we’ve erected a barrier between some and their Savior. Woe to those who separate others from the love of God.

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