Affirming or Confessional: Aren’t there other options?

Trusting God’s Spirit to keep us together instead of building fences.

As pundits and pew quarterbacks are struggling to find descriptions for what transpired at the Christian Reformed Church’s Synod 2022, I’m at a bit of a loss. Most descriptions are two-sided, fitting our bifurcated partisan day and age. When it comes to human sexuality, almost everyone seems to be either affirming or confessional. But I don’t feel like either of these really fit me and maybe they don’t fit you either.

In as much as I am a Reformed Reformer and claim the moniker of Revisionist, on some things I am quite traditional. I am neither certain that the CRC’s Human Sexuality Report (HSR) “nailed” the truth down, nor am I certain that opening the doors (with the God’s honest truth nailed to them) to so many new versions of sexual expression, will bring the Kingdom.

So how does someone like me, in between the two, understand Synod’s decisions? Let me explain with the help of an agricultural metaphor. A farmer wants to keep his herd from wandering off, and so builds a fence to keep them in. This is a bounded-set. A rancher has a huge property that is too big to fence, so to keep his herd where he wants them, he digs wells and puts up water troughs, knowing most livestock will stay within range of the source of water so critical to their well being. This is a centered-set, centered on the water sources, without bounds. I believe that Synod moved the CRC decisively towards bounded-set thinking, when before now we had been gradually accepting a centered-set approach.

So now that the bounded-set decisions have been made, what am I to think, to feel, to believe? Is there room to explore a third way between affirming and confessional? Are we stuck with the fences or can we chart a path back to the wellspring?

Propositions and storytelling

I think we need to start by looking at how we spoke to each other at Synod. I noticed that one side made propositional statements in order to persuade, while the other wanted to tell stories – which was disallowed. Personally, I think we need both, yet I lean towards the narrative end of the spectrum. I have great difficulty sharing a propositional teaching without a story to accompany it. I am analytical by character, but story and experience have proven to be more reliable in shaping my faith than lists of rules and laws.

Let me give you three examples (or stories of experiences) that may sound familiar to you, too:

Growing-up, I was taught or came to understand that Roman Catholics were doomed and evil because they had a Pope and prayed to Mary. Then I met some sincere Christian Catholics.

I came to understand that Pentecostals were doomed, but we Reformed were safe, because they were “forced” to fake speaking in tongues to be accepted in the church, and they relied far too much on emotion, whereas we were all about decency and good order. Then I met a Pentecostal fellow and he gently and sensibly showed me some passages and practical teachings about the Holy Spirit that I had never heard of.

I came to believe that lightning would strike you dead for speaking irreverently about God or the things of God (spotten in Dutch), or for riding a bike on Sunday, and so on.

Each of these propositional teachings were said to be based on scripture alone. Yet life experiences – and living in different cultures and sub-cultures – showed me, over time, that these teachings and their behavioural offspring were usually shaped by the zeitgeist of their specific times and locales. What was declared to be tabooed-by-God in one ostensibly Christian culture was celebrated (or of no emphasis at all) in another.

So I have a huge dose of caution about the “old” way and want to see if a “third” way can be found. But I believe that finding this path demands storytelling, not rule reiteration. More wells and fewer fences.

Practical Relational Theology

After all it’s the Bible’s stories that breathe life into its message. I’m thinking particularly of the parables, but also of the whole narrative arch. When we take a literary approach to scripture instead of a legalistic approach, we see one core truth: God is about relationship. To explain properly takes at least five sermons, but here’s the five sentence version:

The whole Biblical story and the Creation point to a God who is about love and connectedness. Relationships were (and are) disrupted by mankind’s God-displacing choices. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we understand that our Creator God wants restored relationship with us, not legalism or black and white category living. Since the Holy Spirit took flight out of the temple’s Holy of Holies and took up residence in humanity, God’s guidance has become internal, centered-set, not external, bounded-set. Nothing new or novel here, but I do have a name for this fresh way of describing it: “Practical Relational Theology.”

The more our lives show the fruit of the Spirit, the more likely we are living in good relationship with our Triune God. We always have the freedom to wander away instead of walking with the Creator of the garden in the cool of the day, but if we pay attention we will notice the strain of the distance. Through Jesus, we can stop hiding and come close again.

What does this mean for us now?

This applies for any behaviour we would call sin. But the whole relationship with sin is different. Law does not need to be a fence or a wall. Thanks to Jesus, the law is now ten marker posts. God (and all of heaven) tremendously enjoy when people choose to come back within the fold and seek renewed relationship, or come within for the first time.

In this third way, I believe the rules remain, as the HSR wants to reinforce. But they function differently, more openly, similar to what the more affirming among us believe. If indeed any particular sin breaks relationship with God, the effect of it can be seen and/or felt in the individual, and discerned in healthy community. It is the draw of the relationship with God, the draw of drinking from the Well of Living Water that is the center.  So I would say let’s keep talking, let’s keep telling our stories and exploring The Story to find a third way. I sincerely hope that one day all of us will understand the power of story, and how anyone’s story can become part of the story of Jesus restoring relationship with God.


  • Peter VanderBeek

    Pete VanderBeek is a Child of God who fulfills God's call as a Specialized Transitional Minister. He is a compulsive story-teller who is not in recovery, nor can he think of how a 12-step group for that would work. He is a Father of five and Grandfather of 7 who recharges by getting out into nature and taking pictures of things he notices, usually the unusual things.

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  1. Thank-you for this article.
    I appreciate the illustration of bounded set thinking contrasted with centered set thinking.
    My thoughts after the synod decision were that we chose rules over grace.
    I cannot be part of ‘ungrace’.
    Do you think there really is a third way?
    I was planning to resign my membership because I cannot be part or something that causes so much pain to so many. It is not what Jesus would do.

  2. Clearly articulated and attractive to me. Reading James K.A. Smith’s book
    “You Are What You Love “ also seems to echo these ideas. It makes so much sense. Waiting to hear how that transpires into the area of Sexuality and Christian living. Thank you very much.

  3. I am not opposed to fences. We need to be on Jesus’ side, walk in the light as He is in the light. To me, HSR has the fences wrong. For example, the goal of marriage is not procreation but that two people reach intimacy that mirrors the intimacy that holds between Jesus and the redeemed. Paul is very clear on that. Nor do I believe that image of God reaches it apex in our sex, our biology, rather it is in our capacity to love. Looking for a third way will be dismissed as soft, weak, compromising. There is no third way, there is only the way of Jesus. Jesus shunned legalism and codes of conduct. We should challenge the denomination to make good on its long-standing promise to give pastoral care to its gay members. When they discover how impossible that is with HSR, minds will change.

  4. Jesus in his ministry did not hesitate to hang out with sinners; tax collectors, prostitutes, and others whom society pushed to the fringes. He offered living water, did not judge while urging people to sin no more. This makes me shy away from boundary defining fences, instead leaving us room to grow in knowledge coupled with wisdom. The earth does not have four corner despite what the Bible says. Cupernicus had some knowledge of that and the church had the wisdom to not burn him at the stake.

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