From grief to relief; from shock to anxiety; from weariness to embarrassment and many points in between.
For this editorial, I asked members of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), “Now that the Human Sexuality Report has passed, with a good majority, how does it feel?” While the theological and biblical reflection has been intense, this is also a deeply emotional issue.
Feelings matter when we care about each other. They structure faith, too: the Heidelberg Catechism is structured around feelings of belonging, guilt, misery and gratitude. Christian virtues like faith, hope and love all carry emotional muscle. The Reformed summary of Scripture’s narrative arc – creation, fall, redemption – has been transposed as wonder, heartbreak and hope.
Our emotions are tied to interpretations: how we see things shapes how we feel about them.
Emotions bring heart, mind and body together in a response to what confronts us. They are never just emotions. We are embodied souls, and our milieu trains our heart and conscience over the years to react in prescribed ways.
Granted, this quick poll is just a smattering of responses from a small sample of the Canadian CRC, coming from across the country. I received over 100 responses through social media and an email listserv called CRC Voices, ranging from a single line to a number of pages and resulting in about 40 pages of text to mull over. I also received personal email responses from a variety of people, including minorities and some denominational leaders.
Anger & betrayal
Those who responded most immediately and freely were “deeply discouraged, disappointed and disillusioned” by the vote – particularly the vote affirming that homosexual sex is unchaste, and that this is a confessional matter. As soon as one person heard the vote, they reported: “I broke down in tears. My grief continues.”
For many, the result was not just about theological disagreement (“misuse of Scripture,” “bad science and theology”), but intensely personal: their membership and service in the CRCNA may come to an end, and they feel rejected and pushed out by the majority vote. Some spoke of shock, sadness and weariness (“like someone died”). Others wrote more strongly of frustration, betrayal and anger at being “railroaded” out. “It’s the last straw,” “I felt like someone was stabbing me in the gut” and “I felt like I just watched my childhood home go up in flames.”
Said one clergy member: “I love the CRC; but the decision made me feel unloved, unwanted, unheard, unseen and unknown.” For many this report spells hurt and harm – for individuals, for families and institutions. “My heart tells me this cannot be Jesus’ message.”
Some were embarrassed, concerned about how outsiders or young adults would respond. “It’s serious damage to our Christian witness.” More vehemently, a few said they were “disgusted.” Others were exasperated, feeling that all the energy put into this report could have been better used to address climate change or white supremacy. A few felt that the church had capitulated to conservative American political pressure.
Three respondents claimed a gay identity. One expressed utter devastation, “because for the first time in my life I do not feel at home in the CRC, but I don’t have another home to go to.” Another said, “There is a steel door which has been shut in the face of already marginalized members.” An ex-CRC person, now in a married gay relationship, is ashamed of his baptism in a church that now officially condemns his marriage as “detestable” (as Q&A 108 says). He took the matter up with a local CRC pastor. “Your baptism is between you and God,” he was assured.
Catholicity & concern
While the voices of disappointment were swift and plenty, those who supported the HSR were shy about responding. I had to solicit people directly who I suspected would follow the majority vote, and almost all asked to be kept anonymous. Some mentioned they thought conservatives felt shamed or intimidated – and thus silenced. But it may be that they were just content with the outcome of the vote and thus have no strong feelings on the matter now.
One consistent reaction to the vote was relief that the CRC resisted immense cultural pressure and remained true to Scripture and the historic Christian teaching. Many mentioned they were encouraged that the CRCNA chose catholicity and ethnic inclusivity over a “parochial” modern Western perspective. There was sadness at the “irreconcilable differences” revealed: “Now is not the time for rejoicing.” Most expressed a resolve to pursue “appropriate, sensitive, compassionate pastoral care” towards LGBTQ members and “all who experience some form of sexual brokenness.” A few said they were hopeful in the midst of solidarity with international partners and “for how God’s holiness leads to humility and repentance and draws us all into the saving grace of Christ and power of his Spirit to work out our salvation with fear and trembling together.”
While trying to articulate the feelings of a silent majority, an interaction I had with a conservative pastor suggested that there is a sense of confidence in what is right, followed by an equanimity about the synodical decision among conservatives. But these feelings are overlaid with a sense of the weight of the issue and the turmoil and grief it has evoked. There is genuine concern for those who may feel they have to leave the CRC. A CRC-affiliated agency worker wrote: “I feel heavy-hearted, as this is not a ‘win’ in any way… There will be lots of brokenness and hurt… I feel a great sense of loss and hopelessness.”
Many remain “unsettled” and “nervous for how these decisions will play out in the life of our churches… sadness for the impending drain of people and passions” from our denomination.
There was a group of responses that did not suggest any clear evaluation of the vote. One said that my poll favours those with clear positions on the issue and leaves out those with mixed feelings. “Technically the HSR is correct… but it seems inconsistent between Jesus’ love, people’s lived experiences, and the practicalities of being church together today.” One wrote that they were “quietly reflective, waiting to see what comes next.” Another was just “resigned.” Others wrote that they felt “confused,” “disengaged” and ambivalent, especially in the face of “the uneven application of orthodoxy.”
One young father said he felt unsettled, disappointed and “mourning the division that seems nearly unavoidable in the CRC.” Similarly, one author of the HSR confided “I feel profound grief as I see and experience how disagreement over this issue is tearing us asunder, and I feel deep shame that I myself and the denomination… have not done more to minister to those struggling with sexual issues.” Another co-author said, “I am afraid that some will view this as a ‘victory’ and think nothing has to change.”
One mused that it seems the “progressive” voices have more facility with social media and are boosted by powerful secular institutions. “One pole has voices that resonate and amplify. Another pole has voices who feel unsafe or silenced and who retreat and turn away.” Orthodoxy (in most religions, not just Christianity) is excluded from the wealth of secular platforms in Canada and is limited to its own podcasts, blogs, and in-house conversations.
A few also expressed a need for a sabbath from intense debate and its fallout.
In the restorative practices my kids are taught at school, one of the basic elements of the process is to ask, “How did that make you feel?” Emotions obviously don’t carry the weight of Scripture, but they are clues to relationship and process. They are part of the road to reconciliation, which in this case may not include agreement or even continued fellowship. They can help us understand our deep differences about what is “confessional” while we still both recite the Apostles’ Creed.
There are multiple layers to this issue – personal, pastoral, ecclesiastical and theological. All are deeply connected to our emotions, and we have an opportunity now to develop practices that cultivate virtuous exchanges and not just reactionary ones. If our congregational life gets messy in the months to come, it will no doubt be due to our deeply human emotional expressions. Hurtful comments are rarely forgotten. Angry outbursts cannot be taken back.
“How did that make you feel?” Listening may be a good first gesture as the body of the CRCNA – and affiliated kingdom agencies – move into the uncertain implications of this binding landmark decision.