“There are two deeply divergent interpretations of Scripture in this denomination,” Paul VanderKlay said on June 14, addressing 188 delegates of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). To most CRC members, the degree of that difference is painfully clear, and it was only accentuated at this year’s annual meeting.
Synod 2022 made three key decisions concerning its LGBTQ members and allies. First, delegates established the Human Sexuality Report (HSR) as a resource for churches, including its traditional position on marriage. Second, Synod made that stance confessional by adding “homosexual sex” to the list of sins that break the seventh commandment as outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism. Third, Synod voted that Neland Avenue CRC must reverse its decision to ordain a deacon in a same-sex marriage. Each of these votes split along similar lines – roughly 70 percent for and 30 percent against. Proportionately, more Canadians were in the second group.
Here’s what I noticed, watching the webcast on a 20-minute delay with almost 1,000 other people; the stakes were high. The “Rules for Synodical Procedure” came into play often. To save time, stories were not allowed. It was hard to spot female delegates; in fact, they made up just 17 percent of the gathering, the lowest in seven years. And no middle ground was made available – just two starkly different options for the future of the CRC.
At times, the debate seemed to mirror our culture wars. Imagine how the week might have gone if restorative practices had been applied instead of Yes/No votes. Now that Synod 2022 is over, can we gain any insight into the process by applying the lens of the Challenging Conversations Toolkit, which Synod itself urged churches to use?
Before starting any conversation about human sexuality, the Toolkit says, ask this question: What are you anxious about? And there were definitely anxious undertones at the Synod mic. Delegates in support of the HSR were anxious about losing the traditional view of marriage, changing church doctrine, threatening the integrity of the gospel and the salvation of practicing same-sex members.
“Don’t depart from the Christian church in its long history,” Clay Campbell said. Other delegates were anxious about ambiguity, saying that confessional status will help pastors. “I speak in favour of this because it gives me clarity to walk alongside people in love in my community,” Jason Biu said.
Delegates against the HSR were anxious about exclusion, removing grace from the Reformed tradition, threatening the integrity of the gospel and causing harm to LGBTQ Christians.
“Young people are not seeking clarity,” Heidi Sytsema said. “They are seeking belonging, justice, validation that they are indeed image bearers of God. [The HSR] is a tone-deaf response. The clarity that you seek is not good fruit.”
There was also anxiety among CRC members across North America as Synod votes were tallied. Pastor Virginia Lettinga at Victoria CRC was asked, for example, whether an elder who disagreed with the HSR could remain in that position. “It’s not yet clear what the various decisions of Synod 2022 will mean for officer bearers in the CRC,” Lettinga said. “So don’t do anything quickly. Important Synodical decisions are rarely part of Church Order without being ratified by a later Synod. If, after the details are sorted out, you do feel compelled to resign, you will not be alone. So listen and pray a bit longer.”
Precedent and people
The Challenging Conversations Toolkit also asks participants to examine their fears, which connect to values. What do you fear could go wrong? Well, there was no shortage of potential problematic outcomes articulated at Synod.
Some people fear the slippery slope effect. “If we don’t act now,” Daryl DeKlerk said, “we set the precedent that any church can change any aspect of doctrine.” Division and the fear of church splits came up several times. “I speak in favour,” Robert Van Zanen said, “even though I know that this will probably tear us apart. We have to stand up for the gospel.”
Other delegates fear the effect of these decisions on people: “This is closing a door on a community and will do irreparable harm,” Migael Randall said. “In the time I’ve been talking, five members of the LGBTQ community have attempted suicide.” John Vanderstoep was equally blunt: “This will damage any trust the church can barely muster.”
The Agenda for Synod 2022, including material from the past two deferred years, was over 1,300 pages. Agendas are helpful to focus discussion, but they also prioritize control and productivity. Restorative practices, on the other hand, emphasize relationships and create more middle ground.
Since the HSR was released, CRC churches have hosted 300 listening circles to discuss it, “many more” in Canadian churches than U.S. ones, according to a Banner article. The stated purpose of these circles is to “deepen the faith [of participants], clarify how we should live and give witness to the presence and power of God’s spirit at work among us.”
Were any of those goals met by Synod, a challenging conversation writ large? Did anyone change their mind, or start to think differently about these issues? Those questions are harder to answer, though the council chair at Neland Avenue CRC Larry Louters said it’s unlikely.
After noting the divergent interpretations of Scripture in the CRC, VanderKlay tried to normalize it: “That’s part of what happens in the church over time. What we’re doing tonight is productive. It is hard. We will get through this.”
As the CRC considers how to recover from this foundational disagreement, a third question from the Toolkit might shed some more light: What is the love behind the fear?
A love of Scripture. A love for the marginalized. What would have happened if Synod had less “agenda” and more listening? Could a focus on love have helped delegates find more common ground?
A post on Twitter by James Lee acknowledges the fallout: “I say this as a ‘conservative’ and someone who appreciated the work of the HSR . . . This is not a win. There’s so much pastoral work ahead.”
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