Two hundred and fifty Canadian congregations are considering the implications of summer synod decisions. (A shortened version of this news report will also appear in our Sep/Oct issue.)
The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in North America voted on June 15 to elevate traditional teaching on sexuality and marriage to confessional status. The CRC, whose catechism asserts “God condemns all unchastity,” now officially says unchastity includes homosexual sex, pornography and any sexual relations except between a husband and wife.
The vote, 123 to 53, echoed a similar vote taken the day before to recommend the traditional theological content of a new CRC human sexuality report.
Clergy, elders, deacons and professors at denominational schools are required to uphold confessional teachings.
A vocal minority in the denomination have spoken publicly against the sexuality teachings in the report, arguing they are harmful and will alienate legally married lesbian and gay couples, other LGBTQ people and church members who interpret the Bible differently.
It’s unclear how future dissent might be accommodated, or if the church might lose members. The CRC currently has about 1,000 congregations and 138,000 average Sunday attendees, with Canadians comprising about 24 per cent of both figures and the rest in the United States. The denomination maintains a head office in Grand Rapids, Mich., as well as a Canadian office in Burlington, Ont.
Founded in Michigan in 1857, the CRC and its Calvinist antecedents in the Netherlands have generally taught sex is reserved for one man and one woman in marriage. In 1973 it asserted that same-sex attraction itself is not sinful.
Since then some members have sought more progressive stances. First CRC in Toronto allowed those in same-sex relationships to serve in formal roles from 2002 to 2005. In 2020, Neland Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., elected a deacon in a same-sex relationship, but this June’s synod ordered the church to remove her. Neland is currently appealing the order.
As reported by The Banner, the CRC's official periodical, Canadian interventions in the synod debate on June 15 were largely opposed to the Human Sexuality Report and the recommendations that came with it.
Some delegates centred their arguments on its theological position. For them, concerns over both doctrinal content and denominational enforcement were inseparable. Delegate Janet deWinter from the Barrie, Ont., area tearfully expressed her conviction that “when God provides a partner for lifelong service, that is not a sin,” according to a Banner article summarizing the debate.
Other Canadian delegates focused on the potential practical implications of granting confessional status to the traditional view. Anthony Elenbaas, pastor of Immanuel CRC in Hamilton, Ont., is quoted in the same article as saying that if the resolution passed, “those of us who are in the minority in this place will have a much harder job to do. Please don’t put the walls up any higher. Please allow room for us.”
Craig Hoekema, pastor of Calvin CRC in Ottawa, agreed with the resolution while lamenting its potential effect. “The word unchastity in our confessions has to have meaning,” The Banner quotes him as saying. “I understand the implications of this. I don’t delight in that, but I believe we need to stand.”
American delegates Jason Biu and Trevor Mouw held that the report and its confessional status would be pastorally beneficial.
“The young people in our denomination are looking at us, and they need this clarity,” said Mouw, as quoted in The Banner article from the previous day’s vote.
“I speak in favour of this because it gives me clarity to walk alongside people in love in my community,” said Biu according to Christian Courier’s report on the synod.
Christian Courier is a Canadian-based independent periodical that serves Presbyterian and Reformed readers across North America. Editor Angela Bick explained in a phone interview that this concern for greater clarity on homosexuality likely emerges from the wish to stem a conflict like 1990s-era CRC disagreements over women’s ordination.
Some conservative members and congregations left the CRC when the denomination began ordaining women in 1995. Earlier this year, a sister denomination called the Reformed Church in America lost 43 of its 1,000 congregations, many saying they felt they had to leave to maintain traditional beliefs on sexuality.
Support for the conservative CRC sexuality decisions seems lower in Canada than the United States. “Anecdotally, the breakdown [in the June 15 vote] would have been different if only Canadians had voted,” Bick suggested. “The 70-30 split doesn’t really line up with Canadians that I hear from, or even my local church. I think it would be closer to 50-50.”
She warned against making generalizations, however, and that geographic, cultural and theological differences exist in both countries.
In the months leading up to synod, Canadian congregations made far greater use of the Challenging Conversations Toolkit, a resource put out by the CRC main office to help communities talk about different approaches Human Sexuality Report while maintaining relationships amidst those differences. A Banner article from shortly before synod listed multiple events in CRC churches throughout Canada that either used this resource or otherwise had the same goal.
“Canadian churches have hosted many more such events than American churches have,” said toolkit developer Sean Baker in a report in The Banner.
Canadian CRC leaders are now focused on discerning how their synod’s decisions affect their local congregations. Lynette van de Hoef Meyers, pastor of Good News CRC in London, Ont. and reporter for the Minority Report opposing the main Report, was cautiously hopeful.
“We are going to have a conversation [in our congregation], but I don’t want us to make rash decisions,” she told The Banner after the synod. “God works incredible things in the dark. I’m curious to see what God is doing.”
Matthew Neugebauer is a summer intern at Faith Today. A shortened version of this article will appear in our Sep/Oct print issue. Photo of rings by Sandy Millar from Unsplash.