CRC Synod 2016: Belhar, Same-Sex Marriage and Doctrine of Discovery

Delegates of the Christian Reformed Church in North America gathered at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan from June 10-17 for their annual Synod gathering.

The inclusive crowd was actively advocating. The night before, delegates exited their meeting to find messages in rainbow sidewalk chalk: “We are the church too” … “ALL ARE IN GOD” … “WE ARE DYING TO BE WHO GOD MADE US” … “57 yrs in CRC, GAY, What will you do w/ me? And 1000s others?” Around 20-30 LGBTQ-inclusive advocates gathered in the audience wearing rainbow colored clothing for the June 15 debate.

 

Delegates of the Christian Reformed Church in North America gathered at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan from June 10-17 for their annual Synod gathering.

With deacon delegates from each classis for the first time and an agenda with a word count greater than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, this was a notable synod from the beginning. But it was the topics on the agenda that deserve the attention.

Doctrine of Discovery

Delegates discussed a 68-page report on the Doctrine of Discovery, the notion that North American land was free for the taking by Europeans. Synod repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery but did not adopt most of the report’s recommendations.[i]

However, it became clear that the Doctrine of Discovery task force did not consult with Classis Red Mesa, which is predominantly Native American.

“The historical story they tell is skewed,” wrote the council of Rehoboth CRC of Classis Red Mesa. “While seeking justice, they practice injustice.”

The report declared that “The CRC was wrong to establish and run a boarding school named Rehoboth; the land the missionaries sought to conquer was not theirs to flourish in.”

“We strongly disagree with this conclusion,” the Rehoboth church council responded in the classis overture. “Mistakes were made as missionaries carried out the work, but the work itself was not a mistake!”[ii]

Synod did recognize “the pain of those who suffered from their experiences in the residential schools of the United States and Canada, including Rehoboth Christian School.”

But synod also affirmed “the current culture at the Rehoboth Christian School and the Zuni Christian Mission School along with the many stories of renewal, transformation, grace, and cultural exchange” from those schools.

The report called synod to “Acknowledge the CRCNA’s historical appropriation of a Euro-superior worldview … specifically, against the Navajo and Zuni peoples.”[iii]

Instead, synod recognized “the gospel motivation in response to the Great Commission, as well as the love and grace extended over many years by missionaries sent out by the CRCNA to the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States. For this we give God thanks, and honor their dedication.”

Belhar Confession

The Belhar Confession was on the agenda once again with a proposal to raise it to a full confession of the CRC.

The Belhar Confession comes from the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA), which has adopted it alongside the Three Forms of Unity.

Written in apartheid-era South Africa, it is seen as a vehicle against racism and prejudice, calling for unity, reconciliation and justice.

The URCSA offered it as a “gift” to other Reformed denominations around the world. The CRC’s sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America, adopted Belhar in 2010 as a fourth confession.

Belhar has long been a contentious topic in the CRC. Some have called for it to be adopted as a fourth confession while others have concerns about its ambiguity and incompleteness.

Synod 2012 adopted the Belhar as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, a new category of faith statement created. Initiatives to raise Belhar continued to come forward. In 2013, the CRC Board of Trustees added Belhar to the updated the Public Declaration of Agreement, which all delegates agree to at the opening of Synod. Synod 2013 removed Belhar before adopting the new Agreement. In February 2014, the CRC Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee hosted a conference to discuss the category of Ecumenical Faith Declaration. From the discussions, “the category of Ecumenical Faith Declaration did not find favor with the conferees.”[iv]

Roger Sparks, Classis Minnkota minister delegate, was at Synod 2012 and spoke to the confusion. “I don’t think we really knew what Ecumenical Faith Declaration meant either,” he said on the floor of synod on Wednesday. “Synod collectively said to itself, ‘What are we going to do with this? We don’t want to vote it up, and we don’t want to vote it down.’ So on the fly synod came up with this new category called Ecumenical Faith Declaration.”

Classis Hackensack overtured Synod 2016 to “adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession” in the CRC, citing 14 grounds about the Scriptural emphasis on justice, unity and reconciliation, and the relevance for adopting such a confession.

On the synod floor, the Hackensack delegates spoke passionately about being the targets of racism and experiencing a systemic racism.

The Belhar is needed in their context. “Those of us that are in New Jersey, we need it,” said Leonora Maine of Classis Hackensack.

Synod decided that “the grounds presented do not clearly justify reconsideration of the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession.”

However, in the course of deliberation, it became clear that the ambiguity of the Ecumenical Faith Declaration was not a helpful designation for Belhar.

“What we have done now with the Belhar is we have consigned it to confessional purgatory,” said Bruce Dykstra from Classis Atlantic Northeast. “It is no longer in this category useful to us.” Instead, Dykstra said the CRC should “allow the Belhar to become part of the worship life and language that we speak as a Reformed community, so that it becomes useful in the life of the church.”

Reformed Church in America fraternal delegate, Lisa Vander Wal, weighed in on the confusion surrounding Ecumenical Faith Declaration: “When you call it ‘Ecumenical Faith Declaration,’ it suggests you are in it ecumenically.”

Except is not ecumenical because no other ecumenical partners have the category. “There is no such thing except with you folks,” she said.

Synod 2016 decided to recommend to Synod 2017 that the CRC “re-categorize the Belhar Confession to the same status as that of a contemporary testimony in the CRC.” This would place Belhar in a recognized position, but it would not be binding on ministers, elders and deacons.

Belhar remains officially as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration. It will be up to Synod 2017 to determine if it will escape its “purgatory.”

Same-Sex Marriage

Center stage, however, was same-sex marriage and LGBTQ matters.

In 2013, synod created a Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance Re: Same-Sex Marriage to give guidance on how to apply the CRC position on homosexuality in light of legalized same-sex marriage and how to communicate such a position in the current North American context. An 83-page report was released in October 2016, divided into majority and partial minority reports. A minority (2 members) of the 9-member committee disagreed with some parts of the main report. One of the main features of the overall report was differentiation between civil and religious weddings. In the report, civil marriage “confers a variety of rights, privileges, and obligations” of “public benefit”, whereas a religious marriage makes mention of God in vows and declaration as well as prayers. While both reports say CRC ministers performing religious same-sex weddings would violate the CRC position, the majority report said a minister might officiate a civil wedding of a couple seeking civil benefits while remaining celibate. The minority report said a CRC minister performing a same-sex wedding would not be permitted under CRC theology and church order. Regarding existing members in same-sex relationships, the majority report cautions use of church discipline whereas the minority report says a baptized CRC member entering a same-sex marriage violates baptism vows. (A more detailed overview of the report can be read here.)

Years of tension over legalized same-sex marriage culminated at Synod 2016. Classis Alberta South/Saskatchewan sent an overture asking for same-sex oriented advisors to synod, alongside the women, ethnic minority and young adult advisors. Four overtures asked for a change in the church order to specifically mention same-sex weddings under Article 69, which says ministers may not solemnize marriages in conflict with the Word of God. Classis Arizona overtured to declare status confession is against the error of sexuality outside male-female marriage is acceptable as well as hateful treatment of people in sexual sins. Sixteen overtures in one way or another rejected the majority report,[v] including some from typically moderate classes such as Toronto and Holland. Synod delegates in advisory committee 9 had a difficult task.

In what was “nothing short of a miracle,”[vi] the advisory committee came with a unified recommendation: receive both majority and minority reports for information and recommend (only) the minority report’s guidance to the churches. They noted that the minority report was more faithful to the mandate of Synod 2013, which required that the report be in keeping with the CRC’s position on homosexuality. Also, while the “majority report correctly calls the church to repentance for our sin against same-sex attracted brothers and sisters, it does not go on to adequately present the inclusion of repentance (turning away from sin and running to new life in Christ) as part of the gospel for those of us who sin by engaging in samesex [sic] sexual behavior.”

The advisory committee also recommended to add a reference to the minority report in the Church Order Article 69, specifying that same-sex weddings were not to be conducted.

Finally, they recommended that the current committee be dismissed with thanks and a new committee formed of “CRC members who adhere to the CRC’s biblical view on marriage and same sex relationships.” This specification was likely in response to the makeup of the former committee, which included the president of New Directions Ministries in Toronto with a stated goal of full inclusion of those in same-sex unions.

The first recommendation, to recommend only the advice of the minority report, was taken up by all the delegates on the evening of June 15. It turned out to be, in one CRC minister’s words, “one of those #crcsynod sessions that gets remembered for years to come.”[vii] Webcast viewership reached its peak of Synod 2016 with 734 simultaneous viewers.

The inclusive crowd was actively advocating. The night before, delegates exited their meeting to find messages in rainbow sidewalk chalk: “We are the church too” … “ALL ARE IN GOD” … “WE ARE DYING TO BE WHO GOD MADE US” … “57 yrs in CRC, GAY, What will you do w/ me? And 1000s others?” Around 20-30 LGBTQ-inclusive advocates gathered in the audience wearing rainbow colored clothing for the June 15 debate.

That evening, Synod President Paul DeVries diplomatically opened the session asking for no disruptions, including applause. “We have many people here who feel passionately about the church and passionately about people,” he said. “If we begin to speak unkindly to one another; if we begin to assert our own preference and opinion, people will be hurt.”

A number of delegates spoke against the minority report for its strict stance against officebearers participating in same-sex weddings and ministers performing same-sex weddings.

Jonathan Assink of Classis Pacific Northwest said it “will do harm. It will break relationships.”

Rolf Bouma, chair of study committee that produced the report, declared that to extract the minority report from the entirety “does violence to the report.” He pointed out how the minority report does not carry nuance on officebearers participating in same-sex weddings. “The minority report doesn’t caution against it, they prohibit it.” He explained how participation is a vague term. “What is it to participate? Officebearers aren’t just officebearers. They’re fathers and mothers they’re grandparents they’re siblings they’re friends they’re coworkers. You are creating a cause of action against officebearers. … It’s not an easy decision.”

Deacon delegate, Jennie Hengeveld-Misner of Classis Northern Illinois agreed with Bouma. “I disagree with minority report because it is too strict regarding officebearers.” With a choked up voice, she told how she’s “been blessed by so many same-sex oriented friends who have been the hands and feet of God to me.” She drew some applause from the audience, which prompted the chair to remind visitors to not to clap.

Classis Grand Rapids East, frustrated at Synod 2013’s mandate that limited the study committee to the CRC’s current stance on homosexuality, formed their own study committee and produced a 142-page report arguing that same-sex attraction and marriage is more complex than what the church has traditionally thought.

Jack Roeda of Classis Grand Rapids East spoke of the intimacy he shares with his wife and said marriage is beyond just sexuality and is about intimacy, “It’s what all of us want. Just to hold hands.”

Roeda continued by saying same-sex attraction and marriage is a matter of diversity. “Belonging, whether its other cultures or other sexual orientations, if we’re going to belong together it requires accommodating. The minority report doesn’t struggle with that and we ought to struggle with that.”

Others spoke in favor of the advisory committee’s recommendation to put forth only the minority report.

“The minority report holds God’s Word as the highest authority,” said Brady Mulder from Classis Lake Superior.

Melvin Van Essendelft of Classis Hudson held up a Bible and declared, “This book holds everything we need for faith and life.”

Brian Tebben from Classis Yellowstone said, “The minority report is good and good for the life of the church because the minority report has clarity in how it talks about Scripture.”

Both minorities and young adults spoke in favor of drawing clearer boundaries on the issue.

Boo Hwan Kwak, from the Korean-speaking Classis Hanmi spoke in favor of the minority report through a translator. “I have appreciated your concern for your relatives and friends and your neighbors but at the same time you are neglecting the global neighbors and those of different ethnicity.” He went on to speak about rejection Christians receive in a pluralistic Korean society, but how he learned to love them anyways with the love of God.

Young adult representative Aren Plante spoke pointedly to the matter: “As a young adult I am tired of the CRC refusing to make hard decisions by repeatedly allowing controversial topics to be decided by the local church. By doing this we are saying to the world and to young adults that we can’t speak authoritatively on clear biblical ethics. I speak in favor of the minority report because it lays out clear guidelines that are so desperately needed for our church where the majority report fails to do so.”

Perhaps the most memorable speaker on the floor was Michael Santarosa of Classis Yellowstone.

“I’m speaking to you today as somebody who has experienced same-sex attraction from a young age but also experienced tremendous sanctification and healing,” said Santarosa. “I do and have recently been tempted through same-sex attraction, but I would say I’m free, free as any Christian to be chaste [and also] faithful to my God who gives me that power and I think that’s the power of the gospel to transform this world.”

Santarosa said, “It’s the world – meaning that fallen, broken world – that’s transforming the church. Those values are coming into the church and changing the church and I’m afraid that it will leave people in darkness and already has as our witness has eroded.”

He continued, “We as a church have not lived up to that prophetic call as evidenced by our current situation.” Those who are wrestling with same-sex attraction “believe that they have to figure it out on their own rather than relying on the guidance of the Word of God and the communication of his witness through the church for 2000 years.”

Synod 2016 voted 110-71 to recommend only the minority report. Officebearers may not participate in same-sex weddings and members entering into same-sex marriages violate their baptismal vows.

While the number of votes against the minority report might seem high, some likely voted against the recommendation simply because it was unusual to separate the minority report from the majority report. Committee chair Rolf Bouma was noticeably upset that the majority report was being neglected.

“Some delegates might have swallowed the Rolf arguments– that we are either wasting the work of the committee, or that the minority report was meant to be accepted as a whole in conjunction with the majority report.” Stephen Vos, delegate from Classis Grandville, explained. “I did hear this from a few delegates. I would imagine there is a good chunk of ‘no’ votes that would fall into this category.”

Synod wasn’t done yet. They added a supplemental note to Church Order Article 69 referencing the restrictions from the minority report.

They dismissed the task force that produced the majority and minority reports and created a new task force “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality that pays particular attention to biblical conceptions of gender and sexuality.”

Its mandate is to “provide concise yet clear ethical guidance for what constitutes a holy and healthy Christian sexual life, and in light of this to serve the church with pastoral, ecclesial, and missional guidance that explains how the gospel provides redemptive affirmation and hope for those experiencing sexual questioning, temptation, and sin.”

Since the pastoral advice on same-sex marriage brought a conflicted majority report, synod realized that there are competing narratives on the nature and purpose of sexuality.

“We are already divided,” said Ed Gerber of Classis British Columbia Southeast. “This issue is symptomatic of something underneath going on.”

“We’re having these conflicts because the first principles haven’t been established,” said elder Khary Bridgewater from Classis Grand Rapids East. “We must have this discussion now.”

“You can feel the weight of the anxiety of denomination on this,” said Ben Browneye of Classis Grand Rapids North.

The mandate gave some specific and carefully worded assignments:

1) Discussion outlining how a Reformed hermeneutic does or does not comport with readings of Scripture being employed to endorse, what are for the historic Church, groundbreaking conclusions regarding human sexual behavior and identification.
2) Dialogue with, and potential critique of, untraditional conclusions arising from arguments about a new movement of the Spirit (e.g. Acts 15), as well as conclusions arising from scientific and social scientific studies.
3) Reflection and evaluation of whether or not, with respect to same sex behavior and other issues identified in the study, it will be advisable for future synods to consider:
— changing the main text of the Church Order Article 69 (see Overtures 18, 19, 20, 21, 31).
— declaring a “status confession is” (see Overture 16).
— appointing a team of individuals to draft a statement of faith, perhaps in the style of the Contemporary Testimony, on human embodiment and sexuality that reflects and secures the teachings and conclusions of the report (see Overture 28).

This time not only the mandate but the composition of the task force was clearly spelled out.

It will be up to twelve “CRC members who adhere to the CRC’s biblical view on marriage and same sex relationships.” Three of them are to be Calvin Seminary faculty, all of which are known to hold an orthodox view on marriage. Another three are to be ethnic minority pastors or theologians, all of which are also orthodox on marriage. Only one scientist will be on the committee. Two pastors, one chaplain, one philosopher, one “same sex attracted person” and one “gender dysphoric” person. And one Promotor Fidei, i.e. “devil’s advocate.”

The creation of the new study committee passed overwhelmingly by a simple voice vote.

Synod also rejected the proposal to have LGBT advisors.

The classis that sent the overture (Alberta South/Saskatchewan) was adamant that this had no underlying agenda to shift the CRC view.

“This is not about changing any theology in the CRC,” said Charles Kooger, the author of the overture. “This is not about same-sex marriage. This is a different discussion.”

Synod already has women, young adult, and ethnic minority advisors. Many ethnic minorities spoke against adding LGBT advisors.

“With women and ethnic minorities, the question of morality was never in speculation” said Sam Lee, an Asian American minister delegate from Classis Greater Los Angeles. “It’s a stretch to tie them all together under this equality blanket.”

Khary Bridgewater, an African American elder delegate from Classis Grand Rapids East, successfully added another ground for rejecting LGBT advisors: “The characterization of same-sex oriented people in the same manner as ethnic minorities is particularly offensive to many ethnic minorities.”

A white delegate later said this new ground “is nothing short of bigotry.”

Synod turned down LGBT advisors by simple voice vote.

Reaction

Most of the reaction has been on social media from the inclusive camp, expressing disapproval of synod’s actions.

One tweet had two loudly crying emojis after, “For the #crcsynod”.

“I would have, at least, expected our denomination (our churches) to take a moderating position,” said “Rog” commenting on the news article in The Banner. But no, they took an extreme position which sees no merit in those who see Biblical warrant for same sex marriage in the church and our society.”

“The decision to stick with a Biblical view was not the easy way to go. But it was the correct one,” wrote Ernie Vroom on The Banner article. “No doors were shut to those who wish to enter by Grace under Christ’s terms.”

Harold Westra echoed Vroom: “I find it hard to believe that this decision is extreme. I believe that this is a decision that is to God’s glory.”

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is Pastor at North Blendon Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Hudsonville, Mich.

[i] “Synod Repudiates Doctrine of Discovery” by Roxanne Van Farowe; The Banner, June 17, 2016 https://www.crcna.org/news-and-views/synod-repudiates-doctrine-discovery (retrieved Monday, June 20, 2016)

[ii] Agenda for Synod 2016, pp.581 & 583.

[iii] Agenda for Synod 2016, p.540.

[iv] Agenda 2014, p261-262, 273-275.

[v] Classis Niagara overtured synod to receive only the minority report. Classis Iakota overtured to adopt only one section of the majority report. Classis Heartland overtured synod to “affirm the enduring position of the Bible and the CRCNA on the issue of same-sex relationships.”

[vi] Dirk Koetje, Classis Northern Michigan, during the debate on the evening of June 15, 2016.

[vii] Paul Vander Klay (@PaulVanderKlay) tweeted at 8:56 PM on Wed, Jun 15, 2016 (https://twitter.com/PaulVanderKlay/status/743245708543746049?s=09)