If you watched the synod delegates speak, it sounded more or less like an even split between those for and against the codifying of biblical sexuality. But what didn’t split evenly were the ages of those speaking. Often, those who argued for the welcome and inclusion of homosexual lifestyles had grey hair and wrinkles. Many of those who spoke for biblical sexuality were visibly younger.
Last month, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) voted 123-53 to affirm that “unchastity” in the Heidelberg Catechism includes adultery, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex. The move wasn’t just an affirmation of biblical sexuality but also a call for church discipline for congregations that dissent.
You’d think, with numbers that decisive, that no one would be surprised by the outcome. You’d be wrong.
“No! Seriously! Only 53?” one woman tweeted, and she wasn’t the only one caught off guard.
“I was very surprised!” said Mary Vanden Berg, a Calvin Theological Seminary professor who was on the committee asking for the vote. “I had no idea there was that level of support.”
The CRC synod met in June in Grand Rapids, Michigan / Photo by Steve Herppich. Copyright © 2022 The Banner, Christian Reformed Church in NA. All rights reserved. Used by permission. // TheBanner.org
I was at the TGC women’s conference when I got the text from my husband. We’d been watching it closely—it felt like a watershed moment for the denomination we’d both been born into.
The CRC was founded in 1857, arising from a group of Dutch immigrants who split off from the Reformed Church in America over arguments about sound doctrinal preaching (the CRC said the RCA didn’t have enough) and accommodations to American culture (the CRC said the RCA was doing too much). Since then, the Grand Rapids–based denomination has grown—and then declined—to around 200,000 members in about 1,000 churches, and includes Calvin University and Calvin Seminary among its denominational institutions. It’s the third-largest Reformed denomination in the U.S.
Six years ago, a committee was appointed to wrestle through the church’s stance on sexuality. They submitted a 175-page report—in both English and Spanish—essentially clarifying and upholding the church’s historical teaching.
Honestly, I thought the delegates to synod (the CRC’s annual leadership convention) would vote to accept the report, but I had no confidence they’d affirm the confessional status of biblical sexuality and put church discipline behind it.
Five hours after the first vote, they did.
“They told Neland Avenue CRC to immediately void their appointment of a deacon in a same-sex marriage,” my husband texted.
I couldn’t believe it.
To me, the actions read like a sharp correction in a denomination where Neland’s ordination of a married lesbian deacon was done with “assistance from church advisers from Classis [Grand Rapids] East,” according to the church publication. Where a third of the faculty at Calvin University—the CRC’s flagship school—said this vote would hinder their academic freedom. And where just six years ago, a different report—one that allowed CRC ministers to officiate civil same-sex marriages—was submitted to synod.
Synod delegates worshipping together / Photo by Steve Herppich. Copyright © 2022 The Banner, Christian Reformed Church in NA. All rights reserved. Used by permission. // TheBanner.org
The CRC’s sexuality struggle isn’t really news. As same-sex marriage was legalized and became more common, I’ve seen most denominations wrestle (and sometimes split) their way through sexuality debates. Even the leftward shift of the denominational leadership and educational institutions sounds typical for a lot of denominations.
But there are two things that stand out to me about the CRC.
First, it’s unusual to have a denomination on the path to liberalism yank itself around. It can be done (see the Southern Baptists) but it’s not normal (see the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and even the Africa-heavy Methodists).
Second, statistics are clear that in America, the younger you are, typically the more liberal you are. Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to be comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns, believe same-sex marriage is good for society, and identify as LGBT+.
But at synod this year, it wasn’t the young people voting against biblical sexuality. Judging by those who stood up to share their views, it was largely the older generation asking for sexual inclusion and the younger crowd pointing back to the Bible.
What’s going on in Grand Rapids?
The last time the CRC had a battle this big was a generation ago. In the mid-1990s, after two and a half decades of committee meetings, synod effectively moved the denomination from complementarian to egalitarian. Reasoning that both views “honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God,” synod said each church could decide for itself whether to ordain women to church office.
Chart created by Neil Carlson of DataWise Consulting
“It was a watershed moment,” C. J. den Dulk told me. He’s been pastoring at Trinity CRC in Sparta, Michigan, for the past 32 years. “It changed the hermeneutic way of approaching Scripture. And a lot of people said if you change [the church ordinances] on women, homosexuality will come later.”
He could’ve left the CRC back then. A lot of conservatives did. In 1996, 36 complementarian churches with about 7,500 attendees left to form the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). Over the years, more conservative CRCs have joined them. By 2021, the URCNA held 130 congregations with more than 25,000 attendees.
“[A number of churches] decided that, at least from a human perspective, it didn’t seem that the direction of the denomination as a whole is going to change,” Godfrey said then.
In one sense, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without the pull of a substantial conservative caucus, the CRC began to list leftward. Nearly 30 years later, about three-quarters of CRC churches ordain women deacons, and more than half ordain women elders. Synod said churches didn’t have to meet twice on Sunday, teach through the creeds and Reformed confessions, or wait for children to profess their faith before welcoming them to the Lord’s Supper. Students and faculty at Calvin University wrote about being pro-choice, openly queer, and welcoming and affirming.
But over time, something else was happening too, so quietly that it took me a while to find it.
What’s Going On: The Kids
If you watched the synod delegates speak, it sounded more or less like an even split between those for and against the codifying of biblical sexuality.
But what didn’t split evenly were the ages of those speaking. Often, those who argued for the welcome and inclusion of homosexual lifestyles had grey hair and wrinkles. Many of those who spoke for biblical sexuality were visibly younger.
I wasn’t the only one to notice.
“We’ve been seeing that over time,” said Chad Steenwyk, CRC pastor and chairman of the Abide Project, which formed in recent years to support the CRC’s historical teaching on biblical sexuality. Of the hundreds of church leaders associated with the project, most are in their 30s or 40s, Steenwyk estimated.
“It’s taken a while to raise up a new conservative generation,” he said.
Some of those young pastors are coming from conservative seminaries outside the denomination—Reformed Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, or Westminster Seminary California. Of the leaders at synod this year, president Jose Rayas, vice president Derek Buikema, and the chair of the advisory board for the human sexuality report Tim Kuperus are all Westminster grads.
Even Calvin Seminary, which is run by the denomination, has historically been more conservative than the university, Steenwyk said. (The seminary has not made a public statement on synod’s decision.)