The Christian Reformed Church’s study committee on sexuality released their hotly anticipated report Thursday, Oct. 29. The report has already generated controversy within the denomination. If you’re confused by the pages of content and significance of the report, you’re not alone. Chimes has broken down the document.
Where does the CRC stand on LGBTQ issues right now?
The denomination’s official stance is that sex is reserved for one man and one woman in marriage. Under this definition, all same-sex sexual activity, polyamory, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex and divorce are considered sinful. Same-sex orientation, however, is not considered a sin.
This stance has been the subject of much debate within the denomination, especially following the legalization of gay marriage in Canada and the United States. Sherman Street CRC, a congregation near Calvin, brought an overture to Synod in 2011 asking that the denomination appoint a study committee to revisit LGBTQ issues. Synod, the CRC’s annual general assembly of classis leaders, declined, saying that there was not enough new information to warrant another look.
In response, All One Body, an LGBTQ-affirming organization within the CRC, started to meet at Eastern Avenue CRC, another local congregation. Their website states, “All One Body affirms and celebrates with all Christians who unite in committed, monogamous relationships patterned after Christ’s bond with his church.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a prominent philosopher in the denomination, went public with his support of same-sex marriage in 2016. “The Banner” hosts regular debates regarding LGBTQ issues in its opinion section. This summer, Neland Avenue CRC appointed a deacon who is in a same-sex marriage, a first for the denomination.
Classis Grand Rapids East released its own report in 2016 that concluded that Christians who held to traditional and affirming positions were both concerned with compassion for LGBTQ persons and adherence to scriptural sexual ethics. It held that the denomination could agree to disagree on the topic, much like how it does with the issue of women in church office.
What is the CRC’s report about?
The recent committee report is intended to be a comprehensive look at human sexuality through a Christian Reformed lens. At Synod 2016, the assembly appointed the study committee to express a “foundation-laying biblical theology” regarding sexuality in this document.
Topics covered include pornography, gender identity, homosexuality, sexual desire, premarital sex, polyamory and divorce; however, the mandate for the study committee asked that they give special attention to what the Bible says about gender and sexuality.
Essentially, the study committee was tasked with evaluating arguments for LGBTQ affirmation and deciding whether or not the CRC should consider these arguments. Additionally, the report needed to investigate whether its conclusions warranted declaring a status confessionis, elevating the church teaching to the authority of its confessions.
Their conclusion: the denomination’s current stance on sexuality is already confessional, and Synod 2021 should vote to affirm that.
If the CRC already holds these positions on sexuality, why is this report such a big deal?
The crux of this report is that current CRC teaching already merits confessional status. The CRC’s confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession, differentiate the denomination from other branches of Christianity. Only the Bible and the ecumenical creeds rank above the confessions in authority.
In short, this report states that disagreeing with what the CRC says about sexuality is a violation of the denomination’s confessions. Stances on LGBTQ issues are then as fundamental to denominational beliefs as issues like infant baptism and the doctrine of providence.
The study committee’s justification for their decision lies in the 108th question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which explains what is meant by the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”
It states that God condemns all “unchastity.” The report in question states, “By the word ‘unchastity’ the catechism intends to encompass all sexual immorality, including homosexual activity.”
Despite the high stakes of confessional status, the report claims there is yet space for debate. “Even if a teaching has confessional status, that does not mean there is no room for disagreement within the bounds of that teaching. In addition, the church sometimes allows for pastoral accommodations,” it states, then citing exceptions made for infant baptisms as one example.
Neland Avenue’s letter to congregants explaining the decision to appoint a deacon in a same-sex marriage explains why the distinction of status confessionis matters. The church’s council refers to the Synod 1973, 2002 and 2016’s decisions on LGBTQ issues as pastoral advice, not as a confessional matter. Disagreeing with pastoral advice, the letter says, does not cross any lines of orthodoxy; disagreeing with confessions would.
Who was on the committee?
The study committee’s mandate stated that twelve individuals from the denomination with diverse backgrounds must make up the committee. The group was required to include “an African American pastor, a Hispanic pastor, a Korean pastor, three faculty members from Calvin Theological Seminary, a same-sex attracted person, a chaplain, a philosopher, and a social scientist.”
Additionally, the individuals who served on the study committee were required to “adhere to the CRC’s biblical view on marriage and same-sex relationships.”
What does this mean for Calvin?
The report will mostly affect professors, who must sign a synodically approved “Covenant for Faculty Members” pledging that their teaching, speaking and writing is in harmony with the confessions. In an email to Chimes, Provost Cheryl Brandsen said, “To say what it would mean for Calvin faculty is premature, and I would not want to speculate.”
The provost noted that the professional status committee is just beginning to discuss what the report means for Calvin faculty.
After the report was posted, numerous professors expressed their disagreement and concerns on social media and in private faculty forums.
What are the next steps?
Synod 2021 meets from June 11 to 17 of next year. The report asked that Synod vote to declare that the CRC’s current teachings around sexuality already have confessional status. It also asked that Mary-Lee Bouma, Jim Vanderwoerd and Jeff Weima, three members of the study committee, be granted the ability to speak before Synod.
According to the report, all responses must be sent as overtures or communications to Synod 2021. To be included on Synod’s agenda, the sender’s church council and classis must process their response before the Synodical Services Office can receive them. The deadline is March 15, 2021.