Is a Split Over LGBTQ+ Issues Inevitable for the CRCNA?

Is it inevitable that the Christian Reformed family of God in North America will split over the LGBTQ+ issue when it comes up at Synod 2021?

But for the grace of God … yes. However, the grace of God is enormously powerful. A church denomination that understands that all have sinned and that everyone’s sexuality is in need of cleansing but is also intent on family unity in spite of cultural and theological diversity has a chance of finding a way to remain united. 

Focusing on unity rather than accepting schism as inevitable can make an enormous difference. No family, not even such a large family as the CRCNA, has to break up. If we bathe every conflict, every painful truth, every heartfelt passion in fervent communal and individual prayers, the Holy Spirit will lead us toward resolutions.

To stay together, we will have to make room for various theological interpretations of key passages in our Scriptures. Bible scholars Sylvia Keesmaat and her husband, Brian Walsh, have taken a historical approach to the Scriptures in their freshly minted book Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice. Justin Lee’s book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate also takes a fresh approach to the topic.

Seeking to decide who is “right” and who is “wrong” will not keep us together. How the truths revealed in God’s word will guide us to a united confession of faith is an enormous challenge. We can accept that challenge in humility, acknowledging that none of us can know the ways of God fully, all of us have our own lived experiences that inform our interpretation of the Scriptures, and all of us have our blind spots. Accepting our brokenness and differences as children of God—as well as the counsel of the Holy Spirit—creates the hope that Synod 2021 will result in a new creation: a family of God united in its need for a Savior and unwilling to be torn apart.

About the Author

Judy Cook is a family therapist and a member of Meadowlands Fellowship CRC in Ancaster, Ontario.

See comments (11)


I'm struggling to see the editorial wisdom in posing and seeking to answer this question in light of the ongoing work of the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality.  How is this entirely subjective and conjectural Q/A beneficial while we await their report?  

"Seeking to decide who is “right” and who is “wrong” will not keep us together."  This is a loaded and misguided statement.  The clear insinuation is that seeking truth in this matter is secondary to some form of organizational unity.  It's not a question of who is right or wrong.  But the day that we cease to care what God has declared in his word about right and wrong for the sake of some sort of external unity is the day that we cease to be a church that honors God.  

This article is puzzling at minimum.  Was not a dominant purpose of the church's historic creeds and confessional (including those confessed by the CRC as a denomination and its churches) created for the very reason, "decid[ing] who is 'right' and who is 'wrong') this article suggests ought not be the goal of examining LGBTQ+ issues?

In matters of adiaphora, unity should be sought. This is a broad category which generally may include worship styles, approaches to ministry, etc. In all other matters, unity is unhealthy, and the church is called to humbly pursue the biblical path, to follow Jesus even when it's challenging. The pattern here is set by such biblical texts as 1 Corinthians.

The issues of sexuality bears on how we understand the authority of scripture and is not adiaphora. This comes from a careful reading of the passages in question. A wonderful resource on this question is D. A. Carson's article "On Disputable Matters" in Themelios.

That unity is not the highest goal in matters like this is basic, and the editors really need to think these things through before publishing articles like this one. Any compromise for the sake of unity will be a compromise of conscience and ultimately of belief. Sometimes it truly is better for a denomination to split, peaceably, allowing both groups to pursue ministry. We have a chance here to model something the world rarely sees: a loving separation for the sake of conscience. 

      Thanks, Judy, for expressing a nice sentiment or perhaps a hope for our denomination.  Wishing/hoping as you may, even praying as you may, will not make your sentiment come true.  How many other denominations or churches have prayed that good and right decisions would be made in regard to an issue but didn’t seem to work out so well.  Do you remember how divisive the women’s issue was back in the 80's in the CRC.  After Synod made a decision (similar to what you are suggesting) where unity was the end goal, still many churches left the CRC, and many members and councils were not happy with the decision.
      Obviously, you’re suggesting that gays be admitted to membership and that everyone be happy with such a decision, knowing that we are all sinners.  You say, “A church denomination that understands that all have sinned and that everyone’s sexuality is in need of cleansing...”  I hope you’re not suggesting that the gay person’s sexuality that needs cleansing is their homosexuality.  Sounds like your statement pushes in that direction.  That might not go over with the gays.  It sounds like you are saying to the homosexual, “Even though you are gay, we will still accept you because we are all sinners.”  
      For most in our denomination it is not a matter of who is “right” and who is “wrong,” but what does the Bible teach.  Are you suggesting that we make concessions or compromises as to the Bible’s teachings for the sake of unity?  In other words let reason or common sense rule the day.  It seems to me that unity in religion is based on like mindedness.  It sounds like you may be suggesting unity in spite of agreement.  I guess we can hope.

As far as being right is concerned, discussions have often become heated arguments in the church. Is it important that we are right on this matter? If we would assume for a moment that same-sex marriage is acceptable to God, then for Christians to refuse someone to get married would be to deprive them of something that could well be necessary for them, if they did not have the gift of celibacy. On the other hand, if same-sex marriage is wrong for everyone, as the church understood it for thousands of years, then for a church to marry two members of the same sex would be for that church to both encourage and participate in sin. Either way is very serious. The stakes are high.

Therefore, isn’t it important for the church to determine what is right? Isn’t this another opportunity for the church to be a light for the world? Can we be faithful to our Lord and Savior if we do not determine from God’s Word what is right?  

But Herb, what if there are two rights?  Do you remember the women in office issue of the 80's?  It’s still an issue for many.  Didn’t Synod make a final decision on the basis of looking at this issue from two different perspectives?  Those who were against women as office-bearers found plenty of Scripture to support their position.  But so did those who wanted to include women as elders and ministers.  So our denomination tried to satisfy both positions with their awkward final decision.  I believe the same will be true with the homosexual issue.  After all, you can rationalize any position from the Bible. 

Hey, Roger, good to hear from you. Good comments, very relevant to today. One of the positive contributions of the women in office discussions was material on characterizing issues in the Agenda to Synod 2000 (pages 374-375). That material distinguished between confessional issues, moral issues, wisdom matters and adiaphora. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that a woman who preaches from a pulpit will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. In I Cor. 6:9-10 we read, “neither the sexually immoral . . . nor men who practice homosexuality . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.” (ESV) As a result of verses like this one, some view homosexuality as a moral matter, and as a result, one that can be considered negotiable only at the peril of those who concede. Are these two topics different in that regard, or is there something the historic understanding has missed?  


      Hey Herb, I appreciate your response.  I don’t know if you are missing something or if I am, as to the women in office issue.  But I think your argument skews the whole issue.  The issue was not about women preaching, but about women having authority over men.  And there are plenty of Scripture passages that state clearly women are not to have authority over men, whether in the church or the home. And of course the role of pastor, like that of elders, carries authority.  That is the reason so many churches and individuals left our denomination.  For many churches, allowing women elders and ministers, was a direct violation of God’s command, making it a moral sin.  For those advocating for women in office, they recognized such commands as being culturally biased and therefor not applying to our different and more open culture.
      And so our denomination attempted to accommodate both views.  Those leaving, saw such accommodation as a willful violation of God’s will and command, and morally wrong.  And still, there are many churches that refuse to allow women in the office of minister or elder.
      With the homosexual issue there are those who argue both sides from Scripture.   As to your quote from 1 Corinthians, you forgot to include the following verses.  – “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” –  And so considering each argument on the homosexual issue on its own merits, they each make some sense.  You see, you can make Scripture say almost anything you want.  So a decision on this current issue will be made and many will not be happy.  So perhaps a decision that does the least harm will be in order, one to accommodate both sides.  But there will still be turmoil. That will never be avoided.

Hello, Roger. These are good things to discuss as these are the questions that are being considered by many today.

As far as women in office and preaching is concerned, I Timothy 2:12 reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man . . .” The reference to teaching is taken as including preaching. As a result, it is both teaching (preaching) and having authority that has been a concern.

It is certainly very important that we follow God’s Word. It has rightfully long been our guiding principle that the Bible is our only standard for faith and practice.

Concerning the quote from I Corinthians, I’m not sure why omitting some of the verse was not good. I quoted only the part referring to homosexuality as that was the part that was relevant to this discussion. It is important for us to have clear thinking in this regard. 

As far as both sides of the same-sex issue making some sense is concerned, many positions expressed contain half-truths. We are all imperfect, at one point or another we all hold things that are not right. It seems in this regard the question might well be, when we hold different views, what does God’s Word direct us to do? Are we directed by the Bible to always hold unity as the highest value, never to be abandoned? Or is there a point where we have to take the position that a particular matter cannot be abandoned, and unity needs to be given up instead? In a sense, that is the question that the initial article here raises, is schism inevitable? And to flesh that out more fully, when is schism or separation the path the Bible instructs us to take?

Thanks, Herb, for the continuing dialogue.  I don’t know, as to the women’s issue, if “teaching” has been as big an issue as women having authority over men.  For many years now women have been able to teach in our denomination.  It’s just that their audience has been limited to children or other women.  But teaching or preaching to men is what has historically been forbidden because of the authority issue.  And now that our culture is getting on board as to women effectively having authority, our churches are seeing the benefit, as well.
     The point of including the greater context of your 1 Corinthians passage is to point out that it is “wrongdoers” of all kinds that will be excluded from the kingdom of God, not just practicing or married homosexuals.  Why single out homosexuals when 1 Corinthians includes such a variety of sinners. 
      Given the cultural context and understanding of homosexuality, perhaps such so called sins as drunkenness and homosexuality should be excluded from such a list.  Our culture is increasingly allowing scientific and psychological research to impact how we understand such activities.  And increasingly our culture understands that first century culture didn’t have the benefit of modern research to impact our understanding of such things as homosexuality.  If scientific research deals with uncovering the deeper truths of God’s general and natural revelation, then perhaps we should give ear to what such revelation is saying.

It is good to have these opportunities to discuss these various aspects. As far as I know, the church has never had to deal with these issues in the past. Certainly not to the extent that they are in front of us today.

I narrowed the focus of the reference to I Cor. 6 to homosexuality above only because the title of the article that these comments are under has to do with LGBTQ issues. It was not in any way to be saying this is a horrible thing and to give other actions a pass. It has also been my experience on blogs etc. that one thread can so easily branch out in many, many different directions. And that often results in many considerations being touched on, and none treated to any reasonable extent.

As Christians we need to be ready to hear out scientific research and be ready to re-examine our understanding of Scripture should science shed new light on a matter. We also need to do due diligence when it comes to examining all information in front of us. For example, one view that is heard regularly these days, including in Brownson’s recent book on same-sex marriage, is the position that Paul did not know of loving same-sex relationships in his day. The thought then is that he would not have been speaking to those in Romans 1 etc. However, there is evidence that even the ultimate example of abuse in Brownson’s book, Emperor Caligula, was in a loving relationship with a man. In order for the church to be able to provide light for all, including those who deal with same-sex attractions, we need to be sure to do justice to all the relevant information.  

It seems like we could really benefit by having a good, clear biblical statement on the relationship of “being right” doctrinally on the one hand, to the matter of Christian unity on the other hand. Unity is clearly given a position of prominence in the New Testament and we need to be faithful to that. Any further thoughts you might have on that would be welcomed.