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Synod 2022 of the CRC adopted a resolution that the word "unchastity" in the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 encompasses adultery, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex, all of which violate the seventh commandment, and that this interpretation has confessional status.
As an officer of Synod 2022, I had a front-row seat to the heightened anxiety from all directions around these weighty matters. The articles, tweets and Facebook comments during and since that synod week all demonstrate how this anxiety continues throughout the CRC. In family systems, anxiety is best named and acknowledged rather than ignored. The CRC denomination is no exception.
Marriage and sexuality go to the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to follow Jesus. When two opposing views of what it means to love and what it means to hate collide, the very essence of the greatest commandment is at stake. No surprise that emotions run high when CRC officebearers gather from all corners of North America to sort out our denominational response.
At synod, tears flowed from joy and sorrow. Some 200 protesters gathered. Hands quivered and voices trembled behind microphones. More went on behind the cameras, some tenderness and compassion but also some nastiness. Some left crushed, others relieved. All were exhausted.
While I was one who went home relieved, I also cried tears of sadness as did others who voted for confessional status. Unkind words were spoken in the halls and over social media. More often, I saw the pained looks on people’s faces, and tears came at the thought of needing this collision in the first place.
Loving Each Other
Seeing the disappointment in others, I remembered feeling the same way at another synod, and my heart hurt for them. On the last day, I made sure to walk up to Larry Louters, elder delegate from Neland Avenue. I wondered what sort of interactions he had had with people who thought as I did. Would he leave synod with only negative interactions from people like myself? I introduced myself and pointed out I was from Classis Zeeland, saying, "I know you know what that means." He smiled and said, "Yes." I told him that I loved him, regardless of everything that has been said. By the look on his face, I think those words warmed his heart.
To those disappointed by Synod 2022, I want to say to you what I said to Larry Louters: “I love you.” As Christians, we need to recover these three words and say them to one another whether we agree or not. For the many civil discussions, there were also sharp exchanges not in keeping with any definition of Christian love. I was among the recipients of some sharp words.
I understand that to some, my vote in favor of confessional status might disqualify those “I love you” words from me, but in my heart, I honestly care about you. I also honestly care about anyone identifying as LGBTQ. If this sounds strange or backwards, the reason is we have different understandings of Christian love.
Love and Hate
Allow me to explain my understanding. Your walk with the Lord and Savior is important to me. Believing that sexuality outside a husband-wife marriage is sinful, I am duty-bound as a believer and especially as a pastor to oppose any teaching that confuses wrong and right. I know that others believe that my vote for confessional status is hateful and exclusionary to the LGBTQ community. I can see why some would think so because we also have different understandings of human identity. Others believe sexuality is an identity. We differ here also. I do not believe that attractions or feelings constitute an identity. If someone who is not my wife catches my eye and I feel attraction, this feeling does not mean my identity is a cheater or adulterer. I am an adulterer if I begin a sexual relationship outside the marriage or fantasize about someone else. What I feel is not who I am as a person. As such, I consider it harmful and even hateful to tell anyone they are defined by their feelings. We have different views on human identity, and therefore we have opposing ideas of what love and hate look like.
We are a divided denomination. Allow me to express my true feelings. For myself, I am relieved that Synod decided to maintain what the CRC and the worldwide church has always affirmed from Scripture about marriage and sexuality. In recent years, secular ideas about sexuality and identity have infiltrated churches and affected Christian concepts of love and acceptance, holiness and sin. I am so thankful that those ideas have not prevailed in the CRC. I continue to pray that they never will.
Different narratives have emerged about what happened last June. Some have painted Synod 2022 as a Returning Church or Abide Project coup or fundamentalists seeking rules. This is upsetting to me for a number of reasons, one of which is that I believe this is misappropriated anger, making villains out of people as opponents when instead we should notice the assumptions that put us on this collision course.
The true culprit for the messy synod in June is the belief that the simmering differences on marriage and sexuality can be bypassed under a flag of unity. Divergent views have been growing and festering for years in the CRC. Unlike some differences such as worship style or a second Sunday service, differences on marriage and sexuality diverge on critical Christian understandings of creation and fall, identity, and what constitutes love and hate toward others. The prevailing message has been that we can agree to disagree on this as Christians and still be unified as a denomination. Whether from fear of conflict or avoidance of division, this underestimation of the inherent incompatibility kept the needed discussions from happening. Roots were put down, and two visions for the CRC’s future solidified. When the matter finally came to a head at Synod 2022, tremendous amounts of emotional soil were pulled up with the root systems that have been developing for years.
In family systems, when small conflicts are avoided, the animosity begins to mount and when conflict becomes unavoidable, the result is an explosive mess of hurt and anger.
Restoration is the Goal
To those who were delighted or relieved by Synod 2022, I want to throw out some reminders. Principled stands for Christians are not for axing opponents or kicking someone while they are down or declaring victory or saying, "I told you so." Christians make principled stands because they not only love the truth but because they love the people affected by the truth. This is also a time to exercise the spiritual fruit of patience and gentleness. We must always be motivated by Christian love and exemplify the fruit of the Spirit. More important than any synod vote is maintaining our walk with Christ. If we lose our Christian character, we've lost everything. Even Christian discipline is always done with the goal of restoration, up to and including even excommunication. The goal must always be restoration. If anger or bitterness or resentment creep into our words or dealings with opponents, then restoration has ceased to be the goal and we have entered unchristian waters.
The CRC remains a deeply divided denomination, and we like to avoid needed conflict. My own views are not simply disagreeable to others but considered harmful and even hateful. The views of others are not simply disagreeable to me but harmful and even hateful. This is the painful crisis of the CRC. As long as we continue to pretend that what is harmful and hateful can be tolerated in Christ’s church, this house will be divided. More painful synods where notions of love and hate collide are in our future until we honestly acknowledge the irreconcilable differences between us.