Recently, we received a lot of comments and questions after publishing this article: CRC Synod 2022: A Lament. On Facebook, it garnered the highest number of comments (450) on a Banner post. Some have labeled the article as “controversial.” I received a variety of questions from readers after publishing it. I have been fielding many similar and related questions over the past six years ever since I started as editor. So I think it is time to publicly reply to these questions about why we publish articles on issues where the denomination disagrees to benefit a wider audience.
As a Behind the Banner blog, this is going to be longer than usual in order to cover all the points I think will be helpful.
It’s Part of Our Job
Question: Why does The Banner publish controversial articles that offend people? Even if you can, why SHOULD you?
We publish “controversial” articles because it is part of synod’s mandate for us as an honest forum and a prophetic media, even when it offends people and some find them unacceptable. We are even given the discretion to criticize synod’s decisions and actions. This is for the overall long-term good of the denomination. In short, it’s part of our job.
Our synodical mandate tasks The Banner, among other things, to “stimulate critical thinking about issues related to the Christian faith and the culture of which we are a part in a way that encourages biblical thinking about these issues, in line with our confessional heritage.”
And it says we are to present “the issues pertinent to the life of the church in a way that shows the diverse positions held within the church and encourages biblical and Reformed thinking about these issues.” (Bold emphasis is mine here and in all following quotes.)
The mandate also calls on The Banner to “permit people of the church to voice their views and reactions even though some of these views may be unacceptable to others in the church. … Provide a biblically prophetic and responsible criticism and evaluation of trends within the church and society and of actions, decisions, policies, programs, etc., being considered by or already approved by ecclesiastical assemblies and agencies.”
Furthermore, Synod’s 2005 Editorial Guidelines charged the magazine to “Honor our differences. Unity does not mean papering over differences or failing to note the diversity and variety of our denomination. For The Banner to serve as a unifying force within the denomination, it must reach readers from all corners of the Christian Reformed Church.”
Cumulatively, these show that we are mandated, expected, tasked with the role of helping divergent viewpoints in the CRC to be heard, in their own voice, even when “some of these views may be unacceptable to others in the church.” We are also given the editorial freedom to provide “biblically prophetic” criticism of “actions, decisions, policies … already approved by ecclesiastical assemblies,” which, by definition, includes synodical decisions and actions, if we feel it is warranted.
Why did synod give us such a mandate with such expectations and responsibilities? Why would synod allow us to publish articles by people with viewpoints that might offend others in the church? Why would synod allow us the freedom to even criticize their own decisions and actions?
I believe synod, at least in the past, wisely chose to create a fair forum for divergent viewpoints for the long-term good of searching for the truth. As mentioned in a previous editorial, “Truth Will Win”:
The 17th-century Christian poet John Milton once argued against censorship: “Let (Truth) and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” (Areopagitica). In other words, we need not fear a fair open exchange of ideas, as truth should win out.
Or to paraphrase Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39, if the ideas are false and of human origin, they will not last, they will ultimately fail. But if the idea is truth from God, nothing will be able to stop it. Those who oppose it might even find themselves to be opposing God.
Likewise, by allowing the editor the freedom and discretion to even disagree with synod’s “already approved” decisions and actions, synod wisely chose not to muzzle the potentially prophetic voice that the denomination might need to hear.
In short, I believe synod wanted The Banner to be, among other things, a fair and honest forum and a prophetic media. Because by doing so, the denomination will be better served, in the long run, in searching and applying God’s truth.
Therefore, we not only can publish such articles, but we actually SHOULD publish them, if we are to do the full job synod has asked of us. Of course, we try to do it as responsibly as we can within synodical guidelines.
Fair Forum is Honest About Our Differences
Question: The Banner should expose the CRC community to different ideas, and help us to understand why those ideas do not line up with Scripture by analyzing and explaining them. But that is different from publishing articles that promote and sympathize with teachings that go against our confessions. Should you “drag out” the homosexuality debate for another 15 years?
A fair and honest forum for the CRC requires different views within the CRC to be heard from their own voices. Giving an opinion a fair hearing is not the same as sympathizing with it or promoting it. But not every viewpoint gets the fair forum treatment based on our criteria. Even when we have given a fair hearing to divergent views, very few, if any, of them explicitly go against our confessions. If they do, we have tried to provide the counter-argument for the confessional position. An example is this 2020 article that presents voices from both sides: “Same-Sex Relationships and the CRC.”
I have written before that “we envision our forum as less debate club and more like a restorative-practice listening circle. We believe this approach to being a fair forum is more conducive to shalom-seeking than the traditional Western adversarial win-lose approach popularized in courtrooms” (“The Banner’s Mission, Part 3: Vision and Values”).
When ideas are given the fair forum treatment, to only present them from the standpoint of analyzing how they are wrong defeats the very purpose of a fair forum. That will no longer be a forum, nor will it be fair. Synod wants The Banner to be a fair forum for the CRC. Just as there’s a difference between accepting sinners and affirming their sin, there is also a difference between giving people a fair hearing and promoting, or accepting, their views. Publishing divergent viewpoints in the CRC in the voices of their adherents is giving them a fair hearing, which is part of our job.
But what viewpoints or ideas get to be part of the forum? Well, the level of discussion and the number of CRC folks voicing those opinions are certainly factors for how we judge if it’s worthy of being part of the forum. Of course, we, as an editorial team, have to use our discernment and judgment. Unless something is factually proven as false, has a unanimous consensus as heresy, or is clearly outside the bounds of Christianity or outside our mandate, then we generally give the viewpoint the benefit of the doubt, especially if there are enough dissenting voices supporting it with reasonable arguments, especially scriptural arguments.
Many of our articles are unsolicited—people submit their articles to us without us asking them for it. For example, the Lament article was an unsolicited piece. We did not go around asking for someone to write a lament about synod’s decision. This also means that how long the debate or discussion lasts—whether people will still be talking and writing about this subject two years or 15 years from now—is largely out of our control. If the CRC churches and membership “drag out” the debate, we might have no choice but to continue the forum.
The Banner seeks to pursue the real purpose of journalism, acting as an accurate mirror, showing warts and all, including all the conflicts and disagreements within a community. Simply publishing contrarian ideas or beliefs, if they are present in our community, does not mean we are promoting them, but rather not ignoring them.
The ‘CRC Synod 2022: A Lament’ Article
Question: Concerning the “Lament” article, should The Banner continue to publish articles sympathetic to the LGBTQ+ affirming side that promote teachings that go against our Confessions?
Within 24 hours of synod 2022’s decision, we were receiving letters/emails to the editor in response to it. Most of them were lamenting and disagreeing with synod. There was a lot of hurt and pain in those letters. Many were too long or too harsh to be published. But I understand that the harshness comes from a place of hurt, pain, and anger.
In addition to letters, we were also quickly receiving a huge amount of unsolicited articles in response to synod. Almost all of them were responding negatively to synod’s decision. The one exception was “I Don’t Know,” which was an honest sharing of a Synod 2022 delegate’s struggles through the process, and even after.
In my six years as editor, I have never seen this many unsolicited article submissions in response to a synod decision within the span of a few weeks. Given our role of being a fair forum, it seems almost irresponsible not to, at least, give this huge outpouring some kind of voice. We ended up publishing just one, the Lament piece, from the many. It reflected the sentiment of all those other submissions but without their anger and harshness, and within our writing guidelines. It is also written by a parent of a person who is trans. It is fair and important to hear from those who are more directly affected by the decision.
The article focuses mostly on the author’s reaction to the decision and is not a theological argument. I understood him as being, in essence, theologically “not sure.”
At most, the article is essentially asking for pastoral accommodation (if he had to choose, he would choose grace and inclusion), which the human sexuality report itself says is allowed even with confessional issues, e.g. infant baptism. The report writes: “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. For example, our confessions say that the children of believers should be baptized. Yet some congregations are willing to allow members not to baptize their children” (Agenda for Synod 2022, p. 457).
The baptism question hits close to home for me because my siblings and I are divided on this issue. Just as I believe that all sides of the baptism debate are deeply committed Christians struggling to be faithful to God’s Word as they understand it, I see the same-sex marriage debate similarly. If we can give pastoral accommodation to parents struggling with infant baptism, then can we not even explore, as suggested by this article, the idea of pastoral accommodation for Christians who are LGBTQ in the CRC?
Pastoral accommodation does not necessarily mean changing our theological position. Theological convictions can stay the same while pastoral practices change. For example, by and large, we no longer stigmatize divorced Christians the way we used to even though our theological position on divorce hasn’t changed. Same goes for the infant baptism example. This is because other doctrines are at play when it comes to pastoral care besides whether something is sin or not. And there is rarely a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all approach for pastoral care for every unique individual.
In any event, synod’s decision about the confessional status, according to synod’s advisory committee, is not meant to end conversations about the matter. Doug Fakkema, reporter for the synodical advisory committee tasked with presenting the human sexuality report, explicitly said that “this is the beginning of a conversation that is laid out in article 5 (of the church order) that is not a hammer but is a conversation starter” (see video recording of synod’s session beginning around the 58:30 mark). According to Fakkema, this isn’t only his individual interpretation but something that the whole advisory committee, in consultation with the HSR committee, has dealt with.
I take their word for it. If Fakkema and the advisory committee think that confessional status is “not a hammer” (Fakkema’s word, not mine) to silence conversations, I think a mild, personal lament from a person who is theologically “not sure” but asking for pastoral accommodation is well within the bounds of such conversations.
In sum, publishing the article is not promoting a teaching against the confessions.
Question: Why is The Banner only printing articles about those who are lamenting the HSR Confessional decision of Synod 2022 and not any articles that are celebrating its passage?
Well, in short, we cannot publish what we do not have. But we intentionally sought to rectify the imbalance.
We did not publish an article celebrating the decision at first because, as mentioned earlier, we did not receive any submissions along those lines at that time. Hence, we decided to solicit one of our regular As I Was Saying bloggers, whom we know supports synod’s decision, to write something from his perspective for the other voice, so to speak, in the fair forum. You can read his article here: “Synod 2022 Did the Loving Thing.”
Since that first wave, we also have received letters that support synod’s decision and we have published those in our October 2022 Reply All, along with some of the letters that lament synod’s decision.
The Kinism Comparison
Question: Would The Banner consider publishing an article by a Kinist who lamented the CRC's decision on Kinism? Why does The Banner treat Kinism and same-sex marriage differently?
I treat them differently because Kinism (a racist theology that synod declared as heresy) does not meet the criteria for getting the fair forum treatment but same-sex marriage does. In my estimation, Kinism is clearly heretical, and the lack of disagreement in the CRC on synod’s decision on Kinism supports my estimation. We have had zero articles submitted in support of Kinism.
In contrast, the high level of prolonged disagreement in the CRC on the same-sex issue itself is proof that things certainly are not as clear as some people would like. For example, looking at the overtures related to the human sexuality report from the Deferred Agenda for Synod 2020-21 and Agenda for Synod 2022, I count 14 overtures in support of the report, stemming from 12 classes and one church; 26 overtures against the report, from seven different classes and 19 churches; and then, about 13 overtures that I classify as neither entirely for or against—e.g. asking for postponement—from eight classes, 10 church councils, and one individual. Classes can send more than one overture, and some overtures have more than one classis or church council signed onto it, in case you wonder why the numbers don’t match up. Two different classes submitted overtures in BOTH categories of support and against the report! The point is simply to show that there is no major consensus here, even within the same classis.
The fact that about 69% of synod 2022’s delegates voted in favor of the confessional decision is also not a sign of unanimity. Synod is not a ‘representative assembly’ like various forms of government. It is a ‘deliberative assembly’ where delegates are “free to discuss and deliberate together for the well-being of the whole church represented in that assembly” (Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government, 2015 edition, p. 148).
Synodical delegates are not tasked to vote along party lines, so to speak, but from their own individual conscience. Henry DeMoor, in his Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary, cites an older church order commentary (1965), to argue that such “binding” of a delegate’s vote “would disallow true deliberation and ultimately reduce the role of delegates to that of ‘voting machines’” (p. 206). Our assemblies, including synod, are supposed to be deliberative bodies that seek to discern God’s will for the church. I remember this was taught to me when I was a delegate to synod back in the day. I was supposed to vote by my conscience, not by how I thought the churches in my classis would want me to vote.
Hence, the voting pattern at any given synod is not necessarily reflective of the views of the CRC churches as a whole. It might be, but we can’t assume it is. Even if we do take the 69% as representative of the denomination as a whole, we are still talking of 31% who dissent. That is not a consensus.
Given all that, the same-sex marriage issue should be given the fair forum treatment.
I know some believe the Bible is absolutely clear on this issue. But the reality is, whether we like it or not, the affirming (of same-sex marriage) side isn’t simply ignoring Scripture. Whether their biblical interpretations and conclusions are correct is what is precisely up for debate. For a quick summary of the different interpretations at stake in this debate, Donald Zeyl’s small book, Four (and a half) Dialogues on Homosexuality and the Bible (2022), is very accessible and does not argue for any one of the four approaches (yes, there are more than two) but models a civil and honest dialogue. The level of disagreement and the complexity of the biblical arguments from all sides suggest that this issue should be openly discussed for the good of the denomination.
We at The Banner have tried to give different sides a fair hearing. I guess “try” is the operative word here. Over the years, we have received more submissions from the affirming side than we have from the traditional side. I will admit it is harder to walk the tightrope of balancing competing responsibilities and expectations with the homosexuality debate over the years as the level of passion, outrage, and disagreement over this issue seems greater.
If you have read up to this point, thank you! Forgive me for this article’s lengthiness. But it is always difficult to capture all the nuances adequately in a short article. Many thanks to all who have sent me encouraging personal notes, as well as letters to the editor, that appreciate my efforts, and our Banner staff’s efforts, in trying to navigate our current choppy waters. I thank God, foremost, who sustains me and our staff. Regardless if you support or agree with our efforts, may God bless all of you.