Now that same-sex marriages are legal in the U.S. and Canada, should the Christian Reformed Church allow couples in a same-sex marriage to be members of the denomination? Should CRC members participate in the wedding of two persons of the same sex? Should CRC clergy be permitted to officiate? Can the state force a church to let its facilities be used for such a wedding?
Those were just some of the questions that prompted Synod 2013 to appoint a committee to provide pastoral guidance to churches, back when same-sex marriage was already legal in Canada and in several jurisdictions in the U.S. The committee’s recommendations will come to Synod 2016 by way of two reports. Two of the committee’s members, while agreeing with much of the majority report, disagreed with some of the recommendations of the majority of the committee and are bringing forward a minority report on some of the recommendations. Synod will decide which recommendations to adopt.
What follows here is a brief summary of an extensive report that includes four appendices.
The committee’s mandate stipulated that guidance provided by the committee be in line with the CRC’s position on homosexuality, adopted in 1973 and affirmed in 2002, namely, that same-sex orientation is not sinful, but homosexual activity is. “Some have suggested that the committee cannot fulfill its mandate without opening up larger issues, including the denomination’s biblical and theological position on homosexuality,” the authors wrote.
The committee said that broader questions about homosexuality and the church’s ministry warrant further study and discussion, but that this committee focused its attention on civil same-sex marriage.
The committee framed its recommendations within a larger discussion of the differences between civil marriage and religious marriage, and the interest of both the church and the state in regulating marriage in a pluralist society. It affirmed that religious marriage, as understood by the CRC, is a covenant relationship between a man and a woman. While authors of both the majority and minority reports cited the CRC’s 1980 statement on marriage, the minority report authors do so much more extensively.
The committee wrote that “the church in its ministry is moving in shifting cultural waters. . . . If there is a primary message from the committee’s listening sessions and survey, it is that a wide variety of experiences and social settings exist within the CRC.” It further cautions that any set of guidelines will leave “a great number of people unsatisfied in some way or another.” So what guidelines are offered? Here are just a few of them.
Regarding same-sex weddings, the authors recommend that attending a same-sex wedding or providing a commercial service for a wedding be left up to the discretion of an individual. For officebearers, the decision is more complex. “Attendance does not necessarily mean approval of every aspect of a relationship. It would be wise for a pastor to consult the church consistory regarding attendance at the ceremony.”
Solemnizing a religious same-sex wedding is precluded by the CRC’s understanding of marriage. Regarding a concern that pastors could be forced to officiate a same-sex wedding, the authors of the majority report wrote that “pastors would be wise to state clearly on their church’s website the CRC understanding of marriage and adopt a policy statement regarding officiating at weddings.” However, the authors of the minority report deemed the majority report to be insufficiently strong on this point. “To enjoy the protections of religious freedom, it is important for the pastor and church to make clear in the church’s documentation and website their identity as belonging to the Christian Reformed Church.”
The authors of the majority report noted that they were not of one mind regarding a CRC pastor officiating a civil same-sex marriage. Some felt that in very limited situations, some latitude should be given based on circumstances. The authors of the minority report disagreed. “Pastors cannot officiate a civil same-sex wedding ceremony. Were they to do so, the ceremony would, in some way, have the marks of a religious ceremony, because the pastor would be officiating on the basis of ecclesial office,” they wrote. “Guidance that suggests there may be, under certain circumstances, latitude for a pastor to officiate at a civil same-sex wedding is in conflict with the theology and polity of the CRC.”
Regarding playing a role in a same-sex wedding, such as being an attendant or participating in the liturgy, the majority report authors wrote, “We judge any participation short of officiating to be a discretionary matter in which a person’s own conscience before God should guide their decision.” For ordained leaders, they continued, potential involvements are too complex to create blanket rules. “Suffice it to say that ordained and commissioned church leaders should exercise caution and discretion in their public roles.”
The authors of the minority report disagreed with the majority report on the involvement of officebearers. “[Officebearers] must be held to a different standard. Since those in that office will be seen as operating out of their ordained roles, they should avoid accepting roles in same-sex wedding ceremonies because such acceptance and participation can easily be seen as supporting a sinful pattern of sexuality.”
Apart from same-sex weddings, many communities face questions regarding day-to-day participation in the life of the church by same-sex spouses and their families. Should a spouse in a same-sex marriage serve as an usher or teach Sunday school? Should he or she be allowed to volunteer in the church office or be on the praise team? The committee concluded that “one size does not fit all and that it would be unwise to attempt to parse out advice for multiple potential situations in a report such as this. Decisions of this nature rightly belong to the discernment of the local church, where the persons involved are known and loved.”
The authors of the minority report added, “Those in same-sex marriage relationships should be allowed, and encouraged, to participate. The level of participation should be no different from what has been made available to any other person desiring to explore life in the church community. It cannot be repeated enough that all people are to be welcomed into participation in the worship and other aspects of the life of the church. Soundness in life and doctrine is not a precondition for participation.”
However, ministry leadership roles should be limited to members in good standing. What if a same-sex couple requests membership? The authors wrote that following the logic of the Church Order and the 1973 report on homosexuality, “a person or a couple in a same-sex sexually active relationship should not be accepted as members in good standing in the church.” However, they continued, if a person or couple agree to accept the CRC’s teaching on same-sex sexual relationships and bring their lives into conformity, no obstacle prevents their acceptance as members. “The current position [of the church] does not require dissolution of a civil marriage; nor should the church be heard to require or encourage the dissolution of functioning families.”
The committee wrote that “our pastoral guidance is bound by the mandate to our committee. A pastoral observation, however, to the church at large is that the complexities of ministry will keep membership issues a point of tension. A number of CRC churches are already navigating the challenges of integrating same-sex couples into the life of the church, and for them the logic of being denied membership is experienced as damaging rather than life-giving.”
Regarding baptism, the committee affirms Church Order Article 56, that at least one of the parents must be a member in good standing. The authors wrote that the question of participation in communion is complicated by the diversity of practice within the CRC. “Restricting access to the sacraments is a fearsome thing. . . . Only with the greatest reluctance and with the greatest procedural safeguards should the church take the step of forbidding access to the sacraments as means of grace. The Lord’s Supper and its meaning may well provide an opportunity for conversation with those new to the church, including those in a same-sex marriage, to speak of the relationship between sin, grace, and a life of gratitude.”
The report has much more to say about discipling and discipline, supporting Christian marriage, and other related issues, including how to present the conclusions of the 1973 and 2002 synodical reports in truthful and gracious ways.
It also noted that if the 1973 and 2002 reports are to remain useful to the church, they need to be revisited to deal with some of the language and terminology used, such as homosexualism, and suggestions that conversion/reparative therapy be the first strategy for dealing with same-sex attraction.
The full report will be published in the Agenda for Synod 2016 and is also posted at crcna.org/sites/default/files/same-sex_marriage.pdf. Synod 2016, the CRC’s annual leadership meeting, will discuss the report when delegates gather in June in Grand Rapids, Mich.