Pastoral Guidance for Churches Regarding Same-Sex Marriage

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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 Synod 2016, the CRC’s annual leadership meeting, will discuss the report when delegates gather in June in Grand Rapids, Mich.

About the Author

Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.

See comments (14)


"For the nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality.

Then i heard another voice from heaven saying,

'Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.'" (Revelation18:3,4)

I am grateful for the diligent work of this study committee. I pray that our conversations at Synod 2016, and in the meetings that lead up to it, will bring us closer to each other and to the God who unites us.


Thank you Gayla for your synopsis. No small amount of work.

        The majority and minority reports underscore a battle that is going on for the heart of the CRCNA. I think it could be well expressed by the Kenyan Archbishop Eliud Wabukala who is asking the Anglican Church "Will Christ rule our life and witness through His word, or will our life and witness be conformed to the global ambitions of a secular culture?" I think he would agree that the proof in the pudding is found in terms of just what kind of actions we will allow or not allow. Ultimately they will be the test of whether we will actually align ourselves to "Lord, Lord, and do what he says" or not. There is no middle ground.

His question is all the more appropriate considering that one of the majority report members which was to provide guidance to the very CRCNA which clearly states in so many words that "homosexual practice is a sin" (1973)--and one would think that this would apply to a gay marriage---herself is seen on a video clip on the "leading gay and lesbian" network in Canada, the DailyXTRA [Published on Tue, Jan 5, 2016 4:21 pm; Tuesday Jan 12] under the title "Former Reparative Therapy Head Marries Gay Couples (part 1 and 2 )"  officiating such a marriage which is one of three already done. In the same video polyamourous [3 some or more] relationships are justified.  Maybe it is not for me to question what a committee member does outside of committee work. Maybe nobody really cares in the all _________??? CRCNA.  I, myself, cannot fathom the logic here. It seems to me to be akin to asking the local active and determined arsonist to come to advise the fire-prevention committee at the fire-station. Maybe someone can help me fathom what is going on here.

What is very much apparent with the work of the Kenyan Bishop Wabukala above is that he refuses to talk about any kind of pseudo-unity around compromise. He also refuses to "limp between two opinions." He will not be brought under the influence of people in the Anglican communion and beyond who swear till the cows come home that they love Jesus by caring for "sexual minorities" while at the same time they defiantly disobey Him by asking with consummate cleverness "did God say that?" I would rather take my cue from him that there can be no "ultimate pastoral concern" that will redefine the Bible and what it clearly teaches. I does appear that the majority report leans that way at times, that is to say, that the pastoral concern of practicing homosexuals should open the door to Biblical re-interpretation.   

Speaking of refusing to limp between two opinions, Robert Gagnon spoke rather forthrightly to a Presbyterian Church in the USA who is deliberating such issues. He minces no words:

"That’s what this discussion is about that you’re having in this church. You’re having a discussion about whether what Jesus thinks takes priority is to be given priority. You’re [in] a discussion about whether what Scripture as a whole…regards as essential is to be viewed as essential anymore in the church. And if you don’t think it is, then stop playing the game. Stop playing the game with Scripture. Stop making the pretense about the affirmation of Christ as Lord, because it isn’t really Jesus who is Lord. You’re lord. And you’ve used Jesus as a cipher into which you impute your own ideological meaning and
make him say, like a marionette puppet, whatever you want him to say. But I suggest to you, that is not a good look for the church. And when the church does that it ceases in any meaningful way to be a representative of the body of Christ in the world. And there are warnings in Revelation 2–3 by the risen Christ to such churches. You do not want to go down that route. Thank you."

The big question:


            Does the CRCNA have the moral backbone of the likes of the Kenyan Bishop Wabukala to confront its tendency to maintain peace in the family at all costs?

            Please, leadership of the CRCNA, show me the money!

            Oh, speaking of that, Gayla, the Calvin Seminary Forum of October 2015  

is well worth reading and shows bold and sensitive spiritual leadership around a topic that someone called a "hot button issue". It certainly takes into account the very Word of God, that the majority report sadly considers as "tangential" or potentially offensive (p.40).   

John Span: I hope more people in the church approach this report with greater humility and less polarization than you do. Appealing to the aggressive either/or scenario of the Archbishop of Kenya should hardly be the model we want to use. I also agree with you, that, maybe it is not for you to question what a committee member does outside of committee work, particularly when it seems all you wish to do  with this information is start a smear campaign.  

John Span - if you'd like to call out Wendy Gritter, then call out Wendy Gritter. All this vaguery is lukewarm.

Thanks Gayla, for your good report on the synodical committee’s work on the homosexual issue. You give a nice summary of the committee’s basic stance on this important issue and how we are to move forward as CRC churches in dealing with this increasingly prevalent issue and concern in our culture and society, as well as our churches.  If anyone has a conflict or disagreement, it is not with you, Gayla, but with our denomination.

I realize that the basic stance of our denomination has not changed from some forty yeas ago.  As you make clear in your report, our denomination does not consider same sex orientation as sinful but only homosexual activity.  And yet the study committee endorses active homosexual Christians be allowed to engage in church ministry, such as being a praise team member, Sunday School teacher, ushering and so forth (if the individual church is open to such involvement).  And yet such people cannot be granted membership as professing members of the church (in any of our churches). 

Such a stance feels terribly awkward and difficult.  It feels like a church can draw a Christian homosexual right up to a line of almost full Christian acceptance and even approval, using them to praise God in a variety of ways, but such a person cannot step over the line into full membership.  And should an already confessing member reveal that they are actively gay, they are then candidates for church discipline.

But what does this non-sinful same sex orientation that is acceptable mean?  And at what point does homosexual activity begin?  Can two church involved gay Christians hold hands during a worship service or give each other a peck on the cheek or even on the lips at church during coffee hour?  Certainly heterosexual couples can do this without any scrutiny by the membership of the church.  We would not call holding hands or a small kiss sexual activity, even in church.  We might think of it as an expression of their love or even liking of each other or as small romantic expressions, but not as sexual activity.  So is this permissible for heterosexual couples, as well as homosexual couples?  We watch a young high school couple walk through church holding hands and everyone thinks, how cute.  Would we think the same of two young gay baptized members walking through church holding hands?  Is this permissible?  Certainly we would hardly classify such acts as sexual activity, but what about the gays attending our churches?  I would suggest that for many of our members sitting next to a hand holding gay couple that they likely would hear very little of the sermon for fear that some of the church’s impressionable young people or children might see them and get bad ideas.

Just what do we mean by sinful homosexual activity? And how does a church reach unanimity on what is acceptable and what isn’t, whether by homosexuals or heterosexuals in church. And what about homosexual activity apart from church?  At what point does homosexual activity begin?  Do we hold the same standard for all members, or do we enforce a double standard?

Further, how do we move forward, with some churches welcoming homosexuals to be involved in the ministry of the church and other churches strictly forbidding such involvement.  Will this precipitate problems for Classis meetings, as the women in office issue did in the recent past (and in the present in some areas)?

Also realize that our denomination’s stand on this issue will give us the reputation of being a narrow minded church and non welcoming to an increasing number of our society.  I would say, we sure know how to open a can of worms.  I’d say “good luck” to our denomination on this one, because I doubt that our God is standing by our side on this issue.

Thank you John Span for your excellent article and leading me to the speech by dr. Gagnon!

For clarity's sake, I am not ordained in the CRC and the ministry I serve does not have any official ties to the CRC. I am also not credentialed to officiate weddings and while participating, I have not officiated.

If you would like to understand more of the background and context of my work, please do read my reflections in this blog post:

I urge everyone in the CRC to be in prayer for Synod 2016. The discussions awaiting us are complex and will require prayerful, humble, wise discernment and great love for one another.

Greetings Roger:

   I gave your post some consideration and came up with something called "A Tale of Three Churches." Likely no one such church in the CRCNA exists, but it seems that the report and your coments appear to be critical of # 2 and then to move towards # 1. Yet, I think that option # 3 which advocates both welcome and change is a healthier stance as it is neither sentimentally inclusivistic like a jellyfish [=#1], nor formalistically legalistic like a sea-urchin [=#2], but more particularisticly grace-filled like a family/body and temple of the Triune God.

A Tale of Three Churches

        ...Once upon a time there were three churches. They all lived in the
wonderful world of Cosmos and each of them had a different approach to
the people in Cosmos.

        The first said, "come as you are into our church, and you can remain
the way you are in our ever welcoming, ever-embracing, ever including
church. We will all change to accommodate you and even create a Jesus
who fits exactly what you want."

        The second said, "before you come into our church you must change to look exactly like most of us look. You need to talk like us, think like us and to be like us. Then you are welcome and then Jesus will welcome you."

        The third said, King Jesus the Master of this house welcomes you, and you are more than welcome to join us where King Jesus is honored and where every word He says is respected. We know that in our own strength there is no way we can change to meet His incredibly impossibly high standards, but we have experienced His welcoming grace and the way that He has changed and is changing all of us, and He will change you too."

Oh yes, Roger, check out my post on the CRCNA Network, regarding a time-warp preview of Synod 2016. I will have to agree with Wendy that prayers are needed. Prayers such as the Anglicans saw answered this week.


John Span:  I just read your article which predicts what will happen at Synod 2016. Virtually all I was reading was nothing more than a venomous, personal attack on your opponents.  How does assigning them the basest, most self-centred and immature motives you can think of advance this discussion?

John Span,

I your comments you make reference to the Episcopal Church.  For clarity's sake, the official position of the Episcopal Church is as follows:

In 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church declared that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church" (1976-A069). Since then, faithful Episcopalians have been working toward a greater understanding and radical inclusion of all of God’s children.

Along the way, The Episcopal Church has garnered a lot of attention, but with the help of organizations such as Integrity USA, the church has continued its work toward full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Episcopalians. In 2003, the first openly gay bishop was consecrated; in 2009, General Convention resolved that God’s call is open to all; and in 2012, a provisional rite of blessing for same-gender relationships was authorized, and discrimination against transgender persons in the ordination process was officially prohibited.

To our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”

It's with great hesitation that I respond in this debate. Many, at a time like this, would say, "Remember son, always be kind; the world is watching"....and so is our Lord! Who will I serve? Isn't that what this is all about? Would Jesus turn water into wine at the gay wedding of Steve and Harry? Can we be a witness before God to immorality and expect His blessing? We need to consider James 4:" What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but you......You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." It seems like some people who claim to be Christians don't want to know and hear that! Gender issues have been in the boiling pot for as long as.....Adam. When I think of the shameful things people do without a conscience before God I just pray, " Lord have mercy!" The lost of this world live vile lives that are so shameful we don't even want to make mention of what they do. To all moms and fathers who have children that live in immorality, don't fool yourselves, you've lost them already. Love the lost but never call sin by a new name so all parties involved can be happier. It will not save their souls from hell!! Now don't get me wrong, I love lost people. Jesus did not come to this world to judge but to save. Remember the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Jesus didn't want her stoned, he wanted her to repent before it was too late. No person that is friends with the world can be counted among the elect. Yes, it's painful to see, but in no way can we condone any of this behaviour. How church leaders deal with this speaks volumes as to how far we have wandered. I encourage all believing members of the CRC to leave the denomination if this debate continues beyond this next Synod!!

We all are human. We all have been in sin since the fall of man in the garden of Eden. That is why God sent His son Jesus to give His life for us, to pay the price for our sin. Acceptance of God's grace must include reprentance of our past sins and complete surrender of our lives to God, the way He wants us to live our lives. Are we broken? Yes. Will we fail on occasion? Yes. But that is the purpose of the Holy Spirit. To bring us back to God and HIs way, not the world's way. This is the path we are each on and yes it is a long and sometimes difficult process. But the goal is attainable powered by the Holy Spirit. The issue is where our heart lies, where our priorities lie, what is our ultimate goal.

Some may have been born with a different sexual identity, etc., but God's word is very clear. One man and one woman in a covenant marriage OR celibacy. As a single person, I can tell you that it is not easy. But my heart's sole desire is to be that person God wants me to be, to live my life the way He wants me to live it. And that does not include sexual relations outside covenant marriage OR self satisfaction OR behavior of any kind that would be considered "untoward" in any way. Remember Paul talked about not eating certain foods, etc. if it would hamper others in their faith. Our actions matter.

We are called to be light on the hill, watchmen on the tower, and to stand in the gap against evil. Our heart's desire should be that we live our lives in thought, word and deed so that when people see us, they see Jesus and would want Him for themselves.

I understand that those with a different sexual identity, etc. might not want to hide who/what they are or how they behave. But the issue remains - their way or God's way. Is not choosing our way, ie., the world's way, over God's way a form of denying Christ? And we know what scripture says about that. To say and/or do nothing about our sin nature is to be the Laodiciean church. It is not loving or kind to ignore sin and its consequences without trying to gently and lovingly show God's truth and lead them to repentance, to acceptance of God's way for their lives, and unity with God and His church. We need to stand firm for God's truth. 

Brother Arie Nugteren,

I agree whole heatedly with your remarks but do not fully understand that the scripture which you and I hold dear, in any way directs us to leave a body believers when the said body makes an unbiblical decision.  In fact the decision that you and I are both wary of means we have a mission field within our own denomination.  Our bold and continual proclamation of the truth of God's word may in fact be the deciding factor for revisiting of the issue or perhaps we will be asked (told) to depart much like Martin Luther when he sought to stay and encourage his denomination to go back to the Word.  As we hope and pray that the CRC will stay true to God's word, so we must stay true to God's word in our reaction regardless of the decisions of synod.