Synod 2016: A Growing Divide

Synod 2016 showed a church increasingly diverse and also increasingly divided.

The issue of homosexuality will continue to be divisive in the Christian Reformed Church, much as it has been in so many other denominations. A more subtle but growing divide is the disconnect between the people in the pew and the denominational administrative structure. It is not a distrust of the people in leadership. They seem well appreciated. Rather, it is a lack of connection to shared ministry and a desire to leave more money in the coffers of congregations to do local ministry.

Who’s In, Who’s Not?

Earlier synods have worked very hard over the past two decades to be as inclusive and diverse as possible. And there has been much success. Women, young adults, people of ethnic minorities, and deacons have all been included around the table in the past several years as delegates, advisors, or representatives.

This year 18 percent of synod delegates were ethnic minorities and 21 percent were women. And for the first time, deacons were delegated to synod.

There were other “firsts” too: one of the officers of synod was Hispanic. An African American man was appointed to the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary. The new Banner editor is not of white Dutch ancestry.

Inclusion of African American brothers and sisters was further affirmed when synod proposed that the Belhar Confession be adopted as a contemporary testimony rather than leaving it in what one delegate called “confessional purgatory” as an ecumenical faith declaration.

Who’s not in? People who self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. By declining to include a panel of LGBT advisors, those voices will not be at the table in the same way as those of women, deacons, young adults, and people of ethnic minorities.

No Rubber Stamps

Synod has been regarded by some as simply a rubber stamp for decisions already made by the Board of Trustees, especially since the change 20 years ago from a two-week synod to one week.

But this year delegates pushed back.

For the first time in recent memory, delegates declined to approve a 2 percent ministry shares increase proposed by the Board of Trustees. Even as delegates affirmed and gave thanks for the work of various agencies, it declined to increase funding. Denominational leaders will have to go back to the drawing board to rethink the allocations to various ministries that had been planned for 2017.

Synod didn’t just refuse to increase funding to those agencies. It wants the whole ministry share system “reimagined.” It wants every agency and ministry reviewed to make sure the work being done is what previous synods have specifically asked for. The implicit message was that projects that are no longer needed, or those added by staff instead of resulting from synod instructions, shouldn’t be funded. Delegate William Delleman called it “ministry creep.”

Delegates also pushed back against proposed new liturgical forms for events such as baptism and communion. Instead of a pro forma acceptance of forms written by professional staff, delegates discussed the forms at length and did some serious editing of those forms before they were adopted.

Despite producing a very lengthy report, the task force that studied the Doctrine of Discovery had few of its recommendations adopted.

As the study committee recommended, Synod declared the doctrine itself a heresy; delegates also participated in the Blanket Exercise and learned a Navajo song during devotions. But although the task force requested further investigation of tresspasses against Navajo and Zuni people as a result of the CRC’s ministry there for more than 100 years, Synod 2016 in fact affirmed the work at Rehoboth Christian School. Navajo people at synod shared stories of thanks and grace for the missionaries.

Synod was also not buying the recommendations of the majority report of the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same-Sex Marriage. Those recommendations included giving pastors some leeway in officiating at a civil same-sex ceremony and suggested that participation in a same-sex religious wedding by ordained leaders is complex and that church leaders should exercise caution and discretion.

Synod instead recommended the advice from just two members of that committee, advice that draws a much more restrictive line. Its recommendations specify that pastors may not officiate at same-sex weddings, officebearers should not participate in same-sex weddings, and people living in same-sex relationships of any kind should not be considered members in good standing. 

Synod appointed a new study committee to provide a biblical theology of human sexuality. Members of the new committee must express their agreement with the guidelines set out by Synod 1973 and Synod 2002. The committee has five years to complete its work.

Putting Discussions in a Larger Perspective

The only study committee report wholeheartedly received was from the Committee to Study Religious Persecution and Liberty. After just 26 minutes of discussion, synod adopted its recommendations.

Having synod spend so little time on religious persecution and so much on same-sex marriage and doctrine of discovery angered Caleb Ahima, ecumenical delegate from the Christian Reformed Church in Nigeria. He told delegates, “I’m stepping over bodies. I’m dealing with widows and orphans,” he said. “I pray this never happens in North America because you will not have time for these discussions.”

In his interview to become Banner editor, Shiao Chong warned against such infighting. “The devil would love nothing more than seeing us spend time tearing each other apart when there are lives to be saved.”

Storms Ahead

Executive director Steven Timmermans said to delegates that he was hearing a lot of “us” and “them” language and reminded them, “We are the church together.” One delegate said, “Synod is the voice of the church.”

But more than a few delegates wondered if synod’s voice was being heard. They wanted assurance that what synod asked for would actually happen.

Denominational leaders hope that transitioning from a Board of Trustees to a Council of Delegates will help connect people in the pews to to denominational ministries, that a new ministry plan will build common cause, and that new initiatives will find traction in local churches.

Whether the CRC can survive the discussion of homosexuality and same-sex attraction that has already rent so many denominations remains to be seen. Perhaps the only way will be if people can look at those they disagree with, and then espouse the words that Christena Cleveland shared at Engage 2016 prior to synod:

“The image of God in me embraces the image of God in you.”

About the Author

Gayla Postma is news editor for The Banner.

See comments (7)

Comments

This is a pretty good article in terms of explaining, or at least describing the growing divide, but I'd like to add a few points.

First, as to "Who’s In, Who’s Not?," it is the case that any CRCer who is not inclined toward the political policies of OSJ is out.  That's a problem, a big problem, in part because the non-inclined-toward-OSJ-policies members are probably a super majority of CRC members, but also because the existence of OSJ, as least as it has chosen operate as is has, has turned and continues to turn the CRC, which is supposed to be an institutional church, into a political advocacy organization -- or, more crassly put, a lobbying organization.  

Not all cliches contain wisdom, but the one that does says, "If you want to keep a friend, don't talk about religion or politics".  We do have to talk about religion within the CRC of course, but that was and still should be the reason for the existence of the CRC  But political lobbying?  Not only should it not be the reason for the existence of the CRC, it is also the case that political lobbying clearly violates the CRC's Church Order Article 28, which says the assemblies should take up ecclesiatical matters only.  An assembly, even Synod, has no authority to delegate a power beyond its own authority (sounds simple but still true); thus, OSJ, as it exists, shouldn't.  And it is beyond foolish that OSJ so often adopts and lobbies for political positions taken from the far left of political spectrum when CRCers (perhaps sans Grand Rapids, Toronto and a few other places) are generally a center-right population.  But hat about those who support OSJ and its work, some may ask?  Answer: They can join and support Jim Wallis' Sojourners organization.  It is a political organization, by origin, original intent and design.  I rarely agree with Sojourners but expect those who appreciate the work of OSJ will, and find a political home there.  I'm much more of a CPJ (Center for Public Justice) fan, started by Jim Skillen, also a political organization by origin, original intent and design.  Why make either perspective (or other political perspective) the political perspective of the CRC, especially when the CRC is by its own institutional rules, not a political organization?

Second, but related to my first point, Synod has less time (two weeks instead of one) but takes on more big issues.  Why is has less time is a question easily answered.  But why more big issues?  As the above paragraphs describe, Synod is now dealing with more issues that are essentially political.  Why was the committee to study the Doctrine of Discovery formed in the first place?  There was no request from any congregation, nor from any classis.  There was no request from the indigenous CRC member population within the US or Canada (indeed, the Red Mesa churches rather disliked the whole matter, having dealt with the "Rehoboth issues" long ago).  So why?  Answer: Because one or two more politically inclined members of another study committee, also concerning a predominatly political matter (climate change) thought the CRC should do this.  How extraordinary that a study committee is created this way.  And how foolish, the foolishness being apparent, apparently, to the ecumenical delegate from the CRC of Nigeria.  To quote him (from this article), "I’m stepping over bodies. I’m dealing with widows and orphans."  (These are CRC Nigeria member bodies, widows and orphans!). All while we are spending precious synodical time discussing a 500 year old series of Roman Catholic papal bulls (edicts)?  Don't get me wrong.  It's a fine thing in general to discuss the Doctrine of Discovery, but then its a fine thing in general to discuss a billion other things as well.  But why does the Doctrine of Discovery rank so high among those billions of things for an institutional church like the CRC?  Answer: Only because of push to increasingly make CRC a political organization.  No, this didn't have to do with complaints or issues raised by Rehoboth or Classis Red Mesa or the churches in that classis -- they have taken care of their issues themselves.  So what other reason is there other than a crave to just be more political?

Finally, this article quotes a delegate as having said, "Synod is the voice of the church."  Wrong.  Synod may be a voice within the Christian Reformed Church, but not the voice, except as to a relatively small number of questions.  Synod should not be the political voice for its members; Synod should not butt into the affairs of local churches (e.g., those in Classis Red Mesa) when those local churches can adequately deal with its own affairs; Synod should not pretend to be competent or authorized to resolve climate change fact disputes for its members; Synod should not, via delegation to OSJ or otherwise, have the CRC represented at a international climate change conference as Paris.  The CRC Church Order is of a particular bent, and that bent is not top heavy or centristic but rather prescribes and describes a rather decentralized institutional church.  Nor, by the way, is the CRC the universal (holy cathoic, or organic) church.

In the past several decades, we have presumed too great of a role for Synod and have delegated too much to denominational agencies and functionaires.  Both have roles to play, but only roles.  The divisions emerging in the CRC have much to do with those roles having been slowly exceeded, especially toward the political.  The results of this sort of evolution is visible in other church denominations that have done the same in earlier times.

Thanks Gayla for your take on Synod 2016.  I think your impression is quite accurate, and it doesn’t spell “healthy” for our denomination.  You suggest that previous Synods (or our churches together) have strived for greater diversity and inclusiveness.  I think that is true, but what we seem to forget are some undertones of resentment as this greater diversity has been put in play.  Many of the changes (for diversity) that have been made in the past, came initially from the leadership of the church (or so it was felt).  Eventually that diversity has been accepted by the members in the pew but there are still some undertones of resentment and distrust of the administrative and educated leadership within our denomination.  I think that was evidenced at this year’s Synod, but perhaps Synod (our churches) shot themselves in the foot by ignoring the informed leadership of our denomination.  As a denomination we have taken two steps backward and are losing our relevance in society on an important front.

On other fronts, I think Doug (previous commentor) is absolutely right.  We, as a denomination, are speaking out as an institutional church where the church should let others do the talking.  There are other organizations that can carry the political mantle so much more effectively than the church.  And as Doug points out, Christians are entitled to different opinions and positions on many of these political issues that are being fronted by our denomination.  It’s not the place of the church to be a political advocacy group.  Next, the denomination will be telling its members who to vote for and making public declarations of recommended candidates.

As to the important issue of homosexuality, this is an especially crucial issue for our denomination’s future.  With the majority report of Synod (that was rejected), the feeling for many was how loving and understanding can we be toward homosexuals without fully accepting them.  To be part of the church, you can have the disposition of a gay person but you can’t act it.  To our society and to the gay community, such a stand is just plain ridiculous.  It would be like telling the homosexual that he/she has to live a false identity.  He/she has to pretend to be someone or something that they are not, in order to be a member of our churches.  And in the eyes of the homosexual (and increasingly our society) to forbid a homosexual lifestyle is simply an arbitrary decision that has nothing to do with morality.  The stand we have taken as a church (Synod) is even more prohibitive than the majority report allowed and is a big step toward alienating ourselves from the homosexual and our society in general.  This issue of homosexuality is a crucial issue because there are really no halfway measures that will satisfy the homosexual or an increasingly homosexual friendly society.  As a denomination we have backed ourselves into a dark corner that will be almost impossible to get out of.  On so many fronts our denomination has been looked up to, but this issue will change the focus of direction for many in our society and many in our churches.  But now the church has spoken, and we have to live with that decision for at least five years.  I don’t think we can make it that long.  A divided church Gayla, yes, sorry to say.

There is no biblical basis for allowing homosexual marriage to be officiated by any church minister. This shouldn't be difficult to understand if we are reading God's Word. What might be 'trickier' is what does loving someone in that or any other sinful lifestyle who has no desire to stop mean. The first two issues are dealt with under that rubic.

Religious persecution is a more difficult issue to resolve involving many moving pieces. How do you effectively help Bro. Ahima in a practical sense. Prayer is not even up for discussion. The issue is what else can be done?

We al,l are called to forsake ourself and follow Christ. The bible does not give any sin (homosexially) an exception.  Many in the church struggle against what they want to do in their heart. Do not blame the church for the LBGT's unwillingnes to follow Christ.

The article Ms. Postma writes here saddens me greatly. As a delegate to Synod this year, and having read this article I can't help but wonder several things:

  • Where is the attempt at impartiality? Ms. Postma's article is heavily biased and does not even attempt, IMHO, to give anything like an "objective" report of the facts--this was far more of an "editorial" than an article. Yes, I know that "objectivity" is largely considered mythical in the journalistic community today, and I agree with that in principle, yet some effort could have been made to report more facts, and less inflammatory opinion.
  • Where is the theology? If we're not going to be "objective" (or even pretend to be), then surely we can try to at least report from a theologically correct standpoint. Cynicism does not line up with our theology. Yes there are "warts" that the church bears, but she is declared beautiful by God through Jesus, and is being made more beautiful each day through the work of the Spirit. Where is the hope in this report? I was at Synod. I could have walked away feeling this cynical or worse, but I believe that God is working among us inspite of us--even at Synod.
  • Why were things left out? Things that might have shifted this article away from the cynicism? Things like the fact that the Navajo representatives at Synod were happy that the recommendations adopted by Synod gave them a chance to work out the hurt of the past in the way they choose, and at the pace they choose instead of having a largely white denomination "impose" upon them how we think things ought to be fixed? Why mention that the liturgical forms were written by "professional staff" without mentioning that the people debating the relevant theological issues in the forms were at least as qualified as many of the authors of the forms in the first place?
So, here is my view of Synod (at least as it compares to Ms. Postma's article).

An Alternative View

Synod 2016 showed a church increasingly diverse and increasingly struggling with relevant, contemporary issues.

The issue of homosexuality will continue to be one of struggle in the Christian Reformed Church, much as it has been in so many other denominations. A more subtle but important divide is a perceived disconnect between the people in the pew and the denominational administrative structure. It is not a distrust of the people in leadership. They seem well appreciated. Instead there is a growing recognition that the denomination needs to connect more on shared ministry and reprioritize to leave more money in the coffers of congregations to do local ministry.

Earlier synods have worked very hard over the past two decades to be as inclusive and diverse as possible. And there has been much success. Women, young adults, people of ethnic minorities, and deacons have all been included around the table in the past several years as delegates, advisors, or representatives.

This year 18 percent of synod delegates were ethnic minorities and 21 percent were women. And for the first time, deacons were delegated to synod.

There were other “firsts” too: one of the officers of synod was Hispanic. An African American man was appointed to the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary. The new Banner editor is not of white Dutch ancestry.

Inclusion of African American brothers and sisters was further affirmed when synod proposed that the Belhar Confession be adopted as a contemporary testimony rather than leaving it in what one delegate called “confessional purgatory” as an ecumenical faith declaration.

The denomination continues to struggle with how best to include those of sexual orientations other than the majority. Synod declined this year to include a panel of LGBT advisors, and those voices will not be at the table in the same way as those of women, deacons, young adults, and people of ethnic minorities.

No Rubber Stamps

Synod has been cynically regarded by some as simply a rubber stamp for decisions already made by the Board of Trustees, especially since the change 20 years ago from a two-week synod to one week.

But this year delegates demonstrated that that is not the case.

For the first time in recent memory, delegates declined to approve a 2 percent ministry shares increase proposed by the Board of Trustees. Delegates were presented with evidence that every increase in denominational ministry shares has correlated to an actual decrease in giving, whereas in years where the requested amount has stayed the same, ministry share donations have actually increased year over year. In light of this correlation and continuing economic pressures on our local congregations, delegates affirmed and gave thanks for the work of various agencies, while declining to increase funding. Denominational leaders will have to rethink the allocations to various ministries that had been planned for 2017, and local churches will have the opportunity to “catch up” a bit to ministry share funding requests.

Synod also expressed a desire for the whole ministry share system “reimagined.” It wants every agency and ministry reviewed to make sure the work being done is what previous synods have specifically asked for. The implicit message was that projects that are no longer needed, or those added by staff instead of resulting from synod instructions, shouldn’t be funded. Delegate William Delleman called it “ministry creep.”

Delegates also conscientiously examined proposed new liturgical forms for events such as baptism and communion. Instead of a pro forma acceptance of forms written by staff, delegates examined the theology of the forms at length and did some important editing of those forms before they were adopted.

Although having produced a well-researched report, the task force that studied the Doctrine of Discovery had a broader, more flexible variation of many of its recommendations adopted. 

As the study committee recommended, Synod declared the doctrine itself a heresy. 

At the initiation of a previous Synod, delegates also participated in the Blanket Exercise. Additonally, delegates learned a couple of Navajo songs during devotions, and various prayers were offered throughout the week in the languages of first nations and indigenous peoples.

The task force had requested further investigation of tresspasses against Navajo and Zuni people as a result of the CRC’s ministry there for more than 100 years. In consultation with Classis Red Mesa delegates and the Task Force itself the Advisory Committee recommended that broad discretion be given to the Executive Director and the Navajo and Zuni people to continue to explore and seek healing for the hurts and sins of the past. Synod 2016 adopted these recommendations and humbly acknowledged that God graciously brought the gospel to the Navajo and Zuni people through missionaries and other Christian people in spite of sometimes flawed and sinful acts. Navajo people at synod shared stories of thanks and grace for the missionaries.

Synod was also struggled with and ultimately did not accede to the recommendations of the majority report of the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same-Sex Marriage. Those recommendations included giving pastors the option to officiate in a SSM ceremony in only one very particular and unusual situation, and suggested that participation in a same-sex religious wedding by ordained leaders is complex and that church leaders should exercise caution and discretion.

Instead Synod recommended the advice from Minority report only — a report which was never intended by its authors to stand on its own. This advice draws a much more restrictive line in four specific areas, but has no advice at all for another 8-10 areas addressed by the majority report. The minority report recommendations specify that pastors may not officiate at same-sex weddings in any circumstance, that officebearers should not “participate” in same-sex weddings, and people living in same-sex relationships of any kind should not be considered members in good standing. 

Synod, however, appointed a new study committee to provide a biblical theology of human sexuality. Members of the new committee must express their agreement with the guidelines set out by Synod 1973 and Synod 2002. The committee has five years to complete its work.

Putting Discussions in a Larger Perspective

The only study committee report wholeheartedly received was from the Committee to Study Religious Persecution and Liberty. After just 26 minutes of discussion, synod adopted its recommendations.

Caleb Ahima, ecumenical delegate from the Christian Reformed Church in Nigeria, appreciated and was grateful for the fact that Synod could spend a great deal of time weighing out significant matters regarding same-sex marriage, and the Doctrine of Discovery, and hoped that we would never have to face the kind of persecution that his people have faced. He told delegates, “I’m stepping over bodies. I’m dealing with widows and orphans,” he said. “I pray this never happens in North America because you will not have time for these discussions.”

In his interview to become Banner editor, Shiao Chong warned against infighting, and advocated wise discernment and listening. “The devil would love nothing more than seeing us spend time tearing each other apart when there are lives to be saved.”

Storms Ahead

Executive director Steven Timmermans said to delegates that he was hearing a lot of “us” and “them” language and reminded them, “We are the church together.” One delegate said, “Synod is the voice of the church.”

Denominational leaders hope that transitioning from a Board of Trustees to a Council of Delegates will help connect people in the pews to to denominational ministries, that a new ministry plan will build common cause, and that new initiatives will find traction in local churches.

Through the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit and the efforts of each of us to bring peace, the CRC can survive the discussion of homosexuality and same-sex attraction that has already rent so many denominations. Perhaps if people can look at those they disagree with, and then espouse the words that Christena Cleveland shared at Engage 2016 prior to synod:

“The image of God in me embraces the image of God in you.”

Thank you, Gayla, for telling it like it is. I appreciate your perspective as well, Roger.

I spent most of my life in various "dispensational" churches. About 25 years ago I read "The Institutes" twice and was convinced . . . . The only "reformed" people I knew were OPC Reconstructionists and could not agree to their "future politics." Then we moved 6 blocks from 1st Everett (WA) CRC which seemed to be what Calvin had in mind. We liked the old Dutch ways and the people. We knew we were joining an ethnic church of mostly three extended families. That was fine with us. We did not want the church to change anything for us. After reading The Banner for a year it was obvious that the denomination was moving away from Everett CRC. For the next few years we didn't have any "Dutch" children born into the congregation and the new families were not (mostly?) not CRC.  

My wife and I like the old ways, the traditional music and semi-liturgical worship service. We seem to be the only "old fashioned" church in Classis NW.   We moved to Seattle, WA, quit driving after dark, and plan not to renew our driver's licenses. We have been attendedding AM services. Pastor Jim is retiring. Neither of us feel at home in this century, maybe not in the new CRC. There is a Lutheran Church in walking distance with a Compline service . . .  Pax vobiscum. 
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