After a long-anticipated debate on a report from a committee that had for three years studied how to respond pastorally to the legalization of same-sex marriage, Synod 2016, the general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church, recommended very little of the advice that came from the majority of the committee.
Instead it recommended advice from two dissenting members of the committee, advice that was much more restrictive. Jessica Driesenga, representing the minority position, noted that their disagreement with the main report focused in three areas: whether clergy may in any circumstances officiate at same-sex weddings, whether officebearers, including ministers, elders, deacons, and commissioned pastors may participate in any other way in same-sex weddings, and whether the members of same-sex couples can be members in good standing of a church. To each of these situations, the majority report did not give a categorical no, whereas the minority’s advice, adopted by synod, drew the lines strictly.
Synod 2013 appointed the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same-Sex Marriage with the mandate to give guidance to members and clergy about how to respond to same-sex marriage. The committee was explicitly instructed to stay within the guidelines of a Synod 1973 decision that distinguished between desire for someone of the same sex, which was held not to be sinful, and acting on the desire, which was held to be sinful.
It was apparent early on that many delegates were drawn to the stricter guidelines. Brady Mulder, Classis Lake Superior, said that the minority report offers clarity to biblical foundations. “That minority report follows God’s Word as highest authority.” Andrew Zomerman, Classis Hamilton, said it gives a loving way forward by pointing people back to Scripture.
Chris Kwak, Classis Pacific Hanmi, speaking through an interpreter, said that the minority report offered advice that he could share with Korean friends and family. But, he said, they would find the majority report confusing.
For others, the guidelines from the minority are too restrictive. Jenny Hengeveld, Classis Northern Illinois, talked about how she had “been blessed by so many same-sex attracted people.” She said of a same-sex couple, “They had been the hands and feet of God to me. Recently they visited me and asked if it would be okay to come to my church. I didn’t know if I could say yes. . . .”
Jack Roeda, Classis Grand Rapids East, brought synod back to Synod 1980, at which it was decided that divorced people could be admitted to the church. He spoke of belonging, a theme of Synod 2016, and accommodation. Belonging requires accommodation, Roeda said. “We know people who are constitutionally created so that they feel and experience same-sex attraction. Perhaps we should accommodate such people.” The minority report, he said, doesn’t struggle with that.
For some, it is time to revisit the 1973 decision. Bud Ipema, Classis Northern Illinois, said, “I’ve watched the committee do great work within a dysfunctional mandate. To stick us with ’73 and say that we cannot look beyond or before ’73 is to give a dysfunctional mandate. We’ve had 43 years in the Christian community of some of the best biblical and theological study on issues of same-sex attraction. I would hope that synod would see the need to give a really good biblical study.” He added, “I cannot figure out in my 50 years of practice how it’s possible to give love and see it received in the presence of exclusion. I don’t know how that’s done. We must learn to love with inclusion.”
Rolf Bouma, the chair of the study committee, expressed the fear that in recommending the minority report, the synod was setting policy. He said, “The minority report doesn’t caution; it prohibits.” But what does “participating” mean? he asked. Does it mean dancing at the reception? He asked the synod to “give some freedom, some trust.”
The question arose of whether the minority report could stand by itself since it differed from the main report in only three areas. Bouma said no. He said, “[I’m] hearing people treat the minority report as a stand-alone report.” By not recommending any part of the larger report, Bouma added, “this does a disservice to the church, a violence to the work of the committee.”
Matt Ackerman, Classis Lake Erie, who said that 20 of the students in his campus ministry were watching the video feed because they care so much, praised the report for offering “pages and pages of information to promote informed discussion of how we can engage our culture with truth and grace.”
By the end of the debate, it became clear that few minds were being changed by speeches on either side of the issue. After more than two hours, delegates voted 110-71 in favor of the more restrictive advice. Synod added quickly a motion to add a reference to that advice in a supplement to Article 69-c of the Church Order, which specifies that “ministers shall not solemnize marriages which would be in conflict with the Word of God,” offering same-sex marriage as an example of such marriages.
In a final act for the evening, the synod, having not recommended much of its advice or recommended most its material to the churches, thanked the study committee.